SHRM All Things Work

Marcus Buckingham on the Post-Pandemic Workplace

Episode Summary

The pandemic has undoubtedly changed the future of the workplace, but we really don’t know yet how that will look. In this episode of All Things Work, host Tony Lee is joined by research leader Marcus Buckingham to discuss the impact of COVID-19, how employers can head off the expected turnover tsunami, whether employees’ presence in the office actually matters and why the future of work will hinge on employer flexibility.

Episode Notes

The pandemic has undoubtedly changed the future of the workplace, but we really don’t know yet how that will look. In this episode of All Things Work, host Tony Lee is joined by research leader Marcus Buckingham to discuss the impact of COVID-19, how employers can head off the expected turnover tsunami, whether employees’ presence in the office actually matters and why the future of work will hinge on employer flexibility.

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This episode of All Things Work is sponsored by UKG.

Episode transcript

Episode Transcription

Speaker 1:

This episode of All Things Work is sponsored by UKG. UKG offers HR and workforce management solutions, that support your employees and transform your workplace into a work of art.

Tony Lee:

Welcome to the All Things Work podcast from the Society for Human Resource Management. I'm your host, Tony Lee head of content here at SHRM. Thank you for joining us.

All Things Work is an audio adventure, where we talk with thought leaders and taste makers to bring you an insider's perspective on all things work.

In today's episode, we'll be talking about the post-COVID workplace. There's a tremendous amount to learn from COVID-19, including the real live question of, what would happen if all of a sudden few of us could physically go to work?

We've got an idea about some of the impacts, such as added challenges for parents and caregivers, a realization that many people don't need to be in an office to be productive, and that employee mental health can be as critical as physical wellbeing. But in terms of what it all means for the future of work, the real answer is we just don't know yet.

And that brings us to our guest today, Marcus Buckingham. A leader in the field of data-driven people research, Marcus is a researcher, author, and thought leader known for his decades of work at Gallup, where he developed powerful employee survey measures that connect assessments of employee strengths and how well they can perform their jobs.

Said simply, Marcus believes that if you help employees identify the tasks they're good at, and they enjoy doing, then they're going to do more of them and do them better. Which translates to greater employee performance, and ultimately, the value they bring to their organizations and clients.

His assessments, which includes StrengthsFinder, now known as CliftonStrengths, are used by organizations every day to help them quite literally play to their strengths. In 2017, Marcus joined ADP Research Institute as their head of People and Performance Research, where he currently leads the Research on Global Work Trends. Marcus, welcome to All Things Work.

Marcus Buckingham:

Thank you.

Tony Lee:

It's a pleasure to have you here. So let's just start off with really the key question that the pandemic has taken a real toll on worker sentiment. What is your research showing?

Marcus Buckingham:

Well, we just did this global study of about 25,000 workers in 25 countries around the world. And we were actually measuring both engagement and resilience. Engagement is the proactive frame of mind that enables you to give of your best, and resilience is the reactive frame of mind that enables you to take on the challenges that you face and bounce back.

Globally, 16% of us are fully engaged and 17% of us are highly resilient. So those numbers are low. There's just no question about it. We've got a workforce that is suffering, and the pandemic has made us more lonely. It has made us more stressed, it has made us have feelings of less control in our lives. And we're all going to be challenged. Our data show completely clearly that people have taken many, many jobs that they don't want, and there'll be a mortgage to be paid for that in the coming three or four months, I'm sure.

Tony Lee:

So that mortgage is going to be what everyone's talking about now, this incredible turnover of employees that many employers are expecting. Is there something that employers can do to try and head that off at the pass?

Marcus Buckingham:

Well, as ever, the solution to any of these things is a team by team, by team, by team thing. We know that people leave managers, people leave teams, rather than leaving companies. So anything and everything the company can do to ensure that a particular team leader is talking, connecting with, paying attention to each team member week by week, by week, by week will be critical.

I've said this a number of different times, because the research on it or the data on it are so clear, that when team leaders check in with each of their people, one by one, every week for 15 minutes, about the near term future, as in next week, as in, "What are your priorities, what are you focused on next week, and how can I help you?" When team leaders do that religiously, like a rhythm or routine of life, you cut your turnover by about 67%. And it varies a little bit by industry, but you cut your turnover dramatically.

So it's a very simple ritual. But the best companies will be asking their team leaders to be, in a sense, the foot soldiers of this turnover tidal wave we're about to face. And it won't be perfect, because a lot of people have taken jobs that they didn't want. They just took them out of necessity. And we can see that in the data as well.

So some people are, rightly, probably going to go, "You know what? I just took this job for the money at the time, and now I'm going to find something that fits me better." And there's not much particular team leader can do about that, if particular employees come to that conclusion.

But there will nonetheless be many, many opportunities for team leaders to be the people going, "I see you, I'm thinking about you, I'm thinking about next week, I'm thinking about how to help you." The more that a company can prioritize that simple human-to-human connection about the near term future, the fewer turnover problems they'll have.

Tony Lee:

That makes perfect sense. So let's talk a little bit about the relationship between HR and those team leaders. So people managers have been trying to manage their folks mostly remotely for the last 14 months, and HR has done everything, I think, they can do and have tried to do to maintain connections. But Zoom is only so good. And until people physically together again, is there really anything more that people managers can do, if they're already been checking in for the last year online and virtually?

Marcus Buckingham:

Unfortunately they haven't been. I mean, our data on that is really clear as well. They've done Zoom meetings, but those are team meetings. What's been missing in the last year is one-on-one connection. So the best thing that an HR professional can do in this case is to reinforce to a particular team leader everywhere, the team meetings don't matter, the Zoom meetings don't matter. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do them, it means that won't differentiate, it won't really change someone's opinion on what they're going to do next in terms of whether they leave or whether they stay. What HR has got to be saying to its team leaders is it's the one-on-one that matters. So that's the first thing.

The second thing is that for HR to realize, and I know the trends in the HR function are completely in the opposite direction from this, which to my mind is a crying shame, but what employees crave more than anything else from HR is a single point of contact. Not a call center in Arizona that can help them with benefits, or a call center in Poughkeepsie that can help them with insurance or something. They want a single point of contact, they want a person in HR who is aware of who they are as a whole human.

Yes, obviously we're sort of verticalizing and parallelizing HR in terms of all these different expertises and centers of excellence. But really what a particular employee wants is for anything and everything to do with HR. And of course, if you imagine it, pretty much everything to do with HR is fraught. It's emotionally fraught, whether it's money, a promotion, a furlough, a family leave of absence, an employee relations issue. Everything that HR deals with is a very human, obviously, a very human experience.

And what each employee wants is a single point of contact. Someone who's in a sense like their health quarterback, who doesn't just see them as an organ, they're the liver in room 302, or they're the gallbladder in room 307. But they're a whole human. And so if HR can organize itself so that individual employees feel as though, "There is a person in HR I can call. There is Mary, or there is John, and they know me. They know my family situation, they know where I live, they know how many kids I've got, they know what I'm going through. I need a single point of contact." So if CHROs aren't ensuring that there is one person that knows each employee situation in HR, then it's a missed opportunity.

Tony Lee:

It's so funny, Marcus, that you're saying this. I spoke with an HR professional last week, who said that they left a mid-size company to go to a very small company and run a department of one for exactly this reason. They felt like they had lost their connection with employees at the bigger company. But I mean, how do you recreate departments of one all over a company of 5,000 employees?

Marcus Buckingham:

Well, it's a tricky thing. I mean, we do actually need centers of excellence, we need the call center in Arizona that deals with everything relating to benefits administration, or we need the call center in Poughkeepsie that deals with everything to do with my compensation. We need those kind of centers of excellence, so that they can answer all of those sometimes quite complicated questions, particularly in the context of the pandemic and all of the different rules and regulations with which companies have had to comply.

So those things aren't going away, but what many HR departments can do is start thinking about how do we organize ourselves so that the employees we serve know that Mary exists, there is a Mary. She may quite quickly hand you off to a center of excellence, a call center, perhaps, but there is a Mary. There is someone you can call who is aware of your human situation.

And the best HR functions will be reorganizing themselves really quickly right now, so that they put the human back into human resources. And we think of all of these disenfranchised, remote, lonely, disconnected people who are yearning for someone to see them. And yes, your team leader can see you and your work every week, but HR can provide a hugely valuable role in providing a human who knows what you're going through. So whatever it is you might want to call about, the cry from every employee is, "Please don't send me to a call center first. You can send me to a call center second, but send me to a human first."

Tony Lee:

Wow. That's a great challenge for HR. Let me ask you, other research that we have seen, some of it SHRM Research, has found that flexibility is a real key to employee engagement. That what a lot of employees are dreading is after 14 months of almost complete flexibility, working at home, working the hours that they felt were necessary, now that they're returning to work, that flexibility is disappearing. Is that something that employers can afford to let go, or are there going to be real consequences?

Marcus Buckingham:

I know they can't, unfortunately. I mean, the data on this again is unequivocal. The most engaged, most resilient workers work from home, around this is true around the world, three to four days a week. This was pre-pandemic. The most engaged workers work from home three to four days a week.

Now, not every person can do that. Some jobs require actually your physical presence. But there's absolutely no question that people enjoy being able to set their own schedule, they enjoy being able to have autonomy in terms of their rituals in their life. There is simply no reason at all why people need to be back in the office for five days a week. There is no data that shows that that makes you more creative, more collaborative, more innovative, or more engaged.

People leave a team, but a team isn't a place. A team is a state of mind. And in highly diversified organizations, the culture of the organization doesn't live in headquarters, it doesn't live in the office. It lives in the interactions that occur between team members, and team member and a team leader on a team. That's where engagement happens.

And we know that, that isn't dependent on where you go to work. In fact, as I just said, it's actually more likely to be more engaging if you have choice about being able to spend time at work for only two days a week. So if companies ignore that reality... It's funny is when someone's, sort of CEO, belief bumps into reality, reality wins.

So in this very, very tight labor market they're about to run into, the reality is the best companies will follow the data, frankly, and they'll go, "Gosh, we can really engage our people really well if we don't force them to come back into the office five days a week. It doesn't help us as a company." You, CEO person, you may think it does, but there's absolutely no data backing you up at all.

Tony Lee:

So obviously, there are business leaders out there who disagree. And you're arguing the data, not opinion, I get it. But for those business leaders who say, innovation happens when people are sitting across a table from one another in a room where they can bounce ideas back off each other, and it just does not work as well virtually. Is there another solution, or are you saying, "Well, that's okay. Do that on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but not five days a week."?

Marcus Buckingham:

I would question the basic assumption. Yes, 85% of people say they do most of their work on teams. And they really like that. I mean, human beings are social creatures. We're really at our best when we are around each other, and particularly when we're around other people who see us for our best. No question, that's born out by study, after study, after study.

But also we know that teams are a state of mind. We bounce ideas off one another collaboratively through our minds, not through our physical presence. So any business leader that says that we innovate best when we bump into each other in the water cooler is simply wrong. There's just no data on it at all. It sounds good, but it's not true. So we probably today, particularly today in a world where we live in a post-factual world where the barrier to making any content or spreading your content is so low that pretty much anyone could put anything out, it becomes ever more important that company leaders don't just go off their gut. Particularly on something as important as whether or not we need to drag everybody back into the office five days a week.

There's a lot of just, "I think that. I think this." But the data is a much clearer path to the truth. And the truth is, that we love interacting with one another, and we love working in teams. And we collaborate and innovate best in response to other people. All of that is true, but we don't need to be in their physical presence to do it.

So we're not going to innovate on Tuesday and Thursday. We're going to innovate all the time, the way that we normally do. We might want to come together on Tuesday and Thursday, because we might want to have that physical connection. And certainly there is data that suggests that people want that, but there's absolutely no data, unfortunately at all, that says that people need to be physically present with one another in order to collaborate. That's just not true. It's made up.

Tony Lee:

I hear you. So ADP has new research on the effect of the pandemic and now post-pandemic on small versus large businesses. It seems like small businesses are more resilient than large. Is that what you're finding?

Marcus Buckingham:

I wouldn't put it quite as black and white as that. It's more fun enough through the HR function. Small businesses are much more likely to have, in HR, a single point of contact for you. Big businesses are much less likely to have a single point of contact for you. And so small businesses are places that are much more likely to see you respond to you, and empathize with what your particular situational condition is. And as a result, they're much more at attractive and they're much more likely to ensure that you feel resilient.

Large businesses are much less likely to do that, unfortunately. So during times like this, where the talent market's getting ever tighter, and we're all going to be in a race for talent and the power very, very quickly, if it hasn't shifted already, is going to be in the hands of the employee, in the hands of the talent. The challenge for big companies, frankly, is going to be how can we get to feel as much as possible, like a small company, or at least organize ourselves that we are.

Tony Lee:

I think you know, SHRM has done an awful lot, especially of late, to try to encourage employers to look at untapped talent pools, to help solve this skills gap, job seekers with criminal histories, job seekers with disabilities, returning veterans. Do you think that there's a boost to employee engagement when companies diversify their workforce in this way?

Marcus Buckingham:

I don't know whether or not there is, I have no data on that at all. I would say that, just morally, it is better for a company if it shows that it is open to seeing everybody for the talent that they have within them, regardless of their past, regardless of whatever physical disabilities they may have, or their returning better status. The fact is that everyone who's a human has a contribution to make, and companies that are really diligent about honoring that are doing the right thing.

And what we do know, from data, is that companies that are trying to do the right thing, whether it's the green thing, the sustainability thing, or in this case, the human thing, companies that do the right thing do better, their stock does better. So at the moment, frankly, many, many companies simply pay lip service to this.

There's a lot of conversation actually at the moment, which is really weird to see. But I noticed the Shopify CEO the other day was saying that we are not a family. And there's other companies saying, "We will not discuss social issues on our company's Slack channels." "We're a team, we're not a family because families don't lay people off."

And, of course, unfortunately that's completely wrong. Companies ought to be looking at each individual as their own moral center. And that each individual, whether they have physical disabilities, or whether or not that they have a criminal record, or whether they don't have either of those things, they're just a human, each one of us, the moral imperative of us is that we get opportunities to be able to contribute our best. And work is a wonderful place in which we should do that. So companies ought to be thinking of us in that way, just like you would in a family.

We want work to be a place in which we have a chance to express our most authentic selves. We want companies to be a place in which we make society better. Indeed, if we are asked to be furloughed, or if we have to leave the company, we want the company to continue to see us as a whole human, to outboard us with as much respect and dignity as we were inboarded. And indeed to continue with an alumni association, so you stay connected to us because our growth and development and the importance of our growth and development doesn't stop just because we've stopped working for that company.

So we are a family. And any CEO, like that Shopify CEO, who says that we aren't, is completely misunderstanding the point of what companies are for. Companies aren't for profit, profits of keeping score. Companies are for places in which people come and contribute their very best, and then one of the outgrowths of that is profitable growth. If you don't understand that, then you won't reach out to underserved communities, like folks with a criminal record, perhaps. And as a result, you'll say stuff, like he did, that we're not a family, we're a team. And the whole thing starts to get incredibly pragmatic and utilitarian. And that's a crying shame.

Tony Lee:

And speaking of pragmatism, compensation obviously pays a big role in employee engagement. Do you have thoughts on what companies should be doing from a compensation standpoint?

Marcus Buckingham:

Yeah. It actually doesn't play much of a role in employee engagement.

Tony Lee:


Marcus Buckingham:

It plays a role in employee disengagement, which is not the same thing. So if you want to tick someone off, you pay them 15, 20% below market, and you will begin to disengage them. If you want to engagement, engagement is all about attention, attention. See me, understand me, help me connect me to my work, recognize me, locate me in a company that really makes a difference. I mean, that's what engagement is all about.

We've tried hundreds of different compensation questions, and they just don't work. How much you get paid doesn't seem to relate to creating that proactive frame of mind that enables you to give your best. So there are a few people who will leave because of money, but if you leave because of money, there's something else that's a problem as well. And the problem is a human problem, a relational problem between you and your manager, or you and your colleagues, or some sense of you and your future.

So I'm not suggesting, of course, that companies shouldn't think about compensation as a way to ensure that they are market compatible, but they are more like tickets to the ballpark than they are about helping you win in the ballpark.

Tony Lee:

Well said. So we have time for me to leave on hopefully a high note with you, Marcus.

Marcus Buckingham:


Tony Lee:

Your research found that 86% of employees still feel optimistic about the next five years. Now, granted that's down from before the pandemic. But still 86% is a lot of employees who feel optimistic. Does that give you some hope?

Marcus Buckingham:

Actually, this Resilience Research that we did, which by the way, if anyone wants to dive into the detail of it, is where all of these reports. We wanted the institute to be a place. I mean, let's face it, as we all know, these days most research is actually marketing masquerading as research. We wanted a place that was just like, "Hey, look, if you just want to go to a place where you find something that is dispassionately real or true is a place where we put all these reports." They just methodologically sound discoveries or investigations into things that are interesting, like resilience or like engagement.

And the funny thing is about resilience is, I'd anticipated that those particular countries that had struggled to deal with COVID and had more cases and more deaths and lower employment levels, they would've had lower resilience. But that didn't prove to be the case at all. There's really no difference across Brazil to New Zealand in levels of resilience.

But what does seem to drive resilience is whether or not you had a personal experience with COVID. If you had it, or your family had it, or your team had it, or your extended circle had it, you are three times more likely to be highly resilient. And if you've had five or more changes that happened at work, longer hours, or more technology, or more remote work, or promotions on hold, if you've had five or more of those changes, you are 13 times more likely to be highly resilient. Which shows us, number one that people don't fear change. They fear the unknown. That if you tell us what the changes are and why we're doing them, we are so fine with that. And in fact, we're more than fine, we're happier. We're more resilient.

It also is super optimistic because it means that this really tough time for many of us has given our lives more meaning. It goes back to that old Viktor Frankl thing, that one of the ways to find meaning and purpose in life is your response to unavoidable suffering. While this pandemic has been unavoidable and we've suffered, but for many of us, it has actually made us more resilient, more aware of our own strength and our own ability to cope, and has built our self-confidence, and self-efficacy in all sorts of interesting ways. I'm not suggesting that many of us haven't suffered from being remote and suffered from being disconnected. We've seen that as well. But it has made many millions of us more resilient than we ever knew we could be. And that's super optimistic.

Tony Lee:

It certainly is, Marcus. You did it. You bounced back completely. Thank you. Well, that is going to do it for today's episode of All Things Work. A tremendous thank you to Marcus Buckingham for joining me to discuss the post-COVID workplace.

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Speaker 1:

All Things Work is sponsored UKG. Your business is important to you, and the best way to improve your business is to improve the lives of your people. UKG develops HR and workforce management solutions designed to take care of your employees. Because when they feel supported, connected, and appreciated, your business will transform from a workplace into a work of art. UKG, our purpose is people.