In today's job market, it's nearly impossible to predict what's coming next. Many employees are still quitting in droves, while others simply put in less effort. Regardless of specifics, employees' relationship with work is shifting, and it's up to employers to figure out how to keep them coming back and engaging at 100% capacity. Recently, I had the incredible opportunity to sit down and chat with SKIM's Senior Analyst, Makella Bergsmith, about her stance on the future of work.
Makella presented at the Future of Insights Summit, hosted by the UGA MMR Program, as part of their New Speaker Track - providing a platform for fresh voices to join the industry conversation. Her topic was Engaging Employees Through Internal Initiatives.
Tricia: Hi, Makella! Thanks so much for joining me today. It was great to see you at the Summit! You are the second speaker to join the New Speaker track. I mentored your predecessor, Katie Taddei, who spoke about the Future of Work in 2019. One of the big points she made was all about flexibility and what employers who wanted to get ahead of the curve could provide to their employees. She used the term micro-flexibility. So it's not that everybody wanted 100% work from home, or everybody wanted 100% in the office; there's this medium point. And it was so interesting – I talked to her once the pandemic hit, and her talk is now our reality…
Makella: Yeah. So, I remember thinking a bit before the pandemic that micro flexibility probably is more so where [work] was going. And then I think COVID, and being forced to work from home, was just an absolute earthquake and very earth-shattering for everybody, and I think it forced us all into having to be radically flexible. So now I feel like it's kind of… companies had to do that. They're seeing things they might not like or want to perpetuate moving forward, so they're trying to contract in again. I feel like there are a lot of conflicting wants and priorities in companies trying to contract back and employees wanting to perpetuate that flexibility forward.
T: What do you think are some of the drivers of wanting to contract back? I have some theories. Curious to hear yours.
M: I think a massive one is culture preservation. I think a lot of companies thought that they worked very hard on and had very good cultures before the pandemic. And then the pandemic hit, less face-to-face interaction was happening, less meaningful relationships between their employees were taking place and being built. So it was harder, I think, to extend that culture into this ultra-flexible working, and then it was hard to establish that culture with people hired during that time. I feel like, especially with our industry, so many people started new jobs at new companies. And companies had zero idea of how to be like, "How do we establish our culture in this way?" So they were trying to rely on what's worked in the past, which really doesn't work anymore after everything had shifted. And then they kind of figured that out and are struggling to kind of figure out how to push it forward into people working from home, not being in the office.
T: Yeah, I think that's totally spot-on. The other thing that's really struck me is the level of trust. I mean, some companies were already doing this before the pandemic, right? The theme I see between some of them that we've looked at is that really they'd operate from this place of trust, and they treat their employees like adults. And culture is part of it, but if you have a strong mission and purpose, you know where your company is headed, and people know where they're going if they're out on their own.
M: Yeah, no. I 100% agree. And this all comes into culture, too. I guess we'll see, kind of, in the long run. I know everybody was trying to hire [during the pandemic] – but I don't know how effective companies were in hiring people that they felt were a good fit since in-person interviews weren't happening. I think that's a big indicator of whether or not those people are going to be able to embrace the culture and carry it forward. Which I think, too, then even plays into that trust factor. Which, you know, if there's not culture absorption, it might start going in a direction where upper level can't trust other employees, et cetera.
T: Yeah, no, that makes complete sense. I was looking back over your presentation this morning before we talked, especially the focus on employee engagement. And right after you spoke [at the summit], is when the quiet quitting term came up. [laughs]
M: I saw that, and I was like, "Oh, that's some interesting timing," and it was also – I felt it was late to the game because I did the talk, and then I immediately was like, head down in a very intense work week, and then I was off on vacation for a week and completely shut off, out of the world. So I came back, and I'm seeing all these articles in Wall Street Journal, podcasts talking about it, and I'm like, "Oh." [laughs]
T: You were a little ahead of the curve there. [laughs]
M: Maybe, maybe. I didn't feel super ahead of the curve. Honestly, I kind of felt like I was caught back on my heels a little bit with it. Because while I do feel like there's an element to the quiet quitting of, maybe boosting engagement will prevent that, I also feel like – from what I've read about it and kind of my understanding – it's more so a conscious decision to reject higher-level engagement versus just not having it. So that, I think, is a little bit more of a complicating factor, and I haven't sat with it long enough to really have a big opinion on it and [an] understanding of what the future might look like because of that.
T: I think that's a really good distinction. From what I've read too, I believe it's multi-faceted, and I think of the engagement part of it as prevention. But from the employee's standpoint – I've tried to think about how I approach my own work. – I'm often the "raise-my-hand" person, right?
M: Yeah, same.
T: And then we all went through this whole COVID thing, right? And it puts life back into focus a little bit more, and I realize it's good to take time for myself. It's good to invest that time in myself. And I have young kids, so I always have competing priorities and whatever, but that whole idea of, "I can still do well [at work]. But the only way to succeed is not just running myself into the ground." And so to me, as I've said, I haven't sat with it either – I think I need to sit with it more – but it's like, people who are operating at 130% are now going to operate on 100%.
M: Yeah, I had the same thought. Like, in a way, I do understand kind of, where this conscious decision is coming from. Because I do feel like I'm generally one of those people that will operate at above 100%, and I've thought many times I've experienced burnout at a couple of different points [in] my life. And it's been like, maybe I should just, you know, bump it down to one hundred and live life like that for a little while and see how that goes. But then, at the same time, I feel like there are a lot of people who maybe always operate at 75-80%, and they're choosing to do it, and it's going even lower. And I feel like that's really where companies are going to see issues and have large problems in productivity that they need to address.
T: Yeah, I totally agree. And I think those require different solutions.
M: Absolutely, 100%. I don't really see it as that much of a terrible, detrimental thing for those people that are already going way, way, way above and beyond. But for the people that aren't, not good.
T: Let's shift a minute; I want to talk about one thing you touched on in your talk a lot about an internal initiative. So, I want to set up the three pillars you have, which are [about] how it can help: realigning employees with the organization's mission, providing access to people they wouldn't normally sit at the table with, and just [providing] opportunity for organic relationship building. So, what's your advice for people who want to start internal initiatives? Like, how do you even just get the courage to ask?
M: In terms of getting the courage to ask… I don't necessarily know that I have an answer for that other than just start talking to people. If you don't have the courage to immediately go talk to a VP, you've got a work friend on your level you can bounce the idea off of. See what they think. Get their idea. Get a general gauge of how you think that conversation with that VP might go from that. I feel very fortunate to have very organic work relationships already because I did work in the Atlanta office [of SKIM] for a year before grad school and COVID. So I felt very comfortable off the bat. I read a quote recently, and I'm not even going to attempt to recite it. But basically, it's like, "You just gotta do it." Courage isn't just some feeling you have. It's the act of just doing it in the face of fear. So, just do it. The worst thing that's going to happen is that VP is going to be like, "Oh, this is great. This employee is thinking a lot about our company, whatever we're doing, outside of just their day-to-day work," which shows that you're invested, it shows that you're a team player. So even if it's not the greatest idea in the world, you're now sticking out in that person's mind: "They're really a part of this team, and they're a good person to have to keep playing on this team."
T: I was looking back at the data you shared from the Price Waterhouse Cooper's Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Study - top factors when considering a change in work environment – and you know, of course, compensation [is] at the top. Totally agree you've gotta get that one right – but finding my job fulfilling [and] being my true self, those are right up there at the top. You know, 60%, 65% plus, and "Choose when I work, where I work": also important, but below. So, meaning, you know, there are some folks who maybe [feel] that isn't top of mind. Oftentimes it's hard. You forget the different life stages, right?
T: Folks like myself in the middle of the thick of it [forget], you know, that not everybody's juggling kids, not everybody's juggling school, all that sort of stuff.
M: Yeah, yeah, I absolutely agree. And I think that everybody's kind of struggling to find that balance. I think employers, in theory, want to [say to] those people who are at life stages of having young kids, "Be invested in your family; you're going to be a better employee if you feel like you're being a better parent." Not every company's like that, but in an ideal world! So they're trying to work around that. I mean, they also have to prioritize the business, and they want this engagement. But yeah, I think varying levels are also okay. But I think it's just a matter of making sure that at certain and important touchpoints, you are making sure you have that engagement connection coming back around if somebody did get less engaged because they had a major personal life event, or whatever, et cetera, and just kind of keeping track of that, and making sure that the engagement does kind of get brought back around.
T: That's good. So you've done it now: you spoke at an industry conference! I think we had at least over one hundred and fifty people. I don't know what the final total was, but how was the experience?
M: It was great. It was a very challenging growth experience for me just because I hadn't spoken in front of anybody in person for so long. It was honestly, I think, the first time that I had been anxious, like genuinely anxious, in years. But it was good. It was good to get back out there, and I really appreciated the crowd engagement I felt like I was getting from it. I got asked really great questions afterward, so I'm glad it seemed like a very relevant and important topic to people. I would definitely do it again, but I think I would be better next time since I had this run-through. [laughs]
Major thanks to Makella for the chat – it was incredibly enlightening. Examining corporate trends isn't easy, especially during a time of reset in the workforce, but her background and professional experience allowed her to offer so much insight.
Stay tuned for more conversations about Becoming ExperienceBuilt in 2023!
Until next time,