Kian Gohar: Navigating the New World of Work
As mask mandates and other COVID prevention measures ease across the country, companies are planning how they will bring their employees back into the office.
But in the two years since millions of Americans began working remotely, the entire world of work has changed. And it’s not going back to the way it was.
In this episode, we speak to Kian Gohar, co-author of the new book, Competing in the New World of Work: How Radical Adaptability Separates the Best from the Rest, about some of the biggest challenges and questions facing employers in this new work landscape: from effective hybrid work models, to the software and tools that can help companies succeed, and harnessing the work styles and values of Gen Z.
ABOUT KIAN GOHAR: Kian Gohar is the co-author of the new book “Competing in the New World of Work: How Radical Adaptability Separates the Best from the Rest.” A popular public speaker and adviser, Kian is also the founder of Geolab, an innovation-focused research and training firm.
Eric Jaffe: We make decisions every day. While some of them are small, others can have an enormous impact on our own lives and those around us. But how often do we stop to think about how we make decisions? Welcome to Deciding Factors, a podcast from GLG. I am your host, Eric Jaffe. In each episode, I will talk to world class experts and leaders in government, medicine, business, and beyond, who can share their firsthand experiences and explain how they make some of their biggest decisions. We will give you fresh insights to help you tackle the tough decisions in your professional life.
Eric Jaffe: America seems to have reached a pivotal moment of the coronavirus pandemic. Mask mandates have eased across the country. And many employers are wondering whether it is time to bring their staff back into the office. But in the two years since millions of Americans began working remotely, the entire world of work has changed. And it is not going back to the way it was. My guest today, Kian Gohar, spent the past two years studying how the work environment has shifted under our feet and how we can best adapt to it. This February, Harvard Business Review published his new book, co-written with bestselling author Keith Ferrazzi and Noel Wey rich, competing in the New World of Work: How Radical Adaptability Separates the Best from the Rest.
Eric Jaffe: A popular speaker and advisor, Kian’s also the founder of Geolab, an innovation focused research and training firm. In today’s episode, Kian and I take a deep dive into his research to explore some of the biggest challenges and questions facing employers today, from effective hybrid work models to the software and tools that can help us succeed, to best accommodating the work styles and values of Gen Z. Kian Gohar, we are so excited to have you on Deciding Factors today. Welcome to the show.
Kian Gohar: Thank you for having me.
Eric Jaffe: So Kian, you are the co-author of a new book that was published by Harvard Business Review on February 15th, called Competing in the New World of Work. You interviewed over 2000 executives for the book. I thought you could start by just giving us an overview of the book.
Kian Gohar: Yeah, sure. So when the pandemic first started exactly two years ago, we wanted to help our clients who were C-suite executives at very large Fortune 500 companies understand how to lead remotely when we were all locked down in the spring of 2020. So in the spring of 2020, we started hosting a series of online forums for specific functions, CHROs, CIOs, CLOs, CTOs, CMOs, to bring them together and crowdsource in real time what the best practices were when we were all locked down. And this was just in service of trying to help all of us get through a very difficult time. And very quickly by the summer of 2020 we realized that the world of work was never going to be the same again. And so we started doing even more research and started figuring out that we had to work differently in this new post pandemic era.
Kian Gohar: So we started this research project with Harvard Business School in July of 2020 to better understand what were the leadership practices that companies and teams were deploying in real time to succeed in a time of massive uncertainty and massive change. And over the next 18 months, we interviewed over 2000 executives from 300 companies around the world to better understand exactly what they did. And we pattern matched the learnings into four main categories of leadership traits that together that we call is a methodology for radical adaptability in how to thrive in a world that is always going to be changing going forward.
Eric Jaffe: Awesome. I do want to dive into the material in the book. But before we get to that, I’m curious, you are someone who is focused on the future of work throughout your career, what made you want to write this book on just a personal level?
Kian Gohar: I used to be the executive director of the XPRIZE Foundation and Singularity University, helping organizations think about the future. Those kinds of experiences are transformational, but they were limited in terms of the number of folks who I can help reach out to. And so personally I wanted to use the book as a platform to help more people learn best practices about how to think about the future. And I’ve learned that there’s no best way to do that than either writing a book or being on a TV show. So for me, the practice of writing a book was to concentrate my thinking and also help more people learn than I would ordinarily through exchange changes on stage or in corporate boardrooms.
Eric Jaffe: What specifically motivated you to focus on this as a career path?
Kian Gohar: I’d been studying how technology has been growing exponentially for over a decade now, looking at technologies like AI and robotics and how they’re having incredible benefits to how we work and how we live. But also, I was very concerned about the impact they would have on jobs. And earlier on, I was very concerned in terms of the automation that would potentially limit how people would have successful careers in the future. So I really wanted to better understand what automation and AI meant in terms of jobs. And I wanted to then better understand, how can we better prepare humanity to be more creative and have more problem-solving skills, more empathic skills, more human skills, to be able to compete in a world where we have to live and work side by side with AI and robots. There are consulting firms who suggest you should come to the office two days a week or three days a week, for whatever reason.
Kian Gohar: And I think instead of jumping right in and saying, “You should do this, or you should do that,” you should step back actually and try to figure out what are the tasks that your team is trying to accomplish. And then figure out how do you actually decide whether those tasks need to be done in person or remotely. And maybe do they even need to be done by humans at all? I think it’s smartest to actually step back and pixelate the tasks into the actual roles that need to be accomplished, and then figure out how do we do this in a way that is smarter and doesn’t just fit, let’s say, the next quarter or the next two quarters, but could set us up actually for the next five years of how we want to work?
Eric Jaffe: In one of our previous podcasts, we had Ron Williams, the former CEO of Aetna, talking about how in his experience development happens before the meeting and after the meeting, as well as in the meeting. Well, if you’re on Zoom there is known before and after the meeting. Everyone just logs off. So I wonder in terms of professional development, how do you think about that specific piece and how it fits into this framework?
Kian Gohar: In this new era, you have to be a lot more purposeful about how you design those kinds of experiences. So while in the past you might have had a professional development activity in the office or in the boardroom, and then people leave and go into the coffee stand and have a conversation. While that’s not possible physically in a virtual environment, there are ways that you can purposely design for that. And what I mean by that is, how are you using technologies like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, or et cetera, to actually create experiences where people can have unstructured conversation and learn from each other in ways that they would ordinarily be next to the water cooler?
Kian Gohar: Now in terms of professional development for younger people, I think what’s important to think about is that this new world of work is not one that is going to be fully virtual like it has been for the last two years. It also won’t be fully in-person like it was before. It is going to be hybrid. And so we are going to have a workplace where some individuals will be remote. But there will be opportunities where you need to come into the office or a physical environment to either try to develop better emotional connections or celebrate or learn side-by-side with someone. And so leaders need to think through, what are the activities that our workforce needs to do physically in-person? And then design experiences for them throughout the work week or work month so people can learn side-by-side/ but there’s also the flexibility that much of the time they may even be remote.
Eric Jaffe: Could you give a couple of examples, maybe to bring it to life, of where companies that had, of course, traditionally been in-person adapted in real time and kind of landed in a place that was even better?
Kian Gohar: General Motors had historically been like any organization, when they try to solve a problem, you call X amount of people into a boardroom and then try to figure out what the solution is. And in this example, typically they would invite 12 people to solve a problem. And you’d find that of the 12, maybe four or six of them would be really insightful in terms of coming up with ideas of how to solve the problem. So what General Motors did was actually to team out this problem-solving activity. And instead of having a meeting initially to address this particular problem, they addressed it by having an asynchronous collaboration. And what that means is that the team owner puta document on SharePoint or Google Cloud and asked individuals to contribute their ideas in advance of actually having a physical meeting.
Kian Gohar: And they shared this document with 35 different people. And as a result, there were six people from that 35 who, first of all, weren’t even invited to the initial in-person meeting, but secondly, had really profound insights that allowed them to pinpoint the real problems that the team needed to solve immediately. And so this activity, this asynchronous collaboration allowed them to really think very broadly around ideas and solutions to problems they might have.
Eric Jaffe: I’m going to ask a question that’s going to make me sound even older than I am. I’m curious to hear your perspective on Gen Z and what you’ve observed about how they work, their wants, their desires. We hear about the great resignation happening right now. We hear that Gen Z, as well as other generations, are all reevaluating what they want out of their work. It strikes me that what you’re describing might be a work style that is more natural for a Gen Z, who have grown up on social media and are used to sort of asynchronous interactions and using technology to collaborate. So I just wonder if you could connect maybe the best practices that you’ve identified with sort of the GenY wants, desires, and ways of working?
Kian Gohar: Yeah. So Gen Z is coming into the workforce, and it’s going to be one of the largest generations of employees that will radically shift how we work. Right now, 70% of Gen Z employees in the workforce are looking for a new job. And that is a significantly higher number than other generations. But even for Millennials, it’s still above 50%. What’s happening is that the pandemic went on for so long, and it was such a disruptive force in all of our lives that it really made us rethink all of our assumptions of we socialize, how we learn, how we work, how we communicate. And individuals right now are looking for this workplace environment that matches their post-pandemic expectations. And what you refer to as the great resignation is what our friend Mike Clementi from Unileverrefers to as the great exploration, which is people are really looking for new ways of living and working that are different than the past.
Kian Gohar: One of the things that we found in our research that was important to highlight is that74% of all employees are conflict avoidant. And what this means is that if you’re in a large setting or in a large meeting, oftentimes a lot of people won’t be heard because they don’t want to speak up. And so how do you create that kind of environment that allows individuals to have the psychological safety to share what they want to say? And we found that when you break out these large Zoom meetings into very small three person Zoom rooms, you create the psychological safety where a lot of individuals actually feel very comfortable sharing exactly how they feel about a particular project and being able to collaboratively identify the risks and opportunities for that particular solution set. If you’re trying to engage your Gen Z and create a workplace that is attractive for them to work, you have to figure out what is the right kind of environment to build that they find themselves willing to learn, able to learn, able to thrive, able to be included in decision making.
Eric Jaffe: You mentioned the statistic, 70% of Gen Z is looking for a job. Is that going to continue? I mean, because we’ve had now two years of ostensibly turnover and churn, and you would think that two years into the pandemic Gen Ze’s would have found jobs that they were somewhat more satisfied with. But I guess not.
Kian Gohar: The last two years, there were two phases to it. There was the first phase of2020, where at first, if you remember, we had a massive economic jobs loss. And so it took us a full year to really regain the economic footing, to kind of get even back to baseline levels of employment. And then as the economy opened up in the summer of2021 with more people being vaccinated and being able to work in-person or move to different places, that’s really when the big surge started happening in terms of individuals looking for different kinds of workplace environments and workforce styles. Now, I believe that this is going to go on for quite a while. This is not going to resolve itself in 2022 or 2023. I think we’ve entered a new era of work.
Kian Gohar: They’re not just looking for a place to just go earn a paycheck, because obviously the power is now with employees who have so many different options. They’re looking for places that allows them to work with purpose. If we want to retain this talent, we as team leaders, as organizational leaders have to restructure how we think and how we work to make it more flexible, more purposeful, more adaptive, and more insightful so that we are not a victim of the great resignation, but rather we are tapping into what this trend of the great exploration is in terms of helping people figure out where they want to work, how they want to work and meeting them where they’re at.
Kian Gohar: Because Gen Z has been so social media native and has developed friendships through social media with people that they’ve never actually physically met before, this is how they are comfortable working and how they are comfortable communicating with each other. And one of the lessons we learned is, if you try to take the old ways of communicating and working, and then you layer on top of these analog ways of thinking these digital tools like Zoom or Slack, you realize that after some time it’s not working, because people are exhausted from being in back-to-back Zoom meetings, or they feel they are remote and they don’t have the connection that they used to. And the reality is because we’re doing it wrong. If you recreate the ways of how people communicate and repurpose how interaction happens and design for that consciously, you’d find that people have a great opportunity to develop meaningful relationships and trusting teamwork together.
Eric Jaffe: Well, that’s a perfect segue. Let’s get specific, because I’m guilty of this, we met one way before the pandemic and we have essentially replicated that on Zoom. And maybe that works for us because we’re all a bit, I suppose, older. Maybe it’s doesn’t work. But I’m curious, what are the best practices that you would say specifically both in terms of not just redesigning the cadence of the meetings or how you think about the meetings, but just for actual meeting hygiene, what should we be doing when we are connecting with each other on Zoom that we may not be doing?
Kian Gohar: Yeah. So I think as a team leader, a great question to ask, depending on how big your Zoom meeting is, is what we call a sweet and sour question, to start off the conversation and find out where people are. Something sweet that’s happening in your life personally and professionally, something sour that isn’t going exactly as you had hoped it to be. And the idea for this is to understand sort of where people are that day or that week in their energy level. Obviously when we are working in a Zoom environment, it’s easy to hide behind that and not know really what’s happening in someone’s life. But this is a really easy and great question to ask to figure out what your team’s energy level is, what’s going on in their day, that moment that allows them to be happy, or be a little bit not happy.
Kian Gohar: So ask this question and do it in a very small format. And then bring them back into the larger Zoom meeting to think about, “Okay, so what is the problem that we are trying to solve for?” Now, here’s the second thing I’d say. Once you do that, the rest of your Zoom meeting shouldn’t you just be drowning on for the next 45 minutes about whatever the problem is that you’re trying to solve for, because that’s exhausting and nobody wants to listen to that. And now spend the majority of your time actually going back into breakouts to figure out, “Okay, what are the problems that we need to solve for? And what are the solutions?” And then reconvene for the last section of the meeting and say, “Okay, what were the ideas that you discussed? And how can we solve for them? And what are the next action steps?”
Eric Jaffe: Do you believe that in a remote operating environment morale is capped, in a sense? Orris the ceiling for morale just as high as it was before? Is it even higher? How should we think about that?
Kian Gohar: Our responsibility as team leaders is to figure out, how do we create a social contract that allows us to make sure that we’re all co-elevating, making sure that we are supporting each other in the moment if somebody has lower energy levels so that we’re crossing the finish line together. And the second thing that you have to do as a team leader is that you have to then model that behavior. You have to share yourself where you are at. Because we’ve realized over the last two years that we’re not perfect individuals. We’ve seen each other’s living rooms and kitchens. And we peered in, we know that we’re all not superhuman. There are best practices that you can deploy to make sure that even if you’re working in a virtual or hybrid environment, you can maximize team energy, and making sure that you have candor and you have empathy, and you have care for making sure that everybody on your team is crossing the finish line together.
Eric Jaffe: Sadly, I was well aware that I was imperfect before the pandemic hit. But point taken, that we’ve all certainly become humanized, or more humanized, I think, by the pandemic. I do want to ask, of course, we’ve all probably seen examples of using tools incorrectly, where it only kind of makes life harder. But I wonder, there must be two or three tools that if used correctly drive the biggest impact for organizations in some of the scenarios that you’re describing. What are those two or three tools that you would say, “If you’re an organization out there, learn this tool and experiment with it”?
Kian Gohar: I think one of the things which we talked a little bit about is the importance of using the existing tools that you have, whether it’s Microsoft Teams or Zoom, and stop using it in a one way directional conversation and go immediately into smaller breakout rooms. That’ll totally change how you think about people including their voices in team decision making. That I think is a very easy thing to do. We’ve talked about that. And I think the more you do that, the better it is. The second thing is thinking about using asynchronous tools like virtual whiteboards. Like we use Mural all the time. Mural is a fantastic virtual whiteboarding software that allows you to literally whiteboard like you would if you were in the room together with each other. And it’s a great way of thinking about ideation and using sticky notes, but all in a virtual environment. If you’re not using Mural, I highly recommend looking into it because it’s a great exercise for asynchronous collaboration, that innovation.
Kian Gohar: The third thing I would say is using other documents that exist, for example, Google Docs and SharePoint docs to identify what the problems are in advance before you actually call a meeting. And so the tools that we have are not rocket science, but we just have to use them conscientiously. And one of the things that I find frustrating, and I think a lot of people find frustrating with this great resignation, is that we’re trying to repaint our old car, but we actually have a spaceship sitting in the garage that we can use. And these tools exist for us to be able to recreate how we want to work in a way that meets people where they’re at in this new environment. And so my recommendation to your listeners is to think through what are the assumptions you’ve made about how things work in the past. And figure out what are the tools that exist that we can now rebuild better ties or inclusive ties. It’s really right in front of you because I’ve seen organizations use them and thrive.
Eric Jaffe: Kian, a fantastic conversation. So much wisdom. And looking forward to implementing many of the pieces of advice that you gave. Thank you so much. I thought this was a fascinating conversation.
Kian Gohar: Thanks so much for having me, Eric. It’s a pleasure. Thank you.
Eric Jaffe: That was Kian Gohar, co-author of the new book, competing in the New World of Work: How Radical Adaptability Separates the Best from the Rest. Our conversation left me thinking about how critical it is for organizations to proactively experiment and adapt to the current work environment. It is not tenable for organizations to try to go back to how it was pre-COVID and get everyone back to the office. Nor is it advisable to go remote and do non-stop meetings over Zoom. Successful companies will strike a balance that works for their employees. And most importantly, will create cultures that allow them to attract and retain the best talent. And that is mission critical for any great organization to endure and grow.
Eric Jaffe: We hope you will join us next time for a brand-new episode of Deciding Factors, featuring another one of GLG’s network members. Every day, GLG facilitates conversations with experts across every industry and geography, helping our clients with insight that leads to true clarity. Feel free to leave us a review on Apple Podcast. We would love to hear from you. Or email us at email@example.com if you have feedback or ideas for future show topics. For Deciding Factors and GLG, I am Eric Jaffe. Thanks for listening.