A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Jan 2, 2023

How Leaders Are Adapting To Changing Workplace Commitment Attitudes

The 21st century version of "how ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree" is becoming, "how ya gonna keep in the office till 7 on weekdays and asking them to come in on weekends after two years of pandemic working from home showed them what they were missing in life." 

Successful leaders recognize that traditional notions of workplace commitment have changed, that their employees have (lots) of options and that leadership requires flexibility and adaptability if they hope not to lose their best staff. The latest report on hiring just before the holidays showed that tech workers facing layoffs - thought by some to be the beginning of their comeuppance - were having no trouble finding new jobs, usually within weeks or even days. The reality of every business being a tech business now means that organizations have to embrace that change both because there is no alternative and because it seems to be working quite well. JL  

Lindsay Ellis and Ray Smith report in the Wall Street Journal:

There’s a realization that the way Americans want to work has changed. Business leaders say they can’t implore staff to get more “hardcore,” as Elon Musk did at Twitter. After he told workers there that “only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade,”  hundreds opted to take Mr. Musk on his severance offer of three months’ salary. White-collar workers say the past three years have reordered their priorities and showed what they were missing when they spent so much time at the office. Bosses recognize increased flexibility and stronger boundaries bring benefits, including improved staff retention (and) is prompting a shift in practices, from vacation policies to new-hire training.

Where have all the go-getters gone? 

At law firm Nixon Peabody LLP, associates have started saying no to working weekends, prompting partners to ask more people to help complete time-sensitive work. TGS Insurance in Texas has struggled to fill promotions, and bosses often have to coax staffers to apply. And Maine-based marketing company Pulp+Wire plans to shut down for two weeks next year now that staffers are taking more vacation than they used to.

“The passion that we used to see in work is lower now, and you find it in fewer people—at least in the last two years,” says Sumithra Jagannath, president of ZED Digital, which makes digital ticket scanners. The company, based in Columbus, Ohio, recently moved about 20 remote engineering and marketing roles to Canada and India, where she said it’s easier to find talent who will go above and beyond.

Since the onset of the pandemic, several employees have asked for more pay when managers asked that they do more work, she says. “It was not like that before Covid at all,” she adds.

 

Many white-collar workers say the events of the past three years have reordered their priorities and showed them what they were missing when they were spending so much time at the office. Now that normalcy is returning, even some of the workers who used to be always on and always striving say they find themselves eyeing the clock as the day winds down, saying no to overtime work or even taking pay cuts for better work-life balance.

The reduced ambition can leave companies needing more people to do the same amount of work, something that ultimately could be a drag on American economic productivity. And bosses are openly considering the ramifications. Comments by Home Depot Inc. co-founder Bernie Marcus that “nobody works, nobody gives a damn,” with possible implications for the future of capitalism, in the Financial Times spread quickly this week. A spokeswoman for the retailer said: “Bernie Marcus retired from The Home Depot more than 20 years ago and does not speak on behalf of the company.”

In a November survey of more than 3,000 workers and managers by software firm Qualtrics, 36% said their overall career ambitions had waned over the past three years, compared with 22% who said their ambition had increased. Nearly 40% said work had become less important to them in the past three years, while 25% said it had grown more important, according to researchers at Qualtrics, which provides software to businesses to evaluate customer and employee experiences. 

Even in hard-charging fields like law and finance, where all-nighters aren’t uncommon, some professionals are objecting to the grind. A group of first-year analysts at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. complained to bank leaders last year that they were working an average of 95 hours a week and that job stress had harmed their physical and mental health. Goldman, in response, said it would hire additional bankers and more strictly enforce boundaries around working hours. In an American Bar Association survey of nearly 2,000 members this year, 44% of young lawyers said they would leave their jobs for a greater ability to work remotely elsewhere.

“When I was an associate, if someone called me on vacation, I was just happy people were continuing to call me,” says Stephen Zubiago, chief executive and managing partner of Nixon Peabody. “I don’t know if that was the right mind-set.” The 56-year-old Mr. Zubiago says associates more often say no when asked to work weekends or take on extra work. That means partners sometimes have to ask multiple people before finding one who will put in the extra time. For time-sensitive work, like researching case law or reviewing documents by a deadline, that can create a “huge staffing problem,” he says. 

The attitude shift stretches well beyond fields where extreme hours have been the norm. It also appears to cross geographies and span generations. Early in the pandemic, corporate leaders blamed young workers for not wanting to work as hard as their older counterparts, says Brian Balonick, the regional managing partner of law firm Fisher Phillips LLP’s Pittsburgh office, specializing in labor. Now, he says, there’s a realization that the way Americans want to work has changed more widely. 

For much of her career, Mary Waisanen, a 43-year-old structural engineering technician in Virginia Beach, Va., would say yes when asked to work overtime to meet deadlines. The extra hours brought her a pay bump. But after watching TikToks about how to reach a healthy work-life balance, she says, she realized that she shouldn’t need to work extra hours to make ends meet. She recently asked her manager to review her salary and see if she was due a raise, as well as for a performance review—which would be her first in three years. 

“Until then,” she says, “I will make more of an effort to ‘act my wage,’ ” referencing a phrase that’s gone viral on social media and encourages workers to do solely what they are compensated for. Ms. Waisanen says she has since received a letter stating she will receive a 12.5% raise in 2023.

Thinking about the last three years of your career (i.e., throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and global economic downturn), how have your career ambitions changed?

My career ambitions have:

significantly

decreased

lowered

slightly

increased

slightly

significantly

increased

not changed at all

21%

15%

43%

12%

10%

How has the importance of work in your life changed?

The importance of work in my life has:

become

much more

important

become significantly

less important

become slightly

less important

become more

important

not changed in the last 3 years

21%

17%

37%

16%

9%

Source: Qualtrics survey conducted Nov. 15-30, of 3,001 respondents. Respondents are approximately representative of the U.S. population by age and gender, 15% were managers or higher.

An inspiring or demanding boss may be able to spark productivity, but business leaders say they can’t simply implore staff to get more “hardcore,” as Elon Musk did at Twitter Inc. After he told workers there that “only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade,” hundreds or more opted to take Mr. Musk on his severance offer of three months’ salary.

What could prompt a widespread return of professional ambition? A severe economic downturn that sends unemployment soaring might make workers feel they need to work harder to show their value. While some prominent companies, including Amazon.com Inc., Walt Disney Co. and Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc., have announced layoffs over the past couple months, federal data shows there were still nearly two job openings for each unemployed person in October.

Some bosses say they recognize that increased flexibility and stronger boundaries could bring benefits, including improved staff retention. Still, the shift in worker attitudes is prompting a shift in workplace practices, from vacation policies to new-hire training.

At Portland, Maine, marketing and advertising firm Pulp+Wire, employees got three weeks of vacation prepandemic, and “they never took as much as they should have,” founder Taja Dockendorf says. The firm, whose clients have included Petco and Allagash Brewing Co., moved to an unlimited vacation policy this year. The reason was twofold, Ms. Dockendorf says: to encourage workers to take more vacation days and so that they wouldn’t, in December, all take vacation at once before losing them at year’s end.

Workers who say:

their attitude toward work is focused primarily on getting the job done.

they go above and beyond on the job.

a feeling of purpose from their work has kept them at their current job.

they are growing disenchanted with the 9-to-5 lifestyle.

All workers 37%

57%

19%

Gen Z and millennials

Gen Z

48%

43%

14%

Millennials

52%

40

54

15

Gen X

32

62

20

Boomers

28

69

31

Source: Prudential survey conducted Sept. 29–Oct. 1, 2022, of 4,796 adults, 2,356 of which are workers.

Now, so many people want to take time off in the summer and around the winter holidays that Ms. Dockendorf says she is considering shutting down the entire office for a week twice a year. That would require telling clients far in advance to expect dark weeks, she says.

Damon Diamantaras, CEO of Houston-based TGS Insurance, says he notices the change when promotion opportunities come up at the 200-employee independent insurance agency. A decade ago, new hires would typically ask within weeks what it took to be promoted to manager, he says. Now, more times than not, he says, managers need to proactively identify candidates for higher positions—and seek them out, instead of waiting for workers to raise their hands. He says he tells staff at company meetings to consider their futures at the firm and that many are capable of more than they realize. 

These days, many workers are content doing the same job they’ve done, Mr. Diamantaras says. The pay is comfortable, the company is stable and many workers want to make time for friends and activities: “That’s OK, but you have to have people—we constantly look for people—who have drive, that we feel like we can promote to higher-paying jobs in the organization.” 

In a recent job listing for a property-and-casualty insurance agent, TGS laid out those expectations: “If you’re just OK with getting by, or are a ‘quiet quitter,’ this will be too fast paced for you. We’re looking for people that want a new Mercedes.” 

In an August survey of 1,234 HR employees, 45% said their organization has struggled more than usual to motivate employees to work beyond the required scope of their job in the past six months, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, which conducted the poll.  U.S. labor productivity, as measured by how much the typical worker gets done in an hour, fell at a 5.9% annual rate in the first quarter of 2022—its steepest decline in more than a decade. It fell 4.1% in the second, before rising at a 0.8% pace in the third. Some economists believe worker disengagement is one factor in recent declines. Productivity can also be affected by hiring trends and the state of the economy. 

Many workers say they see little connection between working hard and being rewarded. About half of the 1,071 respondents to a May survey by The Wall Street Journal and NORC at the University of Chicago said they don’t have a good chance of improving their standard of living, compared with 27% who said they do. The 27% figure was a 20 percentage-point drop from a year earlier. About 60% said they were pessimistic about most people’s ability to achieve the American dream. 

Growing up, Austin Wiggins saw his father work long hours as a manager at a regional grocery chain, without ascending to the store-director level. Doing so, his father, Daniel Wiggins, says, would have meant possibly moving to a store location further from family, which he didn’t want. 

In May, just before he started a new accounting job, the younger Mr. Wiggins asked his dad to cosign a loan to buy a 2020 Toyota Camry. Mr. Wiggins says he was taken aback when he saw his dad’s salary, required for the loan. It was under six figures, and not far above what he was going to make as a 23-year-old recent graduate, he says.

 

“I know how many hours he’s put in, how much he’s given to this company,” Mr. Wiggins says. “There’s not compelling enough correlation to make me become the person that’s going well above and beyond what I need to do.” 

Now in an entry-level accounting program, he says he makes sure he does quality work, but he says he doesn’t constantly ask managers for extra assignments. He doesn’t aspire to the C-suite and hopes to, by 40, leave the corporate world to become a professor. He has told managers that he can work a 60-hour week if the work is there, he says, but that he isn’t the kind of person to wait to leave the office until a boss does if there’s no work to do. 

An ADP Research Institute survey conducted in November 2021 found that U.S. workers said they were doing 8.4 hours of unpaid overtime work each week, down from nine hours the prior year. And more than half of respondents overall said they would take a pay cut for more work-life balance or to have more flexibility in how they structure hours.

News producer Alex Spearman says he now values work-life balance more than he used to: ‘I spent the first 15 years of my career climbing that ladder.’PHOTO: MADDIE MCGARVEY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Alex Spearman, 39, did exactly that last year. He had been climbing the ranks in broadcast journalism, eventually becoming an executive producer at a television station in Washington, D.C.. Though his shift was officially from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m., he says he often worked 12-hour days, with no overtime pay. 

Then, over Memorial Day weekend in 2021, his mother-in-law was hospitalized. He felt pressure to work regardless, he says. 

He found a new job by August of last year, moving to a smaller market in Albany, N.Y., before relocating to Columbus, Ohio, in June of this year. Though his new executive-producer job pays 30% less, he is three hours from Detroit, where he grew up. On a recent weekend, he saw his mother and sister and caught the musician Lizzo in concert. 

Now, he says, he no longer wants what had once been his dream title—news director. 

“I spent the first 15 years of my career climbing that ladder, being ambitious,” he says. “I don’t want this to be what’s written on my tombstone. And I certainly don’t want the stress to be what puts me in a grave.”

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