Freezing and unfreezing: Thoughts on the redesign of work

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic led to a remote work revolution, Lynda Gratton was thinking about how work should be redesigned. Gratton, an author, consultant, and professor, is a world-renowned expert on organisational behaviour. She joined the FM podcast to discuss some of the thoughts in her new book, Redesigning Work: How to Transform Your Organisation and Make Hybrid Work for Everyone.

Gratton also spoke about what organisations around the world are saying about the future of hybrid work and what she's learned from keeping a journal for more than two years.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • Three reasons why work needs redesigning, none related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Why Gratton says work really hasn't changed all that much since the Industrial Revolution.
  • The reasons organisations must "be bold" when thinking about how they will approach the design of work.
  • More on the change management concept of freeze-unfreeze-refreeze.
  • An example of how Gratton recently collaborated with someone she has never met in person.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at


Neil Amato: Hello and welcome to the FM podcast. This is Neil Amato. Normally on the podcast, this would be the point I would introduce the speaker and topic. For this episode, the speaker did a fantastic job introducing herself, so we're going to let that serve as the intro to today's conversation.

Lynda Gratton: Hi, I'm Lynda Gratton. I'm the professor of management practice at the London Business School, and I'm the author of the recently published book Redesigning Work: How to Transform Your Organisation and Make Hybrid Work for Everyone.

Amato: Lynda, we are happy to have you on the podcast, and we're going to talk about redesigning work, which is the main title of your book. Some of the reasons, I guess, are plain for people to see, and things were trending in this direction even before March 2020, but why, in your mind, does work need to be redesigned?

Gratton: Neil, first of all, thank you for inviting me along. I've thought that work needs to be redesigned for a long time. Let me give you three reasons for that. Number 1, we're living longer. You and I are going to live into our 80s, 90s, maybe 100, and if we live longer, we work longer, up into our 70s.

Secondly, extraordinary technological changes, which means that we have to upskill, re-skill right the way through our career. Number 3, we're actually changing our family structures. I was brought up in a family where dad worked and mum stayed at home, but now most women work.

Most families have two workers. So, each of those — we're living longer, we're having more technological changes in our life, we have different family structures — means that work always should have changed.

It should have become more flexible, more adaptive, more about learning, and really more able to allow people to be what we are, which is humans who love joy and collaboration and so on. I've been saying this for some years, but of course, the pandemic has been an enormous, what I've called, "unfreeze" in terms of how we work.

Amato: We will talk about that concept of freezing and unfreezing in just a little bit. This is something, as you said, you've been studying for a long time, at least as far back as 2015, if not earlier, I guess.

Gratton: Absolutely. In fact, Redesigning Work is my tenth book. But I wrote a book called The Shift about a decade ago which really looked at how all of these extraordinary changes were going to really put a lot of pressure on the way that we work which, frankly, Neil, hasn't changed since the Industrial Revolution.

It hasn't really changed since we moved off our farms into factories. The idea that we all had to come together in a factory at a certain time to work on the conveyor belts, that still is the dominant idea, even though very few of us work in factories these days.

Amato: Now, as it relates to the pandemic, do you think there are some company leaders out there saying, "But we don't really need to have a hybrid environment. Everything's going to go back to normal, whatever that is."

Gratton: Well, good luck to them is all that I would say. But having said that, the way that I'm thinking about it, Neil, is to say, when cars started to be produced by Henry Ford, you could only buy one car. It was called the T Ford, and you could only buy it in one colour. It was black. That's where we were with work. If you want to work, this is how you have to do it. What we're seeing, since the pandemic, is an enormous variety of how companies are offering work to their employees.

For example, the investment company that says, you can work anywhere you want for three months a year. The law company that says you can take a sabbatical every three years. The few companies across Europe who are actually experimenting right now with four-day working weeks.

What we're seeing is an outbreak of variety. So if you're a leader and saying, "I think we're all going to go back to how we were," what you're going to find is some of your competitors are going to be pioneers. They're going to do things differently, and your most talented people are going to be saying, "Why aren't we doing this?"

Amato: Can you explain the concept of freeze and unfreeze as it relates to the design of work and specifically how that state change, so to speak, was so different than how it normally plays out in business as it happened in the pandemic?

Gratton: The notion of freeze-unfreeze-refreeze is something actually that maybe some of your listeners, Neil, are interested in change management and how organisations change. This is one of the ways we've thought about them.

We've basically said organisations are generally in a state of freeze. That, by the way, isn't a bad thing. It's not that we're all sitting there actually physically cold. What it means is that most of our structures and practices and processes are pretty stable. They're frozen.

Then something happens to unfreeze them. By the way, if you look at why that is, you'll find a whole set of reasons. For example, there's a merger and acquisition, or a competitor brings out a new product, or the CEO resigns, or your shareholders have a revolution.

All of those mean that an organisation goes into an unfreeze state. It starts to question why are we doing this, how are we doing this, and so on. Then over time, it refreezes. What's been really interesting about the pandemic is that every company unfroze on the 24th of March in 2020.

I've been keeping a journal ever since. Now, by the way, I think I'm on Volume 13. That was the day when the unfreeze started, and I'm beginning to see the refreeze. As you say, Neil, some executives are saying, "I want you all back in the office. It's going to be just the same."

Others are saying you can work from home. Some are saying hybrid. There's so much variety. It's, for me, as an organisational theorist, it couldn't be more fascinating.

Amato: What to you are the key pillars or steps for making an effective hybrid environment for work?

Gratton: There are some key steps, but actually, I wouldn't jump straight into saying it's got to be hybrid. I would actually start with the job itself. In my book, Redesigning Work, I think that's been one of the most important points I've made, which is to say, you have to ask yourself, how do I become the most productive I can be?

If you take a look at the job you do, Neil, or I do, or the people around us do, they tend to have three different types of tasks involved. One is to do with focus. I'm sitting on my own. I'm really focusing. I'm doing analytical work. I'm writing something. I'm reading.

The second is coordination. I'm coordinating with other people, I'm doing a project, I'm talking to people about how this job is going. The third is cooperation. I'm cooperating with other people, I'm trying to be innovative. Each of those requires different working situations.

For example, if you want to be focused, I speak as a psychologist here, Neil, the most important thing is that you are undisturbed for at least two hours. It doesn't really matter if you're undisturbed at work or undisturbed at home, you just have to be undisturbed. That's the most important thing. Lots of people find that it's better to be undisturbed at home because they don't have people walking in and out of their office.

The second is coordination. I need to talk to you about setting up this podcast. We didn't need to meet to do that. We could do it on email, which is asynchronous. You send me an email, I look at it because we're on different time zones, and I send it back to you. That's asynchronous. We could've done it virtually.

But then there's cooperation where you actually really need to be in the moment. This is synchronised, and you can do it in the office or you can do it at home. My guess is that quite a lot of people say, the cooperative tasks, I want to do in the office.

But here's the thing, Neil. I was talking to somebody very senior at one of the investment banks just two days ago in New York, and she said to me, "You know, Lynda, I have just spent one and a half hours commuting into New York. I'm going to spend one and a half hours commuting back, and all I have done today is to sit on Zoom meetings. I could have done that at home."

Of course she could. So what's going to happen now, and this is why it's all so fascinating, is people are going to say, why am I coming into the office? There are good reasons for coming into the office, but sitting on a Zoom meeting isn't one of them.

Amato: There are good reasons for coming into the office, and that actually leads in nicely to my next question. I saw a mention in the book's introduction about how networks are formed. So what I'd like to ask is, what is the new way that people are forming networks, making connections, if people are rarely in the same physical space?

Gratton: Neil, that for me is one of the most fascinating questions, and that's why in the book I actually spent quite a bit of time talking about networks and network structures. But here's the thing, humans are collaborative, cooperative people. We work through working with others.

What we loved about the office is that we could bump into people. We could have lunch. I'm in London right now, and I cannot tell you how excited everybody is to go out for lunch together, to meet people, to say hi to people, to do, "Oh my goodness, I haven't seen you for years."

Face to face is absolutely wonderful, and there are things that we can do face to face that are incredibly helpful, creative, and innovative. But here's the thing. I just had published in the March version of Harvard Business Review, an article about managers and the role of managers in hybrid work. My co-author was Diane Gherson.

Now, writing a Harvard Business Review article is difficult. It's probably one of the most creative things I ever do. Guess what, Diane and I have never met each other. In fact, we're hoping to meet in France later on this year. We've never met. She just stepped down as head of human resources for IBM. She's based in California, I live here in London. We've never met each other. What that's done for me is it's made me think, ''Hang on, could we be really creative virtually?''

I think what's going to happen over the next few months, Neil, is we're going to really ask ourselves, can we be creative even when we're not in the office? But is there something marvellous about coming together face to face? There really is. But to do that, we have to be much more intentional.

I think, for me, one of the most important words that I've used in Redesigning Work is this concept of intentionality. If you're going to go into the office and sit on your computer all day, which by the way is what we did before the pandemic, that's what we did when we went to the office: We sat, we put our headphones on because everything was so annoyingly loud, and we worked on our computer.

If we're going to do that, then really we'd be better at home, and then we'd be making our networks with our colleagues, in our neighbourhood. This is one of the things I've heard from quite a lot of people, saying, ''Do you know, suddenly, I'm at home, and I have now met my neighbours, and I've spent more time with my kids, and I've met my friends.''

I live in Primrose Hill. Some of your listeners might know Primrose Hill, a gorgeous place in Central London. I just walked out this morning to buy my fish and spoke to at least five people, and that's because of lockdown. If you want to live a healthy, happy life, guess what? Speaking to five people as you walk to the fish shop is a really good way of doing that.

Amato: The word "bold" came up in some of my reading about the book. About truly redesigning work, organisations need to be bold. Tell me what you mean by that.

Gratton: It's such a great word, isn't it? "Be bold." What it says is, look, it was interesting quite early on as things played out. A few journalists rang me and said, "Lynda, what do you think about Goldman Sachs telling everyone they've got to be in the office." I said, "I think that's great."

The job of a CEO is to decide how people are going to be most productive, and if that's their decision, then they're a smart organisation. That must be what it is they're doing.

But here's the thing. There's a whole bunch of people out there who are very smart but who actually value flexibility, and they're not going to join Goldman Sachs, or if they're in Goldman Sachs, they're going to leave. Now it could be, you say, look, there's enough smart people around, it really doesn't matter if we lose people who like flexibility.There's plenty more around who are highly smart and don't need any flexibility. But you are really reducing your talent pool, and that's why I think being bold is so important right now, because if you're not being bold, you can bet your life that your competitor is.

We actually spoke to another investment bank, and they said, "We're doing things entirely differently because we want to attract the sort of people who are highly talented but who also value flexibility." I think there's still a lot to play out. What I would say is, keep an eye on what your competitors are doing. And don't be surprised if you lose people along the way if you are not bold.

Again, I was speaking to someone in New York yesterday, and she said, "What's really interesting about now is that we used to be able to predict whether someone was going to leave. We could see that they didn't come into the office so much. They were obviously going for interviews. We could tell from the way they were interacting."

She said, "Guess what? We have no idea now whether someone's going to leave. They just come into the room or come onto Zoom and say, 'I'm leaving', and we didn't know that was going to happen."

You have to be really bold to signal to your organisation, we really care about this. We care about you. We want to be a place where you can flourish, so that's why being bold is going to be so important.

Amato: You mentioned you've been keeping a journal. It has been two years now, do you think you're going to continue keeping one? I guess as it relates – tell me more about the journal. Tell me about what you put in it.

Gratton: I just do so much with my journal. Yesterday, I started off in a conversation with Tokyo, I do a lot of work in Japan. Here is Hiroki, talking about what's happening. I spoke to Hiroki and Kanoka in Japan and Jin Zhuan in China about what was happening, and they were saying, we don't know when people are leaving.

Accenture in Japan said, "Eighty-six percent of people are now working from home, but we're worried about the switching costs as they come into the office." Accenture said, "We've just done an empathy survey, and we found that people are finding this flexibility quite difficult."

I then talked to somebody in California. Of course, it's so fascinating at the moment, Neil. I'm a member of the World Economic Forum Council. So I met with the CEO of four major US companies, and we talked about what was happening, how they felt about it. It's so interesting at the moment. You have got to keep a journal. When will I stop keeping it? I don't know.

Amato: Where do you see things headed with the whole redesign of work in the next few months or few years?

Gratton: I think the refreeze is going to take quite a bit of time. People have spoken to me, particularly this week, as if it's game over, as if we've done it now, "We're so over this." I said to them, you're really only halfway through because, as you know, one of the things I say in the book is that it's a change cycle that you go through.

You have to understand the jobs and the people. You have to be really imaginative about what could be. You have to model it and test it out against questions like, is it fair, is it going to help us to be productive? Then you actually got to have people signed up to do it and who have the skills and the capabilities to do it.

Most organisations have not been through those four parts of that cycle. They've done a bit of it, but not all of it. My view is, I'm going to be keeping my journal for a couple more years, Neil.

Amato: Lynda, I really enjoyed this. There's obviously a lot of directions you can still go, things we could still talk about. But in closing, anything you'd like to add as a thought?

Gratton: Neil, your point about "bold" is really important. What I see right now is, individuals have what I call an inner journey. A lot of us have come out of the pandemic and said, what am I doing? What do I care about? Who's important to me? What are my skills? What are my networks?

These social pioneers, people who are going to do things differently, will change the world of work. At the same time, some organisations are being incredibly creative about how they're thinking about, and they're going to lead the conversation.

So the combination of individuals who want to change the way they work and organisations who are being creative, I think it's the most exciting period I've ever been in, in terms of redesigning work.

Amato: Lynda, thank you very much.

Gratton: Thank you, Neil. My pleasure.