The Scarcest Resource
“Are we suffering from low productivity because we have underinvested in human capital? Or are we unable to invest in human capital because structural factors are permanently reducing productivity?” Eric Garton and Michael Mankins, authors of the book “Time, Talent, and Energy”, present evidence and make the case for the former: “we could improve productivity if we stopped systematically underinvesting in human capital.” In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Garton points to evidence that “periods of breakout productivity in the United States were not the result of capital deepening (applying more capital to each hour of labor), but of what economists call total factor productivity, a catch-all measure for the impact of technological innovation. Who has these inspirational ideas and translates them into productivity-driving innovations? People do.” Specifically, Garton and Mankins' research revealed that top-quartile companies "unlocked 40% more productive power in their workforce through better practices in time, talent and energy management", and the article takes a close look at at three key investments that could “reinvigorate the productivity cycle”: wages, time, and energy.
• Aligning higher wages with heightened customer advocacy and employee engagement could potentially reduce employee and customer churn and, as a result, lower the cost of hiring and customer acquisition, and balance out the cost of increasing wages.
• When it comes to valuing time, Garton and Mankins’ research showed that managers have less than seven hours per week to focus on deeper work, with constant interruptions from meetings, emails, and more. So, forward-thinking organizations are intentionally finding creative ways to give employees the flexibility to work on improving processes and exploring ideas.
• And, with regard to energy, Garton notes that organizational energy can be measured through employee engagement. “Creating inspiring jobs and engaging working environments requires holistically addressing the factors that drive employee inspiration,” including inspirational leadership, more autonomy, and agility.
Ultimately, Garton and Mankins present a compelling position on why “human capital, not financial capital” is often an organization's scarcest resource.
A Lifetime of Learning
In an open letter to business leaders published by McKinsey, Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson and Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative VP of Learning Science Bror Saxberg make the case for “why a new emphasis on lifelong learning is going to become increasingly central to [executives’’] jobs” in order for them to maximize “the value and impact of [their] organization.” Edmonson and Saxberg empathetically stress their view that business leaders must make learning a corporate priority as the business landscape navigates the disruption from increased automation. For this to happen, “learning must be built into every aspect of the organization.” Learning will happen in the field, supported by well-designed learning processes and adoption of the right tools. Leaders also need to create “a psychologically safe environment in which people feel comfortable taking the risks that come with experimentation and practice; giving and receiving candid feedback, asking questions, and acknowledging failures.” Saxberg and Edmonson are clear to point out that too often “when we talk about learning, the emphasis is often on “hard” skills, such as coding, analytics, and data science. While these skills will be critical, they are only part of the story. The dynamics [...] in which information-rich tools become ubiquitous and people are a differentiator, paradoxically, increase the importance of such “soft” attributes as collaboration, empathy, and meaning making.”
Picture this: a work environment where robots and humans work together in harmony. As The New York Times reports, this isn’t a utopian future, but actual Amazon warehouses, where work is equally balanced between people and robots. Due to Amazon’s rapid, massive growth, robots were brought in to assist humans, taking on more monotonous and physically demanding tasks, and make fulfilling orders more efficient. Despite this, every human employee kept their jobs, and Amazon found different roles for workers whose roles were displaced by robots. Some employees were trained to help to operate or maintain the robots. What will happen when the next wave of robots come to Amazon? Time will tell if Amazon can set a precedent and continue to protect job growth for its people while still transforming work with innovative technology.
People Ops for the People
"Holistic People Operations" is how First Round Review describes the new approach that Lucia Guillory is creating at Patreon with the goal of taking the employee experience to a new level. It is defined by combining the traditional people ops teams (recruiters and HR), with team like IT, facilities, and administration. The collaboration across departments is intended to smoothly “coordinate across all the functions that touch an employee’s experience,” and are aligned around the “primary motive” of “caring for [their] employee base.” Core to this is regularly gathering feedback, and “responding to it with meaningful action,” and always “operating with the employee lifecycle in mind — it's all about getting the context necessary to make choices that put employees first.”
“While their economic impact has thus far been muted, automation and artificial intelligence raise the spectre of mass displacement of workers.” What can we do to prepare for the uncertain future of work? According to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Human Capital Report, there are two sets of “core, cross-functional skills that underpin a career”: interpersonal skills and basic technology skills. The report was developed by the World Economic Forum in partnership with LinkedIn. The LinkedIn data was “used to analyse the labour market in an unprecedentedly granular way [to] break down human capital into its most fundamental and critical component unit: skills.” The report found that interpersonal skills, like leadership and customer service aren’t likely to be replaced by “technological innovation or economic disruptions,” and basic tech skills serve as a complement to learning the newest innovations. Both sets of skills are adaptable, stand the test of time, are essential across industries and departments, and give people “the capacity to pivot careers” as needed.
Now and Then
The Wall Street Journal takes a visual look at the workplace, then and now.
Credit: Then and Now: The Big Shift at Work, Wall Street Journal, September 2017