ABOUT MY GUEST
Today I speak with Toby Daniels, Chief Innovation Officer at Adweek, and the founder of Social Media Week.
Working at the intersection of technology, media and marketing for over two decades, Toby is a thought leader in media, marketing and technology, and has been featured in mainstream and trade media, including articles on CNN.com, The New York Times, The Next Web, Huffington Post, AdWeek, PSFK and Fast Company.
Having served as the co-founder and former CEO of Crowdcentric Media, a global media and events company, Toby is an advisor to a number of companies, and speaks regularly at conferences and has given talks at PdF Latin America in Chile, Social Media Brazil, The Co-Creation Conference in Phoenix, and SXSW.
Recorded on 4th February 2021.
- Forbes: This Is Why You Should Embrace Creative Constraints – Adam Richardson
- HBR: Boosting Creativity Through Constraints – Amy Blaschka
Produced by Caro C. Written & recorded by Nathalie Nahai © 2022.
Nathalie: Toby, one of my favorite mavericks. It’s a real pleasure to be interviewing you today.
Toby: Wow. Maverick. First time I’ve heard that. I’ll take it.
Nathalie: So from your perspective… I’m going to launch in with a question I ask everyone. Given that we are currently having this conversation in December 2020, and it’s going to go out in September 2021, what do you think is happening in the global human psyche now? And where might you imagine that we’ll be in 2021? Which I know, that’s a really awful question to kick you off with.
Toby: Well I think a good place to start is my own human psyche, and then extrapolate from there and make lots of wild generalizations. But I mean I think that obviously this year has been probably one of the most extraordinary that any of us will experience in our lifetimes. And there’s not a precedent necessarily for what we have experienced. And so we have to start there. And we have to give ourselves permission to not be okay, to be struggling mentally, motivationally. And I think the reason why we have to give ourselves permission for it to be okay is because this is not normal. Someone said something really beautiful, which I’ve repeated many times. Unfortunately I can’t remember who said it, but they said, “We’re not in the same boat when we’re going through these types of global pandemics. But we are weathering the same storm.” My experience is not necessarily going to be the same as yours, but we are connected to a larger experience which is impacting us in so many extraordinary ways.
And so I think that, first of all, giving ourselves permission to not be okay. Connecting to, and really deeply investing in, understanding how this is impacting our mental health. And I think that you have to start yourself before you can start to think about others. I think it was a CEO friend of mine said to me one time, and he was talking to his team, and he was trying to help them and provide support and guidance through this time. And he said, “Number one, I want you to take care of yourself. Number two, I want you to take care of the people around you. Because if you can take care of yourself and you can take care of the people around you, then, and only then, can you start to think about how you take care of our client, professionally.”
So yeah, giving yourself permission, taking care of yourself in terms of your mental health, then thinking about the ways in which you take care of the people around you, so that we can then start to think about the bigger picture, and start to think about those that are being hugely impacted by this, and think about the ways, and if we possibly can: How can we help them? But I think if you talk about the psyche of where we are today, I think it’s just really important that we recognize these different steps that we need to take before we can start concentrating on and thinking about the bigger picture. And then the second part of your question was to do with where do I think we’re going to be in September of next year?
Toby: Well, we’ll be coming out of this experience. And by that I mean we will hopefully, and if the vaccine does its job and if enough people take it, then we will begin a process of unlocking our local communities. We’ll start to go out, we’ll start to connect in person again, probably in small groups initially and it will just start to expand and get larger. And we will, hopefully by the latter part of next year, and by September 2021, be at a place when the world starts to look a little bit like the way that it did pre-COVID. But with a few really important caveats. And those caveats are that this isn’t about going back, things returning to the way that they are. That’s never going to happen.
So when things do open up, and we start to connect to a semblance of normality, we also have to connect to this idea that the new reality that we are facing and will experience going forward is a different one. We have to look at the ways in which we can embrace that, the ways in which we can capitalize on it, the ways in which we can harness it for good, which I am just enormously optimistic about. And hopefully it provides us as a society and as a culture with the impetus to make some really significant and hopefully long-lasting changes in terms of how we function as a humanity. And I’m excited for that.
Nathalie: And I think given the extraordinary challenges that we have faced in 2020, how would you conceive of resilience, whether that’s on a personal level or professional level?
Toby: Well first of all I think that when you have individually gone through something that has tested you, challenged you, disrupted every single aspect of your life. Perhaps the greatest destruction that you’ve experienced during all of this is just simply having to work from home. But maybe you’ve faced financial disruption. Maybe you’ve lost your job. Maybe you’ve had people close to you who have been directly impacted just by the virus. Maybe you’ve lost loved ones. There has to be a period where by we treat the trauma. Because in a way, resilience is, I think, defined perhaps by our ability to be able to endure, our ability to be able to persevere or come back from something, some kind of hardship. But it’s important to recognize that it comes with a certain amount of scar tissue. You pick up something along the way, and we have to be really dialed into what that actually represents. People are going to have trauma that they have to deal with. People are going to experience PTSD post-COVID.
And there’s going to be an extended period of time where we really have to be investing, beyond thinking about “How do we tackle the virus?” We then have to think about, “How do we tackle the mental implications of what this pandemic has really meant for people.” And I think what’s important about that is that everybody has been impacted by this in some capacity. And so it’s important to reach out and make sure that people feel included in the healing process, whether they necessarily recognize it in themselves or recognize it as something that they need to address. Post any significant world war, the biggest fallout oftentimes has been PTSD and the ways in which soldiers coming back from these wars have been able to respond to these experiences. And oftentimes they had no help. There were no resources, no services, that were really there and available to them to help them process the mental impact and implication of these experiences.
And I think COVID is going to be absolutely no different. And perhaps even more significant, just given the size and scale of this particular pandemic. And then the last thing I will say just about resilience is that I hope where we can really draw inspiration is from the fact that so many of us have been able to weather this storm, have been able to get through it, and begin to see the light and come out the other side. And I hope that we can draw inspiration from the fact that we’ve learned this really important thing, and that is: We are just extraordinarily resilient. And resilience is not necessarily something that you have within yourself. It’s something that you can also draw from the people around you. And that sense of unity and connectedness and togetherness during this particular time, I think, has been a really powerful part of the experience, and something that I hope will be a positive thing that we look back on, and hopefully something that we take forward into the future.
Nathalie: So one of the things that you’ve been involved in recently is this fascinating project, exploring relationship between our tech use and empathy. So this has been something that’s been a collaboration between Social Media Week, Facebook, and The 404. Can you tell us a bit about what the project is and why it was created?
Toby: Sure. Well we started talking to Facebook a couple years ago, and they just really said to us, we were talking to their global industry marketing team, and they said to us that, “We’d love to do something with you guys. But we really want to do something that stands out, something that gives back or makes a very significant contribution to the community, something that is more impact-focused than necessarily just simply sponsoring one of our conferences, for example.” And so we pitched them on this idea of forming what we call the 404, which is an industry coalition made up of about 50 different organizations within the broader marketing and technology industry, companies like Adobe, Microsoft, brands like American Express, and agencies like Group M, and Grey, and Code and Theory, these incredible leaders within these organizations who come together as part of this coalition.
And it’s called the 404 because really what we’re trying to do is to fix problems that exist as a product of how we use technology, or fix problems that exist as a product of how social media has impacted our lives and impacted society and changed culture. And so Facebook loved it, underwrote the founding of it and provided resources and support for us to be able to get kind of this coalition off the ground. And then once we got it off the ground, we then started to look at the different problem spaces that we were drawn to or interested in. We looked at, obviously, mental health. We looked at digital literacy. We looked at cyber bullying. We looked at misinformation, and particularly within that concerns around deep fakes and stuff like that. And knowing that we wouldn’t be able to tackle everything, knowing that we would need to pick off something that we were excited about and that we think was very relevant, and this is back in early 2019, we decided that within the mental health area, and then drilling down into understanding what’s really going on in cyber bullying, for example, and unpacking that.
What we discovered, and we came across some really interesting research that came out of the University of Michigan, was that empathy as a foundational skill, has been in decline, particularly among young people, young, adolescents, and particularly young people who are about to embark upon their college careers and experience. And it’s been in decline for the last 20 years, fairly consistently. And when you unpack that and you look at some of the reasons why, obviously, and it’s easy to just blame technology or social media or mobile phones for this, but it really only represents one aspect of this much larger issue. There are some societal factors and forces at play as well, to do with the fact that we have evolved as a society and as a culture into a much more individualistic society, where we place a great deal of importance on the individual and not so much on the collective. The sense of community has also been in decline for decades now.
And when you put all of these different factors and forces together, you can understand why the problem exists. But then you have to understand, “Well okay, so how is this playing out? How is it actually impacting people and their interactions?” And that’s where, I think, social media starts to come into play because we’re spending so much time engaging and interacting and communicating and sharing and consuming information through social media, and because of the fact that it’s a faceless medium, and in some cases because of the fact it’s very easy and straight forward and frictionless, almost, to be able to say something in the moment that you may or may not believe, or you may or may not mean, what are we communicating is starting to have this eroding effect on our ability to be truly empathetic.
And that is to say, to perspective-take before we communicate, to really put ourselves in the shoes of the people that we are communicating with, whether it’s through a mobile messaging app, which is just maybe a group of your school friends. But you say something mean or hurtful or nasty because you don’t get to see the reaction of the other person on the other side of that interaction. You don’t get to see the fact that it just makes them really unhappy and sad that you would say something like this. But you say it because it’s easy, it’s frictionless. And then you extrapolate from those interactions into the larger social media stratosphere, and think about Twitter, and you think about Facebook, and the problems that we’ve experienced there. And you can really start to understand, over time, how it’s easy for people to be less empathetic, take less perspective, to not put yourselves in the shoes of others.
So what we basically decided to do is to say, “Okay. Well how do we help young people, particularly those that are onboarding to social media for the first time, how can we help them develop the empathetic skills?” Because empathy is a skill. It’s something you can learn. It’s something you can teach. It’s something you can invest in over time to get better at. But if it’s not taught, if you don’t have the framework, if it’s not something that you practice every day, then it’s not something that we’re necessarily going to be able to impact. So we… I know this is going long. But we then decided to develop a whole program where we would bring high school students into workshops that were hosted by these industry organizations who were part of the 404, and then we would experts, not just teach empathy but actually run these incredible interactive workshops whereby the kids themselves are the ones that are really coming up with the ideas and solutions for how they can increase empathy within their communities, and within their schools, and within their friend groups.
And it was just an amazing program that we ran last year. And then this year it was really a case of just looking to expand that program, working with the Department of Education to roll it out amongst a few hundred schools in New York City. But unfortunately we had to hit the pause button on that, just around when COVID hit, and then we subsequently pivoted into a different iteration of the project.
Nathalie: It’s really interesting the relationship between our technology use and developing the skills for becoming more empathetic, to be able to perspective-take, as you point out. I think one of the things that’s really curious is going to be to see what impact the use of tech mediated communication has over this period, however long the lockdown period lasts. Because every time we make a prediction it extends. To see what impact it has over the longer term in terms of personal interactions, friendships, the way that businesses operate. And I’m curious, in terms of the impact that virtual communication has had on the culture of organizations, perhaps in your capacity as running Social Media Week and having to take the entire enterprise online. What are some of the biggest challenges that you think exist, or that you’ve faced, in taking a culture and an organization into virtual relationship?
Toby: Well I think the pandemic, the fact that hundreds of millions of people have had to make this sudden shift towards working from home, or working remotely, and then adopting video conferencing as a primary tool for communication, has actually been the greatest gift, I think, that we’ve been given through this experience. And I’ll explain why, because a lot of people who spend a lot of time on Zoom might be thinking that that’s not the case. And I do understand, or at least I’m sensitive to why they would feel that way. But the reason why it’s a gift is because if we had said at the beginning of this experience, pre-COVID, but with no knowledge of how COVID would impact our lives, how do we humanize technology? How do we provide a better means of communication if we are communicating with people digitally, through technology, not in-person, not face-to-face? How do we bring a more human side to that communication?
And the answer would be: Well, video is obviously really important. Live video where you can see the other person’s face, where you can see their reaction, where you can connect to them in a way that just simply is not possible on a phone or through messaging. But we need to get people to adopt this new technology, this new means of communication, en masse. Everybody needs to be communicating this way for us to be able to learn a new behavior and connect to a new form of communication. And we need to do that over a sustained amount of time so that people can get used to it and comfortable with it. And then once they’ve made that initial adjustment, start to think about the ways in which you can optimize the experience to create the best possible, and potentially deepest, connected experience. And guess what? That’s what we’ve just spent the last nine months doing.
And so this has been an enormous global experiment consisting of hundreds of millions of people around the world participating simultaneously. And so while we are fatigued by the experience, and it is exhausting, and sometimes the last thing you want to do is get on another Zoom call, what this has provided for us foundationally is something that we can now build on top of in terms of thinking about how we want to design and create connected experiences in the future. Because what’s important about that, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this recently, is that our physical proximity to people used to be such a hugely out-weighted factor in our happiness, which is why people gravitate towards living in cities like New York for example because you know you’re connected to people who are like you, who can be supportive to you, who can be supportive to your career professionally or otherwise.
And if you don’t live in New York City, you are at a disadvantage in many ways. There’s enough science out there to back up this idea that people are generally happier living in cities than they are in rural environments. But that’s largely because of who you are in proximity, who you’re connected to and surrounded by. And I think that this shift we’ve seen offers an alternative to that, which means that you can be in proximity to the people that matter to you, or be in proximity to the people who will shape who you want to be. It enables us to curate our lives and our experiences and the people we spend time with, but not on the basis that we have to be in the physical proximity to them.
Instead, we can do it virtually. And I’m sure there are so many red flags here, and it’s not that I’m thinking about them. But I just want to at least spend time thinking about: How this can be a good thing? And how can it be positive? And what can we draw from it to really help us think about optimizing the human experience in the future?
Nathalie: I like what you’re saying there about this is a possibility to optimize the experience to make it deeper. It’s so good to be able to have access to our loved ones even if it’s virtually when we can’t reach out and spend time celebrating Christmas together, or birthdays together, or commiserating, or whatever it might be. But on the flip side, of course we lose so much when we migrate into a virtual, two-dimensional space in which so much of that sense of sensory expression, whether it’s taste or touch or pressure or hugs. All of that stuff gets stripped out. So I’m wondering, have you found any specific things that have been useful in creating a richer experience when interacting online?
Toby: Totally. I can give you a ton of examples. I just want to address the point you made because this is the argument that I’m having with a lot of people all the time, which is this idea that it has to be one or the other, that somehow just because of what we’re experiencing now and because we have access to these new virtual experiences that somehow we are then therefore going to discount the importance of in-person. It’s like, “No.” We should invest in and maintain and ensure that we have as much if not more in-person experiences when we can and when it’s possible and when it’s safe to do so. But what I’m saying is that we have an opportunity to add on this enhancement pack to the human experience. I’ll give you a good example of what I mean, a number of examples in fact.
So first of all, I live in the US. My parents live in the UK. and brother and sister-in-law. My parents haven’t got to see my kids for 18 months now, largely because of the pandemic. And that’s challenging for them for sure, for all of us, but the truth is right now, at this point, I’m not sure whether I would be going back to the UK or not, regardless of COVID. So we probably would be spending Christmas apart. And so what does Christmas apart look like pre-pandemic? It’s a quick FaceTime on Christmas Day. “Hey, what’s up? How you doing?” Maybe you all open some presents together. But now we’ve unlocked this new set of experiences, combined with… And I think this is the most important thing. The fact that my 74-year-old mom conducts all of her church choir practices on Zoom now, because they can’t gather at the church. She understands the technology. She’s adopted. She’s adapted to the new way of doing things.
So on Christmas Eve, we’re going to have a whole family gathering on Zoom. We’re going to have Christmas carols. We’re going to be doing cocktail making. We’re going to open some presents together. I’m inviting a whole bunch more people that I probably wouldn’t pull into that situation. And while of course it’s not the same as being in-person, and while we would all prefer to be in-person, the pandemic has created a new opportunity for us to gather in different ways, and the technology is making it possible for us to do it regardless of whether you are a 74-year-old, or whether you’re a four-year-old. You know what I mean? And so that’s, I think, important. So that’s just context in terms of how I’m trying to capitalize and optimize these experiences.
But I’ll also give you another example, more in the corporate setting. So in addition to running and operating Social Media Week, we also produce live events on behalf of our clients, oftentimes custom, bespoke experiences. And we’ve been doing everything virtually over the course of this year, and we did an event for one of our clients back in November. It was a customer appreciation event for them. They had about 200 of their customers completely spread out over the US. They wanted to bring them together, celebrate them, show their appreciation. We put on this huge event, all on Zoom, but using all these different enhanced tools and functionality. We sent every single person a gift pack in advance with wine and champagne and charcuterie and chocolate and other gifts.
Toby: And then we had a world class wine sommelier come on and do a wine tasting, with 180 people simultaneously opening a bottle of champagne together. Then we split everybody up into groups and we had six different secret room experiences with a comedy show. And we did a choose your own adventure rap musical. We had five magicians. And we put on this whole show entirely virtually for these 200 customers. And what we realized in the conclusion to the whole experience was: Well, clearly we could never have done that if we were only looking at an in-person experience. We could’ve flown everyone to Vegas I suppose, or flown everyone to New York and rented out a bar. But it just would’ve been a less interesting, and most importantly, as valuable experience, particularly for the individuals but also for the client.
And so what you have to look at, at this time, going back to my earlier point, don’t look at it as in, “Either in-person or virtual.” Look at it in terms of, “How can the virtual experience address the limitations of in-person in such a way so that the experience could even potentially be better as a result?” Always going to be missing something. Missing the opportunity to hug, or hand shake, or just be in physical proximity to people. But we can replace that with a whole bunch of other things that make the experience better, or just different.
Nathalie: I like the idea of finding ways to make the most of what there is to offer, and bringing the virtual and the sensory together. So there is a way of localizing the experience in someone’s physical domain by buying the wine and having people guide you through a process. Which you might have privately, but you share virtually. I think that’s a really beautiful way of bridging something across media.
Toby: Yeah. And it’s a logistics nightmare. But generally speaking, if you put on a virtual event for 100 people that they’re not paying for, about 70% of them will not turn up. With this particular event, I think we had about 90% of people turn out, because we shipped them like hundreds of dollars-worth of things that were designed to make this experience that much better. And so it was a kind of interesting experiment.
Nathalie: From that perspective, then, do you think that there is an opportunity here for people to become even more creative in the ways that they approach the customer-business relationship? The way that they approach client relationships? This investing in people’s sensory pleasures while creating a bespoke experience for them, and in some cases highly personalized when it’s the personalized rap journey that you described, which I attended, which was really fun. Do you think that there’s the possibility for brands to really just get creative and make things that previously we just didn’t think were possible?
Toby: Well I think we’ve already seen it. I think actually when we look back over the course of this year, there have just been so many incredible examples, whether it’s artists or creative partnerships with brands, doing really interesting things on Fortnight and stuff like that. Another example that I think has just been so interesting is seeing how Complex and ComplexCon, which is just a hugely important cultural event for sneaker heads and people who are into that culture would normally come together and it would be a huge opportunity to purchase the latest things, whether it’s sneakers or something else related to that. And they moved the whole thing online, and it was delivered virtually. And then all of a sudden it was just a completely different experience, but incredible in its own right.
So I think we’ve seen it. We’ve seen the creativity and the resourcefulness and innovation in terms of thinking about: How do we create experiences for people that speak to the medium through which they are going to be engaging with? But that also really deliver, deliver results, however you measure the success of something. So we’ve seen a ton already, and I think one of the things that I have loved about this year, despite everything, has been seeing how brands in particular, but just people in general, have used this opportunity. Once we got past, I think, this shock at the beginning, and just how devastating everything felt, as we came out of the first wave a little bit and said, “Okay this is the way it’s going to be for a while.” That’s when we started to see such inventiveness and such resourcefulness. I think this year will probably go down as one where people have found a very deep connection to their creativity in almost every facet of business, and music, and entertainment. And the reason why is because we’ve been delivered or presented with constraint. And constraint, I think, is an important vehicle for creativity.
Nathalie: So talking about, then, the way in which this intersects with the future of work. Obviously in 2020, as the CEO of SMW, you were faced with the gargantuan task of taking the whole business online. And you did an amazing job of guiding this transition. I wonder what you imagine the future of work will look like, not just in terms of how we might deliver services differently, so the virtual aspect, but also what a hybrid version might look like. So I’m thinking here about how people might use physical spaces, so the changing role of office buildings, or how people might conceive of corporate events, whether they do, again, this virtual/physical hybrid, or whether they might be in-person events that are more consciously designed, intentionally designed, as culture-building and engagement exercises. What are your thoughts around the future of work and a hybrid workplace?
Toby: Well I think, let’s start with my prediction in terms of what it’s going to look like post-pandemic, when it’s safe for people to return to offices, when enough people have had enough vaccine, when enough measures are in place to test and trace. Because I think the cat of out of the bag, or the bell has rung, on the idea of remote work, or at least the resistance to it from a company level, or even from an individual level. And this may be a little bit of an oversimplification, but at least it helps people understand, at least how I’m thinking about the future.
My prediction is that about a third of people are going to want to go back to working in an office full-time. The type of people that will want to go back full-time, dependent on their age, I think younger people might be more inclined to be in an office, to be connected to other people. Early in your career it’s really important because you’re building relationships, and you’re building your network, and you want to be out and socializing so much more. And I think the office provides a really important anchor to that experience. And also senior executives or leadership might need to be in the office more, but I don’t know whether they need to be in the office the whole time.
But let’s say a third will want to go back full-time. About a third will probably want some flexibility. So they will be like, “Okay look. I’ve just spent a year working remotely, or a year and a half working from my home. And there are some pluses and minuses to it, but I don’t want to work full-time from home. I want to have some time in the office, but I want the flexibility. So I’ll come in a couple days a week.” And then a third of people will want to just be fully remote. In fact, they’ve already moved to Nashville from New York and have said to their boss, “I ain’t coming back.” And their boss is like, “Okay fine.” Because there is a general recognition that flexibility, whether it’s working fully remote or working in some kind of hybrid capacity, is important to people. Probably more important than almost any other benefit that you can provide them.
My company has been working in this way for six years. We’ve offered people the opportunity to work from home Wednesdays, Fridays. It’s optional. And Wednesday was intended to be, pre-pandemic, a meeting-free day. So you hit the middle of the week, you’re working from home, you don’t have any meetings, that’s when you can really be at your absolute optimal level of productivity. And we did that for six years. And people loved it. People really saw it as a benefit. They loved that flexibility. We also had a policy of not dictating to people when they would come into work or leave. In fact, we often would encourage people to not come in during commuter time because it’s just a stressful experience, or it can often just result in delays and things like that.
So offering people flexibility is ultimately what people want. And then we now are in a situation where people can ask for it more legitimately, because the organizations can hardly turn around and go, “Well, we’re concerned about your levels of productivity if you’re working from home.” It’s like, “Look, I’ve pretty much demonstrated that I can crush it from home. So let’s not have that conversation.” So then what does that really mean in terms of how it will… Because it’s a little bit like driverless cars and the way in which it’s going to fundamentally change the design of urban environments in the future. I think that people working remotely will change the way that offices are designed. This whole idea of just having a desk and meeting rooms, it almost feels antiquated now. And perhaps not even set up to accommodate a future whereby only two-thirds of people are going to be coming to the office, and only a third of people are going to be in the office the whole time.
And where I see the biggest challenge in all of this, and it’s a really difficult problem to solve, and I don’t think anyone has figured it out yet, is: Well what does that hybrid experience look like? Because everybody working from home actually works, because you’re all on Zoom. You’re all in the same set up and situation, collaboration and communication flows through the same mediums, and you have the same experiences. But you know what’s the worst experience? Is sitting in a conference room when half the people are in the room and half the people are virtual. That’s a horrible dynamic. Right? So we have to solve for problems that will naturally exist, and a product from the fact that people will be hybrid, and some will be remote and some will be in the office.
And the other thing that we have to think about and design for is the type of work that we do in the office versus the type of work we do at home. Or the type of work that we do when we need to be together in physical proximity to each other versus the type of work that we can do virtually. And we have to understand all of this stuff. I would encourage your listeners to look at the work that Dropbox has been doing, and the CEO of Dropbox in particular has really led during this time and has come out with some really interesting ideas. And his whole new methodology, I suppose, that he’s developing is a hybrid-first methodology in terms of thinking about the future of work, which I think is a great way to think about it.
Nathalie: Okay so then if we’re thinking in terms of community and creating a sense of culture, do you think that’s something which can be fostered virtually? Because I know there’s an NPR article that I read recently that was talking about how Facebook, for example, is leasing all the office space at this gorgeous New York landmark, which is the former James A. Farley Post Office building, and that Amazon, which I believe has said that employees can work from home until early 2021, they have apparently bought the marquee Lord and Taylor building on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, and leased another two million square feet in Bellevue in Washington. Since these massive players, which are obviously titans of the tech industry, are finding value in physical space, do you think they know something that we don’t? Is there something about the needs that we will have that we don’t yet see coming?
Toby: Well, I mean first of all let’s put the Facebooks and the Amazons of this world in their own category, I think, because I don’t know how much we can really draw from those companies in terms of understanding how the rest of us will be thinking about the future, or thinking about offices or office space. It’s hard to speak to the strategies specifically. I mean Facebook is a client, but I really don’t have any insight or take on how they’re thinking about the future. I do know this, during the pandemic they’ve been pretty much one of the first companies to cancel all in-person gatherings through the end of 2021. They’ve been one of the first companies to give their teams permission to work from home, somewhat indefinitely.
And I’m sure they’re going to be the type of company that will be not demanding that people come back to the office any time soon and post-pandemic. But in a way, I think an investment in physical space is just as important as our investment into thinking about how we operate and work remotely. And the reason for that, and going back to what I was saying before, two-thirds of people are still going to want to come to an office. And those companies in particular are some of the fastest-growing companies in the world, and so they just need space to accommodate the growth of the organizations. But also you’re talking about cities, like New York for example, which will just always be an international hub, a meeting point, a place where people will want to convene, coming and traveling from other parts of the world. So I can imagine that’s another reason why they would be looking to invest in more square footage.
Nathalie: Yeah it’s definitely an interesting thing, and I think it’s one of these things which I think of quite a lot of in terms of how we meet our competing needs. The desire for flexibility of remote work, the desire to be able to leave the flat share, or leave the kids, or leave the spouse or the partner or flat mates, to be able to have a space that you can go to just to leave your home behind and not have to deal with, I don’t know, trickiness in terms of physical and time-based boundaries.
Toby: I think it’s just so important to understand a couple things here about that. One, we need to stop talking in absolute terms. It feels like things are absolute when you’re basically experiencing a pandemic and you can’t go anywhere or do anything, but the future isn’t absolute. The future is going to be an iteration on the past, an iteration on how things were. And we’re talking about, actually, in percentage terms, probably relatively small adjustments to how we work, and where we work, and the degree to which we have flexibility in how we work. But those small adjustments, when you look at them across the board, will obviously lead to substantial behavior change.
I think that’s important for us to spend time thinking about because… Let me give you another quick example. Let’s say the big five to ten thousand person company that sends a couple thousand of its sales team to Las Vegas for a sales kick off at the beginning of every year, isn’t going to be doing that in 2021. But also simultaneous to that is thinking, “Should we be doing that at all?” Or, “What should we be doing in the future?” And the truth of the matter is, when things open up again, and we have the capacity and ability to do these sorts of things, you’re going to be asking yourself a really important question. Is it essential? Because if it’s not essential then it’s not worthwhile. And when you’re looking at ways in which you can save money, but also simultaneous to that create better experiences, these big companies are going to be all-in on the new way of being able to, for example, convene a couple thousand of their sales team for their annual sales kick off.
Nathalie: Yeah indeed. If we’re thinking about what’s going to vital to the long-term success of businesses, especially given the amount of uncertainty and how we’ve seen that one of the most important skills is the ability to adapt, what would you suggest is most critical for a business to be able to embody, or to do?
Toby: Recognizing that talent is everywhere, and not necessarily concentrated in the large and most significant markets, like New York, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, et cetera. Once we recognize that the talent already existed everywhere, and we’re now seeing in addition to that, a huge migration of talent leaving these big cities and looking to go elsewhere because they can, this then becomes the greatest opportunity for these organizations to be thinking about who they hire, not based on where they live but based on their fit for the role, fit in terms of culture, ability to work effectively but remotely, et cetera, et cetera. So I think that’s one of the most important things to acknowledge is the fact there’s talent everywhere, and now there’s an opportunity to access that talent regardless of where they are geographically.
Nathalie: And so then to finish on this note, what kind of world would you like to build?
Toby: Well, I think there was a moment early in the pandemic where I got a glimpse into a world that I was just so enormously inspired by. And it’s not necessarily been maintained since then, but that little glimpse into the capacity of people to be empathetic, and the capacity of people to reach out and find opportunities to connect even though we’re not together, and the outpouring of support and recognition of essential workers. And the ways in which we, at every imaginable level, pull together for each other, took care of each other, and were able to do so because of technology, for me helped me reset my own core belief that technology has always, and will continue to play a fundamental role in how we connect and communicate. And when we apply it appropriately, and in the right way, and with empathy, there’s an opportunity to use technology for good.
And that’s the glimpse that I saw that I think got overshadowed by other things, elections and other such major events, the divisiveness of mask wearing and all of that stuff. But it’s there. It exists. And people are good and technology is a tool that can be used to advance our capacity to be empathetic. And empathy, I believe, is at the absolute foundational level of being human. And I would even say, if you want to unpack that even more because I’ve seen this at every level, I’ve seen this among celebrities, I’ve seen this among corporate executives, I’ve seen this even amongst my friends as we’ve connected and shared our experiences, is that actually the precursor to empathy is vulnerability. And to be vulnerable is to be empathetic. And that’s where we have to start. And as I said before, recognizing that technology is just a tool, but when used and applied appropriately it can be an enormously effective tool for good.
Nathalie: Wonderful. And if people are listening to this and they’re feeling inspired, which I’m sure they are, and you wanted to give them one action or practice that they could engage in to move them more towards that space of a future world which is empathetic, what would that practice or tool be?
Toby: Well it is something that I’m working on myself in recognizing that I have so much capacity non-judgment that I feel is hugely underutilized. We live in a society where it’s just so easy to judge, and be judgmental of others, but I think if we can lean into the idea of non-judgment. And it speaks to kind of empathy, but I think the practice of non-judgment is really about taking a breath before we act or communicate in such a way that could really negatively impact the other person’s experience. And so practicing non-judgment, I think is key. I think practicing, connected to that, the art of being vulnerable with everybody, people who are close to you and even your coworkers, can ultimately lead us down a path towards a greater sense of empathy for the people in the world around us.