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I’ve spent the last year writing, researching, and reporting on the future of work (shameless book pre-order plug!) and I believe we’re in the middle of a genuine knowledge-work reckoning. Part of my reasoning comes from purely anecdotal data—it seems like the majority of people I talk to about their jobs (personally and professionally) are burned out, fed up, or rethinking aspects of their careers in some manner.
But there are also hard data. In mid-October, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that 2.9 percent of the American workforce quit their jobs in August—that’s 4.3 million people. A few weeks before the BLS report, Slack’s Future Forum (a research group inside the company that has dedicated the last year-plus to studying remote work) published their most recent report. They surveyed 10,569 knowledge workers internationally and found that, “more than half of knowledge workers—57%—are open to looking for a new job in the next year. And for those who aren’t satisfied with the level of flexibility they have in their current role, the number is substantially higher (71%).”
The report also highlighted a troubling discrepancy between executives and employees in terms of job satisfaction and post-pandemic workforce policies. “75% of these executives say they want to work from the office three to five days a week, versus only 34% of employees,” the report found.
Something is happening culturally here. I liked how (my now-colleague) Derek Thompson put it recently when he wrote that, “the basic terms of employment are undergoing a Great Reset.” But the thing about big, slow-moving reckonings is that getting a ground-level perspective can be difficult. What does it look like inside organizations whose workers feel, for the first time in a long time, like they have a tiny bit of labor power? And what is the reaction from executives when they realize that, perhaps, the company culture isn’t what they thought it was?
For the last year or so, I’ve had a monthly chat scheduled with Ben Jackson, who is a designer, researcher, and HR expert. He used to work in mobile design for places like The New York Times and Vice. Now Ben works primarily with tech companies (Peloton, the TV and screenwriting software company Scripto, and others he can’t name publicly) and his job is fascinating. Companies bring him and his company in to do in-depth interviews with employees (usually from 10 to 30 of them) about their work experience. These interviews are anonymous, which allows employees to speak freely. After he’s amassed enough interviews, his team starts looking for patterns. Eventually, they gather what they describe as employees’ collective insight. Not from a bland survey but from really talking it out, one-on-one.
In our chats, Ben has used his deep well of firsthand experience to help me understand what’s broken with work and how we can begin to apply some sustainable fixes. And he’s just relaunched his company with a new name and mission. It’s called Hear Me Out. Below is a conversation about how most company cultures are in a state of disarray right now and whether or not we should feel hopeful about the future of work.
Charlie Warzel: Okay, so you go into companies and you get access to employees and give them a safe space to vent. You’re getting the kind of intel reporters are always clamoring for. What have you learned doing this work the last few years?
Ben Jackson: All I do is talk to employees. On top of the job, I’ve been doing these private, “office hours” chats for about three years. People from all walks of life come to those—people just starting careers, who need advice, all the way up to senior-level leaders. What I’ve really learned from these is that no company or leader has answers to make work better that fit every employee. The real way to engage your employees is to get to know your employees. If you’re dealing with a toxic company culture, the solution, in almost every workplace, is not to look at what other people are doing or to ask your peers what they’d do in your shoes. You need to approach your problems from a place of deep understanding. That means talking to employees. But often, that’s impossible because trust has already been lost between employees and leaders.
Warzel: So what are you seeing on the ground?
Jackson: What I’m seeing across the board is that people are tired. Employees are tired because many are essentially working multiple jobs in the same company to make up for layoffs or people who’ve quit. Parents are tired for all the reasons related to the last year and a half of the pandemic. HR leaders are just exhausted because there are demands on them right now unlike anything they’ve had to deal with—everything from return to office to vaccination policies to staffing and turnover.
Warzel: I’ve heard multiple executives lamenting how job turnover is just crushing them lately.
Jackson: Recruiting is so hard right now. Especially trying to recruit top engineering talent or C-suite talent. Those roles are very hard to fill. But it’s also harder right now to keep people in those roles. HR teams are operating in an environment where hiring is taking longer and at the same time worrying who might leave the company next, which will add more work to the hiring plate and more work to the co-workers who will have to take that work on.
Warzel: Sounds like a vicious cycle. On top of that I feel like there’s a really interesting trend of employees becoming more vocal about how companies are being run and exercising a little of that labor power. It feels heartening. Are you seeing that?
Jackson: The challenge is that, after years of being told to “bring their whole selves to work,” now people are doing that. As employees and managers and leaders brought more of their whole selves to work it’s revealed some of the divisions that weren’t really visible because they were papered over in everyone’s day-to-day. I see a lot of leaders—HR leaders, but also executives across the board—and they’re surprised at just how often they’ve been surprised by their employee’s feedback on the company culture.
Leaders are beginning to fully understand how deep some of those divisions inside their company really are. They’re seeing that some of the divisions run across generational and political fault lines. Everyone is starting to reckon with the understanding that we don’t quite know each other as well as we thought we did and we haven’t been listening to each other as carefully.
Warzel: I’m sure there are many reasons but why do you think employees are more outspoken now? Why are the fault lines and divisions in organizations more noticeable in 2021 than they were a few years ago?
Jackson: I think it’s part generational change, and partly due to historical and economic reasons. Also, the pandemic that had people stuck inside with their thoughts for months on end. I’d be more surprised if this didn’t lead to a fundamental reshaping of the way we think about work and the relationship to our co-workers.
Think of the people in your life—all of the people in all their different jobs. Show me one person who feels like the last few years have just gone swimmingly. Show me the person who feels like their company is a model of professionalism and has all the processes zipped up tight and little to no toxic internal politics. Show me somebody who feels like they’ve really been working at a healthy company and a company with a healthy and sustainable culture. All those individuals collectively are coming to the conclusion, and I’m going to steal a good phrase here, that the professional is personal and the personal is professional.
Warzel: In your experience, what has been the response from executives? When you do in-depth interviews and have to give people some hard truths about broken elements of their culture, how do they respond? Is it earnest?
Jackson: I can’t speak to their earnestness because I can’t see into their hearts. What I can say is that many times, with clients and HR leaders and founders, I have gotten a sense of profound cognitive dissonance when the reality of work comes up against the picture leaders have in their minds of their own company.
I don’t think that any CEO goes to bed each night thinking, I’m making the world a worse place for my employees, even if I’m making it better for everyone else! What I see that really sticks with me is that when the feedback from employees represents a threat to the identity of the leadership team, there’s often more than a little bit of resistance. This isn’t limited to my work. Any HR leader doing employee-engagement surveys will tell you that, when feedback comes through that’s not super flattering to an organization, an impulse from executives is to delegitimize that piece of feedback. It can take the form of zeroing in on specific bits of language. The phrase toxic culture is a prime example. Leaders will focus on that phrase and debate semantics. They’ll say, “What does that mean? Define it for me otherwise I will not take it seriously.”
Warzel: That’s super frustrating to hear.
Jackson: One of the big innovations of doing our confidential, in-person feedback is it enables you to go deep enough with a large enough number of people that the feedback we give is not just one isolated comment. It’s, “Eight out of 10 employees we spoke to said some version of, ‘I don’t know who my manager is.’” Or, “Half the managers we spoke with said some version of, ‘I’m not sure I should be in this interview right now because I’m not sure if I’m a manager or not.’”
Jackson: Those are direct quotes from one of the first clients I worked with, by the way.
Warzel: Okay, so once you’ve identified a shitty company culture, how do you turn it around? Is it easy to turn it around? I imagine it’s like trying to turn a big barge. Clunky and slow.
Jackson: There are two types of companies. There are those whose leaders sincerely care about creating a sustainable workplace, where people feel included and people know what is expected of them. And the problem is that, for one reason or another, leadership does not have clear insight into the reality of the employee experience. And if they can get perspective, things change.
The second type of company is where you have an organization where the incentives are aligned in a way that makes it very very difficult, often nearly impossible, for a sustainable culture to take root. The classic example is that of a high-performing senior executive who is critical to reaching some kind of important metric (sales, keeping a tech product online, etc.) and, despite great performance, is in some way dragging down the team or contributing to not-great culture. The incentive to grow or keep that worker’s output leads them to neglect the cultural impact.
Warzel: So, given what you’ve seen, are you hopeful that we’re in the middle of a knowledge-work (and maybe even a broader) reckoning? Do you think we can rethink some of our outdated practices and make workplaces better for more people and rebalance some power to employees? Or will we snap back?
Jackson: I’m cautiously optimistic. I think the moment we’re in right now is one where employees have a tiny bit more leverage over employers and can make some demands. I think that moment, while transformative, is a smaller part of a larger shift. I’m curious to see what happens because I think we’re at the end of a long ideological regime that started in the Reagan years and nobody knows what comes next.
Warzel: Explain what you mean by “ideological regime”?
Jackson: I might describe it as a laser focus on metrics. An obsession on things that can be quantified and an obsession on efficiency, to the exclusion of things that can’t be measured precisely and still have outsize impact on a company’s bottom line and on health and well-being of its employees. The ideological regime has a hyper-focus on individualism and what individuals in an organization can sacrifice for and accomplish, as opposed to what all of us can accomplish as a team if we work together.
Warzel: I want to push back here. Because I agree with you that something fundamental is changing. And it very well might be this ideological regime. But I also have a hard time seeing a future where corporations benevolently abandon an efficiency or productivity obsession. I can’t imagine that our current version of capitalism will allow it.
Jackson: I’m a realist. I don’t think merely sitting down and listening to employees will magically transform the economy and [the] way employers relate to employees. It’s not a silver bullet. But I think that a cultural movement around work that privileges actually listening to employees can offer real change.
I use the analogy of the executive “walking the shop floor.” I’m recalling a story in particular, where a VP deviated from a scheduled factory tour and ended up talking to an employee at random. The VP found out the company was wasting a million dollars a year on bubble wrap. That’s one small insight that is worth 1 million dollars. It’s also the kind of insight that would never show up in a company’s metrics. What I truly believe is that, in the corporate world, the kinds of efficiencies we pursue are very often limited by the things we can measure easily. This limits the scope of solutions we can consider and, often, limits our understanding of the nature of the problem.
Warzel: Would you say that, right now, companies are struggling with turnover and worker burnout and worker frustration because they are measuring the wrong things? The easy things?
Jackson: The solutions to the challenges we experience at work are limited by the questions we are able to ask about work. One example I see fairly often is that HR teams get feedback from pulse surveys and engagement surveys that say, “I would like a raise. I don’t believe I’m being paid fairly.” Now, it’s often challenging for HR to make sense of that feedback. The first impulse to that feedback is to ask, “Are we paying people fairly?” But I think a much more interesting and useful question is to ask, “Why do different employees feel as though they’re not being paid fairly? What’s driving that assessment? Are those employees getting LinkedIn messages from recruiters for great jobs offering 20 to 30 percent more money? Have they spoken to colleagues and found out that people junior to them or at their same level are being paid more? Did they go to Glassdoor and find that the average salary for their role and level of experience is 50 percent more than they’re making now?”
All those questions might have different answers. There’ll be a spectrum of answers among employees in the same company. But when we phrase the question as a binary, we strip all the nuance out of the answer. We limit our ability to actually understand what’s going on. If there’s one thing I really strive for in my work it’s to ask thoughtful questions of the clients and the people that work for them. I don’t have all the answers to all the challenges my clients are having with their culture. Nobody does. But I can help them find some of those answers by helping them deepen their understanding of their employees’ needs. Instead of spending valuable time and resources to help them solve problems they think they have, I want to help them zero in on their actual problems. Often, it’s the ones they don’t want to see.
Ok! That’s it for today. I'm so excited for this next chapter. Let me know what you like and what you want to see with this newsletter. For tips, suggestions, or to just say hello, find me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You're the best.