Crafting the Future of Work: Brian Elliott, Future Forum

Brian Elliott, founder of Future Forum and bestselling author of How the Future Works, an organization dedicated to researching effective workplace strategies, has a three-decade career with insights into the ever-evolving tech industry work landscape. Elliott leverages his wealth of personal experiences and the extensive research conducted by Future Forum to guide executives in navigating the complex and dynamic Future of Work. His approach involves utilizing his personal experiences as a startup CEO and executive at companies like Google and Slack with the research conducted by Future Forum.

He recently sat down with Tom Nguyen, CEO of Café, to share insights for companies looking to build better ways of working for their teams. 

Background, title & role

While being asked about his background, Brain states, "I combine my own experience and the research we did with actually listening to and learning from other companies and leaders that are building better ways of working.” In his current role, he advises and consults with executives to cultivate a "better future of work" within team settings, fostering organizational growth. He uses his practical day-to-day experience and research insights to guide executives in building work environments that align with individual and corporate needs.

Definition of Workplace Engagement in Hybrid and distributed work

When asked to define workplace engagement, Elliott shared that while ‘workplace engagement’ typically refers to the physical environment where people show up for work, in his opinion, it is no longer confined to physical gatherings. He advocates for a different approach because we live in a post-pandemic world.

"How do you drive engagement on an ongoing basis with distributed teams?"

- he challenges leaders. He shares that most teams today are distributed and will continue to become more distributed. Therefore, Elliott emphasizes the importance of “quarterly gatherings for a team to build camaraderie,” along with digital tools to maintain meaningful connections and ongoing engagement. 

The top challenges companies face in Hybrid Work

As we consider being fully remote versus the alternative of being in office, customers and other organizations face a few new challenges in the post-COVID hybrid era. The relevance of team coordination was one of the main points Elliott touched upon as a core challenge posed by the mixed period.

"Coordinating with your team, figuring out who comes into the office on which days - it's a challenge,"

- he acknowledges. He specifically mentioned team coordination after witnessing Slack and Salesforce having their employees go into the office alone to sit in Zoom meetings all day. Top-down mandates often fall short because people don’t like being told what to do. He emphasizes the need for tailored, team-specific solutions to address the different needs of every other team rather than have executives blindly say, “We're just going to tell them Wednesdays and Thursdays in the office are the right answers, and we will put the Mandate out there. I know it hasn't worked for other people, but this time it will work.” For example, the needs of an engineering team, a sales team, and those working in R&D labs have vastly different priorities than those of the finance team. 

This delves deeper into why having a fixed employee schedule may be ineffective. As he’s mentioned, "People don't like being told what to do. It just goes into this issue of Reactance Theory, which is if you're telling explicitly what to do to that level of detail." According to Elliott, this response to a rigid mandate conveys to employees that they can "switch off their brains," which is not a message an executive should want to convey to their team.

Regarding these mandates, what works best is promoting team-level agreements while setting a minimum expectation that everyone must adhere to (for example, minimum quarterly team gatherings). The era of one-size-fits-all solutions is fading, replaced by a more nuanced understanding of team dynamics and employee autonomy. Elliot shares that companies must put in effort and resources to get the change right. Still, when they do, it always pays off with employee engagement, productivity, a sense of connection, and longevity. 

Social & in-person connections to increase workplace engagement

Further, as Elliott explored the relationship between team coordination, he noticed that there were also underlying motivations that could be behind employees returning to the office. Elliott points out that social engagement tops why employees would or wouldn’t return to the office. He states he’s worked with a Senior Vice President who “described the process of going from meeting to meeting, bopping in and out of conference rooms or in her office at the door closed on Zoom all day and had no time for socialization.” Elliott also cautions against the counterproductive approach of overwhelming office days with meetings. Instead, he highlights the importance of socialization, balance, and meaningful connections as the driving force behind a triumphant return to the office. Beyond socialization, another opportunity to bring people together in person is for big project kickoffs. 

Often, new projects involve bringing different teams together and building new relationships among people who don’t usually get together, so it’s valuable to get the early project steps done in person.

“You're gathering people who don't usually get together, and it's usually valuable to do some of those early steps in person”

- he states. Finally, Elliott mentions mentorship as an activity that can be more valuable when done face-to-face.

Elliott further explored the dynamics of a team-driven organization. He pointed out a noticeable shift in relations when asked about the applicability to both seasoned and new hires and considerations for building strong and weak ties in the evolving work landscape shaped by the pandemic. This comes amid the pandemic, acknowledging a decline in weak links while emphasizing strengthening strong ties within teams. To counter this trend, he stressed the importance of intentional efforts, particularly during onboarding, stating,

“When you're onboarding new employees. That's when it's essential because you're trying to help them build Networks.”

Drawing from a European company's initiative, Elliott shared a program designed for new hires. Each incoming employee was strategically placed in a team with a mentor and leader.

Additionally, he mentioned that “we make sure that they get a mentor as well as a leader. But, we also assign six people outside of their team to connect with and tell each of those six people to connect with them.” These individuals proactively contacted the new hire, fostering connections beyond the immediate team. Elliott proposed strategies to enhance team collaboration like aligning overlapping workdays for different groups or utilizing digital tools like Slack. He highlighted the app "Donut" as an example, facilitating connections across departments and divisions and nurturing professional and social ties. There can also be interest-based connections, so “you can do a senior leadership group, or you can do everybody interested in Taekwondo; there are different ways of actually building these kinds of connections that are both beneficial for the business and socially to help you build those weak ties across an organization.”

Strategies, tips & tricks for Leaders in Hybrid Work

Shifting his focus from motivational factors to focusing on employees. Elliott emphasizes the need for comprehensive leadership training. Unfortunately, it’s common for senior team members to be promoted into manager roles without training.

"The manager's job is to create clarity, unlock potential, and build trust,"

- he states. A couple of tools Elliott introduces to build trust are personal user manuals (working styles, preferred communication methods, etc.) and icebreaker questions to foster trust and connections within teams. While we tend to want to keep meetings effective, “that social moment where you ask people, even a silly question. What was the worst haircut you ever had? What's your go-to? Karaoke song? Where do you stand on pumpkin spice latte? All of those questions." At the beginning of your weekly staff meeting is an opportunity to build a sense of belonging among the team. This further emphasizes a holistic perspective on measuring performance, shedding light on the importance of business outcomes alongside employee engagement. Elliott mentions that even if these manager-sized activities might seem unimportant, they're crucial for creating a sense of belonging in the team. The laughter, jokes, and shared fun facts about co-workers contribute to building solid connections. Once these connections are established, groups and organizations can move forward more effectively, grounded in trust.

How to measure work policies success and employee satisfaction?

When it comes to measuring the success of new ways of working, Elliott shares two essential methods: 

  1. The most straightforward measure of success is primary business outcomes. How are you doing against your business goals and objectives? Is revenue growing? Is customer satisfaction improving? Are you keeping your costs under control? 
  2. To measure employee engagement, Elliott recommends using a net promoter score. This means asking employees to rate their work experience on a scale of 1 to 10 and asking, “Would you recommend working here to a friend?”

Regarding the Net Promoter Score for employees, he states,

"If that number is going down, I think you got something wrong."

The net promoter score is one of the best indicators of a company’s ability to retain people and whether people are going to go the extra mile for the company when needed. 

Moreover, surveys and active engagement can be taken as tools to understand employees' sense of connection to see how comprehensive training affects a company. Transparency in communication and involving employees in decision-making are critical components in fostering a sense of connection and belonging.

Brian Elliott states flexibility is multifaceted, extending beyond physical location: “They want to be together with their team regularly somewhere between once a month and once a week for the vast majority of people out there.” By choosing to go down this route, organizations can foster inclusivity and provide opportunities for diverse groups. However, he cautions that flexibility, while beneficial, can also pose challenges to diversity goals, adding a layer of complexity to the evolving workplace landscape. 

If you are curious about gaining a deeper understanding of the future of work, Brian Elliott recommends his book, "How the Future Works: Leading Flexible Teams to Do the Best Work of Their Lives." This book dives into the practical aspects of leading teams in the ever-evolving work landscape. 

Brian Elliott's expertise provides a roadmap for leaders and individuals in a world rapidly transforming how we work. Navigating the complexities of the future of work requires a forward-thinking mindset, and Elliott's insights offer invaluable guidance in this transformative journey. As we navigate, his perspectives and the mix of personal experiences, research-driven insights, and practical strategies present a comprehensive approach for executives aiming to lead their teams toward success in the ever-changing world of work.

As we’ve seen and will continue to see, the workplace will continue to transform, influenced by technological advancements, societal changes, and the lessons learned from the global shift to remote and hybrid work. As organizations begin to change and navigate the challenges and opportunities presented by the future of work, the knowledge shared by industry leaders like Brian Elliott becomes an invaluable asset, shaping the way forward for businesses and professionals.

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Ligiya Mamikonyan

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