Post-COVID WFH Conflict: Bosses vs. Just About Everyone Else

As the medical need for remote work is coming to an end, the conflict surrounding it may just be beginning.  This difference in opinion between executives and workers who can do their work just as well from home as in an office is just beginning to surface.

For instance, this report (note that it was conducted pre-vaccine) shows that on almost every key metric regarding WFH, executives are much more eager to have people back in the office than the employees. I do think that some of this difference is based on full-time school being available for children, so this gap may narrow come fall. Interestingly, executives cite that they feel that people need to be in the office a certain amount of time to maintain a distinct company culture and despite them saying that performance had improved since COVID.

When it comes to employers wanting workers to come back to work, there is really a sense of trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube.  In Los Angeles, for example, last week it was reported that 24.4% of officer workers were reporting to their work location on a given day. The rate in April of 2020 was 21.6%.  That’s not a big move, especially considering the high vaccination rates of college graduates in LA County. 

While there is some (not a lot, mind you) data that suggests that people work more hours and are somewhat less efficient at home, there are a lot of people who do not want to go back to commuting or spend extra time getting ready for work.  They would rather see their kids when they come home from school and having more control over their day-to-day schedule.  Companies that keep a higher level of flexibility are going to have a huge recruiting advantage, especially for experienced talent. Lower tenured employees tend to want to be in the office more than longer tenured ones—either due to not having kids yet and/or feeling a greater need to schmooze more to keep their careers moving.  This tells us that when flexibility and autonomy are part of your culture, you’ll have a post-COVID edge on attracting talent.

It is this last point that I think executives are missing.  When they say maintaining “culture,” many of them are really saying, “Going back to the way things were that I am comfortable with.”  You can have a customer oriented culture via Zoom.  You can have a quality oriented culture via Teams.  What you cannot have is a, “I can only tell if you are working if I can see you” culture via WebEx.  And, presuming that leaders feel there is a relationship between culture and success, they are going to have a difficult time arguing that WFH has impacted culture but not productivity.  What does that say about your culture when success survives without it?  Why would a talented person want to work for a company that has a culture of control for control’s sake?

Most executives understand that the hybrid model of flexible work schedule for white collar workers is here to stay.  The bigger question is going to be whether they accept it begrudgingly or accept it as an element of an evolving culture that emphasis employee flexibility and autonomy over leader control.

Assessing Talent is HARD—Ask the NFL

The National Football League (NFL) is holding its annual talent draft tonight (as I write this).  So, yes, you’re getting two sports related blog posts this week.  What’s fascinating about this is how the 32 teams evaluate a large pool of potential players and how wrong they are in the most critical evaluations.  If you’re familiar with the NFL draft, you can skip ahead past the bullets.  If not, here’s a quick primer:

  • Each year, the NFL forces the top players who have not yet played in the NFL (think of guys who played college football) to participate in a process where teams select which players that they want (the draft).  The order of the draft is determined by the teams’ records the year before, with the worst team (Jacksonville) going first and the team that won the championship (Tampa Bay) going last.  There are 7 rounds in the draft.
  • If a team wants a particular player, but thinks that he will be taken before it is their turn, they can trade players and/or their draft picks for a better pick.  This is called trading up and can be very expensive.
  • The most important employee (player) on an NFL team is the quarterback.  Teams that do not have an “elite” player at this position will do almost anything to draft one.  There are economic incentives for drafting a quarterback rather than trying to get an experienced one from another team.
  • Each team has an entire department of people whose sole job is to evaluate the skills and abilities of college players, determine the needs of the team, and recommend players to draft and in which order.  The NFL even sets up what are essentially job fairs where the teams can look at players up close, interview them, and they even give a league-wide cognitive ability test.  These players really get put under the microscope.

So, we have a situation where the skill and ability levels of the players are well known.  Given that, you would think that teams can select players, especially quarterbacks, with uncanny accuracy.  And you’d be wrong.

If we look at the quarterbacks drafted in the 1st round (63) since 2000, it’s pretty fair to say that (not including those who are too early in their career to judge):

  • 15 turned out to be very good (consistently led their team to a winning record and won playoff games)
  • 13 were/are good (there teams won more than they lost, but were nothing fabulous)
  • 30 were not good (losing record, didn’t stay with the team long, etc.). 

Those of you who are football fans may quibble with the categories where I put the players, but even if we move players around a bit between the categories, teams have about a 25% success rate and about a 50% miss rate.

In roughly the same time period, teams have “traded up” 25 times to draft a quarterback in the 1st round.  In other words, they paid a premium to “get their guy.”  14 of them were/are not very good, 3 were/are good, and 6 were/are very good.  Again, we see this 50% miss rate, though slightly higher hit rate.

How can this be?

Most obviously, football is a game where all of the players on the field need to do their job well for the team to be successful.  Like it or not, the quarterback gets outsized credit and blame for the team’s success and failures.  But, regardless of his skill level, he cannot control a lot of what goes on around him.  This makes for a very difficult selection situation.

There are also some confounding factors.  The first being that the worst teams pick before the good ones and they are more likely to choose a quarterback than good teams.  And, one of the reasons these teams are not very good is that they don’t judge talent well and do a poor job of developing and retaining the good players that they have.  Related to this, they often take a quarterback before they have good supporting players around him.  It’s entirely possible that several of the quarterbacks who were drafted early, but performed poorly, would have been successful with other teams.  And, a few of them, but not a lot, were after they changed teams.

To make the success rate seem even worse, teams choose to ignore players are other positions that are more likely (historically) to be successful in order to make the sexier, and riskier, play for a quarterback.  And I get that—there are enough examples of a highly drafted quarterback completely changing a team’s fortunes that teams are willing to miss 2 out of 3 times to get one.  Any team would be happy to draft 2 not so good quarterbacks to get to the one that leads them to a championship, even if it takes them several years to do it.

What we do know is that new quarterbacks tend to succeed where the team has a sustainable plan.  Often times, teams change their playing philosophy if they don’t have a successful year so they fail to implement one that fits the quarterback’s skills.  Successful quarterbacks rarely play for multiple head coaches (managers).  The lesson here is that good plan that senior management sticks with is more likely to be one where your most expensive talent can succeed.

It used to be that newly drafted quarterbacks would have a more experienced one ahead of him to learn from for a year or two before being elevated to leading the team.  There are many reasons why that is not the case anymore, but it does limit the opportunity for some drafted players to develop into good quarterbacks. Players drafted at other positions tend to have the luxury.  Organizations that realize which key players can contribute immediately and which ones need some seasoning are also more likely to get the most out of their talent.

The NFL (and other professional sports) draft is a unique selection system.  In some ways it allows talent evaluators to get a great deal of information, but in other ways there is a lot of mystery around what allows players to translate their college success into the pros.  And, in looking at success vs. failure of the quarterback, sports fans tend to ignore the organizational issues that allow some players to shine rather than flounder.  All good lessons to keep in mind as companies begin to hire recent college graduates.

And good luck to Trevor Lawrence.

Moving From Counting to Progress

As I settle in to watch the Los Angeles Lakers play tonight in the National Basketball Association (NBA), my biggest concern will be about LeBron James’ health.  I won’t give a second thought to who is officiating the game and as to whether one of the officials is a woman.  OK, for the sake of this blog post I did check, and one of the 5 female NBA referees is working the game.

The reason I bothered checking was this article about female officials in the NBA.  The league is seen as more progressive than its North American counterparts (football, baseball, hockey, and soccer) when it comes to employment and social justice issues.  I was curious what the league was doing to encourage more women to become NBA officials and how they supported them.

The first thing that struck me was that the league establishes multiple pipelines for attracting referees.  If you have been a ref in one of them, you can get a look from the NBA.  And the league is not concerned whether they had officiated men’s or women’s games.  As long as you put in the time and you were good, you have a chance.

Once in the NBA, both male and female officials work both the top level and development leagues (the latter known as the G League) in order to gain more experience.  A little less than half of the full time G League referees are women.

So, the NBA throws out a large recruiting net (colleges, international leagues, etc.) and provides ample opportunities for the new officials to hone their skills, even when working with the top players.  Of course, the publisher of the article is also a broadcaster of NBA and WNBA games, so I wasn’t expecting any hard hitting accusations.  But, the NBA’s reputation for inclusiveness seems to have paid off in terms of the smoothness of the transition to having more women officiate games played by men.  It also means that the league does not have to bring out the trumpets each time a woman is a game referee.

The lesson from the NBA is that proper planning and culture can lead to diversifying workforces.  Taking steps to ensure high quality development and performance can make the revolutionary turn into the ordinary.

Putting Ourselves in Learners’ Shoes

Teaching others is a great way to learn.

When training others or delegating a task, one of the hardest things to do is presenting the information in a way the person understands.  Sometimes we think of this as “explain it as you would to a 5 year old.”  It really boils down to putting ourselves in the position of a beginner when we are the expert.

This article delves into this topic nicely.  While it focuses on college professors, it really applies to anyone is I the position to help others acquire new knowledge, skills, or abilities.  Putting the educators in an uncomfortable position of learning something new really served as a reminder of how difficult it can be to pick up on something you don’t know.

While it’s not necessarily practical to have managers and trainers master a difficult puzzle in order for them to empathize with others who are learning, there are some actions that help put them in a better position to do so, including:

  1. Make sure there is good two-way communication during the learning process.  When delegating a task, a manager should ask the delegate to describe what is being asked of her/him/them in order to demonstrate understanding.
  2. Explain things to people in multiple ways. This leads us to think about tasks in more than one way (e.g., only the way we think is best) so that it’s understandable to a wider audience.
  3. Be patient with the learner as he/she/they attempts the task.  All of us learn through both success and failure.  You need to let both of them happen and that takes time.

We all learned what we do in our work with sometimes good, and sometimes not so good, teachers.  Our effectiveness in delegating or teaching tasks partially lies in putting ourselves in the position of the learner rather than the expert.  By thinking of ways to do that, we’ll be more effective in improving the skill levels in our organizations.

Hiring For and Developing Resilience

I frequently hear clients talk about how they need to hire people who are resilient.  When I press them on what that means to them, they come up with words and phrases like:

Bends, but doesn’t break.

Learns from adversity

Performs well under stress

Doesn’t take work setbacks personally

These things are all true and part of the personality trait Emotional Stability, which can be a good predictor for some jobs.  But the aspect of resilience which gets overlooked, but can be equally important for employee selection and development, is sociability.  While the stereotype of the resilient person as one who swallows his/her/their emotions and hunkers down, there is scientific evidence that we build resilience when we reach out to, and accept help from, others.

This is useful in selection in that it can alter the types of tests that we give and what we look for in responses to interview questions.  For instance, when asking, “Tell me about when you had to meet a tight deadline,” an answer like, “I reached out to my team and asked how they could help” shows more resilience than, “I put everything aside and worked by myself until I completed the assignment.”  This additional dimension is useful in interpreting validated personality tests as we can then look for people who score high on Emotional Stability and willingness to work with others.

For development, we can teach people the power of reaching out to others during difficult times.  For managers, this means offering assistance to those who are struggling rather than waiting for them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps.  For individual contributors, this requires a message that reaching out to others when you need help builds resistance and is not a sign of weakness.  Of course, these messages require reinforcement by senior management so that they become part of the culture.

To see if resilience is a key part of jobs at your company, you can do the following:

  1. Conduct a job analysis.  Whether you use surveys or interviews, you can gather data about how much stress or pressure feel people feel in their jobs.
  2. Find out what effective resilience looks like.  During the job analysis, have people describe critical incidents where resilience was (and wasn’t) shown.

This data can be used for selecting future hires by:

  1. Sourcing a validated and reliable instrument that measures Emotional Stability and willingness to communicate with others (and other tests which measure important aspects of the work as found in your job analysis). 
  2. Administering the test(s) to incumbents.
  3. Gathering measures of how participants are performing on the job, including resilience.
  4. Analyzing the data to see if the measures of Emotional Stability and communication are correlated with measures of resilience and/or performance.
  5. Using the results to screen future candidates.

The job analysis data can be used for developing employees by:

  1. Sourcing or designing training materials that address the critical incidents described in the job analysis.  The more behavior/role playing in the training, the better.
  2. Gathering measures of how participants are performing on the job, including resilience.
  3. Conducting the training and gather feedback from participants.
  4. Measuring performance, including resilience, after enough time to see the impact of the training.
  5. Making adjustments to the training material based on the feedback and performance data.

Note that in each case you are seeking to demonstrate the impact of improving resilience in your organization. Just as importantly, you are establishing its importance in the company and taking steps to weave it into your culture.

Managing WFH Scheduling Changes

As COVID cases are dropping and the vaccines are available, companies are looking to see when (if?) they are going to bring people back to offices.  There are likely to be all kinds of flavors of this, ranging from:

  1. We want everybody back, Monday through Friday.
  2. We need some people back full time, others can still WFH.
  3. Everyone needs to be in the office 2-3 times a week and WFH the rest.
  4. Everyone can stay WFH, but those who prefer to come in can.
  5. Everyone stays WFH


And these don’t include flexible hours, people staying part-time, etc.  There are going to be a LOT of models.  There is no one best way for every company, but there are some consistent steps you will want to consider as you manage work schedules changes (again). These include:

  1. Consider ALL of your stakeholders.  This means listening not just to executives who feel that people are more productive at the office or the employees who feel that they are missing out on promotional opportunities by working from home.  Be sure that your support staff (HR, IT, security, etc.) is also in a position to support those who are coming back (or staying home).
  2. Be clear to everyone about your reasons for the schedule changes.  If you have data that supports that teams are more productive in the office, then share it.  If you have data that shows that people are still getting promoted at the same rate during WFH, share that, too. And don’t forget health department data on infections, positivity rates, etc. Use good information, rather than anecdotes, drive your decisions and communicate about the data.
  3. Track metrics of success and adjust the schedules as necessary.  Whether it is what was mentioned above, rate of infections, use of PTO, turnover, absenteeism, or something else, have conversations about what success looks like.  Then measure progress towards it.  The data may allow you to accelerate your plans or alter them in some other way.
  4. Check in with your stakeholders as the revised policies are implemented.  Sometimes we think that people who initially support change will always be in favor of it and those who are resistant stay that way. Keep asking stakeholders what they need to continue to support, or to become supportive, of the changes.
  5. Communicate the metrics.  Whether it’s through an online dashboard or a regular e-mail, keep people apprised of progress (or lack thereof).  Transparency helps to control the rumor mill and provides reasons for altering the initial plan.

Going back to “normal” requires the same level of change management skill as implementing something different.  Be sure that you apply these techniques to help implement and manage schedule changes as you navigate through COVID.

Going back to “normal” work schedules is going to take as much change management skills as WFH did.  Here are some thoughts on implementing the new normal more effectively.

Can We Accurately Evaluate Leadership Before Someone Has a Chance to Lead?

In general, our personalities are pretty stable over our adulthood. Yes, we mature and big life events can alter us, but the building blocks of who we are as people are closer in stability to our eye color than our hair color.

This stability has been important to the science of employee selection. The underlying idea of giving any type of pre-employment or promotional test is that the knowledge, skill, ability, or characteristic being measured is stable in that person for a given period of time so that it can be used to predict future performance. With skills, we assume that they will improve over time, so we look for those that a person has right now. For personality and cognitive abilities, we assume that a person will have those at a consistent level for many years and that these aptitudes can be used to develop specific skills, such as leadership.

When I conduct leadership workshops, I typically ask participants if leaders are born (e.g., do some people just have what it takes) or made (e.g., pretty much anyone can be an effective leader if given the right opportunities to develop). The conversation gets people thinking about what behaviors are necessary to lead (good communication, willingness to direct others, attention to details, etc.), which of those can be taught, and which cannot. Put another way, to become a professional basketball player, I can improve how well I shoot, but I cannot do too much about how tall I am.

But, what if we have the direction of trait to leadership wrong? What if the traits to become a leader don’t blossom until someone is given the chance to lead?

This study suggests that being promoted into a leadership position does change the conscientiousness factor of personality. Conscientiousness has been found to be a significant predictor of overall manager effectiveness. It’s an interesting idea in that it suggests that, for some people, we do not know if they have a sufficient amount of a trait that contribute to leadership success until after they become leaders.

As with all good research, it poses as many new questions as answers. For instance, were there increases in conscientiousness across the spectrum or only among certain groups (e.g., were there gains for those who already showed relatively high levels of conscientiousness, so the rich got richer)? Or, does it take a leadership experience to bring out conscientiousness in people who typically do not show it? Or, is leadership a tide that raises everyone’s conscientiousness?

Practically speaking, this is where the study has me thinking about assessing leadership:

1)  Putting a re-emphasis on using performance on temporary assignments that involve leadership as part of the selection process in promoting people into supervisory positions. 

2)  Validating responses on personality tests that are taken after a person goes through a leadership role-play exercise or situational judgment test.

3)  Re-thinking what aspects of personality indicate leadership potential (e.g., willingness to direct others and resilience) and broaden our list of things that are leadership skills to include some other aspects of personality (e.g., conscientiousness). We can then focus on selecting based on the former and training on the latter.

Some people have the right mix of attributes that allow leadership to come easily to them. As it turns out, some of those things become more apparent after a person has a chance to lead. This should encourage us to think about how we choose to evaluate leadership potential.

Tips For Bringing People Back After COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has already affected businesses large and small.  While as of this writing it is unclear we (in the US) are closer to the beginning or the end of business restrictions, we can safely assume that some businesses will not be bringing back all of their staff when the restrictions are lifted.  This will lead to some tough decisions that have legal and performance implications.  Since I’m not a lawyer, I’ll focus more on the latter.

In an idea world, companies have processes for measuring performance.  Where objective measures are used, they are relatively free of environmental conditions.  Where managers rate performance, they are relatively free of bias.  If these represent your company, then you have an easy way to bring people back—top down based on their performance.  Note that collective bargaining agreements may render any other process moot as they may have last in, first out provisions.

Let’s say for a moment that your evaluation processes don’t live in the land described above.  Then what?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Think about how the business is going to look as things recover. What parts will stay and which ones may go (or be dormant for longer)?  This will help you think about the skills and abilities you’ll need in your staff.
  2. Have managers rate employees on the skills and abilities described above NOW.  The longer you put it off, the less reliable the ratings.
  3. Be explicit about how the ratings match up with the work to be done. It is always important to document these kinds of decisions.
  4. Use the data from the managers to develop a recall list.  That way you are bringing back the people who will help the business most first.  This will help in retaining your best people if you begin rehiring before others.

You should also be thinking now about how you are going to communicate the re-opening process to your employees.  There may not be enough data now for you to craft a message now, but HR should be considering different options so that when decisions are made they can be communicated quickly and effectively.

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.

Who’s Next?

My process improvement friends like to say, “Improving the work is the work.”  There is some truth to that in HR as well.  But, I think that it is also fair to say that “Keeping the talent pipeline full is the work.”  I’ll admit that it’s less catchy.

Succession planning is a topic as old as business, so I will cut to the chase:  This may be an area where companies are getting better.  The data is interesting as well in that it shows (at least in this sample) that public companies are better at it than private ones.  I would be curious as to whether there is an additional split between family owned and other types of ownership among the private companies.

I think that transparency (welcomed or not) has a lot to do with boards (and, hopefully, HR) being more concerned about high level succession planning.  Part of what big investors are buying is the leadership team and the more focus there is on CEOs and their impact, the more concern investors will have in the less-than-famous leaders.

Good succession planning does not stop at the C-Suite.  It should be considered part of talent development for every position in the company.  Whether it is at the entry (where are we going to find new employees?) or management (how can we identify leadership potential?) levels, the work is ensuring that there is a strategy for identifying talent.

This process involves both valid assessment (who is interested and capable of doing what we need?) and development (what are the experiences that a person needs to be prepared for the next move?).  Keeping the pipeline full means focusing on both so that when a position comes open the question, “Who’s next?” can be answered quickly and reliably.

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