On this episode of the Unlearn Podcast, Barry O’Reilly chats with Brian Elliott, Senior Vice President at Slack and Executive Leader of the Future Forum, who also served as an Executive Product Leader at Google. They met while working at Slack at the start of the pandemic. Having observed Brian’s work, Barry says, “I was constantly inspired by the work Brian and his team were doing in the Future Forum, researching challenges about the future of work.” Brian and his co-authors, Sheela Subramanian and Helen Kupp, have encapsulated the findings of the forum – as well as the lessons they learned through their own experiences – in their new book, How the Future Works. Listen to The Future of Work: Effective Leadership Strategies for Today’s Workplace with Brian Elliott.

From Arrogance to Transparency

Brian discusses how his perception of management evolved as his career developed. “I learned a phrase early in my profession that states ‘Seldom wrong, never in doubt’… a sort of arrogance,” he recalls. He rejected his initial arrogance in the wake of Maria De Leon’s advice and observation, and realized that the greatest way to foster camaraderie and a sense of common purpose is to be open about the company’s future, aspirations, and financial path. “Transparency actually creates trust,” Barry comments, “…it helps people gain clarity of what is actually happening.” Being the one with all the answers is not conducive to a healthy workplace culture, both men agree. Brian pondered how he could foster psychological safety in his team, and came up with the acronym W.A.I.T (Why am I Talking?). He remarks, “Am I talking because I’m trying to be the smart one in the room? Or can I instead – especially as you get more senior – make space for other people to be able to talk?” Incorporating W.A.I.T. into his management procedures transformed him. “In many ways, it gives you a chance to test what you believe the answer to be,” Barry agrees. He sees W.A.I.T as the “real power of not speaking first.” [Listen from: 2:05]


The Future Forum

Brian joined Slack five years ago and was immediately intrigued by the company’s research team, which later became the driving force behind the Future Forum. The research-based consortium focuses on creating a better future of work that is flexible, inclusive and connected through quarterly employee experience surveys and executive working groups. Since the issues are multidisciplinary, they survey 10,000 knowledge workers from all around the world. Leaders from multiple sectors are encouraged to experiment with these solutions to champion global change. “It is about understanding that a lot of the conventional wisdom that we all had for decades – stuff built up for 100 years of working in offices – isn’t always right,” he tells listeners. Barry agrees, “The reason it’s called Unlearn is to highlight that things that may have led to success in the past may actually limit our success in the future.” [Listen from: 18:10]

(Listen to The Power of Leading by Example with Cecelia Myers, VP of Digital at CDW)

Debunking the Myths

Brian debunks five major myths about the workplace, using research from his book, How the Future Works. These include:

  • Return-to-office mandates: Top-down policies for returning to the office are a one-size-fits-all approach that ignores that each team may have a different rhythm. Workers should have the option of returning to the office when it works best for their team– or for themselves. Brian feels that the current system is counterintuitive, and that teams should instead be given the tools and support they need to make their own decisions. [Listen from: 23:05]
  • Brainstorming: The whiteboard is an antiquated method of brainstorming based on groupthink. The true danger of this strategy is that it excludes under-represented groups: the person wielding the pen, usually a member of the dominant age group, culture or gender, has the power to add or eliminate ideas as they see fit. Instead of brainstorming, Brian encourages brainwriting, a technique in which participants reflect on five important themes individually before being invited to contribute their thoughts to a group document that is addressed at the meeting. Brian says, “Great teams do the work in advance. You make this space to think, and you’re actually showing up with thoughts.” [Listen from 25:40]
  • Work Flexibility: “79% of people want something flexible,” Brian points out, “but 94% of people want scheduled flexibility.” He advocates for a shift away from the traditional 9-5 workday in favor of shorter, more efficient blocks of collaboration time when teams are available for meetings and real-time responses to one another. Meetings become more productive when core meeting hours are defined, allowing for asynchronous thinking ahead of time and synchronous decision-making so that team members can manage their time more effectively. [Listen from 29:50]
  • Asynchronous development: Brian debunks the assumption that meetings are where fresh ideas should be presented. Instead, managers should allow their teams to think and develop asynchronously. Team members should then be encouraged to incorporate these concepts and ideas into live decision-making dialogues. Micro-updates should replace typical presentations with limited time for discussion, to allow for more democratic decision making. This is the most efficient meeting format since it provides space for further experimentation and iteration. [Listen from 31:45]
  • Classic Leadership Perspectives: If managers want to retain their high-performing personnel, they should veer away from the belief that leaders should shield their teams from difficult decisions. Most teams, according to Brian, want raw, unfiltered transparency. “If I see smoke, and you tell me there’s no fire, what else are you not telling me?” Brian asks. “It builds this cascade effect, which leads to mistrust and skepticism.” The new leadership perspective should involve a leader who is both motivational and vulnerable. [Listen from 34:55]

(Listen to What it Takes to Build a Product-Led Organization with Yi-Wei Ang)

Looking Ahead

Brian is eager to discover more about the untapped potential of new trends such as asynchronous work models and scheduled flexibility. He’s also interested in discovering strategies to safeguard a team’s psychological safety by providing and encouraging skills training for frontline leaders. He’s also intrigued by the concept of professional flexibility for deskless workers. [Listen from 37:05]