How to create a 25% productivity hike: Lessons from Shopify’s meetings purge

When, at the start of the year, Shopify let loose a so-called “chaos monkey” to disrupt the Canadian multinational e-commerce company’s meeting culture, it was a shock to its 11,600 employees.

Initial panic – how would things possibly be achieved without meetings? – was quickly replaced by relief. And new data proved the move was a delightful surprise overall.

On Jan. 3, Kaz Nejatian, Shopify COO, posted about the calendar purge on Twitter. “Meetings are a bug,” he wrote. “To start 2023, we’re cancelling [sic] all Shopify meetings with more than two people. Let’s give people back their maker time.” 

Critics who questioned the bold decision might wish to stop reading here. However, business leaders with meeting-heavy company cultures are advised to take note, given the overwhelmingly vindicated strategy shift.

Following Shopify’s enforced changes – including “meeting-free Wednesdays” designed to encourage focused work – in research shared with WorkLife in late March, time spent in meetings dropped by 33% per employee in the first two months of the year compared to the same period in 2022. That time saved will equate to a 25% increase in completed projects by the end of the year, the company has estimated.

The full version of this article was first published on Digiday’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in March 2023 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

What ‘human-centric’ tech is fixing HR challenges

Has anyone had it more difficult at work than human resources professionals in the last three years?

First, they had to manage and enable a workforce that suddenly couldn’t come into the office due to lockdowns – aside from in industries with increasingly stressed frontline staff, such as healthcare workers, emergency services workers, and teachers. 

Next, the great resignation trend, spurred by the pandemic and elongated by, in particular, Gen Zers’ innovative approach to career development and well-being, made life even more challenging. 

On top of most companies rethinking their work policies – adding to the HR workload – the criticality of attracting and retaining workers during this period of economic uncertainty, a tightening labor market, and technological advancement, was matched by the need to train and upskill staff so the organization could operate in the coming years.

No wonder a new global survey published by Humaans – a London-headquartered employee management software company – found that 54% of the 1,000 HR managers quizzed considered their roles to have grown more complex, as they navigated an increasingly rocky landscape with ever-shrinking teams and fewer resources.

Thankfully, various HR technology tools have made their working lives more manageable. And there is little surprise that almost half (46%) of HR leaders are planning to invest more in HR tech, according to Gartner research shared in early March. 

But what exactly is the most effective HR tech?

The full version of this article was first published on Digiday’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in March 2023 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

Amid cost-of-living crisis, more employees donate their benefits to charities

The late American poet Maya Angelou once opined: “I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.” But are these wise words being heeded in 2023?

It would be logical to assume that during a cost-of-living crisis and a global financial crash looming, people would be less willing to donate their money to charitable causes. How uplifting, then, that new data from employee well-being platform Juno suggests people are being driven by their hearts rather than heads and assisting, despite the challenging economic climate. 

More than 10% of the platform’s users have opted to donate their benefits to charitable causes to date rather than using their credits – allocated monthly by their employer, which can be spent on over 10,000 products, services, and experiences – to treat themselves. 

Further, in the first two months of this year, the total value of benefits donated more than doubled (111%) compared to the last two months of 2022. 

The full version of this article was first published on Digiday’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in March 2023 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

Leaders are blindly ignoring the dangers of ‘confidently incorrect’ AI – and why it’s a massive problem

Why don’t scientists trust atoms? Because they make everything up. 

When Greg Brockman, president and co-founder of OpenAI, demonstrated the possibilities of GPT-4 – Generative Pre-trained Transformer 4, the fourth-generation autoregressive language model that uses deep learning to produce human-like text – upon launch on Mar. 14, he tasked it to create a website from a notebook sketch

Brockman prompted GPT-4, on which ChatGPT is built, to select a “really funny joke” to entice would-be viewers to click for the answer. It chose the above gag. Presumably, the irony wasn’t purposeful. Because the issues of “trust” and “making things up” remain massive, despite the incredible yet entrancing capabilities of generative artificial intelligence. 

Many business leaders are spellbound, stated futurist David Shrier, professor of practice (AI and innovation) at Imperial College Business School in London. And it was easy to understand why if the technology could build websites, invent games, create pioneering drugs, and pass legal exams – all in mere seconds.

Those impressive feats are making it more challenging for leaders to be clear-eyed, said Shrier, who has written books on nascent technologies. In the race to embrace ChatGPT, companies, and individual users, are “blindly ignoring the dangers of confidently incorrect AI.” As a result, he warned that significant risks are emerging as companies rapidly race to re-orient themselves around ChatGPT without being aware of – or ignoring – the numerous pitfalls.

The full version of this article was first published on Digiday’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in March 2023 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

‘Productivity-sapping vampires’: How to improve the hybrid-meetings culture

In theory, hybrid working is perfect, promising flexibility, convenience and empowerment. However, in practice, many organizations are finding, to their horror, it can be the worst of both in-person and remote working. Its logistical complexity has the potential to restrict collaboration and, ultimately, productivity. And that is largely down to the number and inefficiency of hybrid meetings.

“Employees are overwhelmed with meetings — back-to-back meetings, poorly run meetings and just flat-out too many meetings,” said J. P. Gownder, vp and principal analyst at Forrester Research, and co-author of a new report, “Master Hybrid Meetings With These Five Steps.” “Today’s hybrid meetings fail in-person participants, fail remote participants, still, fail to provide social cues, and fail the business.”

Gownder cited Harvard Business Review data from last year that found that 92% of employees considered meetings costly and unproductive, as 70% of meetings kept employees from productive task work. 

It wasn’t like this before the coronavirus crisis, though. “The frequency of meetings increased by 13% during the first year of the pandemic, and leaders tell us those meetings were sticky — they never fell off of calendars,” Gownder said. Without taking steps to remedy this problem, “meetings threaten to become productivity-sapping energy vampires,” he added.

So what should be done?

The full version of this article was first published on Digiday’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in March 2023 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

Why Scandinavian countries lead in gender equity

Yesterday marked the latest Equal Pay Day in the U.S., and it was a milestone edition.

Not only was 2023 the 60th anniversary of the federal Equal Pay Act, but it was also a decade since the Equal Pay Today campaign was established. However, given the still-considerable lack of parity between men’s and women’s pay in the U.S. and further afield, was it cause for celebration?

Not quite yet, but there has been some improvement: The gender pay gap has been closed by 61%, according to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) latest Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI), which benchmarks 146 countries. The research, published in July 2022, calculated 132 years would need to elapse to achieve parity at the current rate of progress. 

While that represented a four-year improvement on the 2021 projection, the number 12 months earlier suggested the gap would have closed before the coronavirus struck. Saadia Zahidi, managing director at the Geneva-headquartered WEF, lamented a “generational loss” caused by the pandemic. 

The GGGI data revealed that Scandinavian countries lead the way, with Iceland the only economy to have closed more than 90% of the gender gap. Finland (86%), Norway (84.5%), New Zealand (84.1%), and Sweden (82.2%) complete the top five in the rankings.

What could other countries – and businesses – learn from the top-ranked nations?

The full version of this article was first published on Digiday’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in March 2023 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

‘Full-time no experience’: How cost-of-living crisis is shaping labor trends

Newly released data from global job-search platform Indeed has confirmed what most people already suspected: that the cost-of-living crisis is shaping labor trends, and specifically what prospective employees want from their job. 

While some findings were predictable – for example, there were more searches for “full-time no experience” positions, zero-hour contracts, and greater demand for weekly pay in the three months leading up to Jan. 2023 compared to the same period a year ago – the alarmingly steep rise in these areas might shock business leaders and human resources professionals.

For instance, in the U.K., searches on Indeed for zero-hour contracts were up 70%, requests for part-time work had increased by 65%, and “weekend-only” searches jumped 120%. Demand for weekly pay surged by 122%, “full-time no experience” searches rose 219%, and “support worker no experience” was 337% higher.

Ultimately, the results indicated that recruitment models, learning and development and employee experience should urgently be modernized to keep pace with and accommodate workers’ needs and wants.

The full version of this article was first published on Digiday’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in March 2023 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

Why the need for leaders to address poor workplace communication is so urgent now

Ineffective communication costs U.S. businesses $1.2 trillion annually, or $12,506 per employee, pointed out by Grammarly Business’s latest State of Business Communication report, published in early March. But are leaders receiving the message that urgent improvement is required? 

The Grammarly Business survey of 251 business leaders and 1,001 knowledge workers suggested connection problems are growing. Time spent on written communication grew 18% compared to 2022, while worker stress levels were 7% higher due to poor communication, and this caused a 15% decline in productivity.

Further, the research, conducted in partnership with The Harris Poll, showed that workers spent over 70% of their working weeks communicating on various channels. Yet 58% wished they had better tools to streamline communication. “Leaders who shrug off the massive impact of poor communication on their bottom line will lose,” argued Matt Rosenberg, Grammarly’s chief revenue officer and head of Grammarly Business. 

Rosenberg said that the results of the second annual report indicated the challenge was growing, causing a “greater impact on everything from operational efficiency to employee and customer satisfaction.” As a result, he urged a rethink of communications strategies. “At a time when the stakes are critically high, leaders who invest in empowering efficient, consistent communication across their organizations will see results and profits climb.”

The full version of this article was first published on Digiday’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in March 2023 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

Businesses are not putting people in the right jobs – how tech can help

Most business leaders who offer variants of the cliché that “people are the company’s greatest asset” seldom match words with deeds. More worrying, though, is that people are not being matched to jobs in which they can excel – now more than ever. 

Alarmingly, a vast majority of organizations were taking the wrong, outdated approach to managing and developing human capital, argued professor Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Digital Economy Lab at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI, and arguably the world’s leading expert on the role of digital technology in improving productivity.

“Human capital is a $220 trillion asset in the U.S. – bigger than all the other assets put together, and about ten times the country’s gross domestic product,” said Prof. Brynjolfsson. “The most important asset on the planet is the one we’ve been measuring the worse.” 

As a result, human capital has been “probably the most misallocated asset on the planet. Businesses are not putting the right people in the right jobs; they’re not hiring, firing, and reassigning where they need to be doing it.”

This gloomy analysis is a lose-lose for employer, employee, and society, added Brynjolfsson. “Think of how many people are not in the right job, living lives of quiet desperation,” he said. 

The full version of this article was first published on Digiday’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in March 2023 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

WTF is the Turing trap – and how businesses that embrace AI can avoid it

All the recent chatter about ChatGPT and advancements in generative artificial intelligence has been impossible to avoid for business leaders. More than ever, they are being urged to embrace AI. 

True, if used correctly, it can improve efficiencies and forecasting while reducing costs. But many people make the mistake of thinking AI could – and should – be more human. 

Science-fiction tropes do not help this perception. Additionally, Alan Turing’s famous test for machine intelligence, proposed in 1950, has conditioned us to think about this technology in a certain way. Originally called the imitation game, the Turing test was designed to gauge the cleverness of a machine compared to humans. Essentially, if a machine displays intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human, it passes the Turing test.

But this is a wrongheaded strategy, according to professor Erik Brynjolfsson, arguably the world’s leading expert on the role of digital technology in improving productivity. Indeed, the director of the Digital Economy Lab at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI recently coined the term the Turing trap, as he wanted people to avoid being snared by this approach.

So what exactly is the Turing trap?

The full version of this article was first published on Digiday’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in March 2023 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

Stanford professor on the AI skills gap and the dangers of exponential innovation

ChatGPT and its ilk represent a welcome quantum leap for productivity, according to eminent AI expert professor Erik Brynjolfsson. But he adds that such rapid developments also present a material risk

Erik Brynjolfsson is in great demand. The US professor whose research focuses on the relationship between digital tech and human productivity is nearing the end of a European speaking tour that’s lasted nearly a month. Despite this, he’s showing no signs of fatigue – quite the opposite, in fact. 

Speaking via Zoom as he prepares for his imminent lecture in Oxford, the director of the Digital Economy Lab at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI is enthused by recent “seminal breakthroughs” in the field.

Brynjolfsson’s tour – which has included appearances at the World Economic Forum in Davos and the Institute for the Future of Work in London – is neatly timed, because the recent arrival of ChatGPT on the scene has been capturing human minds, if not yet hearts. 

The large-scale language model, fed 300 billion words by developer OpenAI, caused a sensation with its powerful capabilities, attracting 1 million users within five days of its release in late November 2022. At the end of January, Microsoft’s announcement of a substantial investment in OpenAI “to accelerate AI breakthroughs” generated yet more headlines. 

ChatGPT’s popularity is likely to trigger an avalanche of similarly extraordinary AI tools, Brynjolfsson predicts, with a possible economic value extending to “trillions of dollars”. But he adds that proper safeguards and a better understanding of how AI can augment – not replace – jobs are urgently required.

What’s next in AI?

“There have been some amazing, seminal breakthroughs in AI lately that are advancing the frontier rapidly,” Brynjolfsson says. “Everyone’s playing with ChatGPT, but this is just part of a larger class of ‘foundation models’ that is becoming very important.”

He points to the image generator DALL-E (another OpenAI creation) and lists similar tools designed for music, coding and more. Such advances are comparable to that of deep learning, which enabled significant leaps in object recognition a decade ago. 

“There’s been a quantum improvement in the past couple of years as these foundational models have been introduced more widely. And this is just the first wave,” Brynjolfsson says. “The folks working on them tell me that there’s far more in the pipeline that we’ll be hearing about in the coming weeks.”

As much as I’m blown away by these technologies, the bottleneck is our human response

When pushed for examples of advances that could shape the future of work, he reveals that Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 (GPT-3) – the language model that uses deep learning to emulate human writing – will be superseded by GPT-4 “within weeks. This is a ‘phased change of improvement’ compared with the last one, but it’ll be even more capable of solving all sorts of problems.” 

Elsewhere, great strides are being made with “multi-agent systems” designed to enable more effective interactions between AI and humans. In effect, AI tech will gain the social skills required to cooperate and negotiate with other systems and their users. 

“This development is opening up a whole space of new capabilities,” Brynjolfsson declares.

The widening AI skills gap

As thrilling as these pioneering tools may sound, the seemingly exponential rate of innovation presents some dangers, he warns. 

“AI is no longer a laboratory curiosity or something you see in sci-fi movies,” Brynjolfsson says. “It can benefit almost every company. But governments and other organisations haven’t been keeping up with developments – and our skills haven’t either. The gap between our capabilities and what the technology enables and demands has widened. I think that gap will be where most of the big challenges – and opportunities – for society lie over the next decade or so.”

Brynjolfsson, who studied applied maths and decision sciences at Harvard in the 1980s, started in his role at Stanford in July 2020 with the express aim of tackling some of these challenges. 

“We created the Digital Economy Lab because, as much as I’m blown away by these technologies, the bottleneck is our human response,” he says. “What will we do about the economy, jobs and ethics? How will we transform organisations that aren’t changing nearly fast enough? I want to speed up our response.”

Brynjolfsson spoke passionately about this subject at Davos in a session entitled “AI and white-collar jobs”. In it, he advised companies to adopt technology in a controlled manner. Offering a historical analogy, he pointed out that, when electricity infrastructure became available about a century ago, it took at least three decades for most firms to fully realise the productivity gain it offered because they first needed to revamp their workplaces to make the best use of it. 

“We’re in a similar period with AI,” Brynjolfsson told delegates. “What AI is doing is affecting job quality and how we do the work. So we must address to what extent we keep humans in the loop rather than focus on driving down wages.”

Why AI will create winners and losers 

The risk of technology racing too far ahead of humanity for comfort is a familiar topic for Brynjolfsson. In both Race Against the Machine (2011) and The Second Machine Age (2014), he and his co-author, MIT scientist Andrew McAfee, called for greater efforts to update organisations, processes and skills. 

AI can benefit almost every company. But governments and other organisations haven’t been keeping up with developments – and our skills haven’t either

How would he assess the current situation? “When we wrote those books, we were optimistic about the pace of technological change and pessimistic about our ability to adapt,” Brynjolfsson says. “It turns out that we weren’t optimistic enough about the technology or pessimistic enough about our institutions and skills.”

In fact, the surprising acceleration of AI means that the “timeline for when we’ll have artificial general intelligence” should be shortened by decades, he argues. “AGI will be able to do most of the things that humans can. Some predicted that this would be achieved by the 2060s, but now people are talking about the 2030s or even earlier.”

Given the breakneck speed of developments, how many occupations are at risk of obsolescence through automation? 

Brynjolfsson concedes that the range of roles affected is looking “much broader than earlier thought. There will be winners and losers. Jobs will be enhanced in many cases, but some will be eliminated. Routine work will become increasingly automated – and there will also be a flourishing of fantastic creativity. If we use these tools correctly, there will be positive disruption. If we don’t, inequality could deepen, further concentrating wealth and political power.” 

How to apply AI in the workplace

How, then, should businesses integrate AI into their operations? First, they must avoid what Brynjolfsson has labelled the Turing trap

“One of the biggest misconceptions about AI – especially among AI researchers, by the way – is that it needs to do everything that humans do and replace them to be effective,” he explains, arguing that the famous test for machine intelligence, proposed by Alan Turing in 1950, is “an inspiring but misguided vision”.

Brynjolfsson contends that a “mindset shift” at all levels – from scientists and policy-makers to employers and workers – is required to harness AI’s power to shape society for good. “We should ask: ‘What do we want these powerful tools for? And how can we use them to achieve our goals?’ The tools don’t decide; we decide.”

One of the biggest misconceptions about AI is that it needs to do everything that humans do and replace them

He adds that many business leaders have the wrong attitude to applying new tech in general and AI in particular. This amounts to a “pernicious problem”. 

To illustrate this, he cites Waymo’s experiments with self-driving vehicles: “These work 99.9% of the time, but there is a human safety driver overseeing the system and a second safety driver in case the first one falls asleep. People watching each other is not the right path to driverless cars.”

Brynjolfsson commends an alternative route, which has been taken by the Toyota Research Institute, among others. When he was in Davos, the institute’s CEO, Dr Gill Pratt “told me how his team has flipped things around so that the autonomous system is used as the guardian angel. Creating a self-driving car that works in all possible conditions is tough, but humans can handle those exceptions.” 

With a person making most decisions in the driving seat, the AI intervenes “occasionally – for instance, when there’s a looming accident. I think this is a good model, not only for self-driving cars, but for many other applications where humans and machines work together.” 

For similar reasons, Brynjolfsson lauds Cresta, a provider of AI systems for customer contact centres. Its products keep humans “at the forefront” of operations instead of chatbots, whose apparent Turing test failures continue to frustrate most people who deal with them. 

“The AI gives them suggestions about what to mention to customers,” he says. “This system does dramatically better in terms of both productivity and customer satisfaction. It closes the skills gap too.”

Does Brynjolfsson have a final message for business leaders before he heads off to give his next lecture? “We need to catch up and keep control of these technologies,” he says. “If we do that, I think the next 10 years will be the best decade we’ve ever had on this planet.”

This article was first published by Raconteur, as part of the Future of Work special report in The Times, in February 2023

Can a ‘signature scent’ boost office appeal – or does it reek of desperation?

According to U.S. poet Diane Ackerman, “nothing is more memorable than a smell.” She wrote: “One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains; another, a moonlit beach; a third, a family dinner of pot roast and sweet potatoes during a myrtle-mad August in a Midwestern town.”

Perhaps leaders with a good nose for business have been reading Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses. Scents are now being diffused into more workplaces – partly to attract employees and clients and develop positive brand associations. But while retailers, members clubs, and hotels have been wafting whiffs around for some time, does doing so in an office setting work, or does it, well, reek of desperation?

Jane Helliwell, founder of The Scent Styling Company, stressed the magic of a good smell. “Never underestimate the power of scent on a person’s mood,” she said. Further, certain fragrances can alter a worker’s mindset. For instance, rosemary is known to have a positive effect on memory and alertness, said Helliwell. Meanwhile, lemon is “great for cognitive function.” Jasmine is “energizing,” and ginger helps fight fatigue and “enhances performance and productivity.”

The full version of this article was first published on Digiday’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in March 2023 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

Here are four tips for improving hybrid working and workplace community

People remain undecided about whether remote- and hybrid-working models are better or worse for workplace community, in the U.K. especially. That’s the conclusion of workplace culture and recognition firm O.C. Tanner’s 2023 Global Culture Report.

The global study – which aggregated answers from over 36,000 employees, leaders, HR professionals, and business executives – found 37% of U.K. respondents felt hybrid work made it harder to create a workplace community, but 41% reckoned the opposite.

Similarly, 37% of U.K. employees that had shifted to hybrid working thought the workplace culture was now better, while 43% said it was at the same level. Notably, however, 68% of U.S. respondents believed the move to hybrid working had improved culture, and the global figure was 59%.

Regardless of the unclear verdict, there is clearly room for improvement. To help, WorkLife gathered experts’ top tips for creating a better workplace community for a hybrid or remote workforce.

The full version of this article was first published on Digiday’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in March 2023 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

Hybrid working and the trust challenge

Some of the hurdles around identity and productivity have been cleared, but no one has the perfect solution, according to a roundtable of experts

In early 2023, three years since the start of the coronavirus pandemic that spurred work trends already trotting along, the pace of change continues at a frightening gallop. It’s been a bumpy ride for both employer and employee. 

The hurdles of trust and security still loom large and must be cleared to improve Britain’s productivity growth, which has lagged behind G7 peers since the last financial crash. 

The most recent Office for National Statistics, corrected in late January, calculated Britain’s average output per hour or per worker – a vital metric to gauge living standards and future wages – contracted 0.3% between 2020 and 2021 when the economy struggled under pandemic restrictions. Only France’s 0.5% decline was worse during the same period.

Last September, a Microsoft report, which surveyed 20,000 people across 11 countries, discerned a “productivity paranoia” suffered by leaders who worried their workers were underperforming despite increasing hours and meetings. While 87% of employees felt they were productive, 85% of senior leaders said the shift to hybrid work made it challenging to have confidence in staff performance.

However, a new study suggests a corner has been turned on trust, at least in the UK. The research, launched in late January by global identity and access management company Okta, found that of the 500-plus business leaders quizzed, 85% believed remote or hybrid working is not causing disappointing workforce output.

As encouraging as these results are for hybrid working evangelists, doubts linger, says Rachel Phillips, Okta’s vice president in the UK and Ireland. She points out that while 61% of the business leaders surveyed believe that remote workers are more productive, 15% still think that they are less so.

Measuring success

Karen Jacks, chief technology officer at Bird & Bird, whose 1,400 lawyers operate in 31 countries, identifies two critical problems with hybrid working, trust and productivity. She notes that measuring hybrid working output and performance in some industries is tricky, given there are intangible factors, such as brainstorming sessions or virtual check-in meetings. 

“Because we are a professional services organisation, and lawyers record what they are working on, it’s straightforward to monitor productivity,” she says. Notably, throughout the pandemic, Bird & Bird’s productivity level increased. “It continues to be at a high level, with people encouraged to come into the office around 50% of their time.”

Chanuka Weerasinghe, chief technology officer at Hawes & Curtis and, agrees that determining either employee engagement or output for a hybrid workforce is complex for many reasons. “There are certain things we can’t measure, or they are hard to measure,” he concedes. “Also, we could use monitoring software, but it is intrusive, and we don’t want to come across like we are spying on employees.”

Nefarious actors might be snooping, though. From a security perspective, hybrid working has multiplied attack vectors, says Andrew Tsonchev, cybersecurity firm Darktrace’s vice president of technology. But most organisations have responded to limited potential cyber threats. “It feels like we are now in a more stable era of hybrid working, and all of the significant changes that needed to happen have been made,” he says. 

Regarding identity, Tsonchev is pleased that many businesses have, finally, embraced a zero trust model – “never trust, always verify” – to cybersecurity. “The conditions of hybrid work make concepts like zero trust non-optional, which is good,” he adds.

Cultural change

Another trust-related issue could be cultural for some organisations, says Jacks. If some leaders are sniffy about people working away from the office, more fool them. “We make sure our people know we trust them,” she says. “People used to say ‘oh, you’re working from home’ with quotation marks, but I think that attitude is changing.”

This insight chimes with Becky Wender, global head of culture, talent and learning at global cosmetics firm Avon. “At times, we have tried to legislate for everyone being bad as opposed to trusting people to do the right thing and then dealing with those who don’t,” she says.

Key to a culture of trust is connection and communication. Wender began her role in April 2020, at the start of the first lockdown. She turned to the company’s learning experience platform, Fuse, to ensure the workforce stayed connected. “Leaders ran events, and we had things like making hand sanitiser with our kids,” she says. 

Buoyed by that early triumph, Wender created a “two-day virtual career festival” attended by 3,400 associates from the 39 markets in which Avon operates. “There were 69 learning sessions, and a huge success,” she says. “Now we are back in the office more, the question is: how do we use technology to help all our markets stay connected?” 

Connection problem

Andy Hepworth, future of work transformation director at consulting and digital services company Sopra Steria, argues that flipping things around and asking employees what’s working, and what’s not, helps reconnect and reinvigorate a hybrid workforce. 

“We invited everyone within the UK business to participate in workshops, one-to-one meetings, questionnaires, or just to drop suggestions through,” he says. “We collated and meticulously catalogued it all to assess where we were as a company. We looked at where the hotspots were and what we needed to prioritise to improve the lives of our colleagues because a one-size-fits-all approach to hybrid doesn’t work.”

Hepworth points out that those earlier on in their careers are often especially keen to be in the office to learn “through osmosis” from more experienced colleagues. But he stresses that managers and leaders have an essential role to play here. “There is a dependency on reciprocation; otherwise, people coming in to learn will be stuck in a vacuum,” he warns.

Again, the solution lies in reframing the potential issue. Hence, lots of in-person events are organised at the Sopra Steria offices around what Hepworth neatly calls the “three Cs”. He explains: “We get together to connect, collaborate or congratulate.”

Similarly, Okta’s Phillips makes herself available to her team members for ask-me-anything sessions and encourages in-office get-togethers for “moments that matter”. She is conscious of how some young or vulnerable employees might struggle without physical interaction with colleagues. 

Additionally, Phillips references Gartner data that reveals the bonds between remote-working teams have strengthened, but relationships outside that bubble are weaker due to infrequent contact. “We are siloed by video-conferencing and tend to engage with the same people daily.” 

Phillips adds: “Hybrid working is not going away, so how do we enable people within that environment to be as impactful as possible?”

No one has the perfect answer, yet.

This article was first published by Raconteur, as part of the Future of Work special report in The Times, in February 2023

One year on from Russia’s invasion: How businesses are supporting Ukraine workers

Joe Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv to meet Volodymyr Zelensky on Feb. 20, four days before the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was short on time – the U.S. president spent only around five hours in the capital – but long on symbolism.

It was no coincidence the 80-year-old chose Presidents’ Day to set foot in an active war zone to discuss the situation with his Ukrainian counterpart in a show of collective strength and solidarity. He defied threats of Russian missile attacks to announce an additional package of U.S. weapons and supplies worth $500 million.

Biden emphasized the U.S.’s commitment to the cause. “Freedom is priceless,” he said. “It’s worth fighting for, for as long as it takes.” Can business leaders echo this assurance?

The initial flurry of support for Ukraine by businesses worldwide a year ago has dwindled. To an extent, it was inevitable that so-called “Ukraine fatigue” set in, with the bright lights of the world’s media dimming over time. Pleasingly, there are several instances where organizations have continued their support for Ukraine-based workers.

The full version of this article was first published on Digiday’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in February 2023 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

‘These challenges will only deepen’: Confessions of a PR exec on mounting hybrid-working pressures

Numerous studies indicate that middle managers are feeling the squeeze in the post-pandemic rush to move to hybrid- and remote-working models. Further, they are not being adequately supported, financially or otherwise.

At the start of 2023, Gartner identified “managers will be sandwiched by leader and employee expectations” as one of the top nine workplace predictions for chief human resource officers this year. A workplace culture and recognition firm O.C. Tanner’s 2023 Global Culture Report, published last September, found that 41% of U.K. managers felt pressured to choose between what their leaders want and the demands of their direct reports.

For WorkLife’s latest installment of Confessions, where anonymity is traded for candor, a senior PR executive based in London shared how rising pressure to manage expectations from above and below is unsustainable, and she feels unsupported and under-compensated. She’s currently looking for another job.

To what extent is managing a hybrid team making you more squeezed and why?

Managing a remote team in a distributed environment requires more time to support junior staff members. While some junior team members thrive, others – unaccustomed to keeping up the pace from home – fall behind.

To some extent, it’s understandable. After all, we are individuals who work well in different environments. However, it’s the responsibility of senior leadership to step in and resolve these challenges early within an employee’s onboarding cycle. Unfortunately, this often doesn’t happen, allowing these challenges to deepen and develop over time.

The full version of this article was first published on Digiday’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in February 2023 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

How hybrid working is failing due to poor execution

Few leaders can say they have perfected hybrid working at their organization. The evolution from pre-pandemic working methods was always going to be messy and stressful, and a steep learning curve. With no one-size-fits-all, off-the-shelf solution, the scale and logistics of making a hybrid strategy work have been headache-inducing for many.

In a desperate attempt to ease the pain, and with dark clouds of a financial crisis looming, many employers, twitching from productivity paranoia, have retreated to old ways and imposed return-to-work mandates rather than persevering, opting to treat the symptom rather than the root cause of the problem.

But hybrid working is failing due to poor execution rather than as a concept — and that lack of success is primarily down to leadership — according to a global pulse survey by business consultancy Gartner, which questioned 330 HR leaders across a range of industries. So in that sense, will such RTO diktats not be regressive and more damaging in the longer term?

Gartner’s data shows 69% of business leaders have expressed concerns about collaboration, culture, creativity, and engagement. Little wonder more office-centric workforce strategies have been written up frantically. Further, 54% of human resources leaders reckoned their employees are less connected to their organizations than before the coronavirus crisis.

However, those who believe returning to the office will boost staff productivity, visibility, and loyalty are failing to realize and address the underlying issue.

The full version of this article was first published on Digiday’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in February 2023 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

‘Protirement’ is trending again – but ageism remains rife

In late January, Jeremy Hunt, chancellor of the U.K. government, invoked the spirit of Uncle Sam, who had implored Americans to enroll for World War I action over a century earlier. “I want YOU for the U.S. Army,” read the caption on the four million recruitment posters – featuring the scowling, pointing, bearded fictitious character – plastered across the country. 

With, at the last count, 1.1 million job vacancies to fill in the U.K., Hunt adopted a similarly commanding tone, this time to persuade troops to rejoin the workforce and ease the war for talent. “To those who retired early after the pandemic or haven’t found the right role after furlough, I say ‘Britain needs you,’” he said. “We will look at the conditions necessary to make work worth your while.”

This plea was part of a campaign to encourage the 630,000 people who left the U.K. workforce between 2019 and 2022 – so-called “protirees” – to return to employment and help the country fight off the recession.

However, more recent research from the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) that surveyed more than 1,000 managers working in U.K. businesses and public services indicated firms are overlooking older people and instead opting for younger workers. Indeed, just 42% of respondents were open “to a large extent” to hiring people aged between 50 and 64 years old.

How, then, can protirees who want to return to employment be better welcomed by organizations so that their considerable talents are not squandered? 

The full version of this article was first published on Digiday’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in February 2023 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

Thanks to Gen Zers, post-pandemic bullying call outs have skyrocketed

If the coronavirus crisis was the darkest of clouds, the silver lining was that the fallout accelerated countless technologies, spurred working trends, and shifted societal norms. And now there is further cause for celebration: A new study has found the last three years were increasingly tough on alleged workplace bullies.

Ethisphere’s 2023 Ethical Insights Report, published in January and based on the responses of 2 million employees globally, suggested bullying was being called out at an unprecedented rate. Before the pandemic, 20% of respondents stated they had observed bullying at work, while 33% of respondents did after Covid-19 arrived, according to the study.

Moreover, the research indicated Gen Zers’ lower tolerance for bullying – compared to other generations – was making a massive difference.

Of the 26 other types of misconduct tracked by Ethisphere – a firm that defines and measures corporate ethical standards – only five increased in the same period. But, aside from bullying, none more than 1.1% (insider trading, and violation of health-and-safety policies). 

Could it be people are more sensitive to bullying in the wake of the MeToo and Black Lives Matters movements and, therefore, more willing to stand up for themselves and others?

The full version of this article was first published on Digiday’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in February 2023 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

WTF is learning quotient – and why it matters now

In January, at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss Alps, there was much chat about ChatGPT, OpenAI’s large-scale language model that has been fed 300 billion words to help it generate plausible, passable answers to most questions. An Elon Musk tweet summed up the sentiment for many. “It’s a new world. Goodbye homework!”

With generative AI advanced enough to produce eerily-human text responses, and other related foundational models now able to create music, art, and code, is it time to turn the page on traditional education? Further, is rote learning and cramming for exams, only to forget the key facts instantly afterwards, finished? Granted, it has its place for times tables and languages, but what else, really? 

While some may want to defer answering these uncomfortable puzzlers, speakers on oversubscribed AI-related panels at Davos 2023 heralded LQ as the new IQ.

So what exactly is LQ?

It stands for “learning quotient” – as opposed to intelligence quotient. Essentially, it’s a measure of adaptability and one’s desire and ability to update our skills throughout life.

The full version of this article was first published on Digiday’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in February 2023 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.