Five Simple Ways To Spur Innovation While WFH

Innovation activity in American companies decreased over the past year, based on a recent workplace study from Microsoft and BCG. Businesses typically make fewer risky investments during turbulent times, but the challenges of creating and collaborating remotely also contributed to the recent dip in innovation. With many companies bringing teams back to the office in the fall, prioritizing innovation now is key to activating post-crisis growth.

As a CEO and author of a few leadership books, I’ve helped people at global organizations shift their cultures and mindsets toward innovation. And because employees take their cues from their leaders, I’ve guided executives toward translating their goals into productive behaviors. Below are five leadership habits designed to publicly elevate innovation as a priority in your organization.

1. Embed with R&D for one day each quarter. Do you understand how the innovation pipeline operates in your company? The former CEO of P&G, A.J. Lafley, was known for joining R&D meetings and for introducing employees to design thinking, which is now a core principle for P&G. Even in a remote era, the technology exists for you to take part in a day in the R&D life of your company. Establish this routine now and maintain it when work shifts back to hybrid or in-person.

2. Ask me anything. To encourage open dialogue and give employees a direct line to the CEO, host a virtual Q&A happy hour once a month. Set up a channel for submitting anonymous questions and review them in advance so your talking points — especially around delicate subjects—are top of mind. By normalizing a corporate culture of asking questions, you’re empowering everyone in the org to challenge conventions, which fosters a mindset of innovation.

3. Commit to the rule of threes. To keep innovation on your employees’ minds, continual messaging from leadership around the topic is essential. As in, why is innovation valuable to your company? How do you define innovation? What brand or figure serves as your innovation hero? Identify three talking points to mention in your communications across the entire org and try to drop these into the conversation at least once a day.

4. Make it personal. Did a team or employee recently innovate an existing service, take a smart risk or offer a wildly creative idea in brainstorm? Innovative actions or ideas deserve recognition, so call or email them with a personal commendation for their contribution. This kind of personal, positive re-enforcement helps nurture innovation instincts in employees while affirming innovation as a top priority for you.

5. Throw Dare to Try parties. When plastics company W. L. Gore & Associates kills a failed project, it hosts a celebration with beer and champagne, just like they’d do if the project had succeeded. In your own business, get in the habit of celebrating risk-taking that comes with a learning lesson, collaboration milestone, or another silver lining. Because many I.R.L. events are still paused, send a bottle of champagne to each member of the risk-taking team, and give other invitees a $25 credit to order their drink or treat of choice from home. During the virtual party, shift the conversation with the guests of honor between silly (“what’s your favorite Adult Swim show?”) and serious (“if time travel was possible, what’s one change you’d make to this project?”). Even when risks end in failures, they often provide the seed for future innovations. Celebrating them is a healthy way to remove the stigma attached to failing.

There are plenty of reasons why innovation efforts lose momentum—especially amid the dumpster fire of 2020—but leadership often plays a role. As leaders, we must seek ways to encourage innovation and nurture creativity—not stifle them. While it’s tough to replicate the organic office encounters that spur creativity and collaboration, spend this summer sowing the seeds of innovation so you can bring them to life in the fall.


A blended workforce is a source of competitive advantage

The pre-pandemic war for talent and the pandemic-triggered acceleration of digital transformation across organisations is further bound to enhance the scarcity of talent. Do you believe that a blended workforce (full-time, part-time, contingent, bots, in-office, remote, etc.) can help the IT-ITeS industry rise to this challenge of talent scarcity? Will the pandemic transform the manner in which talent is acquired and onboarded?

A straight answer would be yes. However, rather than looking at a blended workforce as a panacea for talent scarcity, I view the situation differently. Today, there is a greater realisation that a blended workforce is a source of competitive advantage.

A significant portion of work is now being done by employees who, in the traditional sense, would be “non-employees”. A prime reason for this is that the nature of work has evolved to more project-based work. This allows for a greater play of external actors who bring in skill sets and competencies that augment traditional “core” employees.

Also, there is a greater appreciation that a diverse and inclusive workforce delivers better results for the organisation and society. Finally, technology has altered the way we work. Amazon, for instance, has been using physical robots for a long time. Similarly, at Wipro, we have done large-scale automation and are using bots. They are very much a part of the workforce now. These are conditions that exist on the demand side.

From a supply point of view, we have a multi-generational workforce today. A part of this workforce prefers to have a freelance sort of arrangement that provides them with the flexibility to do multiple things without being contractually bound to one organisation.

Hence, we must view blended workforces as a need and not a source to overcome talent scarcity. Of course, it will help overcome talent scarcity but invest in it for the right reasons.

The pandemic has already transformed the way talent is onboarded. We completed our largest talent acquisition in the last quarter entirely virtually. Organisations have realised that they no longer are constrained by location. This opens a completely different set of avenues to acquire talent. If we add the variable of a blended workforce, then the possibilities are immense. There may be some legal and regulatory complexities that one may have to traverse; however, they can be easily managed.

What are the possible fallouts of a blended workforce on the culture of an organisation? How can they be addressed?

In the context of the blended workforce, a question is often asked: How do you institutionalise a culture when, in essence, the company is buying short periods of an individual’s time? That’s a valid question. If, on a project team, you have a lot of external actors, will they have the same understanding of organisational values and translate them while delivering? Rather than fallouts on culture, I view it more as a lack of appreciation of the culture. Fallouts will typically be on customer outcomes.

Maintaining a strong culture in large organisations has always been a complex task, with multiple sub-cultures emerging. The added complexity of a blended workforce will make it even more difficult. Repercussions could be in the form of misplaced practices or a difference in espoused and practised values. The second and third-order impacts could be in terms of dysfunctional teams, poor quality output, etc.

There is no doubt that organisations will need to realign their talent systems to enable cultural assimilation. However, the benefits far outweigh the extreme scenarios. Good leadership and people practices should eliminate most of the fallouts.

Employee experience (EX) has been typically associated with full-time employees and often goes unaddressed for other workforce segments. With non-traditional talent becoming an increasingly important source of competitive advantage, how can organisations deliver optimal EX for them?

The first step to delivering a superlative experience is to view the entire workforce as an integrated workforce. This realisation will be enough for organisations to re-examine their processes. For instance, currently, gig workers or contractors are seldom part of employee satisfaction surveys or mainstream appraisal and career processes.

Secondly, it is important to redesign processes to cater to different segments. For example, in terms of compensation and benefits, we can look at a more expansive approach towards some benefits to ensure equitable access to different workforce segments.

Similarly, it is time to have an integrated performance management approach that considers contributions from all segments of the workforce and provides equitable development opportunities. We can extrapolate this to learning and other people processes. It is in the interest of organisations to create processes and touchpoints for different workforce segments.

In some areas, organisations have made progress. For instance, there are community managers for crowdsourcing platforms that ensure that the community is engaged and getting adequate development opportunities. The next step will now be to integrate these different workforce streams under one ecosystem.

To deliver optimal EX for the non-traditional workforce, two things need to be done:

i. Non-traditional talent is a broad canvas. Within that, understand what each segment wants and needs.

ii. Tailor talent and people processes to become more inclusive and expansive.

In developing a blended workforce, do you believe senior leadership must bring about a mindset shift that full-time employees alone cannot ensure the completion of work/projects? If yes, how can leadership channelise such a mindset change within an organisation in the IT-ITeS industry?

I spoke about the drivers of a blended workforce strategy earlier. If we understand them, we will realise that a mindset shift is necessary to succeed. I will take a step backwards and say that leaders must first internalise and orchestrate it at their level. It is the ‘Say-Do’ ratio that will build more credibility around the shifts required.

The shift to a blended workforce model requires executive sponsorship and support. Leaders need to demonstrate the value of different workforce composition. At the same time, they also need to be open to feedback and concerns from employees and address them promptly. While traditional or core employees appreciate the reasons for a diverse and blended workforce, their fears of becoming obsolete need to be addressed.

One way to do it is to provide employees with a taste of the new work paradigm. Wipro’s internal crowdsourcing platform, Top Gear, has provided an opportunity for full-time employees to experience the real-time benefits of a differentiated work and delivery model. Top Gear enables skill enhancement through structured learning pathways, social learning through skill-based communities, gamified assessments and hands-on experience via projects/challenges across a wide range of skills. Employees can learn, compete and get credits and monetary rewards on successfully completing challenges.

A blended workforce is here to stay, and it is not an entirely new concept. However, we are experiencing a blurring of boundaries between what this workforce traditionally used to do. The scale and contribution to core work as well as the external actors have increased. The best way to channelise mindsets is to show the power of a blended workforce via actual demonstrations.

Depending on the sector, the nature of the work that people do, and the setup an organisation prefers, some companies are going virtual-first while others are rallying to get employees back in-house or piloting a blended working model. Do you believe the office to be an important hub for collaboration, creativity, and innovation?

When the pandemic hit, WFH became a necessity. It is important to have good WFH policies and flexibility. However, I firmly believe that too much of anything is not good. Research has shown that not being in the office has prevented us from building vital social capital at work. Microsoft did a study and found that remote work over an extended time shrunk people’s networks.

On premises, there are greater chances of social interaction and connection, which are needed for collaboration, idea generation, innovation, and social cohesiveness. Informal interactions, which occur more naturally among co-located employees, do not occur as easily in a virtual environment. Some work aspects, such as onboarding new hires, coaching, or working on complex or ambiguous tasks, can become easier while working in an office.

Leaders and managers are at the core of addressing these challenges that may arise in a hybrid work environment. To get the best out of a hybrid model, leaders and managers need to build and sustain a shared culture that extends across remote or in-person work environments.


Ankita Sharma is working as Senior Editor with Human Capital. With 6+ years of experience, she has performed diverse roles across the entire spectrum of corporate HR — from hire to retire.


How can HR help build models of success?

The post-pandemic world calls for growth, but also resilience. The world is changing faster than ever, forcing organizations to adapt quickly or fall behind. The pandemic has proven that a global shock of such a scale is very much possible and real. According to the IMF, a $28 trillion cumulative loss in output is expected over 2020-2025 due to the COVID-19.

On top of this, the rapid adoption of artificial intelligence, climate crisis, and geopolitical instability are creating a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous business environment for organizations to operate.

Business growth and innovation are certainly crucial, now more than ever. History suggests that companies who invest in innovation during downtimes outperform the market, while those who make cuts on innovation may risk falling behind.

What will help businesses bounce back from the pandemic is building internal resilience to unprecedented threats and creating capabilities to adapt to change by innovating at scale. However, 33% of corporations have apparently reduced their innovation budgets.

How do you continue to innovate under such heavier cost scrutiny, while also becoming a more resilient organization? And what role does HR play in delivering this organizational imperative?

Intrapreneurship is the answer

You’ve heard of entrepreneurs, so what’s an intrapreneur? Intrapreneurs are employees who think and act in an entrepreneurial way within their organizations.

They resemble entrepreneurs as they apply many of the same skills and mindsets, such as problem-solving, creativity, communication as well as critical-thinking skills to deal with ambiguity. However, they are able to navigate the complexities of a large organization’s environment by applying stellar stakeholder management skills and collaborating closely with their leaders.

Intrapreneurs become agents of change and growth for organizations, helping them innovate and transform. They use their skills to find, validate and establish better ways of operating, identify sources of efficiency, and launch profitable initiatives generating new revenue.

Why is intrapreneurship so powerful for growth and resilience?

Contrary to popular belief, innovation isn’t just about the people who work in the innovation labs or “skunkworks” teams that an increasing number of companies have now launched – and most of the time closed.

In an increasingly uncertain and ambiguous business environment, the organization at large, not just a selected few, has to be able to adapt, react, and be resilient, at any level. Talent who lead and operate the core business must know how to manage ambiguity, come up with new ideas, validate and implement them, and mindsets too.

A workforce able to work and think in this way will help the organization become intrapreneurial and so more resilient, adaptable and agile, in the face of shocks and market challenges to come.

Unsurprisingly, Intrapreneurship has been recognized as the most desirable skill of 2020 by the global recruitment firm Michael Page.

HR is key for intrapreneurship to deliver

While an entrepreneurial and agile mindset is crucial for innovation and transformation, becoming more resilient and innovative is essentially a cultural and people-centered change that needs to happen across the organisation.

This means ensuring that entrepreneurial mindsets, tools, and methodologies are understood and applied at multiple levels.

HR leaders have a key role to play in making this happen. As we head into a future world where automation and machine learning will increasingly augment humans and free up more time to focus on other areas of value, it’s becoming ever more crucial to plan for the future of work and prepare the foundation for a growth-focused, adaptable and resilient workforce fit.

Our Intrapreneurship programs are designed to be cross-functional and focused on generating real business outcomes while building internal lean innovation capabilities that will eventually constitute a long-lasting core strength for the organization.

We know well that organizations are different. This is why we partner with our clients to design programs aligned with their specific culture and challenges.

However, a few questions always come to mind when we first talk to them.

Does your people/talent strategy take into account the development, application, and measurement of intrapreneurial skillsets and mindsets? Does your reward and performance approach incentivize idea generation and validation? Is your learning & development offering equipped to enable this?

Implementing intrapreneurship successfully requires a holistic approach as well as top-down and bottom-up alignment.

Ensure leaders/managers are aligned on the company’s innovation strategy and their teams are aware of the strategic direction. Define a clear process for generating and validating ideas and set the right metrics to quantify value and progress.

Last but not least, provide Intrapreneurs with the time and space they need for their initiatives by removing barriers and ring-fencing their activities, creating an environment that encourages their creativity and resourcefulness, and psychological safety.


Iceland Tried A Shortened Workweek And It Was An ‘Overwhelming Success’

As remote work became a roaring success for both companies and employees during the pandemic, it opened our eyes to new possibilities of how we can lead a better work-life balance. We now know that it’s not necessary to be stuck in an office building for over eight hours a day, five days a week.

There are growing conversations about four-day workweeks and hybrid models, in which you’d be in the office two or three days a week and at home for the rest of the time. Staggered flexible hours and abbreviated workdays are also being tried out.

A recent study of 2,500 workers in Iceland—more than 1% of the workforce—was conducted to see if shortened workdays lead to more productivity and a happier workforce. The trials were made across an array of different types of workplaces.

Iceland, similar to other Nordic countries, such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, offers generous social services for its citizens. The country has a strong healthcare system, income equality and paid parental leave for mothers and fathers. Iceland differs from its neighbors, as the country has longer working hours.

Between 2015 to 2019, Iceland conducted test cases of a 35-to-36-hour workweek without any calls for a commensurate cut in pay. To ensure quality control, the results were analyzed by Autonomy and the Association for Sustainability and Democracy.

Here are highlights of the study:
The trials were an overwhelming success, and since completion, 86% of the country’s workforce are now working shorter hours or gaining the right to shorten their hours.
Productivity and service provision remained the same or improved across the majority of trial workplaces.
Worker well-being dramatically increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout, to health and work-life balance.
The trials also remained revenue neutral for both the city council and the government, providing a crucial and so far largely overlooked blueprint of how future trials might be organized in other countries around the world.

couple outside of their tent looking at Northern Lights in the sky
couple outside of their tent looking at Northern Lights GETTY
Based upon the stellar results, Icelandic trade unions negotiated for a reduction in working hours. The study also led to a significant change in Iceland. Nearly 90% of the working population now have reduced hours or other accommodations. Worker stress and burnout lessened. There was an improvement in work-life balance among the respondents.

“This study shows that the world’s largest ever trial of a shorter working week in the public sector was by all measures an overwhelming success. It shows that the public sector is ripe for being a pioneer of shorter working weeks—and lessons can be learned for other governments,” said Will Stronge, director of research at Autonomy.

The concept of a four-day workweek has gained some support in the United Kingdom. About 45 members of parliament called for a commission to examine doing something similar to Iceland’s project. Peter Cheese, chair of the government’s Flexible Working Taskforce, said that a four-day workweek and flexible working arrangements “can and should be seen as just as much an acceptable way of working as a more standard five-day working week.” He added, “These different forms of working should be seen as part of the norm. There are a variety of mechanisms by which you can support people in these more flexible ways of working, which can be helpful in terms of inclusion and well-being and balance of life.”

Spain previously announced that it would experiment with a trial four-day workweek. The Spanish government agreed to a 32-hour workweek over three years without cutting workers’ compensation. The Washington Post reported, “The pilot program is intended to reduce employers’ risk by having the government make up the difference in salary when workers switch to a four-day schedule.” It will invest around $60 million toward the costs of the pilot program for the companies that want to participate. It’s anticipated that around 200 companies—3,000 to 6,000 workers—will be involved with the project.

There have been a number of other companies and countries experimenting with the four-day workweek and other flexible arrangements. Microsoft Japan ran a trial of a shorter workweek program, called “Work-Life Choice Challenge 2019 Summer.” The company gave its 2,300 employees the opportunity to “choose a variety of flexible work styles, according to the circumstances of work and life.” The goal of management was to see if there would be a corresponding increase in productivity and morale when hours are cut down. The results of the experiment were extremely positive, indicative that workers were both happier and 40% more productive.

Japan is taking the next step and is following Spain’s lead. The country is considering implementing a four-day workweek. It’s somewhat surprising given Japan’s hustle-porn work culture, which is as bad or even more brutal than America’s propensity to work incredibly long hours with little or no vacation time.

The Japanese government offered plans to persuade companies to adopt four-day workweeks. This would come as a relief to many workers. The strenuously long hours that “salarymen” (the term used for workers) put in led to deaths by overwork. It’s so commonplace that Japan has a term for it—karōshi. “The government is really very keen for this change in attitude to take root at Japanese companies,” said Martin Schultz, the chief policy economist at Fujitsu’s global market intelligence unit.

Andrew Barnes, the founder of New Zealand-based financial services firm Perpetual Guardian, and his partner, Charlotte Lockhart, are on a mission to get corporations to change the traditional workweek to only four days. Barnes previously implemented a four-day workweek at his company. The results were so positive that Barnes embarked upon this campaign to get other companies to join him.

The forward-thinking executives established the 4 Day Week Global Foundation to fund research into the future of work and workplace well-being. It’s intended to be a multinational coalition moving companies toward widespread adoption of a four-day workweek.

The duo pointed out that last year shattered the myth of people needing to trek into the office every single day. It’s high time that we confront other work taboos too. In addition to the four-day workweek, the two leaders of the movement say that companies can be creative and innovative. The post-pandemic future of work could also include four or five-hour workdays, half days or staggered flexible schedules where people come and go based on their lifestyle needs, as well as hybrid and remote models. Its exhilarating to see these worker-friendly changes taking place so quickly.


Lessons from the pandemic: Never waste a good crisis!

Are you battered and bruised by the pandemic, or do you feel energized by the opportunities that have opened up? Crises can be damaging and unsettling, but they can also trigger innovation, leading to change and improvement – and that is where our attention should be focused.

This article examines how the pandemic can be a springboard to the future.

Consider the following:

Will those temporary fixes that you implemented be dropped as things return to normal?
Or will those novel approaches that ‘stick’, perhaps to be developed even further?
Just as important, will those ‘sticky innovations’ mean that you are better prepared for the next crisis – by giving you the speed, productivity, flexibility, and workforce skills that you are going to need?
The pandemic is not over yet, but already we see reports of ‘lessons learned’ from various sources, including most recently the National Audit Office. But while everyone is finding fault, and criticizing what went wrong and who was responsible, there is benefit in looking forwards, exploring how to exploit the positives that have emerged.

The question now is, will you abandon, keep, or develop the new approaches that you introduced?

Changes accelerated

What did your organization do in order to survive this last year? You probably furloughed staff, cut costs, introduced new ways of working, moved online, adopted new technology, and developed other revenue sources.

Although most organisations were not prepared for this crisis, reports suggest that many changes were made much more rapidly than would have been thought possible in ‘normal’ times. One retailer, for example, introduced a new delivery service in two days; the original plan had been to roll this out over 18 months.

Five dimensions of future possibilities

The question now is, will you abandon, keep, or develop the new approaches that you introduced? Let’s explore the possibilities, under five headings: business models, technology, work redesign, learning and development, and the readiness of your organisation to go through all of this again – when the next crisis strikes.

Redefining business models: key aim – speed of evolution

Due to the demands of social distancing, wine merchants held online Zoom tastings, reaching audiences much larger than possible with in-person events. Participants bought the selected wines in advance. Many restaurants offered ‘click and collect’ meals or delivered dinner kits.

Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London offered livestream concerts, attracting international audiences. The concerts were free, but viewers were asked to donate, to keep the club, and the musicians, in business. Theatres livestreamed plays. These new offering will probably continue in some form in the ‘new normal’.

Other organisations repurposed facilities, equipment, and staff, to develop new operating models, and to maintain revenue. The answer to the question – abandon, keep, develop – may not be obvious or straightforward.

New hybrid and virtual work models make fresh demands on the nature of leadership roles

More experimentation may be required, and it may be necessary to change position rapidly in the light of experience. And we know from the pandemic experience just how rapid those changes can be.

Adapting Technology: key aim – increasing productivity

Not surprisingly, many organisations adapted technology to reduce interactions with customers, and between staff, and to improve productivity. Online demand for many items has grown rapidly – a trend that was apparent pre-pandemic, but which has been accelerated dramatically.

Retailers have used industrial robots in warehouses to cope with that demand, and artificial intelligence chatbots have been used to reduce customer contact. There will be many other technology innovations out there that have not been widely publicised.

Work redesign: key aim – promoting flexibility

The most obvious changes triggered by this pandemic concern hybrid work models, virtual teams, Zoom meetings, reductions in office space, and other ways of reducing workplace density. Working from home (WFH, or WFA – working from anywhere) is said to have delivered flexible working, and improved productivity and employee satisfaction.

The reality is probably mixed. For everyone we know who loves WFH, there is someone who can’t wait to be back with their friends and colleagues. But only 20 to 25% of employees have jobs they can do from home.

Everyone else has to turn up. Social distancing may be required for some time, with new workplace layouts and one-way flows to limit close contacts. How can you develop these new approaches to work, to maintain or increase flexibility and morale?

Harnessing L&D: key aim – upskilling everyone

HR and L&D face three key aims:

New skills for a new environment. Should we hire and train new staff with the skills that we need in this new, hi-tech, rapidly changing environment? Or should we reskill existing employees, recognising that for some this will mean significant upskilling? Evidence suggests that it is quicker and more cost effective to retrain existing staff. You know them, they know you, and it is unlikely that all of their business-relevant skills and knowledge will suddenly become redundant. ‘Fire and hire’ may also reduce the morale and commitment of the survivors of your cull, lowering the organisation’s resilience to future shocks.
New skills for business continuity. If employees were repurposed to deal with pandemic business continuity, did they acquire new skills and knowledge? Should these capabilities be maintained and developed – and rewarded? Some of these new skills may relate to new technology adoption, which as a rule requires higher levels of sophisticated knowledge. Traditionally, we pay people according to the level of skill required in the tasks that they perform. But this may no longer be appropriate, even for those in low pay roles, who typically play a significant role in maintaining business continuity. Better to pay people according to the skill and knowledge that they have acquired, whether or not they are using those capabilities today. You may have to call on those capabilities, rapidly, when facing another crisis.
New leadership for a different workforce. Third, do we need to develop new leadership and management for a knowledge-intensive workforce employed in virtual teams? The extent to which these new hybrid and virtual work models make fresh demands on the nature of leadership roles is not widely appreciated. Managing morale, communications, relationships, and performance in a virtual team is a different order of business compared with the group who work alongside each other on the same floor of the building. The pandemic experience also suggests that the rules of change management have been rewritten, particularly with regard to pace (rapid) and engagement (everyone).
Building crisis readiness: key aim – creating resilience to handle future crises

Unexpected shocks can open up fresh possibilities. To what extent is the culture in your organisation ready to accept new ideas? Will managers listen and experiment? Do your policies and processes enable or block change? A review of the issues discussed here should help to identify strengths and weaknesses. Traditionally, this could be a top team activity. But the pandemic experience suggests a more inclusive approach, engaging the whole organisation to capture different ideas and perspectives. The aim of this review should be to:

Decide how we will use the current crisis to rethink our business models, technology, work design, and L&D policies to strengthen our organisation’s resilience.

This means considering the following questions:

How well did we handle the pandemic, and what possibilities has this opened up for the future?
When the next crisis hits, how can we deal with it more effectively?
How will we make any actions happen and over what timescale?
What obstacles do we face, and how can these be overcome?
Conclusion: crisis can be a springboard

As the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic tapers off, it will be tempting to breathe a sigh of relief and relax. Also, it would be easy for some people to silence discussion of any future shocks on the basis of not rocking the boat.

This is short-sighted, since we can be pretty certain that there will be future shocks that your organisation must face and not be caught unawares. It means organisations need to be well-positioned by fostering learning from the current crisis and incorporating these lessons which become a springboard for the future.

So, back to Lesson Number One: never waste a good crisis. If you do, it could be your last.


Sympathy Versus Empathy and Why You Should Know the Difference

When one of my clients experienced discrimination in the workplace, she confided in a colleague. She had hoped to feel understood, validated, and supported. Instead, her colleague’s response made her feel dismissed and belittled.

She was a high performer at her company, but she had recently been denied a leadership position. “You’re Asian,” her boss had said. “You’re too deferential. You cannot lead.”

She recounted the conversation to a co-worker. The co-worker replied by insisting discrimination couldn’t possibly be the reason she was denied a promotion. “It can’t be. It must be something else,” they said.

Her colleague may have been trying to shield her from the pain of something as harmful as discrimination by dismissing that it could have happened. But her intent did not match the impact of her statements. She didn’t react with empathy, she reacted with sympathy — a reaction that expresses pity, but can lead to further isolation and disconnection instead of connection and support.

People excel in environments of psychological safety, in which they feel heard, understood, and without the worry of self-protection, instead focusing their energies on thriving in their work.

Leaders can help create these environments by expressing empathy — not sympathy — in vulnerable moments. Here are some tips to help you do that.

Be comfortable with vulnerability.
The past year has shown us that no one is immune from turbulent times, and leaving hardships “at the door” when we go to work is neither simple nor healthy — especially when the door to the office is the door to our homes. When leaders are the first to show vulnerability, they give others permission to do the same. Some people often think being vulnerable is “too soft” or a sign of weakness, but it is, in fact, a display of courage and strength. If leaders show that they can work through hardship without denying it or brushing it off, then everyone else feels empowered to do the same.

Remember the 4E model.
In Inclusive Conversations, Mary-Frances Winters writes that empathy is the final stage of a four-step process that begins with gaining exposure across differences, continues with having meaningful experiences with those who are different, and requires engaging in ongoing education. This 4E model — exposure, experience, engage, empathy — allows us to more genuinely understand what someone might be feeling, even if we don’t share the same lived experiences.

Choose words carefully
Empathy can create a connection, while sympathy can create an uneven power dynamic. Words reinforce this dynamic. Empathy expert Brené Brown points out that while the intent behind sympathetic comments such as “It could be worse” or “Look on the bright side” might be to comfort or to help someone embrace optimism, these statements undermine feelings and invalidate experiences.

Instead, choose language that communicates empathy. Acknowledge the situation with statements such as “I’m sorry you’re going through this,” or “I can see why this is hard.” Share how you feel — even if you don’t know what to say. A statement like “I can’t imagine what this feels like” shows you care. Express gratitude by thanking the person for sharing with you. Finally, show authentic support. Simply asking, “What do you need right now?” can go a long way.

Empathy is often described as “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” To do that, though, means having the vulnerability to take your own shoes off first. Engage with people different from yourself. Make learning about others’ experiences a lifelong journey. Choose your words carefully, making sure you acknowledge the situation, share how you feel, express gratitude, and show support. And be willing to accept vulnerability as a personal strength that can strengthen others, too.


Celebrating Your Employees: The How’s and Why’s

One of the primary reasons employees quit is because they don’t feel valuable. HR often considered employee appreciation as a soft concept, but it’s estimated that 66% of disgruntled workers won’t stay past their first year if they’re underappreciated. To keep your employees happy and protect your bottom line, it’s essential to celebrate your workers’ achievements.

Celebrating Your Employees: The How’s and Why’s
Your employees work hard for your company, but without receiving kudos from their co-workers or managers, they won’t know where they stand. Start doing the following to reduce turnover.

Celebrate Special Occasions
Your employees’ morale and productivity will increase significantly if you start celebrating special occasions, like work anniversaries or birthdays, with the team. It’s better to praise all employees in front of an audience, as it boosts their self-esteem. In fact, Harvard found that 40% of American’s would put more energy into their work if they were recognized more often.

Surprise Them With a Token of Appreciation
Don’t just wait for a special occasion to praise your employees! Feel free to send flowers to your workers, write them a note, or give them a bonus when you notice an improvement in their numbers. Monetary rewards will show you value their hard work, while gifts simply make employees feel seen. If you don’t know what to buy an employee, offer to pay for their lunch.

Create an Employee Recognition Wall
Whether you use an online employee recognition software or the traditional recognition wall, your workers will love to see their own ideas or achievements displayed where everyone can see them. You can set up a board in the main foyer, the break room, or scheduled meeting place. Recognition walls will inspire others to keep doing better or challenge newer employees.

Why Employee Recognition is so Important
Employees want to feel that their co-workers and managers hold them in high esteem, and the best way to do this is to acknowledge them. Once you do, your business will benefit.

Recognized Employees are Happier
Most of your employees take their work home with them, and oftentimes, those negative feelings are released on their family and friends, causing more stress. A happier office life translates into a peaceful home life and an overall heightened quality of life. While acknowledgment does improve happiness, it also promotes collaboration, increases productivity, and enhances loyalty.

Improves Employee Retention
Some estimates say that the cost of replacing an employee can be as high as $40,000, including recruitment fees, advertising, and the time it takes to train staff. Employers can’t just hire someone and expect them to stay grateful; they must assure their employees that they’re valuable. Incentive programs will keep employees engaged, which makes it likely they’ll stay.

Boosts Workplace Morale
Management leadership has a significant impact on employee morale. If employees feel pitted against one another or scrounging for your attention, it creates a hostile environment. Teamwork and cooperation will suffer, but if each employee is treated fairly and given the recognition they deserve, that won’t happen. An improved company culture will boost morale.

Even a simple “hello” from management means a lot to your employees, so always smile, wave, or acknowledge them when you cross paths. Trust us; it means more to them than you know.

Encourages Self-Improvement
Employees who aren’t recognized will eventually stop trying to impress their superiors. However, if they are recognized for their hard work, you’ll cultivate a culture based on self-improvement. Provide your team with opportunities to learn, and recognize any boost in performance. Any improvement should be treated as an event because it shows they care.

Send an email each week that compares individual stats for each employee from weeks prior. This way, employees won’t feel like they’re pressured to compete against their co-workers.


An Employee Experience Tool To Empower EX Excellence

If employee experience (EX) is your top priority, you have lots of company. Ninety-two percent of HR leaders say EX is top priority for 2021 (Source: isolved). But if you’re not sure how exactly to develop EX or you’re struggling to make meaningful progress on EX, you’re not alone. According to Deloitte, nearly two-thirds (59%) of executives report they are not ready or only somewhat ready to address the EX challenge. An EX Maturity Model is the employee experience tool that will empower EX excellence.

The value of customer experience (CX) design and management has been well-established. And CX maturity models have been used for several years to guide, measure, and improve companies’ performance on CX. Now that businesses are waking up to EX as an equally valuable organizational competence, an EX Maturity Model is needed.

An EX Maturity Model provides a roadmap as you develop the building blocks of EX – indicating where and how progress should unfold. It is also a tool for achieving a shared understanding throughout your organization of what EX requires and for ensuring alignment on the goals you are working toward. And it can serve as an assessment tool, spotlighting the areas of EX strength and weakness in your organization. When revisited at regular intervals, an EX Maturity Model can be used to track your progress and diagnose where additional attention is needed.

Most importantly, an EX Maturity Model clarifies the holistic, human-centered nature of EX. Developing EX is not simply HR process improvement. EX puts the employee – not process or programs — at the center of the work. Moreover, EX views employee experiences less as a series of steps to optimize and more as an ecosystem of interactions, tools, environments, etc. to integrate and cultivate. And delivering on EX involves functions well beyond HR, including facilities, IT, corporate communications, and more. An EX Maturity Model can fuel the development of an effective, differentiated, and value-creating EX.

The following EX Maturity Model incorporates the 10 key building blocks of EX:

1. Strategic clarity – clear vision and strategy for EX

2. EX:CX alignment – full integration and alignment of EX and CX

3. Data and measurement – established KPIs and key metrics tracking

4. Organizational culture – adoption of EX as strategic priority

5. Executive engagement – full engagement of company leaders

6. Cross-department involvement – integration of all EX-related functions

7. Employee intimacy – rich and deep employee insights

8. Operations – EX embedded into operations

9. Systems & processes – robust EX data & platforms integrated with CX

10. Skills & capabilities – EX as core competency

The model explains how companies progress in each of the 10 building blocks through five stages – from initiating to excelling.

There are couple of risks of presenting EX development in a modular, linear format like this. The first is that each building block can be interpreted as a discrete effort, as if the blocks can be developed independently. But rather than thinking of these 10 components as stand-alone endeavors, the holistic nature of EX requires companies to progress on all fronts in order to achieve EX excellence.

The second risk that is inherent in any maturity model is that it may seem to represent the path to maturity as a straight and direct line from beginning to end. Not only does such a view not account for the difficult, complex, and often iterative work that EX entails, but also it suggests that there is a definitive finish line where none exists.

No doubt companies may achieve progress toward EX excellence more like Sisyphus pushing a boulder uphill only to have it roll back down a bit at times. But the reality is that EX requires ongoing attention and continuous improvement. After all, EX is fundamentally about human experiences — and as humans change, new and improved EX will be required.


Why It’s On Leaders To Champion Digital Wellness In The Post-Pandemic Workplace

Raise your hand if you’ve ever sent a work email after 11:00 p.m., on the weekend, or even while on vacation. If your hand is in the air, you’re not alone. Many Americans feel compelled to respond immediately when their employer reaches out with 55% checking their work email after 11:00 p.m. Although checking work emails, 5-6 hours after the end of the workday may sound outrageous, it has sadly become the norm, particularly as the workplace shifted online throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

While there are countless benefits associated with working from home (no commute, more time with family, and endless puppy cuddles), a survey conducted by found that over two-thirds of employees are experiencing burnout symptoms. Despite these levels of burnout, an overwhelming 80% of employees want to continue to work from home for at least a portion of the workweek. Select companies such as Dropbox have already made the shift to remote work permanent while countless others will likely adopt a hybrid model, allowing employees to split their time between the office and home.

As we slowly enter into the flexible post-pandemic workplace, digital wellness will become imperative for organizational success, and the onus will be placed on our leaders to ensure their employees have the skillsets needed to thrive.

Over the past year, 76% of employees did not receive any training to support them in the transition to remote work, even though half of them had never done it before. Now, a year later these employees are burned-out, isolated, and looking to their employers for guidance.

While employee burnout is certainly not a new phenomenon, the ‘always-on(line) culture’ of remote work coupled with extended periods of pandemic lockdowns has created an unhealthy expectation of 24/7 availability. Not only is this troublesome in regards to mental health, but research shows that constant connectivity can be counterproductive for engagement and productivity levels as well. Even brief moments of task switching (like answering a Slack message while drafting an email) can cause you to lose as much as 40% of your productivity.

4 Ways To Develop New Career Skills When You Have A Repetitive Job
So, how can organizations improve productivity and employee engagement while supporting their remote employees in the long term? Two words, digital wellness. Much like other areas of wellness, digital wellness is measured on a spectrum and represents the optimum state of health and well-being that each individual is capable of achieving while utilizing technology. Digital wellness will look different for each person, so it’s important to provide the tools and flexibility needed to create boundaries that work for your team’s unique needs. Fortunately, organizations like the Digital Wellness Institute now offer courses designed to upskill employers and employees alike to manage the challenges of the hybrid work world.

When it comes to setting these communication boundaries, “do as I say and not as I do” just doesn’t cut it. This is because employees tend to conform to the actions of the majority, and corporate culture starts from the top. Here’s an example of how communication without boundaries trickles down in an organization.

Let’s say that the CEO of Company X sends an email to their VP of Marketing at 9:00 p.m. on Sunday night in an innocent attempt to get a head start on Monday morning. Little does the CEO know that their VP is doing the same thing, reads the email and sends out three related emails, assigning tasks to their team. Subsequently, those three mid-level employees receive an email notification and feel compelled to respond. Within the hour, a single email has spawned into nearly 10 others and drawn five employees online during their personal time.

Now, this example isn’t intended to shame the CEO or VP for sending an after-hours email, but to demonstrate why our leaders must lead by example when it comes to setting communication boundaries and establishing a Team Communication Charter is a great place to start. A communication charter clearly outlines an organization’s policy on when and how employees are expected to respond. It also allows employees to share their expected working hours, preferences for how they prefer to be reached (email, text, phone, etc.) for different levels of urgency, and what the expected response time may be. When utilized properly, it can drastically improve employee satisfaction and productivity by restricting digital distractions and allowing for more uninterrupted time to focus. Without an established communication charter, it’s easy to fall back into unhealthy patterns of sending emails, texts, and instant messages whenever the desire strikes, so taking the time to create one is critical for the long-term success of your team.

Over the past year, with lockdowns and travel restrictions in place, employers have been spoiled by the hyper-availability of their employees. However, when it comes down to it, being available 24/7 simply isn’t sustainable. While having a long list of employees that will jump online at a moment’s notice may help you in the short term, empowering those same employees to set digital boundaries that protect their mental and digital wellbeing will pay you back tenfold in the long run.

As we adjust to new post-pandemic business culture, digital wellness will become essential to organizational success. Employees need guidance and assurance that the remote office is a healthy and viable option. The good news is, it’s never too late to take the lead. How will you alter your communication tactics to support your employees in the post-pandemic workplace?


HR Transformation In The Experience Age

The human resources function starts small, and as the organization grows, the HR team becomes complex. We need recruiters, business partners, specialists, designers, technologists, and a variety of other specialists in diversity, culture, learning, and more.

It’s a perfect market for consultants. Most HR departments grow organically (and through acquisitions) and every few years they sit down and try to figure out how to organize better. And in the process they look at shared services teams, design teams, delivery centers, and the best way to distribute HR professionals into every business unit.

One of the biggest drivers of this work is technology. Whenever a company buys a new HR platform, the team has to adapt to the new systems, tools, portals, and self-service capabilities. Over time, of course, we want more and more of HR administration to go away, and we want to give employees more direct access to all the information they need. This means roles like “HR Generalist” and “HR administrator” are going away, and HR departments are becoming more agile, cross-trained, and more like consulting organizations.

Today I believe the biggest change is not just the role of technology, it’s the need to focus on “Experience Design” in our work. We can no longer think of HR as a function that creates “programs” that people adopt and use. We have to design and deliver “experiences,” just like we do for customers. And this new idea changes the way HR must be organized, the way HR teams design solutions, and the need for HR to be more of an ongoing, iterative, design and delivery operation.

In many ways, I believe HR transformation is going the way of software engineering. Rather than doing traditional waterfall design (the old way software was designed), we need HR teams to organize into small problem-focused teams, design solutions in an iterative way, develop small “minimal viable products” in partnership with the business, and then instrument and improve these solutions every day. Behind this we need the concept of “Dev Ops,” a function developed in IT that manages the ongoing support, analytics, and iterative improvement of these programs.

This new idea, HR designed as an agile design and delivery function, is a big shift. It means throwing away the old model of HR as a “service delivery” function, and really understanding that HR must focus on product management (understanding customer needs), product design (designing solutions that must “sell” in the market), and agile development, delivery, and data-driven improvement.

One of the reasons I decided to build the Josh Bersin Academy was to address this change. I could see that all HR roles were changing and that HR professionals today need Full Stack capabilities. But when you take a step back and look at the whole HR function, there are some bigger issues to think through.

In my journey to understand this well (I spent fifteen years studying this at Bersin & Associates and then more than six years at Deloitte learning from many expert consultants), I have reached the conclusion that a whole new model of HR has emerged. I haven’t had time to write it down in a complete way, but in my research, I spent some time with Mercer, who is well along on this journey. Several years ago Mercer acquired a brilliant small consulting firm called Promerit, and the Promerit and Mercer teams have been rolling out a new approach to HR transformation.

In the interest of helping HR teams around the world understand the idea of “Experience-Focused HR Transformation,” I wrote this up in a research report. It’s available here, with in-depth examples from PVH and TripAdvisor. I encourage you to read it, and please contact me if you’d like to learn more.

PVH’s story is one of a global multi-brand company with many distributed HR teams, now coming together to build a globally integrated function that leverages a new platform (Workday) in a strongly federated model. As you will read in the story, Analia Mac Laughlin did a masterful job of respecting the expertise of many local HR leaders to build an integrated model.

The TripAdvisor story is one of a company that has rapidly grown through acquisition and needed to harmonize its efforts and operate in a more strategic way. Jeffrey Seitz, the head of technology and analytics at that company, explains how a mid-sized organization can transform HR to become strategic in a world of hyper-growth and many contingent workers.

We are going to cover this topic in a big way at JBA Live!, our just-announced live conference in Los Angeles on June 8-10. I invite you to join us at JBA Live!, because it is probably the only HR conference in the world focused entirely on the professional development of HR. We are keeping sponsors to a bare minimum, and focusing entirely on hot topics, new ideas, and learning sessions to help you advance your career as a professional, leader, or organization. (And every attendee will receive a JBA membership!)

Redesigning HR in the Experience Age is a big deal, and this year we will be launching quite a few new programs focused on employee experience and how you design and deliver experiences at work. I want to applaud Mercer for their leadership in this area and thank PVH and TripAdvisor for sharing their stories with us.