Are Companies Getting Cold WFH Feet?

The pendulum normally swings back when we see paradigms shift.  As many companies made the move to work from home (WFH) with the onset of COVID-19, this article (which lacks data, by the way) there may be some rumblings from some companies to bring people back to the office (safely, of course).  Is this really a WFH issue or a management issue?

It is to be expected that WFH will not be a permanent arrangement for everyone who is doing it now.  Whether due to circumstances, preference, or company culture, some people (and companies) are going to prefer to have people in offices.  But, to make WFH effective, companies have to adjust how they manage people and not just pretend that the same approaches will translate from the office to home work environments.

For instance, people experience more autonomy when working from home.  That can either be leveraged for faster decision making (with perhaps less consensus) or problem solving time can be built into weekly schedules.  Or teams can develop new approaches to problem solving that account for WFH.

Others in the article are concerned that it is more difficult to build relationships when working remotely in that there are fewer opportunities to spontaneously interact.  One company’s solution was renting a large cottage where their (small) company could get together.  Of course, there’s nothing awkward about spending “voluntary” week or two in a house with your boss.  I have a better idea.  It uses old tech, but I think it might work.  How about using that calling feature on your phone to reach out to people?

An approach mentioned, and one that one of my clients with “essential” workers has been using, is a blended one.  The HR team determined how much on site coverage was needed to address employee and management issues and the staff has alternated days in the office to cover those needs and doing WFH on the others days.  This has allowed for distancing, having some personal interactions, and a recognition that some work is done better at the office and other work can be done just as well remotely.

One executive in the article mentions the difficulty in training new employees, who would typically go through 6 weeks of classroom training and OJT.  And, if your mindset is that is the ONLY way to train employees, then remote work presents a problem.  If you are willing to innovate, then it is more of an opportunity. Just as pre-COVID not everyone wanted to work at an office, as we adjust to COVID, not everyone is going to want to WFH.  It is reasonable to assume that while many people will go back to working 40 hours a week at an office, there is going to be a substantial number that do not.  Companies should be looking for ways to adapt to that reality instead of forcing old squares into new round holes.

Are We Really Going to Telecommute More?

The lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on work culture will take some time to assess. We tend to overestimate changes when we are in the middle of them due to the closeness of the experience. Habits are learned over a lifetime and it takes more than a few weeks to change them. For instance, after the World Trade Center bombings, there was a lot of talk how business travel would be reduced over time because we could not fly for a short period of time. In fact, the change was just the opposite—due to demand, airlines eventually built planes specifically to handle more business travel.

There is plenty of talk about how the pandemic will lead to more telecommuting (something we also heard after 9/11). While it might not be to the extent that some predict, I think there are some reasons why we might see a modest increase in people working from home once this passes:

1)  This time, it impacts managers. In the past, management was one of the biggest resistors to allowing people to work from home. They imagined that productivity would plummet. Given that technology barriers to working at home have come down and their own experiences, more managers may become more open to people working from home. Change is easier when you get to explore it rather than just think about it.

2)  Somewhat related to the above, digital non-natives are living a bit more in the world of millenials and Gen Z. Yes, you can spend most of your day online without the sky falling. Older workers who always thought they needed the discipline of going into the office everyday are discovering that might not be the case. Oh, and commuting really is a miserable experience that people will be loath to return to.

3)  Going back to the office may soon be considered the change and not the normal. For people who have been working remotely, it could be months (no, I’m not thinking years) before their state/country/workplace allows them the opportunity to go back to their office. Even if the building opens tomorrow, social distancing guidelines may mean that many people will still have to work from home due to space limitations. They will develop good work habits from home. These employees are going to be reluctant to go back to the office.

A contrary viewpoint that a friend expressed to me is that younger workers may miss the daily face-to-face work interactions. Now that all of their lives are spent online, they may crave being with people at least a few times a week. We’ll have to see about that.

There are many considerations of managing a workforce where fewer people are visible each day. For instance, will recognition and promotions be available equally to in-house workers and telecommuters? There may also be recruiting and hiring issues as well. But, those issues are for a future post.

Skills of the Future

The nature of work has always changed and will continue to do so.  This report from the World Economic Forum outlining trends and predictions came out a year ago.  I find its conclusions as true today as they were when it was first published.  It is a bit of a long read, but does break things out by country which shortens the time required a bit.

The net of the study is in the table below.

The Declining skills are instructive.  Not surprising, the list contains skills which are being automated (management of resources, quality control, manual dexterity, etc.).  Others are in response to a change in workplace culture which places higher value autonomy (management of personnel).  We can have a separate conversation as to what it means that active listening is on the Declining list.  What that leaves us with (see the Trending column) are the skills that are becoming more important in the near future.  Innovation and learning top the list with plenty of problem solving skills.  Seeing emotional intelligence on the list made me throw up in my mouth a bit, but there is no surprise about social influence.

The practical aspect of the report is to get us thinking about the skills that we really need for jobs in the 2020’s.  As we automate more, how does that change our expectations of employees?  At McDonald’s, automation means more interaction between staff and guests.  With managers being freed from coordination and time management, what is it that we will want them to do?

Here’s how to keep up:

  1. You probably need to review your job descriptions more often than you think.  And you should definitely do so after introducing new technology.

  2. Updated job descriptions should feed into your recruitment process.  Be sure that you are not advertising for yesterday’s jobs.

  3. The Trending list throws down the gauntlet as to how we select candidates.  Whether it be updating tests, interviews, or what we look for on resumes, knowing that we need more creativity and leadership, and less management, from those who direct the activities of others is a BIG difference.  If our selection tools are to be valid, they need to keep up with changing jobs.

By making these updates, we can drive the recruitment and selection of employees with the right skill sets.  It also provides us with a framework of being ahead of futures skill changes.

Are we Biased AGAINST Top Talent?

We all want to believe that we are looking to recruit, select, and develop top talent.  We spend lots of time reading and writing articles on the topic.  But, what if hiring managers are not interested?

This article throws a bit of cold water on the topic.  It documents a study where hiring managers were shown to doubt the organizational commitment of those deemed the most capable.  It was almost as if they were saying, “Why would someone really good want to work for us?”

There are several issues at work here.  But, what they boil down to is a bias among hiring mangers that negatively affects their selection processes.  Sure, I can imagine anecdotal evidence (“Yeah, we hired that one really bright person, but she jumped ship as soon as she got a better offer.”), but I don’t think that this is a data driven decision.

What this also underlines is the importance of developing a culture that encourages top talent to stay.  There’s no question that selecting the right people will drive business performance.  And having a culture that acknowledges and rewards high performance will do so as well.  When hiring managers feel that top talent will not stay, it is really an indictment of the culture rather than an accurate prediction of management’s view.  How can you fight this?

  1. If managers do not think top talent would be committed to your organization, they should NOT be involved in hiring. 
  2. Those who are doing the hiring should be able to provide a realistic preview of the organization, but should also be able to succinctly describe why people stay.  And I’m not just talking about a good cafeteria.  They should be able to provide examples of people who have found challenging work over time in the organization.
  3. If you are speaking with hiring managers who show an anti-talent bias, ask them what needs to be changed so they would believe that top talent would want to stay.
  4. The best way to fight bias is with data.  You should be able to study turnover rates by talent bands (contact me for tips on this).  This way you can either show people that top talent does not leave any faster than other employee groups or demonstrate to executives that this is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Organizations should strive for selection processes that identify top talent and cultures that nurture them.  Do not let bias against hiring top talent work against these two initiatives.

Millennials, Transparency, and the Alignment of Values

Each generation (as named by demographers) has their own marked stereotypes.  Baby Boomers are optimistic consumers, Gen X are the disillusioned, and Millennials are the spoiled digital natives.  Most of my management development workshops address how to best manage in a multi-generational workplace.  One topic that typically comes up is how to align corporate values with those of job candidates.

This is a relatively new topic.  I’m pretty sure that very few Baby Boomers asked their prospective employers about their charitable donations.  But, large companies started aligning themselves with causes not related to the bottom line (United Way was the first, but not the last, organization to leverage this).  Once they started wearing their values on their sleeves, they could then attract job candidates who shared the same values.

However, the real world is messy for some charities (including United Way). What were once seen as “mom and apple pie” non-profits for companies to be aligned with suddenly carried baggage that was as likely to repel as attract candidates (see the Boy Scouts of America, first for their stance on gay scouts and leaders and then their abuse scandal). To avoid being linked with organizations that can be fallible, other companies began professing their values to the world (see Patagonia and Hobby Lobby as two examples).

So, companies start making a big deal about their values.  Millennials caught on to this, ran with their tech that exploits this transparency, and have made themselves more value conscious than previous generations in terms of what they purchase and where they want to work.  This is now extending to trying to influence whom their employers do business.  And I don’t believe that it is a liberal/conservative thing.  If Hobby Lobby executives started making decisions that employees thought were against the values they signed up for, younger workers would definitely have their voices heard.

If a company believes that it should lead with its values in the marketplace, then it should be clear about them when recruiting and hiring.  Not that you want to get into selecting people based on religious or political beliefs, but you do want to let candidates know the values and culture of the organization so they can make the best choice for themselves.  Think of it as a real-life work life preview.

Of course there are risks to this approach, but your Millennial candidates are going to form an opinion about your values based on what’s on your website, your business partners, and the behavior of your executives.  It is probably better that they hear what you are all about from you instead of the internet.

Putting Too Fine a Point On It

I will admit that I am more of a big picture person than a perfectionist.  Going through old blog posts would likely lead to the finding of some spelling errors and grammatical mistakes.  That does not bother me as long as I am getting my point across.  I also have a pretty good sense that I am in the minority of people who are willing to admit that I lack a big attention to detail.

At the same time, I also advise clients to use pre-employment tests that measure attention to detail and conscientiousness for those jobs that require it.  So, like other personality traits, it certainly has its place.  I’m just not the person you want looking for needles in haystacks.

So, this article definitely caught my attention.  Here’s the most important takeaway (at least to me) from the authors, “…the answer to the question ‘is perfect good?’ is that in total, perfectionism is likely not constructive at work.”  Given this, what are we really getting when a job candidate tells us that he is a perfectionist?

The data shows that we will get someone who will work long hours, but is not more likely to be engaged in the work.  Rather, perfectionists tend to burn out more than those who can let the little things slide.  This is particularly true of those whose perfectionism comes from a place of avoiding failure than those striving to be excellent.

Most importantly, when compared to supervisor ratings of job performance, y’know, the people the perfectionist is trying to impress, levels of perfectionism are not related.  That’s right—managers feel that the job performance of those who feel that good is good enough is the same as for those who choose to gild the lily.

From a selection perspective, a more subtle approach is called for.  There are some jobs (brain surgeon and quality inspector, to name two) where perfectionism is probably important and should be part of your assessment process.  However, it should not be considered a good universal predictor of performance.  One can easily imagine some jobs where being a perfectionist would be a negative predictor, such as creative jobs like marketing or app design. Also, when interviewing, if a candidate brags about her perfectionism, I would not get too excited.  She may be confusing activity for productivity.

The organizational implications here are straightforward: Having a culture of perfectionism will get you more hours, but not better performance, out of your team.  While not explicitly tested in the article, it is likely to also get you more turnover.  This is a reminder that we should be clear about quality expectations and work-life balance.

Celebrating (Painful) Learning

In a previous post I talked about using the Marshmallow Challenge to provide insight into cultures that support risk taking.  Taking the stigma out of making mistakes is one way to encourage creativity.

Taking this to the next level are FUN nights (note that curse words figure prominently into the article).  This is where entrepreneurs are encouraged to share their failures with others.  The thought is that the process makes people more relatable than if they only share your successes.  The promoters feel this leads to better networking among the members.

Organizations could adopt this approach as well, but it would take a bit of a balancing act.  Most companies want their executives to be approachable, but also want them seen as competent.  Employees want to avoid being branded as “the person who had the bad experience.”

The key is to not just share stories of failure.  Rather, talk about growth. When executives reveal experiences about what they learned from mistakes, others can see that risk taking, and the inevitable missteps that come with it, are part of the process of becoming successful.

From a selection perspective, there are traits you can look for in hiring potential leaders who are pre-disposed to this kind of learning.  One is openness to experience.  The other is self-confidence.  Validating these types of measures will help you hire people who are willing to confront their mistakes and share their lessons with others.

Can we Predict Karma in Applicants?

We would all like to think that doing well towards others will benefit us in this (and future?) life.  At the same time, capitalism can encourage some people to act entirely in their self-interest in order to get ahead and create efficient organizations.  So, should we hire good or successful people?

Altruism is a part of the “Big 5” personality construct of Agreeableness.  In business settings, we would consider it how much a person makes other feel welcome versus looking down on others.  Agreeableness has been established as a reasonably good predictor of job performance.

In this study, researchers dug into altruism and how it affected life outcomes, including income.  There are two things that I found interesting and useful about their results:

  • We should not be surprised that altruism leads to financial success in environments that involve teamwork. Working with others is about making 2+2=5 and people need to be willing to think about others to make that happen.  It is important to note that this research did not look at specific occupations.  One can see how altruism would be a bigger plus for some professions (health care) but not in others (sales).
  • Generally, the results showed a straight-line relationship between altruistic motivations and income. However, when looking at altruistic behaviors, there was a point where there could be too much of a good thing an income went down among those who reported the most altruistic behaviors.  This is important from a selection perspective because if you were to use a personality measure (Compared to most people I know, I am very altruistic.), you would want to score it as higher is better.  However, if using a biodata approach (How many times have you given your time to someone else in the past year?), then a curvilinear scoring may be more accurate.

Of course, deciding on any pre-employment screen first requires a good job analysis first.  This study provides an interesting window into how one sub-facet of personality can potentially be predictive of important job behaviors.

It also reminds us to look at the value of pro-social behaviors in the workplace and look for opportunities for employees to do them together.  It builds a culture of altruism that may also lead to greater business success.

People–Can’t Profit With Them, Can’t Profit Without Them

So, in the same week that Tesla says that lack of people is a problem in their business (too many robots!), Starbucks comes to the conclusion that people are biased and are hurting its business, everyone gets training. So, which one is right?

Let’s start with Tesla. Their statement is not as much about how wonderful people are as it is that they haven’t quite (yet) gotten the engineering down for their new cars to be built completely by robots. So, it is not exactly an “Up with people” moment as a “Well, we guess we have to put up with them for a bit longer” one.

The Starbucks situation is a bit stickier. On one hand, they clearly felt as if they had to do something after a horrible incident involving African-American customers to maintain their brand image. But, I think they are setting themselves up for failure. Implicit bias training is well meaning, but correcting a lifetime of assumptions about people in a ½ day seminar is a pretty tall order. What will they do next time a racially tinged incident occurs? Do a full day of training? Validate a test that predicts levels of implicit bias?

Where I think the training will have the most impact is on their new hires. It sets a cultural norm of what is and is not OK. Yes, this will require management support and some way of recognizing employees for being decent human beings. But, in reading the comments on their social media pages after the announcement that may not matter as a lot of people were pretty bent out of shape of having to go one whole afternoon without their Starbucks. Ah, the downsides of selling a legal, but addicting, product.

Service sector organizations will always face the challenge of directing the activities of people in a way that is consistent with their values. Manufacturers are always challenged with introducing technology (which improves efficiency), but also understanding its limits (for now). We are not quite at a point where people can be engineered out of business. So, we still need to lead them in productive ways.

But we Trained Them!

Workplace controversies that make headlines are a bonanza for corporate trainers. Even in states like California that have mandatory sexual harassment training (companies with 50 or more employees are required to provide all supervisors two hours of sexual harassment prevention training within six months of hire or promotion, and every two years thereafter), you can bet that the #MeToo movement has led to an explosion in programs for managers devoted to the topic.

While providing basic information about sexual harassment is a good thing, it is more of a “check the box” activity than a creator of change. The underpinnings of what made it allowable and tolerated run deeper than what can be addressed in a two-hour mandatory training session or firing a couple of executives for egregious behavior. So, how can a company create an environment where incidents of sexual harassment are reduced?

1) Recruit, hire, and promote qualified women. Sociologists tell us that the roots of harassment are power differences. Having women and men participate in an organization with equal footing will likely reduce harassment incidents. Oh, and while you are at it, equal pay based on skill and experience goes a long way.

2) Reward at least some of the means, not just the ends. Cultures that have a win at all costs mentality are prime breeding grounds for harassment. If an organization only focuses on results, top producers can rationalize and get away with more bad behavior. Consider rewarding important process indicators (voluntary turnover, complaints to HR, engagement survey results, etc.) as part of evaluating manager’s performance.

3) Apply corporate sexual harassment policies quickly and as intended. This is where training has benefit. If manager know the policy and implement it correctly, it tells employees that it is as important as other policies and procedures.

Sexual harassment in the workplace did not happen, nor will it disappear, overnight. Our challenge is to create cultures that strongly discourage it. And that takes more than a two hour training band-aid.

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