This week: a special episode with Marc Stears on the importance of relationships.
Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
Our guest this week
Marc’s new book, Out of the Ordinary
The stories this week
04:20 – Out of the Ordinary: How everyday life inspired a nation and how it can again
Other stories we bring up
The latest state of digital report
Our discussion with Simon Kemp on the state of digital
Our discussion with Simon Kemp on data analytics
Our discussion with Jevin West on misinformation and fake news during the US election
Cass Sunstein’s book, Republic.com
Our episode of Corona Business Insights on starting a new job when working remotely
Our episode of Corona Business Insights on productivity and remote work
Kai’s talk on Yammer and enterprise social networks
Kai’s research on enterprise social networks and group types
Interview with Danielle Allen on bonding and bridging relationships
Theory: why relationships matter
The road from serfdom: how Americans can become citizens again
Modernity, faith, and Martin Buber
Reality: social relationships under threat
Is home working good for you? – speech by Andy Haldane
Working from home turns out not to be the dream we were sold
Futures: restoring relationships
Weave: the social fabric project at The Aspen Institute
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Our theme music was composed and played by Linsey Pollak.
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Disclaimer We'd like to advise that the following program may contain real news, occasional philosophy and ideas that may offend some listeners.
Kai So Sandra, what are we talking about?
Sandra So we have quite a few stories this week that have come up that touch on many of the topics that we've covered here before. Simon Kemp's new report on the state of the digital is out, telling us that we're spending even more time online now, close to 40% of our waking time is spent online and almost two hours of that time, in Australia, on average is spent on social media.
Kai I'm sure there's non-waking time also spent on social media. By the way, we should get Simon back on the podcast in the near, future Simon Kemp, good friend of the podcast, we've had him previously.
Sandra And we'll put all those links in the show notes. And speaking of social media, Trump's announcing that he's building a new social media platform, as he's been, you know, off Twitter, off Facebook for the first part of this year, he will make his comeback by bringing his own social media platform, which is set to hit the internet in a couple of months from now.
Kai Well, he's going to be in direct competition with the MyPillow guy who's also launched his own site. If you can figure out there's a complex wordplay in the name's called Frank…
Sandra I don't get it.
Kai It's about free speech.
Sandra And all of these stories, we realise that we've had very good and strong conversations around how social media plays into misinformation and disinformation and fake news. And there seems to now be an increasingly robust discourse around these topics. There's very good research, we've had Jevin West on the podcast with his Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington. But we have a fairly poor discourse around the types of experiences that are enabled through the time we spend on social media and on the internet. And this seems particularly important now that with COVID, and lockdown still continuing in many parts of the world, but also in Australia, with only partially going back to work, it seems increasingly important to see if there are other good ways to think about the time we spend online and what's being lost.
Kai And some of the poor conversations around social media will continue in Congress this week. The three CEOs, Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Pichai, of the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Google will testify once again, about disinformation and misinformation and polarisation. So that is ongoing, and while Zuckerberg for example, will assure members of Congress how much the company has done to weed out all the harmful content and Facebook groups, someone has actually done a bit of a check and Input this week reports that they are still over 200, far-right militia pages, many of which have militia actually in their title, are still active on Facebook, and the algorithm is still directing people to those extremist groups. So there's a lot more work to be done to actually do something about the civil discourse and the polarisation and outrage that is rampant on these platforms.
Sandra And again, this seems to point out the same take on the conversation whether it is about polarisation, around fake news, around outrage on social media. So at this point, we thought we actually need a bit of help in just taking a different approach and seeing what we're missing. Whilst these are important conversations to have, what are we missing around how we talk about the role of social media in politics, in business, and what's being lost? So we thought we'd get some help from Marc and Marc Stears is the Director of the Sydney Policy Lab here at the University of Sydney. He was previously a professor of political theory at the University of Oxford, and the chief executive of the New Economics Foundation and one of your kids largest think tanks, and he's also dear colleague of ours. And he's got a new book out, so we thought we'd have him on. So Marc, welcome.
Marc Thanks so much for having me.
Kai Okay, let's do this.
Sandra Let's do this.
Intro From The University of Sydney Business School, This is Sydney Business Insights, an initiative that explores the future of business. And you're listening to The Future, This Week where Sandra Peter and Kai Riemer sit down every week to rethink and unlearn trends in technology in business. They discuss the news of the week question, the obvious, explore the weird and the wonderful.
Kai So welcome, Marc, you have a new book, and I love the title "Out of the Ordinary". And you're going to explain to us what that title is all about. And then we're taking it into the conversation.
Marc Thank you so much. So for 20 years or so, I've been working with business leaders, political leaders, civil society leaders to ask, you know, fundamental question, you know, what's wrong with the way that they do things? And the answer to that question, I think, is that they are separated out, abstracted from the fundamental dimensions of the relationships we have in everyday life. So the idea of the book, the notion is that they have stepped out of the ordinary. And in fact, we need to get back into the ordinary to think about what are the building blocks of a healthy, vibrant, thriving society. And we need to get those big picture thinkers, those leaders from all walks of life, just thinking about what goes on in everyday life that makes life worth living.
Kai Yeah, and what I like about the title is that real change, I understand, comes out of the ordinary, right, so this is where you start, this is where we need to go. And that's also where we wanted to take it with social media, because a lot of the conversation often centres around, you know, abstract notions of content, moderation, and polarisation and election fraud. Whereas the everyday experience of people on these platforms can be very different, and also the way in which they sit in the broader context of the community in civil discourse and affecting political change. And so really good that you are on the podcast, and so we have lots of questions.
Sandra Maybe take us back a little bit to where this started. Because for you, it didn't start with the political, it started actually in the business realm.
Marc That's right. I mean, I was a young academic at the time of 20 years ago, teaching at the University of Cambridge. And I was approached by BP, the energy company, to help them think through their strategy. So bizarrely, I was a philosopher, I had absolutely no knowledge of the energy industry. But their then CEO, John Brown, had recognised that, you know, increasingly, people across the world, were sceptical, not to say hostile, to big multinational businesses, generally, and especially in the energy sector. And John Brown wanted to do something about it. So he brought together a random collection of thinkers and campaigners and activists to work with his executives in working out what was the problem facing big business. And one of the answers which emerged from that process was that the lives that business leaders lived, and the way in which their businesses were conducted, was just so separate from, you know, disconnected from the everyday experiences and everyday lives of ordinary people. And it was almost as if the world was bifurcating between the experiences of big businesses on the one hand, and the experiences of ordinary people living their ordinary lives, in particular places up and down different neighbourhoods around the world. And the bigger argument which emerged from that was that businesses were behaving in an inhumane way, that they had lost touch with the emotions, the cares and the concerns of ordinary people. And that was the root cause of the scepticism that they were facing.
Sandra And that seems to have been a characteristic not only of big business, but of kind of political discourse in the US, in the UK, and increasingly in Australia as well.
Marc We've known it for a while now, I think, that most people think that their politicians inhabit a totally different universe than normal people do. And that there has been a sort of separation of ways of looking at the world, background experiences, you know, you hear it again and again, people think that politicians don't understand their lives because they have totally different lives. And they are focused on different outcomes and sort of different ideals.
Sandra In a way this would seem strange, right? Because over the last 10 years, at least, we've seen the rise of social media, we've seen people spending, as we've just heard the stats up to two hours on places like social media, and Facebook is often portrayed as a celebration of ordinary life in its great diversity. But there seems to be a falling away of kind of any shared understanding of a community life, even though we are present on these things that are supposed to connect us more than ever before. So why is this happening?
Marc I mean, that's exactly right. It's sort of a decade or so ago, people thought social media might be the answer to this problem, like the disconnect between leaders on the one hand, and you know, ordinary people like ourselves on the other, was meant to be sort of solved, cured by the ability to stay in close contact with each other over social media. So leaders were tweeting that we would be able to tweet them back, or someone would post an article on a newspaper, and you could have below the line comments from ordinary people in their houses. And this was going to stitch society back together again, whereas in fact, it's it has had almost the opposite impact, where you know, it's increased all of the tendencies that we saw before, which is for people to think, actually, the gulfs between us are bigger and more dangerous than they have been previously. And I think there's a very simple reason for that, which is that social media relationships are different from embodied personal relationships. So the way in which we connect with each other on social media is just different from the way that you might interact with somebody in your neighborhood, or in your local club, or in your workplace, or visiting someone's family home. You know, there are different kinds of emotions, different kinds of social styles, which are released by in-person connections, than are released by social media connections. And it's those sort of embodied interactions, which are actually the foundation for a strong, thriving society.
Kai Marc, I want to chime in here and say maybe the way in which these platforms have evolved in the last five or so years has contributed to that immensely. In the beginning, they resembled social networks, and you would have replications of your actual network of relationships on these platforms, then you'll grow, you have new relationships, but it's still revolved around relationships. The way in which algorithms are now distributing messages and amplifying things and suppressing things and suggesting groups and bringing people together, has led to a lot of fragmentation of interests, and people congregate in their political groups, in their extremist groups, as we heard just earlier. And so I think these algorithms have actually aggravated the problem, and sort of pulling us apart. So how do we work with that? Because people's experiences are still revolving around social media, but the experience is increasingly hostile, fragmented?
Marc I mean, I think that's absolutely right, that the algorithms have definitely exacerbated the situation. But I think it's also important to recognise that the situation was bad already. So again, about 10 years ago, Cass Sunstein, the American thinker, published this lovely little book called Republic.com. And I used to teach that when I was teaching in Oxford, and in that text, he said, "Look, the problem with social media, unlike inverted commas, real life is that you largely don't meet people accidentally". So he talks in the book, for example, about his students, and he says, when he's lecturing in a big lecture hall, the students would sit randomly next to each other, at least in the first few weeks. And so you'd have people from different social backgrounds or doing different courses or with different political views, you know, sort of rubbing up against each other in the lecture hall, and he could throw questions out to people, and they would debate them across difference, you know, obviously, still, it's a small difference, because these are all students at a Ivy League institution. But nonetheless, he'd say, there was a diversity of opinion. And when you take that into a social media platform, it's just so easy to mute or to block or to remove the people who say one or two things that irritates you, you're not stuck next to them like you are in the lecture hall example. And that fundamental insight, I think that Sunstein had back then, should have been the sort of warning signal that should have been the canary in the coal mine, we should have thought, of course, that's right, how do we re engineer the platform so that they can create more of the serendipity of a normal social relationship?
Kai In fact, we've done the opposite, we let them evolve into platforms that capitalise on putting us into homogenous groups that then play off against each other. So this whole outrage and left versus right, and then making money off of that by actually monetising this kind of engagement that is not like we would have
Marc Absolutely right.
Sandra You're also making the case, though, that there are some types of experiences that you fundamentally cannot have online regardless of how good we try to be about the types of online experiences that we build.
Marc I mean, I wouldn't be quite as definitive to say you could never ever do it, So there's no imaginary future is in 50 year's time, where you can't have the kinds of relationships online that we currently have in the physical world. What I am saying is that we are so far away from that at the moment, and that we don't seem to be conscious or cognisant of that fact enough. So we imagine that telehealth consultation is as good as a physically embodied consultation in a doctor's surgery. And we tell ourselves that it's all okay, doesn't matter that people can't go into the GP surgery anymore. It's absolutely the same if they're on the end of a telephone. With that, we know that that's not true. All of the research data shows us that doctors are able to pick up all sorts of different social signals when they are physically in a space with a patient, that patients can relay messages, you know, that they wouldn't be able to relay, you know, through their body language and through the way that they respond to the questions that doctor asks, you know, the evidence on that is just very, very straightforward. But it's almost as if collectively we're in denial of that fact. And so as a result, we're not doing the work that we need to do to improve our technologies and improve these digital interactions, so that it can come closer to resembling the kinds of interactions we have in the embodied world.
Sandra So Marc, what are good building blocks for embodied relations?
Marc The new research is coming out, especially in social psychology, is really clear about what makes for a powerful, effective, thriving human relationship. And one of the things actually goes right back to the ancient Greeks, which is that what we need to be able to do when we're in relationship with people are display aspects of ourselves, which are broader than just our sort of narrow points of view or experience. So the Greeks had this notion that human relationships were composed of what they called logos, ethos and pathos. So the arguments we want to make in the world, that's the sort of logos piece, and social media is pretty good at enabling us to do that, we can summarise our findings, or make our point of view. But we also want to display our values and our character, our sort of deeper sense of who we are, what we care about what makes us tick, our place in the world. And we do that in everyday interactions in all kinds of ways that we just don't notice, you know, from body language, to the way that we respond to different kinds of people that we might meet, who might be in need in a different kind of way, or the way we might share a joke with somebody in the coffee shop queue, the way we might sort of seize on something which is happening in the world, but then to use it as the beginning of a conversation with a stranger. All these are allowing us to display aspects of our personality, and also to receive aspects of personality from other people, you know, they're, they're displaying their character, they're displaying their fundamental values, they're not just making a sort of point, sharing a piece of information. The philosopher Martin Buber, always used to say, you know, in the middle of the 20th century, that there's a distinction between thinking of your interaction with other people in the same way as you might interact with the machine, as in just telling it what to do, or giving it information, or thinking about your interaction with other people is actually you're sharing an experience and displaying aspects of who you are and receiving aspects of who someone else is. So actually embodied human relationships, be they in the workplace, you know, on the bus, in the playground, with parents, of friends of your kids, or at the school gates, or, you know, those give an opportunity for expression after receiving things which are just much richer, more complex than the kinds of interaction that we're currently able to have on social media.
Sandra And to be fair on social media, we seem to be doing some of this, but in very particular areas, like outrage or sheer rage, or very, very strong affection, but none of the richness that normally embodied relationships have.
Marc I think that's spot on, and I also think that's not a coincidence. I think social media on the one hand is really good for sort of fact sharing, you know, you're at least it could be
Kai Or misinformation
Marc Misinformation sharing, exactly, “I'll say x and get that out there." And then people realise, well, that's not enough, we need an emotional dimension to our lives. So they want to put emotion into the space but getting emotion into a tweet is much easier to get the outrage, the simple emotions, if you like, than it is to get the subtler and more complex emotions, you know. And in real life, we find that very easy to mix and match the full range of human emotion. In social media interactions, it's a much narrower range.
Kai And it is without relationships, right, often without consequence, without the social network that mediates our opinions. So it sort of exists in a vacuum and so I can just let loose.
Marc That's right, you don't see the other person's reaction. If you don't want to think about the other person's reaction, you don't have to, you can turn off your notifications. Aven with your friends, it's often into a void. I use Facebook and most of my friends and family are overseas, so it's a good way of communicating with them. But actually, I have no idea how the vast majority of them are responding to the information and the stories that I share, because there's only a handful of them who are in active conversation. But I'm in my imaginary, I'm putting a message out there and they're receiving it. But that's just so different from the kinds of interactions that, you know, we used to have in collective shared public spaces.
Kai And I think this relationship aspect is really important. Sandra and I discussed this on Corona Business Insights in the context of work, when you have the functioning relationships and the social fabric of an organisation. Ae all moved to remote working during the pandemic, it's reasonably okay to just continue the conversation in this digital space. But as time moves on, and we need to onboard people, people are joining the organisation, virtually, or in our teaching where you know, we teach a class, a cohort that knows each other, and then we move it online, it works reasonably well. But the first cohort of students that come together that have never seen each other in real life, the engagement drops, things are not as personable, everything becomes very transactional. And just that little bit harder, because the social context the classroom sitting next to someone, meeting them in the coffee shop, all of that falls away. So how do you go about building?
Marc The research on this is really clear. I mean, it's fascinating research coming out from the UK at the moment about the school situation. So teachers who have developed close relationships with the students in their classrooms, when the lockdowns first happened; often they found themselves in really difficult circumstances, doing extraordinary things for their students, especially the students they thought were most vulnerable. So you know, we have stories about people driving for, you know, hundreds of kilometres in order to deliver your laptops, or your extra support materials to students that are, quite remarkable stories in some rural communities. And you're really feeling the emotional strain and the sense of obligation they had to their students, but precisely because, as you said, they developed those strong connections in person before. But also, of course, they can't do that for all of their students, they're not able to have that kind of commitment to people when they're separated by distance, in the same way that they can in a classroom situation. So you hear high school stories from teachers, very heartfelt stories, they say, No, I used to have a class of 28-29 students, you know, and I would really care for them, I could respond to their individual needs in the classroom, pay a little bit more attention to Jane one day and like Jack to the next. But I can't do that in the distance environment, you know, so what I have to do is, I end up choosing one or two students that I stay in real close contact with, make the extra effort for, but for everyone else, they're getting a sort of undifferentiated package, then you put the point that you're absolutely rightly made, which is, you double that down, because the lockdown in the UK has gone on for so much longer than it has here, that you have teachers starting to teach classes, who they've never met, you know, 14 year olds, 15 year olds being taught by a teacher that they have no relationship with, they have no embodied relationship with.
Kai And the students and the cohort, they might have never met each other as well. So they finding it hard to actually build that social fabric.
Marc That's right.
Kai To do group work effectively.
Marc That's right. And we forget at our peril, just how important those fundamental building blocks are, you know, that's the, the primary argument in my book really is that the everyday connections between people enable you to do so much more. And if you don't have those emotional social connections, then you can't have trust. And if you don't have trust, then you can't develop the kinds of detailed exchanges that we need for good learning or good service provision, or good work in a business or good work in politics, that there is a foundation which comes from our social interaction. And if we lose that social interaction, we lose that foundation. And then we really are in trouble.
Kai And I think many workers and also students would attest to not having the best personal and social experience in these kinds of learning contexts. But that sort of contrasts with many businesses out there who have vested interests, sort of touting the success of remote working, of digital technology, and fully digital workplaces or, indeed, university leaderships now saying how great it is to do this online teaching and how we can do everything on Zoom, and there's nothing that we can't do in the classroom, we can't do on Zoom, which contrasts with the experience of the people on the ground. Doesn't that exacerbate exactly the very problem that we started with where you say, there's a disconnect between the narratives of the businesses, the leadership and the experience on the ground. And what do we do with that?
Marc Again, I agree entirely. That means there's a wonderful lecture by Andrew Haldane who's the Chief Economist at the Bank of England, which explores exactly this theme. He wrote, during, you know, the sort of height of the second wave of the pandemic in the UK, about all these stories about at home working that many businesses were putting out, and you know how flexible it was, and you know how much time people now had, because they didn't have to commute and how they are able to talk to colleagues all over the world, over Zoom in a way that they couldn't in the past, you know, they'd have to fly out for your face-to-face or what have you. And Andrew Haldane in that piece says that there's truth in all of that, but what's not getting covered or explained is the things which are lost by not having the in person connections, you know. And he talks, for example, in that lecture about, especially younger workers, who don't have the already established social networks of their bosses or their seniors, and who therefore don't have the opportunities to share ideas, to learn from mentors, to come up with new ideas, because they're provoked by the people they're in conversation with, they really feel isolated and alienated and separated. And what he says is exactly the theme that you've picked on, he says, when those people read, you know, the sort of memo that the business puts out about how wonderful this move to distance work has been, they feel even more let down or distance than they did before to the organisation for whom they work. And I think that's a real risk. And here in Australia, we've seen I think, exactly the same over telehealth, you know, I've done some research with some groups in the disability area, and they're told constantly, isn't it wonderful that you can now telephone your doctor or your service provider, you don't have to go in to see them? Yeah, it's great flexibility, greater availability of support. And on the one hand, there's some truth in that it's obviously great not to have to wait to talk to your doctor. But on the other hand, the nature of the interactions and the nature of the service you're getting is just not as good as it used to be. And we need to be honest and open about that. And if we're not honest and open, further disconnection, further distrust is sown.
Sandra So honesty and openness as the first step, but what else is incumbent on us to leave? What are likely to be, you know, hybrid workplaces in the future or hybrid forms of education in the future? How do we engage our workers or our communities? How do we think about strategy?
Marc The thing I've learned most I think, in my career, was from a mentor of mine called Arnie Graf, who used to run something called the Industrial Areas Foundation in the USA and he was actually the person who first taught Barack Obama politics and campaigning. And Arnie says, you know, his very simple mantra, he says, "relationship precedes action always." Which is to say that unless you have a solid foundation of human relationships, you can't achieve anything, you know, you're not going to have an effective strategy, you're not going to be able to teach well in the classroom, you're not going to be able to provide good services. So we've got to invest in social relationships, you know, within all of the organisations that we find ourselves in. And that requires a conscious strategy, because it used to happen by accident, by people bumping up against each other, it's not going to happen by accident in the COVID, or post-COVID world. So we need to make a conscious plan for it to happen. And, you know, there are some signs of that in some of the most progressively minded businesses and workplaces, people trying to work out how are they going to stitch workforces back together? How are they going to have the kinds of interactions with their customers or clients or stakeholders that they used to have? So they really got a strong relational foundation. But it's early days, we're just not doing enough of that work or thinking harder enough about it, or in universities researching into what's actually going to work in that space?
Sandra Do you have some examples of places where people have started to do this or are doing it?
Marc Well, I think there are lots of exciting practical examples, although many are small scale to start with. So for example, in the United States, the Aspen Institute has got this program called We are the Weavers , they have this notion of what a weaver is, is somebody who stitches together, individuals and groups who otherwise aren't in relationship with each other, where they used to be in relationships. So they're actually trying to develop a cohort of people whose job it is to be primarily interested in and facilitating the kinds of social connections that we used to take for granted. And that's a whole new part of the workforce. You know, in the UK, King's College in London, your big university in London, has also got a very similar program. So they've combined with a community organisation called Citizens UK, to create opportunities for people to have facilitated interconnections, relationships that again, they used to take for granted. And so they are actually training members of staff whose KPIs, as it were, a relational and not outcome oriented. So they'll have people whose primary purpose is to make the social relationships within the organisation happen. And I can imagine that you might be some listener sitting home and kind of rolling their eyes. "Oh, yeah, do we really need somebody whose primary job is to connect people or to weave people together or build relationships?" And I'm afraid the answer to that is yes, we do need those people because those things aren't happening by accident anymore. And unless we have people whose designated role is to make it happen, it just won't happen. And back to my sort of mantra, if those relationships aren't happening, then you know, all the other things that we want to achieve won't happen, either. So you're sort of consciously allocating a sort of responsibility and accountability to a group of people to curate the environment for the re-stitching, or for the weaving, I think is a fundamental part of the story.
Kai I think that is really interesting and it sort of connects with some of my early research in social media in the workplace, which what we found at the time, and we were researching the platform, Yammer was still independent, not a Microsoft product and was new when we looked at the successful businesses. And we found there's about 40% of our conversations are not directly work related. And there was people whose implicit or bottom up role it was to just be in these roles to just mediate and drive a conversation and connect people and be just good corporate citizens in the social media space. And then on top of that work would then happen. And it was always the conversation with leaders who said, Oh, we want this to be a little bit more focused on the work. And our argument was always that you need those 40% in order to get the 60% that you're interested in. Without that 40% the 60% won't happen. Unfortunately, Yammer now being a Microsoft product, they're now promoting their Teams product, that social fabric has broken away. In many organisations, Yammer becomes sort of a comms channel for the HR department. And then work is supposed to happen in Teams, which are these little silos and pockets. So the social fabric layer, what you're talking about, even in that corporate social media world, is increasingly falling away, because the awareness is not there for that.
Marc The awareness, I think, is the crucial dimension. I mean, people can be skeptical about whether this can really work. But you know, I've had really fabulous experiences in some big businesses over the last couple of decades, where a conscious effort to create that social fabric and to support that social fabric really has results, you know. So I did a lot of work with Shell and with GlaxoSmithKline. In Europe, both of whom invested very heavily in what they called conversation, because they shared exactly your insight, which is unless conversations are happening about other things, then they won't happen about work. So you can't have free and frank conversations about the strategy unless you've got the human dynamics and the human connections between different kinds of people within the organisation. And still you know, after COVID we all should go to The Hague and go to Shell HQ. And if you step in there, it's remarkable to be in the cafeteria, you genuinely see people from all levels of the organisation, in human conversations with each other over lunch, unrushed, unforced, unhurried. And the reason is, the company recognises that unless those everyday chats are happening, then the more difficult, technical, you know, sort of strategic chats can't happen effectively.
Kai Yeah, and to be fair, there are also purely digital companies who are really good at that, right, who use these platforms in those ways and understand that, but it needs that awareness to begin with, right? It's not the tool that brings that it's the culture that needs to make it possible.
Marc And without the awareness, it gets cuts which is your Yammer example. You know, unless people know how important that social foundation really is, then people can discount it as inefficient, or a waste of time or a nice to have, but not an essential. And off it goes. You know, and all of us who work in universities have seen that I mean, you know, 20-30 years ago, almost all universities would have many social spaces for their members of staff to gather at lunchtime or after work, or, you know, most of those have gone now as an inefficient use of space. They haven't gone in the elite institutions in your Harvards, in your Oxfords and Cambridges, those social spaces are still there. Because people recognise that actually, that's where real innovation and creativity was born. In the everyday conversations, people were having over a cup of coffee or over a newspaper at the start of the day or in the middle of the day. And you know that efficiency, narrow transactional efficiency, mindset, you know attacks, the very foundation of creativity and success.
Sandra I think kind I have intuitively recognised that in that the two of us have started hanging out a lot in the coffee shop downstairs, since many of our colleagues spend a lot of time working remotely. So they're in fewer days a week, we found that the space where you run into most people, and we've created enough opportunities for that to happen. But taking a more conscious approach, and actually deliberately engaging in those situations is preferable.
Kai Yeah, but you get the odd look, right? Why are they always in the coffee shop, I mean, you can get lots of work done there and also have the social contact. Back to the digital platforms, right? Microsoft finds it much easier to sell Teams to businesses, because it's work-related, right? It's all about the work, than a social platform that is about you know, just connecting people and chatting because the value isn't obviously clear, if you're so focused on efficiency, the transactional aspects of work, getting tasks done, the measurable things, the social aspects are easily crowded out, and they just become an afterthought when in fact, good business leaders know that they're the starting point.
Marc Absolutely. Primarily, I think, because in the past, we could rely on those social interactions happening almost by accident, you know, they happened on the commuter train, or they happened, you know, in people's social lives, or people were members of organisations, you know, Robert Putnams, famous story about bowling alone, that people used to go to bowling clubs together and meet people, and they would create a social fabric there. Now, they bowl on their own on the weekend, and therefore they don't have those social interactions. So I think that you're the reason that, you know, often businesses think that they don't need to invest in social infrastructure, or the social fabric is it used to be provided free of charge by other aspects of our lives. But increasingly, that's not true. And COVID, of course, has made that so much worse. And so unless we're consciously creating these spaces, protecting them strengthening, creating opportunities for people to partake in them, then it isn't going to happen. And we live alienated and disconnected lives, which makes us less creative, and, paradoxically, less productive.
Sandra So let me follow up with two questions that one is, how do you get leaders to start doing this? And then once you're doing it, how do you know that you're doing it well?
Marc Leadership really matters in this space, you know, I've had the sort of luck of working with some incredibly inspirational leaders who get this and demonstrated in their daily lives, you know, a story I always tell is that when I was doing some consultancy for GlaxoSmithKline, it was a time when Andrew Witty was the CEO, and very simple things really, employees at GSK would say, Andrew always took the busiest elevator at the busiest time of day, so that he would have the most sort of accidental conversations with members of the organisation, you know, young and old, senior, not so senior, people who were just visiting for the day, he could have those conversations, and he was role modeling, what he wanted to see the organisation do, which is reconnect and not be in such a rush that you couldn't invest in the social fabric. So your really high quality leaders, I think, already understand this. But more importantly, they understand that that role model effect is absolutely crucial. You can't tell people to be socially connected, when you're not socially connected yourself. And that would be my primary advice to leaders, is just do it. The second question I think is harder really, which is how do you know you're good at it and you know, my very simple metric in this regard, really, it comes from my friend Danielle Allen in the US at Harvard. And Danielle says that don't measure what she calls bonding relationships. So don't measure how many people you know, who are like you already, and feel good that you're having great conversations with people. Measure, instead, you're bridging relationships by which she means the number of people you're talking to, who aren't like you, you know, either in age or experience or point of view, or backgrounds, you know, just try and think, are there people that I'm actually in relationship with, who are in some fundamental way different from me. And if that number is going up, over time, you're doing a pretty good job at re-stitching the social fabric, if that number is going down over time, then you're falling into filter bubbles and silos and all the kind of problems that we see in social media. You know, I pitch for that here at the University. When I first arrived, I said, why don't we have a KPI for all of our socially engaged members of staff to see how many people they're meeting that they haven't met before? Or who are fundamentally unlike them? You know, it hasn't happened yet. But I'm going to keep on pushing.
Sandra So are we
Kai But you can see, yeah, we're trying to do that as well. But you can see how COVID and remote working and hybrid workplaces make this so much harder, not impossible, but harder. And it takes more conscious effort. Because if you're not taking the elevator, then how do you actually recreate those experiences, and I think that is easily forgotten when you're just focused on you know, getting shit done, and working through your to do list and creating output, which initially might work. But then the eroding of those relationships might happen over time, with good social platforms and a good culture in there, once you have established that you can create that and you can then measure, you know, how much do people talk across silos? But obviously, if you don't have the awareness and the culture to begin with, how do you get the social experience, right, which takes us right back to where we started.
Sandra To just do it, Yeah.
Marc So that's why we need to make the argument as loudly and as consistently as we can, it's like, unless people notice how important this stuff is, they won't do it, you know, number of people who have said to me, oh, don't need to worry Marc, you know, home working's fine, because people go out, you know, in their neighbourhood more, they're going to their local shops, they're still having social interactions. Look at Sydney, one of the most socially segregated cities in the world, so if people are just working from their homes, and just shopping on their own street, they're not meeting more people who are unlike themselves, you know. That's why you need a vibrant public civic life, where people have regular opportunities to meet people from all different parts, you know, of this amazing place. And we're going to have to consciously create that because it ain't gonna happen by accident anymore.
Kai And for me, that brings me to a really important take away as Sydney University, we are a campus University and we should be proud of that and we should come back to campus and do as much as we can, in the physical space.
Marc I think that it's not impossible to build powerful and effective relationships using digital technology but it can be much harder. So the, the stakes get higher if you're reliant upon digital interactions. And what I've witnessed, I guess, over the last year, and talking to people in all different kinds of businesses and industries, is that they are struggling to prioritise that relationship building through their virtual work. Again, that's what we need to stop, we need to put it right at the top of the agenda again, you know, build those relationships. And if you have to use digital tech to do it, because of the circumstances you're in, let's be imaginative and find good ways of doing it.
Sandra Marc, thank you so much for sharing your insights with us today. And you can read more about all of his fascinating topics and Marc's new book Out of the Ordinary: how everyday life inspire the nation and how it can again, thank you so much.
Marc Thank you so much for having me.
Kai Thanks, Marc.
Sandra That's all we have time for today.
Kai Thanks for listening.
Sandra Thanks for listening.
Outro This was The Future This Week, an initiative of The University of Sydney Business School. Sandra Peter is the Director of Sydney Business Insights and Kai Riemer is Professor of Information Technology and Organisation. Connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Flipboard and subscribe, like or leave us a rating wherever you get your podcasts. If you have any weird and wonderful topics for us to discuss, send them to email@example.com.
Kai All good, all sugared up, caffeinated. We can do this. This is not a signal that we're going to go off, take my jacket off.