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Adapt Your D&I Efforts to the Reality of the Crisis


In these difficult times, we’ve made a number of our coronavirus articles free for all readers. To get all of HBR’s content delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Daily Alert newsletter.

As a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant, Covid-19 hit my business hard. First slowly and then seemingly all at once: my talks and panels were cancelled, travel plans nixed, and workshops and in-person events cleared off the calendar. As workplaces shut down and employees moved to working from home, my colleagues inside organizations shared stories about lunch & learns, speaker panels, workshops, and other DE&I programming haphazardly moved to virtual, postponed indefinitely, or simply cancelled.

Over a month later, much of it has yet to come back.

Many DE&I practitioners inside companies tell me that internal diversity initiatives have stalled. As companies everywhere brace for an oncoming recession, programs have been shuttered or postponed indefinitely. “We’re down to essential things only,” one VP explained to me, expressing an increasingly commonplace sentiment: “Diversity work is nice, but not essential.”

We are in two crises right now, an economic crisis and a people crisis, and organizations that acknowledge only one risk exacerbating the other. DE&I efforts can be a powerful solution to both challenges — but the nature of diversity work must evolve to meet that charge. We need to broaden our definition of DE&I work to capture the new challenges of working amid a pandemic and develop an approach that focuses on solving real problems, not maintaining appearances.

Responding to Covid-19 Requires DE&I

Too many leaders think of DE&I work narrowly, as a limited set of initiatives aimed at increasing representation through hiring, creating a sense of inclusion through event programming, and pursuing equity through incremental change to processes and policies — all of which is easily downsized during a crisis. But there’s much more under the DE&I umbrella that is essential at moments like this. Leaders need to understand that some of the immediate obstacles they face are also critical DE&I challenges. Here are a few examples.

Crisis communications. Different segments of customer and employee populations are impacted by the Covid-19 crisis in drastically different ways. Some employees are dealing with inconveniences while others are seeing their families and communities fight to stay alive. Some customers are looking for reassurance that their favorite brands are maintaining business as usual, while others are looking for a signal that businesses are adapting to the crisis. The team of leaders who are on the front lines of communication during and after this crisis need to demonstrate cultural competence in order to deliver effective, informative, and genuine messages to different groups.

Middle management. The job of being a middle manager just got a lot harder. More than ever, managers are dealing with the impacts of social inequality magnified by a pandemic, scrambling to support employees dealing with increased racial discrimination, those with mental health challenges made worse by stress and anxiety, and those who risk their lives to make a paycheck they can’t afford to miss, to name a few.

Remote work. Conflict resolution, employee engagement, and problem-solving hinge on how employees connect to their company culture and their feelings of belonging in the organization. Fostering a universal sense of belonging and connection through messaging apps, teleconferencing, and email is a challenging goal, but those that get it right will see enormous payoffs.

Companies that are unable to meet these challenges have far more to lose than they did three months ago. Companies that aren’t able to solve these people-centric challenges — and thus DE&I challenges — won’t survive.

Think Small and Strategic

In my experience, companies tend to pursue two kinds of approaches to DE&I. The first is costly and highly visible; think days-long all-expenses-paid events or ambitious efforts to offer every employee coaching and training. The second is perfunctory and performative, with one or two full-time employees running a barebones and mostly volunteer-driven events calendar.

Companies need a third model that is adaptable, cost-efficient, and focused on solving the problems employees are experiencing now. Here’s how leaders can pursue such a model:

Prioritize knowledge-gathering. Start by collecting information on the pain points and opportunities that are most pressing. Several companies I work with added questions related to the Covid-19 crisis to their weekly pulse surveys and disaggregated the results by demographics to gauge how different employees were coping. Be creative: if you choose to survey, consider whether you’ll use a company-wide survey or smaller surveys within units or teams, and if you want to develop the survey in-house or work with specialized third-party services.

But surveys aren’t the only way to gain information. Renaissance Learning, an educational software company, organized a remote conversation featuring members of their New York office. Hearing individual stories and experiences of people living in a coronavirus hotspot made the impact of this crisis more real to the organization’s managers and leaders, many who live in less hard-hit regions of the U.S.

At Upwork, the freelance platform, the Office of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging worked with their employee resource group leaders to organize a discussion series on the differential impact of Covid-19 for different communities. To discuss anti-Asian racism, they recently hosted a webinar showcasing the personal experience of Asian ERG leaders and partnered with Awaken, a DE&I training company with deep expertise on historical systems of inequality, to facilitate a conversation on practical strategies to combat xenophobia.

Match problems with specialists. Rather than treating DE&I as a bundle of issues to address with one-size-fits-all company-wide initiatives, get granular and focus on solving specific challenges. Grav, a scientific glass company, struggled with maintaining the morale of its warehouse workers — mostly Black and brown employees — who continued commuting to work while their office workers shifted to working remotely. With the help of Mindy Gulati, a DE&I consultant, the company troubleshooted the issue and learned that warehouse workers were worried not only about equity, but also about potential negative interactions with law enforcement during their commute. Knowing this, the company set up opportunities for warehouse workers, leaders, and WFH employees to connect, increased compensation and accommodations for warehouse employees, and ensured that all workers had the paperwork they needed if they were stopped by law enforcement. Morale significantly improved and remains high more than a month later.


Further Reading

Be creative about finding the right people to help you tackle the specific challenges you identify. Your company may already have people with the necessary skills or expertise but who aren’t in formal DE&I roles. Consider temporarily flexing their role to allow them to take on these challenges. If you choose to work with an external firm, try to find a group that offers flexible, context-dependent services (rather than off-the-shelf solutions) or consider bringing in a mix of smaller firms and specialists to work on problems in parallel. This will require coordination but will ensure you’re addressing the problems your company faces — not the ones other companies face.

Centralize strategy, decentralize implementation. DE&I work done through a top-down, command-and-control style rarely works. Yet, leaving the implementation to individual managers or units often leads to inconsistent results, where some parts of the organization end up with robust DE&I programs and others have very little. Instead, work both angles. Create a strong DE&I strategy at the top and empower individual managers to interpret and implement it within the context of their day-to-day work.

What makes a good DE&I strategy? The best go beyond stating company diversity goals to also detail why these goals matter to the company’s mission, how they embody and strengthen the company’s values, and with what methods they can be achieved. They are also flexible enough to allow for different ways of solving problems across teams and units. Just as many large companies have adopted a broad Covid-19 strategy but leave its implementation to individual offices, units, or managers on the ground, the same approach will work with DE&I. When I work with companies, I take the following steps:

Work closely with senior leadership and executives to develop the strategy itself, build buy-in, and secure resources Align managers on what this strategy means and what they’re expected to do (and not do) while carrying it out Coach individual managers to adapt and interpret the strategy to work best within the context of their own units and teams Partner with HR to create feedback loops and metrics that allow managers to gauge how they are meeting the strategic goals

While it’s tempting to respond to uncertainty and financial pressure by dropping DE&I programs, it won’t serve your organization in the long run. These efforts can be both scrappy and effective, strategic and sustainable. DE&I can be the means by which your company not only survives this crisis but comes out on the other side of it stronger.

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How Is the Internet Changing the Way We Work?

Imagine you are a shopkeeper, living somewhere in Spain, in 1795. You no longer believe, as did the ancient Egyptians, that your king, Carlos IV, is literally a god, living on earth. But you still believe that he has a divine right to rule over you. You can’t imagine any country being governed well without a king who is responsible for the protection and control of his subjects.

You have heard of the strange rebellion in North America where the British colonists claimed that they could govern themselves without any king at all. You’ve also heard about the recent violent bloodshed in France where a group of so-called revolutionaries killed their king, replaced the government, and destroyed, almost overnight, so many good things. But these experiments seem to you like profound mistakes, bound to fail.

It just doesn’t make sense to say—as these democratic revolutionaries do—that people could ever really govern themselves. That’s a contradiction in terms, like saying that children could raise themselves or farm animals could run a farm. People can try it, you think, but it certainly couldn’t work as well as a wise and just king.

Well, of course, today we know what happened to those strange democratic experiments. They worked. Really well. Over the past two hundred years those democratic ideas have triumphed in Europe, America, and many other parts of the world. While democratic governments are not everywhere in the world today, their economic, political, and military successes have far surpassed what almost anyone would have predicted in the late 1700s. And, perhaps more importantly, our whole way of thinking about many things—the role of government, the rights of people, the importance of public opinion—has profoundly changed, even in countries that don’t themselves have democratic governments.

Now, we are in the early stages of another revolution—a revolution in business—that may ultimately be as profound as the democratic revolution in government. Like the democratic revolution, the revolution in business will lead to a transformation in our thinking about control: Where does power come from? Who should be in control? Who is responsible?

And, once again, the result of this revolution will be a world where people have more freedom. A world in which power and control in business are spread more widely than our industrial age ancestors would have ever thought possible. A world in which more and more people are at the center of their own organizations.

In this new world of business, lots of highly connected individuals will each make their own decisions using information from many other places. In fact, this revolution is now possible because new information technologies make it feasible—on a scale never before possible in human history—for vastly more people to have the information they need to make well-informed choices.

But the real impetus for this revolution will not come from these new technologies. It will come from our own human desires—our desires for economic efficiency and flexibility, certainly, but also our desires for non-economic values like personal satisfaction and fulfillment.

In other words, one of the most important drivers of the revolution is this: for the first time in history, new technologies allow us to have the economic benefits of large organizations—like economies of scale and knowledge—without giving up the human benefits of small ones—like freedom, creativity, motivation, and flexibility.

This revolution has already begun. We saw its harbingers in the final decades of the twentieth century in talk about empowering workers, outsourcing almost everything, creating networked or virtual corporations. We saw it in the premature—but partly correct—enthusiasm for new ways of doing business in the dot.combubble and in the slogan that “the Internet changes everything.” We see it all around us today in the increasing amount of choice many people have in how they do their work.

But, like the loyal subjects of King Carlos IV in 1795, most of us don’t yet begin to understand how far-reaching these changes may eventually be. We still assume, without even really thinking about it, that someone always needs to be responsible and accountable in business. We assume that the managers of well-run companies should always be in control of what’s happening. We assume that power should always come from the top of an organization and be delegated down.

But the underlying technological and economic forces all around us today are making these beliefs less useful. New ways of organizing work are now becoming possible. Management is changing. And that gives all of us more choices in how we shape the world that is being created.

What Will These New Ways of Organizing Work Look Like?

There’s a technical term for the kind of organization this revolution will make more common. The word is decentralized. But most people have a very limited view of what this word means. If you’re like many people in business today, when you hear the word decentralized, you assume that it means delegating more power to lower-level managers inside traditional organizations. It might mean, for instance, letting divisional vice-presidents make product strategy decisions that used to be made by the CEO.

But this limited kind of decentralization barely scratches the surface of what’s possible. Let’s define decentralization as the participation of people in making the decisions that matter to them. In this sense, decentralization means roughly the same thing as freedom. Decentralized organizations are those where more people have more freedom. And from this point of view, as you can see in figure 1, there’s a much wider range of possibilities for decentralization.

Fig. 1 The decentralization continuum. Organizations can be placed on a continuum based how much people participate in making decisions that matter to them.

At the far left of the continuum are highly centralized organizations. If all important decisions are made by high-level centralized decision-makers (as in traditional military organizations, for instance), then the organization is highly centralized. The rest of the continuum shows three important kinds of decision-making structures where people have more freedom: loose hierarchies, democracies, and markets. As you progress along the continuum, from loose hierarchies to democracies to markets, the amount of freedom people have in decision-making increases.

For example, some companies today already have loose hierarchies where they delegate huge amounts of decision-making authority to very low levels in their organization. Many management consulting firms, for instance, let the individual partners and consultants on a project make almost all operational decisions about the project. And AES Corp., one of the world’s largest electric power producers, has let very low-level workers make critical multimillion-dollar decisions about things like acquiring new subsidiaries. In an even more extreme example, one of the most important computer operating systems in the world today—Linux—was written by a loosely coordinated hierarchy of thousands of volunteer computer programmers all over the world.

When most people think about decentralization, they stop at this point—delegating lots of decisions to lower levels in hierarchies. But what if power didn’t getdelegated to lower levels? What if, instead, it originated there? How much energy and creativity might it be possible to unlock if everyone in an organization felt they were in control?

The right half of the continuum shows the possibilities for what this more extreme kind of freedom can look like in business. For example, some businesses already act like miniature democracies where decisions are made by voting. Many good managers today, for instance, informally poll their employees about key decisions, and some companies do more formal polling of employees for many purposes. In a few cases, like the cooperative Mondragon Corporation in Spain, the workers own the company and, therefore, can elect the equivalent of a board of directors and vote on other key issues. What if companies begin to take this notion of democratic decision-making even more seriously? What if, for instance, professional partnerships and other worker-owned businesses let workers elect (and fire) their own managers at every level, not just at the top? And what if these employee-owners could vote on any other key questions on which they wanted to express opinions?

The most extreme kind of business freedom occurs in markets because, in markets, no one is bound by a decision to which he or she doesn’t agree. In a pure market, for instance, no one on top delegates decisions about what to buy and sell to the different players in the market. Instead, all the individual buyers and sellers make their own mutual agreements, subject only to their own financial constraints, their abilities, and the overall rules of the market.

For instance, companies can use this form of organization by outsourcing things they used to do inside. Many companies today are already outsourcing all kinds of things, from manufacturing, to sales, to human resource management. In some cases, large companies may not even need to exist in the first place. Flexible webs of small companies or even temporary combinations of electronically connected freelancers (“e-lancers”) can sometimes do the same things more effectively. This way of organizing is already common in the film industry, for example, where a producer, a director, actors, cinematographers, and others come together for the purpose of making one movie and then disband and rearrange in different combinations to make others.

In other cases, you can get many of the benefits of markets inside the boundaries of large companies. For example, some companies today are beginning to experiment with micro-level internal markets where employees of the company buy and sell things among themselves, and their internal trading is just another way of allocating resources for the company as a whole. One semiconductor company, for instance, has looked at letting individual salespeople and plant managers buyand sell individual products directly to each other in an internal electronic market. This gives the plants very immediate and dynamic feedback about which products to make each day, and it helps the salespeople continually set prices for external customers.

To understand why decentralized things like these are likely to happen more often in the future, you need to understand what leads to centralization and decentralization in the first place.

Why Is This Happening?

Of course, there are many factors that affect how and where decisions are made in a business, or for that matter, in any organization. Here are just a few of the factors that sometimes matter: Who already has the information needed to make good decisions? Who already has the power to make the decisions, and whom do they trust to make decisions on their behalf? What specific individuals are potential decision makers, and what are their capabilities and motivations? What are the cultural assumptions in the company and its country about what kinds of people should make decisions? All these factors vary widely from situation to situation, but in general, they aren’t changing dramatically in any single direction overall.

There is, however, another factor that affects where decisions are made in businesses, and this factor is changing dramatically in the same direction almost everywhere. In fact, when we look back carefully at the history of humanity, we can see that this very same factor has been implicated, time after time, in some of the most important historical changes in where decisions were made, not just in businesses, but in human societies, too.

What could this factor possibly be?

It’s the cost of communication.

When the only form of communication was face-to-face conversation, our distant hunting and gathering ancestors organized themselves in small, egalitarian, decentralized groups called bands. Over many millennia, as hunting and gathering gave way to agriculture, and as our ancestors learned to communicate over long distances more cheaply by writing, they were able to form larger and larger societies ruled by kings, emperors, and other centralized rulers (see fig. 2). These larger societies had many economic and military advantages over the hunting and gathering bands, but their members had to give up some of their freedom to get these benefits.

Then, only a few hundred years ago, our ancestors invented a new communication technology, the printing press, which reduced even further the costs of communicating to large numbers of people. This time, the declining costs of communication allowed our ancestors to reverse their millennia-long march toward greater centralization. Instead, soon after the printing press came into wide use, the democratic revolution began. Then, ordinary people—who could now be much better informed about political matters—came to have more say in their own government than they had usually had in all the millennia since our hunting and gathering days.

Fig. 2 The major ways human societies have been organized throughout history reveal a remarkably simple pattern that foreshadows how businesses are changing now.

Was the declining cost of communication the only factor that caused all these societal changes? Of course not. Each of these changes arose from complex combinations of forces involving many other factors as well. For instance, our human desires for individual freedom—and for the motivation and flexibility that often accompany individual freedom—were critical. But the declining costs of communication allowed by new information technologies like writing and printing played a key role in enabling each of these changes. And it is certainly interesting, to say the least, that the very same underlying factor is implicated in such diverse and important changes in human societies as the rise of kingdoms and the rise of democracies.

Even more remarkable still is the fact that this very same pattern appears to be repeating itself now—at a much faster rate—in the history of business organizations as well!

Throughout most of human history, up until the 1800s, most businesses were organized as small, local, often family affairs, similar in many ways to the bands of our hunting and gathering ancestors. But by the 1900s, new communication technologies like telegraph, telephone, typewriters, and carbon paper finally provided enough communication capacity to allow businesses to grow and centralize on a large scale like governments had begun to do many millennia earlier (see fig. 3). By taking advantage of economies of scale and knowledge, these large business kingdoms were able to achieve an unprecedented level of material prosperity.

As a result of this massive—and successful—move toward centralization of business in the twentieth century, many of us still unconsciously associate success in business with bigness and centralization. But in order to achieve these economic benefits of bigness, many of the individual workers in these large companies had to give up some of the freedom and flexibility they had in the farms and small businesses of the previous era.

It’s obvious that new information technologies can still be used to continue this trend—to keep creating ever-larger and more centralized business kingdoms. And some of the important business changes in the years to come will still be continuations of this previous trend—integrating larger and larger groups of people to take advantage of economies of scale or knowledge.

But just as the rise of democracies reversed a trend toward centralization in societies that had lasted for millennia, we are now beginning to see signs of a similar reversal in business.

With new technologies like e-mail, instant messaging, and the Internet, it’s now becoming economically feasible—for the first time in human history—to give huge numbers of people the information they need to make more choices for themselves.

In the places where this makes economic sense, that means many more people can have the kinds of freedom and flexibility in business that used to be common only in small organizations. When people are making their own decisions, for instance, rather than just following orders, they are often more dedicated, more creative, and more innovative.

Fig. 3 The major changes in how businesses were organized through history echo similar changes in the ways societies were organized.

Decentralized businesses can usually be more flexible, too—both with their customers and with their own workers. Because they give people more choices, decentralized businesses just plain have a lot more chances to give people the things they really want. In other words, they give people more freedom.

But these new decentralized businesses don’t have the limitations that small, isolated businesses did in the past. Because these new organizations have access to the best information available anywhere in the world, they can also benefit from many of the advantages of large organizations, too. If there are economies of scale in parts of their business, for instance, they can find the best suppliers in the world for those things. They can find customers all over the world, and they can use electronic reputation systems to establish credibility with potential customers who’ve never heard of them. And if someone on the other side of the globe has figured out how to do something better, they can learn from that experience, too.

Of course, this kind of decentralization doesn’t work well in all situations. In some places, for instance, like making certain kinds of semiconductors, the critical factors in business success are just economies of scale. And, in these places, we should expect cheaper communication to lead to more centralization in order to take advantage of these economies of scale.

But in our increasingly knowledge-based and innovation-driven economy, the critical factors in business success are often precisely the same as the benefits of decentralized decision making: motivation, creativity, flexibility, and innovation.

So even though it won’t happen everywhere, we should expect this change to more decentralized decision-making to happen in more and more parts of our economy over the coming decades.

Even where decentralization is desirable, however, the changes won’t all happen overnight. Just as the democratic transformation of societies evolved in fits and starts over a period of centuries, these changes in business will take decades to play out fully. And every time there is a setback in one place, or a failure to move forward somewhere else, there will be people who say that things aren’t going to change after all. When people over-invested in e-business and the speculative new economy bubble burst, for instance, many people thought that the old economy had won, and we were going back to business as usual.

But the relentless improvements in the cost of communication, year after year, and decade after decade, mean that there will continue to be more and more opportunities for decentralization. These fundamental changes in the economics of communication and decision-making will continue working their way through our economy, company after company, and industry after industry, for many, many years to come.

What Does This Mean for You?

If decentralization becomes desirable in more and more places in business, then we’ll need to manage in new ways. But no matter how much we talk about new kinds of management, most of us still have—deep in our minds—models of management based on the classic centralized philosophy of command and control. To be successful in the world we’re entering, you’ll need a new—broader—set of mental models. While these new models shouldn’t exclude the possibility of commanding and controlling, they need to also encompass a much wider range of possibilities—both centralized and decentralized.

Here’s one way of summarizing this new perspective: we need to move from thinking about command and control to coordinate and cultivate. For example, when you coordinate, you organize work so that good things happen, whether you are in control or not. Some kinds of coordination are centralized; others are decentralized. But either way, coordinating focuses on the activities that need to be done and the relationships among them.

When you cultivate, you bring out the best in a situation by the right combination of controlling and letting go. Sometimes, for example, you need to give people top-down commands, but sometimes you just need to help them find and develop their own natural strengths. Good cultivation, therefore, involves finding the right balance between centralized and decentralized control. In fact, sometimes—paradoxically—the best way to gain power is to give it away.

In both these cases, coordinating and cultivating are not the opposites of commanding and controlling; they are the supersets. That is, they include the whole range of possibilities from completely centralized to completely decentralized.

And that is a key part of how the world of management is changing: to be an effective manager in the world we’re entering, you can’t be stuck in a centralized mindset. You need to be able to move flexibly back and forth on the decentralization continuum as the situation demands. Since most of us already understand centralization pretty well, the thing that’s new—the thing we need to understand better—is decentralization.

The Choices

Like the democratic revolution that preceded it, the business revolution we have entered is a time of dramatic change in the economies, the organizations, and the cultural assumptions of our society. And, as in any time of dramatic change, small choices can often have big effects. Whether you participate in events as significant as writing the American Declaration of Independence or whether you just make lots of daily decisions about what work to do and how to do it, you will be shaping the world in which we and our descendants will live for the rest of this century.

If you choose to, you can use the new possibilities enabled by information technology to help create a world that is both more economically efficient and more flexible than has ever before been possible in human history. There are many powerful economic forces that will lead us to do just that, to combine the economic benefits of bigness—like global scale and diverse knowledge—with the human benefits of smallness—like flexibility, creativity, and motivation.

But that isn’t the end of the possibilities these new technologies provide. Because more people will have more choices, they can bring more of their own values into business. And that means you can put a broader range of your human values, not just your economic ones, at the center of your thinking about business.

In other words, you can—if you choose—use your work to help create a world that is not just richer, but also a world that is better.

That is the choice before you.

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New Ways of Working in the Company of the Future

Peter Thomson argues that firms are still applying Industrial Age working practices to the new Information Age work patterns. Organizations are still run as hierarchical command systems in a world of networked individuals and self-employed entrepreneurs. Today we are in the middle of the Information Revolution, facing fundamental changes to the way we live and work. The difference is that the current revolution is bringing as much change in a decade as was spread over a century last time. Thomson states that the main issues pushing this tsunami of change are flexible/smart working and increasing demand for work/life balance and job satisfaction. In order for this transformation to work well, nothing less than a revolution in management practices must happen. 

We are sitting at a fascinating junction in the history of work. We still have the Industrial Age working practices that have been in existence for the last 200 years, running alongside the new Information Age work patterns. Organizations are still run as hierarchical command systems in a world of networked individuals and self-employed entrepreneurs.

It took many decades and several generations to make the last change of this magnitude. In the Industrial Revolution, work moved slowly from fields to factories and changed the face of society. Today we are in the middle of the Information Revolution, facing equally fundamental changes to the way we live and work. The difference is that the current revolution is bringing as much change in a decade as was spread over a century last time.

So we have twentieth-century working practices (with, in some cases, nineteenth-century management processes) lingering on in established companies whilst new enterprises are working very differently, enabled by technology. Some organizations have recognized that the world is changing around them and are trying to adapt, but many are continuing to operate as if nothing had happened. Those that do not embrace the changes are in danger of being left behind in the race to attract and retain the most effective workforce, and lose out to more productive competitors.

New Working Patterns

It is obvious to even the most casual observer of working patterns that techno-logy has revolutionized our ability to perform a whole variety of tasks. We can now send and receive emails wherever we are, join in meetings from the other side of the world and keep in touch with our colleagues through a variety of social media. We can access all the documentation from our “office” without ever going near the building and we can keep up with the latest developments in our field without having to attend endless conferences or meetings.

But despite the ability to do work at any place and any time of our choosing, we are still slaves to the routines established by a previous generation of workers. The “norm” for most people in work is to have a job with a fixed location and a fixed set of hours to be present. In return for turning up and fulfilling a job description we pay people a salary, provide benefits and offer a level of financial security. But increasingly this is being seen as a low productivity model which is not very satisfying for the employee and not very effective for the employer.

We now have a generation of young people joining the workforce who have never known a world without the internet. They expect to be able to communicate with their colleagues wherever they are and whenever they choose. They cannot understand the traditional boundaries between home and work life and the need to be tied to a fixed desk in order to get work done. They are questioning the long hours culture and the “presenteeism” pattern of work that has been inherited from previous generations. And they value their personal freedom, expecting to be given some discretion over the place of work in their lives.

Management Revolution

This combination of social change in attitudes towards work, combined with the freedom that comes with technology, is confronting traditional management practices head on. The idea that work has to take priority over the rest of life is now being challenged. Why should we have to fit our personal lives around a fixed pattern of work when many work activities can now be done flexibly? If I can answer my emails from home, or on the move, at a time to suit myself, why am I expected to be at my desk from 9 to 5.30? Why can’t I take my children to school then come to the office later, instead of having to be in two places at once? If we now carry our virtual desk and filing cabinet around with us in our pockets why are we still basing ourselves on fixed workstations at all?

The reason we have fixed patterns of work is largely historical. When work involved passing physical objects to the next person we had to be working alongside them. In manufacturing this is still largely true, although the passing of items is more likely to be between robots than humans in today’s automated factory. In the office it is no longer true. We don’t need to pass the paper from one desk to the other and we don’t need to be in the same room to have a conversation. Yet the “standard” pattern of knowledge work is still to be based at a fixed location for a fixed time.

The management systems, leadership practices and communications processes that we use today were built during the Industrial Age of work. They assume that people are prepared to commit a fixed portion of their lives to their employer and fit their leisure, holidays, and family life around it. This used to work in the days when men were the “breadwinners” and went to work leaving their wife to manage the home and children. But this outdated approach to work does not fit with today’s values of equality, freedom, and flexibility.

Flexible Working

Just introducing some part-time work to satisfy demands from parents is no longer sufficient to meet the expectations of the younger workforce. Whether they have caring responsibilities or not, they expect to have some choice about the way they work. They are used to having choice in the rest of their lives. They can shop and be entertained 24/7. They can make adult decisions about what they do at the weekends. But during weekdays they are treated like children. If they don’t turn up on time they are likely to be disciplined (despite the fact that they are expected to travel to their workplace at the most congested time of day).

Working from home is seen as an exception. “Presenteeism” rules, and people who are out of sight can easily get forgotten

Many employers have introduced flexible working schemes to try to meet the demand from the workforce. Typically these assume the fixed working day as the starting point and allow variations on this to add some agility to the work schedule. So the idea of “core hours” being present in the office still remains strong. Provisions such as working from home or from a satellite office are seen as exceptions. “Presenteeism” rules, and people who are out of sight can easily get forgotten. Managers struggle with knowing what people are doing if they can’t see them and often assume they are not as committed as those who come in to the office.

“Flexible working” is typically an HR policy introduced as an employee benefit aimed at people with family commitments. It is usually associated with provisions such as maternity leave and is designed to accommodate people who can’t work “normal” hours. Consequently it is not taken up by serious career-minded employees. They are still caught up in the long hours culture that dominated the twentieth century and has crept into the twenty-first.

But all that is about to change.

Smart Working

As we come out of a worldwide recession and move towards a shortage of key talent, employers will have to have a fundamental rethink of their approach to work. There already is extensive evidence that people are choosing to move jobs in order to improve their work/life balance. No longer does a big pay packet bring satisfaction to employees with scarce skills. They recognize that time is as valuable an asset as money. So they will be attracted to work environments where people are expected to have a personal life and not have sacrificed their freedom in the name of career progression.

In the age of “smart” working, the new approach to work involves a shift in control from employer to employee

The new approach to work involves a shift in control from employer to employee. In the age of “smart” working an individual is in control of their own time. They decide when and where to work and are trusted to do so by their boss. There is no assumption that work can only be done in the usual daytime shift at the usual workplace. Many people, particularly those employed for their creativity, do their best work outside of the traditional hours. Why should we constrain people to work at times when they are at their least productive?

But the biggest hurdle that managers have to jump is to stop measuring inputs (hours worked) and start measuring outputs (achieving outcomes). If the basis of recognition for work is what is actually produced, then the time and place of the activity is almost irrelevant. There will be many jobs where there are constraints on when and where work can be done, but these do not have to be imposed by a manager. When someone is trusted to decide for themselves how the job is done they will know the constraints and will work within these parameters.

So, the old version of flexible working (a discretionary gift from management) is being replaced by agile working practices where the individual has genuine autonomy over their working pattern. This is not just a change in the employment contract; it is a revolution in work culture. It involves a shift from a command and control mentality to a leadership style that empowers people and trusts them to get on with the work. It is a sign that employees are being treated as adults and can make decisions which take into account the needs of the employer as well as their own priorities.

Future Work

This evolution from fixed working patterns to highly flexible work arrangements is a journey currently being undertaken by many employers. The leaders are now introducing results-only measurement systems and autonomous working schemes where employees have high degrees of freedom. Others are following along behind with different degrees of “agility” and varying levels of empowerment for their people. But, regardless of where they are in this journey, there is one clear direction in which they are all heading.

Alison Maitland and I chose to call this “Future Work” in the book of the same name.1 This reflects the fact that we are moving towards a future model of work which has truly adapted to the social, technological, and economic influences of the twenty-first century. Many organizations will struggle with this change since it challenges existing power bases and established management controls. It threatens the existence of some middle managers and erodes many of the trappings of power and status in hierarchical structures.

We came across many examples of new ways of working whilst researching for the book. There were some companies such as W.L. Gore and Semco that have been able to adopt radically new ideas thanks to the vision of their CEOs. Others such as IBM, Vodafone, and Cisco have used their technologies to facilitate change. And we discovered a few that were well along the journey, seeing benefits flowing to their bottom lines.

We are moving towards a future model of work which has truly adapted to the social, technological, and economic influences of the twenty-first century

One such example is Ryan, the global tax services firm. Their MyRyan program allows employees to work anywhere any time as long as the work gets done. There are no hour requirements, no location requirements and no schedules. As reported in the book Future Work: “The results are impressive,” according to Delta Emerson, now chief of staff. “We have won over 100 workplace excellence awards in recent years, including the coveted Fortune ‘Great Place to Work’ award, in both the US and Canada. Ryan employees treasure flexibility and it has helped us become a ‘talent magnet’ and reduce turnover. Additionally, the other metrics that any CEO cares about—client satisfaction and revenue—have skyrocketed. Flex is a business imperative—not a nice-to-have.’”

Changing Cultures

None of this should come as a surprise. For the last fifty years, management gurus, occupational psychologists and inspired leaders have been saying the same thing. Give people instructions and they will simply follow them. Give people responsibility and they will be motivated to achieve more in their work. We have moved on from the era of “Taylorism” where work was reduced to its most simple elements and jobs were intrinsically boring. We now have the routine work done by computers and robots, and people are employed for their human skills.

But we still have organizational cultures that reflect the old approach to work. We have hierarchical structures where power is retained at the top and delegated down through layers of management. Knowledge is hoarded by managers as a way of justifying their existence rather than being shared amongst all employees. Instructions are issued from the top and obeyed by those at the bottom. People who comply with the prevailing culture are promoted into management. Those who challenge the status quo are marginalized. So it is hardly surprising to see that these organizations are resistant to change. They believe their own PR in the face of external influences and are only forced to change when they reach a crisis point.

We are about to reach the crisis point in the world of work. The generation of digital natives who have joined the working population over the last decade are questioning fundamental assumptions about employment. They are not prepared to simply do what they are told. They are asking questions about why we work the way we do, and they are not satisfied with the answers. In the rest of their lives they are using technology to free them from constraints of time and place, but their job is based on an assumption that these are fixed. They use social media to relate to friends at a distance but are expected to spend endless hours in office-based meetings as part of their jobs.

Rewarding Results

When many jobs could only be done in one place, life was simple. You turned up to work and contributed the hours. “Work” was a place you attended for your contracted time and you were paid for the hours you put in. The reward system reflected the input. Now life is more complicated. Technology has freed work from the constraints of a fixed place and given the worker more choice over when to perform it. “Work” is no longer a place to go to, it’s an activity for a purpose. It’s a process for achieving results and it’s the output that counts. Rewarding outcomes that contribute to the goals of the enterprise seems much more logical than rewarding effort that may contribute nothing towards business success.

In today’s connected world, work is becoming more of a tradable commodity. Instead of converting work into a set of tasks to be performed by an employee it is being seen as a product that is paid by results. So to get a piece of work done it is quite practical to put out a request on the internet and to offer it to an independent contractor or freelancer. By 2020, more than 40% of the US workforce will be so-called contingent workers, according to a study conducted by software company Intuit in 2010.2 That’s more than 60 million people.

Contractors and consultants will increasingly bid for work online and will be paid for results. This is an emerging form of what has been termed “crowdsourcing”—using the power of the internet to allocate tasks to people anywhere in the world by issuing a request for work. Initially, this was largely associated with finding volunteers to contribute their expertise for free. The whole free, open-source software movement is based on this model and there are high-profile examples such as Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

However, there is now a growing market for paid work via the internet. Elance and oDesk, both launched in the US in the mid-2000s, are two of the better-known online marketplaces where businesses can find freelance professionals to carry out work on demand.

Since 2005, Amazon has run its Mechanical Turk as a marketplace for work that allows requesters to pose “Human Intelligence Tasks” and pay people to perform them. These are typically simple repetitive tasks, such as searching for information on the Web, paid a few cents for each successful result. At the other end of the scale is Innocentive where cash awards of up to a million dollars are given for successful solutions to research problems. It’s a very attractive model for businesses able to allocate work across the internet as they can choose suppliers who will perform tasks for a fraction of the cost of employees. In fact it is quite possible to get the work done at no cost if there are enthusiastic contributors willing to donate their effort for free.

Work versus Jobs

These new ways of connecting people with work are cutting across the traditional jobs market. “Employers” no longer have to offer jobs, careers, and security to people to get their tasks performed. When they need to get something done they simply find someone to do it and pay them when it’s completed. They don’t need “employees,” they need just-in-time workers to perform tasks. They don’t have to worry about employment legislation and may well be sourcing the work from someone located in a different country anyway. If the individual suppliers are being paid for results then they will be in control of their own time and regulations such as a minimum wage, expressed as pay per hour, are irrelevant.

It might seem that this development is heavily biased in favor of the “employer” and that it would not be attractive to “employees” who are missing out on the benefits of a conventional job. However, there are many people who find this a better way to earn a living than be constrained by a fixed commitment to an employer. They have the flexibility to choose when they work and are in control of their lives. They will be joining the growing ranks of self-employed who are prepared to exchange the security of a regular job for the flexibility of selling their expertise on the open market.

One option that is growing in popularity is the “zero hours” contract. This arrangement gives flexibility to the employer and employee and provides some of the employee benefits that do not exist for the self-employed. In a report published in November 2013,3 the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development in the UK looked into these contracts in depth. They reported that 23% of employers used these contracts and on average they apply to 19% of their workforce. Far from feeling exploited, almost half of these employees are satisfied with having no minimum guaranteed hours, with only a quarter saying they are not happy with the arrangement. Most zero-hours contract workers (52%) don’t want to work more hours than they typically receive in an average week.

Despite some negative reactions in the media to these flexible arrangements, they are here to stay. In the CIPD survey, only 9% of the respondents said that they were not allowed to work for another employer when there was no work available under the zero hours arrangement. So, the age of the “portfolio worker” is dawning, where an individual may have several “employment” arrangements combining different part-time “jobs.” The idea that someone can only work for one organization at once, and has to do this as a full-time job to be successful, is being consigned to history.

Rise of the Part-Timers

There are now many successful executives who have shed the burden of the full-time, long-hours, always-on work pattern and shown that part-time work can be equally as effective. In fact there is growing evidence that part-time workers are able to contribute more to the success of the business than full-time ones. They probably have a better work-life balance and are therefore less stressed when doing their jobs. They are likely to bring in a more objective outside view and not be restricted to a narrow corporate version of reality.

Organizations are transforming from rigid employers to flexible networks in order to get the best results from people

The UK jobs website, Timewise, publishes a “Power Part Time” list which aims to bust the myth that part time is just for low-skill jobs. The list contains the inspiring stories of 50 men and women who exceed profit targets, drive innovation and manage large teams—all whilst working a contract that strikes a healthy balance with the rest of their lives. It includes chief executives, managing directors, finance directors and partners in professional services firms. These executives are doing extremely demanding roles, so they have to prioritize and manage their time well. Many of them emphasize communicating clearly and agreeing goals with their teams, and then trusting them to get on with the job.

The traditional view that work has to be divided into jobs, that have to be done by full-time employees, is now clearly outdated. Organizations are transforming from rigid employers to flexible networks in order to get the best results from people. They need to be able to accommodate the varied wishes of their workforce, ranging from people content to hold a full-time fixed job through to individuals wanting full control of their own work pattern. Those that adapt will survive. Those that stick with the current model will struggle.

The Future is Here

This new world of work is here already in leading organizations. In the book Future Work, we identified many examples of employers who have recognized that the command and control culture of the past is now out of date. Where they have introduced “smart working” or “agile working” schemes as a business strategy and changed their leadership culture, they are seeing the benefits. But those leaders that have just paid lip service to new ways of working, and not adapted their culture, will end up with frustrated employees and low productivity.

It takes clear leadership from the top to throw out some of the hierarchical processes and introduce a flatter structure. Managers have to behave in line with the new values of the business and actively empower their employees. One example of this that we quote in the book is Unilever. They have introduced radically new ways of working to their operations around the world over the past few years. Their Agile Working program was launched at the end of 2009 and contains the following principles:

All employees may work any time and anywhere as long as business needs are fully met Leaders must lead by example, working in an agile way themselves Performance is determined by results, not time and attendance—every employee has a personal work plan identifying desired results and how they will be measured Travel is to be avoided whenever possible Managers are assessed annually on how well they support agile workers and this feeds into the variable element of their pay

Senior leaders are required to be role models by adopting “Agile Working” principles, technology, and facilities themselves. Around 20% of jobs in senior management and above are “location-free,” meaning that the executive may be based anywhere in the world. The company has invested in training people in the business benefits, in how to work and collaborate remotely, and in managing and being part of virtual teams.

Management Reactions

These new “smart working” schemes often face resistance from middle management. These are people who have worked their way up the organization by committing long hours and sacrificing their personal lives in the process. They are looking for this dedication from their employees and don’t understand why their priorities are different. These managers justify their existence by having a visible team of people working for them and a large payroll budget. To suggest that the same work could be done by a smaller group of contractors, or by people working from home, is a direct threat to their status.

The new “smart working” schemes often face resistance from middle management. These are people who have worked their way up the organization by sacrificing their personal lives in the process

They see their role as controlling their employees, allocating tasks, and showing people how to do the job. They enforce the company rules and ensure compliance in the correct procedures. In the interest of “quality performance” they insist on work being done in a standard way, which ensures consistency. They reward the people who put in the extra dedicated effort, are loyal to the organization, and don’t question the existing system too closely.

Success in the twenty-first century will rely on managers being prepared to do the exact opposite. They will need to give employees autonomy and trust that they will not abuse the freedom. They will allow people to choose to do the work the way that suits them best. They will be clear about the results that are expected and not try to dictate the detailed methodology for achieving them. They will reward creative new ideas that challenge established practices. And they will be seen to be successful by achieving results with fewer employees and lower budgets.

Working in the “Smart” Organization

The people working in these organizations will feel genuinely empowered. They will make decisions on when and where they do the work to achieve their goals. If they know they are most productive working in the evenings they might choose to spend mornings as leisure time. Instead of having to turn up to their employer’s workplace and be paid for putting in an appearance, they will choose the appropriate place of work to suit their own needs. They will be happy to be judged on results, not on the hours they spend on wasted effort.

People appreciate being treated like adults and being allowed to make decisions in their working lives that they would naturally make in the rest of life. It’s in their interest to think of smarter ways of getting the job done and achieving it in the shortest time. The best workers become those who work the least hours. Individuals question the value of the time spent in pointless meetings and are rewarded for doing so. Managers become coaches who get the best out of their people by motivating them and providing support, letting go of the reins wherever possible.

The situation is summarized well by Gary Hamel in The Future of Management.4

If there was a single question that obsessed twentieth-century managers, from Frederick Taylor to Jack Welch, it was this: How do we get more out of our people? At one level, this question is innocuous—who can object to the goal of raising human productivity? Yet it’s also loaded with Industrial Age thinking: How do we (meaning ‘management’) get more (meaning units of production per hour) out of our people (meaning the individuals who are obliged to follow our orders)? Ironically, the management model encapsulated in this question virtually guarantees that a company will never get the best out of its people. Vassals and conscripts may work hard, but they don’t work willingly.

The Virtual Workplace

Once we have broken the link between work and a fixed location, a whole range of potential workplaces emerge. It may be convenient for some people to work some of the time from home. Where this fits in with people’s personal lives and their work commitments it can be highly productive. Just saving the time and hassle of a daily commute brings rewards but people also report significant improvements in output per hour worked at home versus a noisy office.

The worker in the new Future Work era will have to be able to manage this blurred border between home and work

However, most jobs involve contact with other people. Technology is replacing some of this but there will still be a need for individuals to get together and share ideas. Some meetings will be replaced by videoconferencing or online discussion forums. Social media will help remote teams to build rapport. But there will still be a need for space for physical meetings. So the office of the future will cater for people meeting together and using some desk space on a “drop-in” basis. Activity-based workspace allows for people moving around the building depending on the task they are performing.

But the just-in-time approach to the workplace raises a question about the need for any permanent space at all. If meeting space, or flexible office space can be rented by the hour or the day, why have the overheads of a permanent building? The workplace for many people might be a combination of a multi-user hub office, rented space in a Regus-style serviced office or a table in the local coffee shop, with the occasional day at home thrown in. For the truly mobile worker their workplace is wherever they are, as long as they have access to the internet.

Work-Life Integration

This ability to work anywhere is both a blessing and a curse for the individual employee. They may have control over when and where they choose to get their jobs done but they may also lose control of their personal lives in the process. If their boss expects them to be available at any time, wherever they are, then there is a danger that this can invade their personal lives. It can be tempting for managers to take advantage of the technology and expect their people to be available at all times.

It’s also tempting for some employees to be available all the time, just to impress the boss. But eventually people start to resent the takeover of their lives by their job. The worker in the new Future Work era will have to be able to manage this blurred border between home and work. Self management, project skills and effective communication will be important, whether someone is employed or working independently.

Along with the freedom to choose how to work comes the responsibility for producing results. Companies such as Netflix that trust their employees to control their own work patterns also expect people to be high achievers. They don’t care about effort, it’s all about accomplishing great work. This is illustrated by their “no policy” arrangement for vacations. Since they are not tracking the hours that people are working, it makes no sense to count the days that people are on leave.

This idea has been picked up by Sir Richard Branson who has introduced it for the Virgin parent company in both the UK and the US. As he says in his blog5:

Flexible working has revolutionised how, where and when we all do our jobs. So, if working nine to five no longer applies, then why should strict annual leave (vacation) policies? … It is left to the employee alone to decide if and when he or she feels like taking a few hours, a day, a week or a month off, the assumption being that they are only going to do it when they feel a hundred percent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project and that their absence will not in any way damage the business—or, for that matter, their careers!

The ability to mix work and pleasure, aided by technology, will be a key factor in shaping people’s lives over the next decade. If employers don’t keep up with this trend they are likely to lose their best people, either to more agile organizations or to some form of self-employment. By starting from the assumption that work is an activity that can be performed anywhere and at any time, they will impose the minimum of constraints on their workforce. As long as they measure and reward output and treat people like adults they will be successful. This sounds like a simple task, but it conflicts with the prevailing culture in many businesses and may take a serious shake-up of leadership to achieve.


A. Maitland and P. Thomson, Future Work: Changing Organisational Culture for the New World of Work (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) “Intuit 2020 Report: Twenty Trends That Will Shape the Next Decade” “Zero Hours Contracts: Myth and Reality,” CIPD Research Report, November 2013 G. Hamel with B. Breen, The Future of Management (Boston, Mass. & London: Harvard Business School Press, 2007), 207. “Why we’re letting Virgin staff take as much holiday as they want,” Richard Branson’s blog, September 23, 2014
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Smart-working: Work flexibility without constraints


The outbreak of the 2019 novel coronavirus is threatening the economy worldwide. To contain the spread of the coronavirus and curb contagion, a new organisational model of work, known as ‘smart working’, is becoming increasingly important: workers can work outside their workplace and with a flexible time schedule, thanks to the use of technology. Flexibility over where and when to work is being used to continue with work-related activities and avoid the collapse of the economy.

Despite the massive increase in recent weeks, we still know very little about the economic effects of smart working in normal times.  Previous research has studied the use of the traditional practice of working from home under the same wage conditions and under the control of the employer (‘telecommuting’). In an experiment with Chinese call-centre employees (a routine job), Bloom et al. (2014) show that telecommuting can be beneficial for employees’ productivity and their work-life balance, although at the cost of feeling isolated, which, in the long run, may reduce the benefits and the desirability of this practice. 

However, telecommuting is only one way and one dimension of work flexibility. It is mainly based on replacing the workplace with the home, maintaining the rigid control of the employer over the location of the work and the precise hours. Telecommuting is compatible with only a limited number of (mainly routine) jobs. 

New and more complex forms of flexibility have begun to spread, including flexible location and flexible work times, based on the removal of the constraints on the space and time of work. This new flexibility is highly appreciated by workers and plays a major role in their decision to take or leave a job: approximately 37% of the 195,600 US employees surveyed by Gallup in 2017 declared they would change their job for benefits related to flexible working location (for part of their working week), and more than half of office workers (54%) said that they would leave their job for one that offers flexible work time (Gallup 2017). Among millennials, these reported percentages increased to 50% and 63%, respectively. Similarly, in Europe, more than 20% of the workers (men and women) interviewed by the Sixth European Survey on Working Conditions carried out by the European Foundation for the improvement of Living and Working Conditions reported that their working hours did not fit with their family and social commitments (Eurofound 2017). Having some freedom to set one’s start and finish times and arrange breaks during the working day increases the perception that one’s working hours fit in with family and social commitments by approximately 20% (Eurofound 2017). 

Smart working comes with a trade-off. On the one hand, there are potential gains from the flexible work locations and hours: workers reduce their commuting costs and firms optimise their costs (lighting, heating or air-conditioning, canteens, cleaning, etc.). Moreover, removing the fixed daily start and finish times allows employees to better manage their time according to their preferences. They can enjoy long or short breaks for personal or family reasons, and they can adapt their work hours to changes in life circumstances without altering their compensation. This increases their satisfaction and work-life balance, which ultimately makes this arrangement desirable to workers. In parallel, firms may optimise by rewarding these employees based on effective productivity rather than on the particular hours worked. Firms may also gain from the retention of talent and the reduction of days of absence, thus increasing their competitiveness. Additionally, time flexibility in the labour market for all workers (men and women) contributes to reducing the rewards for long hours, working at particular hours and inflexible schedules, which are considered a major driver of gender pay gaps (Bertrand 2018). Such flexibility may thus represent a step towards the “last chapter of the grand gender convergence” (Goldin 2014).

On the other hand, smart working raises several concerns. Working outside the workplace may reduce the commitment of workers. Moreover, by reducing interactions between workers and between workers and supervisors, there is a risk of a reduction in productivity, particularly in jobs with high interactions. Finally, blurring the boundaries between work and home may increase the hours of overtime and the levels of employee stress and may worsen the work-life balance. 

In a recent paper (Angelici and Profeta 2020), we examine empirically how the introduction of smart working addresses this trade-off. We design a randomised experiment to study the causal effects of the introduction of smart working in a large, traditional company in the multi-utility sector in Italy. The company has never used any flexible working before. Following the methodology of randomised control trials (RCTs), we select a sample of 310 workers (containing both white- and blue-collar workers) and randomly divide it into two groups: the workers in the first group (the treatment group) have the option to work ‘smart’ (i.e. with no constraints on the place or time) one day per week for nine months, in agreement with their supervisors; the workers in the second group (the control group) continue to work traditionally. 

We are interested in three major outcomes along three dimensions: productivity, wellbeing and work-life balance. We use objective measures of workers’ performance calculated monthly by the firm (e.g. the number of dossiers processed during the month) and the number of days of leave taken by each worker. We complement this information with questionnaires administered to each worker and their supervisor both before and after the treatment. The questions capture several dimensions of self-assessed productivity, wellbeing and work-life balance. Given the randomisation of the two groups, we are able to identify the causal effect of the treatment on our outcomes of interest.

Our results show that, for the same number of hours of work, workers who engage in smart working increase their productivity compared to workers who continue working traditionally. This outcome holds whether productivity is captured by an objective measure or measured according to several specific productivity traits (e.g. compliance with deadlines) either self-reported by the worker or reported by the supervisor. 

Figure 1 shows the evolution of days of leave for the treatment and the control groups during the experiment. Workers in the treatment group take fewer days leave than those in the control group, and the difference increases after the first three months of the experiment. This suggests that the effects are not simply a positive reaction to the new work organisation. 

Figure 1 Days of leave taken during the nine months of the experiment

Smart workers are also more satisfied with their social life and with life in general. They claim to be more able to focus, make decisions, appreciate their daily activities, overcome problems and experience reduced stress and loss of sleep. The magnitude of the most interesting results is summarised in Table 1. 

Table 1 The effects of smart-working (average treatment effect)  

Note: The average treatment effect is obtained from OLS estimates which include individual controls: age, squared age, being a law 104 worker, having law 104 relatives (Law 104 gives the right to reduce the number of hours worked in presence of special care needs) having a child, having a young child (less than 3 years old), distance from home to the workplace in km, working in a team and the level of the dependent variable pre-treatment. See Angelici and Profeta (2020) for details. 

There are also interesting gender effects. First, men are found to spend more time engaged in household and care activities. This implies that, although not a gender policy, smart working helps increase the balance of roles within the family, which is an essential step towards gender equality. Second, some of the results are stronger for women: the reduction of days of leave is driven by women, as well as the higher satisfaction of smart workers with their working hours. 

Our results suggest that promoting smart working is an effective way to increase productivity and improve wellbeing and work-life balance. Moreover, we provide evidence that by removing the rigidity related to particular hours of work, smart working may contribute to the reduction of gender gaps in the labour market (Goldin 2014). 

Our study based on smart working for one day per week cannot be generalised to the current situation under the coronavirus pandemic, where workers are forced to work from home every day for a prolonged period. Interestingly, the current massive levels of unplanned, full-time use of smart working reveals that it is feasible both for routine and non-routine tasks and can be useful in emergency periods. It is, however, likely to produce consequences different from our study, especially on the sense of isolation of workers and their productivity. Yet we suggest that in normal times (for example, after the crisis), the use of smart working for a limited period of the work week can be beneficial. 


Angelici, M and P Profeta (2020), “Smart-working: Work flexibility without constraints”, Dondena Working Paper 137.

Bertrand, M (2018), “Coase lecture: the glass ceiling”, Economica 85(338): 205–231.

Bloom, N, J Liang, J Roberts and Z J Ying (2014), “Does working from home work? Evidence from a Chinese experiment”, The Quarterly Journal of Economics 130(1): 165–218.

Eurofound (2017), Working anytime, anywhere: The effects on the world of work.

Goldin, C (2014), “A grand gender convergence: Its last chapter”, American Economic Review 104(4): 1091–1119.

Gallup (2017), "State of the American workplace".

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Smart Working: revolutionary or evolutionary?

‘Smart Working’ is the term used “to refer to the new ways of working made possible by advances in technology and made essential by economic, environmental and social pressures” , and the Smart Working Handbook – from where this definition came – is available from  The handbook is readable, practical and contains good ideas on how to develop organizational Smart Working. 

The only quibble I have with the handbook is that it suggests both that Smart Working is ‘new’ – as in the definition – and that (in Chapter 3) we need ‘A new culture for 21st century working.’   My view is that Smart Working is not really so ‘new’ but is the current outcome of a steady, albeit accelerating, evolution over decades in the way work is done and to suggest it needs a ‘new’ culture belies the fact that culture is continuously evolving and does not to leap from ‘old’ to ‘new’.

To treat Smart Working as ‘new’ and to suggest that it means a new culture risks inviting shock, and resistance.  But to treat both work and culture as inevitably evolving enables people to participate in continuous development without too much thinking about it.

This article is in three parts.  First the view is presented that Smart Working has evolved to where it is over time.  Second the suggestion that in line with this aspects of organizational culture have similarly evolved.  Third the point is made that this is not to say that we should not intervene to nudge things towards getting the best from advancing technologies, and creative ways of deploying these.

Smart Working is not ‘new’  

When I first became a middle manager I got my own (very large) office and my own secretary (admin assistant).  This was around 25 years ago. As I rose up further up the ranks into grades of senior management and moved into various other organizations two things started to happen – the space I was given to occupy decreased with every job, and the amount of admin support I got simultaneously declined.  To the point that I now work from wherever I happen to be – l started writing this on an aircraft, and continued in several coffee shops and hotel lobbies (I am traveling at the moment), and do 95% of my own admin stuff.  Note that I am an employee and not self-employed so am not allowed to book my own travel – the corporate travel department does that.

This transition was nothing to do with shedding symbols of power and status as I rose up the hierarchy. My experience may not be typical but my tools for working have evolved – they haven’t jumped from old tools (carbon paper and manual typewriter) to new tools.  The evolution through word processers, to desktop computers, to laptops, to tablets, has been fairly steady although perhaps it has been accelerating in the last five years with the advent and increasing ubiquity of wireless access, cloud computing, smartphones,  and social media.

Similarly my methods of managing my workload have gradually developed. I now use things like OneNote, red flags on my email, task alerts, apps, and various electronic support tools.  Equally the way colleagues and I work together has evolved from face to face and phone to text and instant messaging, working on shared document through Google docs or similar, video conferencing, and WebEx or its equivalent. Meeting physically face-to-face is an increasing rarity.  

The way I’m being managed has also changed over time.  Now I largely self-manage but have to comply with various tracking requirements – time, expenses, and attendance at team meetings.  I am not quite sure who my manager is – I guess I will find out when someone tells me that he/she is going to do my performance review.  My experience is not unique. I have met many people at various organizational levels who report in a matrix structure to more than one manager, who are on project teams, and/or who are in self-managing teams.  None of these managerial reporting arrangements are ‘new’.

So I don’t think there is anything ‘new’ about Smart Working.  I think if we make a direct comparison between 25 years ago and now then things look new.  But if we track our actual experience we see an evolution in work tools, and techniques and of self and staff management. 

Smart-working does not mean a ‘new’ culture 

If we accept that the ways of working are not ‘new’ but simply an evolution of working practices then it makes sense to point out that organizational cultures have evolved in line with these.  (Although I have heard of some people who still ask their ‘secretaries’ to print out their emails).  The Smart Working Handbook lists ten key characteristics of a Smart Working culture: 

Higher levels of collaborative working – between individuals, between teams, with external partners and with the wider public The pursuit of continuous service improvements, in particular through the use of new technologies to increase efficiencies A commitment to flexibility – being constantly open to new ways of working and delivering services, avoiding temptations to try to “freeze” Smart Working into a rigid or prescriptive formula An emphasis on management by results rather than management by presence An emphasis on working in shared spaces and with shared resources, rather than with territorial or personalized ones  An emphasis on promoting higher levels of staff empowerment and autonomy, to maximize the benefits arising from the new working styles An emphasis on using new ways of working to assist employees achieve a better work-life balance A commitment to using new technologies and new ways of working to reduce the environmental impact of workstyles, processes and delivery of services A commitment to using new technologies and new ways of working to recruit, retain and develop a more diverse and inclusive workforce A culture of learning using the new technologies to help employees, wherever they are located, to develop their skills and capabilities and move forward in their careers.

Many of the ingredients of a Smart Working culture are not new in themselves.  Five of the ten – the ones not in bold in the list above - are best practice in many organisations that may still work in more traditional ways.  For example continuous service improvement is an ‘old’ idea, as is a ‘culture of learning’ - think back to the learning organization work.  The point is that this develops new characteristics in the context of work that is primarily electronic and footloose.

The five others (those in bold) could be attributed to the acceleration of technology and in particular web-based technologies, relatively recent developments in social expectations about work-life balance, and newish trends to cut the costs of real estate and energy use.  But in themselves they are not ‘new’ – again they are at a certain point in organizational evolution where for various reasons they have come into clearer focus.  The environmental impact debate (item 8) has been going on for many and is critical in relation to energy costs, government mandates, and economic conditions. 

However these ten (and this is probably only a partial list) are things that, depending on the business strategy, organizations might want to focus improvement efforts on.  Working in shared space is often one of these.  Again, working in shared space is not in itself ‘new’.  Increasingly offices are being laid out to an open floor plan with few if any private offices.  This means either letting people work out for themselves how to organize their work in the space, or working with them to develop ways of working effectively – knowing that what is decided now may well change in the future.  Either one of the approaches will have an effect on the cultural characteristics of the organization or a part of it.

Nudging cultural evolution

Think of  culture as being the ‘pervasive, implicit, subtle, complex and dynamic ways of community being that might be generalizable across an organization but are experienced individually and subjectively.’  

This suggests that culture is not easily ‘changed’ but might be amenable to being nudged or influenced.   In my experience nudging the culture is less about looking at the way people behave and more about making planned and conscious changes to business processes, performance management processes, allowed working patterns, incentive structures, facilities design and management, stakeholder interactions, and symbols of ‘entitlement’ in a way that will influence or nudge the way that people behave.  (For more on this approach look at the work of Cass Sunstein, a professor in the Chicago Law School who, with Richard Thaler, wrote Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness published in 2008).   

Let’s illustrate by returning to the item on shared space.  Many workers started to use individual headphones when they moved to shared space.  In most cases there was not been an initial conscious organizational decision related to headphone use.  Rather some people, probably irritated with ambient noise levels and interruptions, started to use headphones to blot these out.  This had an impact on cultural characteristics. Individuals using headphones may have been seen as ‘rude’ or ‘sensible’ or have invoked any number of other perceptions.  

If the uses of headphones spread to other workers there is likely to have been an organizational response:  a ban, an encouragement, a policy design and introduction, an ‘intervention’ in which team members decide protocols related to headphone use, or the blanket purchase and issuance of headphones to all staff.   In any of these responses there is a further impact on the cultural characteristics of the organization (or that part of it).  But again, it is evident that headphone use and their impact on the culture is not a leap from an ‘old’ culture to a ‘new’ culture, but rather an evolution.

In summary – the Smart Working Handbook is an excellent overview of the topic. My suggestion is that those working to extend the use of Smart Working practices avoid over-emphasizing its newness, but rather take the view and the approach that Smart Working is part of the evolution of working practices and job roles.  Taking the evolutionary approach is more likely to smooth the path to continuous capability improvement.  Trying to tackle Smart Working as something ‘new’ that also requires a ‘new culture’ may result in antagonism and resistance.


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Even Before Pandemic, Working Parents Struggled To Achieve The 'Dreams Of The Overworked'

It's no secret that parents are stressed out.

The fortunate ones are working remotely from home, trying to balance the needs of their jobs and their children being home 24/7. They are also facing the prospect that there will be limited or no in-person school again in the fall.

But as a new book points out, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, working parents were severely stressed: juggling the demands of careers, their families and their health, all with varying degrees of success.

In "Dreams of the Overworked: Living, Working, and Parenting in the Digital Age,” authors  Christine Beckman and Melissa Mazmanian studied nine families who are struggling to encapsulate what they call the three ideals: the ideal worker, the ideal parent and the ideal body.

“Doing any one of these things to our aspirations is nearly impossible. Work, debt demands are always escalating. Parenting demands are a bit unreasonable, we might say,” Beckman says. “And so these working parents are always trying to juggle and trying to achieve on these three dimensions.”

Technology also complicates these goals by making people more accessible, Mazmanian says. People try to use technology to make them better at achieving these three ideals.

“But in so doing, we find ourselves in this trap where we're connected all the time because we all expect that each other is at each other's beck and call in service of being a good parent or a good friend or a good colleague,” she says. “And so the expectations of availability and responsiveness really ratchet up.”

Beckman and Mazmanian conducted this study before the COVID-19 pandemic forced many working parents to work from home while juggling children going to school remotely.

“It was hard before to be a parent and to juggle a job, and now you're a teacher as well as a worker, and you're having to monitor like, are they getting their homework done? Are they on the right Zoom call?” Beckman says. “[It’s] the coordinating not just of your own life, but of their lives.”

Many workers are reporting an increase in productivity while working from home due to the absence of a commute, fewer distractions from coworkers and fewer meetings. But Mazmanian says people who report a negative impact on productivity are likely parents.

“These are real differences in who's able to thrive in the workplace right now,” she says, “and I think it's on all of us to try and make that visible and make sure that we are able to accommodate the complexity of people's lives in the workplace.”

The pandemic is also complicating how parents care for their children because social isolation is highlighting the invisible work that goes into coordinating kids’ schedules, Mazmanian says. Parents used to have “scaffolding” — grandparents, babysitters, friends — who helped care for their children.

“It's not the default that there's one person at home and doing all that invisible work and in charge of the home front, and the other person going to work and not worrying about it,” she says. “So the need for scaffolding has become stronger, and even now, I think hopefully we're beginning to realize how important it is.”

Beckman says organizations also need to step in to support our increasingly complex lives.

“If companies are going to save 30%, 40% of their income on office space because we don't have that anymore, maybe companies need to do more to support us at home,” she says.

Companies could provide in-home childcare, help pay for grocery delivery and house cleaning, Beckman says. In other words, funds to help support the scaffolding that parents need to keep their complex lives going.

Beckman says now more than ever, parents need to let themselves off the hook, especially as they face the possibility that their kids won’t go back to school in the fall.

“I think we need to recognize how impossible it is and give ourselves a break about what is it that we can really stay on top of and what are we just going to sort of let go,” she says. “I mean, I think the perfect parent myth was already always one that had too many things that any one person can do.”

Book Excerpt: 'Dreams of the Overworked'

By Christine Beckman and Melissa Mazmanian 

Nancy Huron’s day includes moments of joy, stress, productivity, and exhaustion. Nancy has a good job, happy children, close friends. At a fundamental level, she is privileged—and she knows it. Nancy feels like she “has it all.” And along almost any metric, she does. But her life is still a nonstop and intense grind.

Nancy’s life is driven by love for her children and her pride in her work. She tries to exercise and eat healthy food while maintaining a home. She craves downtime with friends, family, or occasionally just a People magazine. Nancy’s desires don’t seem unreasonable: work, parent, stay healthy, with a little bit of time to relax or socialize. So why does her life feel relentless (to her and us)?

"Dreams of the Overworked: Living, Working, and Parenting in the Digital Age," by Christine Beckman and Melissa Mazmanian. (Courtesy of Stanford University Press)

The answer is that Nancy’s life feels relentless because impossible dreams—shaped by the particular place and time in which she lives—leave Nancy and her colleagues, neighbors, and friends all living with unreasonable aspirations. In this book we tease apart the different and compounding expectations that motivate Nancy (and others like her) to strive for the impossibility of perfection. We examine what helps her get through the day—from the mobile devices that keep her in the loop, to the caregivers who watch her children so she can work a full-time job. The expectations—or myths—of perfection that haunt Nancy pervade current U.S. society, and create an image of the kind of person we all should strive to be.

The threads of expectation that anchor Nancy’s life in cycles of satisfaction and guilt, and tie her to others, emerge from the overriding narrative of three dominant cultural myths—the Ideal Worker, the Perfect Parent, and the Ultimate Body. Striving to be an Ideal Worker, Nancy drops off her kids at 7:00 a.m. every morning so that she can grab a coffee, catch up on email, and get to work prepared and on time. Nancy’s phone and laptop are her conduits to work during her “off hours,” and she uses them to show her colleagues that she is dependable, accessible, and at-the-ready. For example, when her boss emails her on a Sunday afternoon asking about the status of a project, she uses her phone to immediately tap out a quick reply—commenting wryly, “Well, good thing I got that done this morning.” Her devices allow her to keep up with incoming emails, stay on top of tasks, and maintain a sense of competency and control.

Nancy carries the satisfaction of acting like an Ideal Worker alongside the guilt of not being a Perfect Parent. A single mother, she adores her children and constantly asks herself how to give them the childhood she feels they deserve—comparing their lives to the “great” childhood she had with her mother, who stayed home. She makes a conscious effort to put down her phone and play with or read to the kids in the evenings. She monitors how much TV and iPad time they get and makes sure their homework is done. With the help of babysitters for transport, both kids engage in afterschool enrichment activities. Several nights a week a babysitter will pick the kids up from school and take them to karate or gymnastics. Nancy usually checks the refrigerator before running out the door in the morning and texts the babysitter about what to do for dinner during a break in her schedule of back-to-back meetings. Nancy expects the babysitter on duty to monitor homework, feed the kids dinner, and try to get them bathed before she gets home between 7:00 and 7:30 p.m. Some sitters are better than others, and she works hard to stay in the good graces of those who can keep her children on schedule. Nancy measures herself against the ideals of the Perfect Parent, and she pieces together what she can.

After experiencing a major health scare, Nancy struggles to fit in regular exercise. When she responds to requests from colleagues in late-night emails, her hopes for early morning exercise are dashed. She has to decide whether to trade off sleep for exercise. Whichever she chooses, the result is a feeling of guilt. Nancy also works hard to provide healthy meals for herself and her children. Once a week she gets together with her neighbor to prepare a home-cooked meal. These nights are about more than a healthy dinner. Both families look forward to these nights as a time to relax and socialize. But such nights take planning—and rely on the neighbor being a stay-at-home mom who can make the last-minute run to the grocery store. For Nancy it is hard to find time to shop, much less cook. She wants to care for her body but simply cannot fit any more into the day. The myth of the Ultimate Body is often a reminder to Nancy of where she’s falling short.

Nancy’s life is hectic. The pressures are constant. At multiple points over the three years we spent with her, Nancy declared that this was the most stressful time she had ever experienced. If she could just get through the next two days, or two weeks, or two months, things would calm down. Like the conductor of an unruly orchestra, Nancy is forever trying to bring into synch the yearly rhythms of work (quarters, annual budgets, the holiday sales season), school (summer camps, new teachers, holidays, standardized testing), and her body (sleep patterns, medical treatments, hunger, pressure to exercise) with the inevitable and unexpected snafus of everyday life (an unhappy client, a child breaking an arm, the supermarket reorganizing where they keep the cereal).

How does Nancy strive for these three myths of perfection? She relies on her phone, tablet, and laptop to get through the impossible days. With the help of her devices, Nancy expects to do more than a day’s worth of work, be available to more people than those she is with physically, and handle more demands than one person reasonably can. She expects this of herself and others expect it of her. And while technology might help in the moment, over the course of weeks, months, and years of using it to do more, it only intensifies the pressures.

The real answer as to how Nancy manages can be found in the people that she is connected to through her devices. We can see it in the time and energy she spends fostering supportive relationships with babysitters and teachers. We can see it in the relationship she has with her neighbor, who texts her multiple times a day: saying “hi,” offering to pick up something at the store, or sharing a recipe. This network of human support is often masked by technology’s emphasis on individually managed lives, but it is the thing that keeps people going, no less striving.

Excerpted from DREAMS OF THE OVERWORKED: LIVING, WORKING, AND PARENTING IN THE DIGITAL AGE, by Christine M. Beckman and Melissa Mazmanian, published by Stanford University Press. ©2020 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All Rights Reserved.

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Distance Working/Learning During a Pandemic: Pros and Cons

Earlier this year, the world changed forever with the COVID-19 outbreak. Businesses and schools temporarily shut down, and many employees and students were suddenly forced into a remote setting with little—or no—advance warning. Although some employees and students have thrived in this distance situation, others have struggled and continue to struggle. Amid continued uncertainty and a new school year just around the corner, this article explores the pros and cons of remote working and distance learning.

Earlier this year, the world changed forever with the COVID-19 outbreak. Businesses and schools temporarily shut down, and many employees and students were suddenly forced into a remote setting with little—or no—advance warning. Although some employees and students have thrived in this distance situation, others have struggled and continue to struggle. Amid continued uncertainty and a new school year just around the corner, this article explores the pros and cons of remote working and distance learning.

The end of the 2019/2020 school year brought some relief with the slower pace of summer and the hope that the pandemic would be contained by the fall, but there are now more questions than ever before. For some employees, flexible work conditions are more appealing than vacations, pay raises, and even retirement plans. Some people like to keep their personal lives separate from their work, but “compartmentalizing” can be nearly impossible when your workplace and your home base are one in the same. There are no easy answers, and the fluid nature of the pandemic situation means that any intended plans for the 2020/2021 school year could change in an instant. Introduction

Earlier this year, the world changed forever with the COVID-19 outbreak. Businesses and schools temporarily shut down, and many employees and students were suddenly forced into a remote setting with little—or no—advance warning.In the months that followed, everyone was left to play catch up as the pandemic raged on. Businesses scrambled to ensure that their now-remote employees were equipped to work from home, teachers struggled to continue the education process virtually, students grappled with distance learning, and working parents juggled remaining productive at their jobs with sharing more of the burden of educating and caring for their children—who were now under the same roof all day!

Many Questions…But Few Answers!

The end of the 2019/2020 school year brought some relief with the slower pace of summer and the hope that things would be cleared up by the fall, but anyone who has been following the news knows that there are now more questions than ever before. Will an effective vaccine for widespread use ever be developed? Is it even safe to return to school or work? Should states where COVID cases are increasing reverse their phased re-openings in the hopes of “re-flattening” the curve? What will school look like in the fall? Most people have settled into a normal-for-now routine that works for them, but the upcoming school year will undoubtedly bring a new set of challenges to working parents, teachers, businesses, and students alike. It’s enough to drive anyone nuts.

Even as the economy has started to reopen, subsequent spikes in COVID cases have caused some to wonder if US businesses will remain open for long. Although some employees who were suddenly forced into remote working without choice ultimately came to find that they really enjoyed it, others have truly struggled with the adjustment. What’s the best option for businesses? Sure, some employees might like working from home, but is a remote workflow optimal for morale and productivity? What about the employees that miss the normalcy of their old office-based nine-to-five lives?

Of course, education adds yet another layer of complexity to the equation, particularly with the start of another school year fast approaching. When remote learning was forced on students and teachers this past spring, some adjusted quickly and thrived under the new format. Unfortunately, this was not the case for everyone. Some teachers struggled to reach their students in a strictly virtual format, many children—particularly young children—did not respond well to learning from a screen, and working parents were caught in the middle of two worlds. On the one hand, they still needed to remain productive and produce quality work for their employers…but on the other hand, this was no easy task when their children were under the same roof and potentially struggling with the new education format.

Remote Working: The Pros

Once we had time to recover from the initial shock of dealing with a global pandemic, some people found that they quite enjoyed the remote working process. After a few weeks of stay-at-home orders, people were able to configure their home offices to their liking. Additionally, technology made it possible to collaborate and connect with others from a distance, and there was the added benefit of no commuting or preparation time—it was simply a matter of walking to one’s computer and starting the workday (even in pajamas or sweatpants)!

Even before the pandemic hit, remote working was already on the rise. Most employees appreciate the freedom to work at a location of their choosing (home, coffee shop, hotel, airport, etc.) with more flexible hours. There is also much to be said for escaping the monotony of the nine-to-five Monday-through-Friday office grind. For some employees, flexible work conditions are more appealing than vacations, pay raises, and even retirement plans. According to SmallBizGenius, businesses that permitted their employees to work remotely reported a 25% lower employee turnover rate than those that didn’t. Furthermore, people who work remotely at least once a month are 24% more likely to be happy and productive. Based on this research, remote working is a win-win situation for employees and businesses alike—employees enjoy more flexibility and an improved quality of life, and businesses enjoy the benefits of higher employee satisfaction and lower turnover.

Even as businesses are starting to reopen, some employees have come to appreciate the newfound freedom that remote working affords and would be reluctant to give it up. Many employees also believe that they are more productive at home because there are fewer office distractions. It’s also easy to save money on gas and food when you’re not driving into the office every day, stopping for coffee, and heading out for a sandwich at lunchtime. Although the economy has slowly started to reopen, most non-essential employees are still traveling to the office less frequently than they once did. Until the pandemic subsides, this trend will likely continue as businesses and employees strive to stay healthy and minimize exposure. Whereas some people prefer this new level of flexibility, others are truly struggling with the adjustment—which brings us to the “dark side” of today’s virtual world.

Remote Working: The Cons

COVID-19 prompted immediate action—meaning that businesses and employees were strong-armed into a remote working situation regardless of their unique situations or personal preferences. Granting employees the privilege to work remotely if they choose is one thing, but temporarily closing an office during a pandemic (and thereby forcing employees to work remotely) is entirely another. Meanwhile, school-age children were now stuck at home, too, creating a logistical nightmare for many working parents. Everyone knows that young children cannot be left alone at home—so unless they are able to secure childcare, many working parents will be forced to remain home as well (even if they would rather return to their physical offices). And if the last three months of the 2019/2020 school year taught us anything, it’s that having children at home is not conducive to a productive work environment. So while working from home might have fewer office distractions, the pandemic has created some major distractions of its own—close and continued proximity to family members as well as an inevitable disruption to a predictable routine.

Even some non-parents are not completely sold on the shift to a remote workflow. Children or not, it can be quite difficult to “compartmentalize” your life if your workplace and your home base are one in the same. Some people like to keep their personal lives separate from their work lives, and this can be nearly impossible when your office is literally steps away from the dinner table, your television, and other members of your household. Without a clear-cut start and end time, there is always a greater temptation to respond to one more e-mail or get sucked into another fire drill that requires immediate attention. Physical space creates more of a barrier, and although this challenge can be overcome, it takes a great deal of discipline when there’s no “leaving the office for the day.”

With major corporations like Google and Twitter relaxing their in-person work requirements, remote working seems to be the wave of the future. At the same time, however, it remains to be seen if this shift to virtual is sustainable or beneficial in the long term. According to a Twingate study of over 1,000 remote employees, remote employment during the pandemic has disrupted many employees’ work/life balance. Based on the results, 45% of employees reported attending more meetings during the pandemic than when working in the office, compared to 21% who attended fewer meetings. Furthermore, 40% had experienced mental exhaustion from video calls while working remotely.

Other issues include a lack of motivation, constant breaks in routine, and a feeling of isolation from the workplace culture. Video calls make it possible to see and hear another person, but some would argue that there’s no substitute for being in close physical proximity to co-workers. Body language can speak volumes, and people who thrive on social interactions will find that video calls lose a lot in translation. Granted, these pandemic times still necessitate face masks and social distancing, but hopefully these measures won’t be permanent. In time, it would be nice to see a return of the office banter and camaraderie that is impossible to replicate in a virtual setting.

Won’t Somebody PLEASE Think of the Children?

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t just turned our lives upside-down—it has affected our children as well. While it is certainly true that some students adjusted quickly to the push toward distance learning last spring and some actually thrived in the virtual format, this was not the case for all (or even most) students. According to the EdWeek Research Center, two-thirds to three-quarters of teachers stated that their students were less engaged during remote instruction than they had been before the pandemic, and that engagement declined even further over the course of the 2020 semester.

A new school year is right around the corner, but all indications are that the coming fall semester will be unlike any other. Many districts remain reluctant to implement a concrete plan, even at this late date. Despite evidence that distance learning is not always effective, some schools are considering an all-virtual approach. Still others are leaning toward a “hybrid” approach that combines distance and in-person learning. Although this might alleviate some of the issues with students who don’t respond well to remote schooling, families will likely still struggle because they’ll need to deal with the complications of alternate education locations and formats as well as little consistency from one day to the next. As noted earlier, either situation will create a logistical nightmare for working parents. Additionally, some parents who are struggling with working remotely are also raising young children who are struggling with learning virtually—Unfortunately, I’m speaking from personal experience here!

The Bottom Line

With so many questions remaining unanswered and so much uncertainty about the future, it is anyone’s guess what the coming months will bring for our personal and professional lives. Although the pandemic will likely cause long-standing or even permanent changes to the world as we know it, everyone has a different opinion about the ideal situation. Some employees thrive in a mostly or completely remote setting, whereas others crave the normalcy and predictability of the traditional nine-to-five life. Some parents have embraced distance learning, while others remain concerned about their children’s education and emotional well-being. There are no easy answers, and the fluid nature of the pandemic situation means that any intended plans could change in an instant.

One thing is for certain, though—to succeed as workplaces of tomorrow, businesses will need to be nimble enough to accommodate all their employees’ preferences, however complicated this may be. The same employment policies that might be seen as benefits to some employees will likely be viewed as detrimental to others, especially if they are trying to make the best decisions for other family members too. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to keeping your employees happy, so it’s important to remain as flexible and accommodating as possible as we move through the pandemic and beyond.

Eve Padula is a Senior Editor/Writer for Keypoint Intelligence – InfoTrends’ Production Services with a focus on Business Development Strategies, Customer Communications, and Wide Format. She is responsible for creating and distributing many types of InfoTrends content, including forecasts, industry analysis, and research/multi-client studies. She also manages the writing and editing cycles for many types of deliverables.

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Why workplace learning matters more than ever

Often seen as a nice-to-have, workplace learning and professional development are now gaining importance as organisations’ best shot at retaining happy staff and staying competitive

The idea of working from home may conjure up images of dishevelled, tracksuited executives. But the home has actually become the epicentre of a reskilling revolution that may just save businesses from a coronavirus-induced collapse.

Corporate learning providers such as LinkedIn Learning, Circus Street and Hive Learning are all reporting a spike in usage, as an overwhelming array of new business challenges puts pressure on teams to embrace remote training methods and professional development.

On LinkedIn Learning, more than four million hours of content was consumed globally in March alone. Hive Learning has seen a 20 per cent increase in logins since lockdown began and Circus Street has noted not just a 64 per cent increase in weekday learning, but an unprecedented 500 per cent increase on Saturdays.

Skills gaps that the World Economic Forum had already outlined a need to bridge, such as digital and data literacy, have now become unnegotiable. Meanwhile ecommerce and digital marketing tactics like search engine optimisation and pay-per-click advertising have risen to the fore as traditional sales and marketing channels have become less viable.

But remote-learning patterns are also showing the personal impact of balancing home and work in one place. On LinkedIn Learning, demand for stress management and remote-working content tripled in March, while Hive Learning responded to an unprecedented need for programs on resilience, wellbeing and leadership.

“There is a real drive at the moment to ensure teams are receiving the right content to support their wellbeing,” says Hive Learning’s chief executive Julia Tierney. “For example, I heard the chief human resources officer of Mastercard speak about how the way companies support their people as the way they will be remembered long after this crisis. A huge impact will be mental health and wellbeing issues, so companies want to know their people will be OK.”

Online learning the new normal for remote workers

Learning and development teams are now fast-tracking multi-year digital program rollouts to meet this unanticipated scenario.

“We’ve found this time an interesting opportunity to make shifts in the organisation that we’ve been wanting to for a while,” says Tanya Bagchi, group talent and people development director at Legal and General (L&G).

“What COVID-19 has done has taken the horizon that we saw being six, twelve, twenty-four months away to now. Suddenly a lot of the barriers have come away.”

Yet companies are all too aware of the reality of screen fatigue caused by an overreliance on remote training methods, potentially pushing professional development off the to-do list.

To keep engagement and motivation up, L&G has introduced offline “missions” to consolidate and complement remote-training methods, as well as team-oriented communities to foster more efficient problem-solving and collaboration.

This has proven particularly effective among senior leaders, according to L&G’s head of development experiences and innovation Gemma Paterson.

“We have over 300 people in that community now who are collaborating, sharing and accessing resources,” she says. “That’s something we might have got to at the end of 2020, but we’ve been able to do that in a couple of weeks.”

Engaging remote teams through renewed learning

Pharmaceutical multinational Sanofi has brought its learning into the 21st century through innovations such as content targeting powered by artificial intelligence, curated playlists and podcasts developed by both internal and external experts. This culminated in the launch of the Sanofi University in March, accompanied by a company-wide challenge to achieve one million hours’ learning by June. At just one month in, they were already halfway there.

“Like a lot of big organisations, Sanofi previously had a push culture around learning and wasn’t very digital. A lot of the learning solutions available weren’t necessarily visible,” says Jason Hathaway, Sanofi’s global head of learning transformation.

“The fact that the launch of Sanofi University came at the same time as this crisis, when people were at home, increased visibility of the offerings that were strategic for capability building for Sanofi. Now people have one place where they can acquire the skills they need.”

Varied content formats may be keeping screen fatigue at bay, but crucially it is leadership that is driving unity and energy across the Sanofi business.

“When our CEO launches a challenge to the organisation saying ‘let’s do this together’, that really creates a sense of togetherness,” Hathaway adds.

Matching training content with business impact

Measuring the business impact of learning has long been a challenge, but the surge in uptake of remote-training methods is now arming teams with a wealth of data.

“The more we do virtually, the simpler measurement becomes because you can use analytics to understand how people are interacting with content,” explains Paterson.

“It’s about measuring how well we are able to solve the problems we have and are going to have. Have we got the right line manager capability? Have we got the capability to work remotely in an agile way? Moving more online makes that simpler.”

If learning doesn’t become part of the day-to-day… you won’t be able to survive in the next ten years

Building a digitally capable organisation and digitally minded leaders is now weighing high on strategic priorities not just for L&G, but businesses across industries if they are to make it to the other side of the COVID-19 crisis intact.

But with professional development budgets often seen as discretionary, businesses need to recognise the role it plays in their ability to adapt and thrive, according to Chris Daly, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

“Senior leadership teams need to be analysing the impact of any delay in implementation, to consider the risk to organisational performance, talent retention and morale,” he cautions.

Remote learning is now business critical

With no end in sight to the new home-working default, Circus Street chief executive Richard Townsend says many businesses are giving learning a more senior voice within their leadership.

“We are now seeing more direct engagement from heads of business in terms of what’s happening in learning and seeing it as business critical and fundamental for them to hit their goals,” he says.

“If learning doesn’t become part of the day-to-day, rather than something you bolt on to the side, you won’t be able to survive in the next ten years.”


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3 Keys to Successful Learning in the Remote Workplace

The remote workplace is here to stay. According to Global Workplace Analytics, approximately 20 to 25 percent of the U.S. workforce teleworks at least part time, and 80 to 90 percent of workers say they would like to do so. Another survey found that the ranks of regular work-at-home employees have grown by 103 percent since 2005, with nearly four million employees now working from home at least half time.

The challenge to companies is how to continue to carry out the critical mission of learning in a non-traditional workplace atmosphere. There are three interrelated themes that can have a special significance for training a remote workforce: engagement, collaboration and performance support.

These themes are the key success drivers for an effective learning and development function. Often, they also represent key challenges when training a remote workforce. And while organizations need to address these success drivers in their own way, there are a variety of principles, methods and tools organizations can leverage to great effect.


Engagement is a key factor in any learning environment and has a significant impact on learner motivation and effort. But this engagement can be more challenging in distance learning than in live instructor-led training. Review the current state of your distance learning; more often than not, we find that a majority of distance learning is passive, using tools like readings, videos, lectures and presentations. Consider how you can enhance remote learning with more active tools, such as discussion, debate, problem-solving and role-playing. Integrating more active learning events is an effective way to engage distance learners.

One useful strategy is to intersperse activities between learning events using a web conference, chat room or forum. This strategy not only helps establish dialogue among learners, but it can also enhance acquisition of knowledge, clarify concepts and promote shared understanding.


Collaboration is an essential characteristic of healthy organizations. Cultures that drive collaborative practices among individuals, teams and functions are more likely to see greater communication, alignment and overall success. However, in many cases, training continues to emphasize individual learning activities, performance and achievement.

The normal isolating effects of this type of training can be exacerbated for employees who work remotely. Review your learning plan and identify outcomes that, for remote employees, would be improved by collaboration. Develop virtual learning events that bring remote and on-site employees together. Design a learning plan that uses team-based learning goals and encourages and rewards collaboration.

Use all the tools at your disposal, including web conferencing, chat rooms, social platforms or other shared virtual spaces. While segregating remote and on-site employee training events may seem more operationally efficient, consider the impact it has on remote individuals who could benefit from more direct interaction.

Performance Support

Job training, in many cases, begins and ends with a series of live or asynchronous formal training events. But seldom does an individual build expertise through instruction alone. Practice, remediation and coaching are critical components that, over time, provide the performance support learners need to achieve success. Often, performance support is achieved not through intentional design but through natural interaction with peers and supervisors, due in large part to proximity. This type of support is at risk as organizations continue to increase remote staffing.

It is essential to design systems for performance support and integrate them into training plans. For remote employees, ensure that there are structured, frequent touch-points and coaching sessions. Like any other form of training, it is more effective if these events are designed around a specific, observable outcome.

Leaders and coaches also need to be visible, available and responsive to your remote staff. Online tools with live chat capabilities are widely available and can easily and effectively support real-time remediation and guidance. For those coaches and leaders whose schedules do not provide the necessary flexibility, designate some structured time each week for office hours, and invite your staff to use that time for feedback and coaching.

Take a step back and review your existing training and development plan. Does it address the specific needs of your remote workforce? If not, communicate with this talent segment. Listen to their needs and concerns, and consider how you could address those factors in the context of engagement, collaboration and performance support.

Leveraging a remote workforce can offer tremendous results. It affords the opportunity to push past traditional barriers and focus on acquiring the right talent. Ultimately, organizations are about people, and their success lies in the effectiveness and engagement of these people.

A thoughtful transition to remote learning is more critical now than ever. Download the training delivery toolbox to learn about the pros and cons of various virtual training modalities and when each is most applicable.

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Five Ways To Work Better And Smarter In This Remote Era

Marketing Leader at PwC and an innovative executive at the crossroads of marketing, media and technology.

The jury is still out on how and when this epidemic will end, but this much is certain: For many, work has changed for good. My company conducted a CFO survey and found that nearly half of U.S. companies plan to make remote work a permanent option for roles that allow it. Many business leaders also said they’ll accelerate automation and new ways of working in response to the novel coronavirus crisis. With fewer on-site workers, more than a quarter of companies are already planning smaller real estate footprints. 

I’m lucky that I work for a company that had already invested heavily in combining tech, culture and skills to make successful new ways of working. Here are five principles that help me empower my team to perform better as we emerge from this crisis.

1. Make remote work more productive work. 

Even on-site, your employees weren't working nonstop. One study found an average office worker spends less than three hours a day on productive tasks. 

Research continues to highlight the benefits of working remotely — from more satisfied and focused employees to massive savings at the gas pump and in commute time. Thanks to new tech and tools, location is irrelevant, and your team won’t miss a beat — but it goes far beyond video calls and emails. Cloud-based tools enable my team, spread across the U.S. and Mexico, to seamlessly collaborate, develop and hone marketing campaigns, each from their laptop. Cloud-based data analytics (powered by artificial intelligence) also help us remotely track campaigns, adjust and customize, and develop new ideas as a team.

To use these tools well, most people need training, but thanks to digital upskilling apps, you can do that remotely too.

2. Create a culture to make autonomy work.

On my team, once we’ve set strategy and smart goals — and woven in a blend of business, experience and technology to generate big ideas and boost productivity by working smarter, faster and better, regardless of location — it’s up to everyone to decide how to do their part. What if my creatives have their best ideas at 3 a.m. while doing headstands? Great. I just want to see results (and maybe a video of that headstand). 

For this autonomy to work, you need a culture that not only fosters responsibility, but also teamwork and empathy. When one of my reports lost a family member during the heart of the pandemic, her co-workers immediately offered to fill in for her. With the help of mobile tech and their already constant collaboration, it happened seamlessly, allowing her to take the time she needed with her family and to be confident that she had the support system at work. 

This mixture of autonomy and team spirit is also a powerful recruiting tool, as Bill Gates has called out. Talented professionals like flexible work options: Even before this crisis hit, 69% said it was one of the most important factors when considering a job offer. Yet, most want a sense of community too. After all, your people are your greatest resource — treat them that way, and it will pay off in spades.

3. Make their trust in you your superpower.

During this epidemic, who do your employees trust? Look in the mirror. It’s you. Around the world, workers trust their employer most — 27 points above the government and media outlets.

Build on that trust. First, keep earning it through actions that put your employees' physical and mental well-being first. Second, communicate, and then communicate more. My firm’s U.S. chair and senior partner holds a weekly webcast to discuss our status as an organization and promote resources for physical and emotional health. Even though we’re a giant firm, he always leaves time to answer questions on employees’ minds — and he leads with empathy and compassion.

When your workers trust you have their backs and are honest about your company’s situation, they’ll be motivated to work, even in their pajamas.

4. Offer ways to step back, reflect and contribute.

Often the best ideas come from the toughest times. Give your team members ways to process the stress and discuss what problems they can solve — for customers and themselves. When you run a big team, empower the leaders of smaller groups to step back, take a pause and help boost creativity.

For example, one of my colleagues helped lead a video session on how to manage pressure (it involved yoga-inspired shoulder exercises and yelling frustrations into a pillow). Weekly inspiration calls, where everyone can brainstorm in a mockery-free zone, is another example. Our digital team also recently held a "Golden Spatula" competition: Everyone made their favorite brunch and shared photos of their culinary concoctions.

By encouraging a creative break from the stress and a sense of comfort, even the wackier of these processes help ideas bubble up. Just think: What would make you feel more energized and engaged? A friendly cook-off — or sitting through a droning slideshow?

5. Make it last.

These have been stressful and tragic times, but some changes will be for the better. When we asked corporate finance chiefs what would make their companies stronger over the long run, their second most popular choice was flexibility (only “better resiliency and agility” scored higher). But for work flexibility to work, you need to commit to it for the long run: Don’t offer a taste of coveted flexibility and then pull it off the table. Invest in the right tools, culture, trust and creativity. 

Get those elements right, and you’ll have a major competitive advantage — and a happy, productive team.

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Quarter of large firms now calculating ethnicity pay gap, research suggests

Survey also finds two in five plan to crunch race pay data within three years as pressure mounts on the government to honour its promise for mandatory reporting

Almost a quarter (23 per cent) of large companies are now calculating their ethnicity pay gap, research released today reveals – a jump from just one in 20 (5 per cent) in 2018 – despite the government so far failing to act on plans to make ethnicity pay gap reporting mandatory.

Two in five (40 per cent) respondents also said they planned to start doing so within the next three years.

The survey, conducted by PwC, polled 100 companies that collectively employ more than one million people, and found that one in 10 (10 per cent) firms were now voluntarily publishing their ethnicity pay gap figures, up from just 3 per cent two years ago, even though they are not legally required to do so.

dditionally, two-thirds (67 per cent) of respondents said they were now collecting and recording data around their workforce’s ethnicity, up from just over half (53 per cent) in 2018. 

According to the research, a lack of data is cited as the main reason for not calculating ethnicity pay gap, and perceived obstacles to obtaining the data included GDPR restrictions and unease over how to ask questions around race and ethnicity.

Seven in 10 (70 per cent) respondents said they were planning new initiatives to encourage more staff to voluntarily share their ethnicity data.

PwC is one the few companies that publishes its ethnicity pay gap, which currently stands at 35 per cent.

Laura Hinton, its chief people officer and member of the executive board, said: “It’s not been straightforward and the results are often stark reading – but that’s the point. Ultimately, our pay gap is improving year on year but we still have work to do.”

Jason Buwanabala, HR consulting actuary and data scientist at PwC, commented: “In order to address inequalities caused by systemic and structural biases, organisations should be looking across the entire employee experience to ensure fairness in areas such as recruitment, progression and attrition – and data is critical here.”

Responding to the survey findings, Sandra Kerr, race director at Business in the Community, said: “These figures are the clearest case yet for mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting. This new data shows that only 10 per cent of companies are disclosing their ethnicity pay gap voluntarily, and gender pay gap reporting has shown that government intervention is the only thing that can ever really move the dial.”

The government has committed to making annual ethnicity pay reporting mandatory for companies that employ more than 250 people, mirroring the requirements for gender pay.

But two years after it released a consultation into its plans, further developments have yet to materialise, and more than 130,000 people signed a petition earlier this year calling on the government to make ethnicity pay reporting mandatory.

BITC, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the TUC and the CIPD are among a large number of organisations backing the demands.

A CIPD spokesperson said forcing firms to report on ethnicity pay will “help shine a light on race inequalities and galvanise employer action to address these”.

They added: “For those organisations that are struggling with issues like a lack of data, encouraging buy-in from the organisation and employees is crucial to meaningful reporting. Building up employee trust will take time, and it is vital to explain why the information is being collected, how it will be used and who will have access to it.”

Dawn Moore, group people director at construction firm J Murphy & Sons, which intends to start reporting its ethnicity pay gap next year, said: “You have to work from the ground up; work with those employees who have given you the data to get better insight into why your ethnicity pay data might say certain things. Most of the causes I find are cultural, behavioural, etc and they won’t be resolved by relooking at your pay scales or anything like that. They will tend to be resolved by addressing leadership behaviours.”

Data is part of a bigger picture that needs to be looked at, according to Binna Kandola, co-founder and senior partner at Pearn Kandola and author of Racism at Work.

“Reporting itself is not a solution to the problem. However, having greater transparency will make a difference, and even bigger change will occur if people are held accountable for closing the gap. At this moment in time we have very little transparency and no accountability. A recipe for things not changing," he said.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy did not respond to a request for comment

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Number of female board executives remains ‘stubbornly low’

Experts warn women are still not being given ‘serious’ roles despite significant progress on non-exec positions, and call on HR to hold firms accountable

A record number of women on boards is failing to translate into genuine equality in senior roles, a report has found, warning of institutionalised sexism and tokenistic appointments.

The report, published by Cranfield School of Management and EY, found that despite significant progress made in the number of non-executive directors on FTSE 100 boards, this did not translate to a corresponding increase in the number or executive positions going to women, which remained “stubbornly low”.

In the FTSE 100, less than one in seven executive director roles (13.2 per cent) were held by women in June this year, with women filling just five out of 100 chief executive roles. The situation was worse in the FTSE 250, where just 11.3 per cent of executive director roles were held by women.

Additionally, between 2019 and 2020 the percentage of FTSE 100 committees chaired by women fell from 31 per cent to 29 per cent, despite the overall number of committees increasing. And there were just eight FTSE 100 boards chaired by women in June 2020.

This is despite an overall improvement in the representation of women on boards. Women now account for a record 40.8 per cent of non-executive directors in the FTSE 100, and 37.6 per cent of non-executive directors in FTSE 250 firms.

Sue Vinnicombe, professor of women and leadership at Cranfield and lead author of the report, described the numbers of women at executive director level as “pitiful”, and told People Management this lack of representation indicated firms were making tokenistic appointments. “We’ve got all these appointments of women to boards and yet we don’t seem to give them serious jobs,” she said.

“You've got nearly 300 women sitting on the boards of the FTSE 100 and yet only eight of them are chairs. There’s no excuse for that. We’ve now got well over 40 per cent of [non-executive directors] across the FTSE 100 who are women, and yet we’ve still only got eight women chairs. So what does that speak of?” she said. “My worry is that this is all about symbolic appointments."

Vinnicombe raised concerns that institutionalised sexism was blocking women from progressing. Businesses now have a large talent pool of experienced female non-executive directors to draw from, she said, yet “we still aren’t capable of appointing them as chairs, so there has to be something wrong with the appointment process”.

HR was “crucial” to fixing this, Vinnicombe said. People professionals should collect quality data to hold managers accountable, create the tools and training to tackle bias, and “provide the challenge and the feedback to constantly push forward,” she said.

But, she added: “We do have to be careful to put in perspective the progress we have made. We have made progress, but there is a great variance underneath that.”

Across the FTSE 100, 34.5 per cent of director seats – both executive and non-executive – were held by women, up from 32 per cent the previous year. Similarly in the FTSE 250, 31.9 per cent of board roles were held by women, up from 27.3 per cent.

But the report noted there was “quite a lot of variance” among firms. Only 63 per cent of FTSE 100 firms and 53 per cent of the FTSE 250 had reached the Hampton Alexander Review target of having 33 per cent of seats held by women.

Within the FTSE 100, Severn Trent and Taylor Wimpey had the highest proportion, with 56 per cent of their board female. Meanwhile, Bunzl had the lowest, with just 17 per cent.

The report also warned that coronavirus “[threatened] to reverse gender equality progress”, and that “the unequal burden of care placed on working women during the lockdown [would] exacerbate already existing gender inequalities and the gender pay gap”.

Arun Batra OBE, partner at EY and chief executive of the National Equality Standard, said HR teams needed to take “proactive steps” to improve representation. This included by “getting forensic with their talent lifecycle and examining how they interact with recruiters to identify talent. 

“These steps will be crucial to strengthening the pipeline and getting more women into senior board roles,” said Batra.

Responding to the report’s findings, Charlotte Woodworth, gender equality campaign director at Business in the Community, said achieving the Hampton Alexander goal of 33 per cent representation would be a “hollow victory if businesses still [failed] to see the bigger picture”. 

“It is hugely disappointing that this report reveals barriers to women taking on senior roles are still firmly in place,” she said.

This sentiment was echoed by Sophie Walker, chief executive of the Young Women’s Trust. “Women are tired of seeing reports pointing out that firms with more women at senior level post higher profits, but not seeing those jobs appear in reality,” she said, adding: “It makes good business sense to do this work, and at pace.”

The career progression challenges facing women were also highlighted by new figures released yesterday (24 September) by business diversity specialists INvolve and the HR Data Hub. They revealed that 77 per cent of people with salaries over £73,000 were men, and 56 per cent of those paid up to £17,000 a year were women. 

Suki Sandhu, founder and CEO of INvolve, commented: “Despite the many initiatives to address gender inequality, it’s clear that there is still a shocking lack of women in senior positions which continues to drive a significant gender pay gap.”

He added: “‘With the delays to reporting on the gender pay gap this year, coupled with the negative impact of Covid-19 on pay equality, it’s vital that we continue to push for change.

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Equity and impact in online learning

We shouldn't lose sight of the impact of learning in the 'new normal', says Andy Moss

As countries and organisations around the world begin to emerge from lockdown and contemplate life with Covid, our inboxes and newsfeeds are awash with views on what this means for learning and development.

Most commentators agree that online solutions will be ever more important in this new normal – as organisations realise they can continue to work remotely, or simply that they need to be ready to switch quickly – to be ‘Hiflex’ to borrow a term from higher education – if we’re hit by a second wave of lockdowns (as we’re seeing now in South Korea).

For those of us working in elearning, it means it’s going to be a very busy time. And I’d argue it also places a great responsibility on us: to ensure that the learning programmes we help design and build are as accessible and effective as they can be. 

Most commentators agree that online solutions will be ever more important in this new normal

So I’ve been really surprised that two key themes - equity and impact - have been largely absent from the conversation to this point.


Long before any of us had heard of Covid-19, social-distancing and the like, we were already facing huge challenges around access to learning and development.

The Missing Millions report found that over a quarter (26%) of respondents had not had any training for at least a decade. Older workers, and those from lower socio-economic groups have been disproportionately affected by this lack of training investment.

As we rise to the challenge of Covid-19, building programmes that allow employers and learners to upskill and reskill, we have a golden opportunity to put equity at the heart of our response. 

To do that, our learning strategies need to place real weight on accessibility, ease of use, quality of experience, and support for different learning styles – to allow learners to self-pace, to step on and off programmes to meet caring responsibilities, and to work across all devices - to meet learners where they are, not where we want them to be.

Get this right, and we’ll open up learning opportunities for more and more people. And we’ll also help drive the second critical element of our elearning response: measurable impact.


Several years ago I was told by someone far wiser and more experienced that impact would remain the ‘holy grail’ in learning and development – an almost mystical concept that slips through your fingers whenever you try to grab hold of it.

But to me this over-complicates the opportunity. Ask two simple questions at the outset of any course design, and we’ll make huge and immediate strides:

First, what outcomes do we want to achieve? This sounds so obvious, but can we always say, hand on heart, that we sat back and really defined – I mean really defined – the exact skill, behaviour or mindset we want learners to gain from our programme?

Second, what information or data can and will we collect to show that we’re succeeding in delivering those outcomes? In my experience, this is where you can get tied in knots if you’re not careful – perfection is the enemy of progress. Often we have more than enough data in our hands, we just don’t use it or link it in ways that can be used.


About the author

Andy Moss is managing director, Corporate Learning at City & Guilds Group.

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How to reduce stress and maintain a work-life balance while working from home

The Mental Health Foundation’s 2018 Stress: Are we coping? report found that 74% of people in the UK have at some point felt overwhelmed and unable to cope with stress. How people react to stress is unpredictable and unique. It can negatively affect an individual’s physical and psychological health as well as their efficiency and effectiveness. If not dealt with, stress can lead to ill health, burnout and in some cases, psychological and physiological issues.  

The CIPD’s annual Good Work Index report shows that as the COVID-19 crisis was about to hit the UK, the impact of work on mental wellbeing was already a cause for concern. The survey of more than 6,000 workers found that the number of people saying work has a positive impact on their mental health had fallen from 44% to 35%. Of those who’d experienced anxiety in the last year, 69% said their job was a contributing factor. Of those who’d experienced depression, 58% said the same was true. 

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, it was easier to distinguish work-related stress from personal stress. Now that many employees are working from home, the boundaries are more blurred. Employers need to recognise the additional stress individuals are under. The CIPD’s Health and Well-being at Work report shows that mental ill health is the major cause of long-term absence from work. Considering the risk of COVID-19, it is important that employers support individuals as much as possible to manage their stress levels. 

The impact of rapid change 

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the significant change of pace, stress has increased for many people. The CIPD’s Good Work Index snapshot survey, carried out following the COVID-19 outbreak, confirms this. Forty-three per cent of workers with a mental health condition and 29% of those with anxiety said the pandemic has contributed to or worsened their condition.   

Change in itself can cause stress as it introduces a variety of uncertainty. The level of uncertainty that individuals are facing due to COVID-19 has increased substantially. 

COVID-19 has brought about very rapid change giving us little time to adjust. It was less than a week from announcement to realisation of the closure of schools and lockdown. This in itself causes a lot of stress and emotional turmoil.  

Lack of control 

An important COVID-19 related stressor is the limited control we have over our environments and lives. In a few days, we lost control over: 

how we work  how we shop  how we exercise  how we socialise  how we keep in contact  how we learn   how our children learn. 

For many the changes have been even more fundamental, having sadly lost loved ones, jobs and homes.  

Many of us are trying to juggle working from home in environments that are not necessarily ‘fit for purpose’. Due to the fast pace of change, many employees were asked to work from home without the necessary health and safety risk assessments or the right equipment.  

Working from home has led many people to rely on new technologies, including communication tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. As the CIPD’s report People and machines: from hype to reality highlights, these technologies can allow us to work much more effectively. However, when we rely on them and encounter glitches or unintended consequences they can become a real stressor.  

During this particularly challenging time, many of us are trying to home school our children, shop for vulnerable family or friends, and at the same time, attempt to rediscover a feeling of ‘control’ over our lives. This may be an unachievable task and can cause high levels of stress. We should be careful not to set ourselves impossible targets, as this will build on stress levels and reinforce feelings of failure and guilt. Employers and people managers should be mindful of the expectations they place on employees, maintain regular communication to check how they are coping and provide health and wellbeing support wherever possible. 

Research has indicated that the feeling of being out of control or overwhelmed significantly impacts our levels of stress. The opposite is also true: trying to gain some level of control can relieve stress. Knowing how to manage the factors that can cause stress is key to staying healthy during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Tips for managing stress when working from home 

1. Recognise your priorities 

Recognise that we are all individuals. What causes your neighbour or colleague stress may have no impact on you. How you react to a stressor depends on various elements which are unique to the individual, such as a person’s ability to cope, situation-based pressures, availability of resources and their level of proficiency. The first step in avoiding stress is to recognise your reaction to stressors, for example, noise at home, internet connectivity problems, lack of exercise. 

You must identify what is important to you during these unprecedented times and prioritise that. This will vary, depending on your unique circumstances and approach to life. It is fine if your list is different from that of your colleague, or your partner or friend. You can gain control by being clear with yourself on your top priorities 

2. Figure out how to work around others in your household 

If you're working from home and have to juggle other responsibilities that don’t normally interfere with your ability to work, such as caring responsibilities, looking after pets or sharing your workspace with housemates, attempt to organise your work where possible to fit around the elements you can control. If you have young children, they have their needs, and the compromise will have to come from you. If you have to write a report, for example, choose a time that works around them, such as first thing in the morning, before they get up, or in the evening when in bed. If you have to attend meetings, try, where possible, to give your child/children a task to focus on in a different room or space in the house.  

3. Streamline your work responsibilities 

Many friends have shared their frustration that their workloads have increased significantly as a result of COVID-19. Suddenly, meetings are set up with people you never met with before. We are bombarded with COVID-19 related changes; emails, meetings, phone calls, WhatsApp messages. You need to prioritise which are essential meetings to attend and which are duplications. Do you need the same update from the CEO, the operations director and your line manager? Is this an efficient use of your time? If you attended the meeting, do you also need to read the three different email streams that follow? Do you need to respond to an email, or is it merely an update? 

4. Manage your work platforms 

This is perhaps one of the most common contributors to stress and anxiety, and one which is completely within your control. Now that many of us are working from home, there are multiple ways we are communicating with work colleagues. The days of email and face-to-face meetings are a distant memory. Many of us are juggling multiple chat functions – Yammer, WhatsApp work groups, Microsoft Teams – in addition to email, meetings and actually doing our jobs. It’s no wonder many of us feel overwhelmed. Don’t let yourself be ruled by constant updates on WhatsApp, Microsoft Teams, and the endless schedules of Zoom meetings etc., as this leads to FOMO and anxiety. Instead, choose what you need to be involved with and limit what you engage with accordingly. 

5. Build exercise into your routine 

It isn’t news that exercise boosts not only our immune systems, but also our mental health, which can reduce stress. With fitness centres closed, you don’t have to stop exercise. Simply adapt how you do this. Go for socially distanced runs or bike rides with your housemates, or dust off your old tennis rackets and play a game in a local park. If you have children, exercise together. This can be as easy as kicking a ball around or going for a walk within government guidelines. This way all the family’s needs are met when it comes to exercise. Exercise can also be a great opportunity to get a break from the home environment. If you are not able to easily access outdoor space to enjoy exercise, there are many TV programmes or games that encourage exercise in a fun way. 

6. Eat healthily 

With lockdown restrictions in place, meal preparation and any tidying up that follows can feel overwhelming and never-ending. The compromise when rushed or busy is often to opt for convenience meals, which tend to have higher fat and salt content. Staying healthy is critical during a pandemic and healthy eating can have both physical and mental health benefits. Share food preparation duties with other members of your household where possible. If you have children, it is an opportunity to keep them busy while learning an important life skill. Using these interventions will share the workload, keep children learning and be rewarding when a nice meal is prepared.  

7. Shop smart 

Doing the grocery shopping has in itself become stressful. Masks, gloves, social distancing, one-way systems, hand gel… it is a miracle just to remember the credit card. To limit the infection risk, we all try to minimise our exposure outside of the home. Online shopping directly from a supermarket, although a great solution for saving time and limiting infection risk, has become very difficult to secure. Consider other options such as food boxes with fresh ingredients and recipes pre-ordered and delivered to your doorstep. This allows for an element of control and security. There are equally many other providers that deliver fresh produce, including meat, fresh fruit and vegetables, afternoon tea, cakes and even locally-brewed alcohol. All of these services can save you time and limit risk. If you have no choice and have to brave the supermarket, use it as a time for yourself. A break from home and work can have a positive impact if you use it as some downtime from the norm. 

8. Make time for relaxation 

During this period of sizable change, it's vital to build in time for self-care. You can combine relaxation with exercise, such as going for a bike ride or a walk at the end of the working day. A change of scenery is good for and will aid with a better night’s sleep. 

If you have children, although it may be tempting to relax their routine, you could agree to an extended bedtime that has minimal impact, such as 30 minutes, that still allows you time to relax. This could be a win-win solution for all the family. The children will feel special due to an extended bedtime, which you could perhaps trade off for tidying their room or a bit of school work. After bedtime, you get some time to do whatever you constitute as relaxation.  

9. Manage your household 

Managing the household has become more challenging for us all. Whether we live in flat shares, have children, pets or look after elderly relatives, navigating cleaning responsibilities will no doubt come with a whole host of challenges. It’s important to remember that in an office environment, you would never work non-stop. You have breaks, which may consist of corridor conversations or going for coffee with a colleague. Use breaks at home to do one thing, such as putting on washing and make sure the cleaning responsibilities are shared equally among your household. If you’re used to returning home to a clean house at the end of the working day, this will have inevitably changed. Be kind to yourself. This is a unique situation, and in time, things will return to normal. There is no reason to be regimented and stressed about how clean your house is. If you have children, engage in fun activities throughout the day that help to break up the monotony of chores, study and work. Refrain from having the news on all day long, and save any adult conversations relating to the news and COVID-19 until after bedtime. Children of any age are extremely perceptive and will pick up on their parents’ anxiety, fear and tension.   

10. Ease anxiety around home schooling 

Home schooling is causing a lot of stress for parents. The anxiety can be overwhelming when you are working from home as well.  

We don’t have to follow old-fashioned routines of writing out timetables to keep children learning. Children are inquisitive and learn constantly. Engage in some fun learning activities. Playing board games such as Monopoly or Scrabble all allow for learning. Watch documentaries. You can create many experiments with household products, grow seeds in the garden, and learn about cause and effect in far more enjoyable ways than following a worksheet. Kids learn fast, and they will catch up. 

 Let go of the guilt 

Guilt is one of the most destructive emotions and negatively impacts our wellbeing and mental health. Be realistic in what you want to achieve. We don’t know what the future holds, so don’t waste your energy worrying about elements beyond your control. Give yourself a break and focus on what you can control within your environment. 

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Your Ultimate Guide to Answering the Most Common Interview Questions

Wouldn’t it be great if you knew exactly what questions a hiring manager would be asking you in your next job interview?

We can’t read minds, unfortunately, but we’ll give you the next best thing: a list of more than 40 of the most commonly asked interview questions, along with advice for answering them all.

While we don’t recommend having a canned response for every interview question (in fact, please don’t), we do recommend spending some time getting comfortable with what you might be asked, what hiring managers are really looking for in your responses, and what it takes to show that you’re the right person for the job.

Consider this list your interview question and answer study guide.

Tell Me About Yourself. How Did You Hear About This Position? Why Do You Want to Work at This Company? Why Do You Want This Job? Why Should We Hire You? What Are Your Greatest Strengths? What Do You Consider to Be Your Weaknesses? What Is Your Greatest Professional Achievement? Tell Me About a Challenge or Conflict You’ve Faced at Work, and How You Dealt With It. Tell Me About a Time You Demonstrated Leadership Skills. What’s a Time You Disagreed With a Decision That Was Made at Work? Tell Me About a Time You Made a Mistake. Tell Me About a Time You Failed. Why Are You Leaving Your Current Job? Why Were You Fired? Why Was There a Gap in Your Employment? Can You Explain Why You Changed Career Paths? What’s Your Current Salary? What Do You Like Least About Your Job? What Are You Looking for in a New Position? What Type of Work Environment Do You Prefer? What’s Your Management Style? How Would Your Boss and Coworkers Describe You? How Do You Deal With Pressure or Stressful Situations? What Do You Like to Do Outside of Work? Are You Planning on Having Children? How Do You Prioritize Your Work? What Are You Passionate About? What Motivates You? What Are Your Pet Peeves? How Do You Like to Be Managed? Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years? What’s Your Dream Job? What Other Companies Are You Interviewing With? What Makes You Unique? What Should I Know That’s Not on Your Resume? What Would Your First 30, 60, or 90 Days Look Like in This Role? What Are Your Salary Requirements? What Do You Think We Could Do Better or Differently? When Can You Start? Are You Willing to Relocate? How Many Tennis Balls Can You Fit Into a Limousine? If You Were an Animal, Which One Would You Want to Be? Sell Me This Pen. Is There Anything Else You’d Like Us to Know? Do You Have Any Questions for Us? Bonus Questions


Classic Questions

These frequently asked questions touch on the essentials hiring managers want to know about every candidate: who you are, why you’re a fit for the job, and what you’re good at. You may not be asked exactly these questions in exactly these words, but if you have answers in mind for them, you’ll be prepared for just about anything the interviewer throws your way.

1. Tell Me About Yourself.

This question seems simple, so many people fail to prepare for it, but it’s crucial. Here's the deal: Don’t give your complete employment (or personal) history. Instead give a pitch—one that’s concise and compelling and that shows exactly why you’re the right fit for the job. Muse writer and MIT career counsellor Lily Zhang recommends using a present, past, future formula. Talk a little bit about your current role (including the scope and perhaps one big accomplishment), then give some background as to how you got there and experience you have that’s relevant. Finally, segue into why you want—and would be perfect for—this role.

Read More: A Complete Guide to Answering “Tell Me About Yourself” in an Interview (Plus Examples!)

2. How Did You Hear About This Position?

Another seemingly innocuous interview question, this is actually a perfect opportunity to stand out and show your passion for and connection to the company. For example, if you found out about the gig through a friend or professional contact, name drop that person, then share why you were so excited about it. If you discovered the company through an event or article, share that. Even if you found the listing through a random job board, share what, specifically, caught your eye about the role.

Read More: 3 Ways People Mess Up the (Simple) Answer to “How Did You Come Across This Job Opportunity?”

3. Why Do You Want to Work at This Company?

Beware of generic answers! If what you say can apply to a whole slew of other companies, or if your response makes you sound like every other candidate, you’re missing an opportunity to stand out. Zhang recommends one of four strategies: Do your research and point to something that makes the company unique that really appeals to you; talk about how you’ve watched the company grow and change since you first heard of it; focus on the organization’s opportunities for future growth and how you can contribute to it; or share what’s gotten you excited from your interactions with employees so far. Whichever route you choose, make sure to be specific. And if you can’t figure out why you’d want to work at the company you’re interviewing with by the time you’re well into the hiring process? It might be a red flag telling you that this position is not the right fit.

Read More: 4 Better Ways to Answer “Why Do You Want to Work at This Company?”

4. Why Do You Want This Job?

Again, companies want to hire people who are passionate about the job, so you should have a great answer about why you want the position. (And if you don’t? You probably should apply elsewhere.) First, identify a couple of key factors that make the role a great fit for you (e.g., “I love customer support because I love the constant human interaction and the satisfaction that comes from helping someone solve a problem”), then share why you love the company (e.g., “I’ve always been passionate about education, and I think you’re doing great things, so I want to be a part of it”).

Read More: 3 Steps for Answering “Why Do You Want This Job?”

5. Why Should We Hire You?

This interview question seems forward (not to mention intimidating!), but if you’re asked it, you’re in luck: There’s no better setup for you to sell yourself and your skills to the hiring manager. Your job here is to craft an answer that covers three things: that you can not only do the work, but also deliver great results; that you’ll really fit in with the team and culture; and that you’d be a better hire than any of the other candidates.

Read More: 3 Better Ways to Answer “Why Should We Hire You?”

6. What Are Your Greatest Strengths?

Here’s an opening to talk about something that makes you great—and a great fit for this role. When you’re answering this question, think quality, not quantity. In other words, don’t rattle off a list of adjectives. Instead, pick one or a few (depending on the question) specific qualities that are relevant to this position and illustrate them with examples. Stories are always more memorable than generalizations. And if there’s something you were hoping to mention because it makes you a great candidate, but you haven’t had a chance yet, this would be the perfect time.

Read More: 3 Smart Strategies for Answering “What's Your Greatest Strength?”

7. What Do You Consider to Be Your Weaknesses?

What your interviewer is really trying to do with this question—beyond identifying any major red flags—is to gauge your self-awareness and honesty. So, “I can’t meet a deadline to save my life” is not an option—but neither is “Nothing! I’m perfect!” Strike a balance by thinking of something that you struggle with but that you’re working to improve. For example, maybe you’ve never been strong at public speaking, but you’ve recently volunteered to run meetings to help you get more comfortable when addressing a crowd.

Read More: 4 Ways to Answer “What Is Your Greatest Weakness?” That Actually Sound Believable

Questions About Your Work History

The meat of any job interview is your track record at work: what you accomplished, how you succeeded or failed (and how you dealt with it), and how you behaved in real time in actual work environments. If you prep a few versatile stories to tell about your work history and practice answering behavioral interview questions, you’ll be ready to go.

8. What Is Your Greatest Professional Achievement?

Nothing says “hire me” better than a track record of achieving amazing results in past jobs, so don’t be shy when answering this interview question! A great way to do so is by using the STAR method: situation, task, action, results. Set up the situation and the task that you were required to complete to provide the interviewer with background context (e.g., “In my last job as a junior analyst, it was my role to manage the invoicing process”), then describe what you did (the action) and what you achieved (the result): “In one month, I streamlined the process, which saved my group 10 person-hours each month and reduced errors on invoices by 25%.”

Read More: The Perfect Formula for Answering “What Is Your Greatest Accomplishment” in an Interview

9. Tell Me About a Challenge or Conflict You’ve Faced at Work, and How You Dealt With It.

You’re probably not eager to talk about conflicts you’ve had at work during a job interview. But if you’re asked directly, don’t pretend you’ve never had one. Be honest about a difficult situation you’ve faced (but without going into the kind of detail you’d share venting to a friend). “Most people who ask are only looking for evidence that you’re willing to face these kinds of issues head-on and make a sincere attempt at coming to a resolution,” former recruiter Rich Moy says. Stay calm and professional as you tell the story (and answer any follow-up questions), spend more time talking about the resolution than the conflict, and mention what you’d do differently next time to show “you’re open to learning from tough experiences.”

Read More: 3 Ways You’re Messing Up the Answer to, “Tell Me About a Conflict You’ve Faced at Work”

10. Tell Me About a Time You Demonstrated Leadership Skills.

You don’t have to have a fancy title to act like a leader or demonstrate leadership skills. Think about a time when you headed up a project, took the initiative to propose an alternate process, or helped motivate your team to get something done. Then use the STAR method to tell your interviewer a story, giving enough detail to paint a picture (but not so much that you start rambling) and making sure you spell out the result. In other words, be clear about why you’re telling this particular story and connect all the dots for the interviewer.

Read More: The Best Way to Answer “Tell Me About a Time You Demonstrated Leadership Skills” in a Job Interview

11. What’s a Time You Disagreed With a Decision That Was Made at Work?

The ideal anecdote here is one where you handled a disagreement in a professional way and learned something from the experience. Zhang recommends paying particular attention to how you start and end your response. To open, make a short statement to frame the rest of your answer, one that nods at the ultimate takeaway or the reason you’re telling this story. For example: “I learned early on in my professional career that it’s fine to disagree if you can back up your hunches with data.” And to close strong, you can either give a one-sentence summary of your answer (“In short…”) or talk briefly about how what you learned or gained from this experience would help you in the role you’re interviewing for.

Read More: Here’s the Secret to Answering “Tell Me About a Time You Had a Conflict With Your Boss” in an Interview

12. Tell Me About a Time You Made a Mistake.

You’re probably not too eager to dig into past blunders when you’re trying to impress an interviewer and land a job. But talking about a mistake and winning someone over aren’t mutually exclusive, Moy says. In fact, if you do it right, it can help you. The key is to be honest without placing blame on other people, then explain what you learned from your mistake and what actions you took to ensure it didn’t happen again. At the end of the day, employers are looking for folks who are self-aware, can take feedback, and care about doing better.

Read More: 3 Rules That Guarantee You'll Nail the Answer to “Tell Me About a Time You Made a Mistake”

13. Tell Me About a Time You Failed.

This question is very similar to the one about making a mistake, and you should approach your answer in much the same way. Make sure you pick a real, actual failure you can speak honestly about. Start by making it clear to the interviewer how you define failure. For example: “As a manager, I consider it a failure whenever I’m caught by surprise. I strive to know what’s going on with my team and their work.” Then situate the example in relation to that definition and explain what happened. Finally, don’t forget to share what you learned. It’s OK to fail—everyone does sometimes—but it’s important to show that you took something from the experience.

Read More: 4 Steps for Answering “Tell Me About a Time When You Failed”

14. Why Are You Leaving Your Current Job?

This is a toughie, but one you can be sure you’ll be asked. Definitely keep things positive—you have nothing to gain by being negative about your current employer. Instead, frame things in a way that shows that you’re eager to take on new opportunities and that the role you’re interviewing for is a better fit for you. For example, “I’d really love to be part of product development from beginning to end, and I know I’d have that opportunity here.” And if you were let go from your most recent job? Keep it simple: “Unfortunately, I was let go,” is a totally acceptable answer.

Read More: 4 Better Ways to Answer “Why Are You Leaving Your Job?”

15. Why Were You Fired?

Of course, they may ask the follow-up question: Why were you let go? If you lost your job due to layoffs, you can simply say, “The company [reorganized/merged/was acquired] and unfortunately my [position/department] was eliminated.” But what if you were fired for performance reasons? Your best bet is to be honest (the job-seeking world is small, after all). But it doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. Frame it as a learning experience: Share how you’ve grown and how you approach your job and life now as a result. And if you can portray your growth as an advantage for this next job, even better.

Read More: Stop Cringing! How to Tell an Interviewer You've Been Fired

16. Why Was There a Gap in Your Employment?

Maybe you were taking care of children or aging parents, dealing with health issues, or traveling the world. Maybe it just took you a long time to land the right job. Whatever the reason, you should be prepared to discuss the gap (or gaps) on your resume. Seriously, practice saying your answer out loud. The key is to be honest, though that doesn’t mean you have to share more details than you’re comfortable with. If there are skills or qualities you honed or gained in your time away from the workforce—whether through volunteer work, running a home, or responding to a personal crisis—you can also talk about how those would help you excel in this role.

Read More: How to Explain the Gap in Your Resume With Ease

17. Can You Explain Why You Changed Career Paths?

Don’t be thrown off by this question—just take a deep breath and explain to the hiring manager why you’ve made the career decisions you have. More importantly, give a few examples of how your past experience is transferable to the new role. This doesn’t have to be a direct connection; in fact, it’s often more impressive when a candidate can show how seemingly irrelevant experience is very relevant to the role.

Read More: How to Explain Your Winding Career Path to a Hiring Manager

18. What’s Your Current Salary?

It’s now illegal for some or all employers to ask you about your salary history in several cities and states, including New York City; Louisville, North Carolina; California; and Massachusetts. But no matter where you live, it can be stressful to hear this question. Don’t panic—there are several possible strategies you can turn to. For example, you can deflect the question, Muse career coach Emily Liou says, with a response like: “Before discussing any salary, I’d really like to learn more about what this role entails. I’ve done a lot of research on [Company] and I am certain if it’s the right fit, we’ll be able to agree on a number that’s fair and competitive to both parties.” You can also reframe the question around your salary expectations or requirements (see question 38) or choose to share the number if you think it will work in your favor.

Read More: Here's How You Answer the Illegal “What's Your Current Salary” Question

19. What Do You Like Least About Your Job?

Tread carefully here! The last thing you want to do is let your answer devolve into a rant about how terrible your current company is or how much you hate your boss or that one coworker. The easiest way to handle this question with poise is to focus on an opportunity the role you’re interviewing for offers that your current job doesn’t. You can keep the conversation positive and emphasize why you’re so excited about the job.

Read More: What Interviewers Really Want When They Ask, “What Do You Like Least About Your Job?”

Questions About You and Your Goals

Another crucial aspect of an interview? Getting to know a candidate. That’s why you’ll likely encounter questions about how you work, what you’re looking for (in a job, a team, a company, and a manager), and what your goals are. It’s a good sign if your interviewers want to make sure you’ll be a good fit—or add—to the team. Use it as an opportunity!

20. What Are You Looking for in a New Position?

Hint: Ideally the same things that this position has to offer. Be specific.

Read More: 4 Steps for Answering “What Are You Looking for in a New Position?”

21. What Type of Work Environment Do You Prefer?

Hint: Ideally one that's similar to the environment of the company you're applying to. Be specific.

Read More: 3 Steps to Answering “What Type of Work Environment Do You Prefer?”

22. What’s Your Management Style?

The best managers are strong but flexible, and that’s exactly what you want to show off in your answer. (Think something like, “While every situation and every team member requires a bit of a different strategy, I tend to approach my employee relationships as a coach...”) Then share a couple of your best managerial moments, like when you grew your team from five to 15 or coached an underperforming employee to become the company’s top salesperson.

Read More: How to Answer “What’s Your Management Style?”

23. How Would Your Boss and Coworkers Describe You?

First of all, be honest (remember, if you make it to the final round, the hiring manager will be calling your former bosses and coworkers for references!). Then try to pull out strengths and traits you haven’t discussed in other aspects of the interview, such as your strong work ethic or your willingness to pitch in on other projects when needed.

Read More: 3 Strategies for Answering “How Would Your Boss or Coworkers Describe You?”

24. How Do You Deal With Pressure or Stressful Situations?

Here’s another question you may feel the urge to sidestep in an effort to prove you’re the perfect candidate who can handle anything. But it’s important not to dismiss this one (i.e. don’t say “I just put my head down and push through it” or “I don’t get stressed out”). Instead, talk about your go-to strategies for dealing with stress (whether it’s meditating for 10 minutes every day or making sure you go for a run or keeping a super-detailed to-do list) and how you communicate and otherwise proactively try to mitigate pressure. If you can give a real example of a stressful situation you navigated successfully, all the better.

Read More: 3 Ways You’re Messing Up the Answer to “How Do You Deal With Stressful Situations?”

25. What Do You Like to Do Outside of Work?

Interviewers will sometimes ask about your hobbies or interests outside of work in order to get to know you a little better—to find out what you’re passionate about and devote time to during your off-hours. It’s another chance to let your personality shine. Be honest, but keep it professional and be mindful of answers that might make it sound like you’re going to spend all your time focusing on something other than the job you’re applying for.

Read More: How to Answer “What Are Your Hobbies?” in an Interview (It’s Not a Trick Question!)

26. Are You Planning on Having Children?

Questions about your family status, gender (“How would you handle managing a team of all men?”), nationality (“Where were you born?”), religion, or age are illegal—but they still get asked (and frequently). Of course, not always with ill intent—the interviewer might just be trying to make conversation and might not realize these are off-limits—but you should definitely tie any questions about your personal life (or anything else you think might be inappropriate) back to the job at hand. For this question, think: “You know, I’m not quite there yet. But I am very interested in the career paths at your company. Can you tell me more about that?”

Read More: 5 Illegal Interview Questions and How to Dodge Them

27. How Do You Prioritize Your Work?

Your interviewers want to know that you can manage your time, exercise judgement, communicate, and shift gears when needed. Start by talking about whatever system you’ve found works for you to plan your day or week, whether it’s a to-do list app you swear by or a color-coded spreadsheet. This is one where you’ll definitely want to lean on a real-life example. So go on to describe how you’ve reacted to a last-minute request or another unexpected shift in priorities in the past, incorporating how you evaluated and decided what to do and how you communicated with your manager and/or teammates about it.

Read More: A Foolproof Method to Answer the Interview Question “How Do You Prioritize Your Work?”

28. What Are You Passionate About?

You’re not a robot programmed to do your work and then power down. You’re a human, and if someone asks you this question in an interview, it’s probably because they want to get to know you better. The answer can align directly with the type of work you’d be doing in that role—like if, for example, you’re applying to be a graphic designer and spend all of your free time creating illustrations and data visualizations to post on Instagram.

But don’t be afraid to talk about a hobby that’s different from your day-to-day work. Bonus points if you can “take it one step further and connect how your passion would make you an excellent candidate for the role you are applying for,” says Muse career coach Al Dea. Like if you’re a software developer who loves to bake, you might talk about how the ability to be both creative and precise informs your approach to code.

Read More: 3 Authentic Ways to Answer “What Are You Passionate About?” in a Job Interview

29. What Motivates You?

Before you panic about answering what feels like a probing existential question, consider that the interviewer wants to make sure you’re excited about this role at this company, and that you’ll be motivated to succeed if they pick you. So think back to what has energized you in previous roles and pinpoint what made your eyes light up when you read this job description. Pick one thing, make sure it’s relevant to the role and company you’re interviewing for, and try to weave in a story to help illustrate your point. If you’re honest, which you should be, your enthusiasm will be palpable.

Read More: 5 Easy Steps to Answer “What Motivates You?” in an Interview

30. What Are Your Pet Peeves?

Here’s another one that feels like a minefield. But it’ll be easier to navigate if you know why an interviewer is asking it. Most likely, they want to make sure you’ll thrive at their company—and get a glimpse of how you deal with conflict. So be certain you pick something that doesn’t contradict the culture and environment at this organization while still being honest. Then explain why and what you’ve done to address it in the past, doing your best to stay calm and composed. Since there’s no need to dwell on something that annoys you, you can keep this response short and sweet.

Read More: 6 Tips for Answering “What Are Your Pet Peeves?” in an Interview

31. How Do You Like to Be Managed?

This is another one of those questions that’s about finding the right fit—both from the company’s perspective and your own. Think back on what worked well for you in the past and what didn’t. What did previous bosses do that motivated you and helped you succeed and grow? Pick one or two things to focus on and always articulate them with a positive framing (even if your preference comes from an experience where your manager behaved in the opposite way, phrase it as what you would want a manager to do). If you can give a positive example from a great boss, it’ll make your answer even stronger.

Read More: 3 Easy Steps to Answer “How Do You Like to Be Managed?” in an Interview

32. Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?

If asked this question, be honest and specific about your future goals, but consider this: A hiring manager wants to know a) if you've set realistic expectations for your career, b) if you have ambition (a.k.a., this interview isn't the first time you’re considering the question), and c) if the position aligns with your goals and growth. Your best bet is to think realistically about where this position could take you and answer along those lines. And if the position isn’t necessarily a one-way ticket to your aspirations? It’s OK to say that you’re not quite sure what the future holds, but that you see this experience playing an important role in helping you make that decision.

Read More: How to Answer “Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years?”

33. What’s Your Dream Job?

Along similar lines, the interviewer wants to uncover whether this position is really in line with your ultimate career goals. While “an NBA star” might get you a few laughs, a better bet is to talk about your goals and ambitions—and why this job will get you closer to them.

Read More: The Secret Formula to Answering “What's Your Dream Job?” in an Interview

34. What Other Companies Are You Interviewing With?

Companies might ask you who else you’re interviewing with for a few reasons. Maybe they want to see how serious you are about this role and team (or even this field) or they’re trying to find out who they’re competing with to hire you. On one hand, you want to express your enthusiasm for this job, but at the same time, you don’t want to give the company any more leverage than it already has by telling them there’s no one else in the running. Depending on where you are in your search, you can talk about applying to or interviewing for a few roles that have XYZ in common—then mention how and why this role seems like a particularly good fit.

Read More: How to Answer “What Other Companies Are You Interviewing With?”

35. What Makes You Unique?

“They genuinely want to know the answer,” Dea promises. Give them a reason to pick you over other similar candidates. The key is to keep your answer relevant to the role you’re applying to. So the fact that you can run a six-minute mile or crush a trivia challenge might not help you get the job (but hey, it depends on the job!). Use this opportunity to tell them something that would give you an edge over your competition for this position. To figure out what that is, you can ask some former colleagues, think back to patterns you’ve seen in feedback you get, or try to distill why people tend to turn to you. Focus on one or two things and don’t forget to back up whatever you say with evidence.

Read More: A Simple Way to Answer “What Makes You Unique?” in Your Job Search (Plus, Examples!)

36. What Should I Know That’s Not on Your Resume?

It’s a good sign if a recruiter or hiring manager is interested in more than just what’s on your resume. It probably means they looked at your resume, think you might be a good fit for the role, and want to know more about you. To make this wide-open question a little more manageable, try talking about a positive trait, a story or detail that reveals a little more about you and your experience, or a mission or goal that makes you excited about this role or company.

Read More: The Right Way to Answer “What Should I Know That’s Not on Your Resume?”

Questions About the Job

At the end of the day, the people on the other side of the hiring process want to make sure you could take on this role. That means they might ask you logistical questions to ensure that timing and other factors are aligned, and they might have you imagine what you’d do after starting.

37. What Would Your First 30, 60, or 90 Days Look Like in This Role?

Your potential future boss (or whoever else has asked you this question) wants to know that you’ve done your research, given some thought to how you’d get started, and would be able to take initiative if hired. So think about what information and aspects of the company and team you’d need to familiarize yourself with and which colleagues you’d want to sit down and talk to. You can also suggest one possible starter project to show you’d be ready to hit the ground running and contribute early on. This won’t necessarily be the thing you do first if you do get the job, but a good answer shows that you’re thoughtful and that you care.

Read More: The 30-60-90 Day Plan: Your Secret Weapon for New Job Success

38. What Are Your Salary Requirements?

The #1 rule of answering this question is doing your research on what you should be paid by using sites like Payscale and reaching out to your network. You’ll likely come up with a range, and we recommend stating the highest number in that range that applies, based on your experience, education, and skills. Then make sure the hiring manager knows that you're flexible. You're communicating that you know your skills are valuable, but that you want the job and are willing to negotiate.

You can also try to deflect or delay giving a number, especially if you get this question very early in the process, by saying something like, “I was hoping to get a sense of what range/band you had in mind for this role” or, as Liou suggests, “Before discussing any salary, I’d really like to learn more about what this role entails.”

Read More: Q&A: The Secret to Giving Your “Salary Requirements”

39. What Do You Think We Could Do Better or Differently?

This question can really do a number on you. How do you give a meaty answer without insulting the company or, worse, the person you’re speaking with? Well first, take a deep breath. Then start your response with something positive about the company or specific product you’ve been asked to discuss. When you’re ready to give your constructive feedback, give some background on the perspective you’re bringing to the table and explain why you’d make the change you’re suggesting (ideally based on some past experience or other evidence). And if you end with a question, you can show them you’re curious about the company or product and open to other points of view. Try: “Did you consider that approach here? I’d love to know more about your process.”

Read More: How to Answer the "How Would You Improve Our Company?" Interview Question Without Bashing Anyone

40. When Can You Start?

Your goal here should be to set realistic expectations that will work for both you and the company. What exactly that sounds like will depend on your specific situation. If you’re ready to start immediately—if you’re unemployed, for example—you could offer to start within the week. But if you need to give notice to your current employer, don’t be afraid to say so; people will understand and respect that you plan to wrap things up right. It’s also legitimate to want to take a break between jobs, though you might want to say you have “previously scheduled commitments to attend to” and try to be flexible if they really need someone to start a bit sooner.

Read More: 4 Ways to Answer the Interview Question “When Can You Start?”

41. Are You Willing to Relocate?

While this may sound like a simple yes-or-no question, it’s often a little bit more complicated than that. The simplest scenario is one where you’re totally open to moving and would be willing to do so for this opportunity. But if the answer is no, or at least not right now, you can reiterate your enthusiasm for the role, briefly explain why you can’t move at this time, and offer an alternative, like working remotely or out of a local office. Sometimes it’s not as clear-cut, and that’s OK. You can say you prefer to stay put for xyz reasons, but would be willing to consider relocating for the right opportunity.

Read More: The Best Responses to “Are You Willing to Relocate?” Depending on Your Situation

Questions That Test You

Depending on the style of the interviewer and company, you could get some pretty quirky questions. They’re often testing how you think through something on the spot. Don’t panic. Take a moment to think—and remember, there’s no one single correct answer or approach.

42. How Many Tennis Balls Can You Fit Into a Limousine?

1,000? 10,000? 100,000? Seriously? Well, seriously, you might get asked brain-teaser questions like these, especially in quantitative jobs. But remember that the interviewer doesn’t necessarily want an exact number—they want to make sure that you understand what’s being asked of you, and that you can set into motion a systematic and logical way to respond. So take a deep breath and start thinking through the math. (Yes, it’s OK to ask for a pen and paper!)

Read More: 9 Steps to Solving an Impossible Brain Teaser in a Tech Interview (Without Breaking a Sweat)

43. If You Were an Animal, Which One Would You Want to Be?

Seemingly random personality-test type questions like these come up in interviews because hiring managers want to see how you can think on your feet. There’s no wrong answer here, but you’ll immediately gain bonus points if your answer helps you share your strengths or personality or connect with the hiring manager. Pro tip: Come up with a stalling tactic to buy yourself some thinking time, such as saying, “Now, that is a great question. I think I would have to say…”

Read More: 4 Steps for Answering Off-the-Wall Interview Questions

44. Sell Me This Pen.

If you’re interviewing for a sales job, your interviewer might put you on the spot to sell them a pen sitting on the table, or a legal pad, or a water bottle, or just something. The main thing they’re testing you for? How you handle a high-pressure situation. So try to stay calm and confident and use your body language—making eye contact, sitting up straight, and more—to convey that you can handle this. Make sure you listen, understand your “customer’s” needs, get specific about the item’s features and benefits, and end strong—as though you were truly closing a deal.

Read More: 4 Tips for Responding to "Sell Me This Pen" in an Interview

Wrapping-Up Questions

When it comes time for the interview to wind down, you might have a chance to add any last thoughts and you’ll almost certainly have time to ask the questions that will help you decide if this company and role might be great for you. In fact, if they don’t leave time for you to ask any questions at any of your interviews, that might be a red flag in itself.

45. Is There Anything Else You’d Like Us to Know?

Just when you thought you were done, your interviewer asks you this open-ended doozy. Don’t panic—it’s not a trick question! You can use this as an opportunity to close out the meeting on a high note in one of two ways, Zhang says. First, if there really is something relevant that you haven’t had a chance to mention, do it now. Otherwise, you can briefly summarize your qualifications. For example, Zhang says, you could say: “I think we’ve covered most of it, but just to summarize, it sounds like you’re looking for someone who can really hit the ground running. And with my previous experience [enumerate experience here], I think I’d be a great fit.”

Read More: How to Answer “Is There Anything Else You’d Like Us to Know?”

46. Do You Have Any Questions for Us?

You probably already know that an interview isn’t just a chance for a hiring manager to grill you—it’s an opportunity to sniff out whether a job is the right fit from your perspective. What do you want to know about the position? The company? The department? The team? You’ll cover a lot of this in the actual interview, so have a few less-common questions ready to go. We especially like questions targeted to the interviewer (“What's your favourite part about working here?") or the company's growth (“What can you tell me about your new products or plans for growth?")

Read More: 51 Great Questions to Ask in an Interview

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6 Signs You Have What It Takes to Start Your Own Business

You’re ready to be your own boss—check! You’re also passionate about an idea and dying to bring it to life—double check! But before you quit your day job, it should come as no surprise that running your own business can be an overwhelming new challenge. So how do you know if you’ve really got what it takes? There are a few important traits shared by successful entrepreneurs that can help guide you.

These qualities will make a huge difference when it comes to getting your business up and running:

1. You Have an Idea That Fills a Gap

The first step to success is finding a need that isn’t already being filled. When Tim Crossley was freelancing as an audio engineer, he was having trouble finding his footing because there were a lot of people in his field. But after learning how to design recording studios, he recognized that there wasn’t much competition in that niche.

“It seemed like there weren't a lot of people helping people determine how to make their rooms sound better,” says Crossley, a co-founder of Crossley Acoustics, a full-service acoustic design and build firm in Brooklyn. He started to pursue it, turning Crossley Acoustics into one of the few firms that offer the full recording studio experience, from design to construction.

He admits the work isn’t the easiest: “Construction is a difficult business to be in in New York City, but it’s what’s helped us stand out from our competition,” he says. “There are very few companies that do the multitude of work that we do.”

2. You’re Willing to Do All the Things

Many people start their own company because they want to focus on what they love. But as a small business owner, you’re not just doing the thing you want to do; you’re responsible for everything else, too.

“When you’re in charge of the business, you wear all the hats,” says Alison Matheny, founder of BEST, a creative studio based in New York City that handles branding and content creation projects for a variety of products (everything from hotels to skincare). “You’re the bookkeeper, the project manager, the creative director, the website manager, the social poster—you do everything.”

3. You Know When to Call in the Experts

If you don’t want to do everything—or you don’t know how to do everything—you’ll have to expand or outsource. “There’s a point in time when it’s really important to delegate certain jobs, and to bring people on with new ideas,” Matheny says. “That’s a struggle for a lot of entrepreneurs, releasing that control and allowing other people to help you.”

It might also mean investing in tools, such as a program for time tracking or bookkeeping, or website development software. Crossley, for instance, used Squarespace to create and host his company’s website. “Even with a background in design and a handful of experiences with front-end coding, it would have taken me infinitely longer to make a website from scratch, and I never would have been able to achieve the same results,” he says. “And thanks to the SEO features we’ve measured an appreciable uptick in the amount of sales calls we’re getting since having launched our new site.”

4. You’re Able to Evolve

Jack Kneller and his co-founder, Beth Porter, launched organic snack company Sweet Nothings in the summer of 2019. Before their first launch and sales, Kneller and Porter gathered as much feedback as possible on their product and branding, trying dozens of different recipes and rebranding a few times. Even so, they’ve had to adjust their formula along the way.

“It feels like you really only have one shot to do it,” Kneller says. “You go to market being like, ‘This is our final product.’ But already, not even that many months into the business, we’re already tweaking to make it even better, to respond to consumer feedback.”

5. You’re Not Afraid to Put Yourself Out There

Early in the process of creating Sweet Nothings, Kneller and his co-founder were invited to a competition at LinkedIn in which 20 brands pitched hundreds of employees on why their product should be the new snack at the social media firm. “There were big companies there, with beautiful banners and nice sampling spoons,” Kneller says. “We were in our jeans and T-shirts with unbranded cups and no tablecloth. But we won that competition, and that got us a summer contract with LinkedIn.”

That contract helped them vie for other corporate cafeterias, and today Sweet Nothings is stocked in Apple’s headquarters, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Levi Strauss & Co., Athleta, and Twitter New York. Putting yourself out there pays off, and that means starting with a great website design to help shape your brand image and first impression to potential clients.

6. You’re Ready to Work Hard

It’s easy to romanticize being an entrepreneur. Although it’s incredible and empowering work, it’s also exhausting. “It’s really hard,” Kneller says. “It’s hard emotionally, it’s hard with friendships and relationships. We spend a lot of our waking hours thinking about work, talking about work, working on work.”

While it’s one thing to hear this from others—and people told Kneller this before he started Sweet Nothings with Porter—he still wasn’t fully cognizant of the toll it would take. “At first, I was go, go, go,” he says. “Now I’m trying to be more holistic with my physical and mental health, carving out time to work out and cook for myself.”

Don’t forget—running your own business often means there are no set working hours. You’re essentially on call 24/7, which means that holding the line between work time and down time also falls on your shoulders.

From maintaining a healthy work/life balance to knowing how to take risks, the fundamentals are now in your toolkit—you’re ready! Start sketching out your idea and don’t be afraid to ask the experts for input along the way.

Kate Ashford is a freelance journalist and content writer who specializes in personal finance, work, health, and consumer trends.

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No specific skill will get you ahead in the future’—but this ‘way of thinking’ will

Many of us have been told that deep expertise will lead to enhanced credibility, rapid job advancement, and escalating incomes. The alternative of being broad-minded is usually dismissed as dabbling without really adding value.

But the future may be very different: Breadth of perspective and the ability to connect the proverbial dots (the domain of generalists) is likely to be as important as depth of expertise and the ability to generate dots (the domain of specialists).

The rapid advancement of technology, combined with increased uncertainty, is making the most important career logic of the past counterproductive going forward. The world, to put it bluntly, has changed, but our philosophy around skills development has not.

Today’s dynamic complexity demands an ability to thrive in ambiguous and poorly defined situations, a context that generates anxiety for most, because it has always felt safer to generalize.

Just think about some of the buzzwords that characterized the business advice over the past 40 to 50 years: Core competence, unique skills, deep expertise. For as far back as many of us can remember, the key to success was developing a specialization that allowed us to climb the professional ladder. 

It wasn’t enough to be a doctor, one had to specialize further, perhaps in cardiology. But then it wasn’t enough to be a cardiologist, one had to specialize further, perhaps as a cardiac surgeon. And it wasn’t just medicine, it was in almost all professions.

The message was clear: Focus on developing an expertise and you’ll rise through the ranks and earn more money. The approach worked. Many of today’s leaders ascended by specializing.

The future belongs to generalists

But as the typical mutual fund disclaimer so famously states, past performance is no guarantee of future results. It’s time to rethink our love affair with depth. The pendulum between depth and breadth has swung too far in favor of depth.

There’s an oft-quoted saying that “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like nails.” But what if that man had a hammer, a screwdriver, and a wrench? Might he or she look to see if the flat top had a narrow slit, suggesting the use of a screwdriver? Or perhaps consider the shape of the flat top. Circle? Hexagon? Could a wrench be a more effective tool?  And finally, the mere addition of these tools can encourage a better understanding of a problem. 

This is not to suggest that deep expertise is useless. Au contraire. Carrying a hammer is not a problem. It’s just that our world is changing so rapidly that those with more tools in their possession will better navigate the uncertainty. To make it in today’s world, it’s important to be agile and flexible.

What it means to be a generalist

How does one do this?  To begin, it’s important to zoom out and pay more attention to the context in which you’re making decisions.

Read the whole paper, not just the section about your industry. Is your primary focus oil and gas? Study the dynamics affecting the retail sector. Are you a finance professional? Why not read a book on marketing? Think bigger and wider than you’ve traditionally done.

Another strategy is to think about how seemingly unrelated developments may impact each other, something that systems thinkers do naturally. Study the interconnections across industries and imagine how changes in one domain can disrupt operations in another one.

Because generalists have a set of tools to draw from, they are able to dynamically adjust their course of action as a situation evolves. Just think of how rapidly the world changed with the development of the Internet and wireless data technologies. Jeff Bezos was not a retail specialist who took on his competitors and won. He was a relative newcomer to retail but was able to adapt rapidly to seize a gigantic opportunity. 

Career success for generalists

Many forward-looking companies look for multi-functional experience when hiring. This is essential for large organizations like Google, for example, where employees jump from team to team and from role to role.

In fact, Lisa Stern Hayes, one of Google’s top recruiters, said in a podcast that the company values problem-solvers who have a “general cognitive ability” over role-related knowledge.

“Think about how quickly Google evolves,” she said. “If you just hire someone to do one specific job, but then our company needs change, we need to be rest assured that the person is going to find something else to do at Google. That comes back to hiring smart generalists.”

If you’re relatively new to the workforce, my advice is to manage your career around obtaining a diversity of geographic and functional experiences. The analytical capabilities you develop (e.g. basic statistical skills and critical reasoning) in the process will fare well when competing against those who are more focused on domain-specific skill.

The one certainty about the future is that it will be uncertain. The rapid advancement of artificial intelligence and technological innovation have commoditized information. The skill of generating dots is losing value. The key skill of the future is, well, not quite a skill; it’s an approach, a philosophy, and way of thinking — and it’s critical you adopt it as soon as you’re able.

Vikram Mansharamani, PhD, is a Lecturer at Harvard University

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Top tips for establishing a mentally-healthy workplace

Introducing or refreshing workplace wellbeing policy in line with a whole organisation approach can have huge benefits

Although mental health awareness has improved over the past decade, research shows that 62% of managers put the interests of their organisation above staff wellbeing. But these interests are one and the same. Taking positive action to support health and wellbeing is not just the right thing to do, it makes good business sense too.

Poor management of mental health in the workplace has a big impact on productivity and is one of the top drivers of the 72 million working days lost each year in the UK.

The Centre for Mental Health estimates that mental ill health costs the UK economy £34.9 billion each year. Surely little further evidence is needed to show that mental health should be a top priority in every business.

There are a number of approaches your organisation can take to help transform your workplace and create a mentally-healthy environment. Here are my tips to help you establish a new approach or enhance existing mental health strategies.

Take a ‘whole organisation approach’

Creating a wellbeing strategy that centres on the whole person is fundamental to creating a workplace where mental health really matters. Mental health should be considered as one element alongside others such as physical, financial and emotional wellbeing, which are all connected in a whole person approach.

Taking a ‘whole organisation’ approach is the natural next step. A whole organisation approach is about building the right culture and ensuring a mental health and wellbeing strategy is properly implemented. Attitudes should filter down from leaders and be backed up with clear policies that are well communicated.

This approach means designing the stress out of processes and systems, putting healthy job design first, attending to reasonable adjustments, training, flexible working needs, fair and equal pay – and so much more.

If you’re only just starting out on this journey the government's Thriving at Work report provides a useful roadmap to guide your thinking. It sets out six ‘core standards’ for employers to create a mentally-healthier workplace.

One size doesn’t fit all

Your approach will need to be reflective of the nature of your business and your workforce. Researching the approaches that other organisations in your sector are taking is a valuable exercise and can provide useful insights to help you develop your own strategy.

Get talking

Creating an environment that encourages open conversation around mental health is another important part of developing an effective mental health policy. There are a number of useful guides that exist, such as the Workplace Wellbeing Toolkit, to support organisations taking their first steps. This toolkit gives guidance on raising awareness, sensitising an organisation to talking about mental health, as well as advice on embedding Mental Health First Aid England skills.

Giving staff these tools to support themselves and each other is key to empowering everyone to talk about mental health and seek help when needed. Simply knowing that a listening ear and a supportive conversation is close by can be so powerful in helping someone come forward to access support they may need to recover and stay well.

Put wellbeing at the heart of your talent strategy

Fostering positive health and wellbeing is essential to building a successful and sustainable organisation and can have a range of benefits from improving engagement, recruitment and retention to enabling people to fully develop in their roles. By demonstrating a commitment to effective mental health policies your organisation can attract and retain an engaged and motivated workforce.

Taking action in the new decade

Now is the time to consider the successes and challenges your organisation has faced and how you can take action moving forwards.

From addressing productivity and presenteeism to creating a culture of care, introducing or refreshing workplace wellbeing policy in line with a whole organisation approach can have huge benefits.

Most adults spend at least a third of their time at work, which is why we should all start there to change how society deals with mental health. Now is the perfect time to reflect on your organisation’s approach to mental health and take action. By all doing so we can create a society where everyone’s mental health matters.

Vicki Cockman is workplace lead at Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England

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Wellbeing initiatives need more data backing

Poor quality data is impacting employers’ attempts to create a better workplace wellbeing culture.

New research by the Reward and Employee Benefits Association (REBA) found while reporting on wellbeing metrics was on the rise, up from 67% to 76% in 2020, findings were usually kept in house and just 10% of respondents’ organisations included them in their annual report.

Nearly half (49%) of employers surveyed said there was limited availability of the wellbeing data, with 43% citing poor quality data and 36% claiming there was a lack of suitable data collection.

This was despite 92% of employers using information from senior management to assess the successes of their wellbeing programmes, up from 74% in 2019.

Mental health was one of the main concerns for 89% of employers, followed by physical wellbeing at 69% and financial wellbeing at 25%.

Debi O’Donavan, co-founder and director of REBA, said most employers were still using proxy figures such as employee engagement rather than attempting to see shifts at a strategic business level.

“Given the vital role wellbeing plays in reshaping work and jobs, it is not a surprise that measuring effectiveness is receiving greater focus. The COVID-19 crisis has reinforced the message that to be sustainable, an organisation needs to be innovative and resilient. That can only happen with a good culture and positive employee experience. Wellbeing is at the core of achieving this.”

REBA did however find that employers were beginning to fuse their health insurance and wellbeing support offerings more effectively, with 82% agreeing they were complementary compared with 68% in 2019.

Cost, siloed product offerings and internal management of benefits were seen as the largest barriers to better integration.

Just 10% of organisations included wellbeing reports in their annual report and only one in five measure return on investment of their programme costs against absence and retention rates.


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7 Big Benefits of Mindfulness Training in the Workplace

There are many reasons why mindfulness training in the workplace is important. Holding a mindfulness workshop in the workplace can have a variety of benefits, all of which can lead to better productivity.

So, why should you consider holding mindfulness training programs at work? Let’s discover the benefits of mindfulness training in the workplace below.

What Is Mindfulness and What Is It not?

Before we delve into the benefits of mindfulness training in the workplace and how it can be applied, it is useful to understand first what mindful is and what it is not.

Mindfulness can be considered as a combination of mental attitudes, which are developed through practice. 

There are 3 main attitudes that mindfulness fosters:

Focusing on the Present 

This is the ability to focus on what is happening in front of us right now and be present in the moment. 

Focusing on the present allows us to appreciate everything as though we are seeing the world around us with new eyes and to develop a sense of curiosity for every small thing. 

Mindfulness in the workplace can lead to happier employees and better productivity for you as a business.

By focusing on the present, we also get away from negative thoughts about the past or the future. These are things that either have already happened and we can do nothing about or they may never even happen at all.

Focus on the present is developed through meditation and other practices that involve concentrating on something (for example an object, our body, our breath, sounds, etc) and brushing away gently other thoughts that distract us. 

Mindfulness concentration involves all the senses. For example, one exercise can involve observing an object and noticing all its details, another one can be about listening to a particular sound, or tasting some food, or being aware of one’s posture and feelings in the body. 

The key though is to really concentrate on one thing at a time and notice every nuance and detail of that object/experience.

Compassion at Self and Others

Compassion is aimed both at the self and at other people. So, mindfulness promotes an attitude of appreciation for what is good in everyone, trying to see things from other people’s perspectives and listening carefully to what is being said. 

There are mindfulness exercises that are aimed at developing compassion and self-compassion through appreciation.



Some simple activities to develop self compassion Detachment from Negative Emotions

Detachment does not mean not caring. It just means putting things into perspective. 

So, it means letting go of negative emotions, judgment, things that make us suffer by acknowledging their existence but taking time to distance ourselves from them. 

People can practise detachment with the same exercises used to develop focus. So, if wandering thoughts come to your mind as you are trying to focus, the idea is to acknowledge them and then gently let them go and take the mind back to the thing you are trying to focus on.

Mindfulness in part is about learning to focus your mind. What Mindfulness Is not  Mindfulness is not a religious practice, even though it has its roots in Buddhism. Mindfulness is not about emptying your mind of thoughts. It is instead about focusing and be present in the moment. Also, mindfulness is not just about meditation or simply focusing on the breath. There are many other ways in which mindfulness can be practiced. Even while standing in a queue, for instance, you can practise mindfulness by becoming aware of how your body is feeling or by paying attention to the sounds or the sights around you. Mindfulness is not about daydreaming. Quite the opposite, it is about being aware of what is happening in the moment. Key Benefits of Mindfulness Training in the Workplace 1. It Can Improve Staff’s Well-being and Resilience 

Through the practices of detachment, focus and self-compassion, mindfulness can help people manage stress better and feel calmer. Also, through mindfulness practice, individuals learn how to recognise the symptoms of stress and deal with them before it is too late.

As stress can have devastating effects on people’s health, both mental and physical, managing stress can dramatically improve health.

If staff feel better, they are less likely to suffer from burnout and they are less likely to need to take days off sick. Absenteeism, presenteeism (i.e. coming to work even if you are sick) and turnover associated with stress come at very big costs for businesses. 

For example, a study carried out in Japan (Nagata et al., 2018) found out that absenteeism cost Japanese companies $520 per person per year and presenteeism $3,055 per person per year. This was just a small-scale study, but it is just one example of what is a big problem for business.

So, if mindfulness can help improve staff’s health, it is worth holding mindfulness workshops at work and/or implementing mindfulness as part of your organisation’s culture.

2. Increase Productivity 

Mindfulness training can improve productivity at work, as well as staff’s wellbeing, as shown in a recent research project by Kersemaekers et al. (2018).

Productivity improves, overall, because staff tend to be happier if they embrace mindfulness ideas. 

In particular though, by promoting focus, mindfulness helps people concentrate on one task at a time thus achieving a state of flow. 

So, instead of feeling stressed and worrying about 100 things at the same time, employees should immerse themselves in the task at hand and deal with it one step at a time. If concentration levels are better, costly errors are also likely to decrease.

Mindfulness training can help happiness in the workplace. 3. Improve Leadership Skills 

Mindfulness workshops are also good for team leaders and managers, as mindfulness can improve leadership skills.

One way in which mindfulness can improve leadership skills is because it trains the mind to be detached. 

As a result, leaders who practise mindfulness can become better at observing their own thoughts and feelings, thus distancing themselves from them and make decisions based on facts rather than impulse or preconceptions.

Also, mindful leaders have been found to cope better with stress (Roche et al., 2014) and to have a positive influence on the staff they supervise (Reb et al., 2014), due to being more attentive to other people’s needs.

4. Promote Better Teamwork and Relationships between Staff 

Research (Karlin, 2018) suggests that employees who practise mindfulness have higher levels of empathy and work better as a team. As mindfulness involves compassion, employees who practice mindfulness tend to be more accepting of each other, thus work better together.

Also, mindfulness improves focus and the attention span, which means that it enhances people’s ability to listen to each other without preconceptions and without getting distracted. As a result, communication skills improve and this benefits teamwork.

In addition, if employees are happier overall because of mindfulness, they will also be better inclined towards each other. They will work better together and productivity will also benefit.

5. Enhance Creativity and Innovation 

Creativity in the workplace is crucial, not only in terms of the invention of new products and services but also for problem-solving and the development of more efficient processes.

Research (Byrne and Thatchenkery, 2019) has recently been done, which supports the idea that mindfulness training in the workplace has a positive impact on staff’s creativity levels, due to the increase in awareness and attention. 

Another reason why mindfulness training helps staff to unleash their creativity may be that they feel less stressed when faced with situations that involve competition (Choi et al., 2018). Mindfulness can also promote creativity because it helps people be more aware and open to novelty (Al-Zu’bi, 2018).

6. Develop Better Decision Making Skills 

Attending a mindfulness workshop or training session can also lead to better decision making. This is because it makes us more detached and more objective. 

So, for example, it reduces our tendency to carry on with something just because we have already invested money and time in it, rather than because it is worth doing. Sometimes, it is better to cut one’s losses and mindfulness can help us better evaluate these situations.

Also, mindfulness can make us more objective, by enabling us to see what is really in front of us rather than being influenced by bias or by past experiences. 

Finally, just by reducing stress alone, mindfulness practice can help people make better decisions (Jeanguenat and Dror, 2018).

7. Transform the Overall Culture of an Organisation 

Last but not least, encouraging staff to develop mindfulness through workshops, training and day to day practice can transform the whole organisation and turn it into a ‘mindful organisation’. 

Mindful organizations develop what is called collective mindfulness, an area that is being researched recently with interesting results.

A mindful organisation is one that embraces mindfulness as a central part of its culture. It does not involve staff meditating together, but rather staff acting in ways that are mindful, i.e. focused, aware, compassionate and with an open mind.

Mindful organizations tend to be proactive, as they focus on what is really going on around them, rather than acting on autopilot and out of habits. 

So, these companies can be more innovative and better able to listen to what their customers want and develop accordingly, thus keeping ahead of the competition. 

Also, staff turnover tends to be lower, which means that these companies retain talent and expertise.