Most weeks, we feature an interview with a researcher or expert practitioner who has special insight into how to reset work and management. To start off this new year, we’ve gone back to people we interviewed in 2021, and some others with whom we plan to speak, to get takeaways from 2021 and advice for 2022.
We asked them each to answer two questions:
- What do you know now about the future of work and management that you didn’t know a year ago?
- What’s your advice for how to work and/or lead better in 2022?
Here are their responses (presented in alphabetical order by last name):
Tera Allas, director of Research and Economics, McKinsey & Co.
Learning: “That there is an even bigger mismatch between employees’ and employers’ expectations that I thought. (E.g. exhibit 5 here). This relates to both what is important in general and people’s expectations about remote work. On the first, the importance of the human factor—positive relationships at work—has been further amplified. On the second, as an example, in the UK, only 16% of people (outside of financial services) are employed in a business that intends to make remote working a permanent part of their business model. (E.g. blog here).”
Advice: “My advice remains the same: be kind, be thankful, be positive, and be well. Move beyond technical brilliance as a leader to treating people genuinely as humans—not ‘cogs in a machine.’ That’s where you will find the next S-curve of performance. And, as a bonus, you will probably find work more meaningful and less stressful as a result, too.”
Laszlo Bock, co-founder and CEO, Humu
Learning: “Managers have always been important, but their roles are becoming even more mission-critical. In hybrid environments, managers are the connectors between cultural values and employee experience. When employees aren’t together in person as much, it’s really the manager who makes them feel included (or not), creates clear roles and expectations (or leaves them murky), and inspires teams with a sense of purpose (or makes them unmotivated and disengaged).
It’s also worth noting that employees’ expectations have changed a lot since the pandemic started. Skyrocketing attrition proves that people will no longer hesitate to leave their jobs in search of more supportive work cultures (research shows that 36% of employees who quit over the last six months did so without having a new job lined up). In other words, the Great Resignation isn’t a compensation issue, it’s a culture issue. Our research at Humu shows that the top five reasons why people are leaving their jobs have nothing to do with money. And again, it’s managers who will create the conditions that make top talent feel valued, supported, and excited to stay at an organization.”
Advice: “Keep it simple. In 2021, leadership rolled out any program or policy that seemed like it might help. At the same time, many seized on the moment of change to accelerate their transformation efforts. But despite good intentions, they ended up exhausting employees, driving up burnout and attrition.
The most successful leaders of 2022 will be those that pare down programs where possible to help managers and teams focus only on what matters most. In conversations with executives, I’m hearing that many are abandoning complex values frameworks to instead focus on three to four values they want managers and teams to live by, and then outlining a few key behaviors that map to each value. Focus, clarity, and simplicity will be key to empowering motivated, high-performing workforces in the coming year.”
Dr. Evelyn Carter, managing director, Paradigm
Learning: “The boundaries between work and our personal lives have been forever changed by the pandemic. The expectation that employees leave the outside world and their personal lives at the proverbial door is in the past. Now, organizations—and managers in particular—need a new set of skills that enable them to not only support their employees in delivering work, but also as humans. That’s a big, and often daunting, shift.”
Advice: “If leaders want their employees to do their best work, they need to ask their employees what they want and need and, when possible, deliver. Given that the workplace has historically been built for folks from dominant groups (e.g., white folks, straight folks, men, abled folks), creating a place where folks feel like they truly belong, and can thus thrive at work, requires intention. A big part of this is making space for authentic conversations and responding accordingly.
More and more often, the answer to ‘how are you doing?’ is not going to only focus on work projects—it might touch on frustrations with what’s happening in the world or personal struggles. It may include dismay about events that target particular communities (like anti-Asian violence). Leaders should start to think about how they can navigate these situations: what benefits might you put in place that support your people? Can you dedicate spaces to conversations for those who want to have them? Are your managers equipped to lead inclusively?”
Dr. Kali Cyrus, psychiatrist and assistant professor, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine
Learning: “Workers are finally saying, ‘I want it that way.’ For years, research has shown that one of the biggest drivers of workplace satisfaction is worker autonomy, and workers are fed up with the traditional lack of autonomy over their work schedule/location. Additionally, now, most workers have either experienced having more autonomy due to working remotely, or seen others living the alternative, and want more for themselves. And for the first time, folks are motivated and full of courage to say no, goodbye, or ‘I want it this way.’”
Advice: “My advice for leaders is to shut up, listen, and give—especially as it pertains to employees with non-majority identities (BIPOC, queer, immigrants, disabled, single mothers) who are feeling the brunt of the negative economic repercussions of the pandemic. The neverending social catastrophes of the past two years inevitably hit these groups harder, which leads to more daily stress and crises in individuals’ personal lives. Therefore, more than ever, workers need flexible leaders and/or removal of outdated, bureaucratic, or rigid workplace requirements that do not continue to put workers in a position to choose their job over their well-being. Workers need supervisors and organizational culture that recognize the impact of social determinants of health on the ability to function at work (and impact of microaggressions/racism/oppression), while understanding that workers are responsible enough to get the job done even if they are given freedom. Or else, they will leave.”
Didier Elzinga, founder and CEO, Culture Amp
Learning: “That almost every organization is now well and truly focused on what it means to build a better world of work. Coming out of the first year of Covid, people were ‘looking after their people’ but as that turned into the Great Resignation/Reset/Reshuffle many organizations are now grappling with high growth rates, more than double usual attrition and a really, really tired and burnt-out workforce. All eyes are on People Leaders to chart a course out of this situation and we need to act with a great sense of urgency because there is a window in which we need to make change or we will lose the trust of the organizations we serve.”
Advice: “That in 2022 we need to let go of how hard everything has been and find lightness and joy in leadership. That is not to pretend that 2023 will be any easier (it might, god forbid, be worse) but we ourselves, as leaders, must also make peace with our own demons and find joy in the world we are in.”
Lynda Gratton, professor, London Business School
Learning: “How quickly we are able to ditch bureaucracy, go virtual, learn digital, build communities. It’s created a sense of possibilities and capabilities that will be crucial for the coming year.”
Advice: “We have a real chance to be bold—to redesign work in a way that is more humane and future proofed. So be prepared to be courageous, experimental and take risks.”
Matt Hoffman, partner and head of talent, M13
Learning: “We now know that people can work remotely on project-based, independent tasks quite well. And that often comprises the vast majority of people’s work. But we also know now that companies need to create new and more effective ways of collaborating. This means the physical office needs to be redesigned for more group-based work, and greater care and investment needs to be made in maximizing in-person connection. No one is likely to ever need to be in the same office (or even city) all the time again, but companies need to then increase investment in ways to support in-person collaboration on the occasions it is necessary.
Given the lack of connectivity and engagement associated with remote work, one of the biggest challenges for employers to solve will be in how people connect with each other. It’s going to be important to figure out how to measure and manage work now that the standard of everyone being in the same place for the same time each day is over. How do you create opportunities for connection, for meaning, for work/life balance when everyone is working at least part-time from home?”
Advice: “Companies that over-invest in talent will win the future marketplace. You can no longer recruit or retain talent just on compensation. (Candidly you never really could, it’s just now even more apparent.) There is too much competition for talent and the best people care much more about impact and meaning of their work than just the salary. Going forward, organizations must create a psychologically safe environment where the most talented individuals can learn, develop, grow and do challenging work. That, more than anything else, is what drives engagement and retention for the best talent. And leaders should double down on creating that type of organization.”
Anne Raimondi, chief operating officer, Asana
Learning: “Employees around the world have reprioritized what they expect, and want, from work. How they spend their time, and who they spend it with, matters more than ever. In the face of ongoing uncertainty and constant change, people crave knowing that their work matters. Employees want to understand how their work is connected directly to a company’s purpose and makes an impact each day.
It’s more important than ever for leaders to provide clarity, to reduce work about work, and to ensure their teams’ time is well spent. Leaders who stay open and curious, listen with empathy, and act with integrity to create space for people to do their best work will ultimately create the most successful organizations going forward.”
Advice: “Create time and space for curiosity. Nearly two years into the pandemic, teams continue to be distributed, uncertainty is a constant, and burnout is on the rise. It can be tempting for leaders to feel they need to spend all of their time providing answers, driving solutions, and reacting to new, unexpected challenges.
Leaders who recognize that the most creative and innovative solutions can come from anywhere, and anyone, are masters of curiosity. They are experts at open-ended questions (‘How might we…,’ ‘Where are the bright spots…,’ ‘What are our most entrepreneurial customers doing…’) that unlock the collective genius of their teams to create far better products, solutions, and ways of working.”
Learning: “The rest of the world is finally catching up to what mothers have always known: Managing a productive, motivated team isn’t just about ‘accommodating’ people’s personal lives—that very word centers an outdated ideal that no longer applies, and that pushes people out of the traditional workforce. The best leaders aren’t accommodating employees’ personal lives; they’re fostering them. They’re offering childcare stipends to offset the delayed recovery in that industry; they’re realizing that everyone who works for pay also takes on unpaid labor at home, that matters at least as much to them, probably even more. They’re waking up to the fact that without caregiving work, no other work is possible. Any benefits package that doesn’t include support for care isn’t effective. It’s not a ‘nice to have’; it’s a must.”
Advice: “Reward any work that cultivates and retains talent—especially women and mothers who are proven profit-drivers and too often undervalued. ERG leadership, coffees, mentorship circles—make these the trophy-earning tasks. Encourage employees to track their internal business development, and then compensate that valuable work accordingly so it doesn’t fall disproportionately on already-marginalized groups.”
Sheela Subramanian, vice president, Future Forum
Learning: “Leaders shouldn’t wait to communicate with their employees about major developments impacting them and the organization until they have a polished final answer. Employees now expect early, transparent engagement with their leaders on important issues, even if the message is ‘We don’t know yet’ or ‘We’re still figuring it out.’ This kind of organizational transparency has a strong tie to employee retention; Future Forum research shows that employees who think their leaders are transparent are two times more likely to be excited about the future of their companies. As we enter another year of disruption, leaders should harness ongoing uncertainty as an opportunity to engage their employees, ask for feedback, and involve them in finding better solutions.”
Advice: “Double down on supporting your middle managers. Future Forum research shows that they are struggling with the shift to remote and hybrid work, as most have not been trained to lead distributed teams. Middle managers score lower than executives across all elements of the employee experience, and two-times lower when it comes to sense of belonging and work-related stress. Invest in regular coaching for them and delivering structured feedback. And don’t forget to celebrate the great managers in your organization–they deserve the recognition and set the tone for what ‘great’ looks like!”
Zeynep Ton, professor, MIT Sloan School of Management
Learning: “Companies that are built around high turnover are more fragile than we may have thought before. Companies that have treated their employees as just a cost to be minimized—and hence have operated with high turnover—are having such trouble finding workers that some are adding signing bonuses as high as $3,000, for a job that pays around $15 an hour. Meanwhile, companies like Costco that have built a system around capable and motivated people can keep their stores staffed, shelves stocked, and customers satisfied. We’ve learned last year that these ‘good jobs’ companies are much better at adapting to changes. And that’s a competitive advantage for them.”
Advice: “Market changes have put pressure on companies to raise pay, but pay alone won’t solve high turnover and it won’t drive competitiveness and growth. Company leaders need to evaluate how they can leverage wage investments by building an operational system that increases employee productivity and contribution and that shows respect for people. Getting there will require the involvement of every department that touches work employees do—from operations to product design to supply chain.”