This Labor Day marks a fundamental shift in the nature of work. What’s the future for employers and employees?
For many, this Labor Day marks a fundamental shift in the nature of work.
While no one expected that a pandemic, however disruptive in the short term, would fundamentally alter the workplace, it has. Suddenly, we are in what my guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, workplace expert and professor of management Scott Behson, calls the “great resignation.”
Behson points out that people are leaving workplaces that don’t cater to their personal needs. Contrary to the old adage that 50 percent of life is showing up, employees suddenly have the power to demand the freedom to work remotely, without fear of being penalized or stigmatized.
According to Behson, the employer/employee relationship is no longer limited to its purely economic, transactional value. Instead, Behson says, employees want assurance that their workplace “cares about them as a person.”
Behson details how Generation Z feels secure about criticizing their employers’ policies and actions. Companies that resist this new trend, like Coinbase and Basecamp, have had to deal with serious blowback. Clearly, Labor Day 2021 signifies something new, beyond the traditional celebration of “your father’s workplace.”
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. For many, this Labor Day marks a fundamental shift in the nature of work. Once upon a time, pre-pandemic, we thought of work as a kind of home, but during the last 18 months, for many, home has become work. And now as the work-home landscape changes yet again, many are confused.
There are parts of both arrangements that people like, even though no one ever promised anyone that work-life for their companies existed to accommodate them, or that COVID would somehow make a fundamental change in the workplace. What does seem clear is that when the dust settles, new relationships between work and home will emerge, and they’ll stick in ways that will have profound impacts for employers and employees alike.
Studying how best to navigate that landscape has been the work of my guest, professor Scott Behson. Scott Behson is a professor of Management and the Silberman Global Faculty Fellow at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He’s a national expert on work and family issues, and the author of several books, including The Working Dad’s Survival Guide, We Hate Team Projects, and most recently, The Whole-Person Workplace. It is my pleasure to welcome Dr. Scott Behson here to the program. Scott, thanks so much for joining us on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Scott Behson: Thank you, Jeff. Great to be here.
Jeff: As you look at the workplace today, both pre- and post-pandemic, if you had to pick one thing that has changed most dramatically, what would it be?
Scott: At the risk of sounding a little naive, I think that the last 18 months have shown that the supposed “leave all your life at home when you come to work and then just focus on the work while you’re at work” has always been a false division. But I think it’s been recognized as such by more and more employers. The fact is, if you are stressed out, if you have childcare concerns, if you have other responsibilities and pressures that are weighing down on you, it’s hard to be focused, and present, and engaged at work.
And vice versa, if you’re having a bad experience at work or you have a crappy manager or whatever, it spills over to the rest of your life. So, I think that’s one of the real learnings employers have had over the last 18 months, and which is part of why I call this a whole-person workplace, because employees aren’t just a part of a person that plugs in for eight hours a day. They’re a whole person with lives outside of work and responsibilities and priorities.
Jeff: And yet work and business and all the things that go along with it functioned reasonably well, and some would argue very well, for a long time before these issues of work and life and balance and all these other things came into play.
Scott: Well, yes, employment’s a transaction. Right, time for money or effort for money, but it’s also a relationship. And I think the best employers, the places where people want to work, where they stay, where, right now, they’re not scrambling to hire enough people or they’re losing their people in this “great resignation” that’s going on right now, have recognized that it’s a relationship too. So, it’s not just a transaction — time and effort for money — but it could be more.
People get a lot of their — at least many employees get a lot of their personal identity, a lot of their social relationships, a lot of their feelings of pride and accomplishment come through their work and employment. And so, work can just be clocking in and clocking out at work, but, again, I’m trying to profile and make the case that it’s smart for employers to expand how they think about employment and remember that they’re actually human beings involved, and human connections are really important.
Jeff: Are we seeing a tipping of the scales extremely in favor of employees at this point because of the pandemic or just because of other factors that have changed in the workplace? Is it just a cyclical changing of the scales at this point?
Scott: Well, yes. I think, to some degree, we’re seeing that employees and job seekers have more power in the labor market right now and many of them are flexing those muscles. That’s what I talked about in the “great resignation” in terms of white-collar-ish workers. Many of them are looking back over the last 18 months and saying, “Hey, did my employer, were they responsive to my concerns? Did they seem to care about me as a person or not over these last 18 months?”
And then if the answer is no, not really, they’re trying to figure out, well, maybe there’s an employer that will. That will allow me to still have some workplace flexibility even after we get returned to the office or return to work. And maybe a place that has some more programming and policies and other things that will help with my life priorities in terms of my development or my outside responsibilities, or me being the kind of parent I want to be, or whatever else that might be. But that’s only one slice of the workforce. Lots of people worked physically and out in the world over these last 18 months.
And think about all the anxiety that goes along with that, about working in places where you’re coming into contact with lots of other people and having the anxiety of maybe getting sick and bringing that home, not having the buffer of being able to work from home and things like that. It’s perfectly understandable right now that employees, now that they have a bit of an upper hand in the labor market, to say, “Well, did my employer care about my physical health and well-being over this last 18 months,” or, “Did they seem to take employee concerns into account while we’re planning on returning to the workplace?”
And if the answer’s no, or not really, those employers are going to have some trouble in the labor market. And part of it is cyclical. Things do ebb and flow. But we are not really a full employment, and we still have some of these dynamics that are pro-employee and pro-worker, which, by the way, I think is great.
The other thing just related to this, I’m a university professor on my day job, so I deal with — Over the last decade, I’ve graduated a lot of people into the business world, and I love that younger employees, Gen Z and younger millennials, have had much more of an attitude towards the workplace of, we’re not going to just sit around and wait for the employers to do the right thing by us. We’re really going to raise our voices about what we want in an employer, what we want in a company, the working conditions we want, and things like that. So, there’s been a shift for a while now, I think, at least to some segments of the economy, where employees have flexed their muscle a little bit more. And that has led to a lot of positive workplace changes.
Jeff: One of the things that we saw before this last wave of the Delta variant, when it looked like people were going to go back to work, and we saw a lot of it here in Silicon Valley, was that employees wanted to keep the same flexibility. They wanted to continue working from home, or at least working from home part-time, even after offices were about to be open, as if there was an expectation that because of the pandemic, that things were going to be changed permanently. Talk a little bit about that because there was a lot of pushback to that. And we saw it companies like Apple and several others.
Scott: So, I think that a lot of companies that never would have tolerated work from home or remote work even if it was appropriate for how people worked, were forced into it. And for many of those employers, it worked reasonably okay. Now, many other employers, like you’re talking Silicon Valley, they’ve already had a culture of being able to work from a distance and with communication technology and things like that. So maybe the transition for those types of companies was a little bit easier.
But, yes, I think loud and clear, and I forget which survey I recently read about this, but about 80 percent of employees want to come back to the workplace some of the time, but only some of the time. That’s really the clear message that I think a lot of employees are sending, is there’s something lost if you never see your co-workers and you never can have an in-person meeting or just that informal collaboration that can happen when people bump into each other at work.
But, on the other hand, I think people really don’t like their commutes. Where you live and where I live, commuting is horrible and takes a very long time. And it frees up that extra time for life, for being the type of parent you want or having more time for your volunteering, or community, or your church, or whatever else might be a priority for you. So, I think that’s where things are headed. And I think that it’s good because depending on the type of work people do, the type of workplace culture you have, we should allow for as much flexibility in how and where and when work gets done as long as, obviously, people do a good job.
And it would be a real shame if over the last 18 months, all of us struggling through so much over these last 18 months, that we didn’t learn any lessons, especially about the workplace, and apply those lessons going forward. I think it would be a real shame if the workplace was just like, “You know what? Everybody come back in the fall and we’ll pretend it’s 2018.” That just seems like a real lost opportunity for learning and making some positive changes.
Jeff: In that kind of hybrid environment, do you think that we’ll see those employees that want to show up at work every day, that are there every day, are going to have a competitive advantage? That for others, there’ll be the fear of missing out. And for those that show up every day, the argument is that they’re the ones that are going to be promoted. They’re the ones that will be able to take advantage of being present.
Scott: There is that danger, absolutely. I think that it’s human nature that people you maybe see or interact with more often come to the top of your mind when it comes to a job assignment, or a developmental opportunity, or maybe when it comes time to performance evaluations and things like that. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. And one of the things that I did in my research with The Whole‑Person Workplace, is I interviewed about 50 different organizations, from CEOs, small business owners, chief human resources officers, managers, and leaders throughout a company.
And a lot of them that were already set up pre-COVID for succeeding with flexible work, already built-in systems to maybe prevent some of those things from happening. Really good ways of performance management, where people had agreed upon goals and metrics ahead of time. And that’s what they were evaluated against, as opposed to, “This person seems to come in a lot, so they must be doing a great job.” Those types of human nature errors that we make.
So, there are ways to mitigate those concerns, but it is a concern. And I think in organizations that tolerate remote work, as opposed to really embrace remote work is how we get our work done here, are going to fall into that trap more than others would.
Jeff: Years ago, when Jeff Katzenberg ran Disney, there was a saying that, “If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother to come in on Sunday.”
Scott: [laughs] Yes. I think I’ve heard this explained as the antler problem with male deer. You want to be the biggest and strongest deer with the biggest antlers, but then those antlers get caught in branches and it’s bad for the deer. There’s an analogy in that somewhere. Forgive me for massacring it. But in the workplace where there’s internal competition and the need to show that you are that much more dedicated than the next person.
But these workplace cultures that either request or require that amount of work from you, or the inability to plug out of work, the inability to recharge, et cetera, there’s probably a short-term benefit to that, but in the long run, you earn a reputation as a white-collar sweatshop or something like that and fewer great people want to work for you. And especially now that, again, employees have a little more choice, they’re going to find those places.
One organization that I profiled in the book, they switched in the 2000s to what’s called a results-only work environment, where they no longer track hours worked or where you work. And, again, it’s all agreed upon metrics ahead of time with you and your supervisor, teams figure out how they’re going to work together, whether they need to be in person and when, and things like that. And they really did it right over a five-, seven-year transformation.
And one of the things they did early on in the process was they allowed for internal transferring in their organization, and they tracked which employees were requesting internal transfers. And it was a good way to track which managers were not coming along with the program. And it was a little bit of a stick for them, in addition to the carrots and the other workplace changes that supported managers. It was a way to say, “No, this is how we work. You cannot block this. And if it seems like you are blocking this, then we’re going to have to have some conversations about it.”
So, there’s ways to manage around this, but there is that human tendency to — internal competition when you’re in hierarchical organizations is always going to be somewhat of a factor. In addition, and maybe this is idealistic on my part too, but I think a lot of employees themselves are thinking that, even if they win the rat race, they’re still a rat, and that maybe there’s a little more to life. Maybe getting to a certain level in your career is good enough and it gives you enough time to be successful in the other roles in your life. Not everybody has to race to the corner offices in the C-suite.
Jeff: In many ways, it goes to this broader issue that you talk about in The Whole‑Person Workplace, and it’s one of the most overused phrases. Talk a little bit about what work-life balance really means as you see it.
Scott: Honestly, balance is probably not a great word for it, because if you think about balance, you think about somebody on a tight rope, or you think about a seesaw, or a teeter-totter or something, where everything has to be perfectly in balance or you fall. You’re balancing two things, in that case. The metaphor I keep in my mind is almost like a well-balanced diet. There’s a lot of different aspects to your life and they all need to be fed. So, just like a well-balanced diet has proteins, and carbs, and fiber, and dairy, and all these different food groups and things like that, your life needs different food groups and things like that.
And, of course, work is a major part of life. And, again, the money you get from working helps enable the rest of your life, but also there’s a lot of psychological benefits from having a job or a career that is fulfilling to you and that supports you in the rest of your life. But we need enough time and bandwidth to also deal with our family responsibilities, or our community responsibilities, or having a social life, or having enough time with our spouse, or having enough time for exercise and wellness. So, much like a balanced diet, where we need nutrients from all these different sources, I think that’s a good way to think about our life.
We need attention paid to all the different aspects of our lives to really feel fully thriving and fully human. And I think the point of The Whole‑Person Workplace is, how can an employer not just make the work part of someone’s life better, but how can we also maybe take it upon ourselves to think about some of the other pressures and other priorities our employees have, and do what we can perhaps to help people with these concerns? Whether, again, this is parental leave and flexibility, or it’s child care or elder care solutions, or if it’s physical and mental wellness programs, or just supporting people in their desire to get more education or professional development, or to volunteer.
Whatever people’s life priorities might be, what can we do as an employer to maybe support those as well? We can’t do everything, and we are just an employer, I suppose, but if we start with that question, “How can we support our employees so that they are doing well in the full range of their lives,” then I think that puts us on a much better footing. It creates a great workplace culture. And we’re doing the right thing by employees because a lot of organizations have all these statements about how much we value our customers, or our patients, or our clients, and we forget to turn those values to the very people who help businesses succeed, who are the employees.
And I think taking this values-based approach, the value is, “How do I support my employees, not just as an employee, but as a whole person?” Then it leads us to maybe thinking about a whole wide variety of formal or informal programs, depending on, you’re a big multinational company, you could do certain things. If you’re a food store with 12 employees, there’s other things you could do and everything in between. And, again, I interviewed both of those, representatives from large multinationals to a food store with 12 employees and all different industries so that I could provide positive examples of organizations that — or at least were able to enact some level of these whole-person workplace values.
Jeff: Did you find, either in the large multinational companies or in the small neighborhood companies, that there was any pushback to this? That suddenly employers were being asked to do a whole host of things that never were historically the responsibility of employers?
Scott: Yes. Well, I tended to do research with, and talk to organizations that provided positive examples. I’m trying to shine a positive light on this. But I’d be naive to think that there wasn’t resistance internally in a lot of these places. I think there might be some generational differences about what the meaning of work is. We talked about a transactional approach versus a more relationship approach a little bit earlier.
Obviously, there are upfront costs to some of these programs and policies that larger organizations could absorb maybe better than smaller organizations. And that leads to potential issues there, too. So that is the case. However, all the organizations I talked to — and again, from BASF and Adidas, and these large Microsoft, these large multinational companies, to literally food stores with 12 employees or small furniture manufacturers with 50 employees — they found ways to put at least some things in place that work for them. And some solutions don’t require any upfront investment.
One company just found that their early morning all-hands meetings that they used to run at 9 o’clock in the morning were stressful for some working parents who were dropping their kids off to daycare or at school, so they just instituted a rule that no meetings can start before 10 o’clock. And that was just one small way that small food store lets people know their schedules three weeks in advance instead of one week in advance.
They also, employees during the height of COVID, instead of putting a tip jar out, they had a jar and the money that would go in the tip jar went to the local food bank. And the owners loved this so much and wanted to support their employees’ initiative that they matched it every week, and still do, just as a way to show that we value our employees’ priorities and make them our priorities too. So, yes, giving someone 12 weeks of paid time off for parental leave, that’s an investment of money. But a lot of these solutions don’t have to have super upfront costs, which will reduce resistance as you go.
Jeff: Do you think this is a trend that is here to stay?
Scott: Yes, I wouldn’t even call it a trend, I suppose. I think, at least the message loud and clear I got during my interviews was that organizations that are forward-thinking, they really learned a lesson about resiliency as an organization. Companies that were already pretty well set up to work flexibly and have overlapping teams and have a good work culture, they were able to maintain cohesiveness throughout the last 18 months, even when people were working remotely. The organizations that didn’t have these things in place and had resistance to these ideas, they were playing catch-up for a while.
One interview that really sticks out in my mind was with someone who was saying, “There probably won’t be another COVID pandemic, but something else is going to happen somewhere down the line. And we need to build in enough flexibility and enough consideration and good listening to our employees’ concerns to get us through the next disruption.” I think, one, it’s the right thing to do, to value employees as whole people. But I think it also creates more resilient organizations that are going to be much more able to adapt to things going forward, because if work is just a transaction, then your employees aren’t going to care anything more than the transaction.
But if work is a relationship, then employees, if we make them feel comfortable enough to bring their ideas to work, and their initiatives to work, and we help them feel better about the rest of their lives, they’re going to know — Maybe their idea about how teams can work together, or the conversation they had during the community work that they’ve been doing, they can bring that into the workplace. So, it really just creates a better workplace culture where people can — It doesn’t have to be so top-down because we’re listening to our employees as well.
Jeff: Scott Behson, his newest book is The Whole-Person Workplace, how to succeed at work and at home. Scott, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Scott: Great. Thank you. It’s been a great conversation. Thank you, Jeff.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.