Has “Startup Culture” Changed for Good?

It’s no secret that startup culture is inherently rife with problems. A quick Google search on “toxic startup culture” will get you a few million search results (5.4 million results, to be precise, as of our last check).

For example, much of the well-documented ‘bro culture’ that’s become synonymous with tech startups comes from the fact that entrepreneurs have often been allowed to get away with not prioritizing diversity in the workplace. In fact, according to Silicon Valley Bank, only 26% of startups have programs in place to improve diversity among their leadership teams.

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Spoiler: It’s not.

Does this represent all startup culture? No, of course not. But unfortunately, there is no denying that it is a common issue in the highly-competitive startup world.

However, there’s some evidence that the tables are beginning to turn regarding startup culture. Founders that want their entrepreneurial dreams to survive will need to adapt.

Startup Culture: The “Bro”
Uber’s co-founder, Travis Kalanick, could have written the book on bro culture.

In case you were wondering, “bro culture” is typically fueled by aggressive behavior with overt arrogance, encourages cutting corners, and is all about excess – particularly partying and spending on things with no clear business objectives.

Built on speed over sustainability, bro culture often fosters an aura of overconfidence, which can leave the organization lacking resilience and without a clear sense of foundation. Companies that embody bro culture become corporate frat houses where employees are often hired based on “culture fit,” and women rarely get promoted (if they’re even hired).

Travis Kalanick lived and breathed bro culture, building a literal brotopia at Uber.

Take a 2013 letter that Kalanick sent to Uber’s then 400 employees ahead of a company party in Miami. In the email, Kalanick cursed, advised staff how to have sexual relations at the company outing, asked them not to throw beer kegs off tall buildings, and levied a $200 “puke charge,” amongst other highly-unprofessional comments. The memo read like rules for a boys weekend rather than a message from the head of a skyrocketing company.

(Kalanick was reportedly proud of the email and spoke of it often.)

That attitude didn’t hinder Uber’s growth. By July 2015, Uber was the world’s most valuable startup, valued at $51 billion after its funding rounds. But while Kalanick’s actions created an immensely valuable startup, those same actions also laid the groundwork for a slew of scandals that inevitably led to his ousting.

At the heart of the Uber story lies the crux of the problem with toxicity in startup culture: badly run companies, sometimes, do extremely well.

An Industry of ‘Bros’
Of course, Uber is hardly alone in its rampant toxic culture.

The collapse of WeWork was big news – like really, really big.

The company was once considered a unicorn of all unicorns. In 2019, WeWork was valued at $47 billion. Since launching from a single coworking space in New York, the company had become massive in less than a decade.

It was an impressive feat. That is until co-founder Adam Neumann’s “vision,” bro mentality, and iron grip on the company came sharply into focus and brought many actions into question.

A scathing Wall Street Journal article chronicled what it labeled as the reckless management of the startup by Neumann. The piece detailed Neumann’s heavy drinking, use of marijuana, and habit of making over-the-top declarations – such as wanting to be elected president of the world, living forever, becoming the first trillionaire, and that his descendants would still be running the company in 300 years.

In the weeks that followed, a public offering plan was scrapped, Neumann was pushed out, WeWork’s valuation plunged by nearly $40 billion in just a few months, and SoftBank Group Corp bailed the company out.

Much of this unfolded because Neumann was inspired – and enabled – by the bro culture of the startup world. Esquire referred to him as “a messianic tech-bro who capitalized on the post-financial crash era.” Indeed, many Glassdoor reviews of the company paint a far from rosy picture, with one post from November 2020 calling it “crazy, misogynistic bro-culture…the experience is awful if you are a woman or a person of color.”

There’s also Zenefits, a human resources software startup, that was seen as operating more like a frat house than a corporate office. In an attempt to overhaul the startup’s rambunctious culture and repair its tarnished reputation, the company’s leadership had to go so far as

asking employees to stop drinking beer at the office and avoid sexual acts in the stairwell. Yes, really.

And what about Rivian, an electric vehicle startup whose former sales and marketing vice president sued the company for discrimination, stating that it has a “toxic bro culture that marginalizes women.” In a post on Medium, the former executive, Laura Schwab, said she was fired after bringing concerns to human resources about gender discrimination from her manager. She filed a lawsuit against the company alleging gender discrimination.

The list goes on, and there are countless startups that could be on this it. But, the question remains: how did these companies, in operating this way, do so well?

Well, many Silicon Valley stalwarts utilize the age-old method: fake it ‘til you make it.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It
A person stands confused, worried about the future of the startup that they are currently working for, and the culture that they may have helped to build.

A toxic startup culture isn’t just attributed to male founders, and certainly doesn’t stop at the frat house atmosphere.

As proof, look no further than the epic rise and chaotic fall of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos.

The idea of ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ in startups has been around for ages. It’s the notion that entrepreneurs should “pretend” to be successful before there is any proof of said success. And by “pretend,” we don’t mean for it to sound as innocent as kids playing dressup. We mean companies that go so far as to fake sales numbers, overly project, and present findings that are, if not entirely, partially made up.

For many investors, though, this kind of behavior is expected. Entrepreneurs are supposed to be dreamers, innovators, and live high in the clouds of their vision. It’s an attitude that gets people excited about your service, product, or larger organization.

But Holmes took the idea way too far when she launched her supposed ground-breaking startup Theranos, duping tons of investors, employees, a board of directors, and even Walgreens.

Hailed as the next Steve Jobs, Holmes started Theranos after dropping out of Stanford University, offering a cheaper and more efficient method for blood tests. With just a few drops of blood, Theranos claimed it could test patients for conditions like cancer and diabetes. The company grew with tremendous speed, making Holmes the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire, with the company valued at $9 billion before everything imploded.

A Wall Street Journal investigation revealed Theranos’ tests to be completely unreliable. And Holmes played a major role in covering up the company’s lies. She was eventually ejected as CEO and charged with “massive fraud,” while Theranos closed its operations.

Former employees have spoken out following Theranos’ closing, painting the picture of an incredibly toxic culture that was ruled by paranoia, deception, bullying, and retaliation.

In January 2022, Holmes was found guilty in federal court on three counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to defraud investors.

As journalist David Streitfeld noted in an article for The New York Times, with Holmes’ conviction, the fake it ‘til you make it premise was finally getting its “comeuppance”:

“The verdict signaled the end of an era. In Silicon Valley, where the line between talk and achievement is often vague, there is finally a limit to faking it.”

Of course, Theranos was a specific case, and there were many factors that lead to the ultimate conviction of Elizabeth Holmes. While there may be a “limit to faking it,” that line remains extremely blurred. Investors are constantly battling between entrepreneurial excitement and projection and true market fit.

So, what is the future of startup culture, and of the Icarus-entrepreneurs that, oftentimes, fly a little too close to the sun?

The Next Generation of Startup Culture
A person stands next to a trophy for the success of their startup. By developing an inclusive and sustainable culture, this company was able to soar.

The future of the workplace won’t look like it did 15 years ago. And honestly, it probably won’t look like we though it would 2 years ago. And as the way we work changes, workplace cultures will also need to adapt.

The pandemic has, unquestionably, ushered in the era of remote work. There is no turning back. While this shift projects to create fewer opportunities for toxic culture to build and spread as it has in office settings, it won’t be eradicated on its own without being addressed head-on. In fact, it may even increase as more keyboard warriors find their voices.

In an article for Forbes, Bretton Putter, CEO of CultureGene, commented:

“If company culture is defined as ‘the way we work around here’ then the one thing we do know for certain, is that the culture of every previous office-based business has changed irrevocably.

“If leaders don’t adapt to this reality and start to develop a new culture for their company that fits remote working, it will have a direct impact on their team’s morale, engagement, productivity, motivation, commitment, and their ability to retain their people over the long haul. Ultimately the success of their business.”

After all, it’s a job-seekers market. And a startup that offers free lunch on Fridays won’t be enough to sway qualified talent. A recent survey by Glassdoor found that 77% of respondents consider an organization’s culture before applying for a job, and 74% of workers in the U.S. are likely to leave a company if the workplace culture falls apart.

Hiring and staffing is a long and arduous process, which is being further exacerbated by The Great Resignation. And what’s the driving force behind the mass exodus of workers? Toxic culture. Now more than ever, workers are jumping ship if they don’t like the view.

In November 2021 alone, a record 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs.

Startups need to realize that talent is their biggest asset. Not being cognizant of the revolution in workers’ expectations could erode a startup’s reputation and even hinder growth by putting a drain on resources.

Doing Away with the Old Boys’ Club
We’re just going to cut the chase here: the bro culture and boys’ club mentality is tired and has no place in today’s workplace. What’s more, it isn’t good for business.

Two people of different demographics represent the startup culture shift from an old boy’s club to a more diverse, and inclusive one.

McKinsey & Company found that gender-diverse companies are 25% more likely to have higher profits. That could be in part because organizations that actively prioritize gender equality tend to make better business decisions that impact their success. In fact, one study of some 600 business decisions by 200 different teams concluded that inclusive teams make better choices for the good of the organization 87% of the time.

Plus, job seekers want to know about a company’s diversity and inclusion stance. According to research from Glassdoor, one-third of employees and job seekers would not apply for a position at a company that lacks diversity in its workforce.

And when there’s so much competition for talent, why disregard so many qualified candidates?

“Companies so badly need help that they recruit people from overseas,” wrote Erik Sherman in an article for Inc.com detailing problems with bro culture.

“Except there are still many stories from women who can’t get attention, no matter how trained and skilled they are. Really, you say you want to invent the driverless car or reverse aging or cure cancer and you can’t figure out how to hire more talented women?” Wow. Just, wow.

Not to mention that workers everywhere are fed up with that behavior. Just look at the mass walkouts held at Google offices to protest “a workplace culture that’s not working for everyone,” most notably the company’s treatment of women and its handling of sexual harassment allegations.

Given what we know about the state of startups and startup culture across the country, including many highly-publicized employee liability lawsuits, entrepreneurs need to take proactive steps from the start, which means being appropriately insured, including Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI) and Directors and Officers (D&O) Insurance.

It’s also essential to implement measures early on to avoid potential EPLI claims, which will protect your business from possible lawsuits while also supporting a healthy, positive, and inclusive company culture.

Startup culture can be inherently toxic and won’t disappear overnight, but things are hopefully starting to move in the right direction.

It’s time for entrepreneurs to learn from the epic falls from grace that Neumann, Kalanick, and Holmes experienced. It’s time to give recognition to startups and their respective founders that are promoting an inclusive and positive workplace culture rather than continuing to obsess over and glamorize the Ubers and Theranoses and WeWorks of the world.

They had their moment. It’s time to move on.


Want to make an impact? Change your questioning habits.

“Asking questions keeps people engaged, which is paramount when you are trying to influence someone’s thinking or behavior.” That’s the conclusion of a ten-year-old Harvard Business Review article by Chris Musselwhite and Tammie Plouffe. But the idea that leaders can have more impact by asking the right questions is much older. As early as 375 B.C., Plato emphasized the importance of teaching children how to ask and answer questions. That laid the foundation of a 2,400-year-old belief that not only are some questions more insightful than others, but some people are also more entitled to ask questions than others.

A photo of two ropes, one blue and the other orange, that are knotted together against a teal background.
Mastering the connection between strategy and culture
by David Lancefield
Across key societal institutions, such as courtrooms, classrooms, and newsrooms, we have an unspoken contract that says only lawyers, teachers, and journalists are entitled to ask questions. In a business context, that entitlement has been enjoyed chiefly by corporate leaders and HR. Part of the authority of leaders is that their authority isn’t questioned, which means employees get to react to lots of questions—in surveys, interviews, and coaching sessions—but rarely get to proactively ask them.

The conventional wisdom has always been that leaders who ask the right questions will get the right answers to make the right decisions. In my 20 years researching the nature and impact of questions, I have come to realize that not only is the conventional wisdom false, but it can also damage companies. Depriving employees of the opportunity to ask questions and reflect on their roles narrows the scope for developing insights and influencing behaviors.

The less time people in an organization spend reflecting and asking questions, the less they align with one another on what’s important, and the greater the risk that they are busy doing things that have no impact. Questions don’t undermine authority and trust; in fact, questions help build those qualities. To unleash the true power of questions, I have identified four ways to use them to help your employees be more productive and more engaged.

  1. Direct everyone’s attention to the same problem at the same time.
    There is more time than you think to reflect on actions if leaders make reflection part of the decision-making process. For example, if a company is going to introduce a new product or process, managers might want to garner employees’ insights into what’s working and what needs improvement. Inviting employees to share their thoughts and ideas will help the company mobilize quickly around strategic priorities. Even when time is of the essence, strategic alignment should be a top priority.

The less time people in an organization spend reflecting and asking questions, the less they align with each other on what’s important, and the greater the risk that they are busy doing things that have no impact.

Recently, highly ranked officers of the Royal Danish Defence College in Copenhagen sought my advice on how to improve the questions they ask in situations where both leaders and staff are dealing with unpredictable threats. The standard procedure in these high-stakes moments, despite the need to act urgently, includes a Q&A session during which leaders and employees reflect on possible actions. The leaders wanted to get at why people decided to take certain actions in a crisis, not why the crisis event happened in the first place. So they suggested that instead of focusing on the event itself by asking “How could this happen?”, they would rephrase the question and ask: “What made you make this decision?” It took the emphasis away from the event and prompted people to think about the intentions behind their own actions.

Unlike most business leaders, these officers didn’t ask me what to ask their staff. Instead, they asked me how to ask questions in a way that would make it easier for their staff to share what’s most important at that critical moment. Rather than looking for the right questions, expecting them to lead to the right answers and the right decisions, they were looking for ways to create a space for people to focus on the same problems at the same time, trusting that if people have space and time to reflect and learn from one another, everybody will make better decisions.

At times of high uncertainty and ubiquitous threat—be it changing markets, new technologies, or fast-growing competitors—everyone needs to be in agreement on what is most important at that moment. This empowers everyone to respond to their maximum potential.

  1. Invite everyone to ask their own questions.
    The belief that there are right and wrong questions is hardwired into the methods we use to measure employee engagement, leadership performance, and customer satisfaction. That’s a problem. We are so used to questionnaires and interviews that we rarely stop to ask if survey designers and HR consultants necessarily know what questions are the most important to ask.

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“Our strategy is built on innovation,” says Teija Saari, head of the Center of Organizational Development at Grundfos, the Danish manufacturer of water pumps. “And we know that no one can have all the right questions or right answers when building and delivering pioneering products and services in this VUCA [volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous] world. Therefore, we need to constantly learn. And learning happens when diverse people are brought together to work on common topics and when those people are curious to understand each other’s points of view.”

So, when Grundfos recently launched a big reorganization, moving from geographical units to global customer segments—a shift that affected more than half the company’s office workers—the implementation team didn’t interview leaders about their plans for how to make the transformation a success. Instead, the team invited leaders to ask each other questions about their first-100-day plans. Questions like, “How do we keep experienced employees engaged during the transition period?” and “What is the best way to move customer accounts between different sales teams?” made the leaders focus on the elements that were most important to them. For some, the crucial element turned out to be ensuring psychological safety on their team. For others, it was giving customer engagement a higher priority.

Saari stresses the difference between doing interviews and making room for people to ask their own questions: “The answers I give in an interview or a survey are gone the second I’ve answered, but when I think about what questions I would like to ask, it goes deeper. The same is true when I receive a question from one of my colleagues. I reflect on how to reply, and the topic takes root inside me.”

According to Saari, the 100-day plans that came out of these collective reflection spaces played a key role in Grundfos being able to speed up the organizational transformation, resulting in record-high employee engagement and customer satisfaction only nine months after the new organization was launched.

Democratizing the power of questions—by making room for everyone to ask their own—helps ensure impact.

  1. Anchor the problem in everyday conversations.
    Tapping into the wisdom of the crowd means recognizing that reflection should not be a “meta” exercise detached from employees’ everyday concerns. For a company the size of Grundfos, which has 19,000 employees worldwide, achieving that kind of reflection has required a technology solution that lets people collaborate virtually on solving the company’s most important problems. It’s built on a three-step method:

Step 1. Leadership sets the strategic direction and opens participation to all.

As part of its strategic goal to become a world-class learning organization, Grundfos wanted to broaden its network of learning ambassadors. Instead of sending out a survey asking the existing network of 80 or so ambassadors to answer a set of predetermined questions, a sponsor team consisting of three top executives invited everyone in the company to contribute to a digital conversation on the topic.

Step 2. Employees exchange questions and answers one on one.

The 670 employees and people leaders who participated used a platform that prompts participants to ask one opening question of one of their colleagues. Each participant decides what they ask and whom they ask. The only rule is that questions must be relevant to the topic at hand. Participants reply, then ask a new question of another participant. The question relay goes on for several days, allowing people with different schedules and in different time zones to join in. By making the dialogue asynchronous, Grundfos created a collective reflection space in the midst of employees’ everyday work and conversations.

Step 3. The conversational and behavioral data gets analyzed and shared.

The participants exchanged a total of 1,195 questions and 905 answers over a five-day period. (The discrepancy owes to the fact that each participant got to ask a new question after providing an answer.) That’s 2,100 unique inputs on a strategic topic that in the past would have been confined to a small group of learning professionals. The conversational data—question type, keyword frequency, distribution of questions among teams, and so on—was analyzed and shared with participants with the help of an AI tool that helped them navigate the results. Those results included a network visualization that showed which teams were asking which other teams questions, and an interactive word cloud that allowed participants to explore the dominant topics that emerged among the teams.

  1. Use data to make sure everyone is on the same quest.
    The data collected via a Q&A relay like the one Grundfos conducted gives insights into what a large population of the workforce deems important. By comparing what they ask with how they answer one another’s questions, you get a better understanding of what helps and hinders progress.

For example, the data Grundfos collected from its learning dialogue exercise (specifically, the word cloud, pictured above) showed that a lot of leaders and employees confused learning and formal training. Learning is the accumulation of knowledge on the job, whereas formal training targets the acquisition of a specific skill. This insight changed the way the company thought about hands-on experiential learning. Leaders and employees now recognize it as an important driver for improvement and innovation.

Saari describes the benefit of such questioning exercises this way: “Having these digital reflection spaces fosters communication and dialogue in our organization that would not happen otherwise. By making room for people’s questions and providing spaces for reflection, we help people discover new ways of thinking and seeing the world, thereby delivering new innovations to solve the world’s water and climate challenges.”

Making reflection an integral part of the workday instead of yet another task to fit into a busy schedule will help companies understand where and how they need to adjust their business practices. And more companies will thrive when leaders focus not just on what questions to ask, but on who gets to ask them.


What The Pandemic Taught Us About Change

Despite all its downsides, this pandemic has been somewhat miraculous for business. We can work productively from home, we can buy food and entertainment from our phones, nearly everything can be delivered quickly, and our consumer experiences are safe, fast, and digital.

In fact, just about every company, every product, and every service has been transformed. And it all happened in two years. How have companies been able to create such rapid and massive change?

Well we’ve been studying this in detail, and it’s time for a new set of rules. And this week we’ve published it: we call it The Change Agility Playbook: Ten Lessons in Change Agility.

As Kathi Enderes points out in her LinkedIn article, this work is a result of two years of study. We surveyed, interviewed, and had discussions with more than 1,400 companies. We conducted hundreds of hours of group meetings through our Big Reset groups, and we listened to what was working. And the big message is clear.

Change Agility has nothing to do with “change management.” It is a new roadmap for culture, management, learning, and rewards that I believe has become a manifesto for growth in the future.

As I discuss in this week’s podcast, your ability to change is one of the most fundamental strengths you have. Business, by definition, is all about adaptation. Yes, you may be making a ton of money in your current business today. But I can guarantee that some technology shift, competitive move, or customer change will interrupt it. So building a company that is “architected for change” is critical.

Ford Motor has gone from fuel-powered to electric-centric in only a few years. Lego has created a new era of play and grown at unprecedented rates. Astra Zeneca, Sanofi, Bayer, and Moderna have hired and expanded their science by orders of magnitude. McDonald’s can now hire and change wages in minutes, without the need for recruiters. And Mercy Bonsecours, Kaiser Permanente, and Provident health have transformed how they deliver healthcare.

None of this is over: each of these companies have set in place a new agenda with lots of work yet to do. And the tight labor market and hot economy is making it more urgent. But facing both the pandemic and competitive pressure from digital-first startups and incumbents, these and other companies have learned what “being agile” really means.

The big message in the playbook is something important I want you to know. Change Agility is not “Change Management.” In fact, the enormous and profitable practice of “change management” itself has to change.

Change Agility is not just about training and communications. It’s about human-centered leadership, building a strong culture of purpose, taking care of your people, and creating a design discipline of “micro-nudges” and stories that bring people to the new world.

I encourage you to join us in this journey, read through this research, and talk about it with your team. Just last week I talked with two of the fastest-growing companies in the world (a pharma and a digital consulting firm) and they both told me the same thing. We’re exploding with growth, but we need a new manifesto to make this sustainable and enduring.

That’s what “Change Agility” is all about. This is a new management discipline for all of us, and it will help us with our teams, our organizations, and our lives.


Virtual Reality as a communication tool

As the world reaches the two-year mark of the COVID-19 global pandemic, we have seen an acceleration of change in the workplace. Many companies have, and are still adjusting to new ways of working. From conference calls to virtual reality, there are many online tools to support employees. Hyundai Card, a credit card issuer in Korea, is at the forefront of applying technology to keep employee morale up during the prolonged pandemic.

The company has been using online conference platforms long before the start of the pandemic. These were largely used to communicate with overseas offices and many partners located around the globe, the company meeting rooms are equipped with high-quality devices to provide seamless experiences enabling communication in real time.

On 3 January, the first working day of 2022, Ted Chung, vice chairman and CEO of Hyundai Card∙Hyundai Commercial greeted employees via Webex, an online video conferencing solution. During the session he mentioned that in 2022, Hyundai Card was seeking to become a more agile organisation to adjust to a constantly changing and unpredictable environment. Employees voiced they enjoyed having a chance to interact with top management and found the live session useful and encouraging.

At the end of 2021, the company held most of its year-end celebrations online. An extension of its ongoing online classes took place under a special holiday theme. The special classes included a Christmas dessert making class which many employees enjoyed with their children and a calligraphy class in which employees learnt to create beautiful handwritten cards. Additionally, two new events were held in a virtual reality metaverse.

Employees could choose to create avatars like their actual selves or create an alter-ego to portray them in the virtual world

Gino Kim, team leader of the corporate culture team commented: “Due to the current Omicron variant and stricter social distancing regulations, we currently have 50-70% of employees working from home. As a leading finance tech company, a majority of our employees are generation MZ and we have found that utilising new technology is well-received and effective. We wanted to plan a series of fun and enjoyable events that would encourage employees at the end of the year. We decided to use a metaverse platform to add more life to the events and have employees participate even as they were working from home.”

One of the metaverse events was an online singing competition based on the TV singing competition, The Masked Singer that allowed employees to show off their karaoke skills. Employees were asked to create avatars to represent themselves in a metaverse and were able to demonstrate creativity from head to toe. Employees could choose to create avatars like their actual selves or create an alter-ego to portray them in the virtual world. A total of 71 contestants applied and after two competitive rounds, five people were selected as finalists. The final competition was shared live through Hyundai Cards’ in-house broadcasting for all employees to enjoy. Employees who prefer to listen, were selected as a judging panel for the event. All contestants competed as avatars which hid their identities, allowing the judges to score without bias.

“I love to sing but get stage fright so the metaverse singing contest was perfect for me” said Minhyuk Choi, who took first place. “At first I wasn’t quite sure about a virtual reality competition, however, when it was my turn and my avatar walked on stage, it felt as if I was live on stage with all my colleagues watching. I could see and hear them cheering me on, I knew I had to perform my best.”

Eunseok Heo who participated as part of the judging panel said: “This was my first time with virtual reality and I really enjoyed creating an avatar in the metaverse and listening to all the contestants sing. They all did so well! The entire event was a fun game rather than a work event. I look forward to more events like this in the future.”

Another metaverse event was a group quiz. Each team was asked to designate a representative who would answer the questions in the metaverse on behalf of the team. Teams were allowed to discuss with each other via online communication tools, before coming up with a final answer. “We wanted to create different events for the employees to enjoy. Teamwork was key for the quiz, we wrote questions with the intention of having team members cooperate and work together to come up with the answers. The entire quiz event was designed to encourage teamwork and create a memorable year-end for employees” Kim added.

A total of 17 teams made it to the final and after many rounds each eliminating teams, the IT planning team came out on top. Quiz questions covered a range of topics included the company’s products and services, maths, music, culture and general knowledge sense. The prize for the quiz was a meal kit sent to all team members’ home addresses to enjoy an online team dinner.

Kim commented: “[W]e are constantly exploring different ways to engage with employees and found technology has been key. We found hurdles for implementing new technology are low and employees are able to quickly adapt and embrace technology. Furthermore, employees are able to utilise technology in their daily tasks and become more effective. Moving forward we will continue to find technology solutions which enhance the working environment and provide memorable experience for all employees.”


The Difference Between Absenteeism and Presenteeism in the Workplace

As the name suggests, absenteeism happens when a worker is not at their place of work. Sometimes absenteeism is due to physical health challenges. However, it can also be attributed to mental health causes, ranging from stress and anxiety to depression and a host of other mental and behavioral health challenges, including substance abuse disorders.

In 2007, the CDC found that the average American worker was only absent from their workplace for an average of 4 to 5 days a year, with slightly higher numbers for older workers. The pandemic has led to a surge in absenteeism. Many workers have been quarantined after testing positive to COVID-19, while others quarantined due to exposure. Others who have struggled with mental health issues have found it challenging to make it into the office.

In addition, absenteeism issues do not impact all industries equally. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that front-facing enterprises with numerous public interactions experience more absenteeism. For example, consider the healthcare sector, which has dramatically higher absenteeism rates than other professions.

Presenteeism Explained
If absenteeism occurs when workers are not at their jobs, what is presenteeism?

As the name suggests, presenteeism occurs when a worker is reporting to work but is not working up to their full capability or capacity due to illness or mental health challenges. However, presenteeism is not a result of workers not wanting to perform to their full potential.

Typically, the employees want to complete their work tasks satisfactorily but simply cannot perform at their standard capacity. Unfortunately, this results in a dramatic dip in productivity. Below, we’ll explore some of the potential reasons for presenteeism.

What Factors Cause Presenteeism
There are many reasons an employee may struggle with presenteeism. Common causes of presenteeism include allergies, asthma, and other chronic health conditions. Also, presenteeism occurs more frequently in organizations with poor workplace morale or inadequate paid sick leave or paid time off. Some organizations have also set unrealistic expectations that their employees should show up no matter what.

Mental Health: Its Link to Presenteeism and Absenteeism
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a wide range of additional reasons why workers, even those working from home, have a diminished capacity. For example, most Americans have reported feeling sharp upticks in their stress and anxiety during the pandemic, as they struggle to balance public health issues with economic hardship. Under these stressors, many workers find it difficult to focus on the day-to-day performance of their work functions.

Burnout Presents an Issue, Too
Burnout from the pandemic is likely driving presenteeism. Many workers, especially those in the healthcare sector, have reported feeling overwhelmed and stressed by their increased workload over the last 18 to 24 months. Moreover, this workload has been made even more challenging due to the absence of colleagues.

When stress leads to burnout, employees eventually start to checkout, leading to more turnover. As executives know, turnover is expensive and can cost a company almost 2x an employee’s annual salary . With nearly 60 percent of workers (across professions) reporting daily stress over the last year, leaders cannot afford to keep ignoring the well-being of their employees.

The Costs of Absenteeism and Presenteeism
Calculating the exact costs of absenteeism and presenteeism can be a challenging process, but just because it is difficult does not mean that one should underestimate the associated costs. For example, one study suggested that absenteeism costs $2,500 to 3,500 per worker, with significant variations from profession to profession.

Presenteeism Costs More Than Absenteeism
Harvard Business Review has roughly estimated that presenteeism costs the U.S. economy upwards of $150 billion a year in lost productivity, which far surpasses annual absenteeism costs. A significant portion of these costs results from workers struggling with depression and anxiety, two of the most common mental health conditions in the United States. Anxious and depressed workers may find it challenging to complete day-to-day workday tasks.

Another large portion of the presenteeism costs is related to individuals dealing with chronic and long-term medical conditions.

One of the most significant revelations is that presenteeism may cost companies more than medical treatment and drugs. It may cost employers two to three times more than direct medical care via insurance premiums and employee claims. Moreover, compared to absenteeism, less time and money is lost when employees stay home than when they show up to work and underperform.


How to Create Jobs People Will Love: An Intro to Job Design

Job design is an important element of employee retention and successful recruitment but the concept doesn’t get much attention. However, creating jobs people will like is entirely possible, and doing so is important. A job’s design plays a significant role in employee satisfaction, engagement, and retention. If your organisation is struggling to fill a particular role or retain employees in a certain department, take a look at the jobs themselves. The problems may be stemming from the job design.

Let’s start with the definition of job design. Job design means designing a role with tasks and responsibilities that support the organisations’ business goals and is satisfying, rewarding, and motivating for employees. Ensuring jobs work for the people actually doing the work is an intrinsic aspect of good job design.

“If we really want to motivate and engage, then why aren’t we striving to make the roles themselves as engaging as possible?” asks Mike Thackray, in a recent piece for People Management titled, “We need to bring the life back to work through better job design.” Thackray notes that a tweak or two in the elements of a job can “ can make a big difference to the level of engagement and satisfaction in your team.”

When you learn more about job design and the impact it can have on both employees and business outcomes, Thackray’s comment about the impact adjustments to a role can have made perfect sense.

The elements of job design
Job design comprises four primary elements: tasks, motivation, resource allocation, and reward, or more simply, what needs to be done, who is going to do it, how to get them to do it, and what they will be rewarded for doing it.

A task is a defined piece of work that can be performed within a given timeframe. Good job design starts with clear identification of the critical tasks for the role and the associated timeframes.
Motivation in the context of job design is considered from the standpoint of an individual. It’s what compels a person to complete the tasks and sustain the effort necessary to do so.
“Individuals need to be compelled, excited, and passionate to do their work. Managers should design jobs that motivate employees,” according to an titled “Job Design and Motivation” from Lumen Learning.

Resource allocation (as related to job design) makes efficient use of an organisation’s resources to meet its objectives.
Rewards play a key role in job design and include more than compensation and bonuses. Job security, benefits, and other rewards employees receive in exchange for their work are an important part of the equation.
In addition to the elements, which you could consider to be the framework of a job, job design also includes job characteristics. The five core characteristics – variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and feedback – are from the heart of Job Characteristic Theory, which was developed in the mid-1970s by two organisational psychologists, Greg R. Oldham and J. Richard Hackman, as a result of a study into why people lose interest in their jobs. Paying attention to these factors, and making adjustments to roles as employees gain more experience or in response to employee feedback, allows leaders to make jobs more engaging.

Let’s look at each in the context of their role in job design.

Skill variety. This is simply the amount of variety in any one role. Some jobs are largely repetitive, others are widely varied.
Task identity. This is the degree to which the job entails the employee identifying and completing a task with a visible outcome (as opposed to working on just a small component of a larger task.)
Task significance. How important is the task, in terms of its impact on the company or its customers?
Autonomy. Are employees trusted to do the work independently, or is performance closely monitored or managed?
Feedback. How much insight does an employee have about their performance?
Not every job needs to have a high degree of each characteristic. Ideally, a job’s characteristics align with the employee experience. An entry-level role, for example, is likely to have a lower degree of autonomy and task significance. However, the characteristics of a job must evolve as employees gain more experience. When experienced employees have low levels of skill variety, autonomy, and task significance, chances are good they will become disengaged and more likely to leave the organisation.

Job characteristics that are out of alignment with employees’ experience levels impact employees negatively and can quickly erode morale and performance. In fact, the researchers who developed Job Characteristic Theory identified the impact of job characteristics on employees’ psyches and how they felt about their jobs.

Job characteristics and resulting psychological impact on employees
Jobs that score highly on the five core job characteristics are more likely to lead to positive outcomes, such as high levels of morale, motivation, work quality, and job satisfaction. Correspondingly, these jobs also result in and a reduction in absenteeism.

To better understand how and why job characteristics impact employees to the degree they do, it’s useful to look a little deeper into JRT research and understand the three “critical psychological states” that result from a job’s characteristics. Wikipedia offers a succinct of the three critical psychological states:

Experienced Meaningfulness of the Work: The degree to which the jobholder experiences the work as intrinsically meaningful and can present his or her value to other people and/or the external environment.
Experienced Responsibility for Outcome of the Work: The degree to which the worker feels he or she is accountable and responsible for the results of the work.
Knowledge of Results of the Work Activities: The degree to which the jobholder knows how well he or she is performing.
Interestingly, the researchers behind the theory found that several of the job characteristics had a greater influence on employees’ psychological states. The two most significant contributors are autonomy and feedback. When either or both of those factors are out of alignment, the chance of a negative outcome – such as poor performance or an employee’s departure – is increased.

Mini case study: the impact of better job design on turnover and morale
I learned about job design first-hand several years ago when I started to manage a team of marketers based in India. Despite being a prestigious employer brand, we had serious turnover problems in several of the marketing automation roles, and it didn’t take me long to figure out why.

The jobs were awful, requiring employees to focus repeatedly on just one or two elements of an email campaign. One person set up the emails. Another created landing pages. A third dealt with analytics. This assembly-line job design was a recipe for attrition. First and foremost, the work was boring. Secondly, it created needless delays and dependencies, as all the different elements were connected, resulting in frustration. Thirdly, the narrow focus of each role meant that employees had very little growth or learning opportunity. Finally, and probably most importantly, by treating employees like cogs in a machine, the organisation had removed any feeling of ownership or pride people felt for their work.

Looking back at the job characteristics of those roles, the problems come into stark view:

Skill variety was very low. The work was boring and repetitive.
Task identity was also low. Employees worked on granular elements of a marketing campaign, never the whole.
Task significance was on the low end. While the overall campaigns were important, the team didn’t have a clear view of the impact of their individual work.
Autonomy was low, especially given the simplicity of the work and the talent and experience of the team members, who functioned largely as order takers.
Feedback was nearly nil. The team had no real insight into campaign outcomes, and the simplicity of the work didn’t invite a lot of feedback from stakeholders.
I talked to the team about their roles, and asked if they would rather handle full campaigns, end to end, if we saw to it they had the training they needed. The answer was a resounding and enthusiastic yes. Once the training was complete, we were rewarded with an immediate improvement in performance and enthusiasm. Most wonderfully, even though the employees’ skillsets grew quickly, no one left. Several of the team started to specialise, pursuing additional certifications, and bringing new capabilities and features to our work. They collaborated, created new processes, drove new initiatives, and developed more sophisticated and effective campaigns. Morale skyrocketed, results improved and most of the team ended up staying for years, gathering new skills and growing into new roles – and it all started with improvements to the job design.

How to improve job design
Jobs that are well designed have clearly defined roles, responsibilities, and outcomes that meet business needs, and the corresponding job characteristics result in satisfied, engaged employees who perform well and aren’t at risk of leaving the company.

Simple red flags that a job’s design needs improvement include:

The role is experiencing turnover at a greater than expected rate,
Employees in the role are absent from work more frequently than other employees,
The job description has evolved into a huge task list, and many tasks are never completed, or
The job description is focused on a small number of repetitive tasks.
You can analyse a job’s design several different ways, keeping in mind the goal of understanding the real business outcomes the role is delivering, and how employees who are currently in that role feel about it.

Role and responsibilities assessment: Understanding what is expected of the role, and the work being done, is the first step in assessing job design. Depending upon the task variety associated with the role, you should be on the lookout for jobs that are either repetitive and lack variety, or are poorly defined, resulting in some tasks never being completed. In the latter case, talk to both employees and supervisors about the work that is always completed, sometimes is completed, or is never completed.
Surveys: are a useful way to quickly gather information about a role, especially if several people hold the same job. Questions to ask include:
Do you feel your work is meaningful?
Do you know the results of your contributions?
Do you feel connected to the outcomes of your work?
Does your job provide a variety of tasks?
Does your work provide you the opportunity to develop your skills?
Are you able to see how your work contributes to the business’s success?
Do you have the freedom to decide how to do your work?
Are you satisfied with your ability to manage your work schedule?
Do you receive helpful feedback about your work?
In addition to gathering information about how employees feel about the job, leaders should also notice if employee responses are broadly similar, or if there is significant variation. The latter can be a sign of unfair treatment by a leader.

One on one interviews: Talking to employees, their supervisors, and department heads one on one can provide valuable insight into employees’ satisfaction with the work, as well as perspectives on the resource allocation the work requires
Once you’ve gathered your data, you should be able to pinpoint aspects of the role that can be improved. Generally speaking, the improvements will fall into one of two categories: job responsibilities and management-related. Improvements to job responsibilities will focus on skill variety, task identity, and task significance. Management-related improvements will concentrate on ensuring roles have a healthy and appropriate level of autonomy, and employees are receiving consistent and helpful feedback.

It may seem difficult at first to make improvements to job responsibilities, especially if the firm is short-staffed, facing increasing demand, or is otherwise running full-tilt. Instead of thinking in terms of reducing tasks, think instead about:

Delegating more tasks to roles that need more skill variety
Combining tasks to give employees more robust and fully identifiable tasks, and provide an opportunity for upskilling
Providing more experienced employees with new tasks from related areas of the business: you can improve the design of those roles while providing cross-training or stretch assignments to your more experienced people.
Management-related improvements may seem more daunting at the outset. Often, inexperienced managers, lack confidence or need more training default to micromanaging and/or favoritism. If you suspect some of your managers are struggling, our ebook “” provides an easy-to-use framework to raise leaders’ awareness of their habits, and will help build their leadership skillset.

Another great way to get managers on the right track is to use employee engagement scores in setting their goals. Many aspects of employee engagement are tied directly to management best practices. Running an engagement survey every quarter and observing trends in a team’s score will provide a clear measure of a leader’s progress. (Engagement Multiplier clients who would like more information on organising teams by individual manager on their dashboard should contact their dedicated Client Success Manager or send us a note at )

Committing to creating jobs people will love is one of the most important and impactful steps you can take as a leader to strengthen your business, both in terms of the business’s performance and your employees’ morale, engagement, and retention.


Middle Managers: The Forgotten Heroes of Innovation

The importance of building a support network to implement promising ideas.

For many organisations, the biggest challenge of innovation is not coming up with good ideas, it’s making sure those good ideas are noticed and acted upon. This is a particular challenge for multinationals, such as global pharmaceutical and health company Bayer, which have thousands of staff spread across numerous departments, countries and regions – all with the potential to create good ideas.

The answer for Bayer was to build a framework to integrate and nurture innovation. This structure helped middle managers facilitate a culture of innovation throughout the company.

A blueprint for innovation

These observations were made during research for my book Built to Innovate. The book’s aim is to map out a proven system for embedding constant innovation, which I define as an innovation engine, into an organisation’s DNA. At its heart, this system identifies three key processes: creation, reframing and integration.

As I’ve explored in a previous article, creation is about giving employees the tools and motivation to generate ideas. Reframing is about challenging assumptions that may hinder innovation by encouraging team members to change their mindsets and reimagine their ways of working.

Speaking at a webinar, Monika Lessl, SVP, Bayer’s Head of Corporate R&D, Social Innovation and the Bayer Foundation, agreed that creation needs to take place across the company: “Innovation is often just defined as R&D. But that’s not enough, we realised it’s important to involve everyone in the innovation process and make it accessible across the company.”

Integration is the process by which the dispersed innovating capabilities and resources within a firm are brought together into a corporate-wide innovating capability. Put another way, the integration process encompasses two main elements: “connecting the dots” between all the new ideas that are springing up from around the organisation; and selecting, channeling and testing those ideas and deciding whether they are worthy of implementation.

As Lessl put it in an interview for the book: “We’ve learned creation is not enough … The idea is critical, but the translation to bring it to life and our understanding of the underlying problem is where we often fail.”

The need for an innovation network

This perhaps explains why Bayer, a 150-year-old company with a long and illustrious pedigree of inventing innovative products, has devoted so much time and effort to developing an environment that truly supports their employees’ potential for innovation.

With three separate divisions and a presence in over 30 countries, Bayer relied on a hierarchical structure that offered clear lines of communication and strict operational procedures. While ideal for day-to-day operations, this rigid system allowed little room for innovation.

The solution they fixed upon was to develop a dual system approach, creating a separate horizontal innovation network that was more flexible and allowed for simpler lines of interaction, collaboration and communication across the company.

This approach closely illustrates my argument in Built to Innovate: All successful innovative companies simultaneously operate an execution engine for day-to-day operations and an innovation engine that allows employees to dedicate time to generating new ideas.

The process of developing this network started at the very top, with Bayer’s whole board given responsibility for innovation. This innovation committee then selected 80 senior managers, spread across all country groups and global functions, to act as ‘innovation ambassadors’. These ambassadors focus much of their time working with the company’s middle managers, promoting innovation concepts and techniques that managers can share with their employees.

The role of middle managers

One of the big findings as I wrote my book was this: Middle managers are a vital part of innovation. Although they are often overlooked, without middle managers innovation is lost.

Senior leaders must face the reality of an increasingly uncertain business environment, so they naturally recognise the need for continuous innovation. Meanwhile, frontline employees are interacting with customers and their issues on a daily basis, so they, too, fully grasp the need for innovation. But middle managers are typically focused on the execution engine, which means they can often be detached from the pressures to innovate, even seeing time spent on innovation as an unwelcome distraction from day-to-day objectives.

Yet middle managers form an important bridge between senior leaders and frontline employees. It is middle managers who have the power to give employees the time and motivation to innovate. And it is the middle managers who can make sure that any ideas generated are refined, filtered and, if worthwhile, brought to the attention of senior leaders. To help support this crucial role, Bayer trained more than 1000 innovation coaches between 2016 and 2020. Situated in every country where Bayer operates, these coaches help middle managers coach and motivate their teams to innovate through a range of activities. These include co-creation sessions, lunch-and-learns and small group workshops, known as fast sessions.

Local innovation coordinators offer further assistance. Their role is to review the ideas generated, give prompt feedback and connect innovating teams and new ideas within the organisation. The coordinators help remove any pressure on middle managers to spot good ideas, while also shutting down bad ideas before too much time and energy has been wasted on them.

Making innovation accessible

This cross-company innovation framework at Bayer is supported by WeSolve, a digital platform that allows all employees to post any challenges or problems they are facing. Issues submitted can range from a frontline worker in Spain trying to help farmers monitor pesticide levels, to a manager in India asking for brand name suggestions for a new product. The critical part is that any employee from any department, regardless of job title or training, can visit the forum and post potential solutions to any challenge.

The response has been impressive. By 2020, more than 200 problem-solving challenges were being posted every year, and over 40,000 employees had participated. Particularly interesting is the fact that two-thirds of the best ideas for solutions come from people working outside the division or functional area where the issue originated. WeSolve allows all Bayer employees to innovate by sharing and connecting their innovation challenges and new ideas.

Bayer is not the only company to understand the need to develop such an innovation engine, nor is it the only one to understand the importance of getting middle managers to champion innovation. At Kordsa, which manufactures fabric to reinforce tyres, it is the mid-level managers who create the time and space for the frontline employees to innovate. They also act as the first line when it comes to reviewing, filtering and selecting potential ideas to be transferred to the organisation’s execution engine via their ‘stage-gate’ filtering process, which I discussed in more detail in my previous article.

Financial services giant Allianz UK takes things further by incentivising middle managers to get their teams to spend time innovating through an innovation league table. Obviously, no manager wants to rank badly in the league, so the ranking system creates a new motto for middle managers: “Give permission to innovate and make others jealous.” Allowing innovation to take place in your team gives you the chance to finish above your peers in the league.

Integrating innovation throughout a company is crucial to ensure a continuous flow of creative and actionable ideas. This requires the existence of a formal innovation network that sits alongside the execution engine and supports and incentivises the involvement of middle management. While they are the oft-forgotten foot soldiers of innovation, they play a key role in championing and channelling promising ideas to implementation.


End ghosting in recruitment: Technology means there’s no excuse

Despite advances in software, many candidates are still ghosted by prospective employers. Martin Stubbs, resourcing manager at civil engineering firm Colas, explains the damage caused by organisations that fail to inform candidates why they haven’t got the job.

With single-click applications, the recruitment world has become unrecognisable in the past few years. Gone are the personal covering letters and hours spent adapting CVs to a role. It’s no wonder that many recruiters are seeing an influx of applicants, often unqualified for the position.

For big in-house talent teams, the technology is so good now that there is no room for excuses when it comes to failing to respond to candidates. Nevertheless, recent research from recruitment software firm Tribepad shows that 65% of UK job applicants have been ghosted. This points to a failure within recruitment and HR to act, both on a human level and on a technological level.

Technology is very accessible now and it is here to help us with automated screening and mass messaging to candidates. I see no reason for those who work in HR to apologise for using such automation.

The modern world has changed. We as an industry need to start treating people how we ourselves would wish to be treated. It really isn’t hard to set up an automated email system that allows organisations to communicate to a candidate that they have been unsuccessful – it is the bare minimum we can do.

Candidate experience
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Where talent team numbers allow, more personal feedback is better, particularly when a candidate has put a lot of time in. With the feedback driven culture on social media, the recruitment process has become increasingly focused on candidate experience.

It is so important for us, in the HR sector, to be mindful of the service that our candidates receive particularly when it is often so difficult to find the skills we are looking for.

I noticed during the pandemic, when many recruiters lost their jobs and had to apply for new roles, they were the first to complain when they were ghosted. This should hopefully help recruiters realise how in the modern industry, which is candidate-driven, ghosting is not OK.

Ghosting might seem like a small issue, but there are far-reaching consequences. Tribepad’s End Ghosting research has seen many who have been ghosted by organisations large and small, hoping to hear back about a prospective job, yet are left with negative effects on their mental health and self-esteem.

The report found that 86% of people who had been ghosted in the recruitment process were left feeling down. Forty per cent said this feeling went on for weeks and even months.

I’m a full believer in “positive rejection”. Taking the time to explain why a candidate is unsuitable for the role while acknowledging their strengths goes a long way. This may soften the blow of the initial rejection and also avoids ghosting. It’s important for us in HR and recruitment to take responsibility and better safeguard candidates’ mental health.

Almost all ghosted candidates reported feeling resentment towards organisations that ghosted them. Why wouldn’t they? Reputation management is perhaps a small part of why practices should be improved, but it can help us focus on a better candidate experience. It is a part of a company’s social responsibility to ensure candidates are looked after, at the very least at a basic level.

Colas delivers sustainable solutions for the UK’s transport infrastructure. We operate a wide variety of projects for public and private sector clients, employing 1,284 employees across 20 locations in the UK. In construction and engineering, we have suffered a shortage of skills for a number of years. This means we need to work harder to generate candidates.

The industry is very project-driven and candidates will move to progress their career. At Colas, we work hard to engage and communicate with people at every stage of the process. Just because a candidate isn’t right for us now, it doesn’t mean they won’t be in the future and I want their interaction with Colas to be positive so they’re inclined to consider us next time they want to progress their career.

Tribepad’s End Ghosting campaign has come at a really timely moment for the HR industry. Talent teams really must make better use of the technology available. We are all accustomed to an automated response when we buy something online, so why shouldn’t we use this tech to our advantage and provide some basic level of acknowledgement and feedback to a candidate?


Rehumanizing Work: The Journey Ahead

the five forces reshaping work confront us with two questions. First, what will it take in this new era for individuals to reach their full potential at work? Second, how can firms close their talent gaps and build a competitive advantage through a winning talent proposition?

These questions are two sides of the same coin. Rethinking talent strategy through the lens of the individual worker’s full potential will be transformative. It will place firms ahead of their competitors as a desirable place to work, allow them to better tap into the discretionary energy of their people, and enable them to unlock hidden talent pools that already exist within the organization.

Based on our research and client discussions, three big ideas are emerging for forward-looking business leaders when it comes to their people. At the same time, we expect to see significant experimentation and innovation in this area over the coming decade, and view this as only the start of a longer journey.

From talent taker to talent maker
There is a “Great Reskilling” on the horizon. Firms’ talent needs are more dynamic than ever, as a result of rapid technological change and the accelerated cut and thrust of this new era. To operate with speed at scale, many firms are also discovering that new skill sets—like the ability to scale ideas successfully—are being added to their lexicon. For many established firms, the default answer has been to look externally, hiring workers who already have the skills required, and letting go of those that don’t.

“There is a ‘Great Reskilling’ on the horizon. Firms’ talent needs are more dynamic than ever, as a result of rapid technological change and the accelerated cut and thrust of this new era.”

The insurgent firms that are running circles around their larger competitors are taking a different approach. Their rapid growth is forcing them to take a harder look at workers’ underutilized potential and offer opportunities for growth to everyone, up and down the hierarchy. And they are doing this in a way that is far more attuned to the unique strengths of individual workers. At the same time, incumbents tell us that their biggest barrier to building new businesses—a trait that defines these insurgents—is a lack of talent.

Leading firms of the future will reprioritize looking within at underutilized talent pools and reimagine their outdated models of learning and development. To do this, they will need new lenses that help them identify the right opportunities for their people. The six worker archetypes can help leaders make sense of what individuals want from their jobs. Our research on the three communities—executors, disrupters, and scalers—can also help shed light on workers’ behavioral strengths. In addition, firms need to understand the specific skills and experiences of each worker, and identify creative new ways to deploy these across the company.

Firms that do this well will create a significant edge over their competitors. They will also establish themselves as responsible corporate citizens at a time when firms are under mounting social pressure to improve the outlook for workers.

Scale up investments in learning
Incumbents have a hidden asset in the war for talent: a large existing workforce. But making the most of this asset requires investment. Spending on learning was a key casualty of the shareholder primacy era, as firms shifted the burden back on workers. With the pace of change accelerating, leading firms are beginning to realize that this approach is no longer cutting it.

AT&T now invests around $250 million annually in T University, which enables existing employees to develop in-demand expertise in areas such as data science and cybersecurity. It also provides anywhere from $15 million to $34 million annually in tuition aid to support employees with learning outside of the company. Walmart has established the Walmart Academy to build frontline workers’ capabilities in a wide range of areas, including customer engagement, leadership, and change management. The retailer has also recently announced that it will pay 100% of college tuition fees for associates as part of its Live Better U program.

For firms that take this seriously, learning will quickly become one of their single biggest investment items, making it a CEO-level issue. And this big investment will come with big choices:

Hard skills vs. soft skills: Hard skills are the specific and measurable abilities required for a job—for example, coding software or handling accounts. Soft skills are the more transferrable but less quantifiable traits that shape performance—for example, framing or empathy. While both will be essential in the jobs of the future, we expect the accelerating rate of technological change will dramatically reduce the half-life of hard skills and elevate the importance of soft skills.
In-house vs. partnerships: External education partners can bring not only relevant expertise, but also greater experience in effective training. For many firms, particularly those at a scale disadvantage, such partnerships will be critical. Chipotle followed this model, establishing a partnership with Bellevue University in 2017.
Concentrated training vs. ongoing apprenticeship: While intensive bursts of training save experts’ time, the true mastery of a task generally requires ongoing apprenticeship with an experienced colleague. However, firms’ rapidly evolving talent needs will create challenges in establishing and maintaining these apprenticeship chains.
Think laterally about career journeys
Many firms continue to invest in “future leaders” programs that propel junior managers up the corporate hierarchy. To make the most of their workforces, however, firms will need to widen their talent funnels, by drawing on people who are neither suited to, nor necessarily interested in, general manager roles. As our survey shows, the archetype mix of executives is drastically different from that of the overall population.

The professional management system continues to cast a long shadow over how firms think about learning and development, prioritizing generalist skill sets and vertical career ladders. Instead of trying to create all-rounders, firms should cater to the diverse strengths and interests of their workforce. This requires unbundling traditional manager roles and getting creative with lateral moves.

“Instead of trying to create all-rounders, firms should cater to the diverse strengths and interests of their workforce.”

Consider blue-collar workers in manufacturing plants. Rather than simply substituting these workers for machines, firms will need to reimagine their workflows to harness the potential of automation. And there is no one better positioned to do this than the workers themselves, particularly as we move toward self-serve automation. Tesla learned the hard way that removing humans from the production process entirely is incredibly complex. The company has since upskilled assembly line workers to help revamp processes and train and maintain robots. What is true of blue-collar workers is equally true of those working in automatable back-office roles. Of course, engaging workers in the process of automation will require them to trust that new, better roles are in their future.

Next, consider the customer-facing front line. Few of the people responsible for designing a firm’s customer experiences have ever been involved in delivering those same experiences. The front line is in a privileged position when it comes to understanding customers. In fact, these workers already generate many of the best ideas for delighting customers—take Southwest Airlines’ “Bags Fly Free” campaign or some of Starbucks’ hand-crafted beverages. Yet few businesses give customer-facing workers the training and opportunities to redesign customer journeys in a meaningful way.

And finally, consider the career of a junior manager. The Peter Principle, coined by Canadian educator Laurence J. Peter, states that workers in hierarchical structures will be promoted to the level of their incompetence. While this may overstate the problem, it’s certainly true that as managers move up the ranks, their role begins to involve tasks that may not play to their strengths, particularly strategic and administrative responsibilities. Many junior managers would likely be happier in—and better suited to—a career path that allows them to focus on ensuring the healthy functioning of teams and supporting colleagues to perform at their best. For example, Buurtzorg, the pioneering Dutch home-care provider, has replaced traditional middle-management with “coaches,” a role for experienced nurses that focuses on guiding and supporting self-managing frontline teams.

Cultivate a growth mindset
Traditionally, workers could expect to follow a linear learning model, in which they gain stable foundations in the first decades of life, with the workplace acting as a kind of finishing school. However, as skills become obsolete at an accelerating pace, this model is no longer working. The problem is compounded by lengthening life spans, which means many workers will go through multiple cycles of reskilling over the course of their careers.

As a result, workers will need to start viewing their current skill set as a depreciating asset. Archetypes that thrive on change, like the Explorer, will view this as an exciting opportunity to sample a broad range of career paths. Archetypes like the Artisan may be reluctant to drift too far from their current area of expertise. Firms will want to encourage a middle ground that elevates the importance of adaptability without devolving into dilettantism.

What Type of Worker Are You?
Six worker archetypes can help business leaders understand the messy world of individual personalities.

Cultivating a “growth mindset”—a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck—can help organizations find this sweet spot. A growth mindset, in contrast to a fixed mindset, sees ability as something that is developed, not predetermined. Those with a growth mindset embrace challenges and failures as opportunities to learn, actively seek out feedback, and find inspiration in the success of others. At Microsoft, CEO Satya Nadella has championed embedding a growth mindset as a critical pillar of the firm’s transformation.

More broadly, firms need to create better visibility for themselves and their workers on their evolving talent needs. Many companies lack a meaningful understanding of what their talent requirements will be in five or more years’ time, and it’s unrealistic to expect staff to work this out on their own. While it’s difficult to make precise headcount predictions so far out, it is possible to define the direction of travel. This will not only help firms prioritize their reskilling investments, but also reduce uncertainty for workers. Tools that help to clarify the transferability and complementarity of skills across occupations will also prove valuable to firms and workers alike.

Ultimately, workers still need to be in the driver’s seat of their careers. They are responsible for the mindset they bring to the table. Firms can’t force them to think about what they want from a job and where their strengths lie, nor can they force them to reskill. But they can support them with the right tools, better visibility, and an environment where these issues are actively discussed. Firms also need to recognize that more fluid careers will add to the already heavy psychological strain that many workers are currently facing.

Workers ≠ machines
Workers are not automatons. Compared with building widgets or transposing data, workers’ ability to excel at the uniquely human tasks that will increasingly dominate work is far more dependent on their underlying emotional state. With human skills come human frailties, which means firms will need to take a more empathetic approach to managing workers in the decades ahead.

We know workers today are bringing far more mental baggage to their jobs, particularly the younger generations of the West. Constant reskilling and a general increase in ambiguity will only compound these issues, stretching the personal capacity of many workers to the limit. But leaders can start to alleviate some of this stress with a few steps.

Build personal capacity
Some may take the view that the overall well-being of workers isn’t a firm’s responsibility, arguing that a job is only one part of people’s lives. We believe this is misguided. For one, technology has blurred the boundary between our work and our personal lives. Moreover, the breakdown of other civic institutions in the West has left a void, with many workers seeking new sources of support. And perhaps most importantly of all, a failure to help workers will eventually lead to widespread burnout and the firm’s inability to stay afloat amid rising turbulence. As Richard Branson recently put it when discussing mental health, “No business has any more excuses not to take action.”

Many firms have been investing more in wellness activities over the last couple of decades, ranging from free gym memberships and yoga classes to counseling support. However, such initiatives can feel tokenistic and rarely make a major difference for the bulk of the workforce. Workers want leaders who display honest and judgment-free empathy around their professional and personal struggles.

“With human skills come human frailties, which means firms will need to take a more empathetic approach to managing workers in the decades ahead.”

At many firms, green shoots of a mindset shift emerged during the pandemic, as managers became more aware of the multiple stressors affecting their teams. Many leaders recognize that mental health is a relevant issue for everyone right now, not only those suffering from mental health disorders. Companies such as Mozilla and Bumble have given staff a full week off to destress. But as we emerge from the crisis mode of the pandemic, business leaders risk snapping back to old modes of thinking.

To maintain momentum, winning firms will train leaders not only to teach their teams good mental hygiene, but also to actively model the right behaviors. Unilever, for example, conducts training for all line managers to provide practical tips for reducing their teams’ stress levels. Setting and honoring clear boundaries between work and personal time is essential, particularly as working from home becomes more prevalent. The best managers will actively discourage workaholism. Leading firms will celebrate managers who act as stress reducers for their teams, rather than stress amplifiers. This won’t be easy. In many cases, it will require leaders to reimagine how their teams operate.

Redesign workflows for humans
The way we organize work today not only adds to the psychological strain on workers, but also limits their ability to perform at their best. The rhythms of work aren’t designed for the realities of the human brain.

The average office worker receives around 120 emails per day. As the cost of communication has effectively fallen to zero, office workers have become accustomed to shooting off messages with limited forethought. Many now use their inbox as a de facto system for organizing tasks.

But this model is deeply unsuitable for the jobs of the future. Cal Newport draws a helpful distinction between “deep work,” where our brain is fully engaged in the task at hand, and “shallow work,” where we are operating on autopilot. Deep work is exhausting, but it allows us to tap into our uniquely human advantages in a world of increasing automation.

Newport’s research shows that email is the enemy of deep work—at least the way most office workers use it today. Context switching, where our brain jumps from one topic to another, prevents us from achieving the mental state needed to solve tough problems, generate new ideas, or navigate difficult conversations. It also adds to our stress. This is simply not how our brains are wired to operate. And instant messaging platforms are making the issue even worse.

One alternative is more meetings. However, in many organizations, meetings tend to be inefficiently run, with no clear decision drumbeat and too many nonessential participants. They often deplete our energy, leaving less for deep work. A more basic solution is clearer team protocols around email usage. Workers should be judged based on their results, not their responsiveness. Many firms are also embracing project management tools like Asana or Trello to create a more streamlined and curated flow of information, though few large organizations have encouraged adoption to the point of meaningfully displacing email.

If they are to get the best out of their people, business leaders will need to continue experimenting with solutions in the years ahead. The nature of the challenge shouldn’t be underestimated—it will require nothing less than a complete reimagining of the workflows that underpin the knowledge economy.

Tailor jobs to support individual purpose
Over the past few years, there has been a surge in discussion around the need for firms to define a clearer corporate purpose as societal expectations shift. We believe this is a nonnegotiable for success in today’s business environment. But it’s not enough.

Leading firms will set an even higher bar, aspiring to help every individual worker build a career that is fully in sync with what they want from life. Individuals who can see a purpose in their work that feels meaningful to them personally will be far better equipped to respond to the inevitable strains that come with a career today.

The challenge is that different individuals find purpose in different places. While a clear social mission is important for some archetypes, like Pioneers and Givers, it’s less important for others. Firms will need to look at every element of the employee value proposition and reflect on how they can use those elements to provide a greater sense of purpose for each worker archetype.

Six Worker Archetypes for the World Ahead
There’s no such thing as the “average” worker. Understanding six archetypes can help firms build an effective talent strategy.

For instance, an Artisan whose role offers little autonomy to exercise her craft and limited opportunities to work on things that excite her may begin to feel as though she’s wasting her life. But targeted changes to the employee value proposition can make all the difference. 3M famously allows its engineers to spend 15% of their work hours on experimental projects, exploring ideas that don’t necessarily have anything to do with their job. Through a similar policy, Google has produced several breakthrough innovations—including Gmail and Google News—over the years.

Similarly, an Operator whose role prevents him from being present at key family moments may question whether his job is giving him the life he wants. Offering him greater flexibility and predictability in working hours, while protecting his time off, would likely make a substantial difference in his happiness and engagement, at little expense to the firm.

Helping individuals find purpose as they define it isn’t easy. It requires tailoring employee experiences in a way that doesn’t create an excessive administrative burden. It also requires fostering a company culture that actively encourages introspection and trust-based dialogues between workers and their managers.

Individuals will always have the ultimate responsibility for building the life they want. There are limits to what a company can and should do. A return to the days of Ford’s paternalistic Sociological Department in 1914—which sent company investigators to workers’ homes unannounced to ensure the employees were actually married, a company requirement, and living in adequate cleanliness—is a bridge too far. At the same time, however, relationships where firms and workers keep each other at arm’s length are increasingly unsustainable.

Out of many, one
In the early stages of a company’s life, the insurgent founder may be able to surround herself with workers who look at the world in the same way she does. However, as companies scale, this becomes increasingly difficult to sustain. One reason is the natural heterogeneity in attitudes toward work that we know exists across the population. Another is the reality that achieving the benefits of scale requires specialization, and as we showed earlier, different types of workers tend to bring different perspectives toward work.

Looking ahead, we believe successful firms of the future will only become more diverse. Part of this is demographic diversity. Firms that break down the barriers of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, background, and age in the workplace won’t just be able to tap into historically underrepresented talent pools. They will also improve performance through, for example, reducing groupthink and unleashing the innovation that comes from incorporating multiple perspectives.

“Looking ahead, we believe successful firms of the future will only become more diverse.”

Beyond demographic factors, the imperatives of business building and reinvention require the firm of the future to draw on a widening array of skill sets. Walmart has built up a team of more than 15,000 technologists, including talent from digital native firms who led the retailer’s digital transformation. In establishing its retail bank, Marcus, Goldman Sachs needed to bring in not only product managers and software engineers, but also call center workers.

However, conformity need not be the objective. Bringing dissimilar workers together under one roof allows firms to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Alternative perspectives and complementary expertise can unlock new sources of advantage. Making this work cohesively, however, is not an easy task.

Create a shared vision and values
Our ability to act together at scale is one of the key factors behind our success as a species. Nations rise and fall on their ability to sustain cooperation, and so do companies. While workers may be the atomic building blocks of the firm, a successful business adds up to more than just a network of individuals.

The pursuit of a common vision is an essential bonding agent for firms. Without it, trust and reciprocity atrophy, and the business begins to feel more like an impersonal marketplace. The best firms also manage to sustain a distinctive character, underpinned by a set of unifying values, across the company even as they scale.

For example, Apple’s talent pool spans a broad spectrum, ranging from creative designers to hardware engineers to retail salespeople. Yet all are united by a few shared traits that make the business so distinctive: attention to detail, unrelenting optimism, going above and beyond to delight customers, and a passion for innovation, to name a few.

Establishing these unifying threads is hard. Many attempts are uninspiringly generic. And even when leaders succeed in creating a distinctive vision and values, embedding and sustaining them at scale is not easy. It requires a thoughtful combination of leadership role modeling, peer-to-peer activation, formal incentives, and a shared corporate mythology.

Achieving this will be even more difficult as remote and contingent work move into the mainstream, with the relationship between workers and firms feeling increasingly transactional. Creating opportunities for informal—and ideally, in-person—bonding will be critical for remote workers. Leaders will also need to work hard to ensure their contingent workers share the vision and values of the company, particularly when the relationship is one sustained over time.

Build tribes, not tribalism
Homophily—the tendency to gravitate toward people who seem similar to us—is part of human nature. With time, groups of like-minded individuals form a distinctive way of speaking, set of rituals, and common identity.

As firms draw on an increasingly diverse set of worker profiles, it’s inevitable they will start to see the emergence of distinguishable groups. Some will be more reserved and autonomous, others more collegial. Some will celebrate technical excellence, while others will emphasize pragmatism. Some will embrace taking risks; others will focus on predictable results.

This process should be encouraged, not feared—distinctive groups breed the sense of belonging and connection that is essential to attracting and retaining heterogeneous talent. Different workers want different work environments. Cohesion, not conformity, is the goal. For example, prior to the pandemic, Walmart’s technologists had a separate headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area, where they were surrounded by others who spoke their language.

Sometimes these groups will align neatly to organizational lines, such as a business unit or function. But as firms increasingly move toward more integrated, cross-functional teaming, the picture is likely to become more complex. Firms that want to get the best out of a diverse workforce will need to take the time to understand their organization’s existing groups and how they interact with one another.

Successful businesses will celebrate and cultivate their different groups, while also working hard to ensure their organization continues to operate as a cohesive whole. Inclusive teaming will be critical to this, especially in cross-functional settings. Team leaders need to take the time to listen to each individual and acknowledge their wants and needs. From there, they should facilitate an open group dialogue to agree on a shared set of goals and negotiate ways of working. They must also model inclusive behaviors in group settings to reinforce their importance.

Business leaders that get this right will create a company in which workers feel valued by their colleagues, are connected to like-minded people, and have a sense that they are part of something bigger than themselves. History offers a lesson in what’s at stake here. At the height of its power, one of ancient Rome’s great strengths was the way it allowed diverse communities, with their own religions and customs, to thrive within the empire, while creating unity through a common language and allegiance to Rome. Ancient Carthage, on the other hand, was a far less inclusive society. It was based around a small citizenry that ruled harshly over its subjugated people and employed foreign mercenaries to wage its wars. In the long-running clash between these two civilizations, Rome ultimately prevailed.

“Rehumanizing the way we think about work will be the winning talent strategy of the future.”

The next decade will be one of significant experimentation around work. There is still much to learn about which approaches will be effective. There’s also a large blank canvas for creative new approaches. But one thing is clear: Firms that doggedly cling to old modes of thinking will struggle to stay relevant.

For workers, the coming decade will feel like one of ceaseless change and disruption. In this environment, it is more critical than ever for business leaders to try to understand the hopes and fears of their workers and invest to help them reach their full potential at work. Rehumanizing the way we think about work will be the winning talent strategy of the future.

Air Travel Forecast: When Will Airlines Recover from Covid-19?

The spread of the Covid-19 Omicron variant continues to weaken global air traffic, but demand is projected to improve over the course of 2022.

In May 2020, we began making regular forecasts of how soon aviation demand would recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, based on several potential scenarios and the latest information.

Here are the latest developments as of January 2022.

The Covid-19 Omicron variant’s surge continues to stall the travel recovery. We’re now projecting global airline revenue for 2022 to reach $432 billion in the baseline recovery scenario, representing 65% of 2019’s revenue (see panel 1 above). By the end of the year, global air travel demand could recover to 84% of 2019 levels in the baseline scenario
We anticipate intraregional travel to pick up in Europe and North America during the spring and summer, similar to the pattern in 2020 and 2021
Projected market and financial information, analyses, and conclusions are based (unless sourced otherwise) on external information and Bain & Company’s judgment. They are intended as a guide only and should not be construed as definitive forecasts or guarantees of future performance or results. No responsibility or liability whatsoever is accepted by any person, including Bain & Company, Inc. or its affiliates and their respective officers, employees, or agents, for any errors or omissions.