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Smith Business Insight Podcast | Series 3 . Episode 5 Brave New Workplace

Looming Issues

Smith Business Insight Podcast

Robot bosses? Random safety checks at your home office? We may be careening into the unknown, but the workplace of the future will be guided by familiar human needs


Covid set in motion huge changes to the world of work. The dawn of artificial intelligence is adding a new dimension of uncertainty. But some things will stay the same: “People will still be crying out for high quality leadership, for autonomy, a sense of belonging, for fairness, for growth and development, for meaning and safety.” In the final episode of this podcast series, guest Julian Barling, author of Brave New Workplace, takes a stab at divining the future by looking at how workplaces have handled major disruptions in the past, and offers his wish list of research questions that he hopes will be answered in the years ahead. Dr. Barling is joined in conversation by host Alan Morantz. 


[Music playing] 

Alan Morantz: The Covid pandemic really did a number on the world of work. In a couple of short years, the term workplace has lost much of its old meaning. But it’s not only Covid that has disrupted the working world. Corporations have set out seemingly en masse in search of corporate meaning. Environmental challenges loom large. Social stresses are reaching a boiling point. Where are we headed? 

Welcome to episode five of Brave New Workplace. I’m your host, Alan Morantz, senior editor of Smith Business Insight. And in our final episode, we’re talking about some big questions about work and the workplace that will need to be addressed in the coming years. Here’s my final conversation with Dr. Julian Barling, author of the newly published Brave New Workplace

[Music playing] 

0:59: AM: You have two grandchildren who will be entering the workforce 15 to 20 years from now. What do you think their experience will be like at that time? 

Julian Barling: It’s very difficult to even imagine what they’re going to confront. But I think what we can predict is that the world of work will have faced several, if not more, of what we can think of as major jolts or disruptions. And, having said all of that, I think an easy one would be that the reliance on forms of technology that we probably cannot even imagine right now will be things that will be taken for granted in 15 to 20 years. 

What would I love to see? I think I would love to see a world of work in which organizations — and by that, I mean leaders, managers and people — have learned the major lessons from the major disruptions of the past, which has set them up to be in a better position to cope with and learn from and benefit from the next set of disruptions. A world of work which transitions based on the notion of building back fairer, and those are Michael Marmot’s words. 

And against a backdrop such as this, when we confront a question of this nature in terms of what will the world of work look like with these enormous changes, what we tend not to think of and what is equally important is what likely won’t have changed. And if we look over the last many decades, even maybe centuries, I think we can predict that human nature will remain the same. People will still be crying out for high quality leadership, for autonomy, a sense of belonging, for fairness, for growth and development, for meaning and safety. So I think the challenge will be, how can we ensure that no matter what our work looks like, that we can still be providing people’s needs. 

So I hope that my grandchildren will get to experience a world of work in which compassionate, fair minded, wise leaders and decision makers have learned the lessons available to them over the past century and the past few years, and have built workplaces in which everyone, including those people who have historically been excluded from the workplace in so many ways, get to be able to love their work just as much as I love mine. 

3:36: AM: I wonder how the working world looked to you when you started out. I think it was in the late seventies, early eighties. 

JB: So it certainly was different but it was different in some ways. And there are lessons that I think can help us today. 

So I’ll come out with this. I started working in the mid 1970s, and I remember lining up every second Friday to receive my paycheque. I remember in the early seventies being a student when handheld calculators became available. I remember the panic on university campuses about how this would allow cheating, and isn’t that reminiscent of what we’re going through right now? And that has prepared me in a way that I wouldn’t have thought back then. 

What happened back then is that for quite a while we were almost paralyzed as to what to do. But after a while, universities integrated the notion that you had this technology into the way they taught, the way they assessed. And I think that education benefited dramatically. I think the amount of time that we’re going to be, let’s just say, kind of panic stricken is going to be much shorter. Things happen much faster now. 

I think we are soon going to integrate the new forms of artificial intelligence into the way we learn, the way we teach, the way we work. And I’m far more comfortable now being able to say, I think we’ll benefit because I went through a previous jolt of the same nature. 

5:22: AM: You’re getting me to remember how I was writing stories on a typewriter, on electric typewriters. It was a bit of a leap, but that did shape the way I wrote. 

JB: Absolutely. And just to go back to the same theme, so showing my age, I typed my master’s thesis on a manual typewriter. And one of the changes that I think is most apparent is the editing job that we did was far more perfunctory because if you wanted to change something on the first page of a chapter, you had to retype the entire chapter. So you’re far less likely to make the changes you needed to change because it didn’t make sense. 

So what I’ve learned is the quality of our work, the quality of our learning has just increased dramatically because of simple changes in technology year by year. 

6:25: AM: In your book, you list seven characteristics of productive, healthy and safe workplaces. And I will list them right here: leadership, autonomy, belonging, fairness, growth, meaning and safety. And we spoke about some of these in this series. I presume you’ll say that leaders don’t need to work in all areas at once, but I’m going to put you on the spot. If you’re moving into a toxic or broken work environment, and you’re in a position to be a force for good, where would you start? 

JB: Not surprisingly that has to be one of the most frequent questions that I get. And at this stage, I don’t think there’s any indication from research that would suggest that we start with belonging versus growth or whatever. 

So given that there’s no research or evidence-based answer to this, if you pushed me, I would start with leadership development. And not because there’s any sense that leadership or leadership development would have a better, quicker, faster payoff than any of the others. But I think if you have to start somewhere, it can’t hurt starting with leadership. 

If you start with leadership development, one of the indirect medium-term benefits is we know that it’s going to help employees experience more meaning, safer workplaces, higher levels of performance and so forth. And I think it’s leaders who will decide in their own contexts what makes most sense. Is it belonging, autonomy, growth and so forth? 

I actually don’t believe that even when the research does exist, hopefully one day, that we’ll have an answer that is definitely one. I think it’s going to be more contextual than that. 

8:30: AM: Now, one of the themes of our conversations is that the term workplace has almost become anachronistic. The workplace is a spare bedroom or the corner of a local Starbucks. If one values well-rooted relationships at work — and I’m not talking about the work spouse here but good relationships that are good for effective teams or even for one’s own’s sake — how are we going to build and nurture those relationships? Have you seen any employers who have a response to this challenge? 

JB: If we just take a broader perspective to start off with this. On the one level, the scope of the problem is immense. So just when you mentioned the term workplace, I think that this raises such large questions. When we had the discussion about safety, can safety inspectors enter your home if that’s the workplace? 

Here is another challenge. As we allow remote work, what happens if the organization that employs you is located in Toronto and you live in New Zealand — where do you pay tax? I think that is an enormous issue, but I think we have to then go down to the interpersonal level. What happens if somebody’s working in New Zealand and somebody’s working in Toronto? 

And I think the issues, the challenges that are before us are really the same. How do we encourage high-quality working and interpersonal relationships? It’s the smallest things that are going make the biggest difference. I think right now many of us are stuck in the notion of what are the biggest things we can do to enhance those relationships. Ask people what they want themselves, provide the opportunities that they are suggesting, provide opportunities for relationships. I think we are going to get there. 

Again, to get back to a comment by Sarah Kessler, I’ve mentioned before, we’ve been worrying about the end of work for 500 years. Work doesn’t change that much. So I think that we should stop thinking about this in terms of grandiose things like the workplace has changed. Relationships remain relationships. 

11:12: AM: I was surprised slash not surprised by your citing of an estimate in your book that only one per cent of HR managers deliberately use research-based knowledge to guide their everyday workplace decisions. And that probably explains why we still see forced ranking systems, performance management, stock options for motivation and other kinds of tactics for which the evidence is scanty or non-existent. If managers want to be guided by evidence rather than by fad or inertia, what can they do? 

JB: That’s a really important question right now as we enter into somewhat of a difficult economic time. I’d like to add one fad that we are seeing that is just not guided by evidence, that perhaps goes against evidence. And that is we are seeing more layoffs in high tech companies guided by the almost anachronistic notion that you can shrink yourself back into excellence. 

So there is so much blame to go around in terms of only one per cent of decisions being guided by evidence. What I want to do is focus on the source of the problem rather than the end user. And the source of the problem is ourselves — the academics who produce the research. I think historically we’ve never been that great at sharing knowledge. The very term ivory tower I think accurately describes historically not just how we’ve been seen, but how we want to work in a hierarchical tower that’s separated from everybody else. 

And historically faculty in these ivory towers were almost looked down on by others in ivory towers if they did make knowledge translation and knowledge share sharing a priority, and I think this was true as recently as 20 to 25 years ago. As an example of this, I would still actively discourage managers from reading most of our academic journals because of the way in which articles are still written. I cannot understand articles that are written in areas that are, if I can put it this way, pretty adjacent to my own. I just won’t be able to get it. 

But I think we are seeing change. I think we are entering into an era where the link between people that produce the research and people that hopefully will use the research is becoming far closer. Just as some examples: the Academy of Management that produces some of the most prestigious journals in the area have a podcast series where authors are encouraged to do a podcast on their research that is likely to be accessible to a much larger audience. 

And now, our own school, we have the Smith Insight series that reaches a large group, that translates the research done primarily by people in the school into a way that can be used by other folks. 

Within schools. I think that faculty are being recognized for social impact, which includes things such as directly speaking with organizational leaders and policy makers, which includes directly researching topics that have social impact. 

So I’m optimistic in a way that I probably wasn’t five to 10 years ago that we are beginning to close the distance between the people that produced the research and the people that potentially can use the research. 

15:26: AM: On the theme of initiatives that may lack evidence, I spent a few weeks recently going down the rabbit hole of corporate purpose. I researched corporate purpose statements, best practices in operationalizing purpose, the value in motivating employees and stakeholders. To be honest, I still don’t know how I feel about today’s huge interest in corporate purpose. It’s hard to believe it’ll make any difference outside of a handful of organizational unicorns. I wonder, what’s your take? 

JB: I hate to sound cynical because I’m not. I think people who know me would tell you that I’m an incurable optimist. But I don’t believe that much will happen because of corporate purpose, vision, mission statements and so forth. I think we’ve all seen how much time, money and the extent of resources that organizations pour into developing these statements. And I think we’ve yet to see a meaningful tangible gain from them. 

People, and I mean people in organizations, peoples’ behaviours are not likely to be guided by words printed over the front door. They’re more likely to be guided by everyday examples set by their leaders. And I would suggest that’s where we need to spend our time, money and resources if we really want meaningful change within organizations. 

If I can give some anecdotal support for this, I would look back to the creation of the remarkably successful Dilbert cartoon character. I am not sure you can pin the emergence of Dilbert onto one factor alone, but if you go back to 1989 when Scott Adams introduced Dilbert, it was a time when organizations were being compelled to introduce mission statements. And a very major theme in those early Dilbert cartoons was your average employee railing against corporate mission statements. And to a large extent, it still is. 

I think we will achieve far more if we bring our focus closer to home and spend more of our time, money, resources and attention into helping our leaders at all levels do the kind of wonderful jobs that they want to do in leading people in organizations. 

17:57: AM: Ah yes, wisdom from the school of Dilbert. You’ve written about the importance of addressing some of the gender and LGBTQ discriminatory practices in organizations. And you’ve mentioned that voluntary compliance will likely be how these issues are addressed. What does that look like? And specifically, do you think it’s enough to enact real and lasting change? 

JB: Let me start with the term voluntary compliance. Looking at what’s changed over the last decade or two, a decade in which voluntary compliance is almost the mantra of North American organizations, I would have to conclude that it has failed all too many people. 

And just the term, by the way, voluntary compliance is an oxymoron if I ever saw one. As one example, look at the Fortune 500 or Fortune 1000 CEO list. And to what extent has voluntary compliance made a difference? Yes, 2022 is the first year in which we finally have witnessed a situation where more than 10 per cent of CEOs are female. 

But I would have to say that that’s kind of pathetic. Fifty-three out of 500 are now female. And what are we likely to see in 2023? Is that a sustainable change? Are we on an upward direction? After 20, 25 years of going from perhaps five to 10 per cent, how long are we willing to wait? 

So personally, I’m not a fan of voluntary compliance. I think that we have failed too many people, racialized people, indigenous people, people of different religions and so forth. I suspect we’ve reached the point where the dream of compliance with some voluntary targets can be relied upon to bring about change is simply no longer sufficient. I think what we are about to see is activist shareholder groups forcing change upon organizations, and I don’t personally believe there’s anything wrong with that. The experiment has been given enough time to work, and we have failed the notion of voluntary compliance. 

20:36: AM: In this series of conversations, we’ve talked about what existing research can tell us about how to build and manage productive and healthy workplaces. I’d like to now flip that around a little bit. What do we still not know about the big issues of leadership, safety, autonomy or meaning that you hope will be addressed in the coming years? 

JB: It’s a long list. But if I can share some of the questions that I would love to see answered. 

So in terms of safety, overwhelmingly my contact with many hundreds, thousands of leaders over the last couple of decades, overwhelmingly most managers are really good people who care deeply about their people. And that is something that has sustained me over the decades. How can we help them do the small things differently when they’re legitimately so busy? How can we get them to reappraise risk? If they went to work knowing that action “a” would result in a safety incidence, they would never do it, but they go to work thinking that it can never happen. How can we help people to reappraise risk? 

I think, as I mentioned when we discussed safety, I think changing the language around safety may create more of a change than we think. 

How can we get organizations and societies to care more about leaders’ wellbeing? I think organizations. . . society has done a remarkable job in the last decade or so of being legitimately and justifiably concerned about employees’ wellbeing. And that’s placed even more of an onus and responsibility on leaders. But we’ve forgotten leaders. We expect leaders to be healthy. We expect leaders to be strong. 

So I think until we care more about leaders’ wellbeing, we are simply going to leave them in a position where it becomes more and more difficult for them to care about others’ wellbeing. So it’s simply not about caring about leaders’ wellbeing because they’re the most senior people in the organization. They’re important because they’re people, but unless they’re well, they’re not going to be able to really help others. 

A third issue, I guess, artificial intelligence is coming to an organization near you, and it’s coming sooner than you might think. And in fact, research has already started. I’ve seen papers recently on programming robots to display different leadership styles and evaluating their effects. So if there’s a robot giving instructions, does it make a difference if it uses transformational language? 

AM: Robot leaders? 

JB: Robot leaders. It might seem like an oxymoron, but I think that it’s not going to be an oxymoron for long. So can we get there before the situation gets past us, if I can put it that way? 

Whatever the changes, however big, I’m comforted by the fact that one thing that will not change overnight, again, is human nature. So people will still be working and adjusting to all these changes. I think the organizations that will thrive in the future are going to be those that still ensure that they satisfy employees needs for good robot leadership, for autonomy, belonging and so forth. So what are the mental health and physical health consequences for being a leader? And why? 

If I can conclude with just a thought taken from a wonderful TED Talk by Itay Talgam, who’s a former orchestra conductor and a current leadership consultant. And his TED Talk is called Lead Like the Great Conductors. And a comment that Talgam has that he counsels us — and this comment has had a great effect on me — if you love something, give it away. And I’m so fortunate to have loved my job since I’ve started working many, many years ago. I’ve been so fortunate to have had work, in a sense, being such an important source of happiness, health and fulfillment to me. 

The challenge for me now is, what can I do to give this away so that the wonderful students, staff and faculty with whom I’ve been privileged to work can be lucky enough eventually to pass that along to their next generation? I would love to be able to answer those questions. 

AM: That’s a lovely way to tie up this podcast in a bow. I’ve really enjoyed these conversations, Julian. Thanks so much for sharing your insights. 

JB: Thanks for your really thought-provoking questions. 

[Music playing] 

AM: For more on Julian Barling’s vision of productive, healthy and safe workplaces, pick up a copy of his book, Brave New Workplace, from your favourite bookseller. Brave New Workplace is published by Oxford University Press. 

Thank you to podcast producer Meredith Dault and to Bill Cassidy for editing support. Finally, for practical evidence-based insights on the organizational world and business and finance in general, check out Smith Business Insight at