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The Future of Work: How Flexibility Unlocks Potential for People and Organizations



Brian Elliott discusses the last two years which created a massive discontinuity in how we work, and now the debate takes place asking if we should be going back or investing to move forward?


Brian Elliott is the Executive Leader of the Future Forum, a consortium launched by Slack to enable leaders to redesign work to be better for people and organizations. Previously, Brian was the Vice President and General Manager of Platform at Slack, where he oversaw platform strategy and execution. Before Slack, Brian was General Manager of Google Express.

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Elliott: I'm Brian Elliott. I am a Senior Vice President of Slack. I also am the executive leader of Future Forum. Future Forum is a think tank backed by Slack, along with our partners at Boston Consulting Group, MillerKnoll, and Management Leadership for Tomorrow. MLT is a nonprofit focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. As Future Forum, we do a couple of things. One is a lot of research. The Future Forum Pulse is our main instrument. It's a survey of a bit over 10,000 desk workers around the world, that we have been doing every quarter for the past two years to understand habits and practices, and what's working and what's not, and for whom. We also talk with and work with executives and leaders in a variety of different industries to get at best practices of how do we make work better for individuals and for organizations.


I'm going to share with you some of our research and some of the findings, as well as some of the best practices that we found out there globally. Reason why this is important is you see it in headlines every day, whether or not the future of work is going backwards into the office or whether it's moving forward with what we've learned. It feels like a debate, often like a battle between executives and individuals, with executives wanting people to go back to the way things used to work. A lot of people on a lot of teams saying, "No, I think I spent a couple years proving I can be productive at home. Please give that to me." The reason why that battle even exists because, usually, don't the executives win, is at the end of the day talent drives competitive advantage. There's a lot of different surveys of CEOs out there, but pretty much any one of them that you look at puts your access to talent as the top issue on CEOs' minds. No matter what's going on in the rest of the world, whether there's a pandemic raging, inflation, supply chain issues, talent is top of the stack. Their ability to retain, attract, and engage talented people is the biggest issue. The reason why that is the case is because, at the end of the day, we need talented people to create value in our companies. Eighty-five percent of the Fortune 500's balance sheet these days is intellectual property. If you went back to the 1970s, 80% was financial capital, or physical capital. At the end of the day, it takes talent to create intellectual property like that, but it also takes talented and happy people to create happy customers.

There's a big thing that's also underlying this, people spent the last two and a half years now at this point proving they can be productive working from home. Something that a lot of us, myself included, weren't really sure would work out. They've made that a top priority in terms of their own jobs and job satisfaction. Seventy-three percent of 10,000 people around the globe tell us that if they are not getting the flexibility that they want out of their employer, then they're looking for a new job. Flexibility is second only to people's compensation when it comes to job satisfaction. On top of that, there's a bunch of changes that have happened over the past couple of years that create an additional level of stress. Executives themselves are more stressed out than ever. Their stress levels are up 40% year-on-year. That's because of changing expectations of what it takes to be an effective leader. We've compounded it with growing economic stress, worries about the economic headwinds that are finding their way towards us. If executives are a little bit stressed out, their employees are in actually even worse condition. Employees are burned out. They're feeling the stress and the push me, pull you often of coming back into the office, as well as the economic stress too. At the end of the day, we believe that flexibility is a solution. I'm going to talk to you a little bit about why.

Let's stick with that burnout problem though in the first place and just chat about that a little bit. Forty-three percent of middle managers report that they are burned out at work. That number is much higher than executives whose number is 32%. It's higher than senior managers, it's even higher than their own teams. That's because middle managers are often the rope in a game of tug of war between executive expectations and what their teams want. We have to find a way to solve this issue, if nothing else, for those people that are leading on our frontlines. I'm going to talk to you about why we think the future of work is flexible, it's inclusive, and it's connected. Why those are all three keys to unlocking better performance for organizations, and better lives for the people that work with us.


Let's start with flexibility and what we mean by flexibility. Employees want choice but what they're looking for isn't just about location. The headline is usually around people who want to be fully remote versus people who want to be full time in the office, when the truth is, most people want something in the middle. In our own research, these numbers continue to grow almost every quarter. Eighty percent of people want some form of location flexibility. That means there's 20% that want to be in the office 5 days a week. It's actually very few people that want to be fully remote. Most people want to come together with their team episodically. They want to do it for different reasons than executives. They want it for relationship building and socialization, as much as they want it for the collaboration and the teamwork. That's an important thing to keep in mind when you're thinking about the purpose of coming together. If you can give people that location flexibility, you get about a 4% boost to productivity. Four percent may not sound like a lot, but on a 40-hour workweek, that's an hour and a half gained per week, which is a big deal.

The other part that we don't talk about as much and need to talk about a lot more is, what do we do with our time? 9:00 to 5:00, 5 days a week is really taxing for people. Ninety-four percent of people want scheduled flexibility, flexibility in when they work. If we can give it to them, it actually unlocks a lot more. The challenge with that 9:00 to 5:00, 5 days a week is, it probably looks like this on your calendar. That's actually my calendar from about May of 2020. What's happened over the past couple years for most of us is it's even gotten worse. The half hour video call has become the solution for every known problem. Finding a 2-hour block of time to do your core, heads-down work, gets relegated to after dinner or after the kids are in bed. That's when a lot of us aren't necessarily at our best in the first place. When we look at our survey results, if we can find a way to break this, if we can give people bigger blocks of time to focus and do work during their working hours, it's a tremendous unlock. People's work-life balances are a lot better, their stress levels are a lot lower, and they report 29% higher productivity, and a 53% ability to focus to get work done.

In order to make this happen, though, we need to start focusing so much on how many days a week someone's in the office? How do we enable that type of focus? How do we put a constraint and control around meetings' driven cultures. I'll give you three tips. First is, core work hours. My own team does this from 9 a.m. until 1:00 on the West Coast. We have a team that's spread across North America, that 9:00 to 1:00 period is when we have team meetings, one-on-ones, cross-functional meetings, you name it. What that means is that somebody who's on the East Coast isn't going to get a meeting slapped on their calendar all of a sudden at 4:00 on California time, which is 7:00 for them. They're going to have more time to focus and do heads-down work, and they can potentially deal with a childcare situation in the afternoon. Second is saying no. We need to allow people to say no for a couple of reasons. A lot of meeting growth in terms of who's showing up is FOMO. It's if I'm not in the meeting, I'm not going to know what's going on. That is where sharing information transparently in public channels like in Slack, is really important. What was the outcome of the meeting? Why did we decide what we decided? Sharing that yields a lot of benefits.

We need to make it possible for people to say no in the first place. We talk in our own team about the 4Ds of meetings that we allow. Is it a debate? Is it a decision-making forum? Is it a discussion about something material? Or is it for development of people? If it's not for one of those 4Ds, you probably don't need to do it all at the same time. That leads to asynchronous collaboration. Asynchronous collaboration is a fancy way for, there's a lot of things we don't need to have a meeting for, that we don't need to be a together live to do. The biggest example of this typically is the status check meeting. You've all undoubtedly been in some of these meetings. There's 30, maybe 50, maybe 100 of you, you're in there for an hour, maybe 2 hours, you're waiting your turn to say whether or not your project is on track. Worst use of productivity and salary in existence. Finding ways for people to have processes and tools so that Friday afternoon, your Jira epics are due. You summarize them. You share it in the following channel. Monday morning there's an escalations meeting. The people who need to be there are the ones that have challenges that need resource allocation, is a much better use of people's time and lends the transparency to what's going on that people need to feel trust and to move work forward. That's a bit about flexibility focused on the schedule side of life.

Flexibility - Inclusive

The other thing that we found is the flexibility in where and when people work creates a new opportunity to build more inclusive teams as well. I'll give you one example. Working moms in particular want and need flexibility. Fifty-nine percent of working moms around the globe tell us they want to work from the office two days a week or less. Same is true for 50% of working dads. Both of those numbers have actually grown sequentially, almost quarter-on-quarter, post-pandemic. This isn't just an issue of school closures and after school care capabilities. It's the fact that people have to balance out the needs of work in their lives and the disproportionate burden that falls on working moms as the primary caregiver at home. We see the same thing across race and ethnicity. You see the same thing in a lot of other areas, that the people who benefit the most from flexibility are the people who come from the historically disadvantaged areas in the first place of our society and in our businesses. One of the things we all need to keep in mind is this risk as offices reopen that the people showing up more often in our data are white male executives and non-caregivers. If we are rewarding those people on the basis of showing up, then we run real risk that we are further setting back the people that we're actually trying to hire to make our teams more diverse in the first place.

If we're going to solve these issues and fix them, then we need to give people better tools for how to think about bringing people together and how to balance out and make sure you have a level playing field. First point in this starts off with not doing policies but thinking about principles. The policy, the top-down mandate generally doesn't work in the first place. Saying, three days a week, be in the office, doesn't help nearly as much as saying, these are the principles around when we get together. These are our policies and these are our guardrails. What's the extent of how frequently we want you there and what's the maximum that we allow? If you can do that, and if executives can lead the way forward by saying I myself am only in the office a couple days a week, goes a long way.

Second is we need to give managers the tools to build team-level agreements. You're an example of one of my team-level agreements, which is our core collaboration hours from 9:00 until 1:00. We also have an agreement that we come together once a quarter for team building and belonging. We have another one around, how do we escalate issues outside of work hours, and what tools do we use to do so, so that you can turn everything else off at night, and rest and relax? Last and the biggest single point behind all this, outcomes-based management. If we're rewarding, again, people for showing up, if we reward John for showing up at 8 a.m. and leaving at 8 p.m. every day, as opposed to rewarding John because he crushed his second quarter and he crushed his third quarter, we might be doing something wrong. Training managers and giving them the tools to manage teams and people on the basis of outcomes is probably the most essential ingredient in building more flexible and inclusive working environments, and it builds better business results.

Flexibility - Connection

Third point is connection. Flexibility boosts productivity. It boosts belonging and well-being. It also creates more inclusive work environments. It turns out, it also boosts connection at work and makes culture better, too. Let's get into why. We ask a lot of executives, what are you concerned about? What you hear all the time is connection and culture. We ask people at all walks of life and all kinds of industries, where do you work? How do you work? Do you feel connected, and how well connected do you feel to your team, to your manager, to your company's values, and to your executive suite? What you're seeing on the chart above me is that people who are full time in the office actually score worse on all senses of connection. Whether it's my manager, my team itself, my company's values, my executive leadership team, people who have flexibility score higher on all of those dimensions. It's not because they're running into people all the time doing it. It's because flexibility comes with an ounce of trust, comes with the knowledge that your team trusts you to get your work done. Trust goes a long way to building connection.

The other side we get asked about a lot is culture. Culture itself is not about the slogans, it's not about the happy hours, it actually is about flexibility as well. People who have flexible setups, remote or hybrid are 52% more likely to say that their company's culture has actually improved over the past two years. The number one factor is not the happy hours. It's not the slogans on the wall. It's not the Ping-Pong tables. It's flexibility in terms of driving that cultural improvement. What we're doing by building more flexible teams is we're saying to people, we believe in you. We trust you. We're going to respect the boundaries that you've got in your life, but we also expect you to get your work done. That's what builds more positive cultures behind organizations.

The other faction that's been driving this, and it's been driving it for a decade, we just didn't really notice, is we're now two generations of digital natives in the workforce. The digital tools at our disposal at work have improved dramatically. The consumerization of IT, broadband access has changed a lot of things. It's also changed what we expect out of those tools. Every quarter we measure the difference between people who are at digital leaders, people that are investing in new tools and technologies, and digital laggards, the people that are at companies that are falling behind. At the beginning of the pandemic, the difference between the leaders and the laggards on an issue like productivity was about 15%. Sitting here today, 59% higher productivity for digital leaders than versus digital laggards. What surprises a lot of executives even more than that, though, is that sense of belonging with my team is an even bigger gap and a bigger delta. If I'm investing in new tools and technology, new processes for building belonging, actually go much further and much faster. This isn't just about the Zoom happy hours. It's actually about the ability to share a joke with my team. It's about Giphy. It's about the watercooler channel, sharing pictures of my kids. Those activities go a long way.

We're now two generations of digital natives in the workforce, people who are used to building relationships in real life and sustaining them online. Our organizations expect us to do the same, and we need to invest. What's happened over the past two years and what's become even more apparent is that the headquarters of your organization is no longer the physical building that you went to years ago, and that is still back open today. It's actually digital. It's where we do most of our communication. It's where you have most of your collaboration happening. It's where you find the people that you're looking for that have important information on the tools that you use. We need to stop thinking about how many days a week we want people to come into the office, we need to start thinking about, are we investing properly in tools, in training, in processes, in support for people that are actually distributed and have been for years across multiple locations in our organization, and use our digital headquarters as that central hub for all of that communication?

Our final three recommendations. Physical spaces, we have got to redesign for connection. Our own phrase at Slack is, digital-first doesn't mean never in person. We want people to come together, but that means those spaces can't be the open office floor plan that's inflexible, that was designed for heads-down work, and honestly not terribly productive. We need that space to be more modular, more flexible, more built around connection in the first place. Second, we need leaders to lead with transparency. We need leaders to actually share the decision-making process as well as the information, to get the FOMO out of our meetings and to build trust in our organizations. Last but not least, we have to invest. We have to invest behind our digital headquarters itself, but also in the training and the capabilities. In tips and tools, like the icebreaker that you use to start off a Monday morning meeting, where you ask people about their lives and get to know one another. That's what becomes really essential in building connection, culture, and productivity.


All of this playbook content is in a book called, "How the Future Works." Sheela Subramanian, Helen Kupp, and I wrote it. It's got storytelling not only from Slack, but also from companies like IBM, from Dropbox, Levi Strauss & Co., Genentech, Royal Bank of Canada, a whole raft of companies in almost every industry. You can find out more about the book as well as our research at


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Recorded at:

Aug 24, 2023