In this episode, Vibe Check’s host Brett Martin sits down with Dr. David Burkus, organizational psychologist and bestselling author, to discuss how to build stronger remote teams. Brett and David discuss relevant topics such as remote worker visibility, Zoom fatigue, remote-first initiatives, collaboration tools, burst communication, and best management practices.
David also delves deep into remote work productivity, postulating that presence does not equal productivity. Rather, David measures productivity based on how well teams can “work outloud”, striking the perfect balance of team communication and individual focus time. Additionally, David hones in on the importance of work-life integration over rigid work-life balance, and how flexibility coupled with resiliency distinguish a successful remote worker.
Dr. David Burkus is an organizational psychologist and a true expert in guiding managers to build better teams. Over his career, David has worked with leaders from Google, Fidelity, Viacom and the US Naval Academy. He is also a bestselling author of 4 books on topics of business and leadership, and has been featured in various publications, such as Harvard Business Review, CNN, BBC, WSJ, NPR, and others.
Brett Martin: Howdy and welcome to Vibe Check, a human-centered discussion about the struggles and opportunities of remote work life and the folks that are defining the future of how we'll live it. I'm Brett Martin, co-founder of Kumospace and Charge Ventures, and today I'll be speaking with Dr. David Burkus, bestselling author of four books about business and leadership including Leading From Anywhere, The Essential Guide to Managing Remote Teams and Under New Management: How leading Organizations are Upending Business As Usual. He's been featured in publications like The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, BBC, NPR, and CNN among other acronyms. And he's worked with leaders from organizations across industries including Google, Fidelity, Viacom, and even the US Naval Academy. Welcome, David, to Vibe Check.
David Burkus: Hi, Brett. Thanks so much for having me in your virtual office.
Brett Martin: It's a pleasure to have you here. And over the past couple years with the pandemic we've moved from a situation where you go into the office, you're expected to be there 9:00 to 5:00, your boss can look at you to one in which now you might be working from home and there's a lot less obvious visibility. How are managers reacting to not being able to see their employees working? Have you heard any interesting stories? How do they feel?
David Burkus: Yeah, I mean, I suppose the question would be good managers or bad managers, right? When the pandemic really moved people into their first remote leadership role, there were already a decent set of managers that knew the presence didn't equal productivity, right? That FaceTime was a blessing. It's obviously easier to coordinate certain things and it's easier to build bonds and that sort of stuff when you're in-person, but it's a terrible judge of who's productive and who's not. And those people manage the transition actually pretty well. I mean, the big thing now as most of workers who moved remote are starting to come back to the office some of the time, all of the time, etc., is that potential discrepancy between the people who choose to stay remote and the people who are coming back to the office, which wouldn't be a discrepancy unless we knew that face-to-face had a power to it, right?
That said, bad managers really struggled if they're used to the idea that, oh, I don't know how to judge this person's performance, but they're already here when I get to work and they are here long after I've left. They must be productive. Well, no, they might be playing World of Warcraft for like three hours and just really good at faking it, or they might actually have to put that many hours into work because they're not as productive as someone who can do the job with less presence. And most of them flipped, by the way, from presence to responsiveness, either by just calling endless Zoom meetings or Teams meetings or asking people to constantly check in, or really just assuming that the people who responded fastest to email or Slack channel were the ones who were most productive. The irony is it's actually the opposite. The people who are slow to respond to your email are probably slow to respond because they're in the midst of doing deep work or interacting with a client or something else that creates value, right?
Brett Martin: But how does the manager know you're not just like cleaning your apartment or taking your dog for a walk? I’m just sort of wondering how folks get comfortable with that. And maybe people are. That's another question is has the way people worked changed?
David Burkus: Well, that's the thing, right? Does it really matter if you're cleaning your office at 2:00 in the afternoon, right? I mean, the leaders that had already flipped the mentality that presence doesn't equal productivity adapted because they already knew to check performance based on how well as a team are we what I call in leading from anywhere, working out loud, meaning keeping each other up to date. Are we doing things like regular huddles or daily scrums or standups? Are we setting objectives in a place where after we leave meetings where are we clear about who's committed to take what actions, etc.? And then I can see down the road a week, two weeks, a month, whether or not you took those actions and achieved those objectives you committed to it. You have to actually use objectives and progress towards those objectives as a measure of productivity. You can't just use how much you're working. And I would argue for most of knowledge work, right? Not all, right? My wife is an ER physician. You can't really do that remotely, but also like you want to judge her and pay her by the hour because you need someone to be there every hour of the day. But for most of us in the knowledge work space, I mean, I write books and give speeches and run trainings, right? I do clean my office at two o'clock in the afternoon on random days, and it doesn't matter so long as I hit my actual objectives. I hit my deadlines for the book or I show up to that place where I'm going to speak with the right slide deck and that sort of stuff.
Brett Martin: So, it's interesting, what I'm hearing is all the things that we knew we needed to do, create agendas, make sure that we have action items and assigned, in a remote work, those things just become so much more important?
David Burkus: Yeah, I mean, that's actually one of my favorite criticisms of the book. You know, we all authors do this we focus way too much on the one and two-star criticisms than the five-star reviews on Amazon, right? But one of the big criticisms was that like, oh, there's nothing in here that isn't just good management. I was like, you're right. But people still struggle with that. I think the difference is the tools that we focus in on. The collaboration tools that we're using, they allow us to, in my opinion, to stretch the interval of time between this sort of in-person or synchronous interactions. They don't replace them entirely, and that's why it looks very similar how you manage etc. The difference is how well good leaders use that time that people are together either in-person or together in a synchronous meeting in order to set people up with very clear picture of their roles and responsibilities, what tasks they need to assign and who they need to pass those tasks off to. If you do that, then you can judge someone's performance based on how well they hit those tasks and not the fact that they sent an email at 8:30 and then they sent one at 5:15 to close out the day.
Brett Martin: Or they schedule an email to go out to you at 1:30 am to trick you.
David Burkus: Yeah, it's sort of the virtual version of leaving your suit jacket on your chair at the office, right? Yeah.
Brett Martin: So, if a lot of the things that are classic and good stay the same, then what has changed? What has worked about the tools that we've been using for remote work and what hasn't, and where do you think there's an opportunity to improve on the tools we use?
David Burkus: Yeah, I mean, the irony is, to say what has changed, there is an awful lot of people who are coming to an office every day just to clear out their email inbox. So, their primary tool maybe hasn't changed. The big difference for them is that the in-person meetings flip to a virtual meeting, right? And Zoom fatigue is a very, very real thing when you've just got this floating sea of faces that no sense of spatial awareness or anything like that, but also are all staring at you. It can trigger a fight or flight response or even on a one-on-one call like if you've got a decent screen, then the person's head is actually two times larger than it would ever be if they were standing across from you in-person at a normal distance, right? It's like everyone's a close talker on Zoom and that's a huge problem, right? And so those can lead to fatigue to having to have a refresh. But yet we do them sort of back to back to back. And I think we do them because what changes when we flip from in-person to virtual is what I think we're using these tools to try and get back. And that is that sense of bonds, that sense of humanity, that sense of kind of human connection.
I don't know of a remote first organization that at least before the pandemic that didn't take the time to get everyone in-person a few times a year, because that's when we build uncommon commonalities. That's when we build bonds and even that's when we observe how the other person works and get a better sense of their work preferences that allow us to coordinate work better with that person. We know who's a night owl and who's an early bird. We know who prefers text-based communication and who doesn't. We can learn those things in a purely virtual space. What I found is that most teams when they flip to virtual never had that conversation, which wasn't a problem at first. When you're the first couple weeks of the pandemic working remotely with people that you knew from in-person, it wasn't a problem. But as 15 days to slow the spread turned into 30, turned into 60, turned into let's not use a number, and what ended up being two years, we ended up starting whole companies and hiring whole people. I worked with an organization that went from two founders to 150 people during the pandemic who went 18 months collaborating without ever meeting in-person. When you're in a situation like that, you have to have a deliberate conversation about those preferences. You have to have a deliberate conversation. So, you have to sort of overdo what was already that good management we were talking about before in order to give people that clarity about what's expected of them, but also those little preferences and intricacies of their individual teammates as well.
Brett Martin: So, you mentioned that people are trying to use Zoom to recreate some of that in-person bonding and connection and trust. And one thing we've heard from a bunch of folks is they try to solve that with more meetings. People end up with nine straight hours of video chat over the course of the day. Every 30 minutes is structured. Have you found through your research a better approach? I know that that's not working for people, but I don't know if everyone knows what the right answer is.
David Burkus: Yeah. So, the right answer here is, again to get really, really deliberate, there's a fascinating study by Anita Williams Wooley and Christoff Riddell about what they call bursty communications. So, in other words, they set up a challenge for teams a variety of sizes that were collaborating virtually across a variety of distances and then monitored them. These are actually some of my favorite types of studies because rather than just like recruit a bunch of undergrads and give them a personality test and some other inventory, they're actually just observing how everyone works. And what they found was the most effective teams were not in constant communication with each other and they weren't entirely in asynchronous communication. They were in what the study authors called bursty communication. In other words, they developed a rhythm of we need to come together at this interval of time, and every team is different, but we need to come together on a regular basis and stack all of our meetings and stack all of our communications so that we can sync up. So that we can check in with each other, figure out where we are progress-wise, notify each other of pivots, build bonds, all of that sort of stuff. And then we need to give people large stretches of time where they can actually do the deep work that creates value. I mean that's the biggest opportunity by remote work and by hybrid work is that people can be uninterruptable more often, which has been the big problem before the pandemic. I mean, in Under New Management, which came out in 2016, we wrote about the perils of an open office. Everybody really didn't decide they hated their open office until 2018, right? So, we were a little ahead of the curve there, but it's okay. And then by 2020 everybody realized their office was literally making them sick, right?
Brett Martin: Yep.
David Burkus: So, we had to shut it down. And the biggest gain that we got was the ability to build people's calendar into a way that was uninterruptable. We didn't do that. We thought presence equaled productivity. And so we thought in order to get a team that collaborates well we have to bring them into sort of these endless meetings because meetings are collaboration. No they're not. Collaboration happens when everybody knows what's expected of them and they're given the time to do it and then they can deliver it in such a way that it is what people were expecting and there aren't any surprises. And if there are any pivots, those pivots aren't surprises either. That happens best in bursts, not in constant communication and not in lack of communication either, but if we come together. So, I'm really encouraged actually by what hybrid and by what teams that are going to stay remote first are kind of doing right now between maybe it's no meeting Mondays or no meeting Wednesdays or you know, that's not full on bursty communication, but it's at least setting some areas of off limits time where people can actually focus on work instead of having to do it while they're actually on Zoom.
Brett Martin: Yep. And speaking of protecting time or being intentional about how we spend our time, one of the complaints about working from home is that the boundaries between work and life have become completely blurred. And we used to go into the office at 9:00 and leave at 5:00 and we could leave our work at our work and go enjoy the rest of our life. You know, there's studies, I saw that study from Microsoft coming out that people seem to be having a third hump of work around 9:00 to 11:00 pm now. And I was just wondering is the answer to help people create more boundaries while they're at home or is it to actually just we've been thinking about this idea that maybe it's actually just leaning into the flexibility of remote work and kind of accepting that things are more blurred than before, but trying to take advantages of that? I was just wondering if you had any personal perspective.
David Burkus: I would say it depends on what we mean by boundaries here. I don't think what most people want from their life is to go back to an 8:00 to 5:00, this massive block of time where I'm doing nothing but work and nothing from my personal life can intervene and then I'm doing nothing but personal and nothing but work can intervene. Like especially those folks that are involved in problem solving or creativity, etc., like you don't get to pick when you have a great idea, right? I mean, you kind of do, and I wrote a whole book about the myths and misconceptions about creativity, but sometimes you finally figure out that perfect response to that team email and it just happens to be 9:30. So, I'm not against that in the service of great boundaries. What I am in favor of is using boundaries to teach people how to flip mentalities more often.
I think the problem isn't that we're always working and not enough life or too much life and not enough work. The problem is we feel like we're doing both at the same time. And there there's some really fascinating sort of BC, before Corona, research on how people, how resilient people are in this sort of work-life balance versus work-life integration, right? In other words, the study that I'm referring to looked at people who seek kind of alignment in two different ways. One is having that perfect balance. I work from an 8:00 to 5:00 or 9:00 to 5:00 and then I just shut everything down and I turn my cell phone off and I'm unreachable, right? And then others were more kind of integrators, right? So, you can either seek to block off in order to balance or you can seek to integrate, right? What they found is that when life interrupted work, and it always does, or when work interrupted life, and it always does, the integrators fared better. The people who strive for work-life balance, but get that call from the school that their kid has a fever and they need to come right now, like that can be a massive derailer to a balancer but not to an integrator.
And so I think more of us working from home or working flex or fully remote, etc, creates an opportunity to use boundaries to help us flip mentalities back and forth. And I think that's what works better for most of us than just trying to block off that limited amount of time. To give you a great example, I did that today actually. So, I woke up, got our kids off to school, went down to my office and worked on the new book project and wrote until I hit my sort of word count. And then I drove to the gym and met my wife and we played pickle-ball for like an hour before the courts filled up with all the people that normally come for lunch. And then we disappeared and then I came back here and went back to work while eating lunch and getting ready for this interview, right? I'm pretty sure that that same wife wants me to help her like spread mulch in our front yard, which I'll do that before my final call of the day, which is at 5:00, right? And so we flip back and forth, but what I do is I use the spaces in my home as that mentality. I only do work in my dedicated office and I only do personal stuff there, not because I want some hard line boundary, but because it helps me flip those modes and those mentalities. And I think that's what most people need and not necessarily these hard fast boundaries.
Brett Martin: So, it's not one or the other. It's the ability to integrate boundaries into your life. And so it sounds like you're using your flexibility to have the integrated life that you want, but then creating boundaries within it to get work done. Is that sort of how you're…?
David Burkus: Yeah. And in my case, I use physical space for that. I live in a part of the country where you can get space in a house a little bit more easily than if you live in a major city. So, I'm able to do that. Other people, it's symbols or mentalities. I talked to one lady shortly after the book came out. We talked about using certain symbols to flip modes, etc., and she created what she called mommy's thinking cap to signal to the rest of her family. They're like, no, no, no, you can't interrupt me right now. And it was literally she took her daughter's tiara and she rigged it up with Christmas lights and basically when she was wearing it and it was plugged in, it was like, don't even come near me, right? It was the signal to the rest of the house and a signal to her that like I'm in deep focus mode right now and I can't be interrupted. So, it could be that type of boundary again.
And by the way, that example might seem mean to the other people in her house, but the flip side is that when she doesn't have the cap on, she can be a hundred percent focused on her spouse and kids because she's not checking her phone and seeing what new emails came in. She did that already. So, that's what I mean, the boundaries can come in a lot of forms, but teaching people how to use them to flip back and forth is probably more what I'm in favor of because there are very few jobs, there are very few tasks we're asking people to do that won't interrupt the other spheres of your life at some point. And so resiliency seems to matter more than just creating these barricades.
Brett Martin: You know, you started that off by saying that even before the pandemic there were some people who tend to be integrators and some people who try to be balancers or boundary maintainers. Do you find remote work is kind of different for different people, different folks have different approaches to it, or some folks are better at remote work than other? I’m just wondering if you saw individual differences while doing your research.
David Burkus: Yeah. Well, so I wish I had good data on this, to be honest with you. So, you said while doing your research, and there's times where I have to be like, yeah, this is anecdotal. This is my opinion because I haven't seen a good study on this. I mean, my gut tells me that obviously the integrators are going to be more adapted to working from home, but there's a difference between working from home and working remotely, right? I mean, there's a lot of organizations that are looking at what our return to office plans are and our use of office space, etc. And what they've decided is that certain offices aren't opening up, but we'll get you a WeWork or a co-working space membership, etc. And I mean actually before my family and I moved into this house, which had a dedicated office for me, that was what I did. I actually did commute to a co-working space that was about 10 minutes away in order to create that new boundary because we were living in like 1200 square feet among the four of us, right? So, it was much more difficult to make that boundary.
So, yeah, it doesn't mean if you can't do that integration, you have to work at a company office and you can just eshoo any remote assignments at home. There's a difference between remote and from home. It's much more about knowing what you prefer. And truthfully, we say this like they're opposing, but they're actually like opposite sides of a spectrum. And I think most people fall somewhere in the spectrum. Most of the pre pandemic research on engagement, for example, showed that people who reported being in the office two to three days a week, but not all five were actually the most engaged. I want some socialization, I want some ability to focus away from the other fears of my life, but then I want some flipping back and forth and some freedom to decide when I work and where I work and that sort of stuff. So, I know that sounds like a yes to all of the above, but that's kind of the answer. Yes to all of the above and then letting people figure out what works for them.
Brett Martin: I mean, that's something we've been thinking a lot about is that there maybe isn't a one-size-fits-all solution and different people require different setups. And so one thing we hear a lot is almost contradictory sentiments from younger folks that on one hand they miss the socialization of the office. Maybe they live in a small apartment with three roommates and their work-from-home setup is less than ideal. But then simultaneously when asked if they want to come into the office, they say why would I give up this flexibility? And so what will make these people happy?
David Burkus: You know, I think, I mean, two things here. We open talking a bit more about what works and what tools change and all that sort of stuff. I think we need to adopt the mentality that the office is a tool. Like physical space is a tool for collaboration in the same way that a Zoom call, a project management software, or a virtual office platform, these are all tools for collaboration. And every tool has its uses. You can't build a house just with a hammer. You need multiple different tools. And so teams need multiple different tools for collaboration, which means they need a physical space some of the time, different teams will need that space more often. And so I think what most people are having that visceral whiplash- no way I don't want that, I want to keep my flexibility to, is I think they work in an organization where they don't believe that the discussion is really about what tool we're going to use for when.
I mean, I can say this anecdotally from the companies I've been working with. The vast majority of them as they build their “return to office plan or return to work plan”, which is a terrible name for the plan, but that's a whole other like we could do a whole interview on that, most of them are thinking in percentage of time. What percentage of time do we want our people back? And that's really not a good question. Instead of time we should be thinking about tasks. What tasks best serve our people to bring back in-person, right? And when we say that, I think we'll find that even though most resistant people recognize, yeah, there are certain things we need to do in-person.
Brett Martin: Yep, that makes a ton of sense. Instead of it just being if that time is not spent well then it can be in complete waste. We've heard lots of stories about folks being forced to spend three days in the office, but there's no coordination of it, and then they drive two hours to the office, sit there, do emails, and then go back home. And I guess this goes back to your bursty communication is whether it's structured or unstructured, you want to create opportunities for synchronous engagement, and just saying that you have to be back in the office for 60% of your time does not necessarily do that.
David Burkus: No. Right, exactly. What's the point of commuting into the city for an hour just to empty your email inbox, right? And even our discussion so far has only thought about it as a week, but some organizations are deciding like, well, instead of like days of the week, what if it's one week of the month we want everybody back? And that way every department can schedule every meeting and do all of it. Like every organization is different. So, if you're just thinking in intervals of time, it doesn't work. But if you're thinking about we have this space, what are the tasks that teams need to use that this space is the best tool for compared to the other tools that are available to us? You start to have a much deeper conversation about how to create an environment that helps everybody find what works for them.
Brett Martin: Yep. And I'm sure that pitching it in a logical, rational way that people can understand the why is helpful for getting folks back. I mean, I know this is impossible question to answer, but since you are the expert, we will ask the question. Let's say five years out from now what does work look like? You know, how's it different than today and maybe like what new tools will we be using to make it work?
David Burkus: Oh man, you, oh, so we’ve had such an optimistic conversation until right now. I'm going to ruin it because I'm not actually that optimistic, right? People ask me, okay, what percentage of the American workforce will be remote by 2025? I think the percentage is going to double from before pandemic. But it was 4% before, right? So, I think we're going from four to 8% maybe 10% are fully remote. And I think the vast majority of people, to be honest with you, and this is where I get really pessimistic, I think the vast majority of people will be working right back in an office five days a week partly because old habits die hard, but also because how we manage this flexibility piece matters. If we say we're flexible and we allow this much of not being in the office or this or that, but our senior leaders are there five days a week because that's where they feel they work the best, then the people who want to be senior leaders are going to want to be seen more often. So, they're at the office, which is going to make the teams that they lead feel like they need to be at the office. And over time, we'll go right back to, there were studies of this before the pandemic, we'll go right back to saying we have flex time, but secretly punishing the people who actually ask for it, right?
The difference between pre pandemic and post pandemic about this is that the companies that do it well are going to attract more talented people. In the early 2000s even into the 2000 teens, it was on campus perks that partly attracted top talent in a lot of different industries. And I think flexibility is the new free food is the new free of dry cleaning, etc. So, there will be companies that nail it, that actually do it deliberately, that do it well, that have senior leaders who are very showy about the fact that they're not at the office all of the time and they're equally productive in multiple domains. And those companies will probably have an easier time attracting and retaining top talent than the companies that go right back to the way things were, right? So, there are real consequences to not doing it well, just because I'm a pessimist and I say most companies are going to go back to the way they were. Remember that most companies are fundamentally unengaging and uninspiring places to work, right?
Brett Martin: By definition, yeah.
David Burkus: Right, exactly, exactly.
Brett Martin: It's interesting you say that. One of the ways I think about it is that pre-pandemic we were increasingly bringing the perks from home into the office, right? Lunches, nap pods, massages. And during the pandemic we brought the work into the home. And it feels like we did a very good job of bringing the pure productivity task management into the home, but the parts of work that we failed to bring into the home or haven't figured out yet were some of the more positive perks of the office, the camaraderie, the connection. I was just wondering how do you view that, like will we ever bring some of those positive elements of work into the home, and if so, what does that look like?
David Burkus: I think we'll get better at it. I think the big thing here is to remember what we said kind of towards the beginning that a lot of the virtual collaboration tools we have are tools that are designed to stretch out the interval of time in between in-person interactions when it's safe to do so. I don't know of any remote first or even like sort of hybrid organization that isn't saying, yeah, we're going to save money on office space, but we're going to reinvest some of it into bringing people back into in-person events, offsites, etc, etc. And I think that's going to help a lot. The way that I describe it a lot of times is like imagine doing that crazy one-hour commute by train back into New York City, but actually being excited about it because you only do it once or twice a month and it's the time that you get to interact with all those people that you haven't seen in a week or so, right? It feels more like a reunion than anything else. It can be that way, right? And it will be that way in some of the organizations that actually kind of nail it, right? But hybrid is harder actually than even being remote first in some capacities. And that's why I say I'm actually kind of pessimistic on how many organizations manage to pull it off.
Brett Martin: One more question because this is something that is near and dear to us. You know, we talk about this concept of equity for remote and hybrid employees and I think when people think a lot about FaceTime, they think about the negative side of it. They think about overbearing managers and micromanagers. But one thing we've realized is that you might have 150-person organization fully working remote, but you don't see them. And so there is this concept of visibility from a positive side, seeing your team, appreciating the work, particularly for, like you said, the remote employees that do care about their job and want to advance, being acknowledged, being recognized. And so I was just wondering if you have any advice for those that are building remote companies that want to create an equitable work environment that enables and puts remote workers on an equal level as the people that might be in the office.
David Burkus: Yeah. Well, this is a huge issue, and some of the research that I was talking about earlier that said before the pandemic we promoted flex time, but we punished the people that had it. Let's get real, we're mostly talking about women, right? In fact, there's one study that shows it's a bias in who requests flex time against women. We assume that they're requesting it because oh they can't keep their home life and their work life separate or blah, blah, blah. They have to leave early to pick up their kids off the bus. Like I get my kids off the bus so this bias is ridiculous, but it is there. I wish they were easy solutions like, oh, just implement this OKR system or this performance tracking system and it'll solve it. The truth is it's not easy, but I think the most potent thing we can do is remember that the bias will flow down from what senior leaders do, right?
And so if they're there all the time, like we were talking about before, if they're there all the time, they're going to send a message. That presence is still valued. If they're not, they're going to send a message that you can be a c-suite level executive and not be there all of the time. And how showy they are about making time for other elements of their life and how showy they are about taking advantage of their own flexibility will send a message downstream about what is kind of actually valued, what is actually rewarded. And then that'll help push that conversation toward what systems do we need to put into place? The systems are going to vary by every organization, but I think it starts with recognizing that, no, we really are serious about this and the only way I know of to show that we're serious of this is that if the people towards the top of an organization are using this flexibility just as much as the people at other levels.
Brett Martin: Well, that makes sense. It all comes back to good principles and foundational leadership.
David Burkus: Strategies don't change, the tactics do.
Brett Martin: The tactics do. Well, David, I really appreciate you coming in and jamming with us today. You've given us a lot to think about, a lot of great ideas for how to build better remote organizations. And we hope to see you soon.
David Burkus: Yeah, yeah, thank you so much for having me.