Featured in today's briefing:

  • Why workplace wellness programs need to prioritize worker autonomy.
  • Why early-career workers are struggling to find tech roles. 
  • A strategy to get the most out of networking events. 

AI and Work Radar

  • Retailer Sam’s Club is abandoning the practice of having workers verify customers’ receipts as they exit. Shoppers will instead leave through an AI-powered portal that scans their cart to verify they’ve paid for their purchases.
  • DetangleAI translates the jargon of legal documents into plain language. The AI tool notes that it “isn’t a replacement for your attorney, but rather helps you have more efficient conversations.”)
  • Around 40% of jobs worldwide will change because of AI, according to a new analysis from the International Monetary Fund. That number rises to 60% of jobs in advanced economies, with roughly half benefitting from AI and half subjected to negative consequences, such as lower wages or elimination. The IMF also noted that AI will likely worsen inequality, especially in the absence of widespread worker reskilling, by disproportionately benefitting high-income workers.
  • The nonprofit organization Fairly Trained has released a new certification for AI companies that train their systems exclusively on information they have permission to use, whether through creators’ consent or because the data is in the public domain or licensed for use.

Focus on What's Better Than Offering an Exercise Program for Workers' Health

Many of the most common programs meant to support employee mental wellbeing are failing to move the needle, according to a recent study by William J. Fleming, a research fellow at Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre. Fleming’s survey asked 46,336 workers across 233 UK workplaces about 90 different kinds of programs aimed at promoting wellbeing, including mindfulness classes, free massages, time management training, mental health coaching, and apps that support better sleep and lifestyle change. Analyzing employees' participation alongside their self-reported mental health, psychological distress, and perception of work environment factors like collaboration and belonging, he found almost no correlation—the only programs that seemed to improve mental wellbeing were employee volunteering initiatives

Allison Gabriel, a professor of management at Purdue University and faculty director at the Purdue Center for Working Well, argues that the central question in promoting wellbeing—both physical and mental—isn’t about the perks available. Instead, she says, it’s the extent to which workplaces allow workers to make their own choices about how to invest in their physical, emotional, and mental health.

We spoke with Gabriel about the best way to do that. Here is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity: 

What are the most important factors to keep in mind when designing wellness programs, knowing that individual workers have differing relationships to their health? 

We do have data across a couple of studies that exercise programs, while well intentioned, can backfire if the only people who benefit from those programs are those who already like to exercise. For people who see them as an extrinsic pressure to work out, it just becomes another demand on top of their day. So rather than mandating and forcing, we like to try to make sure that there's still autonomy or choice in how people are managing their health. 

It's very easy for organizations to say, ‘Oh, we're doing a yoga retreat.’ That assumes that everybody is going to experience yoga as restorative and mindful. The reality is you might get some people in the organization that do, and some people who'd be like, ‘No, this is not how I want to be spending my time.’ Rather than offering an exercise program, why not offer flex time each week? You could take X number of hours and use that time for whatever leisure pursuits are going to best help you. Maybe for some people that's exercising; maybe for some people that's going for a walk or going to a cooking class or connecting with a friend outside of work. Why not give the ownership of that time back to the people themselves? 

We know that having autonomy or control over our leisure and our health is really important. Organizations can lean into that and say, ‘Hey, there's no one size fits all.’ Yes, plenty of data show that being physically active and light-to-moderate movement a few times a week is going to help you, but you don't want to force it, because that's going to undermine the efficacy of that benefit.

I feel the same way about mandated-but-not-mandated corporate holiday parties and happy hours—these things that sound fun on the surface, but it could be detracting people from the leisure pursuits that they really would get the most benefit out of. Giving people more autonomy and control over those choices, in my view, would be much better than saying, ‘Hey, if you want to be healthy, you've got to do this one thing. And that's the one thing that we're going to support in our organization.’

It’s important for managers to be what I like to call ‘recovery beacons’ in the workplace. My colleague Charles Calderwood at Virginia Tech and I have data showing that when recovery is not supported by leadership, the benefits of psychological detachment from work actually backfire. When people psychologically detach and they're working for supervisors who do not support that, they feel more guilt. That guilt then contributes to lower engagement, more exhaustion. Basically, it turns what should be a really good recovery experience into a complete stressor for people. 

Charter Pro members can read a full transcript of our conversation with Gabriel, including research on the link between physical activity and work satisfaction and the most effective ways to psychologically recover from the workday, as well as our guide to rolling out a flex-time benefit.

What Else You Need to Know

Tech companies have cut back on early-career hiring. The number of job postings from tech employers on the hiring platform Handshake, which caters to younger workers, this past fall dropped to just 36% of 2021 levels, according to a new analysis

  • The volume of open positions hit a high in January 2022, when the figure was 134% of the 2021 level. 
  • Many people who majored in tech subject areas in college have shifted their applications to other industries. In September 2023, just 25% of all applications from tech majors on Handshake were to positions at tech companies, compared to over 40% in November 2021. 
  • Recent business school graduates have similarly entered a job market with more limited choices, even those with degrees from the country’s most prestigious programs. Among Harvard’s MBA class of 2023, a fifth of graduates lacked a job three months after graduation, compared to 8% in 2021. Last year’s graduates from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and MIT’s Sloan School of Management also fared worse than their predecessors in the class of 2021. 

The business case for diversity, equity, and inclusion is as strong as it has ever been, argue the authors of a new McKinsey report. Firms in the top quartile of gender and ethnic diversity within executive teams were 9% more likely to financially outperform their peers, while firms in the bottom quartile of diversity were 66% less likely to perform better than average. 

  • Since 2015, McKinsey researchers have tracked the ethnic and gender diversity in leadership among hundreds of companies across the world, alongside the organizations’ financial performance. The gap between the most diverse and least diverse companies in 2023 was wider than at any other point in the firm’s data. 
  • The report also found that a 10% increase in diverse representation on executive teams is associated with increased scores on talent attraction and retention, business ethics, and environmentally conscious practices. 

Remote work has no effect on productivity on an industry-wide level. A new analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco compares productivity data for 43 sectors with differing levels of remote work adoption. Researchers found no difference in productivity patterns between industries with high levels of remote with and those without. 

  • Researchers measured the level of remote work for each industry through a “teleworkability” score based on the types of jobs and feasibility of remote work. 
  • Overall, 30% of paid workdays were remote at the end of 2023, compared to 60% at the height of the Covid pandemic and 5% pre-pandemic. 

Widespread layoffs continue apace. Google, Amazon, Citi, Wayfair, and Macy’s are among the high-profile employers who have announced cuts so far this year, as a growing number of organizations place a greater premium on leanness and efficiency.

  • The average end-of-year bonus shrunk by 21% in 2023 compared to the previous year, with workers in the tourism and transit industries seeing the biggest decreases. 
  • In a Wall Street Journal survey, economists put the likelihood of a recession this year at 39%, down from 48% a few months ago. Still, respondents predicted slow economic growth in 2024, with fewer new jobs and an increase in unemployment. 
  • A December analysis from the recruiting platform iCIMS noted that “job seekers have become more discriminating about where they submit their applications,” with application volume down last quarter from the few months prior. Still, workers submitted 30% more applications at the end of last year than the same period in 2022. 

Worker concerns about AI are contributing to higher stress and lower performance, according to an Oliver Wyman report released this week at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. 

  • In a separate Accenture report, a majority of workers surveyed said they were concerned about the impact of generative AI on their job security, the quality of the technology’s outputs, and the potential for it to increase their stress and burnout. 
  • Charter Pro members can read our roundup of the most important takeaways from research released at Davos this week. 

Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:

  • Set a theme for networking conversations. At large conferences and other events with bountiful opportunities to meet with industry peers, consider choosing an overarching theme for the types of conversations you want to have at the event, such as “the impact of AI on jobs” or “skills priorities for 2024.” This will help you prioritize who to reach out to and guide the ensuing meetings. 
  • Choose your innovation contest judges strategically. For internal competitions where employees present new ideas, research has shown that different types of judges will yield different types of submissions. If you want the contest to generate more useful ideas, go with managers, who are more interested in adoption costs and processes. For more creative ideas, choose judges from among contestants’ peers. 
  • Cut down on screen time by automating your routines. Instead of starting your morning by navigating through different apps to check the day’s weather, meeting schedule, commuting route, and headlines, automate the process with Routines in Google Assistant or Shortcuts on iOS. These tools allow you to create sequences of activities and kick off each sequence with a simple voice command, replacing the need to swipe through half a dozen apps (or even unlock your phone at all). 
  • Take an active pause. Even in competitive environments that require quick decision-making, intentionally slowing down can be an advantage over the long term. The key is to use that time strategically, such as to learn more about context, assess long-term trends, or adopt a later iteration of a new technology.

Coda

Talk about an open-door policy. After workers at Adidas complained about a lack of transparency, CEO Bjørn Gulden made his cell phone number publicly available to the company’s 60,000 employees.

  • In the aftermath of that meeting, Gulden reportedly fielded up to 200 calls and texts from workers each week.

Personal use of corporate jets has skyrocketed. A Wall Street Journal analysis found that S&P 500 companies in 2022 subsidized executives’ personal travel to the tune of $65 million, a 50% increase from pre-pandemic numbers. 

  • The number of leaders taking advantage of free flights has gone up by roughly 25% since 2019, according to data from the executive intelligence firm Equilar.