Ep 10: Redefining the Workplace After COVID

Eric Schmidt
October 27, 2020
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October 27, 2020

Ep 10: Redefining the Workplace After COVID

The pandemic has upended work around the world. But, is it also a chance to rethink work and make it better?

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant and former TaskRabbit CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot discuss the challenges and opportunities of remote work, the gig economy, and the possibilities for improving where we spend more than one third of our adult lives.

Episode Transcript

Adam Grant. (00:00):

I think in the long run, we might even see what psychologists called post-traumatic growth, which has sort of the positive alternative to PTSD. If you look at the data on people who go through tragedy and trauma, about 15% of people experience post-traumatic stress disorder, where as roughly half of people will come out of tragedy saying, "Look, I wish I could undo this. I'm terribly sorry, it happened, it was bad, but I'm better because of it in some way."

Eric Schmidt (00:30):

The coronavirus pandemic is a global tragedy, but it's also an opportunity to rethink the world, to make it better faster for more people than ever before. I'm Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, and now co-founder of Schmidt Futures. And this is Reimagine, a podcast where trail-blazing leaders imagine how we can build back better.
Since March, work has looked nothing like we once knew. How we work, where we work, and if we can work at all have been disrupted. It's been hard for so many people all over the world, but the pandemic has also given us a chance to rethink the workplace. Even as we deal with new stresses, we're also discovering new ways to work, more remote communication, less time in the office, and new kinds of work-life balance.
My hope is that we can learn from these changes brought on by the pandemic and use them to re-imagine the future of work. For most workers, that future will not be 100% remote, nor will it be 100% in-person like it was pre-COVID. We shouldn't assume that our pre-pandemic work cultures were ideal. We should always be striving to improve how and where we do our jobs. We spend more than one-third of our adult lives working. So we should do everything we can to make it better.
In this episode of Reimagine, organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, and former TaskRabbit CEO, Stacy Brown-Philpot, help us re-think work and how to make it more inclusive, productive, fair for all, and fulfilling. Joining us now is organization psychologist, Adam Grant. Adam is a professor at the Wharton School, as well as a good friend whose work I have long followed. He studies how we can find purpose and motivation at work in order to live more creative lives.
COVID has fundamentally altered how we interact with others, and for most of us, turned our work and home lives upside down. Many of our usual workplace relationships and routines have been disrupted by the pandemic, making things more challenging for workers and managers alike. Adam joins us today to share insights about how we can work more productively through COVID and re-imagine work after the pandemic. Adam, thank you being with us.

Adam Grant. (03:00):

Don't thank me yet, Eric, but I'm glad to be here.

Eric Schmidt (03:03):

Your professional work has really focused on the workplace, how people exist in corporations, et cetera. You've had developed fundamental insights in the workplace that I knew people working in our office. Is work from home here to stay? Is it better? Is it really going to ultimately be seen as an improvement or a terrible idea?

Adam Grant. (03:26):

Let's go with yes, sometimes, and all of the above. Let's start with what we knew before the pandemic hit. There was surprisingly little rigorous evidence about remote work. And then this experiment came along that Nick Bloom led in call centers in China. Half the people who were randomly assigned to work from home, over the next six months, they were 13 and a half percent more productive and half as likely to quit.
And that looks like good news. Right? We can say, "Okay, part of the productivity gain is they appreciate the flexibility. They reciprocate that with loyalty and commitment." Part of it is also, though, they're working longer hours. Right? They don't have to commute, they don't have to get dressed for work the same way, and so they're able to squeeze more work in.
And then the six months end, and people have a choice, do they want to stay at home or do they want to return to the office? And half of people want to come back to the office. They miss the structure. They miss the community. They miss having a boss. Some of them anyway. And the worst part is that for... I guess the simple way to capture this is, even though they're more productive on average, they are less likely to get promoted because they're missing face-time with their bosses.

Eric Schmidt (04:36):

But if you think about call centers, which you and I've worked on for years, it's pretty straightforward work. It's not the sort of collaborative team-oriented. What do you think? What are your ideas? The sort of creative process. I understand how you could pick something which is task-oriented, which ultimately is probably going to be replaced by a computer anyway and do that from home. I worry a lot about all the social cues and the support and so forth that people get at home.
It's interesting that... I was having dinner with some of my former employees and they said that they've been studying this very carefully. And for plenty of people, productivity is up, these are programmers, of course, for the same reason. They work longer hours, they don't have to show up at work, and they're pretty isolating people anyway. So maybe for some people remote work is better. And for some people it's worse. And for some organizations, remote work is better. And for some organizations, remote work is worse.

Adam Grant. (05:31):

Yeah. I think there's something to that. So let's break that down on a few different levels. The first question is, what kind of work is actually conducive to remote work? At least in my field we've, for about half a century, distinguished between pooled, sequential, and reciprocal interdependence. Say that five times fast. But it's basically, you could probably compare it pretty easily to playing basketball, football, and baseball.
Pooled interdependence is basically a baseball game. We all have our own independent role. If we do our job and we add up the pieces, then the organization is going to be successful. And that kind of work works very well remotely. If you move to a more sequential model, which is like a football game or an assembly line where I have to work on something and then hand it off to you, and then you're going to hand it off to someone else, we have to be a little bit more thoughtful about how we communicate and collaborate because there's a little bit more of a coordination expectation.
And then the most complex interdependence would be the reciprocal kind. Which is much more like a basketball game. Where I might pass you the ball, you send it back to me. Then I send it to someone else. They send it back to you. And we're each going to be intricately involved in every single part of the process of collaborating. And I think that kind of interdependence is probably suffering the most when it comes to working remotely, because it's so hard to pick up on, not only the social cues that you were describing, but also just all the knowledge that everyone normally has in their heads and would bring to the table, but can't necessarily get into the Zoom discussion.

Eric Schmidt (06:51):

Pooled and then?

Adam Grant. (06:53):

Sequential, reciprocal

Eric Schmidt (06:55):

And sequential and reciprocal. When I was a young executive, I was told that all great management teams are like basketball teams. That basically there's a flow of the ball and they're relatively independent. And yet there are plenty of companies that are now considering about making this structure permanent. Do you think that ultimately what will happen is that the majority of the executives under pressure will come to work, and that the workforce will divide itself. Some people will choose to work at home. Some people will choose to work in the office?

Adam Grant. (07:24):

I think that's probably where I'd place my bet if I had to guess right now. I think, Eric, we should be careful about predicting the future right now though. I think the old saying is that historians can't even predict the past with perfect accuracy. I don't really know what's going to happen, but I do think we're going to see executives come back to the office faster. And probably they're going to be more likely to be permanent there because... I know there's another question in my field of, where does the organization go when everyone goes home at night?
And the reality is a lot of people feel like the culture disappears. And so if you don't have some leadership representation in some physical office, I think for most companies, we're going to lose our sense of cohesion, comradery, identity, mission values. But I think there are going to be a lot of people who stay remote, especially in Silicon Valley.

Eric Schmidt (08:09):

One of the authors that I was reading, not yourself, made a claim that only one-third of work in America can be done from home. And that two-thirds of the jobs are in fact require showing up somewhere. Is that roughly true? And does that comport to your intuition? And if so, then the majority of people won't have this option.

Adam Grant. (08:27):

I think right now, it's on track. Because if you look at the breakdown of the kinds of jobs people do, a lot of people say, "Well, America is a knowledge economy." And that might be true in terms of the innovation and the ultimate value creation that comes out of this country. But if you actually look at the distribution of jobs, most people work in service jobs. And most service jobs are very hard to automate.
My read of the data is that over 80% of Americans, and this is true in Western Europe and Southeast Asia and in most of the industrialized world, are doing service. And so, unless you're in a call center or another environment where it's possible to do everything remotely, I think you do have to show up. And then of course, there's also the manufacturing economy where so many people don't even have access to the equipment that they need to do their work from home or from a third place. So I do think that that's going to be a huge challenge for a lot of companies. And it's something we're not talking about enough.

Eric Schmidt (09:14):

Some people are dying to get to the office because they like the normative aspects, they're socially sensitive and so forth. Some people never really like being in the office and preferred to work by themselves. The third category would like to go to the office, but won't be able to. Either because of childcare issues, which is very, very serious, or health issues that they're not willing to take a risk on. So for the third, roughly, that are going to be able to participate in this model, we'll come back to the two-thirds that won't be able to.
There's a basic assumption of trust. And you've written a lot about this. And part of the reason as an executive over many years is that you like having people in the office, is you can see them and you can see that they're there. And there are some businesses where you can actually monitor performance and make sure people are working remotely, call centers being a classic example. But for many of the jobs today that people are doing from home, there's no way to measure productivity. And yet the firms seem to be doing okay. Is trust improving in this strange time?

Adam Grant. (10:09):

I'd love to see better data on this. My sense is that there are some forces that are going in both directions. Let's start with the bad news and then we can go to the good news. I think the bad news is, the spate of layoffs that we've watched happen over the past six to seven months have not... They haven't improved trust in a lot of workplaces, right? We've seen a lot of people who suddenly feel like they were completely expendable. We've also seen a tremendous amount of survivor guilt and anxiety among the people who have been able to keep their jobs.
And of course, what happens then is this talent drain, where your star performers are the first ones to begin asking, "Am I next?" And to go and look for opportunities elsewhere. And so I think there's a loss of trust that's come from the overly quick and excessive downsizings that we've seen. And then on the flip side, I do think there's been a gain in trust in a lot of workplaces where people feel, okay, I'm not being micromanaged, my manager trusts me to do a good job.
That seems to be working out okay. And so, I feel like this is somebody who has my best interests at heart, this is somebody who is probably going to demonstrate a degree of integrity and follow through the words about supporting employees with actions. I think the interesting question for me is, how much are we going to trust but verify? It seems like at some point, we are going to have to start measuring productivity.

Eric Schmidt (11:26):

One of the key things about a large floor-plate businesses, which is sort of what I always cared about, was if you have enough people on one floor, you have all sorts of interesting chance encounters, which are unpredictable. And no one has figured out exactly how to do that in the Zoom world yet.

Adam Grant. (11:39):

Yeah. I think that's right. And one of the questions I have is, how much do we really need these chance encounters? So, Eric, one of the things that surprised me most when studying, this is supposed to be a source of creativity, right? That we have these unexpected collisions. And then we get access to new ideas.

Eric Schmidt (11:53):

That is the dogma.

Adam Grant. (11:55):

That's the theory, right? The data, though, tell a more complex story. Which is, if you were going to do a brainstorming meeting, and you had five or six people together in a room, you would've been better off putting them in separate rooms to work alone. You'll get more ideas and also significantly better ideas on average. I think a lot of this is because, I know this is surprising to a lot of people, but a lot of what happens in brainstorming meetings towards creativity. So we have a production-blocking problem where we can all talk at once and we lose some ideas. We have an ego-threat issue where I don't want to look stupid. And so I bite my tongue usually on my most original possibilities.
And then we run into conformity too, where an idea gets popular in the room. And then what you've called the HiPPO effect, where the highest paid person's opinion becomes known, kicks in, and everybody jumps on that bandwagon. And we get too much convergent thinking, not enough divergent thinking. And the data on this very much suggests that individuals have more brilliant ideas than grips do, but they also have more stupid ideas than grips do. So what you really want is people to generate ideas independently. You get as much variation as possible, and then you bring in the wisdom of crowds to evaluate and refine. And I think that's when you need the creative collisions. Right? It's not so much about generating ideas. It's about selecting and improving them.

Eric Schmidt (13:00):

You're appending 50 years of dogma for this fact.

Adam Grant. (13:04):

That's my job.

Eric Schmidt (13:04):

So let's go through this again. Don't put everybody in a room to do idea generation so forth. Have people work independently. And when the good and the bad ideas surface on their own, have a process to mediate that produces the best idea.

Adam Grant. (13:19):

Exactly. That was a much clearer summary than I gave you.

Eric Schmidt (13:23):

So you could, for example, do that using Zoom? That's a zoomable process?

Adam Grant. (13:29):

Chat window was almost perfectly designed for that.

Eric Schmidt (13:31):

Very interesting.

Adam Grant. (13:32):

There's another layer of this which is potentially interesting, which is to say we could compare strong ties in weak ties professionally. So strong ties, the people that you work with closely, that you have a lot of trust with. And on average communication with those strong ties is up about 40% during the pandemic, right? We know that it's important to stay in touch with those people and to coordinate and collaborate. But our weak ties, there's more acquaintances, we're communicating about 10% less with them than we were before.
And that's a problem because weak ties actually give us more new ideas than strong ties do. Right? Your strong ties, those people really well, tend to have redundant knowledge. Whereas the weak ties are meeting different people, they're learning different things. And I think we also need structures in place to bring people from outside the team to generate some fresh ideas.

Eric Schmidt (14:15):

But I have a different view, which is, when this started I thought I should have a rule of no new friends. And the reason is that I trust my friends, but I don't have a way without testing to trust people I don't know. Which I think is sort of rational behavior. So how do I get these weak ties? Do I have to zoom to all of my people I never would normally zoom to in order to accelerate the weak ties? You see the point?

Adam Grant. (14:15):

I do.

Eric Schmidt (14:38):

But the logic of the disease causes you to shut down all except your intimate family, closest friends, closest collaborators. Which is why this notion of pods working in a workplace will work really well. These your closest work friends, you trust them completely, you complain about senior management, you complain about the weather, whatever it is you're going to do. But they become incredibly important to your daily life. But there are people that very well.

Adam Grant. (15:02):

So you want to get the best of both worlds. You want the trust, and comfort, and familiarity of the strong ties, but then you don't want to miss the novel information of the weak ties. There's actually a way to get both. So there's another kind of tie called a dormant tie. Those are the people you used to know, but lost touch with over the last maybe five, 10, or even more years. And what's amazing is, if you look at the data on dormant ties, if you are working on a project right now, and you reach out to somebody you're in regular touch with, you will get fewer great ideas than if you reconnect with someone that you lost touch with.
And what's great about dormant ties is, because you haven't interacted in so long, they tend to bring you a new perspective. But because you also have a shared history, right? At some point they were a strong tie. It's a lot easier to get back in touch with someone you used to know well than somebody you hardly know. It's kind of hilarious. You'll probably relate to this, Eric. A series of these experiments have been done with executives. And they're actually assigned to go out and reconnect with five or 10 dormant ties.
And inevitably, most of them grown. They were like, "Sometimes they're dormant for a reason." But actually most of our ties are not dormant for a reason. We got busy, we moved, we changed jobs, we didn't mean to fall out of touch. And over 90% of executives will actually report that it's an enjoyable experience. And not only did they get great ideas, but they were thrilled to reconnect. And so I would say, look back over your career, find the people that you've fallen out of contact with and reactivate those connections.

Eric Schmidt (16:22):

Yeah. So one thing you could do during the pandemic is literally go through the people who were important to you 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and call them up. And they're all sitting at home and they're all waiting for you to call, call them and have a conversation. It's enormously valuable, you may only have it once, but it's worth it.

Adam Grant. (16:39):

It is. And the data also show that you can't predict which of those ties are going to be valuable. Because, by definition, you don't know what they've been up to and what they've been learning. And so the person who you think is going to be your least helpful dorm at tie, is every bit as insightful and knowledgeable on average as your most helpful dorm at tie. I think that the exciting news there also is to say your dormant ties become more valuable as your career advances. And so they're going to give you a lot more when you're in your fifties or sixties than they might've when you were in your twenties.

Eric Schmidt (17:06):

For the third that are going to be working from home probably for another year at the way things are going because of a disaster that has COVID both in Europe and the United States, what do you think will happen in the workplace in terms of work place relationships overall? Do you think that, fundamentally, this is a stable point? Many people have believed that this was transitional and that people will start to complain. It sounds like from your perspective, it'll be much more nuanced.

Adam Grant. (17:32):

I think so. So you mentioned earlier, Eric, that there'd probably be some individual differences here. And we're starting to see that already. So a lot of people are thinking, "Well, this has been an extrovert's nightmare and an introvert's dream." That's actually not the case. It turns out that introverts crave social contact too. And introverts and extroverts are doing about equally well from a wellbeing and happiness perspective.
The people who are really struggling right now seem to fall into three categories. And I think this will probably play out over the long run too. One is, they tend to be emotionally reactive rather than stable. In other words, neurotic and anxious. And the pandemic and the isolation has amplified their anxiety. Two, people who are more disagreeable are more stressed. So if you tend to be critical, skeptical, and challenging, you've had a harder time maintaining supportive relationships than if you tend to be friendly and easygoing.
And then there's a difference in integration versus segmentation preferences. If you're an integrator, you love to blur the boundary between work and life. You probably used to invite your coworkers over for dinner. You might've brought your kids to the office. Segmentors want to have a strict border and say, "Look, I'm a completely different person at work than I am at home." And not surprisingly, segmentors are a lot more stressed with this whole experience than integrators are.
And so I think we're going to see these patterns probably extend for a period of time where segmentors are going to say, "You know what? I really need a separate place to work. And if I can't go into the office, I need to find a co-working space or a coffee shop or something where I can be independent a little bit." And integrators are going to be pretty happy saying, "You know what? I can really work anywhere. And I like the fluidity between these different domains in my life."

Eric Schmidt (19:05):

So what are we going to do about the two-thirds or 75% of people who can't take advantage of technology? They are in a service job where they actually have to show up. Whether it's public safety, or teachers, or people in manufacturing who literally are required to be on the job. And they're worried, they're worried about exposure, they're worried about getting on the subway or public buses and so forth.

Adam Grant. (19:28):

I wish I had a good answer to that. Eric, I would actually love to hear your take on this because I know you're leading a whole initiative for the State of New York to try to solve this among many other problems. Where do we need to start?

Eric Schmidt (19:39):

Well, my answer is a little bit different. I think that if you have rapid testing, which for some reason we seem to have forgotten in this country, and if you had it relatively ubiquitous, it would be possible to open the office buildings in a city, test people when they came into the workplace. Employers would typically pay for that. We are busy sending our most important possession in the entire world, which is our children into a situation where we don't know if they're going to come back safe. And God knows what happens if they get infected. There's lots of evidence of children spreading the disease, and there's some evidence of children getting very sick from the disease. So it's obviously a huge issue. I cannot imagine the stress that we're putting our fellow citizens under. How do you think this plays out? Does everyone become just disaffected? Do they adapt?

Adam Grant. (20:27):

I think a little bit of all of the above could happen. I think the... I mean, the dominant finding in psychology is that humans are remarkably adaptable and resilient creatures. Right? In some ways, anybody who interpreted Darwin's survival of the fittest as strength, missed the point that actually it's the most flexible and the most adaptable who are usually the fittest. I think we've seen evidence of that already, right? If you even just go back to the early spring, the people in London singing in unison outside their windows, the people in Italy doing exercise routines on their driveways together, right? I think our natural instinct, when we face tragedy, is to try to come together, support each other and find strength. And so I think there's potential good news there.
I think in the long run, we might even see what psychologists called post-traumatic growth. Which has sort of the positive alternative to PTSD. If you look at the data on people who go through tragedy and trauma, about 15% of people experience post-traumatic stress disorder whereas roughly half of people will come out of tragedy saying, "Look, I wish I could undo this. I'm terribly sorry, it happened, it was bad, but I'm better because of it in some way." And for some people, that's a deeper sense of gratitude, right? How many of us are going to feel lucky to have a job? Or even just grateful to be able to dine in a restaurant?
For a lot of people, there's a heightened sense of personal strength. Like, "I got through that, I can probably handle almost anything." And then many people also come away with stronger relationships or a new sense of meaning and purpose, having said, "Okay, now I've got to really make my time count." And I think that's probably more of a medium to long-term reaction than an immediate one. But I do think a lot of people are going to experience some degree of post-traumatic grit.

Eric Schmidt (22:02):

I agree with that. Adam, your work has been extraordinary. In corporations, you and I've worked together for a very long time. I think this is the best time I can think of for you to get these use out about COVID, the impact on work-from-home and so forth. I really want to thank you for spending the time on this. And I encourage you to get these facts out. The quicker people understand how the kind of way they operate using the Zoom world has to change to make it better the quicker we're going to get through this.

Adam Grant. (22:30):

Well, thank you, Eric. It's a pleasure to be here. I've learned a lot from working with you over the years and watching you draw different voices into the conversation. I'm thrilled that you're doing it now in a way that more people can access it.

Eric Schmidt (22:44):

When I was at Google, I famously banned remote work. The argument being that the kind of work we did require people to have the kind of informal conversations that only occur in a workplace. It wasn't that people couldn't work on their own, but that informal interaction, the consensus building and idea generation that occurs in small teams, needed to be in one place. There's lots of evidence that I was wrong, and that with modern technology, it's possible to get a fair recreation of that creativity using Zoom and similar technologies.
I felt so strongly about remote work that we banned it and we banned it globally. Tech companies have since measured productivity. And productivity in some areas is actually higher in remote work, proving that I was wrong. I've worked on this question of remote learning, remote communications, video conferencing, for more than 30 years. I'm still struck by how primitive it is. We're still looking at each other in little screens, nine by nine, and what have you, with typing things on the side. Why don't we have a much smarter system, that understands better what we're talking about helps us be more productive, provides the assistance that an assistant would provide? Why can't we build systems that are just smarter to serve as the most important platform we use communications platforms?
In the future, the workplaces that we all inhabit will be joined by an artificial intelligence assistant. And that assistant will be listening with our permission and we'll make suggestions. "You forgot this. This was your deliverable. Can I schedule the meeting for you?" You sit there and you go, "Ah, that's science fiction." "No, the technology allows it." And you say, "Eh, it's not that useful." Most businesses that I've seen have personal assistance, professional assistance, who do precisely that. Imagine if this technology will make that available to every single human on the planet. Think about how much more productive they really will be.
Adam Grant provided tremendous insights into the future of productive work. Our next guest, Stacy Brown-Philpot, will help us understand other areas where we must still improve. Stacy served as a CEO of the freelance-marketplace TaskRabbit from 2016 until August of this year. Before that, of course I knew her at Google, where she expanded the company's presence in India and created the black Googler network, Stacy is a leader in technology, a pioneer in the gig economy, a steward of diversity and inclusion, and a hero during COVID who helped expand TaskRabbit's tasks for good in which volunteers provide services to at-risk people.
She's here to help us re-imagine a more humane and inclusive workplace. And share how the gig economy can help us all get through the pandemic. Thank you so much, Stacy, for joining us.

Stacy Brown-Philpot (25:49):

Thank you for having me.

Eric Schmidt (25:50):

Your story is the American success story. You grew up on the West side of Detroit, in a low-income community, and yet somehow you got through it and you ended up at Wharton. You became an accountant. You worked at Goldman Sachs. You went to Stanford Graduate Shool of Business, where I teach. Perhaps the top business school in the nation. And then working of course at Google, running our online sales. What was the secret that got you aside from your own grit and determination? How were you so successful?

Stacy Brown-Philpot (26:22):

I believe it goes back to my mom who really helped instill in me the importance of education. She sacrificed so much to help my brother and I grow and be successful working as a single mom, but she never took our eye off of learning. And she imparted on both of us how important it was, regardless of what happens to you, where you go, your education can take you anywhere. And I fundamentally believe that. I also saw the world as a place to make better. For some reason, I just was born with that gene of, "I'm not going to be a victim to the things around me, I'm going to see and find a way to make things better." And so everything that happened in my life, I looked at it as an opportunity to grow and to help the other people around me.

Eric Schmidt (27:21):

Continuing the narrative with your success, after Stanford Business School, you came to Google. And one of the things that you did is you created the Black Googler Network and you basically pushed for the strategy we now have in Google, which is basically diversity and inclusion in all things. Which I hope everyone believes in now. Where are we in that? Why is this so difficult? Why can't we fix this quickly?

Stacy Brown-Philpot (27:50):

It's not something that was created quickly, and so we can't expect ourselves to fix it quickly. What I believe we should expect ourselves to do is to commit to fixing it over time. Black Googler network was just... I looked around me and I felt Google could be a better company if there were more people that look like me. I would be more comfortable here. Other black people would be more comfortable here. I've been here for two years, it was time.
And so I started the group to create community and belonging. Really a sense of this is a place that can be for me. And of course we did the Google thing, which was the alias and the T-shirt and got ourselves to be official, all of that. But what was, important was this is about community. A lot of companies now are thinking about recruiting, how do we build the pipeline? How do we access the pipeline? How do we tap into the pipeline? How do we recruit more black people as an example?
The real power is in how do we retain the people that we have here and bring community and have them feel like this is a place, not only that they bring their whole selves to work, but that they feel like they can grow their career, and that they believe that they are valued as an employee. Until you do that, no amount of recruiting will have any impact. So why is this taking so long? It's not something that we created yesterday, or even 10 years ago. The systemic racism that exists in our society and in companies, society includes companies, so it exists in companies, is what's stopping us. And the first step is to acknowledge that that systemic racism exists and to make a decision that you want to figure out what it is, where it is, and how to address it as a company.

Eric Schmidt (29:54):

A lot of people believe that systemic racism does not exist. And I think part of the reason they believe that is they don't see themselves as racist. Maybe they are, but they don't see themselves. So they have trouble with the concept. So when you talk about systemic racism, how does it actually work?

Stacy Brown-Philpot (30:13):

It's not just what I believe about myself, it's the structures around me that prevent me from believing I can do more. And it's the child who goes to the counselor and says, "I want to go and apply to this school." And the counselor says, "Well, you'll never get in because you don't have high enough SAT scores." And there's something about the sat testing process that prevents that child from getting a high score, because they didn't learn the vocabulary that they needed to learn because they were focused on where their meal came from.
So the systems of testing have prevented some children from just being unable to score at a high enough level that some college has decided is what is the minimum threshold. That's a system. That's not a person. That's a system. That's a policy. That's a process. That's not a person at all. All the people are doing is applying the systems and applying the processes, and saying, "Hey, I'm not racist. I'm just applying the systems and the policies."
So, being able to unpack what is the system and what am I doing within that system, is actually separating the two. So then you can look at it and then start to figure out how do I address this and change what is about the system that prevents that kid from learning what they need to learn to get into the school that they want regardless of their sat scores,

Eric Schmidt (31:59):

I spoke with a woman named Dania Francis, whose research at the University of Massachusetts show that black girls were being discouraged from going after AP Calculus, whereas the equivalent girls of other races were not. So there may be more direct racism as well. And I'm sure that that's a contributor to the problem that we now face as a country.

Stacy Brown-Philpot (32:20):

I think that's right. There's another set of research by an organization called Girls Leadership. They did a longitudinal study, where they discovered that young black girls are more likely to see themselves as leaders than any other ethnicity or race. But something happens in the schools where the girls are told that they can't be, or they shouldn't be, or they have to be quieter, or they have to be softer, or they have to talk less. And that process of going through their educational system convinces them that they can't be leaders. So there are some obvious things that are happening, that are contributing to the feeling as a black person that you're lesser than.

Eric Schmidt (33:18):

In your career, you've been addressing this in many different mechanisms. One of the things you're doing is you're one of the three people who's overseeing a hundred million-dollar fund launched by SoftBank to exclusively fund businesses led by black Americans and people of color. Give us a sense of where you think those investments will go. Are they the same? Are they different? How do we understand the success of what you're trying to do?

Stacy Brown-Philpot (33:42):

I am so excited about this fund. The decision to do it happened in 24 hours because three people came together and we decided that this was something that we can uniquely do right now in this moment. And we are looking for what every other venture fund is looking for. The SoftBank Opportunity Fund will generate returns, outsize returns, just like any other venture fund does.
And that's our goal. We believe that we have under-appreciated the natural grit, creativity, innovation that exists among black, Latinx, Native American founders. And that our intent is that is to invest in these founders, help them grow their business, help them leverage that natural grit, creativity, and innovation, to build successful, amazing businesses that generate returns. Ultimately, we help redistribute wealth, we create community, we extend the possibilities of job creation to the communities that we believe deserve it.

Eric Schmidt (34:57):

Continuing the work you've done, you began to work in the gig economy after an incredible decade at Google. Gig economy is very controversial. What opportunities did the gig economy create? And where do you think the criticisms are well-leveled at the gig economy?

Stacy Brown-Philpot (35:20):

I chose to go to TaskRabbit. It was hard to leave Google, let's face it. It was like the best thing that ever happened to me. But I chose to go to TaskRabbit because I saw that there was this platform that was built on technology that was creating economic opportunities for people that wouldn't otherwise have them. And as someone who has lived a life and grown up in an environment, and seen people who didn't have hope because they didn't have opportunities, I wanted to be a part of a company that was giving people hope by giving them opportunities. And that's what we did.
And it is controversial because there's an assumption that we're taking advantage of people. But people are earning more money than they could have ever earned in their life. I would meet Taskers who were no longer homeless because they task on TaskRabbit. I would meet moms who had to figure out a way to raise their children and work and make a meaningful income. And so those stories are what helped me see the controversial nature of the industry that I was in, but push through it, to do what I felt was best for the community that we were a part of.
So I believe that some of where we're going is that we have to assume that this is going to be a way of life. It will be a way of life. So many people have come to depend on gig economy companies to live, and navigate, and survive the pandemic. So once we accept that, now what kind of structures do we need to put in place to make it work for everyone? And I think portable benefits is absolutely one of them.

Eric Schmidt (37:15):

That makes sense to me. During the pandemic, it looks like ride-sharing in those sorts of gig economy companies have suffered a significant loss of revenue and demand. But the other ones, the ones involving helping people, delivering food, making people's lives work, have seen an explosion. So it may be that the principle is correct, that people need this, they want it, it provides it, but the flavor of the month may change based on global and national needs. It may be that the gig economy adjusts in some way we don't fully understand. Do you have an opinion about what the gig economy will look like in say five years, 10 years?

Stacy Brown-Philpot (37:56):

I think in five years, or even 10 years from now, the gig economy will be a way of life. And the word gig will no longer be relevant. Because gig has an assumption that I'm just doing this temporarily until the next thing comes along. It also has a negative connotation of like, that's actually not the best thing to do. What we've seen is you're right. There are parts of the gig economy that have accelerated and parts that have suffered, but what's true across all of it is that we've created a way for people to easily access work opportunities more fairly be evaluated on those work opportunities, and more equally earn an income for which they can afford the lifestyle that we want.
And we've got work to do across all those. But in 10 years, if I could say to myself, I can easily access work, I can be fairly evaluated, and I can earn an income to live the life that I want, that would be a great testament to what we are shaping and building with the gig economy today.

Eric Schmidt (39:20):

And the gig economy will be around simply because the pandemic has accelerated digital use, digital media. People are very comfortable now ordering food on their phone and things like that, that they might not have a year ago. This process of the gig economy has unleashed a torrent of opposition for like at Airbnb, all sorts of regulations that differ by city. Uber, as you know, was built largely through lawsuits, and is subject to many lawsuits all the time. There is now a proposition in California, which is promoted by the gig economy, to force the courts to not re-class the workers to be full-time employees for complicated reasons, but largely because of benefits. How do you think all of this will sort out? Is this the tension between a new economy and an existing economy? Is this a proper worker rights argument? Where do you come down?

Stacy Brown-Philpot (40:15):

I believe that everybody who works or does anything for a living should be treated fairly and should be given rights. And if those rights are not being given, they should have the right to fight for their rights and to ask for them. And that we should work as companies to make sure that we are treating people fairly and giving them their rights. And so when you see a proposition like the one in California, when I look at it from the outside, it's really hard because I've ran a company. I was in this industry for a long time.
But if I were to simplify it at all, and I know it's very hard to, as you describe it's complex, somebody's rights are not being met here, but the solution to honoring those rights may not be the perfect answer. And that's a time, if I were in a company and in my company, we'd go back to the drawing board, we'd erased the white board, and we would go back to the drawing board to find another way. And I'm not sure if that's possible, because we're serving one interests and not everybody's interest. I just wonder if there's a way to go back to the drawing board and find a way to allow companies to thrive that treats people humanely and gives workers rights and equality.

Eric Schmidt (41:55):

A final question. As you look at the landscape around diversity and opportunity, are we making progress? Are we standing still? What do we need to do? It's really important that when we come out of this pandemic, we don't end up being more unequal. We need to emerge less unequal, in terms of opportunities anyway.

Stacy Brown-Philpot (42:21):

I am deeply encouraged by the progress that we're making now. We've read and talked a lot about the global nature of this anti-black racism movement and how people of color all around the world are speaking up and standing up. My mom highlighted for me that this is different than the civil rights movement that I grew up under. And that gives me optimism that what we're doing now, in terms of speaking up and asking for the equality that you just described, that we all want, is going to be, not just a moment, but a movement.
I was deeply saddened when Congressman John Lewis passed away and watched his documentary Good Trouble. And I think that the concept of getting into some good trouble is a really good one right now. Remember that we are resilient and not to back down from trying to do what is good. For Silicon Valley, it means using technology for good and really getting out of Silicon Valley and learning. And don't assume we, I'm here, we don't have all the answers.
In a time where social justice is important, we want to re-imagine how technology can create equality. The only way to do that is to get proximate and get out of Silicon Valley to learn what those answers are. I'm optimistic that that can happen, and that the movement that we're in right now will sustain until we start to see what you described, which is equality for everyone.

Eric Schmidt (44:19):

Stacy, 15 years ago, we made the right decision in bringing you into the company. Look at the incredible accomplishment, both at Google, but now through TaskRabbit and the other leadership positions you've taken. I can only imagine what you're going to do next. Thank you for joining.

Stacy Brown-Philpot (44:35):

Thank you. Bye, Eric.

Eric Schmidt (44:40):

So where are we now? I believe we will still feel impacts from COVID in our workplaces after the pandemic has ended. Work has evolved before COVID, but the pandemic accelerated this evolution and introduced new changes. Adam Grant and Stacy Brown-Philpot have helped us understand some of the challenges and opportunities of these changes. Thanks to them, we've seen that remote work doesn't have to mean a workplace that's less productive and cohesive.
We've also seen that a more digital economy does not have to mean a more unequal economy. We should learn from Adam and Stacy to always think critically about our workplaces and why we do what we do one way and not another I'm very concerned that the recovery of the pandemic will be unequal. There's lots of evidence that the pandemic is harming minorities, people who serve us, the elderly and so forth, in ways that are much, much worse than it should be.
Without public health, people will be fearful, they won't leave their homes, and you have the real danger of a terrible, terrible disease. But without economy, people lose their jobs, they lose their homes. It's a terrible tragedy. We have to solve both problems at the same time. I don't understand why we've not been able to solve the two simultaneously. It's a false choice to say that you could have one or the other. You have to have both.
Part of the American Dream is equal opportunity for everyone. So the first question is the most obvious one, is there some kind of systematic discrimination, some way in which we, in our business or in our society, are not seeing the huge potential that people have? That's the first thing. The second thing is, you have to build measurement systems to prevent this from becoming something that's known, but secret. You have to measure how well you're doing in terms of inequality, diversity, and so forth. And you need to be honest and transparent about it. And then the third is, we've got to work on the pipeline.
Based on everything we've seen, the workplace is going to change. It's going to be just a little bit more flexible. This will be good news for working moms who've struggled with the travel to work and burdens at home. But more importantly, people will learn that productivity can come in different ways. Not only will it come in different ways, but we can even measure it. The old rule of you're an automaton and you have to show up work from nine to five, is clearly over. If I were to predict, I'll say it lasts in the government a long time, but for businesses, businesses will become much more flexible as a result.
Ultimately, I believe that completely remote work will be a mismatch for most businesses. In-person human interaction is a key to innovation and productivity. There are going to be categories where you can literally have a completely virtual company where they've never met. But even then, all the successful ones I've heard about have had in-person meetings on a periodic basis. They'll fly everyone for meeting, just so people get to know each other before they go back to whatever they were doing in Zoom land.
In businesses that require creativity, we now know that the most creative people are people as part of teams. And the teams who run well, really produce better decisions, better ideas, and so forth. There's the myth of the creative individual, but in fact, people work as teams. Those teams, and the reason I felt so strongly should, be in one place. What I think will happen now, because of COVID, is that the teams will still be tight teams, but some of the members will be, for whatever reason, remote. And that will be okay. The productivity is of those teams will still be very high.
Economic recoveries can also be a time for reinvention. We should use this moment to make our workplaces more efficient and inclusive, strive for more equitable economy for all, and strengthen our relationships so that work continues to be a place where we can all help ourselves and one another grow. On the next episode of Reimagine, we'll reimagine democracy and global leadership with former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.

Speaker 1 (48:53):

I really do think that another four years of this will be a disaster. There's no other way to state that. I have been around enough, and even now virtually, to think that it is un-American in every single way. And we are part of the major issue in the functioning of the world.