In a disrupted year, many of us have quietly wished for our teams to be more resilient and to be able to cope with more. But what if the whole idea of resilience is a myth, and actually ends up causing even more problems? In a keynote session not to miss, Bruce Daisley tells us where we’re going wrong with the concept of resilience, and how a clear answer could yet save 2021.
Bruce Daisley is one of the UK's most influential voices on workplace culture, having been published in the Washington Post, Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and Wired.
His book, The Joy of Work was the UK’s top selling business hardback of 2019 and is now an international bestseller.
Previously he spent over a decade in senior roles at Twitter and Google, and now runs Apple chart-topping podcast Eat, Sleep, Work, Repeat.
Thank you so much for welcoming me here. I’m going to be talking about a topic that I think we’ve heard a little bit about this year, the word of resilience, and how we can think about this. But I just wanted to sort of kick off really, and think about this context of the situation we’re in.
I, like a lot of people, found myself at the start of this strange interim period that we’re in, not necessarily knowing how long it would go on. I always think the unspoken victims of this whole experience, are the desk plants that a few of us used to have, sitting on our desks. We all thought that we were heading off for a week, a couple of weeks, and our plants have perished. They’ve paid the unfortunate price. God forbid anyone who had food in their desk. So, we’ve found ourselves in this situation that none of us necessarily anticipated. I found myself doing a weekly newsletter trying to make sense of these challenges. And the interesting thing for me was that there was a recognition, about five or six weeks into this first period of sheltering at home or lockdown or whatever you locally call it, that nothing was going to be the same again. There was an article in The New York Times saying that there was anxiety about how this was going to affect the whole city of New York, how it was going to affect property markets in Manhattan. And I guess the reason why is because we now know that we’ve entered into something and we’ve unlocked a door into a level of the game that we hadn’t necessarily imagined before. When we look at the figures in aggregate, they tell us the interesting story. I try and keep track of these, all the time. Broadly, the vast majority of people now say they’d like to work from home two days a week. Globally, two thirds of chief execs anticipate that their offices will be significantly smaller in the future. And I guess first thing that does is it renegotiates our relationship with our workplaces. The thing that I’ve been really interested in is the lessons that we can learn from some of the firms who have gone before, who’ve maybe experimented with remote work before. Now, in the US, there’s whole loads of workers who work remotely from different places who never come into an office. But I think most of us are likely to witness the experience, which is something closer to a hybrid model of work where we spend some days at work, and some days at home. And so, as a result of that this learning from remote-only firms can be helpful. Companies like Basecamp, or the company that makes WordPress, Automattic, often they found themselves experimenting with remote work initially as a sort of an employee benefit. They weren’t necessarily able to compete with the perks and benefits that their competitors in the tech sector were offering. So, they started allowing people to work from home. And one of the things that they observed was when you let people work from home whenever they want, the office loses its network effect. What do I mean by that? Well, the benefit of the office was that you knew you could meet the big boss, you knew that you could meet their new business person, the marketing person, all of them in the short walk from each other. And as soon as you allow people to work from home whenever they want, then that network effect is often eliminated. And for a large part of business districts and cities around the world, the average commute varies between about 30 minutes and an hour. So we have to imagine that cost benefit analysis, that either you’ve got yourself on a train, or you’ve made a car journey for an hour, you get to work, and the person you need to speak to isn’t there. In fact, worst, they’re on a video called dialing in from home. And you’re immediately reminded, well, I could have just stayed at home. And I think a lot of us, as we’ve navigated this this year, and we’ve tried to work out what the office was for; it’s those moments of serendipity. It’s the moments of connecting face to face that we’ve really missed. I found myself really interested in experts from commercial real estate, people who spend their whole time thinking about these things. And broadly, they say that the office was for four purposes. It was really good for meeting people by appointment. It was really good for meeting people by accident. It’s a great workshop to get our work done; if you work on a big screen or if you maybe you need to whiteboard ideas, the office can be a great workshop. And then the final part is it was really important for team cohesion. It was really important for building a sense of collective community and us feeling connected to each other. And I think what we’ve learned is, the meeting people by appointment, we’ve been pretty able to do actually; we’ve been able to build a decent approximation of that via Zoom and via Teams meetings. But it’s the other functions that I think we’ve missed. And for me, that’s an interesting lesson, that if we get back to working in a hybrid model, we are going to want to make sure that we take advantage of those things. And that will mean that maybe we create some rules, we create some workers who are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Not sure if there’s an easy acronym for those people: ‘twits’? You come up with your own – fill in the gap. Or people who work on Monday and Friday. And so, you know, we’re going to have the TwT’s and the MFs. And I think, you know, people will be trying to use our workspace as that opportunity to bring different teams together at different times.
The one thing that we can be really clear on through this year, and the way that we’ve developed this year, is that there’s been uses of this word that I mentioned at the outset: resilience. And people have often found, either it’s bosses, or maybe to politicians, we’ve heard a lot of people using the word resilient. And I’ve been really intrigued with that. I had the fortune, whether it’s good fortune or bad fortune, I was in Lebanon this year, and you might have witnessed a vast explosion that took place in Beirut, Lebanon, in the in the middle of the year. I was about two miles away from that when it took place, and it was the most extraordinarily elemental things. So, the whole building I was in shook, the ground shook for about 30 to 60 seconds, so difficult to judge time when something like that’s going on. And then the windows popped, and all of the air in the building sucked out. And the next day I read something on the BBC website. It said, it’s long been known that the Lebanese are incredibly resilient people. I was really intrigued with that, largely because the next day I saw local media in Lebanon, and someone gave almost the perfect callback to that. They said “we’re fed up with being resilient. We just want justice”. And I thought it was an interesting reminder that we often use resilience to label people who may be the victims of a system. So, I found myself sort of really intrigued to explore, because I was on a radio phone-in a couple of weeks ago with a very famous British broadcaster called Robert Peston. And he said, “it’s time for young people to be more resilient”. I thought, this is generally the way that we hear the term. Resilience to me, based on the research I’ve found myself doing over the last few months, is a little bit like being told to calm down. Have you ever had that situation? You’re in the middle of something, you’re getting het up about it, because it really matters. Maybe it’s really urgent, you’re on deadline. And then some helpful soul comes over and tells you to calm down. As someone said to me this week, never in the history of calming down has someone calmed down by being told to calm down. And never in the history of being resilient has someone been resilient by being told to be resilient. I think they’re really their bosom buddies in that regard. So, what are the secrets of resilience? Well, here’s the myth of resilience. The myth of resilience is that it’s an individual character trait. It’s a characteristic. It’s an immediate behavior. What you find when you explore the research on resilience is that it’s actually a dynamic process. And resilience isn’t an individual characteristic. It’s something that we draw from feeling connected to other.
I’ve found that there’s three critical parts of resilience. First one is the sense of feeling in control. The second is having a clear notion of identity. And the third is having a collective sense of community. Now, of course, this is short presentation, but let me give you a brief excursion into those. The first one is the importance of control. And you might recognize this, anytime that we’re being asked to be resilient, we need to feel like we’re in charge of our response, that we can actually step up and do something. There’s no point telling someone to be resilient when they’re on the Titanic, and it’s going down. They need to have some control. And we see some really interesting examples of this. Some of them are social experiments that unfortunately have happened to animals in the past. There’s one famous experiment by an American psychologist, and they incapacitated groups of rats by injecting them with Botox. They rendered these rats immobile and then place them almost underwater. Horrific, I recognize. Anyway, to half of the rats they gave them a piece of wood that they could chew on. And the other half, they didn’t. Now, I don’t make the rules here, but what they discovered was that those who had a degree of control of their circumstances, the ones who could chew, were significantly less stressed. But we see more and more examples of this. When we look at people, one of the things that we’re all familiar with is burnout and the notion of feeling overworked. But what you discover is, when you’re in charge of your work levels, when you’re in charge of the amount that you’re working, burnout is significantly less. We witnessed this with nurses. When nurses work relentless, long shifts, if they feel that they are electing to do those shifts, they feel less burnt out. That’s really weird. That’s sort of almost paradoxical: why on earth would the same amount of work have a different impact on us? And it’s this importance of control. It’s this sense that I am electing to do this. So, control is really critical. The second part I mentioned was identity. And it’s really interesting the lessons that we can learn about identity, the way that we address the world, the way that we feel about ourselves. It has a really significant bearing on our sense of pride and our sense of self. We observe a lot of examples where when people feel part of a group that they are proud of, it actually has a really positive, uplifting experience. We’re witnessing this in a number of ways. We witnessed that children of immigrants often have a proud sense of identity that then drives their accomplishment. And we witness that the children of immigrants are far more likely to submit patents for new products, they’re far more likely to create companies, because they have an identity that’s really strongly defined by needing to succeed in difficult circumstances. And we witness this time and time again when patients leave hospital after heart attacks or after strokes. If the patient say that they feel part of a group, their recovery rate is significantly higher. If they feel part of two groups, even higher. Three groups, higher still. In fact, the people who return to hospital after a serious illness is largely determined by their identity and their sense of connection into a wider community. Fascinating evidence of that resilience effect that I talked about. And the final part is community. Community and identity are often closely aligned with each other, but community is that sense that we feel connected to others. Identity is that we’ve got a strong sense of who we are, and the question that identity asks is: ‘who am I in the world?’. And community is ‘do I feel connected to others who share some degree of identity with me?’. And we see this really strongly. So, resilience is very strongly exhibited in people who feel a connection to the wider community. I saw an analysis recently, of people going to church. And one of the one of the things that was said about it is, the vast majority of the benefits that come from people coming to church aren’t necessarily from the religious aspect. It’s from the community aspects, that we feel connected into others. And another example with nurses. One thing that we know with nurses is that nurses who spend a lot of their time watching TV, rather than talking to friends and colleagues, have significantly higher PTSD than those who don’t. When we connect into others, when these nurses chat to others, and seem to sort of build a support network, feel part of a community, it seems to have a really positive impact in their resilience, in terms of them surviving circumstances.
So, what are the secrets to resilience? Well, firstly, the myth of resilience is this notion that it’s an individual character trait; it’s not at all. It’s something that we can draw upon. But secondly, if your firm is saying to you, the team needs to be more resilient. As any of us in the areas related to HR, we need to say to ourselves, actually, no, this is something that we need to enable for our team, we need to furnish them with a sense of control, we need to make sure that they feel proudly associated with an identity or a series of identities, and finally, they need to feel a sense of community. I do a podcast on workplace issues, and I found myself about a month ago doing four episodes, specifically on these ideas of community, because what we learn is that more and more firms are thinking about how they can foster community at their workplace, as a lot of us are now separated from each other in person, but connected through screens. The idea of community has never been more important. So, for me, this is a really important thing this year. Talks about resilience are incredibly topical, incredibly right in the zone of what any of us are thinking about. But I think, critically, any time you hear the word resilience, make sure that you realign it in your head, and remind yourself that resilience isn’t an individual responsibility. It’s down to all of us to build resilience in our teams. Thank you very much.