Rethinking Flexibility at Work (Transcript)
WorkLife with Adam Grant
Tuesday, April 19, 2022
[00:00:00] Ville Houttu:
We wanted to create a workplace where even Mondays don't suck.
This is Ville Houttu, the CEO of Vincit, a Finnish software company.
Four years ago one of our software engineers sent me a calendar invite to his annual salary review with the subject "Promote John to CEO." And I thought, why not? What's the worst thing that could happen? And I made him a CEO for a day with one task.
Ville Houttu told that engineer he could make one decision that would improve the workplace for everyone.
And he'll have an unlimited budget to do so. He thought I was joking but when he realized I'm not, he discussed it with a lot of employees, did a lot of research and analysis. When it came time to announce his decision, he looked me in the eyes and told me we will be ordering bean bag chairs to the lounge, and I happen to hate bean bag chairs.
Was his goal really to make life better for everyone, or to make life just a little bit worse for you?
I trusted him to make a big decision and he trusted me back not to judge his decision. And that's how it got started. And we called it CEO of the day. And we've been running four years now. They do really think about what benefits us all as a group.
[00:01:39:57] Adam Grant:
What's been implemented since then?
There's a monthly fun, Friday dinner, company-paid movie tickets, Gore-Tex jackets, a lot of educational things too, like an Audible subscription and we also have a home cleaning service.
It is. When the CEO announces his or her decision there's a cape and a crown that the CEO will wear making sure he or she is the, uh, the person in control. They are making one lasting decision for the company so it's major.
And that doesn't scare you at all.
It absolutely horrifies me. But there's always excitement on my side as well.
Why would anyone purposely and continuously put themselves in such a terrifying position and hand the over reins to their employees? Because giving people autonomy and flexibility is more than capes and crowns – it has real BENEFIT. And it doesn’t require an unlimited budget. But to give employees the freedom they crave, we need to reimagine what a flexible workplace looks like. Because it goes far beyond simply having the option to work from home.
I’m Adam Grant, and this is WorkLife, my podcast with the TED Audio Collective. I’m an organizational psychologist. I study how to make work not suck. Even on Mondays. In this show I take you inside the minds of fascinating people to help us rethink how we work, lead, and live.
Today: rethinking flexibility at work– and making it practical.
Thanks to LinkedIn for sponsoring this episode.
The pandemic gave many of us a taste of what it's like to have more freedom at work–we could work from anywhere! I’ve enjoyed giving keynotes over Zoom in my pajama pants, and my kids can now mimic my mannerisms. They say I look like a muppet. It’s been great.
As Covid restrictions have lifted, flexibility is now the number one request that employees are making from employers.
But the flexibility conversation has focused heavily on remote work. Where remote is even possible, some workplaces have banned it. Others have embraced it. And most companies have committed to a hybrid model–a compromise that runs the risk of making no one happy.
We’re all tired of debating where we should work.
What we need is a broader conversation about what flexibility means.
For generations, people have wanted more than freedom to choose the place where they work. They’ve wanted to choose their purpose, people, and priorities– what they do, who they collaborate with, and when and how much they work.
Let’s start with being able to choose your purpose and people. Some workplaces have built that kind of freedom into their DNA– and figured out how to make it productive.
[00:04:45:49] [John Spencer Jr. tunes his guitar]
[00:05:00] Adam Grant:
This is John Spencer Jr. Spencer Jr., an engineer turned innovation consultant. He started learning the guitar last year.
[John Spencer Jr. plays a song]
[00:05:16:75] Adam Grant:
John first got curious about the guitar back when he was working at W.L. Gore, the manufacturing company best known for Gore-Tex– you know, the waterproof jackets and gloves.
One day, an engineer in Gore’s medical products group, Dave Myers, put Gore-Tex on his mountain bike cables to repel the grit.
It made him wonder whether Gore-Tex could also repel the grit from human hands, which causes guitar strings to lose their tone. So he tried it!
[00:05:47:49] John Spencer Jr.:
I met Dave in November of 95. And we said, we ought to play around with this, but this string isn’t good enough.
What was wrong with existing guitar strings on the market that time?
John Spencer Jr.:
The strings lose their sound over time with use. After about 10 hours, the strength is terrible.
I didn't realize they had such a short life.
[00:06:14:64] John Spencer Jr.:
We were essentially trying to make a string that will last at least three to five times longer in sound than a conventional guitar string. That was the goal. So we started playing around and we recruited other people to help us for the next six months develop an improved guitar string.
While this might sound like a typical process to create a new product, it’s not. See, this experiment was happening on the side of their regular full-time work–but during work hours. It’s what Gore calls “dabble time.” Gore allows employees to work on whatever they want for about 10% of their work time, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their regular job. AND as long as the side project contributes to the company’s goals.
Gore wasn’t in the music business, so guitar strings were uncharted territory. But the company had a track record for entering new markets. They hadn’t been in the dental floss market either–until they created Glide floss, which became a big hit. John had led the launch of Glide floss. But when he got involved in guitar strings, there were some skeptics.
[00:07:00] John Spencer Jr.:
Some people were suggesting after about a year that maybe we were just trying to do something that was physically impossible. You know how you coat a vibrating string and not affect vibration? I think everyone thought it would take like six months because a lot of people would hear the strings and say these are great so it took us three tests with 5,000 musicians each to be convinced that we had the right product. That took a year and three months just to do that.
[00:07:31:44] Adam Grant:
It sounds crazy. Letting employees work on a project that might not go anywhere–for over a year?? That they picked themselves?
John Spencer Jr.:
In a traditional company you'd be looking more for approval. Within Gore, I don't think I ever asked for approval, it’s just nobody said no. Instead of hearing no, the people in our team heard "not now." So you'd go back to it.
[00:08:25:78] Adam Grant:
Gore has 11,000 people. But since they launched in 1958, the whole company has been organized into self-managed teams. You have the freedom to pick what projects you work on, and even who you work for.
[00:08:41:50] Jill Paine:
Freedom really is about the idea that I am free to develop who I am, what I do, and how I do it.
Jill Paine is a leader in Gore’s medical products division. She joined the company from Nike 7 years ago.
I was coming out of the consumer products industry. I had never worked in this particular kind of manufacturing.
Gore’s flexible approach meant that she had some time and space to figure out how she could contribute. Still, it took her a minute to adjust to this new way of working.
[00:09:13:45] Jill Paine:
My first realization was like, who’s my boss? What am I supposed to deliver? And if I don’t deliver, are they going to fire me? And the guidance that I got at that point in time was like, just get to know people. Get to know who we are, get to know what we do.
[00:09:33:46] Jill Paine:
It's flexible, but it's not totally chaotic. So when I was in my Nike world, I was driving in like a red Ferrari, driving a hundred miles an hour. There's an onboard voice that would come in. Right. And sort of help direct you. There was a GPS system that was telling me everything that I needed to know needed to do, go this way, go that way.
I then step into gore. Picture a 1960s refurbished restored Land Cruiser. It's beautiful, but it's analog. There's no GPS system. You're not on the highway anymore. You might've been given a map, you might've been given a compass. It's like a totally different experience. Yeah, so I was uncomfortable for sure.
[00:10:25:36] Adam Grant:
More than half a century ago, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin made a classic distinction between two kinds of freedom: negative liberty and positive liberty.
Negative liberty is having freedom from constraints and interference by other people. Positive liberty is having freedom to pursue opportunities and shape your own destiny.
The problem with collaborating is that it tends to kill both types of freedom. Managers, colleagues, and clients are constantly imposing constraints that hold you back and limiting opportunities to move forward.
But Gore has figured out how to loosen the constraints to offer people more flexibility, while still meeting organizational objectives. They do this through bounded flexibility. That’s freedom within constraints.
I grilled John and Jill about how they make it work, and I came away with three principles.
First: when you exercise your freedom to join a project or a team, you’re expected to make a commitment.
[00:11:23] Jill Paine:
They are individual choices that we make to be committed to a body of work. So when you go to introduce yourself, you don't say “I am the…” you say, “my commitment is…”
[00:11:33:43] John Spencer Jr.:
And if you make a commitment, you keep it. And if you don't keep your commitments, you probably won't be happy at the company.
[00:11:41:80] Adam Grant:
Second: flexibility isn’t granted. It has to be earned.
John Spencer Jr.:
Yeah. It's not something that you walk in the door and you have. People have to learn to know you and that you have decent judgment and that you're a good communicator.
How do I earn it?
[00:11:58:16] John Spencer Jr.:
I think it comes back to that commitment principle. You make a commitment and you keep it. And they know they can count on you to tell them the good and bad news of whatever you're doing. And if you don't keep your commitments you'll be recognized as someone that a sponsor doesn't want to take as much risk with. You haven't established that credibility that you've earned the trust. People have to learn to know you, that you're a good communicator, and have decent judgment. And then the better sponsors will give you more latitude–more freedom to do things.
[00:12:11:20] Adam Grant:
Third: you have the freedom to take risks–as long as you keep the company above the water line.
Waterline, this is the trust piece meets healthy risk-taking. The idea is that I can take risks that are not going to sink the ship. The moment you start to think it's going to have a real impact on the business, start reaching out. You can't make that choice alone.
John Spencer Jr.:
Which means you're going to talk to people and communicate before you do anything that could affect the reputation of the company that works everywhere.
[00:12:46:33] Adam Grant:
They have freedom to explore new ideas and projects—and freedom from interference by leaders—as long as they commit to advancing Gore's goals, communicate their progress, and raise a flag if they're nearing the waterline.
When you begin someone doesn't say to you, “you spend 30 hours doing this and you can have 10 hours dabble.” Like it's not that formal. Many of our longstanding businesses or even things that are in work today have come out of dabble time.
John Spencer Jr.:
We used our dabble time to work on guitar strings. The founding people of the Elixir Strings all had exceptional track records. So we all had the freedom to do more than probably less experienced people on a project at Gore.
[00:13:38:00] Adam Grant:
After the guitar strings didn’t work out as planned during the first year, they got to keep their freedom because they had a strong sponsor.
The sponsor really is the idea that someone else in the organization feels deeply accountable for your success.
John Spencer Jr.:
A good sponsor at Gore feels a commitment to the person that they sponsor that goes far beyond a manager relationship at a traditional company. Uh, they celebrate your success. They help you learn. They coach you. They hook you up with other people that can help you grow and learn.
John and the rest of the team were able to continue working on the guitar strings for the next three years undisturbed, as long as they gave updates–good or bad– to their sponsor Richie Snyder, who trusted the team.
John Spencer Jr.:
If it sounds like chaos, it's really not. It's because there's a lot of communication that goes on. My office was 30 feet from Richie. I talked to him for an hour every day, probably. Also what comes with flexibility is the willingness to communicate bad news. There was a lot of bad news when we were doing tests. If you don't share the bad news quickly, you won't have credibility and then you won't get flexibility. I had regular communication with Bob Gore about this project. And when we did our business reviews, Bob Gore was there. I mean he's the chairman and CEO of the company and he's attending a review about a new guitar string.
[00:15:19:33] Adam Grant:
They didn’t know what to call that guitar string.
John Spencer Jr.:
One of the team members said a great name for coating would be Bob's Magic Elixir. And the definition of elixir, one of them, is a substance that prolongs life. And we're like, holy cow, this is amazing.
[00:15:38:43] Adam Grant:
Turning creative ideas into successful innovations depends on having the freedom to talk with people who know things you don’t. But lately, that’s been a struggle for many of us.
Take recent research at Microsoft. During the pandemic, when over 60,000 Microsoft employees were forced into remote work, their professional networks became more static and more siloed. They had fewer new connections between people and fewer new bridges between teams. That’s a problem because we get more creative ideas from our weak ties than our strong ties. Weak ties bring us fresh perspectives.
That’s what John did. He had experience bringing dental floss to market, and he was able to bring critical knowledge to turn Dave’s vision for guitar strings into a viable product.
After a year and a half, they released their Elixir strings. And an idea that had grown from a medical products group made a big dent in the music industry.
[00:16:35] John Spencer Jr.:
It took another 15 months for the string to become number one in the market for acoustic guitars.
That’s insanely fast.
John Spencer Jr.:
It’s fast, but I tell you during that 15 months, it didn’t feel fast.
It's really hard for me to imagine something so successful coming out of a bunch of people just dabbling.
John Spencer Jr.:
Yeah, but you know, the reality is when we say dabble, you know, by the time I made a full-time commitment to Elixir strings, I was probably working almost full-time on Elixir strings as well as my other job.
[00:17:07:21] Adam Grant:
What started as a side project grew as his other responsibilities shrink, and it wouldn't have happened at all if they hadn’t earned freedom to dabble—and freedom from interference up the hierarchy. Instead of a ladder, Gore has a lattice.
John Spencer Jr.:
It just means you can go and talk to anybody. And you can get anybody's help. Well at a traditional company, you can't do that. You're going to have to go through your manager.
[00:17:32:23] Jill Paine:
In a standard organization, if you're looking for a piece of information and actually the best person to answer that might be the CFO. And then you think, oh, well, I have to ask my boss, and maybe somewhere along the way, people are like, you're not wasting the CFO's time on that question. Or maybe you do get insight, 10 people translate it back to you and you're like, oh, I've got a follow up question. So the information flow is really broken.
But not at Gore.
[00:18:02:52] Jill Paine:
You can reach out to anyone in the organization. There's no one that's sort of off limits. And because of that, you can flow information back and forth in the way that you need to.
[00:18:13:98] Adam Grant:
You may not have dabble time in your workplace, but you can still give people the chance to earn choices about what they work. And who they work with. I once worked with an organization that gave people the chance to swap projects. If you have multiple projects that need to be done, you can always ask people if they have preferences about which one they take on. And think about flexibility as a reward. If you Excel on your current project, we give you more leeway to pitch your next one and recruit your ideal team.
So how do you give people flexibility to control their own time and set their own priorities without undermining performance more on that, after the break.
[00:22:46:20] Adam Grant:
A recent survey of over 10,000 knowledge workers found that even more than working from home, people want flexible hours. More than which location to work. They want freedom to decide what times they work. That's not just more time off. It's also more control over when they're off. But when you're working with other people, they need your time.
[00:23:10:11] Leslie Perlow:
The whole point of interdependent work is that you need to have those interactions.
Meet Leslie Perlow, she's a leading expert on work time at Harvard Business School.
[00:23:19:69] Leslie Perlow:
I study, what do people do all day? How do you spend your time? Who do you interact with? And what are the implications of this for your work, for your life outside of work, and for your organization.
What got you interested in how people spend their time?
[00:23:35:78] Leslie Perlow:
My dad, who still holds a grudge against me, came to visit me in my first year out of undergrad, working in consulting. It was a Monday, a legal holiday and I had to do some project. I couldn't hang out. And he couldn't believe he'd come across the country to hang out with me.
And you're like, I'm out no more consulting. I quit.
No, no. I made it my mission in life to try to understand it and see if it could be different. It seemed like it was possible that we could be getting the job done in a much more, efficient and effective way. Also, we were losing a lot of women, uh, at more senior levels. If we could change this would we be able to deal with the retention issue?
Leslie has found that in team work, there are limits on how much freedom you can give people to set their own hours. But you can still give people control by making commitments up front to a schedule.
You can only have so much flexibility. What you really need is some amount of predictability as well.
[00:24:32:52] Adam Grant:
Leslie divides predictable time into three categories: quiet time, collaboration time, and everybody's favorite–time off.
Quiet time is the heads-down space people need to do their best analytical and creative work. Time free from emails, meetings, and meetings that should’ve been emails. Which for me, are most meetings.
In one of her first studies, Leslie found that software engineers were coming in early, staying late, and working weekends to finish their work. Critical work they couldn't find the uninterrupted time to do during their regular hours.
[00:25:08:34] Leslie Perlow:
People were going from meeting to meeting from interruption to interruption. Then you push aside what you're doing until your work becomes urgent. And we ended up sort of jumping from one fire into the next, instead of really effectively managing our time. So the question was, could we put some quiet time inside the normal work day? If we could understand when it's okay for me to interact with you, then it wouldn't be an interruption. And once we start to recognize that, then we can plan accordingly.
[00:25:38:24] Adam Grant:
How did the engineers react when you introduced this idea that they were going to have bounded time to focus?
The engineers loved me and the managers wanted to throw me out.
[00:25:47:33] Adam Grant
But they finished the experiment and the engineers succeeded in launching their product on time, which was pretty much unheard of in their division. Blocking quiet time had clear benefits.
[00:25:58:24] Leslie Perlow:
The benefits were that individuals were better able to get their work done. The team was more effective at working together.
That's pretty good. And yet, despite documenting those benefits, you could not get the managers to stick to the policy.
I couldn't make the deep cultural change.
[00:26:17:21] Adam Grant:
Why does this require so much cultural change?
Certainly at that point we were valuing the worker who would do whatever it took to get the job done and do whatever I asked whenever I asked it. That notion was at odds with “I could leave them alone for a few hours.”
[00:26:33:56] Adam Grant:
Research suggests that limiting meetings to afternoons can give people uninterrupted time to progress on their tasks in the mornings, which means they're more likely to focus in the afternoon meetings because they're not multitasking.
Blocking out quiet time is one step toward giving people control over their time. But giving people autonomy to get work done doesn’t guarantee that they’ll be able to take time off. That was Leslie's second step.
She had employees in teams set a goal together for time off. For example, no work on Tuesday evenings.
[00:27:06] Leslie Perlow:
The goal has to be where's the pain point. So for some organizations, the pain point is truly about working long hours. It's not important that it's everybody's first choice. Just find something that's shared and doable that we can work together.
[00:27:22:91] Adam Grant:
Once the goal is chosen, the team has weekly check-ins.
Every week I want you to look back and say, where were there breaches and what can we learn from that?
[00:27:34:40] Adam Grant:
These discussions are often where the magic happens. Meeting the goal right away isn’t the goal. What matters most, is recognizing and talking about the existing processes that are causing you to work overtime--and then discussing how to change those processes.
[00:27:56:49] Leslie Perlow:
The goal creates the legitimacy to talk about things that you've probably never talked about before. It's just a catalyst. In the old days you would just suck it up and do it. But now you have to raise your hand and say, I'm not going to be able to take my night off. If we can then set in motion a very productive process of working together to achieve that, then we become an effective team. It's about working together and creating the learning teams such that we can then have the things that work best for us.
[00:28:25:48] Adam Grant:
In her experiments, Leslie finds clear benefits of committing to predictable time off.
I see profound effects in individual wellbeing. They have more control of their lives and also retention. People come up to me and say, it's made my life more manageable; it also makes the work better. Effectiveness is not just that they got the time off, it's that they had the productive conversations and it evolved into something much more, in terms of them being able to then feel better about the flexibility they had in their lives.
It's hard to imagine this working in an organization that doesn't value wellbeing or quality of life or family, or having a life outside work.
[00:29:03:21] Leslie Perlow:
I think the reason this has been so successful in organizations is because it is effective for the bottom line. And in the organizations where it's been sustained it's not that they care or don't care about the individual's wellbeing, it's that they care about the bottom line. Actually caring about wellbeing is enabling them all the more to be effective.
[00:29:23:58] Adam Grant:
The pandemic has shifted how Leslie thinks about the best approach to having time flexibility. Especially when people are working from home--but also as they begin to drift back into the office--even if it's only part time.
Which brings us to the third type of time: collaboration time.
[00:29:40:46] Leslie Perlow:
When everyone was co-located, the problem was everyone was interrupting each other. In the pandemic world, when everyone is virtual, then the barrier to all those kinds of interruptions are so high that they're not happening. We have plenty of heads down time and what we didn't have was collaborative interaction time. So organizations built in time for that. They tried to have virtual rooms and they tried to use Slack. Now we have a whole new problem which is in the hybrid slash virtual world, I would encourage people to focus more on figuring out when do we need to be accessible to each other. We also have to start thinking about who do we want to have those creative collisions, because it matters who's going to be invited to these water coolers.
[00:30:21:50] Adam Grant:
It isn’t spontaneity that drives learning and innovation. What matters is having informal interaction with people who have different experience and expertise. Creativity does not have to be a collision. There’s nothing stopping us from structuring that unstructured interaction, from planning more hallway encounters.
In one experiment, salespeople's revenues climb by 24% for several months. What moved the needle? They were randomly paired up to exchange advice weekly. And in the summer of 2020, a simple intervention left remote interns, more satisfied and more likely to get a return offer. All it took was randomly assigning them to virtual water coolers with senior managers. Just a monthly half-hour check-in was enough to open the door to learning, mentoring, and trust.
What if more leaders hosted virtual office hours and more teams agreed on when they’d be accessible?
[00:30:40:93] Leslie Perlow:
Everybody’s day needs to have quiet time, collaborative interaction time, and time off. If we could set those hours, then I have all the flexibility to decide when do I want to do my individual work and when do I want to take my time off?
[00:31:37:75] Adam Grant:
In your team, have you had a conversation about when you’re going to take time off? Have you blocked out separate quiet time and collaboration time?
A flexible and autonomous style of working is not for everyone. People have to have certain strengths--or be open to developing them. Here’s Jill from Gore again.
[00:32:00] Jill Paine:
If you are someone who looks to extrinsic motivation, it's hard. That was part of my rewiring. I really became dependent on a boss telling me you're doing a great job, keep at it. You have to be self motivated. There is some level of chaos and ambiguity that happens. So if you're uncomfortable in that, it's going to be challenging. Things can take longer, right? You have to believe that they're going to get done better, and you've got to have a certain amount of trust in both yourself and the organization to make it work. If you are uncertain about that, then it's uncomfortable and you spend a lot of time stewing about it.
[00:32:44:87] Adam Grant:
The pushback I hear from leaders pretty frequently is “Yeah, I get that my employees want more autonomy. That's good for them, but it's bad for the organization.” What would you say to those leaders?
Oh, I would really disagree. This has been a really seven year journey to actually get to this place where I feel it so deeply that I would say, I just don't see it. I almost can't see the world through that lens anymore. So I believe in the idea of this sort of self-managed teams in many environments. It brings out the best in people.
[00:33:17:52] Adam Grant:
Sure enough, extensive evidence shows that giving people autonomy is the best way to support intrinsic motivation. And that when people have choices about what they work on and when they do it, they’re more satisfied, effective, and committed.
[00:33:31:38] Jill Paine:
The idea that like, there are certain places where command and control, just get in the box and do that thing. I think you have limited what the biggest source you have, which is your people. You've limited for them, what they can actually bring to the table. Part of the design, the original thinking of the organization is not only trying to solve really advanced material science problems, but is also trying to bring to life this human spirit that's helping people on this path towards their own version of self-actualization. And I firmly believe that those founding principles of giving people room to do their best creates a totally different kind of connection that you're going to have to the organization. The amount of discretionary energy you're going to put towards something is much higher. And your ability to actually use your full brain and your full capacity to put towards something is so much greater.
[00:34:39:56] Adam Grant:
Giving people more freedom sounds like a risk. But squashing their freedom is also a risk. Talented people are the first to walk away, and their promising ideas will never see the light of day.
Flexibility doesn’t have to be about giving up control and letting people run wild. It’s about giving people more control over their time and more avenues to run with ideas that will advance your mission.
Next time on WorkLife.
Oftentimes part of the reason why pitches get passed on is that they're not workable as they're pitched. It doesn't mean that the pitch is dead or that the thing that you're trying to do is day. It means you probably need to do it a little bit different.
How to get your foot in the door with a great pitch and what to do if the door slam shut.
WorkLife is hosted by me, Adam Grant. The show is produced by TED with Transmitter Media. Our team includes Colin Helms, Gretta Cohn, Dan O’Donnell, Constanza Gallardo, Grace Rubenstein, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng and Anna Phelan. This episode was produced by JoAnn DeLuna. Our show is mixed by Rick Kwan. Our fact checker is Meerie Jesuthasan. Original music by Hahnsdale Hsu and Allison Layton Brown. Ad stories produced by Pineapple Street Studios.
Special thanks to our sponsors: LinkedIn, Morgan Stanley, ServiceNow, and UKG.
For their research, gratitude to Nick Bloom on hybrid and remote work, Longqi Yang and colleagues on static and siloed networks, Mark Granovetter and Markus Baer on the strength of weak ties, Nancy Katz on interdependence in teams, Hancheng Cao on multitasking in meetings, Jason Sandvik and colleagues on sales lunches, Iavor Bojinov and colleagues on virtual water coolers, Erika Patall and colleagues on intrinsic motivation, and Stephen Humphrey and colleagues on autonomy and performance.