Ties That Bind: Why Remote Teams Need the Right Connection

In this episode, Professor Glenn Carroll and his colleague Michael Arena discuss innovation in a hybrid work environment.

August 17, 2022

“We need to be much more adaptive in the way we think about hybrid work. Experiment, experiment, experiment.”

Innovation relies on teams connecting in very specific ways. But are those connections possible in a hybrid work reality? Glenn Carroll, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford GSB, and Michael Arena, faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, have been looking for the answer — studying how team interactions have changed since millions of workers went remote.

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, they discuss how teams can optimize their communications to keep innovating in a post-pandemic world.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: How we work, how we innovate, how we interact have all changed dramatically in the recent past. Today I am excited to dive into learning how innovation and our style of hybrid work interact. I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast.

I am very excited to chat with Glenn Carroll and Michael Arena. Glenn is the Adams Distinguished Professor of Management at Stanford GSB. Glenn teaches leading through culture and is the co-author of Making Great Strategy: Arguing for Organizational Advantage.

Michael Arena is a faculty member in Penn’s Masters and Organizational Dynamics program. Michael most recently served as the vice president of talent and development at Amazon Web Services and he authored the book Adaptive Space: How GM and Other Companies Are Positively Disrupting Themselves and Transforming into Agile Organizations.

Welcome, Glenn and Michael. Thanks for being here. I am looking so forward to your conversation.

Glenn Carroll: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Michael Arena: Really looking forward to the conversation, Matt.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Let’s get started. The pandemic caused a huge shift to virtual and hybrid work. You both, along with other colleagues, recently wrote a paper entitled “The Adaptive Hybrid: Innovation with Virtual Work.” Michael, what research question were you setting out to address with this work?

Michael Arena: Yeah, it’s really interesting, Matt. If you would’ve said pre-March 2020 that we would have all entered into this virtual experiment together and would have been as productive, if not more productive, in the virtual context, I think many managers and many of us who have studied social capital and connections would have laughed out loud.

But it turns out that that is exactly what happened. Mostly productivity improved or at least remained the same for knowledge workers, but that led us really quickly to another question, a longer-term question which have much more to do with innovation. Like what will happen long-term from an innovation standpoint as it relates to working virtually? And we know from previous research that that requires a different set of connections than being productive.

It turns out those particular connections are very, very fragile. So it led us down this path of really trying to understand what might be happening with innovation longer-term. And we started to really study the network patterns quite comprehensively to see what was emerging virtually during that period of time. Then we started to see some anecdotes.

Probably my favorite and most alarming was in the video game industry. Just as the video game industry was at its height, all of our children were sent home. We were all sucking up bandwidth on our home Internet systems. The kids wanted to be playing games because the educators hadn’t caught up. We started to see launch delays in the video game industry.

I think the number was there were 4X more delays in the virtual world than pre-Covid against the standard benchmark. We just started to become suspicious. Are we still generating ideas at the same velocity? And are we able to integrate new solutions and new products and scale them on the back end? That got Glenn and myself interested in really trying to dig deep into what might be happening with innovation.

Matt Abrahams: I certainly know that – I have two teenage sons. And they were very eager for new video game releases. Who knew video games could inspire such interesting creative research? Glenn, in order to understand the adaptive hybrid work model that you all put forth, we really first need to understand the different stages of innovation. Can you explain the different stages and give us some insight into them?

Glenn Carroll: Sure. So we use a fairly standard depiction of organizational innovation that has three steps. First step is what people call ideation, which is where you brainstorm and kick around ideas and come up with what you think is a good idea. That’s usually a pretty unstructured process where you put people in a room and just try to get them to interact.

The second stage is what’s often incubation. The incubation phase is when you’ve decided on one, two, or three ideas, and you’re trying to put them in place in an actual market or organization and see how they perform and try to fine-tune the way in which you’re doing it so that it works the way you want and that the consumers understand it and react to it the way you think they should.

Then the third stage is if you’ve successfully incubated an idea is to bring it to scale. Bring it to scale means to bring it to the full organization and all of its markets, products, and services that are appropriate so that you can reap the benefits of the innovation in your regular performance.

Matt Abrahams: So it’s all about ideation, incubation, and scale. Thank you for that, Glenn. Your model also looks at bonding and bridging. Can you help us understand how these two concepts interact with the stages of innovation?

Glenn Carroll: Sure. So we talk about what we call bonding ties and bridging ties, which are social connections, ties, or relationships among individuals. If you think about a group of individuals who are [fairly] closely connected to each other, meaning they have lots of different dimensions to their relationships and they interact with each other regularly and they kind of know what’s going on and there’s a lot of feedback and reciprocation from that, that’s a bonding situation. Those are bonding ties. People feel close together, feel like a family, feel like a team.

Bridging ties, on the other hand, are ties that stretch across vast parts of your social world, in this case, organizations. So a bridging tie would be someone in manufacturing might reach out to someone in marketing or in sales or something like that who they don’t normally interact with. But they’re bridging across lots of different groups and lots of different parts [of an] organization in order to communicate with each other.

Bridging ties tend to be much less frequent and much less intense but are also important for innovation. What we try to describe in the paper is the way I think most social scientists would think about how these networks interface with the different stages of innovation. In the first one, the ideation phase, you’re talking about bringing together people from all different parts of the organization and having them interact with each other.

So they’re actually bridging and connecting and making ideas flow from one part of the organization to another in ways that they might not normally. So the typical kind of interaction would be a water cooler conversation interaction where you’re talking about the Warriors game tonight, and you happen to talk about where you’re parking. And that leads to a conversation about tires, let’s say. One thing leads to another. But people are connecting because they come from different worlds. They’re bridging across different parts of the organization.

The second phase of innovation, the incubation phase, is when you’re very focused. You’ve chosen an idea. You take your team, and you say, “We want to put this idea into place and try it out.” So the team is trying to be very focused, very efficient, and to try and do what they can to make it work. So those are usually a team that works together a lot and the bonding ties there help them execute very effectively.

Then in the third phase, the scaling phase, the person or the team that’s actually incubated the idea successfully tries to take it up to the larger part of the organization and usually needs help in terms of getting resources and getting people to give them access to different parts of the organization and markets that they don’t normally have access to. So those again involve bridging ties, but this time rather than bridging laterally as might be the case in ideation, we’re just talking to people at the same level of the organization, in the scaling phase usually are upward to people with authority who have resources and who could open up doors for you to get the thing in place.

Matt Abrahams: Wow, so it’s quite a matrix that gets created here, and the way in which relationships and networking happens matters a lot I can see based on the different phases. So, Michael, I think we have all the pieces in place now. Can you elaborate for us on this adaptive hybrid work model that you have created and suggest the best ways we can optimize innovation in a hybrid world?

Michael Arena: Yeah, absolutely. Really just to build upon what Glenn just went through, the research that we went out and embarked upon across multiple companies suggested to us that the type of social capital in a virtual world showed up differently. In other words – and I’ll go way back to the beginning of our conversation – bonding social capital actually increased immediately into the pandemic. With our closest colleagues it actually went up as much as 40 percent.

Matt Abrahams: Wow.

Michael Arena: With more distant colleagues, there’s been some research out there that maybe there at least is an increase of 20 percent. But that is also the same kind of social capital you would think about not only for incubation but for productivity. So our hypothesis – and we’ve got since good substantiating evidence on this – was that productivity increased because our closest connections – Zoom is really good for bringing your five to seven closest colleagues together.

So we didn’t miss a beat in the area of productivity. Turns out incubation was also positively affected during the initial stages of the pandemic. However, the opposite side of that, our bridging connections that Glenn talked about dropped off radically. Dropped off a cliff, about 30 percent in literally the first few months, which is what made us suspicious about can we continue to ideate across the organization as we’ve lost these bridging connections?

Then with the video game industry, are we able to scale on the back end and synchronize these things up for formal endorsement without the appropriate bridging connections? That is essentially what the paper is about. I think a lot of [Leif Lemmings’] work up at Harvard. What it takes to discover new ideas from a social network standpoint is the exact opposite of what it takes to build those ideas.

That’s the core premise of the research. We’ve got to think through very fluidly what stage of work are we in as we’re trying to innovate. Like are we at the beginning stage of a new idea or new innovation? Do we need bridging connections? Or are we in the middle? Are we building? Or are we trying to scale? The adaptive hybrid is basically suggesting that we need to be much more adaptive in the way we think about hybrid work.

It’s perhaps the most [foolish] advice in my opinion – I’m not going to speak for Glenn, although I believe he believes this as well – is to say, “Come back in the office two to three days a week.” To me that’s like playing social lottery. You increase your chances of connecting with people, but it’s not very deliberate at all. If you’re not there when you need to be there with other teams that you’re dependent on, you don’t really increase your odds all that significantly.

So what we’re arguing for in the paper is an adaptive hybrid that says you’ve got to ask two core questions. What work stage are you in, based on those three phases of innovation? And then secondly, how much social capital and what kind of social capital do you have stored up? Our premise is based on those two questions you may choose to work virtually because you’ve got stored-up social capital or you may choose to come in the office but doing it super deliberately with the other groups you need to interact with.

Matt Abrahams: The advice is to look at what’s going on at a meta level to understand where you’re at in terms of the process and then to think about that social capital, the way in which we need to connect with people and leverage our social network at work to accomplish the goals. And in some ways that sounds like a lot of extra work, but it sounds like it’s work that’s very well worth it because it allows you to then make sure you’re maximizing for where you are at that point in time.

So besides the two questions that you posed, Michael, I’m wondering are there other things that managers, leaders can be looking for to help maximize the likelihood that they’re actually going to be successful innovating?

Michael Arena: Yeah, the questions matter immensely. I also think that there’s not a prescription for this. Like the easy thing to do is to want to hard-wire this and build a prescription. We’ve got to experiment our way here. The other practical advice I would give to leaders is you got to use really high judgment and go run some experiments, use different interventions. Decide when you’re going to come in the office and which three teams you may pull together and which intervention will work best.

What I’m seeing a lot in businesses is also play with what virtual tools might work. The most practical advice is trust your instincts and use high judgment. And then the second one is experiment, experiment, experiment. It would be easy for Glenn and I and others to come out and say, “You need this intervention. Or you need that intervention,” but that may not work for your company.

What we’re really trying to challenge leaders to do is to use that high judgment and then experiment like crazy with the interventions that work most with their teams.

Matt Abrahams: A big theme I’m hearing from what you and Glenn are talking about is this notion of we have to be flexible, setting rigid guidelines and boundaries might work against innovation [and in] more opportunistic types of interactions.

I can’t miss this opportunity to talk to Glenn and not bring up the topic of authenticity. Authenticity is a topic that we’ve talked a lot about on this podcast. It plays a large role, I believe, in communication and lots of other areas. So, Glenn, I am curious to learn your thoughts about the role of authenticity in communication and how we can actively work to be more authentic.

It’s one of the first bits of advice most people receive when they come to their communication or somebody to help them with their communication. They say, “Okay, just be your authentic self.” I’m just curious. What are your thoughts on that?

Glenn Carroll: So I think I have a pretty straightforward answer to your question, Matt. My answer would be that someone who’s an authentic communicator when they are the same person in public speaking as they are in private, that is you don’t see a change in the character or the demeanor or even the things the person says. They’re really the same person.

I think if you say someone’s an authentic communicator, that’s a great compliment because it says that they’re really natural when they’re speaking in public and they’re not going to tell you something different than they would have in private.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah, interesting. So being that same person, speaking the same way – I don’t know if you have any data on this, Glenn, but I’m just curious. When we all moved to virtual communicating or communicating in an intermediated way, I think a lot of us became inauthentic just because we had so much to pay attention. I mean we’ve got all these volumes and buttons and all this.

Do you have any instinct as to the difficulty that virtual communication had on authenticity or its impact on authenticity?

Glenn Carroll: So I don’t have any data, and I haven’t seen any really good research on that. I mean my impression is pretty similar to yours. I think that a lot of people became what I would consider much more artificial when they’re online than they were in person. On the other hand, you see the same thing when people get up and speak in person sometimes. It’s not just a virtual setting where you see that, you think like, wow, that’s a different person.

I bet people say, “Well, I don’t know. Just something happens and I become a different person when I’m speaking.” I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Some people are probably better communicators when they’re doing that. But it does make you wonder what’s going on that makes a person change.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. Well, maybe there’s some research and collaboration that we can do on that because I’m fascinated by how the environment influences people’s authenticity. Michael, I have one last question for you. You’ve expressed your concern for what you term “cultural erosion” in organizations. What do you mean by that term? And what can be done to avoid –

Michael Arena: It’s interesting. So the other big thing that we have been leaning into and studying is culture as it shows up in this now hybrid virtual context. One of the things that we notice is as you lose bridge connections, the organization becomes more neighborhood-like. In other words, bonding connections increase. So if you’re working in close proximity to three or four teams, they’re still working pretty well together.

But the more distant teams are breaking apart from other more distant teams. We’ve got some early signal that culture actually is cultivated quite well virtually inside the neighborhood. But across neighborhoods it’s beginning to erode. So what we’re getting is at least some early signal that we’re getting more subcultures inside of an organization.

So the erosion is less about a given behavior and more about how quickly a given behavior and/or a cultural norm can carry across the broader organization in a virtual environment. So we think that, yes, innovation matters. And certainly we’re leaning into that. But we think this how behaviors travel in a hybrid world and how organizations are going to continue to reinforce their culture in this kind of an environment may actually be the even more important long-term question.

Matt Abrahams: Wow. So it might be the case that the subcultures that form, while being really effective at transmitting ideas and behaviors work well in a small group, propagating that to the larger organization might be in jeopardy.

Michael Arena: Yeah. It’s like fasten your seatbelts. Who knows how this all unfolds?

Matt Abrahams: Well, like you said earlier, it’s all about experiment, experiment, experiment, and see what happens. Before we end I’d like to ask both of you the same three questions I ask everybody who joins me. Are you guys up for that?

Glenn Carroll: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. All right. We’ll start with you, Glenn. If you were to capture the best communication advice you have ever received as a five- to seven-word presentation slide title, what would it be?

Glenn Carroll: So I’m going to sound like I’m pandering. But this is really true, Matt. So I was watching one of your videos. You were talking about people who got nervous when they speak. Your advice was just reflect at that moment and tell yourself, “Oh, that’s just me being nervous.” In fact, if I had known that when I was much younger, I think it would’ve helped me with a lot of anxiety I had in public speaking. I really is true. Once you just realize like this is a normal thing and this is still you, that it relaxes you entirely.

Matt Abrahams: Pandering will get you everywhere, Glenn. No. I’m glad that that advice was helpful. And it’s helpful to many of us, to take a moment to just realize that anxiety is pervasive. In fact, it is the norm. To not be nervous is the stranger of the situation. I’m glad that’s helpful for you, and I hope it’s helpful for others as well. Michael, I’m curious. Who is a communicator that you admire?

Michael Arena: I think I’m going to say Mary Barra because I had the chance of working with Mary Barra as Glenn as while I was at General Motors. She’s just a really unique communicator in ways that I admire tremendously. As a leader and a little bit about what Glenn was just saying, she’s super authentic. This is who Mary is. She’ll have open conversations with you.

I remember when the ignition switch issue happened. “We will never forget this.” Super compelling and authentic. Awesome listener, which I think is an underrepresented part of communicating, right? Just an incredible listener who draws other people in and then is actually I think quite masterful at synthesizing what she just heard from many, many others.

So for me like when I’m thinking about leadership and communication, not standing on the stage and communicating but leadership and communicating she rises to the top to me.

Matt Abrahams: I love that I asked a question about a communicator and you immediately went to a leader who’s very good at listening and synthesizing. We often forget that that’s a critical part of communication. Glenn, I’d like to ask you the same question. Who is a communicator that you admire and why?

Glenn Carroll: Yeah, so I’m going to go in the other direction here. It’s somebody I don’t know and I really only heard speak once and that was on television. And that is Amanda Gordon. She’s a young poet laureate. She read a poem at Joe Biden’s inauguration. I mean I remember watching that. She has so much confidence, and it brought poetry to life that you rarely see these days. And I was just amazed at her. She’s maybe 21 years old. I was amazed at her ability to do this. So it was a matter of her oration and not necessarily a two-way communication, but it was very, very powerful.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. I was very moved by that as well. She’s a very gifted communicator and was able in that moment to really bring I think a lot of people to that same conclusion you came to. Thank you. So, Michael, third question for you. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Michael Arena: I’ll get a little unconventional on this one, too. So in social science there’s something called the gossip and reputation cycle. It’s basically how a message will be picked up and carried, if you want to think about it, virally across the network. For me, I think about it this way. It’s got to be short. It’s got to be a snippet because we communicate to others in snippets. It won’t carry if it’s not short.

It’s got to be compelling. Like if it’s not meaningful, no one’s going to repeat it, and it’s not going to travel across the network. And probably most importantly is it’s got to be interesting to the person you’re communicating to. I’m never going to repeat something that someone else says if I can’t find something in it that was interesting to me or relevant to the audience is another way of thinking about that.

Those are the three things I think about is short, meaningful, and interesting to the audience or the individual that you’re communicating to.

Matt Abrahams: Who knew we could learn so much from gossip in terms of what makes for effective communication? But certainly being concise, making sure it’s meaningful and interesting and relevant make a big difference. I certainly want to make sure that the work that you two do is not seen as gossip but is seen as very critical. And I’ve really enjoyed the conversation.

Your adaptive hybrid model I think is really informative for all businesses to think about as we navigate our way through this. And really your mantra of experiment, try, learn how to make this work for an individual organization really makes a lot of sense. I thank you very much for your time and for your insights.

Michael Arena: Thank you.

Glenn Carroll: Thank you, Matt.

Matt Abrahams: You’ve been listening to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced by Michael Reilly, Jenny Luna, and me, Matt Abrahams. Find more resources and join in the conversation by searching LinkedIn for Think Fast, Talk Smart. Download and subscribe wherever you find your podcasts.

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