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The latest virus forecast: The US has had a 27% decline from two weeks earlier, with about 50,000 new cases yesterday, and 44% of US residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine .
The business impact: GDP rose at a 6.4% annual rate in the first quarter, bringing the US economy to nearly its pre-pandemic size as consumer spending on durable goods such as cars and furniture hit a remarkable 41.4% annual rate. The prices of raw materials are surging and restaurants are struggling to hire enough workers amid the economic rebound, offering perks such as cash bonuses just to sit for a job interview.
Focus on Shifting Mindsets and Practices for Hybrid Work
Managers say that some of the most important challenges of remote and hybrid work relate to performance management. And over the past year, companies with good structures for goal setting and evaluating work done—which tend to be bigger companies—have performed better than average.
What’s the best way to approach this, and how do you make the shift? For answers, I reached out to Robert C. Pozen, who last week published Remote, Inc., a new book he wrote with Alexandra Samuel. Pozen also wrote a book called Extreme Productivity, teaches at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and earlier was a senior finance industry executive and government official.
Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:
Does knowledge work need to be structured differently in hybrid scenarios?
We advocate in the book that you try to have a different mindset when you're working remotely. But really, I've advocated that point more generally for knowledge workers, and the mindset is to think of yourself as owning your own small business. You own your own time, you own your own resources. If you think of yourself that way, then your boss becomes essentially your client. Like other clients, he or she can give you directions and have a set of deliverables that you're supposed to deliver on within some timeframe and some budget, but then it's up to you how, when, and where you produce those results.
The key is for knowledge workers to move away from hours worked—that's a relic of the industrial age in which people on assembly lines thought of their productivity in terms of the number of hours worked. What we're really interested in is our results. If you can agree with your boss on results, and as long as you're producing them—why should your boss care exactly when and why you're doing it?
We developed this concept of success metrics. It's essentially an objective set of KPIs that you and your boss have agreed to. If your boss just says 'Do this by a certain date,' that's often pretty vague. People aren't clear about what it is that they're actually agreeing to do. I liked to say, when I used to manage a lot of people—how are we going to know at the end of the month whether we've been successful in a project or this program with this client? And it's the success metrics that turn a general concept into an operating system.
Success metrics are great for the employee, because they then have the freedom to work when and where they find it's best. As long as they're producing the results, that's great. They also have the flexibility to meet their own personal needs and family needs, so they're happier. From the boss's point of view, it eliminates the need to be micromanaging the employee every hour of every day.
Companies are doing some pretty crazy stuff now—putting software on peoples' computers, so they can count the number of hours that they're working. That's a bad approach, period. And if the boss doesn't have to be micromanaging, then he or she can spend time doing more important things, like developing new products for new clients.
There are a lot of critics of performance reviews. So it's striking that in your book, you recommend very regular performance reviews around the completion of projects—you say at least once a quarter.
What we're talking about in terms of success metrics is not performance reviews. We're talking about something that's much more operational. It's more like deliverables—what are you going to deliver? And within what timeframe? The normal performance review is done once a year. It's a formalistic sort of thing; people write it all down and then they file it in the circular file and no one sees it. It doesn't really have much function. Since it's done only once a year, it isn't very useful.
What we really need is performance feedback on a much more regular basis, which shouldn't be done like a traditional performance review. It should be done in terms of 'You had this project, here were the success metrics. You were able to meet most of them, some of them you didn't. Let's talk about how we can make sure that you improve and don't have these problems in the future.' That's not a performance review in the normal sense that we've been using, as in a yearly review. I call it performance feedback based on success metrics.
You want to have performance feedback at least once a quarter—not a formal review, but feedback: How are you doing? What are you doing good? What are the problems and how can we improve them in the future?
What are some of the key tactics for operating as if you're running your own business in a remote or hybrid work setting?
It's a more proactive approach. First of all, if you're working remotely you've got to get the right technology. If you're in a separate office place, get it set up right. The second thing is you've got to learn how to structure your own day and not depend on the commute to be the rhythm setter. And third of all, you've got to have very regular discussions with your boss. If your boss isn't giving you success metrics, you need to propose them and take that approach to work. You're used to coming into the office nine to six every day; you're used to your boss telling you, 'This is what you need to do today,' and then coming around every other hour to see it.
For people who are used to having everything structured for them, that's a learned skill to move away from that and become somebody who structures their own day and their own time. People get better at remote work once they've been doing it for awhile, and I think that's why—they've learned how to structure their own time.
From your research, what are the biggest mistakes that individuals and organizations make around hybrid work?
One mistake we talked about is where they've decided that what they're going to do when people are remote is to find ingenious way to count the number of hours you're on your computer. And they do the same thing for your phone. Those are just ways in which you're trying to replicate the obsolete approach of paying hours and putting it there. A second mistake that they make is they want to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution. Many organizations say, 'All our employees need to be in the office three days a week.' That may very well make sense for certain teams, but may not make any sense for other teams.
The third is that the team trumps the individual choice. If you don't recognize that quickly, you're going to be in trouble. And the fourth mistake is that companies think it's okay to have people just find a seat when they come into the office—it's hoteling. I think that's very unnerving to people, and that they want to have a dedicated space. If you have two teams rotating through the same space, you can have two people sharing a desk, and then they don't have this crazy idea of hoteling, wherever you happen to wind up. People aren't going to be comfortable with that, and they're not going to be that productive.
In your book, you highlight specific questions around practices that workers and managers need to agree on and write out. Is it fair to say that you think documentation is important?
It's not the documentation. It's making explicit what are sometimes implicit expectations, and making sure that everybody's on the same page. That often takes the form of documentation, but we're not for documentation for documentation sake. When people started working remotely, many figured they had to be on 24-7; they were taking emails and on their Slack channel at midnight and felt they had to be on all weekend. So the question is, what should the norms of the team be? That's what I want to see a team leader do, and why I think the job of the manager is more challenging in a remote setting.
The team needs to agree, and make it explicit: what are its working norms? When are you supposed to be on? How soon are you supposed to respond to customer inquiries? How soon are you supposed to respond to internal inquiries? If you go hybrid, which days are you supposed to be in, and where exactly are you supposed to be? We're in this new situation, and if we have a vacuum—that's what a lot of companies had before, there was no guidance on any of these issues. When we switch to hybrid, there has to be guidance. But I'm the last person who is in favor of documentation, I can assure you.
You can read a full transcript of our conversation, including discussion about how the finance industry and in-person approaches, and how to identify when collaboration is productive.
You can order Remote Inc., the new book by Pozen and Alexandra Samuel. (We may make a commission if you purchase the book through this link.)
Content from our partner McKinsey & Company
Standing out, sustainably. Sustainability endeavors often make business sense on paper. Now, new survey results show how companies generate value from these initiatives in practice. Check out the findings to see how you can step up.
What Else You Need to Know
The people making the decisions about how to return to the office have concerns, especially about whether managers will be able to pull it off. Reset Work recently surveyed a group of people responsible for return-to-workplace plans at their organizations (including readers of this newsletter—thank you!) Among the findings:
- Just half of respondents are confident in their company’s return to workplace plan, and only 33% said their company is ready—that they’re prepared and have the resources—to successfully navigate returning to the office.
- Decision-makers’ biggest concern is training and support for managers to successfully make the shift to new ways of working.
- About 75% of the respondents are very focused on recruiting strategies and processes as part of their return-to-workplace plan. A majority are also evaluating their employee retention efforts in conjunction as well.
You can download a full report on the survey results and related best practices (for free), and we welcome your sharing the link with others.
Basecamp’s messy self-inflicted turmoil reignited debate over the place of politics in business. Jason Fried, CEO of the 57-person Chicago tech company, blogged about new policies including a ban on discussion of social and political issues on internal messaging systems and an end to fitness benefits and employee committees.
- Many of the Basecamp policy changes are defensible—for example, offering cash in place of a fitness benefit or discontinuing 360-degree reviews.
- But lumping them all together underscored the impression that Fried and his cofounder David Heinemeier Hansson had lost patience for involving staff in decisions, or discussing their rationale with employees. “It's time to get back to making calls, explaining why once, and moving on,” Fried wrote. He noted that Basecamp was shifting responsibility for diversity from an employee committee “to Andrea, our head of People Ops.”
- The ban on political discussion echoed a debate last year sparked by Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong’s assertion that companies shouldn’t be concerned with politics or most broader societal issues. Fried, Hansson, and Armstrong come off as white males of privilege wanting to avoid dealing with issues such as racism, climate change, and voter suppression that affect their employees.
- Polling suggests that employees want business leaders to take stands on societal issues, and research shows that workers are more engaged when they feel like their opinions are heard.
- One smart approach is for companies to identify social and political issues where they can bring credibility and resources and rally staff around those, such as Patagonia on sustainability, PayPal on financial wellness, and Sweetgreen on healthy food in schools.
While Fried’s stated goal was to reduce distraction from the business, the incident seemingly did the opposite. Basecamp wound up offering six months severance to anyone who disagreed and wanted to leave, and over one-third of the staff resigned. (There was also internal context for the changes that Fried didn’t originally disclose.)
There’s new support for hiring formerly incarcerated people. Some of the biggest US companies launched the Second Chance Business Coalition to provide the more than 70 million Americans with criminal records with better access to jobs. A labor crunch as the US economy rebounds will likely help heighten businesses’ efforts to recruit from this group of workers, which faces barriers to employment.
Don’t be like Buffett. The Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate that Warren Buffett runs has rejected investor calls for more disclosure around workforce diversity and climate change. Berkshire Hathaway was among the companies that failed to meet any of the criteria set by the Climate Action 100+ investor group to assess corporate action on climate change.
Return to workplace speed round:
- Google’s plans for reconfiguring office spaces include new “Campfire” circular meeting spaces with monitors for video attendees, inflatable balloon privacy walls, and trying to maintain at least six-feet between employees’ workstations, out of concern for preventing transmission of future pandemics or the flu.
- Seventy-six percent of business leaders surveyed by WeWork said they would likely give employees stipends for working from home or a co-working space.
- Exxon Mobil expects all Houston-area employees to return to the office full-time by May 17.
- JP Morgan Chase will open its US offices to all employees on May 17, subject to 50% capacity limits. The bank expects all employees to be back in the office on a “consistent rotational schedule” amid the 50% occupancy cap, by early July.
Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:
- Create a virtual internship program. Extensive up-front training, peer groups for socializing and support, and virtual interactions with top executives are key ingredients.
- Practice “load management” of your team’s work. To ease overwork and burnout, use remote freelancers to pitch in during especially intense projects or to give your colleagues a break.
- Make skills-based volunteering part of leadership development programs. Such volunteering taps into a worker’s specialized skills—for example, a marketing director might help a nonprofit with its marketing—and can provide an employee with valuable experience and expertise.
- Ask for help the right way. Don’t ask for answers that you could figure out yourself, and consider writing down any non-urgent questions for a colleague and then asking them all in a single sitting. Also, say thank you.
It was a really weird week for founders. There’s the Basecamp firestorm that I mentioned above. And then there’s this painful video posted on YouTube by Patreon CEO Jack Conte announcing Patreon had just laid off 36 employees. “It’s not one of my usual fun, exciting videos about the future,” Conte acknowledged, at least. “I am somber right now.”
Get ready for some campy new Zoom views. The videoconferencing service released a new “Immersive View” feature that displays up to 25 participants as little torsos and heads in a virtual boardroom, auditorium, or classroom. Though one reviewer panned Immersive View as “just a Zoom call where everyone’s on the same background.”
More than 90 new airlines are being started this year. The global boom in upstart carriers includes Avelo Airlines, which last week made its first scheduled flight from its Hollywood Burbank Airport hub. The new airlines are hoping to profit from a rebound in travel, and pick up discounted surplus planes, airport landing slots, and out-of-work industry staff.
The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.