You Can’t Hide the True Human Cost of Treating People Like Machines in the Balance Sheet: How to Manage Flexible Work Better Post-Pandemic

Post-2020 hierarchies are being scrapped. And there’s no turning back from two years of flexible work.

Companies looking to attract and retain talented people need to offer more choices in projects, work hours and locations.

Tech companies and agencies have had a head start in managing a flexible talent pool.

But despite years of practice, they’ve got one thing very wrong.

We still manage productivity the same way we did in the industrial age – by spreading the cost and sharing the machine across multiple assembly lines to minimise downtime.

We’ve replaced machines with people, even though the two aren’t directly interchangeable.

This makes it impossible to create sustainable improvements in efficiency and knowledge sharing. 

The benefits of having more experienced people support multiple teams simultaneously look good on a balance sheet.

But that usually means you’re overlooking the cost of personal motivation and team performance.

I’m guilty of it myself, and that hasn’t been for the lack of effort.

I want to work with the most talented people and enable them to do their best work at my company.

But talent costs and all costs need to be accounted for.

Experts splitting their time into multiple teams takes a toll on personal motivation.

The feeling of constantly chasing but never really catching up is exciting at first.

But that quickly turns into stress, fatigue, and burnout because you’re constantly struggling to manage your time, energy and input across multiple projects in the same day.

It also makes it challenging for a team leader to keep people engaged and build a culture of high performance when experts keep coming and going.

On top of managing the project team, you also get stuck in an endless loop of bringing people up to speed. This not only weakens the group but makes it challenging to build trust.

Flexible work is here to stay. This time, we need to do it better.

After seven years of leading project teams as a consultant, I’ve learnt that priorities shift, people leave, and you’ll be expected to deliver more with fewer resources from time to time.

And it all happens as experts hop on-and-off your project like passengers on a rush-hour train.

It may not sound like much, but how you approach your operations within teams and across the organisation makes a big difference.

1) Set clear priorities and make them visible to everyone.

Priorities can’t be set in a vacuum. 

Model transparency by sharing how work-loads, responsibilities, and priorities are shared within the team and the organisation. 

Set clear rules and stick to them.

Involve experts in decisions that concern their time and effort. This creates social accountability and encourages discussion and feedback.

2) Commit to a hierarchy of goals.

I’ve used both Lead Measures and Key Results to track projects, but I use Dr Angela Duckworth’s Hierarchy of Goals when setting team-wide goals.

  • Low-level goals are what you do day-to-day. It’s the work that keeps the project on track. 
  • Mid-level goals are the milestones that you accomplish over defined intervals.
  • A high-level goal is a driving purpose behind the project.

Everyone on your team must understand the hierarchy of goals and be clear on their contribution to each.

3) Be supportive and demand higher performance.

This is where I’ve dropped the ball most often.

Being demanding isn’t the same as being controlling or inflexible. It means holding yourself and others accountable to the same standards.

Safety and trust go hand in hand.

Allow people to feel safe when taking risks, make sure they have the right skills and resources, and celebrate progress.

4) Do not promote a high-level goal that doesn’t resonate with your team’s passion and priorities.

Some things give us energy, and others suck it out of our very core.

You may not always have every detail about the new people hopping on your team, but without it, you’re handicapped.

I learnt this the hard way.

Since then, I’ve been using a simple but very informal method to stay on top.

Writing a short project memo that I share with every new member.

The memo should include the goal hierarchy and a clear description of your expectations from the expert.

I also ask the expert to respond with a memo including the following details:

1. What technical skills or knowledge are you bringing to the project?

2. What do you expect to learn from working on this project?

3. What is something about your way of working or schedule that the team should be aware of?

4. What’s the secret skill that you’re bringing to this project?

As Dr Duckworth said, commitment to a shared purpose, a focus on constant improvement, and mutual trust are all hallmarks of a gritty team.

And we should all strive to create the kind of culture which attracts people to do their best work together without compromising their mental health.

The human cost of treating people like machines is too high for any self-respecting manager.

How Apple & Pixar Foster True Collaboration and Make Innovation Inevitable

Collaboration is hard.

People have different working styles and competing priorities.

As a competitive jerk for most of my early career, I wasn’t bad at collaboration.

But I also didn’t miss a chance to do things my way when the collaborative way didn’t suit me.

Then I was responsible for leading a group of people and managing a P/L.

And everything changed.

When it’s your job to get people to work together – and win together – you’re responsible for creating an environment where collaboration can happen with the least amount of resistance.

The way you organise work says more about your intentions than all your plans put together.

Take Apple.

The majority of Apple’s revenue comes from smartphones and services (e.g. App Store). 

That’s not unique for a tech company.

What makes them unique is their track record for delivering innovative products wrapped in exquisite designs.

To make products that define new categories, Apple relies on the knowledge and intuition of experts. 

That’s because people with deep expertise are the best at finding product ideas and unmet needs that don’t show up in conventional market research.

And since their goal is to deliver the most innovative and best-designed products, they’ve tied financial incentives for senior executives to companywide performance rather than revenue from a specific product.

Apple has organised its work to make innovation possible.

Splitting their experts into different business units would damage their ability to learn from each other and dilute the benefit of their collective expertise.

Not to mention reducing Apple’s ability to innovate by solving tricky technological problems. 

Accountability can be encouraged through mutual reliance and shared goals.

And you need to be the one to teach collaboration.

We’re generally collaborative at work; we respect our colleagues and are open to others’ ideas. 

But that’s not always the case.

Proper accountability comes from mutual trust and collaboration.

In an expertise-led organisation, no single team can succeed without collaborating with other teams. 

It’s impossible to avoid pushbacks when passionate people get together to build wonderful things. 

You need to encourage collaborative debate.

After all, we’re social beings who crave acceptance and higher status in our groups.

But arguments involving people who want to promote their ideas and reject others’ ideas roll back your progress.

Techniques for working together and learning from each other.

Following the examples of companies like Pixar, behavioural scientist Francesca Gino has identified a training technique that improves collaboration.

I practice the following steps.

1) Teach yourself to listen, not talk.

All too often, we’re not listening when others are talking; we’re waiting for our turn to speak – and sometimes we don’t even wait for that. 

When we actively listen, we give everybody space to express themselves and give ourselves the chance to understand what’s said. 

Listening is the most challenging part of active listening.

Especially when you’re halfway through your 30-minute planning meeting and anxious about making sure your ideas get heard.

You can teach yourself and others to become better listeners:

  1. Start each meeting with a clear agenda.
  2. Stop interrupting when someone else is speaking.
  3. Avoid the urge to argue and instead ask explorative questions.
  4. Become comfortable with silence.
  5. Expand on the ideas being presented.

Webasto teaches their leaders with their “Listen like a leader” course.

Each person takes a turn. They’re instructed to:

  • not pay attention to the speaker in the first round, 
  • repeat what the speaker said in the second, 
  • and paraphrase the speaker without paying attention to their feelings in the third.

The idea of the exercise is to show that simply hearing someone’s words is not enough; you also need to pay attention to their body language, emotions, perspective, and energy.

Pixar’s Leading from the inside out.

Pixar uses an exercise called “leading from the inside out” to help experts help each other improve their thinking without offering solutions.

During the exercise, the participants share the challenges they’re facing with collaboration. 

The listeners are instructed not to offer a solution and instead help the presenter think through the solution by asking explorative questions. 

2) Teach yourself to give and receive feedback.

Every good collaboration requires giving and receiving feedback. But giving constructive feedback isn’t about being ‘brutally honest’. 

Good feedback comes from compassion, not authority.

Giving feedback and using it doesn’t come naturally to us. You can teach yourself and others to give and receive feedback better:

1. Be straightforward about how you address the person and what you say about them.

2. Identify the exact behaviour that worked (or didn’t). Don’t circumspect or use anecdotes.

3. Clearly describe the impact of that behaviour on you or others.

If you’re new to giving feedback, then writing down what you’d say following these three rules will help.

Pixar uses lessons from improv to help people make the most of the feedback they receive.

Pixarites follow the three principles of improv comedy when giving feedback during a collaborative session.

1. Accept all offers, i.e. embrace all new ideas instead of rejecting them.

2. Ensure that you’re building on someone else’s idea.

3. Make your teammate look good by enhancing their idea or project.

This ensures that your suggested improvement doesn’t include judgement or turn into an effort to steamroll your colleague.

3) Teach yourself to lead and follow

The myth of a born leader will lead you to believe that solid and overbearing people always get their way and make better leaders.

I’m calling BS.

People who can switch between leading and following add value and solve problems that leave everyone better off. 

Flexing between the two roles doesn’t come easy to, but it can be learnt by:

  1. Delegating work to others and support them with completing it.
  2. Delegating work with an intent to free up your time to do more valuable work.
  3. Being open about your interests and allow others to share theirs with you. That’s the best way to win together.

Practising these techniques and teaching them to your colleagues will foster an open environment for sharing information and enthusiasm for learning together and winning together.

But it doesn’t happen by chance: it takes a skilled leader to create that kind of an environment.

How to support subject-matter experts in solving problems without making a fool of yourself

My two hours of googling will never beat your years of professional experience.

But that didn’t stop me from trying.

I knew next to nothing about the business, but I knew that agency life was my calling. 

And I was determined to turn my foot-in-the-door into a rewarding career.

To be taken seriously, I needed to be knowledgeable about my clients’ business and be an expert on selling.

People appreciate you more if you take an interest in their problems.

That drive helped me transition from an expert to a leadership position quickly.

But riding on the tails of late nights and weekends spent working was my imposter syndrome.

The harder you grind, the more you get stuck. 

If anything, my responsibilities have only multiplied over the years.

Strategy is problem-solving, and building operations take collaboration.

And the favourite part of my job is working with my clients and other experts.

I’m grateful that I get to do that every day.

But as a leader, I’m responsible for supporting more than myself or my clients.

I’m responsible for supporting both my team as well as my colleagues across the organisation.

And there’s absolutely no way for me to absorb and synthesise every detail on every client.

Believe me, I tried.

And only managed to drive me closer to burnout. Twice.

Thankfully, there’s a better way.

And it’s coaching.

It has less to do with talking and selling your ideas and everything to do with listening and supporting others.

I use two ways of coaching at work.

Teaching others how to solve a problem.

The most common form of coaching is teaching others what you already know.

I learnt online marketing as an entrepreneur building my own business. 

In my first two jobs, first at a media and then at a digital agency, I could teach most basic skills and work with senior experts on others.

I don’t get to use this method much and rely on the second way of coaching in my current job.

Working with others so they can find a solution on their own.

I currently lead a team of senior strategists, each an expert in their own field. 

I can support my team with marketing strategy and operations. But beyond that, I don’t know nearly enough about brand communication, service design, or managing influencer relations to teach people more experienced than me.

Beyond my team, there are client leads, creatives, art directors, and clients.

Productive collaboration with all of them is an essential part of my job.

Coaching experts from different fields.

Imagine jumping into coaching others, who clearly know more about their field than you, with imposter syndrome.

You can’t effectively help others when you’re constantly worried you’re gonna get caught as a fraud.

This is where I found Sir John Whitman’s GROW coaching model extremely helpful.

GROW stands for:

  • Goal
  • Reality
  • Options
  • Will

It’s one of the simplest aids for coaching and mentoring others because the model assumes that the coach isn’t an expert in the field. 

Instead, you must act as a facilitator, helping the expert discover the best course of action without offering advice or solutions.

G for GOAL

Start the session by establishing the outcome the expert is after. Ask questions such as:

  • What is your expected result of this session?
  • What is the goal related to the problem you’re solving?

This will help you establish a purpose and boundaries for the session.

R for REALITY

Ask explorative questions – whatwhowherewhen, how – to help the expert gain a deeper understanding of the problem.

Remember, creating space for people to think and helping them get unstuck is far more valuable than giving them a half-baked solution.

Your only job is to actively listen and ask questions that encourage further exploration, such as:

  • What are the benefits of the solution?
  • What will it take to get the desired results?
  • Who are you helping?
  • What have you done so far?
  • Where did you get stuck?

O for OPTIONS

Too much choice is paralysing. It’s your job to help narrow down the options, with questions like:

  • What different options do we have?
  • What are the pros and cons of each option?
  • How much budget or resources will you need?
  • Do you have enough time to deliver the solution?
  • What would you do if you had no restraints?

W for WILL 

This one’s my favourite because, As the coach, you’re responsible for helping the expert succeed. 

And the only way for them to succeed is by solving the problem; you must help them decide whether they can commit to solving it and how:

  • What are you going to do next?
  • What kind of help do you need and from whom?
  • How much time can you commit to this?
  • By when are you going to get it done?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how committed are you to getting this done?

Managing yourself when coaching.

These are just a few examples.

And you should always phrase your questions to fit your style and the context of your conversation. 

It’s essential to embrace silence. Do not try to fill it.

Only ask one question at a time. You can clarify or rephrase it, but give the other person a chance to answer before asking the next question.

I recommend leaving your phones and laptops behind unless they’re essential for the conversation.

Ask the expert to send you pre-reading material or a short memo beforehand. This is especially handy when solving problems related to a project.

You can listen and take notes. 

But if doing two things at once is too much, start by only listening.