To Keep Workers, Flexibility Is More Important Than Money

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Chief executives know that there is a long road ahead. Many issues they’ve faced over the past two years—remote work, supply chain backups, product shortages, inflation—will likely subside with the pandemic or soon after, the labor shortage they’re up against now almost assuredly will not. The U.S.’s aging population and increasing retirements won’t resolve any time soon. Leaders in business must change how they pay, treat employees, and create work environments that attract talent.

Marcus Buckingham, a long-time researcher on what makes people happy and better at work has worked for Gallup and then his HR consultancy which was ultimately bought by ADP. ADP Research Institute is his current role. He recently conducted a study in 27 countries with thousands of people about their feelings regarding work. His new book is available here. Love and Work, out this month, he lays out how we can shape a more humane—and productive—future of work. TIME interviewed him to discuss what this could look like and how managers can play a role in that transformation.

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This interview has been edited to be more concise.

Although the work landscape is changing constantly, most employees want a hybrid schedule that allows them to be remote and in their office. How are you finding it?

It’s pretty steady: You have 50% of people that now go back to the office every day. It is almost split 50/50, either entirely remote or hybrid. Both the most stressed and the least stressed people come to work. And if you look at remote workers, it’s almost exactly the same. This seems to depend on the individual, not the place. What people are really looking for isn’t flexibility of location. It’s flexibility of time. The pandemic has kind of shown everybody that we’re whole humans. [Ed. Note: At this point in the interview, my 3-year-old daughter ran into the room.]As your spring break child, we are able to see what her face looks like. We also know the places she runs. Flexibility is important for us to be able to either pick up our child or grandma. All this hybrid talk misses the fact that it’s not the geography, the location. It’s the flexibility of being a whole human.

How do we square that with big business’s need for productivity? Are workers able to work less and have the time they need?

A CEO who says productivity is down [during remote work]It is just making it up. Their first question would be to prove that it is true. It is impossible to measure personal productivity in work. It is really, really hard to find. The result is actually immense success. It is possible to see the performance of the companies, which was amazing. What we’ve learned over the last two years is people can be just as productive, in fact probably more productive, when they have more flexibility of time.

Real estate is the real challenge facing CEOs. You’ve got all these really expensive offices and you got to find use for that. In general for workers—1.8 jobs for every job applicant, 3.5% unemployment—we now have way more power to choose. After two years, we have become a different species. The companies that miss us emotionally like that, they’re going to have big talent problems. Jamie Dimon is an example. [CEO of JPMorgan Chase]. “You’re going to come back in the office.” Um, no you’re not, because then all the people can go work for a tech company that doesn’t have the same rules. Apple’s going to bump into the same thing.

“People are more productive when they hang out together around the cooler.” No, they’re not. None of that’s true. There’s no data on that at all. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need each other. People need one another. But the CEO stuff about culture and development and productivity—that’s all just made up.

Is it possible to have good stress? Do you find it easier to work with less adrenaline if you are able to maintain a more relaxed lifestyle?

Well, there’s two things that we know, in answer to your question. The third would obviously be that it all depends on each individual. We did an analysis of 27 countries, which included a stratified random sampling of workers from each country. There were 1,000 people in each country. We were really looking at inclusion and resilience. But we also decided to put in some stress questions, one of them was simply, “I have experienced significant stress at work in the last week.” And we asked on a scale of one to five. And we also had measures of, “Are you intending to leave the organization in the next three months? And are you actively interviewing to leave the organization in the next three months?”

In general, the pattern would be what you would expect: the people who strongly disagreed that they’d experienced significant stress had much higher levels of engagement and resilience and much less likelihood to be either intending to leave or actively interviewing. Strangely enough, people who stated that they had experienced significant stress within the past week were the most likely to have the best outcomes for resilience and engagement. They also tend to be less likely to quit. So we’re like, “Wait a minute.” What’s the one set of conditions under which stress turns out to be a good thing? We found that the only time that stress is good is when you love what you do, and you’re good at it.

If you love what you do, and you’re not good at it, stress is bad. If you don’t love what you do, but you’re good at it, stress is really bad. If you don’t love it, and you’re not good at it, stress is really bad. And then under every other set of conditions it’s really bad. Brand new to the job, eight years into the job—bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. When you love the activities you participate in, stress can be a good thing.

Your learning is affected by adrenaline. But when when you love what you do, and you’re good at it, you don’t have cortisol and adrenaline and fight or flight coursing through your brain, because that shuts you down. You have norepinephrine and oxytocin and vasopressin and serotonin, you have this chemical cocktail in your brain that is almost the same chemical cocktail as when you’re in love with someone. And that opens you up to more information, more learning, you’re more creative, you perform cognitive tasks better, you pick up people’s emotions more accurately.

At home or not, stress is a function of when the particular activities you’re doing, for whatever reason, really fit you. If you give me time and flexibility, whether it’s at home or the office, to choose when I’m doing stuff and what I’m doing, I’m more productive and less stressed. Any CEO would be foolish to try to change what is natural to us.

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How many Americans do you believe are working in jobs they love? And what do you think is the most important thing managers and bosses can do to alleviate worker stress—make people happier with their jobs—if they don’t love what they do? A lot of people need jobs.

Actual number: 51% report that they are passionate about what they do. This is quite a large percentage. I think the pandemic has helped, actually, because we’ve been by ourselves a lot. 73% say that they can adjust their work schedules to make it more comfortable. So we’ve got more flexibility than we think. There’s a ton of love to be found in almost any job.

If you want to be a company that attracts people in these really tight labor markets, talking non-clichedly about, “We’re interested in who you are, and what you love to do, and how you can build your mastery here.” If you just had that as an explicit part of your talent brand. That’s non-trivial.

Next, you need to choose control spans. [Ed. Note: this is an HR term that refers to the number of direct reports each supervisor is responsible for.]Nurses experienced burnout at a high rate even before the pandemic and had PTSD levels twice that of war veterans. One of the huge—not the only—but one of the big reasons is the nurse supervisor to nurse ratio in the United States, on average is 1:60. It can even go as high as 1:100. You can’t help someone feel seen at work, you can’t maybe help them figure out what they love or what they’re good at and how to do a bit more of it if your ratio is 1:60. Change your spans of control, and rename them spans of attention, because that’s what they should be.

You can also reduce stress by forming a team. If you feel like you’re part of a team, you’re half as likely to say that you experienced stress in the last week. Teachers and healthcare workers are the two professions that have low resilience and engagement. There’s a lot of reasons—underfunding and maybe what I was saying about spans of control. Schools have no teams. Hospitals are not run by teams, they are horizontally integrated according to your function or discipline. And we’re like, “I wonder why nurses are leaving in droves?”

Do these events have anything to do with the current push for unionization? Many businesses that had historically enjoyed good wages and great benefits like Apple and Starbucks are now facing union elections.

This is an exciting time for businesses. Amazon increased their base salary from 100 to 300. Target now pays 25 dollars an hour. These companies are investing a lot of money to address this issue. And there’s no doubt people like money. I mean, that’s not a bad strategy. As you pointed out, companies who seem to do a lot for employees are having trouble with representation or unionization. This is why it is important for businesses to be aware that this epidemic is changing people. A lot of us anyway, we’ve had a lot of dark days, we’ve been by ourselves, we lost the cues of who we are at work. We got looked in the mirror, and we were like, “What the heck am I?” And some of the days you’re like, “I am me, I have value. I’m not just a cog in a machine, I want to work. I’m a whole human. And I want to be at a place that sees me as a whole human.” I want the company to see me as a whole human. If you don’t, then I will join a union that will. And I don’t think companies are ready for it.

It is going to be a big challenge for the HR function. The HR function was created to safeguard Apple’s employees, regardless of whether they are a large company such as Apple. That’s what it’s for. And when you combine those two things: I’m coming back to the workplace, I want to be seen as a whole human. And I realized that my company, even the HR function, is actually designed to sort of protect the company from me, that’s a bad mix.

Are there any HR professionals who are able to shift from protecting companies and just towards enhancing the organization?

Well, no, I mean, maybe. I think we’re going to have this tight labor market for at least the next five years. Companies will need to find ways to attract the top talent. The HR function currently hinders this. That’s kind of all part of Joseph Stiglitz’s “stakeholder capitalism,” where employees are one of four stakeholders. I think we’re going to move to a place where the best companies are going to go, “Now there’s one stakeholder, it’s the employees. That’s where the value is created. That’s where the products are made. If we really get that right, then we’re going to win.”

I don’t think we’re there yet. However, I believe the power of the labor force will help us reach our goals. As the big banks in New York are finding out, you can’t come in and say the stupid things that those CEOs have been saying, you just look so out of touch. “You’re gonna come back to the office because we built a big one.” Tim, Tim, Tim…

You’ve studied a lot of companies. You’ve looked at a lot of companies. Which ones do you feel are doing the best and attract employees to it?

Lululemon is doing a very good job. I’m not saying Lululemon is a perfect company, but they do the whole onboarding team joining thing really well by saying, “What are your personal goals? And if the goal is to be the CEO of Lululemon, that’s great, but if the goal is, ‘I want to go start my own shoe brand in three years, I want to open a yoga studio in five years,’ great, we’ll try to make them all happen.” That’s interesting. It’s also interesting to note that pictures of people who leave are displayed on the wall. They are former employees. When they leave, the pictures of these people are displayed on the wall at Lululemon as brand ambassadors. Most of the time you walk out of a company, you’re dead, your value is gone.

Actually, I just recently came from Zachry Construction Company in San Antonio. They have a Dream Manager. He is responsible for interviewing everyone about their dreams. I realize it sounds so naff as I’m saying it to you, but they had people in tears. I’m as cynical as the next person, but it was like, Okay, this company is crushing it right now and they’re talking to individual people who might have a high school diploma, they may not have a college degree, and they were just interviewing them one by one about what are your dreams? What are our chances of being part of these dreams? This is what I believe the future looks like.

We all know the impact of the pandemic on work. But do you think in two years we’ll be back to nine to five in the office, the same as we were before, and this is a distant memory? Is this a true, long-term shift or do you see it as a temporary one?

I don’t think there’s any doubt it’s the latter. Because the unemployment demographics are going to stay the way they are, and money won’t cut it. We’ve got way more power as employees than we’ve ever had before. And it’s going to be this way for the next five years, absent some sort of global conflict, which is possible, I guess.

Do you think this is because of the fact that there will be a shortage of workers for many years as a result the aging population?

Yeah, yes, we’ve got more older people than we do younger people. And that’s going to stay. It is expected that the labor force will shrink. Because the workforce is so small, wage inflation will occur. And but I think what that means is the answer to your question is we’re not going back. Because if there’s a company that says, “You’re coming in,” then I’ll just go, “No, I won’t. I’ll go over here.” And there’ll be another company that will go, “Oh, ok, I think we can make that work.” You’re seeing that everywhere. We learned from the pandemic that we can actually maintain and increase our productivity if people aren’t in the office all the time. That doesn’t mean that everybody can not be in the office all the time, it does mean that we can be super productive as a company and give people more flexibility than we gave them before. It also, I think, means that when we stripped away all the stuff associated with work—the commutes, the checking in with your badge, the office party—a lot of us went, “This job is actually really badly designed and I don’t like it,” or, “I don’t need all that other stuff.” You have more agency, so you are more powerful. This is a good feeling for anyone.

So yeah, I know we’re not going back. There could be global war, so never say die. But that aside, we’re not going back.

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