Annie Auerbach on Flex and the New World of Work
Annie Auerbach is a speaker, author, consultant, brand strategist, and the , co-founder of trends agency Starling which specializes in helping brands understand cultural change in order to stay relevant.
Starling's clients include PepsiCo, Nike, and Unilever, and co-founder Annie Auerbach was named a 2019 Timewise Power Founder on #timewisepower50 alongside a range of flex-working trailblazers who are changing the future of work. She has worked flexibly for 20 years in many different capacities — part-time, remote working, freelancing, through a portfolio career and returning to work after having her two daughters.
Annie, you write in the book about pioneers of flexible working, and you call them unrecognized revolutionaries. Why is it so radical to ask for flexibility and why has that been such a challenge for organizations to evolve previously?
I have been monitoring workplace culture and flexibility for over a decade, and I've seen all these big societal shifts that seem to be pushing us towards a world where flex is normal.
However, there was so much resistance in the world of work, where it was normalized to ask permission. There's a huge stigma attached to flexible working when we look pre-pandemic, so the pioneers who would ask for flexibility would be seen as those who lack commitment, ambition, and seniority. In other words, a prejudice associated with people who have flexible work is that they're not fully “committed” to the company culture.
The idea is that if we work from home, we're not productive. We're watching television in our pajamas and drinking coffee. Now we see that this is not the case. In fact, during the pandemic we've swiveled with blistering pace to a world where a lot of us are working remotely and the resistance seems to have crumbled when the imperative is to keep your workforce safe.
It feels to me that it's very cultural, not pragmatic, because we've debunked the myth that we can’t be productive from home. In fact, the working day has actually gotten longer: it's increased by about an hour (which is not necessarily good), as we're using our time that we formerly dedicated to commuting at either end to work. So sometimes we're even overworking.
What we really need to unpack is the culture of presenteeism that's been embedded in the way we work. I call it “bums on seats.” If you're there in proximity to all of your colleagues, that means you're a team. Otherwise, you're not a team player and we're not productive. I think that has been the biggest barrier that has made it difficult for people to ask for flexibility in the past.
Why is it critical now to embrace a flex mindset? How can one prevent burnout at this moment in time – both individually and then thinking on behalf of our teams and our organizations?
Burnout was a problem prior to the pandemic. The World Health Organization has recently released a report which says that overwork is killing us. If you work a 55-hour-plus week, you're 35% more likely to have a stroke.
We talk about burnout but don’t know what that means or the gravity of the issue. It’s a strange situation because long working hours and presenteeism are making us ill, yet they don’t help increase our productivity.
It's very important that we, as leaders and individuals, shift our idea of what trust in the workplace is. For too long, we've relied on proximity to trust. If I can see you and you're replying to Slack and replying to emails, then that means you're working. We need to shift the model of trust towards outcomes, not hours, and create an environment where everybody on your team is very clear on what their objectives are.
Flexing’s true term is autonomy of time. Allowing yourself and your team autonomy to do a task that is set in the time that works for you is a true flex.
In terms of individual strategies, it's tough, because we've been conditioned to equate success with busy-ness. What we need to do is create time to switch off – to valorize rest and recuperate in the business. This shows that somebody is on top of things if they can take time off.
I believe young people will be attracted to businesses that speak loudly and proudly about their switch-off policy because most businesses don't have one. We need to think intentionally about our messages and about how we can be explicit about what we mean when we switch off, rest, and recuperate.
“Rigidity in a world of change means something is going to break and that something could be you”
– FLEX: Reinventing Work for a Smarter, Happier Life.
The human versus robotic conversation is not new. You identify that creativity is among the top skills, if not the top skill, that workers will need for the future. How do we, as leaders in our organizations, foster more creativity and collaboration knowing that there is a lot of uncertainty and that we want to uphold opportunities for workers to be remote?
It's a real question of our time. If we want to retain our humanity, we need to cherish our creativity because it is one of the skills of the future that can't be replicated by automations.
In a world that's trying to squeeze creativity out, how do we pertain to it?
In many ways during the pandemic, we were forced into cultural echo chambers. When we use social media, we tend to follow people that we like or are like us. There's a sense of homophily, following people who repeat the same opinions back at you and you become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But the way creativity works is about smashing two ideas together, creating creative friction, and sparking something fresh.
It is very important to be intentional about your inputs, i.e. who you follow, the type of books and ideas that you read – try and be as varied and dynamic as possible. I subscribed to a book service that always sends me something completely surprising. I don't choose it; it's based on what they want to recommend to me. I would normally never pick that up, but that would always conceal my mind to new things.
Another pressure on our creativity is distraction culture. We are constantly distracted by Slack notifications, calls of a shopping cart, etc., and it takes us a long time to get back into a state of flow.
We also have to be conscious of meeting culture, which squeezes out time in our days. Meetings have gone up 13% over the pandemic. Our calendars become jam-packed with meetings, and we don't have time to breathe or percolate our thoughts.
How do we build in the time to stop and to not overload? A lot of people swear by walking, because studies show that you come up with ideas more when you are walking rather than sitting in front of a screen.
It takes intervention to say that the way that we're currently working – with meeting and distraction culture and with echo chambers – is not conductive, and we need to fight our way out of that.
“The more robotic our behavior, the more vulnerable we are to the robots taking our place.”
- FLEX: Reinventing Work for a Smarter, Happier Life.
There’s a note in your book that midlife is no longer about settling down and older age is not about slowing down. What does this really mean when we start to think about ourselves and our careers?
So right now demographically, we're going through a huge shift: An aging population.
Previously you would have a three-act play in your life. The first act was education, then the learning that would hopefully translate into employment opportunities, and then you would climb the ladder and eventually reach a point where you retire and transition into a time of leisure.
However our sense of education happening in a front-loaded way doesn't work anymore because technology and skills are evolving so quickly; you can't expect what you learn at the beginning to serve you throughout your entire life. Learning is a lifelong endeavor for all of us. It's profoundly important because we need to build sustainable lives that can take us over a lifelong span.
Also, there's a sense that you pick your career at a young age, and then that's your education and the identity that you're working towards. But we know that millennials are swapping careers and moving around a lot more than previous generations. If you asked my daughter what she wants to be when she grows up, she doesn't know and she's proud of not knowing because she wants to change.
In fact, 80% of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven't even been invented. Nailing your identity down to a fixed thing when you're young is simply not good news because everything is changing. It's less important to equip yourself with one body of knowledge at the beginning of your life, and more important to learn how to learn.
Check in with yourself every seven years. Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, a future of work expert, says that this is when our bodies renew themselves. It's an arbitrary amount of time to pick, but it's good because life changes will have happened. Ask yourself questions:
- What does success look like for me?
- Is it still the same as it was?
- How has life changed if I’ve got kids?
- Does that mean I've got different demands on my time?
- Is my ambition flowing differently?
- How can I open my mind to new skills?
- How do you adapt to change?
These questions help us adjust where we're at. Reskilling, pivoting, and side hustling are all important skills to carry on learning.
One point that I discuss in one of the chapters and which, I think, is often overlooked is that if we want to live long, sustainable lives, we need to invest in our friendships. It sounds a bit random, in the context of speaking about the future of work, but studies have shown when you have quality bonds you live longer. Friendships provide you with emotional support and space to bounce ideas across with your friends. Loneliness is a huge cultural problem, so maintaining friendships over time is important to living a sustainable and happy life.
“Creativity is intelligence having fun.”
- FLEX: Reinventing Work for a Smarter, Happier Life.
You talk in the book about women being the leaders of flexible work. What strategies can be implemented to transform corporate culture and better support women in top positions?
This is a very urgent question because the pandemic has caused a catastrophic impact on women in the workplace. Mothers have been twice as likely as dads to have lost jobs or quit, and it's even worse for women of color. This is something that we need to address.
Now, it has been shown that when you offer flexibility in the workplace, it reduces the gender pay gap and keeps women in the workplace, retention is higher, and there are more women in leadership positions.
Saying that we offer flexible work is not enough. We need to create cultures which genuinely support it, reward it, and tell stories of people that are flexing with excellence and elegance. There should be a vision of sustainability for how we can create more inclusive environments for people who would traditionally be excluded from “macho” cultures in the workplace.
My vision is to capitalize on this moment: Address the fact that women bore the emotional load over lockdown and create cultures that allow everyone to thrive.
The question that’s probably on a lot of our minds is how can we retain the best of past culture while still recognizing the need to embrace the flex strategies and adapt given our new normal. And what leaders can do to build culture and connection when perhaps there's going to be half of their team onsite and half that team is going to be remote?
Culture has never been more important because that's what's going to hold us together.
What it is about the business – the way we work, the magic of the company, the kind of spark that people can't necessarily put their finger on – becomes supremely important because that's what makes us belong and feel like we're part of something bigger. I would say that a lot of that stuff happened accidentally when we were all in the office, and I think we need to be more intentional and purposeful about culture now.
We need to be very intentional about how we communicate who we are as a business, what makes us special, where we're going, what our mission is, etc. so we can unite. So much of this happened by osmosis and we relied on that. In a remote business, taking the time to bring everyone together and giving space to energize is key.
It’s also important to understand that culture changes over time. As much as we can look historically at how things have been, I'm more interested in understanding what particular employee resource groups within the organization need right now. Something that we've proved through this very sort of anxious time is that even though we're 2D and seeing each other on the screens, we've still got a rich 3D concept of who our colleagues are, whether that is the cat landing on the keyboard or the kid in the background.
Therefore, I think the idea of cultural fit – where we all have to fit into one box – is less relevant. There's something about really respecting and embracing the point that we've come to, and when we do finally get together, those should be moments of culture. They should be fun, they should be collaborative and they shouldn't be wasted on doing things which could easily be done independently or remotely.
We also need to get better at spreading culture through asynchronous communication. Previously we relied on everyone being there at the same time for culture to happen – how can we write and communicate empathetically and passionately about who we are so that no matter where we are, we can feel part of something?
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