You have to have some sympathy for companies trying to feel their way through the new business realities we see post-covid. Few companies really spent time thinking about what a future might look like after the pandemic, busy trying to stay afloat or dealing with the increase in business from lockdown. And if anything has changed emerging from covid, it’s workers’ expectations of employment.
Why People are Resigning
Is there a Great Resignation? It’s hard to tell. Anecdotally, amongst a wide survey of people I know, and in the press, it appears to be happening. Employment stats and unfilled job reqs would reflect it. And companies are becoming more concerned but it’s difficult to tell if there’s a statistically significant (and societal) increase or if this is just pent up demand with fewer people changing roles in the last 18 months because of covid.
There’s definitely a shortage in the labour supply and, at least in every market I’m involved in, tech and product salaries have ticked sharply upwards as we’ve come out of lockdowns to deal with increased attrition and companies not increasing salaries during covid, especially in hot markets and sectors. Furthermore, resignations of key individuals (at least in the tech sector) seem to be occurring. Is it a thing? Or is it simply contrast?
I do think there’s something to it. And there’s reason for concern if you’re a business. But without understanding why we’re seeing people resign, most companies are going to come up with bad ideas to respond to it.
Why are we seeing this shift in the labour market? I see multiple reasons.
1. Broken covenants
Many people feel let down by their companies, their countries, and their governments from covid. The social contract they once invested in feels broken. A stunning number of people at the beginning of the covid were cast aside by companies that exhibited panic fire and let go or laid off people (some sneakily sweeping bad business management and over-expansion under the rug and declaring it pandemic.).
For many people in stable roles, or even in more in-demand sectors, it’s the first time they’d experienced employment insecurity. Something a lot of people had taken for granted over much of their adult lives (comments about privilege and entitlement notwithstanding.).
But what it taught most people was that most companies’ talk of loyalty and commitment was one-sided and unreciprocated.
I’d argue it’s caused a re-evaluation in people’s relationship to companies and the degree to which they’re willing to commit to roles that benefit their firms at their expense.
Countries too, which treated skilled foreign working populations as buffers during covid are also seeing an exodus of people who now realize that the country viewed them as disposable labour.
Effectively, the trust in the social contract of employment fractured. Loyalty now felt like a one-sided sucker’s game. More people are feeling like free agents and mercenaries. And as such are treating employment as much more transactional than commitment.
2. Covid openings
Even highly-qualified people had to scramble for roles when their employment situation changed.
Most people decided to ride out the storm in roles that prioritized safety over salary, learning, advancement, sustainable business models, or even sane management. Having a safe, stable income or secure residency trumped short-term aspirations during covid.
Now the pandemic is starting to ebb, countries are opening up, and economies and prospects are reviving, people who went to ground are re-emerging and looking to move.
Particularly since they’ve had time to think and spend time reskilling with all that extra time they had in lockdown, I imagine the bottom half of 2021 and start of 2022 will be a time of a lot of people shifting roles.
3. Rethinking work’s mythology
I also think for a lot of people, though this is more anecdotal, having work as a massive pillar of their life removed during COVID made them re-examine the role of work, and the money it provides, in their lives.
Not kumbaya-type issues of people suddenly finding themselves, but the fact is lockdown really did make some people realize they could do with much less than the hedonic treadmills they were on, and they’ve re-evaluated the role they want work and money-making to play in relation to the other important things in their life, from family to self-actualization to entrepreneurship.
Personally, I think this is a great thing and I’m hoping we’ll see a lot more people creating art, science, valuable businesses that solve real problems, and doing other great things than building attention and ad networks, or swinging for the fences with VC venture-backed unprofitable, winner-take-all, business models.
If you can be happy with the financial support and incentives these new opportunities give to you I can only imagine it will make the world a richer and more vibrant place than the creeping mono-culture we seemed to be drifting towards pre-covid. I hope a new normal also breaks up more than a few abusive monopolies and oligopolies, but that’s the anarchist in me talking.
4. Flexibility demands
A lot of people realized during lockdown just how unproductive the work around work was.
Time normally sucked away in commuting to the office, unproductive meetings, busy work, ridiculous administrivia and bureaucracy, or similar meta work vs getting down to it and getting things done has made people realize they’d rather be managed on results and get more done at home, and still have time left for themselves and their non-work priorities.
Not to mention the fact that when you remove the expenses involved in going to and supporting work from being time pressed (transport, eating out, delivery, childcare, etc… ), you actually can even take a pay cut and still be doing as well or even better if you’re allowed to work from home.
They want flexibility. They don’t want to go to the office without good reason, and they’re willing to quit companies that are not going to accommodate them. It has changed the calculus somewhat for companies who are demanding people come back into the office, particularly knowledge workers.
Few people, besides white, older, senior executive males want to go back into the office 5 days a week despite many executives wanting to go back to the old normal. Sadly, most management teams still lack the diversity necessary to have this affect their decision making about the return to the office.
I get the feeling, for at least the next two years, a lot of people will be exploring options that are more humane, more local, more personally relevant, and more sustainable as well as being more about working to live, rather than living to work. A non-trivial number of people I know have used the time to lay the foundations through upskilling or reflection for much less work-centric or more work-fulfilled lives.
5. Unfair conditions
While it’s sad to see, some companies were unethical during the covid situation in terms of compensation and working conditions. For some this was necessity, and perhaps understandable if raw survival, but there was a wide swath of companies who were opportunistic and who I feel about the same way as I would about war profiteers.
Numerous companies that could not hire for roles they were previously unwilling to pay for, took advantage and either hired at unfair market rates, cut salaries and offers, or made demands that people would not normally accept in non-COVID times.
I feel these companies are deserving of the attrition they’ll see, but their hiring philosophy has always been about adding more meat to the grinder rather than sustainable employment, so it’s not surprising.
In any case, in addition to the conditions of employment, and their working environments, I never understand why people talk themselves into roles in these places though during COVID some people simply did not have choices.
Bottom line: don’t be a company like that. If you’re at one, find better and leave.
What Will Post-COVID Work Look Like?
I find it ironic when companies talk about “the return to work”. We’ve been working our asses off the entire time. Personally, I’ve never been more productive and had time to fit in all the other things I wanted to do in my life. YMMV.
So, really, companies are talking about a return to the office.
While serious evidence is scarce because of the changed conditions (there are no controls for this kind of natural experiment) there is evidence that people were actually more productive working remotely than in-office. And yet, still there is a push to go back to the office. The return to in-office work message seems to be primarily driven more by belief than any facts.
Indeed many senior level managers who seem to be pushing the return seems to be arguing about their preferences than any facts about whether in-office vs remote is more productive to a company. I personally find the psychology around this fascinating since I have actually seen at least one instance of a forwarded email where an exec spoke passionately about the multiple benefits of WFH and remoting to individuals, but then said they had a belief and a bias to being in the office, because, well… they like it or believe it’s better though they had absolutely no data to show any evidence that.
This may be the character of the return to office as covid becomes more endemic. Many firms’ decisions driven by executive fiat and bias rather than fact.
Which is unfortunate. I do think this will drive staff away who feel remote makes them both more productive and gives them more flexibility in their life. It’s an amazing opportunity to firms who are willing to offer this sort of hybrid or totally remote flexibility to attract and retain scarce talent. And the talent battle feels like it’s an upcoming theme in 2022 and beyond
If companies wanted some advice on how to pave a way back that is going to be popular with most knowledge workers, I’d suggest a few guidelines. I feel it’s more a mindset change about how you do things. How you support hybrid and remote working rather than a complete overhaul of the office model.
1. Remote-first mindset
Amongst my team, while it’s been hard for everyone, we noticed everyone rushed back into the office in the first place, but almost like an elastic band (and after the company stopped incentivizing people to go to the office), snapped back after 4 weeks to the point where only die-hards were going into the office unless they had first arranged a reason or just felt like meeting up in person. There are some exceptions to that rule: people with kids at home, or just people who socially revolve around work also seem over-represented (update: but my own visit to the our office HQ in September was really disappointing as the place was deserted and the only people in it were largely execs and their direct support staff trying to convince people they needed to come back to the office. It was nice meeting people in person and my team, but overall, I felt like all the socializing rather than focusing on work to be done put me significantly behind by end of visit. To be honest, I’d forgotten how unproductive offices tend to be.).
Wanna keep people happy and not disadvantage your valuable remote employees? Adopt a remote-first mindset. Do not force people to come to the office at all. Make sure all meetings are on some sort of teleconferencing even if in-office rather than enforcing people to come into an office meeting. Make this the norm, especially for the two main pillars of types of meetings (giving and receiving information) that can’t be accomplished through async communication (the other two being making decisions, and collaborating.).
So, assume everyone is on a computer screen (since most people even in-room tend to have their laptops open - it’s where work happens) rather than in-room, even if they are in the room.
The thing that will kill hybrid work environments if you’re not careful is people meeting in-office and simply not putting in place support for remote or WFH users. I saw this at my last company, where despite the fact we had teleconferencing facilities and two offices located in separate countries, people in HQ would often schedule meetings across countries and simply assume everyone would be at HQ. When they realized they’d screwed up, they’d simply open a laptop in the meeting so you could “listen in” but it would not only effectively lock out particiupants from the other location, their laptops were often ill-equipped to conference sound, and even more telling, the laptops would go into sleep mode after 10 or 15 minutes making remote participants feel they were second class citizens. It also forced people to expensively (both financially and socially) travel to HQ for often inconsequential meetings, though arguably, this could also be argued to simply be a factor of a bad meeting culture in the organization.
2. Write it down
One thing that we have been pretty ruthless about during the pandemic with my remote group is making sure things are written down. We’ve been riffing off the Silent Meeting Manifesto where meetings have an agenda, there is a small pre-read (or we spend the first 10-15 minutes reading what people wrote), and you need to be prepared for meetings rather than just getting points for showing up. Even where it has ticked off other execs or groups in the org, we’ve refused or rebuffed meetings without a clear agenda, purpose, or decision to be made.
Many people have dealt with feelings of loss of control they feel during the pandemic by filling their calendar with more meetings, simply to exert an illusion of control or to somehow justify they are busy. While it’s been a struggle, we seem to be getting better at not giving people points for showing up to meetings, and then saying they’re too busy to get things done.
I have to admit, I do wish there were better tools around collaborating asynchronously online. And it has laid stark the fact some people do have communications issues or have difficulty influencing remotely rather than in-person, but better tools are needed, and particularly ones that allow people to engage asynchronously rather than in real time.
Google cooments, while they get emailed, can become a torrent, and I have to admit to having a special loathing for Slack where people seem to expect sub-minute responses and I think drives a culture of reacting and being online way too much, rather than just quick chatting and out (I actually do not keep it open during meetings, since it’s a distraction - even if Zoom has a chat, numerous people will paste into Slack which is another personal bugbear.). I’d like to look at alternatives like Twist which at least advocate for calmer, more async work over Slack. I also might feel this keenly as we have people in multiple time zones so an emphasis on non-real-time comms might be advantageous. I definitely think everyone being on Slack all the time leads to burn out and anxiety for people.
3. Good, lightweight processes
You should have a lightweight, agile process for executing.
Planning can be harder remotely (the only good argument for in-person meetings I’ve heard is the ease of writing on whitboards), especially in a big organization, but I find this is largely a case where planning processes are broken or fragmented or where one does not exist which everyone adheres to at all.
You can go top down or bottom up. Top down and cascade often feels more strategic and priority setting, but bottom up you get a better idea of things that might need to get done you were unaware of that had value. And has the added advantage of the team having a better estimate of what they might get done, as well as being bought into it more.
The bottom line is you cannot just let people “wing it” (sadly, people often confuse agile with this, whereas it was actually created to de-risk outcomes, not inject entitlement.). Having a commitment to what is valuable and needs to be done, regular check-ins to make sure the team is progressing along what is said it would get done, decent roadmapping, a prioritization process (RICE, MoSCoW, whatever… ), and retrospectives to understand what is working and what is not, is even more important.
Remote can go badly wrong without processes in place. And much more quickly than if you have people in the office to sort things out when they go bad.
I recommend a regular cadence to meetings that bracket agile sprints. For example, we have a Leads meeting at the start of each week just to make sure everyone has the same view of what is going on in the tribe and we can deal with any immediate issues or blockers. This takes a silent meeting format where people need to have written down updates for their fellow Leads about what is important (still a work in progress people learning what is important) we review hiring, and go over our weekly stoplights, which is a red/yellow/green indicator we track weekly on our key OKRs (which really adds to transparency.). I recommend something like this:
- Leads meeting - updates, issues, spidey-sense so tribe is aligned on things
- Squad meets - same as above but so info disseminates down to ground level
- Iteration Planning Meeting - to figure out what you should do
- Showcase - demonstrate you did or did not do what you said you would do, and see if work meets the story you were solving for business owners
- Retrospective - Reflect and figure out what went well, what didn’t and what you need to change to make the squad and leadership work better.
- All Hands - Meeting to talk about the state of play in the tribe and organization, showcase victories, talk about what is going or not going well, answer questions posed by team, and generally let people know where you’re driving to.
4. Equip your teams
Along with tooling, make sure people have a decent environment as much as you can, even if they’re at home.
Not having offices or people populating offices, actually saves a considerable amount of money, but then there is an onus on people working from home and they may not have a good setup. Stipends to help people set up a home office and make sure they have a good chair (absolute game changer), decent 2nd monitor, and noise-cancelling headphones can make things much better than the office for people who can might otherwise hate working from home.
I know for me, I decided explicitly to move to another apartment just so I could have an extra room as a home office and not be working in the hallway of my own apartment. So, I moved to a place to have a dedicated door I could shut. This may not be an option for everyone but having a well-lit, separate room helped me also create a divide between my work life and home life even if it was all in the same home (I realize this may not be an option for everyone, but it is definitely something to strive for - interestingly, rents on larger flats with more rooms have climbed enormously in the city I live in, and I wonder if that is due to increased demand for home working as well as the influx of new people moving into the country.).
5. Deep Work Days and Calendar Control
Another idea my team took, from Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, was the need for Deep Work days.
With everyone emphasizing Zoom meetings, and the need to still get productive work done, people needed to carve out some time to not have meetings and just work on focus and priority items. To that end, the team now takes Wednesdays as half days which are blocked off in team calendars, and they are expected to use that time to do focus work in pushing forward their objectives. To be honest, this has supposed to have been pure solo work, but it has also proved useful where we need to get critical collaborative work done, especially round an initiative.
Also, #protip taken from one of my team, with the increase in meeting requests happening, people seem to be just ignoring if you have meetings already booked and expect you to try to rearrange your schedule to accommodate them. One nice hack is to mark periods you need to actually spend time in uninterrupted work marked as Out of Office. In at least GCal this can automatically reject meetings requests from people which often helps prioritize the right things.
For managers and executors, Deep Work days have been gold, but even more, for people like myself, it’s probably the one day I can point to each week that I am super productive in getting work done that moves things forward for the organization and team each week (I advocate not making it a Monday or Friday, just as you will have some people who inevitably try to shift to 4 day workweeks - at least until that becomes a policy for your organization.).
6. Results Oriented Performance
Having clear, unambiguous goals for each quarter that you expect teams to accomplish and can verify from outcomes not outputs, is critical to managing remotely. Remote work makes it far too easy for people to be running in place so making sure you do have some sort of way to define success unambiguously becomes paramount.
It also removes rewarding work merely for the sake of being busy. It requires a lot of discipline though. It’s incredible how even good people cannot draw clear lines between their work and how it moves their company forward (note: this is harder for infrastructure and support groups than for people working on customer facing features.). People need to be able to express what is the business value of their work. And this is sometimes hard for engineering teams that have not had to think in those except in terms of output or deploying things to production.
This is hard since people rarely want to not have responsibility for things they do not directly control but it does help your people understand what is important from a business perspective and how their work needs to reflect that.
You can get down to this through a really good OKR process which writes things down and tracks (we have OKRs we track against with a stoplight system we track weekly.). Don’t underestimate the amount of work and discipline it takes to get down to writing solid OKRs and then understanding what actually doing the work is going to shift in the business (people can get positively cranky when you ask a question like… ok, but how is that improving the business? How will we know? How can we measure it?).
The weekly tracking helps, but it’s shocking how things get revised at the mid-quarter when we ask everyone to put a number to their completion confidence to their OKR (rather than a red yellow green colour). Something we need to get better at.
In general, a pattern I think should be repeated every period is: this is what we said we were gonna do, this is where we are, this is now what we are gonna do (or change to do) to get there.
I actually like this as both a quarterly planning objective, but also as a means of a formula for every sprint that each team works on.
Note that it won’t be without its challenges. Communications and influencing skills become even more important in a remote or hybrid setting and people who have communications difficulties may find themselves needing to really work on those shortfalls. Also, people who have been historically rewarded for presence rather than performance often start to feel insecure and may start to engage in behaviours like increasing the number of meetings to both appear like they are filing their time as well as trying to feel more in-control of situations. While for some people remote and WFH is a boon, for others it’s a nightmare if all their skills have pointed to in-person, socializing, meeting-based driving of outputs.
We’ve all been looking like digital nomads for a while now, working from non-office locations and learning to get things done, without recourse to a traditional office. We will all have to adapt to more remote ways of working, and figuring out how to accommodate different working styles as we go forward.
Sliding back into everyone going back to the office and not reinforcing some sort of remote-first policy seems to be clinging to horse and buggy thinking at the dawn of the automobile. But I also do have sympathy as companies try to balance people who want to remain remote with people who actually like the sense of purpose going into the office gives them.
It’s equally fascinating if this is a sea change in how we work and how we may be evolving work. Really our modern offices were a function of factory culture where we moved from where machines were housed into where the rest of the workers were located (perhaps, riffing off of Coase’s theory of the firm, due to transaction costs around communicating and coordinating). Talking about coordinating work in even more extreme ways such as through DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations is a post for the future.
While central offices and planning made sense in an age before communications technologies could lower the organization costs of collaboration or where the result of labour needed to be a physical object or even monitored, now that a large percentage of people are knowledge workers, the fact is the ability to collaborate and create without recourse to a common physical space has much lower costs.
It’s bound to be an interesting (and frustrating) time in the coming months as we learn to live with covid endemically and firms try to take what they have learned about remote working after nearly 18 months of lockdowns and pandemic and apply those to the future of the firm. I hope some of these practical takeaways though may give some people who are struggling on things that have worked in practice that I’ve seen.
Let me know what you think about the post on twitter @awws or via email email@example.com. I’d love to hear feedback about your thoughts, processes, or approaches and what may have worked for you or tweaks to the above. Opinions on why I might be wrong and what might be even better ideas are always welcome.