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Exclusive interview with HR leader Michael Arena ahead of the October LEAP CHRO: Searchlight Cornerstone meeting

“We’re only just beginning to understand the full impact of the shift to hybrid work on our organizations”


What is the key question that we’re going to address in our time together next week?


There are two questions: Collaborative intensity has skyrocketed in some companies by 30 percent since pre-Covid: the number of meetings, interactions; everything’s increasing, and in life sciences that’s especially true. Our need to connect has increased as our number of priorities have increased.


And so, the first part of the question we’ll tackle is: how do we rethink our collaborative demand? So, collaborative overload, or priority overload, which is something many companies suffer from, is having too big an input funnel and taking on too many different varieties of work.


That’s created (and is actively creating) burnout, exhaustion and victimhood as opposed to control and calibrating the front end of the funnel so that you can be more intentional about what work gets done, by whom, when and where inside our rapidly moving innovation-centric organizations.


And then the second part of the question is how you shift from defense to offense, first by reducing unnecessary collaborative demand, and second by becoming more intentional around whether you need to be in discovery mode, development mode or when do you need to be in diffusion mode.


Give me a quick high-level summary of the concepts of discovery, development and diffusion.


We all need to be on ‘discover’ mode to get new ideas and insights, and that often happens outside of our teams. So, we need bridging connections otherwise, we become insular and later obsolete.


‘Development’ is execution mode. That’s the heads down work that takes place within teams to make things happen and get work done.


And then once we’ve come up with a new idea and implemented it, we then have to scale it, and the way we do that is through diffusion across, and then beyond, our teams.


Now we are constantly cycling through each of these three work modes at some different velocity. And the middle one, people have done incredibly well over the course of the pandemic – it’s why productivity is up and why some people feel that forever virtual is the way forward. It’s not though. That’s because it’s in the first ‘discover’ and the last ‘diffuse’ where people and companies have suffered most over the course of the pandemic, and that’s where I think most intentional thinking is needed moving forward.


So, we’ve got our strategy put together for that middle bucket. My argument is that most organisations have thought about the other two in the long-term applications of such things as innovation and on-going and the influence.


If we’re touching on the question of where/how we work, isn’t that question now settled?


We’ve talked about remote or hybrid work ad nauseum. But even though it seems like a settled argument, I don't believe we’ve been all that intentional. Are we trying to re-gather to discover because that requires a different set of connections than if we’re trying to come back together to execute and develop which requires yet a different set of connections.


And what I have found is most people are focusing in on how we bring people back together to work together as a team. And I don't think that’s actually the problem – we’ve proven ourselves able to get work done working remotely. The bigger issue is how do you bring people back together to discover.


There are three clear advantages to bringing people back together face to face: There’s a discovery advantage and we should be bringing people together in very precise ways to capitalise on that. Even if we’re just thinking about amplifying your chances of discovery inside of an organisation.


There’s a cohesion advantage which is about in-team interactions. Frankly, we’ve proven that we can sustain that virtually and there’s very little reason to want to bring people back together other than maybe re-engaging newcomers from time to time to build social capital.


And then, the third advantage is something that we’ve been calling the influence advantage. influence requires face to face interactions but who you’re interacting with and when you’re interacting with them, as well as where and how, is super critical.


So, that’s where I push back a little on the feeling that we’ve fully resolved the question of where and how we work inside the in-office/hybrid/remote working environment decisions we’ve made over the last year.


So what else is there to address?


If you want to do discovery, you discover better with people that you’re not pre-connected to. So, you ought to be thinking when you bring people back together and stacking them together as neighbourhoods teams of unlike folks connected to one mother can actually increase, can actually double their discovery capabilities just by chance.


But if you think about proximity when you do bring people back together. While we’ve talked about it a lot, we haven’t put the science or the rigour behind it. It's much less about how often you come back together and much more about when and where you come back together that really amplify your discovery and influencing capabilities. Those two things have been under leveraged so far. The other thing I would want to talk about is the fragility of bridge connections. That’s the big problem we have in the first and last phase of work modes, is those bridge connections are super fragile. It's not so much about when face to face, it’s what does the real future of hybrid look like?


Everyone’s first step over the last year was to get people acclimated to be back in the office sometimes. Many are thinking about the long term consequences of not going back and thinking about the different competitive advantages of when and why you should bring people back together. That's the more unique lens that people are getting from my conversations with them right now.


Is this as relevant to emerging biopharma businesses as it is to larger, more complex organizations?


While the background research that underpins this thinking was carried out with predominantly midsize to larger, more complex organisations, the reality is that as companies grow to over 150 and certainly once they’re over 300, you begin to see the difficulties of how to connect emerging.


What I would also say is a lot of the research, even inside large organisations, is about how to manage new ventures. And, in that case, the questions that apply to emerging organizations include starting to think about the stability structures and new operational structures before you need them.


And when it comes to the virtual/hybrid work question it matters equally. Whenever it comes to thinking about the depth of hybrid working, which is how and when and why do we bring people together, there is no difference to the way that should play out in large or small companies.


Finally, there’s a difference between ‘heads down’ make-it-happen work that in a small company, and the ‘heads up’ discovery of new ideas that larger companies do more often. I’d argue not matter how big or small your company, ‘heads up’ time is key to personal and organizational development.


What will people walk away with?


In org design, we constantly say that form follows function. What's the function of what you’re trying to achieve and how do you create a structural form to accomplish that? I think the same thing’s true for social design. Form still follows function. The difference is that in social design form needs to adapt and adjust to your intentions.


I ask HR leaders to ask themselves two core questions. What am I trying to accomplish? And how much social capital do I currently have? And then you create intervention strategies based on that. And at the end of the day, these are the question every HR leader ought to be asking themselves


And so my hope is that our session next week will give those who take part some practical takeaways which will allow them to be demonstrably more intentional around how work gets done, by whom and in what environment, to help them move faster towards an adaptive hybrid working model.




Michael J. Arena is a faculty member in Penn’s Masters in Organizational Dynamics program. His research focuses on organizational networks and adaptation. He was most recently the Vice President of Talent & Development at Amazon Web Services. Dr. Arena is also the author of Adaptive Space: How GM and Other Companies are Positively Disrupting Themselves and Transforming into Agile Organizations.

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