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The Future of Work: Talent and Culture for the 21st Century

By George Dickson on April 27, 2016

Work as we know it is changing dramatically, and organizations that aren't able to adapt won't last.

The way we work is evolving, as modern technology allows for new ways to approach what used to be standardized processes. Workplaces are becoming virtualized, decentralized, and less hierarchical.

Salaried positions are giving way to part-time or contract-based work as the gig economy picks up steam.

The social contract surrounding work is also undergoing a major transformation. In just one generation, employee tenure has decreased from ten years to just over one year, and this is especially true for knowledge workers.

Who we work with is changing, as remote employment becomes more and more common. Now even small organizations can hire the best candidates from across the world.

Employees are working in increasingly autonomous teams, and interacting with others in their organizations in ways that were less common before. 

The type of work we do is changing, too. Traditional forms of employment are becoming scarce, outsourced, or automated, while entirely new industries and professions continue to spring up, day after day.

There has been an explosion of data that challenges many of our most long-held assumptions of how we work, and how we hire. Diversity is a top concern, and an Ivy League degree means much less than it used to.

Despite all these dramatic transformations in the working world, there are still three timeless objectives that ring true for people operations in any organization:

  1. Find them.
  2. Grow them.
  3. Keep them.

We recently co-hosted an event with our friends at FirstMark Captial, featuring a panel of people ops leaders and experts from three award-winning organizations. Panelists Maia Josebachvili, Stephen Milbank, and Jonathan Basker discussed how they approach these tenets, where they found success, and how others can too.

Find them.

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In today's candidate-driven job market, it's crucial to have a solid, measurable, and data-focused recruitment program. As Josebachvili put it:

"This is a business function, and you need to approach it the same way we approach all our other business functions."

Treat sourcing and hiring like your other business functions:

  • Be diligent about data and analytics.
  • Have a "go-to-market" strategy.
  • Develop a strong value proposition.
  • Build a referral program.
  • Understand the type of candidate who will succeed and use this knowledge to structure your interviews.

It's increasingly important for candidates to be flexible, too.

Jobs where you can narrowly specialize and need to be good at one thing are going away. Employees need to be capable of doing a variety of things well, and be flexible enough to learn to accomplish unforseen tasks as well.

Milbank offered some suggestions as to how he and the team at Button are able to source great candidates who meet that description.

"With the initial screening process, you can find out whether someone has the skill set — whether they can build the spreadsheet, or build the program, and whether they've done it successfully in previous places. 

To ensure that when people join our organization that they are successful, we have a number of rounds of functional interviews...to really try and mimic what it's like to really be on a team."

This approach allows an opportunity for the candidate to learn what types of problems they'll be solving, and what it's like to work with their potential colleagues.

It also provides an opportunity for the organization to answer questions like:

  • How does this person solve problems?
  • How do they deal with stress?
  • How are they to interact with on a social basis?

Basker shared a few common mistakes he saw in his experience as a people operations practitioner, coach, and consultant:

  • Treating hiring as a passive activity.
  • Poorly defining what you're looking for.
  • Using a misguided narrative.

He also shared some ways to fix each of these mistakes:

  • Spiritually own hiring as an activity, not just something that happens to you. Spend time grinding it out in sourcing.
  • Define exactly what you're looking for, and prepare for the potential that there might be more than one solution.
  • Know what your narrative is, and what the candidate's is.

The interview process itself is also vital to a successful strategy, and there are several ways you can improve the odds of conducting a good one. 

Stephen Milbank shared some of the techniques he and his team at Button use:

Conducting team interviews: Involve five to six people who have attended an interviewer training and understand the types of questions to ask and the types of feedback to give.

Team interviews allows the rest of the team to rely on the feedback, experience, and opinions each interview team member gives, and also provides an opportunity for a broader perspective on a candidate.

Addressing diversity and unconscious biases: Each of the panelists extolled the importance of diversity and shared some priceless advice on how they're able to understand and mitigate the unconscious biases that can be part of the hiring process.

As Maia Josebachvili explained, most companies praise the value of diversity — the difficulty is in bringing it to life.

There were two main challenges she touched on:

  • Are you getting enough people through the door to have a diverse pipeline of candidates in the first place?
  • Have you come to accept that unconscious biases are a truth and begun to work on ways of mitigating them?

One of her suggestions for mitigating those unconscious biases was to find better ways to break descriptions down to be more objective. Instead of "has experience building a team," focus on objectives like "has experience building a team with low attrition." More specific language helps make decisions more objective. 

She also made a point that it's just as important to design a candidate experience that is friendly and comfortable for diverse candidates. Even small gestures like this can make a big difference.

Jonathan Basker took the crowd through a really compelling mental exercise focused on the subtle nature of unconscious bias, and shared some excellent thoughts and advice:

“Whatever facts we have, we will fill in the rest. It’s based on pattern recognition, and what we’ve experienced ourselves, and it’s really subtle. It’s your own brain filling in blanks for you that you don’t even realize are there."

Stephen Milbank shared how the Button team works to find outstanding and diverse candidates: 

  • Front-load the top of the funnel with diverse candidates.
  • Make an effort to grow quality talent in-house.
  • Seek diverse points of view.
  • Make sure you’re flexible enough to adapt.

Design onboarding

Once you've hired your next employee, it's crucial to have a great plan for integrating them into the organization. 

Basker began with a quick description of Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs and how it applies to employee onboarding. We want people to be as close to their own enlightenment as possible, but if you feel stressed at any one of those levels, you can’t act at the level above it.

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His advice was to find out where you’re adding cognitive load at any of the layers of that pyramid (even something as simple as making sure they know where the bathroom is), so they can get to work and be happy about how quick they got through the onboarding process.

Stephen Milbank offered some additional points of advice:

  • Make big gestures early on.
  • Address anxiety.
  • Measure success.

At the end of the first week, new employees at Button take a growth survey, where they're given an opportunity to answer provide feedback and share vital information about their goals, and their experience in the onboarding process.

Josebachvili closed this section with a crucial point:

An employee's first day at a company is the day they sign the offer, not the first day they spend at their desk in the office. She and her team took time to map out the recruiting/onboarding journey, and identified key points in that process where the organization can make the most positive impact, and developed initiatives to accomplish that.

Grow Them.

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Once you've attracted the best candidates you possibly can, the next step is to cultivate and develop their talents.

In the past, it was common for organizations to lean heavily on annual performance reviews as a singular feedback mechanism. This hasn't proven to be a successful strategy and most forward-thinking companies are looking at ways to either improve or replace it.

Basker touched on an important distinction: 

"I think the performance review is not what we've been railing against; it's the space in between and the lack of management. The performance review becomes the one or two managerial moments within an entire year."

He offered several suggestions as to how a leader can improve:

  • Have a regular 1:1 system.
  • Be really clear about how you expect to communicate.
  • Ground relationships in trust.
  • Keep open lines of communication.
  • Provide context for every employee's responsibilities.

Milbank echoed the importance of a regular 1:1 system, but added some additional tools, like providing manager training and developing a clear vision of overarching goals that both parties share. 

Josebachvili commented on the immense difficulty of developing and executing on great management. She and her colleagues at Greenhouse developed a process where they'd start with determining desired outcomes, asking "If we were really good at this whole thing, what would our employees say? Now what habits do we need to help managers to form, so that if we do all of these things together, they'd answer yes to all these things?" Some of those things included:

Goals Set goals and expectations, so I know if I'm doing a good job.

Vision  How do you know what people want to do, so you can help them do it?

Evaluation  It's hard to make things like salary reviews objective without it.

Relationship — A strong relationship based on trust is paramount for any of these objectives to work. If you're having a goals conversation but the employee doesn't trust you, stop that goals conversation immediately, and work on building trust.

Basker added one important element to the list: psychological safety. If you're not familiar with the concept, check out this New York Times article by Charles Duhigg about Google's quest to build the perfect team.

Investing in your people

Developing your team doesn't come without a cost, but it's important to consider that cost as an investment. With that in mind, it's important to allocate time, effort, and resources effectively. As Josebachvili pointed out, “Developing people isn’t taking time away from your job, it is your job. If you want a successful company, you need to develop your people.”

If you cut your marketing budget — the marketing team will definitely feel it. Cutting your people budget on the other hand  everyone feels it. 

It may seem as though it's impossible to afford some important people initiatives you'd like to spearhead, but in many cases there are other ways to get there. Consider the end goals for your budget, and how those goals align with employee goals like:

  • Fostering relationships and friendships.
  • Supporting individual development.
  • Developing a sense of investment in people.
  • Creating a place where people can do their best work.
  • Operating with a management culture focused on developing people.

Now, how is your budget actually contributing to those goals? 

Keep Them.

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Tenure is at an all-time low. Even the world's top tech companies are struggling to keep employees past the one year mark, yet the cost of turnover and hiring hasn't decreased. So what kind of intentional steps does it take to keep talented individuals interested in working for your organization?

Milbank mentioned that Button focuses on establishing and supporting a culture of recognition and purpose.

They're able to accomplish this by empowering the team to make an impact in the organization, and providing support for frequent recognition in order to highlight that impact.

Josebachvili mentioned that keeping employees starts with strong organizational values. Know who you want in your company and what makes them happy to be there.

Basker echoed those statements, but also brought up a thought-provoking point: retention in itself might not be a great goal

There are a lot of reasons good employees leave an organization, and some of those reasons aren't bad. 

Instead, he suggested a goal of maximum alignment (for as long as possible). When that alignment fades, don't try to retain an employee at all costs. An employee who leaving on good terms may be a better outcome than an employee sticking around when they're no longer aligned. 

A great employee alumni can be an excellent resource for recruiting and business referrals.

Every panelist agreed on the importance of keeping the relationship positive, even when an employee is leaving.

As Josebachvili mentioned,

"I’ll feel like I did a really good job of building up and developing our people if [companies] really want Greenhouse employees after they’re done."

Each panelist offered some parting advice:

Stephen Milbank  Listen to feedback, and take action on what issues your team feels are plaguing your organization, and also do more of what they feel is right. Use your values as tools to guide the decisions you make, both for what you take away, and what you add to your organization.

Maia Josebachvili  Invest in your people. Hire a fantastic head of people earlier than you think you need to. The ROI on that is tremendous. Invest in your culture, not snacks and perks. That's your competitive advantage. If you don’t think you have time or resources to do it, what else are you doing? That’s how you’re going to be a successful business.

Jonathan Basker If you manage people, make sure you’ve internalized the obligation you have to these other human beings, how much you affect someone else’s life, and the responsibility that comes with that, whether yo like it or not.

If you have a problem with that, stop being a manager. You owe those people the growth they’re looking for — the environment and life they’re looking for. If that doesn’t excite you, please stop. I beg you.

If you’re not a manager, understand that you have an equal or even greater ability to be a leader in the organization. You have that moment available to you at any time.


 

If you're ready to learn more about finding, growing, and keeping talent, check out our latest guide:

The Leadership Survival Kit

Written by George Dickson

George Dickson

George manages content and community at Bonusly. He's dedicated to strengthening organizational cultures through thoughtful leadership and frequent recognition.