Since collapsing from exhaustion in 2007 , Arianna Huffington has dedicated herself to addressing the burnout crisis across the global workforce. As CEO and founder of Thrive, a behavior change technology company, she has a deep understanding of how and why employees should prioritize their health.
Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post, now HuffPost, is the second guest for Season 2 of Microsoft’s WorkLab podcast, in which host Elise Hu has conversations with economists, technologists, and researchers who explore data and insights into why and how work is changing. This week, Colette Stallbaumer, general manager of Microsoft 365, sits in the host chair for this insightful conversation with Huffington.
Three key insights from their talk:
To drive meaningful change, leaders must show they care about their team members as whole individuals. Try leading by example by asking thoughtful questions like, “How can I support you outside of work?” and creating an accommodating work environment in response.
Taking intentional breaks can work wonders. In a pilot program between Thrive and Walmart call centers, in which calls exceeding 20 minutes directed frontline workers to a prompt asking them to take 60 seconds for themselves, Walmart employees reported lower levels of stress and feeling more valued.
Sleep hygiene is important. Creating evening rituals and routines to transition to bed time helps demarcate our workday from our home life, which has been blurred by hybrid work. Science shows that the vast majority of people really do need between seven and nine hours of sleep a night.
To go deeper into the theme of intentionality, correspondent Mary Melton checks in at the end of the episode with Kate Nowak, a researcher at Microsoft who’s leading a team that’s improving the employee experience through product experimentation and incubation. She shares advice about how to create a more inclusive atmosphere in video meetings.
WorkLab is a place for experts to share their insights and opinions. As students of the future of work, Microsoft values inputs from a diverse set of voices. That said, the opinions and findings of the experts we interview are their own and do not reflect Microsoft’s own research or opinions.
Follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s a transcript of the Episode 2 conversation.
ELISE HU: This is WorkLab , the podcast for Microsoft. I’m your host, Elise Hu. On WorkLab , we hear from the leading thinkers on the future of work—economists, technologists, researchers. Throughout the season we’ll share surprising data and trends transforming the way we work.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Because we’re living in this unprecedented time of greater anxiety and uncertainty, what worked in the past is not working now.
ELISE HU: That was Arianna Huffington, CEO and founder of Thrive, co-founder of HuffPost, and a vocal advocate for holistic employee wellbeing. Today, we got something special for you. Colette Stallbaumer is stepping in for me in the host chair. She is the general manager of Microsoft 365, and she’s talking with Arianna about a host of topics, from ways to support frontline workers to how we can all get more sleep. I need that. Underlying it all are actionable tips for leaders to promote a healthier workforce. Later in this episode, we’ll hear from Microsoft researcher Kate Nowak, who talks with WorkLab correspondent Mary Melton about how to make meetings more inclusive and what new technology her team is working on to improve the employee experience. But first, I’m super excited to introduce Colette’s conversation with Arianna.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: Hello, Arianna. It’s so nice to see you.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: It’s great to see you. So happy to be together again.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: So, Arianna, I was reflecting on some of our conversations early in the pandemic, and now here we are two years later and so much has happened. And one of the things that we are talking a lot about at Microsoft is that we are not the same people that went home to work two years ago. We are truly changed.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Yes, I believe we are truly changed. And I very much hope that we use this once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring about these fundamental changes in the way we work, in the way we live that we needed even before the pandemic. But as you know, Colette, fundamental transformational changes are really hard. And the pandemic, which has been a crucible of a lot of pain and grief and losses, has also been a catalyst for this fundamental change. As the Stanford economist said, you know, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Because I’ve had friends who have been through traumatic experiences like cancer or losing a loved one, and they will say, I’m never going to be the same. I will live my life differently. I will prioritize different things. And then six months later, it’s like they forget it and they’re back where they were before. So I think it’s going to take some work and intentionality to make sure we don’t revert to our old ways.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: Yes, it’s so funny you mention intentionality because that’s definitely something I wanted to talk about today. You know, we’ve been talking about hybrid work for a while now, but we haven’t really lived it yet. And now we’re going to start to really implement it. How do we make hybrid work work ?
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Well, what I’m hearing and what we’re focusing on at Thrive is bringing all the interventions, the micro steps, the inspiring content, the reminders—everything that you know works when we encourage people to adopt healthier habits—bringing all that in what you call the flow of work. We think that’s the key. One of the shifts that has been very clear, and we have so much data around it, is that people are sick of downloading apps. We’ve been hearing so much about virtual fatigue. And we have solutions. We just need to use them. You know, taking a break after 30 minutes, as the research shows through EEGs, changes the waves in our brain, changes our productivity, and also changes our stress levels. And I find this is really key because stress is inevitable in life. But cumulative stress, which is the killer, is avoidable. We are working with BJ Fogg at Stanford, and the neuroscience that shows that it takes 60 to 90 seconds to course correct from stress, to move from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system, is just amazing, because I find, Colette, if you tell people take 10 minutes to meditate or do conscious breathing, we often get people saying, You know, I don’t have 10 minutes, Arianna. But nobody’s going to tell you I don’t have 60 seconds.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: It’s human nature, isn’t it? It’s so hard to change those habits.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: It is hard. But also, if we break it down into these micro steps that we call “too small to fail,” it becomes less hard [and] healthy habits begin to change how we work and live.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: Yes, and I think the other key is what you said about introducing these things in the flow of work, so that it makes it easier to adopt new habits that promote and preserve wellbeing.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Exactly. That’s the key. And there is a really interesting piece that you wrote about frontline workers.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: Oh yes, in our Work Trend Index, our special report on the front line.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: I love that, especially post-pandemic, because I believe they have paid the heaviest price. We are working with 2.2 million associates at Walmart, most of whom are in the stores. And we have seen the impact that these micro steps of changing how much you sleep, or what you eat, or how much you move—these little changes have had amazing, game-changing results, and it’s what makes me optimistic that we can change things.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: With frontline workers specifically, the 2 billion workers, as you said, that never got to go home to work and are out there for us every day. What are you seeing as they adopt some of these things?
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: One of the areas in which you have seen incredible results is the area of call centers. As you know, customer service has seen an incredible increase in demand during the pandemic.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: Yeah, they’re bearing the brunt of the supply chain shortages and all these other things.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: They’re in the front lines of stress. And we found that bringing these 60-second interventions that we call “thrive calls” have had a game-changing impact. Walmart, we did a pilot with them, and they chose if a call was longer than 20 minutes, which indicated a particularly stressful call, you would then be fed a call and you would assume it’s another complaint call. But it would be a call that said, Thank you for the work you are doing for Walmart or Microsoft or whatever the employer is. Now take 60 seconds for yourself. And the results were amazing, not just in terms of stress reduction, but also in terms of the operators not feeling so disposable—feeling that someone cared for them—and also in terms of customer success.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: You’ve been out ahead of these topics, like wellbeing or meditation and rest and sleep, and made them more a part of the mainstream conversation, I think, to where there’s more acceptance of the importance of these things in people’s day-to-day work and life.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Exactly. And also, that is data-driven and science-driven because a lot of these conversations have been seen as kind of warm and fuzzy. And now the employee experience has moved to the center of business priorities because we are seeing the connection to business metrics like attrition, like recruitment, like productivity, healthcare costs—direct or indirect. And also because we’re living in this unprecedented time of greater anxiety and uncertainty, we are finding that what worked in the past is not working now, even among leaders, managers. You have to be an empathetic leader to your team much more than you had to in the past, and you have to tap into your creativity and your empathy in a sustainable way.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: Yes, we saw this so much in our data: the overcommunicating how much you care. It can’t be overstated, and it’s important for managers and leaders to create that space.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Exactly. And to recognize that it doesn’t have to take a lot of time.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: Well, what you’re really talking about is culture, right? And it’s why we’re passionate about Viva, our employee experience platform, and I know there are exciting things on the horizon there with the partnership with Thrive, insights to support employee wellbeing. But really, it’s about that role of culture and norms and setting the tone and what we can do on sending a message about what’s really important to measure, which is more about the impact you’re having and how we help people do their best work and be their best. And then there’s technology, too, and they each kind of play a role.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Well, that is why this sort of wonderful truth is very often paradoxical. The paradox here is that, first of all, technology has been a lifesaver.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: Yes, it has preserved productivity.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: It has preserved productivity. But also, we are now recognizing that technology can be addictive. And we have a lot of people, a lot of our own children, who have a hard time setting boundaries. And again, the paradox is that technology can help us set boundaries with technology.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: Yes, that’s exactly right.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: And I love that. I think once we recognize that we need to set up boundaries, we can use technology for these little reminders of breaks, or for how much time have we spent on Instagram, and how much time have we spent on this game, all these things that bring us joy. But if we don’t set boundaries, they become addictive, and they have a really deleterious effect on our health.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: As we move into this phase of hybrid where there will be some in-person time, you know, I’m thinking about the need for leaders to be intentional on when we come together, why we come together, what’s the purpose of it? Anything you’re learning or seeing about that as a trend?
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Yes, we are finding that onboarding is becoming more and more important. That is a great moment for integrating new employees into the company culture at the moment when they really want to belong. And we recommend that on day one, the manager has an entry interview with a new employee on day one. It doesn’t have to be long, it can be 10 minutes. But establishing this connection, which is going to be more and more important when maybe they’ve never met.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: Yes, we hired 34,000 people at Microsoft this year that have not had that in-person experience.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Exactly. The first question we recommend is, What is important for you outside of work, and how can we support you? And the reason this matters is that we talk a lot about bringing your whole self to work, but a lot of employees don’t believe that. So if you tell them, We want to support what’s important for you outside of work, and if they hear that on day one from their manager and then any time they have a one-on-one they can bring it up. It can be, I want to take my daughter to school at seven in the morning. That’s very important to me. I want to make my PTA appointment every two weeks at 6:00. It can be anything, but suddenly, if I asked you that question, Colette, and you told me, I would have a window into what matters to you or what you are struggling with.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: Yes, well, I’m hearing the whole theme here around maintenance is no longer good enough . You know, it’s going to take holistic leadership, empathetic leadership, caring about the whole person, showing people and telling people we care.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: And role modeling it. You know, for example, that Satya believes in getting eight hours of sleep. I love that. I think that was game-changing when you first mentioned it.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: Yes, I’m so glad you touched on sleep. So you’ve long been a proponent of this, and the data is very clear. And we all know what the research says. And I think more people are getting on the eight hours of sleep bandwagon. But I also know a lot of people, and I will count myself among them, really struggling with this right now. So, any tips, you know, on how we can break bad sleep habits?
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Well, yes. Oh my god, how long do you have? Well, the first thing I’ll tell you is that not everybody needs eight hours. For the vast majority of people, we need seven to nine hours. I’m an eight-hour girl. Whatever it is, you see what a difference it makes when you wake up in the morning and you are fully recharged and it’s like, Bring it on. Whatever challenges the day holds, I can handle them. And this is not to judge myself, because we all have nights when we didn’t get the sleep we wanted. That’s fine. You know, we’ll deal with it. The question is, What do you do on an everyday basis? And then, if your problem is not being able to fall asleep or waking up in the middle of the night, the most important thing is to create a transition to sleep.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: I’m hearing the importance of ritual to getting the right rest.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Absolutely critical. And you can start with a five-minute ritual. Mine is now 30 minutes. But again, micro steps, and a five-minute ritual I would recommend is, declare an end to your working day. I’m saying “declaring it” because there is no end to the working day.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: Okay, I’m going to switch gears a bit. So, women have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, and the data shows that 1.1 million women have left the labor force since February of 2020. And at the same time, our own data—Work Trend Index data and LinkedIn data—shows that women overwhelmingly want flexible work options. And so, how can organizations create a culture that supports that? And what are business leaders getting right and what do they need to do more of?
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Yes, obviously, flexibility is table stakes for everyone, but especially for women and especially for working mothers. We are finding, actually, Colette, that with a lot of the companies we work with, the employees, the women, may be doing well, but they worry about their children. The truth is that no matter how much we talk about fathers doing more of the work of parenting, it still falls disproportionately on women. It’s changing, and whether it’s same-sex couples as well, you see that one of them has the primary responsibility for taking care of children. So we’ve actually produced a whole program to help couples bring everything that has worked in the office into how they’re managing dividing responsibilities at home. It seems like you’re bringing too much structure at home, but if you don’t, the default position is that it falls on the woman. And it’s not just the action work. It’s also mindshare. Maybe the partner takes the child to the doctor, but if I have to remind them, I still have to think about it.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: Yeah, I mean, I think where we’ve seen technology help is even in giving people more options and more ways for their voice to be heard. That’s true for women as well as different generations, it’s true for introverts. There’s the option to use the hand-raise or there’s the option to use chat in terms of contributing. But I’m just thinking about the different ways that the pandemic has been a catalyst for creating more opportunity for people to be heard.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Absolutely. And also creating more reflection around what we value. And that, of course, applies to men as well as women. But we are seeing in this great resignation that we are calling the great reevaluation, that some of it is strictly that women are more burnt out, that they have to manage a lot more. And some of it is questioning what people value, because for decades, we had assumed that the most important thing is kind of being the career ladder, doing better and better and better and making more money, having higher titles... and a lot of people are questioning that now.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: That’s right, people are really contemplating why they work.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Yes, and also, this is incredibly important for our culture generally. I’m Greek, and, you know, Greek philosophers always talked about what is a good life. And in modern times, we reduced the definition of a good life into a successful life, and we reduced success to money and status-slash-power. And I wrote a whole book about it called Thrive . But my point was, that was not enough. This is like trying to sit on a two-legged stool. And the third leg of the stool is what a lot of people now want to integrate in their lives. And it involves, you know, our health and wellbeing. It involves our capacity to tap into our own wisdom and go to deeper places within ourselves. It involves our ability to experience beauty and a sense of wonder about our lives, which so often we ignore, and finally to integrate giving into our lives. And that’s a full life. That’s why we now started calling it the life-work integration. It’s not work-life, it’s life-work.
COLETTE STALLBAUMER: Well, thank you so much for joining us today.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Thank you, Colette, thank you for all you are doing.
ELISE HU: That was lovely. And so great to hear Arianna talking about inserting more intentionality into our lives, something I know I could certainly use, and especially as it relates to balancing work and our wellbeing. Our correspondent Mary Melton talked to someone who has great advice for being more intentional on the work front, specifically in virtual meetings, something a lot of us have plenty of experience in by now. She’s Kate Nowak, a behavioral science researcher at Microsoft, who leads a new team building the tools that will make our work lives easier. Here’s Mary.
MARY MELTON: One common stressor while working from home is the number of video meetings that end up on our calendars. And it affects women more than men. A Stanford study found that one in seven women experience video call fatigue compared to just one in 20 men. That may partly be due to something Kate called conversation overlaps. She explains that concept here and outlines some other common challenges in virtual meetings.
KATE NOWAK: One of the top challenges that people have been experiencing is turn-taking in video meetings. The conversations are more formal, they’re a bit stilted, and they’re less interactive. And you probably have also experienced uncomfortable periods of silence because people are trying to negotiate taking the floor and they don’t know when to speak. That fear of interrupting is heightened in a video meeting environment today, and this is in contrast with in-person communication, where things are more dynamic, there’s more overlaps in conversations, and these overlaps that we’re avoiding in video meetings are actually really important for human communications. It creates dynamism. It makes conversations more enjoyable. There are two different kinds of conversation overlaps. There’s cooperative, and then there’s competitive. So, cooperative’s the good stuff. These are the overlaps when you’re maybe finishing another person’s thought or you’re helping someone with word search or you’re encouraging them like, Yeah, yeah, oh yeah, I agree. Those are really helpful for conversation. And competitive ones are things like hostile attempts. Those aren’t any fun. The main takeaway is that overlapping speech or talking over one another is not bad, and we’re missing it in video meetings. That’s specifically something that I’m looking into helping restore in conversations. This actually could lead to less feelings of fatigue because you feel more energized by a conversation than drained.
MARY MELTON: Kate also had great insights on how leaders can be much more intentional about making meetings more inclusive. All you need, she says, is a little advance planning. That could mean creating equal opportunities for everyone to contribute to the meeting while they’re in the meeting, for example, or just making sure every attendee has all the materials they need beforehand to succeed. Here’s how she navigates meetings with her own team.
KATE NOWAK: So knowing that some of my peers might be afraid to speak up, I’m much more conscious of them. I’m watching the room to see who hasn’t had a chance to speak and encourage participation without putting people on the spot. And also using the chat more. We see that parallel chat can be a very positive thing for certain people, especially those who are typically afraid to speak up. So it gives someone another way of participating, where in an in-person meeting you didn’t have that channel. So in some cases, it can cause a distraction, but in other cases it can be very positive for people who aren’t able to get a word in edgewise. I’m a big proponent of leaders or meeting organizers planning in advance, making sure people have the context that they need for a meeting, and meetings where your inclusivity is the top concern. It’s really important to be prepared to show up with that information. I would also tell leaders to have a facilitator. That’s really helpful because it can be hard to participate and also encourage participation and keep track of who’s spoken and who has not spoken. You want to make sure that everybody feels that they are included.
ELISE HU: That was Kate Nowak, researcher at Microsoft, talking with our correspondent Mary Melton about how to have more inclusive virtual meetings.
That’s it for this episode of the WorkLab podcast from Microsoft. Check out the WorkLab digital publication, too, where you can find, among many other things, a transcript of this very episode. That’s all at Microsoft.com/WorkLab. And as for this podcast, please rate us, review, and follow us wherever you listen. It helps us out a lot. The WorkLab podcast is a place for experts to share their insights and opinions. As students of the future of work, Microsoft values inputs from a diverse set of voices. That said, we should mention the opinions and findings of our guests are their own, and they may not necessarily reflect Microsoft’s own research or positions. WorkLab is produced by Microsoft with Godfrey Dadich Partners and Reasonable Volume. I’m your host, Elise Hu. Our correspondents are Mary Melton and Desmond Dickerson. Sharon Kallander and Matthew Duncan produced this podcast. Jessica Voelker is the WorkLab editor. Thanks for listening.
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Welcome to Season 2 of WorkLab: The Podcast
Join host Elise Hu and guests as they explore the latest trends and ideas to reimagine how we work