Look at Her Go! Achieving the Perfect Quit

Sigrid practicing. By Victor Valore
Sigrid practicing.  Photo courtesy of Victor Valore.

This is a provocative article suggesting that it’s a good thing if an employer loses good people.  To be clear, it’s not a good thing if an employer loses people who quit in disgust.  Rather, if you are cultivating an engaged work environment in which everyone is encouraged to move onward and upward, then there is a price to pay.  That price is that sometimes employees take advantage of external opportunities.

The author of the article is Drew Falkman from a firm called Modus Create, a technology services company with a soft spot for people development.  He suggests that if you are losing good people it is a sign of an engaged work environment that attracts transparently ambitious people.  Ambitious people will regard your workplace as an exceptional diving board into the pool of life.  These can be good people to work with.

What do you think? Could your new employer brand be “diving boards are us”?  The reason I ask, is that most people are only familiar with what competitive diving looks like moments after the diver has taken flight.  But in the years prior to jumping the diver will have put much effort into developing courage, strength, and skill. Would you have a better workplace if a larger fraction of your employees were constantly building towards a visible and transparent goal?  This spirit of growing and striving would be a great workplace culture for employee and employer alike.

This change of attitude on the employer’s part redefines performance excellence as an act of motion amidst a growth mindset, not a final accomplishment that presumes a fixed state.  A workplace that is always striving performs better than one in which managers treat their best staff as collectibles.

Managers are notorious for trying to hold onto their top-performers and keep them at their current level.   It’s so convenient for the manager, having excellent people who are prohibited from seeking new opportunities, locked into place just-so, delivering double the productivity.  These people practically manage themselves, and the manager doesn’t need to spend extra hours training them or replacing them when they leave.  If the manager can cultivate a team like this, perhaps the manager could get the biggest bonus.

But thinking about the whole institution and the economy in general, locking-down high performers is a recipe for stagnation.  Perhaps the millennials were right?  Maybe we should stop tolerating mediocrity and take for granted that generalized career ambition is part-and-parcel of performance and workplace engagement.

Employers are increasingly desperate for good hires into the senior ranks, and they’re blunt that they should always be free to bring in good people from other institutions.  So, as a society, the “correct” opinion is that employers and employees alike should be moving everyone upward and onward.  Therefore, career-growth exits are a good thing.

But it gets better.

Falkman also suggests that former employees are valuable to your organization as well.  Former employees can speak highly of their work experience at your organization, improving the employer and customer brand.  Supportive former employees can also become committed customers, suppliers, or investors.  You can go the extra mile and organize this resource of boomerang employees, building current staff to eventually be part of an alumni pool who continue to grow, keep in touch with their peers, and make themselves available as boomerang employees.

Every now and then a contrary opinion comes along that you really need to take seriously.  This is one of the good ones.

[Repost from December 14, 2017]

Keeping Old Things Beautiful

Tower Bridge (HDR), by Adriano Aurlio Araujo
Tower Bridge (HDR).  Photo courtesy of Adriano Aurlio Araujo

We need to get excited about maintenance, according to a great counter-intuitive article by Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel.  The authors propose that we should give “maintenance” higher priority in our society.  By maintenance they are mostly referring to government-owned physical infrastructure; ensuring it is functioning, well-maintained, and not closed-down for emergency repairs.  While the authors also tip their hats to computer infrastructure, the connection to public transit keeps the idea tangible for everyone.

The article asserts that “Americans have an impoverished and immature conception of technology, one that fetishizes innovation as a kind of art and demeans upkeep as mere drudgery.”  They highlight that while “innovation” describes the art of doing something new, technology broadly-defined should rightfully consider technology that is mid-life or old.

Many of the coolest stories in business shine a light on this misunderstood area.  There are vulture funds that pick up the assets of distressed companies and refurbish the “old” company into something new.  There are entrepreneurs that buy old, depreciated assets at bargain-basement prices and in the process net high percentage returns on the asset they got for cheap.  There is a company in my region that tried to close down their business, held an auction to unload their old equipment, and discovered that auctioning is an incredibly lucrative business to get into.

But those stories are a little too sexy; let’s get back to drudgery.  It turns out that a large number of engineers and computer programmers are devoted to maintaining something that has already been created.  In addition, maintenance workers are often paid less than those who are closest to ribbon-cutting ceremonies, IPOs, and product launches.

Workforce Management and the Maintenance of Human Capital

The connection to human resources is that people are trying to articulate how we should think of employees as “human capital.”  The phrase itself invokes a metaphor that the people who show up every day are a treasure that you invest in and get great work out of.  Perhaps we should extend the metaphor into the importance of human capital maintenance.  Do we have opportunities to conserve, re-build, renovate, and polish-up our pre-existing cadre of staff?  If you think about it for a while, examples abound:

  • When employees are injured, there is significant value to intervening early to help them stay at work or return to work sooner. The “return to work” field is a specialized field which has a knack to it, and major employers take these efforts seriously.
  • It is well understood that new hires have higher engagement than longer-serving staff.  By default, the implication is that if you want to improve engagement, your greatest opportunity is with longer-service staff.  At the crux of workforce analytics and employee engagement is the opportunity to refresh the workplace experience of those hired long ago.
  • In the c-suite, there is the recurring challenge that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” (Drucker) However, it is understood that workplace culture changes very slowly. This tension implies that those who want to advance a strategy must have significant understanding of the longer-serving staff who carry the workplace culture.  Perhaps looking to the wisdom of longer-serving staff is an easier way to predict which initiatives will take hold in the pre-existing culture?
  • When attempting workforce analytics and workforce planning efforts that align to strategy, stale strategy documents and longer-serving executives can be your only opportunity for alignment. New executives and new strategy documents can have a long runway, in some cases with a perpetual churn.
  • Long-serving staff tend to learn a number of shortcuts that allow them to achieve their work goals more easily.   This grab-bag of quick-tips, tacit knowledge, and mature social networks are a troublesome source of high productivity.  Workplaces fear the retirement of long-service employees who understand the physical and organizational machinery in a manner that is undocumented.  In such cases there is a demand for knowledge management, the active cultivation of repositories of information where tacit knowledge is curated and transferred between newer and longer-serving staff.
  • As millennials age, our struggles to understand this generation are going to shift. It’s not so much that we don’t know what they’re thinking (they tend to just tell us).  Rather, what will their experience be as millennial managers, dealing with the next batch of young whipper-snappers in Generation Z?  This multi-generational transfer of energy and wisdom will demand a workplace culture of humility and curiosity.  Workplace traditions can emerge in just a couple of years, and can evolve around the behaviors of employees young and old.  Yet it is not so much the best perspective that matters; it is the ability to move a diversity of perspectives amongst peers.

As the shine comes off workforce planning and workplace analytics as a novelty, we are obliged to take our practice into a mode where great work is done quietly, well, and with a known value.  As we look at the legacy of buzzwords that came before us and the shiny new practices to come, there is a new opportunity to understand the boundary between engineering drawings, breaking the ground, and replacing broken parts.  Cultivating and maintaining people, their knowledge, their relationships, and the workplace culture are key to delivering strategy.  There is an opportunity for your employees to age gracefully and keep delivering the goods.

“Working from Home” is a Just a Euphemism for Higher Productivity

Watch high quality movies at ImovieSh.com, courtesy of Sil Silv
“Watch high quality movies at ImovieSh.com.”  Photo courtesy of Sil Silv.

Mother’s Day weekend has passed, and the emotional roller-coaster has come and gone.  You may have spent time reflecting about what is important to you.  Are your many hours at work meaningful for your personal growth and the home life you desire?  Thankfully, there is a mixed blessing available for those who want better trade-offs: the option to work from home.

There is a lively debate about the virtues of working from home, and we all know why it’s controversial.  You have the freedom to alternate between hard work and lazy selfishness in a manner that makes you feel guilty and sheepish.  Am I the only one who washes bedsheets while I’m trying to figure out how to solve a work puzzle?  I feel bad about the housework, but I forget to take credit that my brain is fully engaged in work.

The Case For Working From Home

The case in favour of working from home comes from a study that was summarized nicely in an article by Bill Murphy Jr. at Inc.com.  Murphy reviewed a study of call centre employees in China who participated in a 9-month pilot.  The employer randomly-selected one half of the pilot group to work from home while the others came into the office.  Call centres have great tracking systems to measure productivity, so they were able to analyze the impact.

The gains were many.  Employees who worked from home saved the company $2,000 per year in office space.  They put 9% more time into productive work hours.  They were 14% more efficient with their time, taking fewer breaks and less sick time.  Their turnover was 50% lower.

Their mothers would be proud.

The Case Against Working From Home

Of course, working from home is not always the best way to collaborate.  Over at the Atlantic, Jerry Useem advances evidence that working face-to-face is better for collaboration.  He cites research by Judith Olson of UC Irvine who worked on an experiment with Ford in the late 1990s that put software developers in a war room.  It was called “radical colocation.”  The close-proximity teams completed their work in one third of the time relative to other groups.  In another study, a simulated cockpit crew in a crammed space were able to able to communicate a major issue in 24 seconds through hand motions and non-verbal utterances.  Face-time and direct communication can be critical for efficient teamwork and collaboration.

The Best Decisions are Sensitive to Context

What is notable is that the evidence twists and turns depending on context.  Call centres are all about the dynamic the employee and customer, so collaborations with work peers might be unimportant.  By contrast, work that is built around face-to-face communication demands proximity.  This would not be the first time that the research on optimal workforce practices concludes that it depends on the context of the business and the mindset of the individual employee.

That research Murphy cited was a paper entitled “Does Working from Home Work?  Evidence from a Chinese Experiment”, by Nicholas Bloom et al, a working paper from the NBER from March 2013.  I gave it a closer read, and there was a lot of nuance not picked up by the business press.

For example, commuting distance had a big impact on productivity differences.  Those whose commute time was more than two hours per day saw dramatic improvements in their productivity when working from home.  This finding is consistent with a theory in labour economics called the labour-leisure model, that suggests people start with an endowment of weekly hours and make trade-offs between their personal life and work life.  Commuting subtracts from the hours-endowment, and if you give those people the option to work from home, they will apply more hours to their work and also to themselves.  The interests of work and home are not always a dichotomy, as both are sabotaged by commuting.

During the experiment, people had been assigned to work from home on a randomized basis.  When employees were given the opportunity to choose, half of them chose to come to the office instead.  They were mostly concerned they would be passed over from promotion.  Employees working from home were 50% less likely to receive a performance-based promotion, which is outrageous when you consider they were more productive.  They were “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.”  I see a side-story about the social contract.  The employer figured out how to spend less money on office space and stop promoting their most productive people, and the employees said “no thanks” and started showing up at the office again.

About 10% of the people who had not volunteered for the experiment chose to work from home after the pilot was opened-up for wider participation.  Once it became increasingly obvious who would benefit and who would be disadvantaged, several people still chose working from home.  This highlights the immense impact of giving people autonomy over how their work lives should be organized.  Any two people can make decisions that go in opposite directions, based on their unique preferences.

May of the employees who chose to return to the office after the experiment rightly perceived that they were less productive when working from home.  When those employees started working in the office again, this self-selection had a contrast-effect on the more-productive workers who continued to work from home.  During the experiment home-workers were 14% more productive, but once self-selection was permitted home workers were 25% more productive.  The impact was almost doubled.

Human Nature Out-Ranks The Logistics

I think it’s important to flag that autonomy itself had a positive impact that was about as important as a comprehensive workplace redesign.  That is, executive decision-making struggles to prove its worth against the impact of a positive workplace culture where people can self-select into higher productivity.

One of the main drivers for increased productivity was that people working from home worked when they were slightly ill.  I have to confess, I have done this myself.  Partially-sick work-from-home days are win-win for employee and employer.  This practice reduces office contagion, gets a mostly productive work-day from the employee who might otherwise be doing nothing, and gives the employee some control over their guilt and workload.

When sick, people need the comforts of home to get well and stay well.  Maybe a family member will bring them a nice bowl of chicken soup that gives them a sense that all is right in the world.

But there’s a catch.  Young people who live with their parents don’t want to work from home.  When people were free to choose, these young people came to the office in order to escape their family.  Thanks for the soup, mom, I love you dearly.  But would you please stop telling me how to format my presentations, deal with the workplace bully, and get along with my colleagues?  I need to choose my own life.

Side Hustles – The Great Employment Equalizers

Taylor Reynolds, courtesy of John Sturgis 3
Taylor Reynolds.  Photo courtesy of John Sturgis.

There is a great new buzzword making the rounds, and it deserves some profile.  The concept is the “side hustle,” outside-of-work activity that keeps people interested while making a bit of extra money.  People who have a good side-hustle have great things to say about it.

Side hustles are jobs that pay you to learn, so consider them “real-world” MBAs as Sam McRoberts refers to them as in this article in Entrepreneur.com. You are likely to learn sales, negotiation, and website design.  Several authors note that you are obliged to learn a lot of time management skills.  There’s nothing quite like being overly-busy with something you love to motivate you to organize your day properly.

Amongst the benefits of side hustles, one of the biggest is figuring out what you want to do with your life.  We have all had day-jobs that weren’t thrilling.  The idea is, name your biggest passion, get out and do it, and explore if that kind of work is really for you.  It’s important for those in early-career who are still trying to find their calling.  One millennial, Samantha Matt, wrote a 2015 blog post in the Huffington Post in which she cuts to the heart.

“Even if you’re not 100 percent happy at your day job, if you’ve got something in the works on the side that you absolutely love, that will ultimately lead to happiness…”

She talks about a number of functional career outcomes but you can tell from her tone that she’s just wildly ambitious and wants a career that is engaging and taking her places.

 “…when I first started out, writing a book was not something that was in the cards. With a side hustle, you learn to always stay hungry and that will get you climbing the career ladder to success faster than you ever imagined.”

Mike Templeman in an article from Forbes describes increased opportunities to network, as the side-hustle opens you up to new a whole community.  There’s nothing like sincere conversations about a labour-of-love to open up connections with a community of peers.  Samantha Matt is doing what she loves, and she doesn’t mind doing the kind of thing that people normally think of as soul-sucking.  She now enjoys chasing the dollar, she is motivated to work extra hours, and she is building her resume as a thrill.  She can network for fun.

Don’t you wish you could have this life?  At work, don’t we all wish that our peers or our employees could also have this kind of motivation?

Templeman describes how the extra energy from his side-hustle gave him more energy in his day job.  His regular workplace “…was a place for me to socialize and push my limits… I started getting promoted because I was putting in extra effort all over the place and my ideas were getting recognized.”  He describes an increased willingness to be creative in the workplace, because he had energy and mojo.

For the uninitiated, intrinsic motivation is that sense of acting on drives that come from inside you… to follow your heart, as it were.  By contrast, society is often prescribing what you ought to do, and those prescriptions can make joy disappear.  The big secret about side hustles is that by disregarding society’s prescriptions you can become more successful.  And that is because you are listening to yourself, driving yourself, and putting in a stronger effort.

It’s a much-needed improvement on the idea that you should “follow your dreams.”  You might have met people who caused themselves great harm by abandoning something secure in favour of a semi-delusional dream.  What is different about the side-hustle, is that you have the option of holding onto the security while making safe experiments with your dream career.  The side hustle gives you permission to fail.

As I described in my review of the McKinsey research on the Gig Economy, the key to gigs is that they are fulfilling if they are voluntary.  Voluntary-ness is more important than the amount of money earned in terms of job satisfaction.  But the money can arise from the higher productivity associated with motivation and courage.

Where does this courage come from?  Some of it comes from developing your own bargaining power.  McRoberts asserts that having a single point of failure is brutal to your career mobility.

“So why is it that most individuals have just one income? A single income means you’re trapped. You have fewer options, you’re in a weaker position to negotiate, and you’re in bad shape if that main-stream income happens to goes [sic] away. Granted, employers typically want it that way, because it puts them in a position of power.”

People are deciding that the expectation of devout loyalty to one employer is a con job.  How can any employee in this crazy world express faith that their current employer will take care of them for years to come?  As employees we need to develop our BATNA, short for Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.  In bargaining theory, a strong BATNA gives you something in your back-pocket that protects you from exploitation and allows you to be calmly brave when you ask for more.  Your bargaining alternative is critical to the game of life in which everything is negotiable.

One last important point comes from Templeman when he notes you still need to check that you’re not breaking any rules with your employer.  So yes, you need to be calculating, and cautious, and shrewd.  Only then can you get on with it and follow your dreams.

Look at Her Go! Achieving the Perfect Quit

Sigrid practicing. By Victor Valore
Sigrid practicing.  Photo courtesy of Victor Valore.

This is a provocative article suggesting that it’s a good thing if an employer loses good people.  To be clear, it’s not a good thing if an employer loses people who quit in disgust.  Rather, if you are cultivating an engaged work environment in which everyone is encouraged to move onward and upward, then there is a price to pay.  That price is that sometimes employees take advantage of external opportunities.

The author of the article is Drew Falkman from a firm called Modus Create, a technology services company with a soft spot for people development.  He suggests that if you are losing good people it is a sign of an engaged work environment that attracts transparently ambitious people.  Ambitious people will regard your workplace as an exceptional diving board into the pool of life.  These can be good people to work with.

What do you think? Could your new employer brand be “diving boards are us”?  The reason I ask, is that most people are only familiar with what competitive diving looks like moments after the diver has taken flight.  But in the years prior to jumping the diver will have put much effort into developing courage, strength, and skill. Would you have a better workplace if a larger fraction of your employees were constantly building towards a visible and transparent goal?  This spirit of growing and striving would be a great workplace culture for employee and employer alike.

This change of attitude on the employer’s part redefines performance excellence as an act of motion amidst a growth mindset, not a final accomplishment that presumes a fixed state.  A workplace that is always striving performs better than one in which managers treat their best staff as collectibles.

Managers are notorious for trying to hold onto their top-performers and keep them at their current level.   It’s so convenient for the manager, having excellent people who are prohibited from seeking new opportunities, locked into place just-so, delivering double the productivity.  These people practically manage themselves, and the manager doesn’t need to spend extra hours training them or replacing them when they leave.  If the manager can cultivate a team like this, perhaps the manager should get the biggest bonus.

But thinking about the whole institution and the economy in general, locking-down high performers is a recipe for stagnation.  Perhaps the millennials were right?  Maybe we should stop tolerating mediocrity and take for granted that generalized career ambition is part-and-parcel of performance and workplace engagement.

Employers are increasingly desperate for good hires into the senior ranks, and they’re blunt that they should always be free to bring in good people from other institutions.  So, as a society, the “correct” opinion is that employers and employees alike should be moving everyone upward and onward.  Therefore, career-growth exits are a good thing.

But it gets better.

Falkman suggests that former employees are valuable to your organization as well.  Former employees can speak highly of their work experience at your organization, improving the employer and customer brand.  Supportive former employees can also become committed customers, suppliers, or investors.  You can go the extra mile and organize this resource of boomerang employees, building current staff to eventually be part of an alumni pool who continue to grow, keep in touch with their peers, and make themselves available as boomerang employees.

Every now and then a contrary opinion comes along that you really need to take seriously.  This is one of the good ones.