Education alert: The unintended consequences of schools’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This past week, Forbes magazine published a feature article authored by its senior education editor, Susan Adams, concerning a $12 billion company that’s benefited mightily from the distance learning measures hastily put in place for secondary and college-level students in the wave of the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns.

The company in question is Chegg, an education technology firm which offers a $14.95 monthly subscription that provides a lifeline for students who are looking for answers to exam questions. 

Headquartered in California, Chegg actually looks more like a company based in India, where it accesses a stable of more than 70,000 people with advanced science, math, engineering and IT degrees.   These freelancers are available online continuously, supplying subscribers from around the world with step-by-step answers to their test-related questions.  And the answers are typically provided in a matter of mere minutes. 

Reportedly, Chegg’s database contains answers on some 46 million textbook and exam question topics, and it’s the driving force behind the company’s Chegg Study subscription service.

Of course everyone knows where the real action is …

Chegg Study is also the main revenue stream of the company — by far.  Other services such as resources for improving writing and math skills as well as bibliography-creation software seem more like window-dressing. 

It brings to mind certain video shops of yesteryear which would display a small selection of benign movie “standards” for sale at the front of the premises, fig-leafing the store’s true purpose.

The Forbes article interviewed more than 50 college students who are subscribers to Chegg Study.  The students interviewed represent a cross-section of institutions ranging from small state schools to top private universities. 

Nearly every one of the students interviewed admitted that they use Chegg Study to cheat on tests. 

To view Chegg’s financial numbers is to notice a direct correlation between the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — when education went virtual practically overnight — and a spike in revenue growth at the company.  Quarterly revenues over 2019 have leapt 70% or more, and Chegg’s shares are up nearly 350% since the education lockdowns began in mid-March. 

The company is now valued at a cool $12 billion.

Corporate spokespeople deny that Chegg is taking advantage of the current situation to juice its sales and profits.  Company president Dan Rosensweig contends that Chegg is the equivalent of an “asynchronous, always-on tutor,” ready to help students with detailed answers to problems. 

On-demand education, if you will.  Or a student version of the GE Answer Center.

But the “new reality” of virtual education and Chegg’s role within it brings up a number of concerns.  As cheating becomes easier to do and hence more prevalent (human nature being what it is), what happens to the value of a high school or college degree?  Can degree credentials mean as much as they did before?

It depends.  For some jobs where the ability to find accurate information quickly is important, finding someone who mastered the function of “chegging” while as a student might actually be the better candidate for the position.  On the other hand, if the position requires a person who will uphold the highest ethical standards at all times, that same candidate would be the wrong one for the job.

Ultimately, it’s the students themselves who will likely be the victims long-term, because if they “skated on through” during their school years and didn’t actually learn the material, that will soon become evident when they go into the workforce.  “Find out now … or find out later,” one might say.

Looking at the other side of the coin, how can schools make sure that they’re monitoring and mitigating cheating effectively, such that employers can be confident the comparative value of a degree from one school versus that of another? 

There are a variety of “remote proctoring” surveillance tools like Examity and Honorlock that can lock students’ web browsers and observe them visually through their laptop cameras.  While on paper these look like effective (albeit costly) ways to crack down on online cheating, the degree of their actual success is debatable. 

Some respondents in the Forbes student interviews reported that they “chegg” their online tests regardless of whether or not they’re being proctored, citing the belief that if they aren’t using the school’s own Wi-Fi connection, it’s impossible to detect the cheating activity. 

Furthermore, anecdotal reports from teachers in my home state of Maryland state that on test-taking days, often there are large spikes in the number of students who mysteriously run into “problems” with their Zoom connections – and hence are unable to be observed while taking their tests.

But the issue goes even further – to the very heart of the notion of virtual learning itself and whether distance learning is ill-serving young people.  Some students have found it hugely challenging to be skillful learners in the “virtual” world.  A business colleague of mine shared one such example with me:

“Someone who I respect greatly and consider to be an honorable man has accepted his son’s cheating, since he went from being an ‘A’-student to failing because he couldn’t handle online learning.  He was a visual and auditory learner and without those two things, the information wouldn’t stick. 

The student and his dad talked about the 12 consecutive chapters he was supposed to be reading.  When the father was satisfied with his son’s understanding of the material, he allowed his son to do whatever was necessary to get through the tests.”

When the situation gets to the point that students’ own parents are going along with the cheating, it means that we have an issue that goes way beyond one particular company that’s taking advantage of the dislocations in the educational arena while laughing all the way to the bank.  At its root, the problem is virtual learning and the way it’s being structured. 

Of course, the coronavirus crisis built quickly and took many colleges and school systems by surprise — so the fact that jury-rigged ways to deal with the virtual learning have fallen well-short expectations is completely understandable.  But the shortcomings have become so glaringly obvious so quickly, new creative thinking is obviously needed – and fast.

If you have thoughts or ideas about steps the educational field could be taking to solve this dilemma, please share them with other readers here.

Post-pandemic, will the office landscape ever be the same again?

Nearly every business or organization, regardless of thee industry segment in which it operates, has been at least somewhat impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Existential forces have been responsible for quite a few businesses having to reduce staff working hours, either as a mandatory or voluntary measure. In a world of tough choices, often that action was the most reasonable way to cut costs while preventing redundancies and furloughs.

Months into the pandemic and with more restrictions being put in place again for the foreseeable future at least, what began as a short-term fix to weather the economic pressures of the COVID-19 outbreak now has some employers rethinking the possibilities of how they can restructure jobs to “work” effectively outside of the traditional work-week model.

In doing so, employers are responding to a growing appetite for part-time and flexible working as people re-evaluate their own work/life balance situations.

The economic benefits of allowing a higher proportion of staff to choose reduced hours on a more permanent basis could be beneficial for companies already operating on historically thin margins.  While it’s too early to see widespread policy changes happening, some companies are already actively planning to offer more part-time and flexible work to meet the desires of those who no longer wish to work a traditional 8-hour day/40-hour work week.

Among the numerous repercussions of the “coronavirus economy,” one may be the growing realization that office employees actually can take back some control of their time – that they can still do good work while structuring their work days, weeks or months differently. 

Any lingering stigma once associated with working fewer hours, working from home, or leaving the office early to pick up children has pretty much disappeared.  Employees doing any of those things are no longer the exception – and hence there’s no longer the guilt associated with bending or breaking the rules of attendance at the office.  And that’s before factoring in the economic attraction of saving thousands of dollars per year in commuting and other travel-related costs.

One chief marketing officer, Amanda Goetz of Teal Communications, goes so far so to declare that the 40-hour work week won’t exist in 10 years.  “The way companies operate now, there’s no need to ‘own’ someone’s calendar as long as you know they have very clear metrics and can hit their goals,” this manager emphasizes.

What are your thoughts?  How much will the recent changes be permanent going forward … or will we soon return to the paradigms of the pre-pandemic office world?  Please share your perspectives with other readers here.

The COVID pandemic and the race to raise digital skills.

The Coronavirus pandemic has certainly made its mark on many markets and industries – some more than others, of course. But one consequence of the events of 2020 appears to cross all industry lines. 

Because of the rapid adjustments organizations have been required to make in the way jobs are performed – borne out of necessity because of health fears, not to mention government edicts – workers have been forced to come up the digital learning curve in a big hurry in order to do their jobs properly.

This “digital upskilling” dynamic isn’t affecting only office workers.  It’s happening across the board – in the private and public sector alike. 

Simply put, digital upskilling isn’t a matter of choice.  If workers want to remain relevant — and to keep their jobs — they’re having to ramp up their digital skill-sets without delay.

Moreover, the new skills aren’t limited to the efficient use of mobile devices, digital meeting/presentation functions, cloud applications and the like.  According to LinkedIn’s recruitment data, highly in-demand skills over the past few months encompass wide-ranging and comprehensive knowledge sets such as data science, data storage, and tech support.

Not so long ago, there were “tech jobs” and “non-tech jobs.”  Now there are just “jobs” – and nearly every one of them require the people doing them to possess a high comfort level with technology.

Will things revert back to older norms with the anticipated arrival of coronavirus vaccines in 2021?  I think the chances of that are “less than zero.”  But what are your thoughts?  Please share your perspectives with other readers.

As the American workplace reopens, not all employees are onboard with returning to the “old normal.”

A new survey finds that nearly half of employees who are currently working from home want to keep it that way.

The forced shutdown of the American workplace began in mid-March. Only now, ten weeks later, are things beginning to open back up in a significant way.

But those ten weeks have revealed some interesting attitudinal changes on the part of many employees. Simply put, quite a few of them have concluded that they like working from home, and don’t much care to return to the “traditional” work routines.

It’s an interesting development that illustrates yet another manifestation of “the law of unintended consequences.” For decades, the opportunities to work from home seemed to be a realistic proposition for only a distinct minority of certain white-collar workers and top-level managers.

Reflecting this dynamic, prior to the Coronavirus outbreak just ~7% of the U.S. private sector workforce had access to a flexible workplace benefit, as reported in the 2019 National compensation Survey released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Suddenly, working from home went from being a rarefied benefit to something quite routine in many work sectors.

In late April, The Grossman Group, a Chicago-based leadership and communications consulting firm, conducted an online survey of nearly 850 U.S. employees who are currently working from their homes.  A cross-section of age, gender, geography, ethnicity and education levels were surveyed to ensure a reliable representation of the U.S. workforce.

The topline finding from the Grossman research is that nearly half of all workers surveyed (48%) reported that they would like to continue working from home after the COVID-19 pandemic passes.

The reasons for preferring work-from-home arrangements are varied. Certainly, the prospect of reduced commuting time is a major attraction, along with other work/life balance factors … and while some employees have found that setting up an office in their home isn’t a simple proposition, it’s also clear that many employees were able to adjust quickly during the early days of the workplace lockdown.

David Grossman, CEO of The Grossman Group, sees in the survey findings a clear message to employers:  Worker preferences have evolved rapidly, necessitating a re-imagining of traditional ways of working. Grossman says:

“A great deal has changed in employees’ lives in a short time, and if we want them to be engaged and productive, we’re going to have to be willing to meet them where they are as much as possible … that’s a ‘win-win’ for companies and their people.”

He adds:

“Many employees have gotten a taste of working from home for the first time – and they like it.”

Interestingly, the Grossman Group survey found practically no generational differences in the attractiveness of a work-from-home option; whether you’re a Baby Boomer, a Gen X or Gen Z worker, the attitudes are nearly the same.

Of course, not every type of work is conducive to working remotely. Many jobs simply cannot be done without the benefit of a “destination workplace” where mission-critical machinery, equipment, laboratory and other facilities are accessed daily. But the COVID-19 lockdown experience has shown that employees can be productive no matter where they are, and a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the workplace likely won’t cut it in the future.

This might be a little difficult for some people to hear, but employers will have to set aside concerns about potential slackening employee motivation and productivity in a remote working environment, lest they lose their talent to other, more flexible employers who are figuring out ways to manage a remote workforce effectively over the long-term.

As David Grossman contends, “More flexibility adds value to the employee experience, builds engagement, and brings results.”

Additional findings from the Grossman Group research can be accessed here.

What are your thoughts on the topic, based on your own experiences and those of your co-workers over the past 10 weeks? Please share your opinions with other readers here.

 

Virtual Meetings: Will the COVID-19 virus accelerate a trend?

One of the big repercussions of the Coronavirus scare has been to shift most companies into a world where significant numbers of their employees are working from home. Whereas working remotely might have been an occasional thing for many of these workers in the past, now it’s the daily reality.

What’s more, personal visits to customers and attendance at meetings or events have been severely curtailed.

This “new reality” may well be with us for the coming months – not merely weeks as some reporting has indicated. But more fundamentally, what does it mean for the long-term?

I think it’s very possible that we’re entering a new era of how companies work and interact with their customers that’s permanent more than it is temporary. The move towards working remotely had been advancing (slowly) over the years, but COVID-19 is the catalyst that will accelerate the trend.

Over the coming weeks, companies are going to become pretty adept at figuring out how to work successfully without the routine of in-person meetings. Moving even small meetings to virtual-only events is the short-term reality that’s going to turn into a long-term one.

When it comes to client service strategies, these new approaches will gain a secure foothold not just because they’re necessary in the current crisis, but because they’ll prove themselves to work well and to be more cost-efficient than the old ways of doing business. Along the same lines, professional conferences in every sector are being postponed or cancelled – or rolled into online-only events.  This means that “big news” about product launches, market trends and data reporting are going to be communicated in ways that don’t involve a “big meeting.”

Social media and paid media will likely play larger roles in broadcasting the major announcements that are usually reserved for the year’s biggest meeting events. Harnessing techniques like animation, infographics and recorded presentations will happen much more than in the past, in order to turn information that used to be shared “in real life” into compelling and engaging web content.

The same dynamics are in play for formerly in-person sales visits. The “forced isolation” of social distancing will necessitate presentations and product demos being done via online meetings during the coming weeks and months. Once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, in-person sales meetings at the customer’s place of business will return – but can we realistically expect that they will go back to the levels that they were before?

Likely not, as companies begin to realize that “we can do this” when it comes to conducting business effectively while communicating remotely. What may be lost in in-person meeting dynamics is more than made up for in the convenience and cost savings that “virtual” sales meetings can provide.

What do you think? Looking back, will we recognize the Coronavirus threat as the catalyst that changed the “business as usual” of how we conduct business meetings?  Or will today’s “new normal” have returned to the “old normal” of life before the pandemic?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

The “bystander effect” and how it affects our workplaces.

Here’s an interesting view into human nature: Experience tells us that far more people will pass a disabled motorist on a busy highway without bothering to stop, compared to stopping for a person stranded on a lonely country road.

This phenomenon creeps into the business world, too — and particularly in a situation which some of us have probably experienced at least a few times during our careers: There’s someone at work who is clearly deficient in their job. Worse yet, the deficiencies aren’t due to incompetence, but to undesirable character traits like sloth, a sour attitude, deficient interpersonal skills — or even questionable ethics.

Moreover, the behavior of the individual falls in the “everyone knows” category.

The question is, what happens about it? Too often, the answer is “nothing.”

Social scientists have a name for this: the “bystander effect.”   It means that “what’s everybody’s business is nobody’s business.”

In mid-2019, several researchers at the University of Maryland studied the topic by fielding several pieces of research. In a first one, nearly 140 employees and their managers working at a Fortune 500 electronics company were surveyed.  That survey found that employees were less apt to speak up about problems they perceived to be “open secrets.”

Two other components of the field research – one a survey of 160+ undergraduate students and the other a study involving behavioral experimentation with nearly 450 working adults – found essentially the same dynamics at work.

According to the University of Maryland research study leaders, Subra Tangirala and Insiya Hussain:

“In all three studies our results held even when we statistically controlled for several other factors, such as whether participants felt it was safe to speak, and whether they thought speaking up would make a difference.”

The inevitable conclusion? Tangirala and Hussain reported:

“Our research shows that when multiple individuals know about an issue, each of them experiences a diffusion of responsibility — or the sense that they need not personally take on any costs or burden associated with speaking up.

They feel that others are equally knowledgeable and, hence, capable of raising the issue with top management. As issues become more common knowledge among frontline employees, the willingness of any individual employee to bring those issues to the attention of top management decreases.”

Sadly, the University of Maryland research shows that the “bystander effect” is the perfect recipe for companies to keep loping along without making HR changes — and not realizing their full potential as a result.

There’s another downside as well:  If left unaddressed, festering issues involving “problem” employees can engender feelings of frustration on the part of the other employees — along with the sense that an underlying degree of fairness has been violated because of the efforts the other workers are making to be productive employees. Unfortunately even then, no one wants to be the person to blow the whistle.

More detailed findings from the University of Maryland research can be accessed here.

What about your experiences? Have you ever encountered a similar dynamic in your place of work? Please share your insights with other readers.

A Strong Job Market and the “Gig” Economy

The two don’t go together very well.

It wasn’t so long ago that the so-called “gig” economy was all the rage. In the early 2010s, with a sizable portion of companies being skittish to commit to hiring full-time workers due to fresh memories of the economic downturn, many workers found opportunities to make money through various different gig economy service firms — companies like Uber, Lift, Postmates and others.

What those jobs offered workers were flexible schedules, reasonably decent pay, and the ability to cobble together a livelihood based on holding several such positions (while still being able to hunt around for full-time employment).

For employers, it was the ability to build a workforce for which they didn’t have to cover things like office expenses and various employee benefits — not to mentioning paying for payroll taxes like the employer social security contribution.

In the past few years, the environment has changed dramatically. With national unemployment hovering around 3.5% — and lower still in many larger urban areas — “gig” companies have found it more difficult to find workers.

What’s more, those workers who are hired are churning through the companies more even more quickly than before — many staying with these jobs for just a few months.

Tis is driving up worker recruitment costs to their highest levels ever.

In a May 2019 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Micah Rowland, COO of Fountain, a company that helps gig companies acquire new workers by streamlining the hiring process, puts it this way:

“It [strikes] me that in some of these markets, they’re processing thousands of job applicants every month — and these are not large cities.”

In Rowland’s view, gig companies in some markets may be burning through the entire available labor market of people willing to work in roles of this kind.

It isn’t as though turnover rates aren’t high in other service sectors in the more “traditional” economy. In the fast-food industry, for example, turnover is running as much as 150% annually these days. But in the case of gig employment markets, it’s even higher — sometimes dramatically so.

With the tight labor market showing little sign of loosening anytime soon, it may be that we see some firms looking at “regularizing” employment for at least some of their workers. If it makes economic sense to hire some actual employees in order to curb recruitment costs, some will likely go that route .

There’s another factor at work as well. More of these gig economy workers are becoming more vocal about pushing back on pay and working conditions. Noteworthy examples have been recent protests by rideshare company workers in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Others have done the envelope math and have determined that once driver-owned vehicle costs of gasoline and depreciation are calculated against declining fares that have dropped below $1 per mile in some markets like Los Angeles and Minneapolis-St. Paul, workers’ effective wages are significantly less than even $10 per hour.

Picking up on these worker concerns, a number of activist groups are making gig economy companies like Lyft and Uber into a “cause célèbre” (not in a good way), but loud, polarizing detractors such as these tend to muddy the water rather than bring fresh new insights to the debate.

As well, one wonders if the activism is even needed; I suspect what we’re seeing now is a pendulum swing which happens so often in economics — where an equilibrium is re-established as things come back into balance after going a bit too far in one direction. In the case of the gig economy, the low unemployment rate in many regions of the country appears to be helping that along.

Why aren’t wages moving in lockstep with the improved employment picture?

If you’ve taken a look at September’s U.S. unemployment figure – 3.5% — you’re seeing the lowest level of unemployment in over 50 years. And for particular subgroups of the population, they’re enjoying their lowest employment percentages ever — at least since records have been kept.

It’s definitely something to cheer about. But at the same time, it’s become increasingly evident that wage growth isn’t happening in tandem with lower unemployment.  And that includes industrial wages as well.

In fact, September results show the first dip in wages – albeit slight – in the past two years.

What gives?

According to Zheng Liu and Sylvain Leduc, two economics researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the cause of stagnating wages in an otherwise robust economy can be laid at the doorstep of automation.

According to Liu and Leduc, as certain tasks move more toward automation, employees are losing bargaining power within their organizations. When people fear that they could lose their jobs to a robot or a machine, there’s a hesitation to ask for higher wages as that might hasten the eventuality.

The net result is a widening gap between productivity and pay.

But does this situation apply across all of industry? Perhaps not. Last year, manufacturing expert and Forbes magazine contributing writer Jim Vinoski noted that “huge swaths of industry remain decidedly low-tech and heavily manual.”

The reason? Complexity, volume and margins are often barriers to the implementation of automation in many applications.  Just because something can be automated doesn’t mean that there’s a compelling economic argument to do so – particularly if the production volumes aren’t in the league of “mass manufacturing.”

Jobs in engineering and R&D are even less likely to become automated. After all, probably the single most important attribute of employees in these positions is the ability to “think outside the box” – something artificial intelligence hasn’t come anywhere close to replicating (at least not yet).

What are your thoughts about automation and how it will affect employment and wage growth? Please share your perspectives with other readers.

LinkedIn’s Weak Link

On balance, most people would agree that the LinkedIn social media platform has been a positive development in the field of business. Until LinkedIn came along, often it was quite challenging to make and nurture connections with like-minded industry or professional colleagues, or to find relevant contacts deep within corporations or other organizations.

I’m old enough to remember the “bad old days” of fruitless searches through the Corporate Yellow Book, Hoover’s and Dun & Bradstreet mercantile listings to try to find good company contacts. Often the information was far too “upper-level,” out-of-date, or simply wrong.  Industry, state and regional directory listings were even worse.

Invariably, any data ferreted out needed to be vetted through phone calls made to beleaguered front-office receptionists who were understandably disinclined to spend much time being helpful.

Of course, as with Wikipedia all LinkedIn “data” is submitted information, and subject to varying degrees of accuracy. As well, the data are comprehensive and accurate only to the degree that each LinkedIn member keeps his or her employment and related information current and complete.

But as a crowd-sourcing database of information – and often with “deep-dive” data on members available to view – LinkedIn is miles ahead of where we were before.

That being said, there is one negative aspect about LinkedIn that seems to have become more pronounced over time — and that’s the burgeoning volume of LinkedIn connection requests that are happening.

Speaking for myself, I’ve spent an entire career nurturing my business relationships. That this has resulted in being one of the LinkedIn members who are in the “500+ connections” club speaks to a lifetime of establishing “real” connections with “real” people – not mindlessly sending out connection solicitations to just anyone.

But that’s what’s happening with many of the incoming requests-to-connect on LinkedIn. These days, I’m receiving requests daily from people I do not know personally and have never even heard of before.

These are the folks who take advantage of LinkedIn’s higher cost”premium membership” programs to gain access to the more detailed information contained in member profiles that is normally off-limits to all except first-degree connections.

In what ways are these people actually interested in connecting with me?  Are they simply sending out a rash of “spray-and-pray” requests in the hopes of getting a nibble … or perhaps making an effort to build their own network and look more like an “authority” in their line of work?

When I click through to view the profiles of those people requesting to connect, it turns out that most them are in fields that relate to my line of work, however tangentially. Likely they’ve identified my name based on shared professional organizations and vocational interests.

But their reasons for requesting to connect — if they even bother to give one — are so generic (or so lame) as to be laughable.

Early on, I did a bit of “empirical” research to see how a few of these connections might actually evolve after I accepted their request to connect. Big mistake, that was.  Recently, freelance copywriter extraordinaire Ed Gandia described something very similar about his own personal LinkedIn experience, characterizing the typical follow-up communiqué from a new LinkedIn connection as “the business equivalent of a marriage proposal” – to wit:

“I’d like to get on the phone with you about [marrying me/having kids/opening a joint bank account]. Here are three times I’m available to talk.  I’m so excited to hear what you can offer me as [my new husband].”

If ever we needed reminding about how not to engage in business development solicitations, these sorry LinkedIn communications are it.

The bright promise of LinkedIn is the ability to identify people with whom we can potentially work or collaborate.  In that regard, the platform can be very valuable.  It’s just too bad that so many people are now using it for ill-conceived (or perhaps desperate?) shotgun attempts to sell themselves, their products or their services.

It won’t work. Communications technology may have evolved but some fundamental things never change.  At the top of the list:  No one wants to be pestered by unsolicited pitches for products, consulting services, employment opportunities and the like.  Not then, not now, not ever.

Hopefully, LinkedIn can calibrate its business practices to ensure that the benefits of interacting with the social platform always outweigh the detriments. We all recognize that this is one way LinkedIn can monetize the data that’s valuable housed on its platform.  But LinkedIn needs to get this just right, lest they turn off their most consequential members – or worse, drive them away.