31 May 2022

Workplace Stories Season 5, Adventures in Hybrid Work: From Human To Social Capital, w/Michael Arena, formerly AWS & GM

Dani Johnson
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst
Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst

TL;DR

  • This is the fourth episode of our podcast: Adventures in Hybrid Work, Season 5 of Workplace Stories.
  • In this episode, Stacia Garr and Dani Johnson of RedThread Research and Chris Pirie of The Learning Futures Group bond over Hybrid Work with Michael Arena, currently with Connected Commons and previous VP of talent and development at Amazon Web Services and chief talent officer at General Motors.
  • Michael explains bridging and bonding social capital and its impact on Hybrid Work.
  • “The combination of those two types of social capital, bridging and bonding, help us to better understand the breadth and depth of work.”
  • Barometer: What work stage are we in? What social capital already exists?
  • How do you ask questions about Hybrid Work? Are you asking the right questions? What do you do with the answers to those questions?
  • Learn how to be intentional (there’s that word again) about how to start asking questions while we navigate the Hybrid Workspace evolving around us.
  • If you like this episode, leave a rating and a review for our podcast.
  • A special thanks to our sponsors, Class and Perceptyx, for their support of this season!

Listen

Listen to my podcast

Guests

Michael Arena, formerly VP of Talent and Development, Amazon Web Services and Chief Talent Officer, General Motors.

DETAILS

This week’s guest is Michael Arena, who brings the unique perspective of leading talent development and management for not just major New Economy global brands like Amazon Web Services, but also stalwart, Old Economy blue chips like General Motors and Bank of America. Along the way, he’s also done serious research and training in network analysis and the power of social science to truly understand what’s happening with today’s corporations. That combination of frontline management and crisis response—and a lens for viewing all our recent challenges in people practices—gives him, we’d argue, the right to be heard. What he thinks is really happening out there for both individuals (and especially the leader, a voice often left out of the Future of Work conversation) and teams as we progress through is, he jokes Dickens-wise, ‘the best and the worst’ times to be in work right now. If you’re still skeptical, a few minutes on his evidence of bridging and bonding social capital and its impact on the Hybrid Workspace we’re seeing evolve around us will change your mind: and we say that as Data ‘Til I Die! converts. Social capital is a tool, we predict, that you’ll soon be using as much as Michael is in his new role in Connected Commons.

Resources

  • Michael is on LinkedIn here.
  • In the episode, Michael comments interestingly on this April 2022 Harvard Business Review piece, Do We Still Need Teams?
  • If you are completely new to the concept of social capital, begin your journey with its sociological roots here. We also really rate Bourdieu as a way in.
  • All four of our previous Workplace Stories Seasons, along with relevant Show Notes, transcriptions, and links, are available here. Mentioned in the episode is the conversation we had with Rob Cross in our Inclusion Season: check that out here.

Partner

Find out more about our Workplace Stories podcast helpmate and facilitator Chris Pirie and his work here.

Season Sponsors

If you have the time, please pay our sponsors the courtesy of checking out their websites. For ‘Adventures in Hybrid Work,’ we are delighted to announce these are Class and Perceptyx. Class is a live, virtual Learning platform that supports face-to-face Learning at scale, enabling employees to learn with and from each other in context-rich, active Learning experiences. With collaboration, engagement and reporting tools, Class reinvents virtual Learning to drive outcomes that are meaningful to employees and create business impact: learn more at class.com. Today, designing and delivering exceptional employee experience is a business imperative. Perceptyx can help you get a clear picture of your employee experience with a continuous listening and people analytics platform aligned to your specific business goals. Discover why more than 600 enterprise customers and 30% of the Fortune 100 trust Perceptyx to capture timely employee feedback supported by insights and prescriptive actions for every level of the organization; learn more at perceptyx.com.

Webinar

Great news: the Season’s culminating webinar has been scheduled—please go here to find out more and register, and see you on June 29!

Finally, if you like what you hear, please follow Workplace Stories by RedThread Research on your podcast hub of choice—and it wouldn't hurt to give us a 5-star review and share a favorite episode with a friend to get more of the Workplace Stories we think matter put there. And if you haven’t, we’d so love you to take our survey—there’s good stuff for you if you do!

TRANSCRIPT

As the gaming industry went virtual, the launches of new products started to be delayed; in early 2021, so almost a full year into the pandemic, that had increased by 4X over the pre-COVID era, because these individual software development engineers weren't able to sync up on the back-end in the same manner that they did when they were face-to-face.

The two sets of questions I would ask are, first, “What work stage are we in?” and second, “How much existing social capital exists?” And that acts as a barometer to different sets of interventions. It's not even so much back to the office as much as there are different types of interventions that we can deploy, based on the way we answer those questions.

It's not really a question about office or home. It’s a question about how much existing social capital you have or not have, based on the desired outcome.

There was an article written in HBR just a couple weeks ago that said, “Do we still need teams?” And it was an awesome article but I think the premise is wrong. I actually think that we will be leaning in more and more into teams in the future; I think teams are going to end up becoming proxies for leaders—so if the leaders need to connect team to team, then team members are going to have to be available and accessible for that new team member that's joining. And they're going to have to play many of the traditional roles that a leader would inside of that individual team in order to offload what we need leaders and or other brokers to be doing across teams.

Just get out there and start experimenting; informed by those insights, go run experiments. Because if I were to tell you with any definitive sense that this is what the future is going to be, I'd be lying to you, because none of us really know; we’re gonna be informed by solid social science, but it's really great experimentation that's going to make the biggest difference.

You are listening to Workplace Stories, a podcast by RedThread Research about the near future of work: this is Season Five, ‘Adventures in Hybrid Work.’

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

I'm Stacia Garr, co-founder and principal analyst at RedThread.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

And I'm Dani Johnson, co-founder and principal analyst at RedThread.

Chris Pirie:

And I'm Chris Pirie, CEO of The Learning Futures Group.

We are very grateful to the teams at Class and Perceptyx for their sponsorship on this episode and Season of Workplace Stories. Class is a live virtual Learning platform that supports face-to-face Learning at scale, enabling employees to learn with and from each other in context-rich, active Learning experiences. With collaboration, engagement and reporting tools, Class reinvents virtual Learning to drive outcomes that are meaningful to employees and create business impact: learn more at class.com.

Today, designing and delivering exceptional employee experience is a business imperative. Perceptyx can help you get a clear picture of your employee experience with a continuous listening and people analytics platform aligned to your specific business goals. Discover why more than 600 enterprise customers and 30% of the Fortune 100 trust Perceptyx to capture timely employee feedback supported by insights and prescriptive actions for every level of the organization. Learn more at perceptyx.com/workplacestories—that's P E R C E P T Y X.com/workplacestories.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Welcome to Workplace Stories. Our conversation today is with Michael Arena, who, until just a few weeks ago, was the VP of talent and development at Amazon Web Services, and before that was the chief talent officer at General Motors.

Michael has a PhD in Organizational Dynamics and spent time at the MIT Media Lab. One of Michael's strongest convictions is that proximity matters when it comes to things like communication and performance, and his research with the Media Lab showed that social cohesion within a team could explain somewhere between 30 and 40% of an individual's performance. Therefore, he has long been skeptical of distributed or virtual teams.

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

If you would've said to me that we—especially based on some of the things I've already shared a few moments ago—that proximity matters, and that we can explain productivity as a relationship in a strong relationship to cohesion at the team level; if you would've told me 25 months ago that we would have been more productive as a result of working virtually, I would've outright laughed at you.

But my personal experience has been that I absolutely have been more productive; I have found that I'm able to concentrate, I’m able to deep-dive things with no interruptions or very few interruptions, very few distractions. So the plus side of this virtual work first, and then hybrid later, is I've been able to really deep-dive and focus in on things that perhaps I wouldn't have been able to. If I were constantly interrupted in the office.

On the other hand, I am growingly feeling more and more disconnected to human beings, and growingly feeling less and less as if I belong to some larger entity. And I think my experience has been sort of the, I don't know if that's the yin and the yang of hybrid work, but it's kind of this it's the best of times and the worst of times. And I think that's where we are today in society; we’re trying to figure this out.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

In this fascinating conversation we unpack Michael's notion that it is both the best of times, and the worst of times. We talk about how connections and social capital change during the pandemic, and what those insights mean for Hybrid Work: specifically, Michael identifies the area he thinks of as the biggest area of risk.

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

And then I actually would even go as far as saying culture is the next big thing at risk, as mostly culture is caught more than taught, and one of the things we're seeing again across the group of organizations is that culture erosion is the thing that is at risk next.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

So Michael discusses how to address this risk sharing specific questions, leaders and managers can ask to determine how to design for hybrid work so as to get the best of virtual and in-person teams with an eye to preserving and maybe even building culture.

We hope you enjoy this rich conversation.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Michael, welcome to Workplace Stories!

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

Thanks, Stacia; I’m super-excited about this conversation, and you're going to find out pretty quickly that I'm quite passionate about this topic.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Definitely 🙂

So we're going to start with a rapid introduction to you and how you relate to this Season's topic of Hybrid Work. Can you just start off by giving us a bit of information about yourself?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

Yeah, it’s probably my least favorite question of all if I’m honest with you. So I guess I would describe myself as a self-proclaimed social scientist; I’m actually an engineer by undergrad, so I grew up as a Six Sigma person, so spent a lot of time really doing what we would now call People Analytics, of course, but more recently, have gotten super-engaged in networks.

So for probably the last 15 years I’ve deep-dived into the power of networks, the power of understanding how people are connected, and really just understanding human performance as it relates to the context and/or set of connections that each of us reside in. So somehow I have hung my hat as a talent executive underneath that banner, or maybe you know the social science stuff underneath the banner, of a talent executive, but I've spent a number of years with companies like Bank of America, General Motors, and most recently AWS, leading the talent activities.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

And if I remember right, though, this ‘self-proclaimed part’ is a little misleading because I do believe you have a few more advanced degrees in this space, is that right?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

I do. So Org Dynamics, PhD in Org Dynamics, and the place I've learned the most about networks was just a phenomenal experience I had as a scientist in residency at the MIT Media Lab with Sandy Pentland and team, so that's really where this passion for networks began to emerge.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Now, you recently joined the Great Resignation; can you tell us about, a bit more about where you've been, and the type of work that you've been doing?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

I think we're in a really interesting moment in time. And for someone who's been studying networks for all these years, and then us being sort of launched into an environment of social distancing and/or virtual work, I've been very intrigued. And those of us, the small group of us, who've been studying social networks, have talked for a number of years that we're at a tipping point, and we need to be thinking about how to bring this stuff into practice.

And I think we have reached that tipping point; we may have tipped over, in some regard. So in this moment of time, I just felt compelled to follow my own passions and to follow my own advice, that I often give to other people in the talent profession, and chase after the thing that motivates me the most.

So I've been partnering with the Connected Commons, I'm a co-founder of the Connected Commons. And Rob Cross, another co-founder who many of you may have heard of, is a Professor at Babson, and a very good friend, Greg Pryor, previous SVP of Talent from Workday, and I have sort of launched out to really bring this work to life as part of the Connected Commons platform.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:
Well, they have both already been on the podcast, so it's a good thing that we're completing the triangle with having you on today.

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

There we go 🙂

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

So, you mentioned that you're at the MIT Media Lab and that you're doing some of this work: can you tell us a little bit about that, and then how you ended up bringing that into practice in some of your organizations?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

At the Media Lab, we were very, very interested in what is it about social cohesion, in particular—so cohesive teams, how do cohesive teams come together, and really under this this core principle of the Allen Curve—which was invented and created by Professor Allen up at the MIT Media Lab that proximity matters when you're talking about things like communication and performance. So, we just ran multitudes of studies in call centers and other teams to really better understand what percent of performance can be explained by your connections themselves.

It turns out each context is different, but we were looking at things like social cohesion within a team that could explain somewhere between 30 to as much as 40% of a team's individual performance, and really mapping that out from a network standpoint.

I somewhat got engaged in this by mistake; I think, like all good career pivots, mostly they happen by mistake, and I was part of an acquisition and we were trying to really integrate two companies. So, think of financial services, a small, fairly entrepreneurial start-up organization that was purchased by this rather large organization, and it was acquired for its entrepreneurial ingenuity.

And an interesting thing happened like six months into this acquisition. It was a miserable marriage: the larger entity was saying, “Who in the world brokered this deal? How much did we spend for this company?” And the smaller company was saying, “How did we let this happen to ourselves?” and virtually no innovation was taking place.

But being in the talent world, one of the things we did and recognized was there were some really smart leaders inside this smaller entrepreneurial company. So what we ended up doing was picking up these leaders and moving them into the larger entity, and giving them larger responsibilities. And almost in a serendipitous manner—no pun intended—what started to happen was innovation came along for the ride. And just by moving five or six really key leaders and then retrospectively studying this in the network itself, what we began to recognize was the placement of these leaders—the position of these leaders inside the broader network—mattered disproportionately to their ability to be able to influence, to drive innovation. Then came this two-year journey of innovations and new ideas popping all over the place as a result of this sort of mash-up between this very entrepreneurial entity and this fairly calcified operational entity, which ultimately unleashed this whole new set of possibilities.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Interesting use case. I think there's a couple of things as we sort of set context for our discussion today if we can; one is I'd like to understand this concept of adaptive space, and you have a book on the topic? But I do want to start by just getting your take; the Season’s all about Hybrid Work and this great experiment that's going on in real time right now. And we like to start by asking everybody, what's your personal experience with doing Hybrid Work or leading Hybrid Work? And what was different during the pandemic: there’s obviously this big disruptive period that we've all been through. Can we get your thoughts on that?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

I'll first start with a broad statement, then get to the personal experience. I think we have likely fast-forwarded the future of work somewhere between 10 to 15 years in the last 25 months. I think the complexity science folks will call that punctuated equilibrium, like we hit a new horizon, and I don't think we're going back to the way things were in any way. As we've stepped into this, I heard this new word. I love this: hybridity, this age of hybridity; I think it's here to stay.

And my personal experiences with it are very similar: if you would have said to me that we—especially based on some of the things I've already shared a few moments ago that proximity matters, and that we can explain productivity as a relationship, and a strong relationship, to cohesion at the team level—if you would have told me 25 months ago that we would have been more productive as a result of working virtually, I would have laughed at you. But my personal experience has been that I absolutely have been more productive.

I have found that I'm able to concentrate; I'm able to deep dive things with no interruptions or very few interruptions, very few distractions. So the plus side of this, virtual work first and then Hybrid later, is I've been able to really deep-dive and focus in on things that perhaps I wouldn't have been able to if I were constantly interrupted in the office. On the other hand, I am growingly feeling more and more disconnected to human beings, and growingly feeling less and less as if I belong to some larger entity. And I think my experience has been sort of that, I don't know if that's the yin and the yang of Hybrid Work, but it's kind of this: it's the best of times and the worst of times, and I think that's where we are today in society—we’re trying to figure this out: we’ve got great social science that we can lean on historically, but I think it's actually very rich experimentation that's going to help us to determine what the new horizon really looks like, and how can we both be productive but also continue to drive other aspects of work like belonging, and I actually think that the two things that are being jeopardized most right now are the depth of work, which I can talk more about, and the breadth of work.

This is a really good environment—remote, I keep saying—is a really good environment to drive productivity, as long as we're not talking about deep wicked problems that require deep collaboration, and as long as we're not talking about the front-end and back-end of innovation.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Let's pick up on this collaboration thing in particular, and I'm sure we're going to go deeper on this, but lots of folks and yourself have said the future of work has been accelerated. But you specifically called out something that I hadn't heard before, which is this notion of the elevation of social capital in conjunction with human capital. Maybe you could just kind of explain those two terms for us, particularly, social capital is kind of a new one for me in this context? Why is it important?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

Yeah, and this does go back a little bit to the adaptive space concept. We were interested in that research. We were interested in “Why are some organizations adaptive and others aren’t?” And what we discovered in studying over 60 companies comprehensively—60 Fortune 100 companies comprehensively—was that the connections matter. How well people were connected actually either amplified such things as adaptation and innovation or dampened it.

And I think the same thing is true here in this Hybrid Work. I already said that we were all majorly surprised about the level of productivity improvement. And again it's at least neutral, if not improved, depending on which studies you look at, but if you look at the story beneath the story, probably my favorite study, although incomplete, was a BCG study that came out very early on in the pandemic that says that was the only true for those people who were satisfied with their connections pre-pandemic. For those that were dissatisfied with their connections, in fact you saw a slippage in productivity. And the effect size was somewhere between 2X to 3X that of those that were dissatisfied to those that were satisfied with their connections.

Another way of thinking about that is if you've got strong social capital, your ability to be productive even in a virtual context is much greater. And social capital, by its very definition is—first of all human capital is kind of like the summarization of all of our experiences or expertise, our competencies, and social capital, in my mind, simply is how well you are positioned to be able to leverage all those things that you know.

And if you think about it this way, we have many smart people that we interact with day in and day out that have been marginalized in the network and we don't listen to their second word. It's a little bit like that old cartoon, right? “Wah wah wah wah wah wah:” we’ve stopped listening to the person because they always have to be the smartest person in the room, all the time. And the reason is because their network position, their social capital, is lower and they're marginalized to such an extent that they can't really fully leverage what they know and/or what the people near them know.

So that's what's been jeopardized most directly during this period of time of virtual work. And I'll get more nuanced in this if you'd like me to, but there are really two different types of social capital that matter most as we think about working relationships.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Talk to me about introverts and extroverts in your research. What did you find, Michael?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

It's interesting. And this isn't my research; this is the literature that talks a lot about this, and, surprisingly, as it relates to work—and it's a very big caveat—it has very little difference on the effect.

In other words, coming in recently from AWS, I worked with a lot of introverts, a lot of scientists and a lot of software development engineers, and personality really has very little difference, it has very little effect in the network—work network—in regards to how you show up. So I don't really know how that shows up in this remote environment, I haven’t seen a study on this, I have not studied it. Could introvert people get lost while they're working virtually and don't have the serendipitous interactions that you do inside of a workplace? Perhaps; I think that's a very worthy study. But I would say, historically, your social position has had very little to do with your introversion or extraversion personality type.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Interesting.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

I want to round out the contextual understanding for me in particular. You'd mentioned ‘bridging’ and ‘bonding’ social capital: can you explain those terms, and talk about how you measure them and how they relate to becoming adaptive?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

Yeah and this is where I think we will really have elevated what we have learned during this time for the future of work. And it turns out that there's no such thing as just social capital. There are different types of social capital, and there have been lots of academics that have studied this over the years. What it takes to be productive is actually the antithesis of what it takes to be innovative, or to at least discover new ideas or get those ideas scaled and on the back-end.

So, in order to better understand our social connections—you know, the BCG study I had mentioned before was incomplete, it talked about social connections generically. I think that's good, that we're at least having that conversation. But it turns out that bridging connections and bonding connections are very different, and you can think of it this way:

Bridging connections are essentially “How well are you connected across teams?” is the easiest way to think about it. “Do you bridge out across the organization, are you connected to multiple departments, multiple functions? If you are, you will be a broker, and as a broker, you would act as a bridge between teams.

And that bridging capacity plays a very special role where bonding is, “How tightly connected are you with inside your own team or your own working group?” And the combination of those two types of social capital, bridging and bonding, help us to better understand the breadth and depth of work. It turns out that if you actually studied the networks in the very early days of COVID, bonding social capital actually increased—in other words, our ability to connect with our closest colleagues actually went up by 15% for closest colleagues, and even a little bit more than that by a handful of broader colleagues.

But the opposite of that was bridging connections almost dropped off immediately. And we shouldn't be surprised by that, but they dropped by 30% in the first three months alone, because we know that these cross-team interactions or cross-team connections are very, very fragile. And reality is every new bridging relationship you establish on an annual basis, if you establish 10 of those, 9 of them are likely gone by the end of next year.

So we know that these things are super-fragile, and they're even more fragile in the virtual working environment. So what we started to see immediately was as bonding went up—remember my MIT studies I was citing earlier—productivity went up with them, but at the cost of bridging being lost. And our ability to actually discover and intake new ideas, and maybe even more importantly being able to connect those ideas on the back-end of the innovation curve, started to dissipate.

Probably my favorite anecdote of that was in the video game industry. When all of our kids went home and they were all pushed out from school, and they were all hanging out and we were all sucking up the same bandwidth from our homes and we were fighting for Zoom time, and they were fighting for game time. At the very height of the gaming industry's peak, what ended up starting to happen was, as the gaming industry went virtual, the launches of new products started to be delayed. I think the statistics are in early 2021, so almost a full year into the pandemic, the launch delays had increased by 4X over the pre-COVID era, because these individual software development engineers weren't able to sync up on the back-end in the same manner that they did when they were face-to-face.

And what that means is you can still build new ideas in a small local team, but your ability to scale those ideas and link them up across feature sets was jeopardized. And we're going to have to get much, much more thoughtful about both the front-end and the back-end side of innovation, because we've seen both in the sentiment and also in the actual connections, some core challenges around innovation during this time.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Let's add some reality to this, Michael, so let's talk a little bit about your time at AWS. So in our prep conversation you mentioned that at the beginning of the pandemic you saw some pretty significant changes in these types of social capital at AWS. Can you help us understand that, and why that changed?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

Yeah. It's been a pretty consistent pattern; as part of the Connected Commons, we've actually looked at this across a multitude of companies and nothing radically different within AWS, and it's the same pattern; the number and the magnitude shifts across organizations, but what you basically saw was, early days, great increase in bonding connections within team, but across teams became jeopardized. The way I would describe that is bringing erosion was immediate. Over time, we started to see more and more fatigue in bonding as well.

So, think about it this way: as more people join a team, over now a two-year duration, as you've got people leaving and coming and going from a team, as you've got just remote exhaustion of us working through breaks and staring at our screens all day long, there has been a drop-off in what I call bonding fatigue as well. So more recently, we've seen about a 20% drop from the peak in bonding social capital as well. So net, we've seen a loss in both bridging immediately, although it's substantiated itself and leveled off over time, and then a decrease in bonding over the long haul which has created something that I've been describing as the neighborhood effect.

And if you think about it this way, like pre-COVID, organizations would talk lots about silos and, “Is this function connected to that function? Or is that department connected to that department?” And in the network, you could see silos in the network. What we're seeing now is what I would describe as the neighborhood effect—even within silos, you're seeing fragmentation. So it's a little bit like the ‘team of team effect,’ where we're actually seeing a constellation of smaller sets of teams even within a department or a function, neighborhood-ing together. So if there are 40 teams in one function, maybe these 6 teams are connected, and those 8 teams are connected, and those 10 teams are connected, but the silos are now happening across those constellations of teams which has created again, as you might imagine, sort of huge challenges on things like innovation. And then I actually would even go as far as saying culture is the next big thing at risk, as, mostly, culture is caught more than taught. And one of the things we're seeing again across the group of organizations is that culture erosion is the thing that is at risk next if we're not too careful.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

So this seems like a big deal, Michael. [Laughter] I mean, if we're losing our sort of sense of …

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

I think so, yeah.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Talk to us about what you do about it. I mean, how did you address it at AWS?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

Again, I think we're still all very much in like experiment mode on how to resolve this. The easiest thing for me to talk about is what not to do. So one, most of the statistics I'm quoting to you are exclusively virtual: we really haven't enjoyed the full privilege of what we're calling Hybrid just yet—organizations are only now starting to lean back into the office. I think the foolish advice—and I'll probably make somebody very dissatisfied with this next bit. Sorry, I'm just giving you the science view!—the foolish perspective is to say, “You know what? We need to come back into the office two to three days a week.” And that actually may be true for some teams, but it’s probably a lot less and maybe even more for other teams. And I think that’s a blunt instrument trying to solve a very nuanced challenge, and the reality is, you need to go back to this bridging-bonding thing.

And one of the things that we conducted a very large study on, and again have since replicated across a multitude of other companies, is there are different types of teams. Some teams are more predisposed to be in super-bonding teams where all they do is work primarily with each other. You can think of software development engineers, you can think of automotive engineers in the automotive industry, you can think of teams that are really, cohesively only working with themselves. Big deal teams, like a sales force, and those teams actually probably can continue to work virtually quite well because they've already got preexisting levels of social capital and they don't have to have eyeball-to-eyeball contact except for maybe at different work states.

Where on the other hand, when you think about bridging teams—so about 50% of the teams that we indexed are actually bridging teams. These are teams—think of like a finance function or a sales force in general, field sales folks. They don't connect just to their individual team; they connect out across the organization, and they need to be bridged down. Those teams need to connect differently. They actually do need to come together sometimes face-to-face, not frequently, but they do need to come together face-to-face, and they need to come together in order to influence, because we know face-to-face is a better channel to influence and to change people's thinking on things.

So the answer to your question is very, very nuanced: we’ve got to really understand two primary dimensions and I can go into a lot of detail about those. But the two primary dimensions are first, what kind of social capital exists inside of a given team: do you have a lot of newbies? If so, get back into the office more frequently. If not, leverage the social capital that you have. And what work state are you in? Are you on the front-end of a new product? Are you trying to discover new ideas—you better get together face-to-face. Are you in the build, execution phase? Virtual is fine, if that's the case. Or are you in the fusion side, or the scaling side? And if that's the case, you better get different teams together at the same time, so you can influence.

I realize that was like a ton of rapid fire, but the answer is it's very nuanced and the short, very, very short answer is, we got to get better with the way we ask questions of teams.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Well, I think, I mean, you answered my next three questions in that so I think we're just saving time. It's great 🙂

One sort of follow up question, though. You've talked a little bit about work stages, like you talked about innovation and needing to be together at the beginning and the end of innovation and those types of things. Do you have, is there, does there exist some sort of guideline to when you should be together and when that eyeball-to-eyeball is important, and when maybe it's not as important?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

Yeah, and I sort of went into that little bit already, but the core is just to think about inquiry. Maybe someday, I dream of a day where we've got the telemetry to be able to say, “This is where a team is in their work stages, this is where team is in their social capital evolution.” And the combination of those two things will point to a different work practice of sorts.

I think we as society, and we as the people analytics space, are far way away from that just now. I think it's as simple as empower our leaders to ask different questions. And the first set of questions is, “What kind of work should we be doing right now? Are we in this discovery stage, are we in this development stage, are we in this diffusion stage?”

A simple way thinking about, that is, “Are we in heads up or heads down work?” Heads up is, “We’ve got to be working out and working across teams.” Heads down is, “We’ve got to be focused on what we have in front of us as a local team.” And if we're heads up, then the next set of questions is, “How much existing social capital do you have across the groups that you need to be working in?” If you have very little, get back to the office; if you have a lot, you can leverage that existing social capital to get a lot of work done virtually.

So those are the two sets of questions I would ask. First, “What work stage are we in?” and second, “How much existing social capital exists?” And that sort of guides, or acts as a barometer, to different sets of interventions. It's not even so much back to the office as much as, there are different types of interventions that I think we can deploy based on the way we answer those sets of questions.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

So I love these questions because those I can kind of envision in my head as something that a manager might use. But how do we make this systematized? How do we make this actually part of what people are doing? What's HR’s role, and what's the role of tools or technology or systems, in bringing this to life?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

I think the first step is using some of the network analysis tools, where possible, to evaluate where are you, where do you have strong bonding and bridging social capital. And I do think that can point data-rich teams, towards better understanding how well they are currently connected. The other thing—

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Sorry, Michael, to interrupt, though: who does that, right? Because you and I both know ONA tends to be done by People Analytics teams kind of in a back office for the most part. So who's doing that, and giving that direction, to the managers?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

I think that's to be determined. I think there are plenty of companies that do run that analysis and can share that with the local manager, and in those cases, it generally is the People Analytics folks providing that degree of insight, if you will, back out to the organization. But the majority of the people listening to this podcast right now don't have those resources; that’s why I keep coming back to simply start asking a different set of questions of yourself, because that's the way you can make this really practical in a very short-term sense.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Do you think that the answer to this question is going to be competitive advantage? So the companies that can figure this out, the best configuration of work for them, are going to have competitive advantage?

Just one other thing before you answer that: everybody’s thinking about remote versus office, right? And that's the sort of polarity that’s top of mind for people, and what you've made me think about, what you told me here is that it's really about the kind of work that you need to get done. You could do collaborative work very well if you design it—very well remotely—if you design interventions and activities that make best use of it, but it’s sort of like changing the polarity from “Am I at home? Or am I in the office?” to, “Am I doing deeply collaborative workloads?” This heads down versus heads up, I like that.

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

You're talking to the zealot about whether or not this is going to have disproportionate impact for those who invest in it, so I will leave that to others to determine long-term—I do believe that.

But I think there's a great silver lining to remote work. And, yes, the employees love the flexibility, and that's critical and we certainly live in an age of autonomy where employees want to make choices on their own behalf because they've proven that they can be productive and effective in this sort of socially disconnected or at least virtual world. I think that's a core part of it, but I think that I study this more as a scientist trying to understand work outputs, and I think those organizations get really intentional about two things.

And this is why I think the science matters and the analytics matter, but at the end of the day, it's really just simply getting intentional about two different things. “What is the output I'm trying to drive?” In other words, different network configurations drive different outputs. I want cohesive bonding networks to drive productivity and rapid development like agile scrum and agile huddles, and I want dispersed networks to drive new insights and variety and this ongoing notion of always introducing new ideas. One actually disrupts the status quo, one actually drives and introduces new progress; the other actually drives great execution power.

You first need to get intentional about those things, and then I think it's not really a question about office or home; it’s a question about how much existing social capital might you have or might you not have based on the desired outcome?

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

How do you accommodate people at different stages in their career? For example, so a new hire, an individual contributor—they obviously don't have the social capital necessary in the organization to maybe have the freedom of a remote work schedule, maybe more face-to-face is needed, is that kind of how you see it, versus maybe a senior manager?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

I do, and one of my favorite studies—Rob's spent a lot of time, Greg also spent a lot of time thinking about transitions— people that have a disproportionate advantage right now inside organizations are newbies: those who don't have this pre-existing social capital and have entered in a virtual context.

All is not lost, however; it turns out that you can build social capital virtually—that’s the good news The bad news is it takes maybe three times as many interactions to do so, so you've got to be super intentional, which means that you need to start thinking, “Who are the critical few people I need to build relationships with, and who whose social capital can I leverage to help pull me into the network?”

And it's not always the leader, which I should come back and talk about leaders in a moment, because another very interesting insight is the impact that this has had on leadership. But the answer is, these new folks need to be far more intentional about crafting their network, and bigger is not better but getting very, very focused on a handful of moves which we call fast mover’s moves. And what happens is generally speaking, it takes somewhere between two to three years for someone to assimilate into the most central part of the network, to have the greatest level of influence inside of an organization, but these fast movers can do that in as little as nine months. And it's a small population left unmanaged, maybe 8 to 10% of the world, of newbies, can actually figure out how to do this. But we can replicate those patterns and those moves for the entire population, and increase the chances for other people to assimilate in sooner. And what that basically means is contribute more, bigger, faster, sooner than the average person migrating into an organization.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

So, Michael, you mentioned that virtual people, it can take them, you know, in general, three times as long. Do you see the same sort of behavior though in the virtual environment, meaning that there are still people who are these fast movers within a virtual environment?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

We have, actually. Coincidentally enough, there's been little drop off in the fast movers, virtual or in the physical environment; the same percentage of people, these people are super intentional in the beginning. So I take this as the silver lining in Hybrid Work is that these people were intentional pre-COVID—now it's a different group of people today, right, but the same intentional moves are being placed in a virtual context. And what they're not doing is taking on a bunch of other things because they're being very deliberate about building their network. And they were working at the same, or they've simulated in at the same pace, and we've seen virtually no difference pre-COVID versus post-COVID on that.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:
You mentioned patterns and how you can replicate those patterns to help other people assimilate a little bit faster. Are those patterns specific to organizations, or do you see those same patterns across organizations? Is it like a skillset that can be taught?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

We've seen them across organizations, and it's a set of patterns. It's things like build a broad base set of connections, but a minimal set not a maximum set; building a bigger network is the worst thing you can do because you quickly get to the point where you're building such a large network that your network begins to pull you and manage you, versus the other way around.

Finding some very influential people, not always the leader, but some very influential peers that you can draft off of their social capital for makes a big difference, we call that network pool, fill in a knowledge gap or a skill gap. so the worst thing to do is to come in and make yourself look like a hero and start to deliver like it's nobody—it's actually a good thing in maybe the first 90 days or the first 60 days, because you get yourself noticed, but you also quickly can get yourself easily marginalized if you come in too hot and fast.

A better thing to do is for me to come in and help each of you get your thing done, and to fill in a knowledge gap or a skill gap that you have. So what we found with these people is they're very good at asking questions; they’re very good at quickly finding the most influential people. They do really simple things, like they go interview four or five people and they ask each of those four or five people who are—this is called the Friends Paradox—and this is where you don't need network analysis and get the same exact benefits. And the Friends Paradox basically says, if I asked Dani who are the three people I should be most connected to if I want to do A, B and C, you would answer that question and based on your social capital, it'd be a very strong likelihood that those are the right five people, and then I go work with those five people.

So there are these very simple moves that can really help a fast mover get pulled in an extraordinarily quick fashion and create greater contribution sooner or faster.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Did you see differences between genders or other demographics?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

Not on fast-movers. Gender is an interesting thing. I will say this: unlike personality, the one thing that may stratify most, in all networks that I've looked at inside corporations when left at choice, like who do you connect with, gender is the most stratified variable across time.

It's really interesting and that's a whole different conversation, but gender stratifies on the network quite profusely unless you do things to mix it up intensely. And there are some very, very, very good things that you can do as an organization there, but it's another way of thinking about inclusion versus diversity as well. Representation is critical, but inclusion is whenever you've got representation in the core of your network, where you can truly have voice, and really truly represent at the most influential part of the networks.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

We talked a little bit about the role of leaders and managers; what are the observations around how they need to operate differently in a remote and/or a Hybrid environment?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

I appreciate that question, Chris, and bringing me back to that, because I wanted to talk a little bit about the leaders.

We've talked a lot about employees and employee experience, rightfully, during this timeframe—we need to continue to do that, but I think that there has been far too little dedication and focus on leaders. Turns out that leaders have lost their bridge connections at a 4 to 1 rate over the rest of the organization.

And think about it this way: it's actually a good thing in the short-term; leaders have led with great empathy and they've leaned into their teams or their constellation of teams, and they've done all the things that great leaders do, which is ensure that their employees are being taken care of. But it's been at the expense of their connection with other leaders, and what that means is the social fabric across the organization, and the learning fabric when it comes to things like culture and certainly innovation, has begun to erode, and this neighborhood effect has kicked in.

Turns out that leaders in general—and I'm talking about senior managers and executives—represent about 50%, on average, of the bridge connections in the average organization. And they, at a 4 to 1 rate, have lost their bridge connections. I am super-concerned about it; I think it's a major challenge for us as organizations long-term. One of the very first things I think organizations need to do when they step back into a true face-to-face environment is not just think about how they bring their teams together, but think about how they bring their leaders together so that their leaders can create a sense of belonging and connection for the rest of the organization by first modeling that for themselves.

It's one of the untold stories during this timeframe that I just don't think we're paying enough attention to. And it's resulted in fatigue and leaders leaving organizations, and I just think it's going to have long-term consequences if we're not far more deliberate about wrapping our arms around our leaders.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Powerful insight for sure.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Yeah, it makes me think about we know that managers have been burned out and so much of it has been because they've been pouring their energies into their teams, but this perspective of they need the connection themselves at their own level. I think that really resonates with what I've seen, anyway.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

I mean, even before the pandemic, we did a little bit of research that talked about how managers are largely ignored. They have sort of their step training, and then that's it, and we do need to do a better job of supporting them.

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

This is an opinion; this next set of comments is an opinion, not grounded in some research. But I think what that means is our dependence on leaders is going to have to shift and we're going to have to start thinking about what teams can do.

There was an article written in HBR just a couple weeks ago that said, “Do we still need teams?” And it was an awesome article because it talked a lot about the insights, many of the insights here that we talked about, with the coordination tax of working virtually, and the collaborative overload that's associated with this world.

But I think the premise is wrong. If I could assert and somebody can counter-argue my point if they like, but I think the premise is wrong. I actually think that we will be leaning in more and more into teams in the future. I think teams are going to end up becoming proxies for leaders. So if the leaders need to connect team to team, then team members are going to have to be available and accessible for that new team member that's joining. And they're going to have to play many of the roles that individuals, we’ll call them, tenured or senior team members are going to have to play many of the traditional roles that a leader would inside of that individual team in order to sort of offload what we need leaders and or other brokers to be doing across teams.

So I actually would counter-argue that teams as a structure are going to become more important to organizations in the virtual Hybrid world, and we're going to have to think about getting more intentional about providing tools and insights and solutions at the team level.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

I was just thinking about the future of teams, that complex teaming and alliances to solve complex problems; teams, I like this kind of teams providing their own leadership but they'll be constantly changing as well, you can imagine.

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

That's where these transitions will matter even more; that’s going to become a team function, where we're helping to assimilate new people into teams frequently, we’re helping to fill in the gaps when a team member leaves who was connected to a different team—the team knows who that person was connected to, and we're going to have to fill in those bridging gaps and/or knowledge gaps in a much more fluid way.

So, Chris, it gets a little bit back to again the social capital zealot speaking to you, but it gets a little bit back to your question around, “Will organizations that understand this stuff have a competitive advantage?”

And my short answer is, “Absolutely.” But we, as a profession, have a long way to go to enable organizations to think about this, to come up with the right set of solutions, and to really understand what the proper moves would be in order to help people simulate in, and connect across, teams.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

So, Michael, we're going to move into the wrap session, but I have just one more question to ask you, before we do that and I want you to pull out your crystal ball:

Are we ready for this? I mean, the way that organizations are set up currently, in the way that we pay people and move people around organizations and all of that kind of stuff… seems like we've got a lot of momentum against us to doing kind of what you talked about, and even putting into place, you know, a Hybrid situation that will work in most organizations. Do you think we're ready for this, and what do you think it'll take to get there?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

My impulse to the question is that I think that we've already seen new solutions emerge locally. And for those organizations that mine those solutions deep inside their own organizations and understand where people have been incredibly effective.

The great news about human beings is we are super-creative. Give us a problem and we'll solve it; wait for that problem to migrate through the hierarchy and cascade down as a formal solution, and we may meet our own demise. So the short answer to your question is, if we are willing to capture the emergent energy within the organizations that we reside in, absolutely ready for it; if we've got to have the sense of control and comfort of having the right solutions projected and pushed down from a top, I think we're doomed. So that's my very short answer.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

[Laughter] Not sure which way it's going to go!

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

So it’s the teams not leaders, and an age of great experimentation in terms of how work gets done.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

I think it also aligns with we're almost certainly going to see a boom of new technology that is coming out to support Hybrid. Like I know in our prep call, Michael, you talked about one company, I’ve actually talked to a different one. I've been giving advice around like, this is the sort of thing you need to be thinking about and this is just one thing that we are kind of relying on, there’s gonna be a lot of other tech that needs to come out to support Hybrid Work in capturing this competitive advantage, really.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

And better data as well.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Much better data.

So let's move on to our wrap up; I know we have just a few moments left, but Michael, I want to ask you—this kind of builds on Dani's question just a moment ago— what do you see as the future?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

I think we're going to embrace the realities of what's begun to emerge, so I love the team of team concepts. You know, one of the things I've been leaning in on is something called adaptive teaming as a solution, and how do we locally equip teams with local adaptive teaming solutions based on, again, output that they desire and current levels of social capital. So I think this team of team things is here to stay.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

And what advice would you offer to others who aren't really as far along and thinking about this as you are—how would someone get started on some of this?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

It's easy for me to throw all the stats and run all the science and talk about all the network analysis, and I'm more than willing to geek out with anyone who ever wants to have that conversation. But at the end of the day, Chris said this, and that is better experimentation. Like just get out there and start experimenting. Informed with some of these insights and many, many more—Microsoft has done a tremendous job of analyzing these things, and many other companies have as well— informed by those insights, go run experiments. Because if I were to tell you with any definitive sense that this is what the future is going to be, I'd be lying to you because none of us really know; we’re gonna be informed by solid social science, but it's really great experimentation that's going to make the best difference, the biggest difference.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

I'm gonna wrap us with our final question, Michael, that we ask to every podcast guest, and we call that The Purpose Question. And the question is, why do you personally do the type of work that you do?

Michael Arena, ex AWS & GM:

You probably haven't really been able to determine that I'm pretty passionate about the topic.

[Laughter]

It matters; it matters. The way we are connected has always mattered, and it matters more than ever. And I actually am fairly desperate to help organizations understand that it matters, and we can make a significant difference in just pivoting and shifting this conversation in such a way that organizations, both short-term and long-term, can be these great entities where people feel like they belong, but also they can perform and innovate across the long horizon if we think about our connections very intentionally.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Wonderful. Michael, thank you so much. This conversation was as exciting and energizing as I had hoped, so thank you for joining us!

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Thanks everybody for listening to this episode of Workplace Stories. Dani and Stacia, how can listeners get more involved in the podcast and of course with your great work?

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

Well, they can follow Workplace Stories by RedThread Research on the podcast platform of your choice. And you can go to and rate this podcast at podcast.com/workplacestories and leave us ratings and reviews.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

You can also share this, or your favorite episode, with a colleague or a friend.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

You can check out our website at redthreadresearch.com to follow all of our latest trends in people practices, and sign up to participate in some of our research.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

Or Stacia, they could maybe…?

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

Sign up for our weekly newsletter at redthreadresearch.com/newsletter, and consider joining the RedThread community by joining our membership.

Dani Johnson, RedThread Research:

And lastly, we're on Twitter at redthreadre—that’s R E D T H R E A D R E, or look up RedThread research on LinkedIn and follow our work.

Stacia Garr, RedThread Research:

I’d just like that we’d love to get to know you a bit better so to that end, we’d like to invite our listeners to head over to redthreadresearch.com/hello-wps and tell us a little about yourselves: there’s a short form that you can fill out in about a minute. And to thank you for taking that time, the first 30 people who tell us about themselves will get a 7-day trial for a RedThread membership, so you can have a peek under the curtain of what RedThread’s all about. And if you miss that cut off, don’t worry, we’ll still gift you a copy of our Skills vs. Competencies report! So, please, go to redthreadresearch.com/hello-wps and tell us a bit about yourselves.

Chris Pirie, The Learning Futures Group:

And thanks so much for listening.

We are very grateful to the teams at Class and Perceptyx for their sponsorship on this episode and Season of Workplace Stories.

Workplace Stories is a production of RedThread Research and The Learning Futures Group.

Thanks for listening.

Dani Johnson

Dani is Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research. She has spent the majority of her career writing about, conducting research in, and consulting on human capital practices and technology. Her ideas can be found in publications such as Wall Street Journal, CLO Magazine, HR Magazine, and Employment Relations. Dani holds an MBA and an MS and BS in Mechanical Engineering from BYU.

Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst

Stacia is a Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research and focuses on employee engagement/experience, leadership, DE&I, people analytics, and HR technology. A frequent speaker and writer, her work has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal as well as in numerous HR trade publications. She has been listed as a Top 100 influencer in HR Technology and in D&I. Stacia has an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.

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