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.

The “woke” workplace? Employees vote thumbs-down.

Most of us have probably heard the old adage that one should never talk about politics or religion at a party (unless its an election party or at the social hour following religious services, I suppose).

But what about at work?

In the “old days” – like when I started in business some 40 years ago – a similar unspoken rule applied; at the office, it just wasn’t “seemly” for people to wear their partisan or “cause” labels on their sleeves.

But that was before the bitterly disputed presidential campaign of 2000. Ever since those fateful 35 days following that election, it’s been downhill in the decorum department pretty much nonstop.

And after the election campaign of 2016, it’s gotten even worse.

Now we read stories about employees revolting against their own employers for seemingly “cavorting with the devil” (Wayfair selling furnishings to border detention facilities), employees losing their jobs – or at the least feeing compelled to leave their place of employment – due to the unpopularity of their political viewpoints (Google), and the like.

Add to this the social “virtue signaling” of some companies and brands who have become involved in social action initiatives (Gillette’s “shaming” of purported male personality traits in its “toxic masculinity” ad campaign).

With the 2020 presidential election campaign on our doorstep and the prospects of continued “high dudgeon” on the part of many people we can charitably refer to as being “highly sensitized” to the campaign, it’s worth wondering what everyday employees think of all this socio-political drama.

If the results of a new survey are any indication, the answer is … “not much.”

Recently, Washington, DC-based business management consulting firm Clutch surveyed ~500 full-time employees working at a cross-section of American businesses ranging from small employers to enterprises with more than 1,000 workers. The breakdown of the research sample included respondents whose philosophical leanings mirror the country’s as a whole (34% conservative, 25% liberal, 21% moderate, 13% apolitical).

What these respondents said should make everyone want to go back to the standards of yesteryear — you know, when socio-political advocacy in the office was considered the height of boorishness.

Among the salient findings from the survey:

  • Most respondents (~60%) don’t know if their political beliefs align with those of their coworkers. What’s more, they don’t care to know what their coworkers think politically.
  • Money, not socio-political alignment, motivates where people choose to work. Whether or not their personal views align with their colleagues’ is of no (or very little) concern to the respondents.  What’s more, few care.
  • Less than one in ten of the survey respondents feel that a “dominant” political viewpoint in the office that doesn’t happen to align with theirs is a source of discomfort. But either way, they’d prefer that such discussions not happen in the first place.
  • Despite the well-intentioned actions of some companies and brands, the majority of respondents feel that engaging in political or similar “cause” expressions adds no value to a company’s culture – nor does it create a healthy exchange of ideas in the workplace. Only about one-third of the respondents think that airing differing views will have beneficial outcomes within the office, while for everyone else, such discussions are viewed as having a “net negative” effect, adding no incremental value to a company’s “culture.”
  • At the same time that respondents wish for a less politically charged atmosphere in the office, a majority of them disagree with the notion of “codifying” political expression and expected behaviors in an employee manual or some other formal written policy statement. In other words, what constitutes “being an adult” isn’t something that should have to be spelled out in so many words.
  • What do respondents think of company owners or leaders expressing their political opinions or taking stands on controversial issues? That’s frowned upon, too. A clear majority of employees (~60%) disagree that company leadership should take stances on political issues – even if they’re relevant to their company’s own products or services. Instead, employees expect leaders to foster a culture of respect at work, including setting a standard that discourages political conversations up and down the chain.

There’s an important side benefit to discouraging discussion of socio-political topics in the office setting. All it takes is for a few “loudmouth” employees to risk creating a hostile work environment – and thus the open up grounds for complaints that could ultimately result in enormous financial costs to the company.

And one important final point came out of the Clutch research: For many employees, a part of their identities as people is connected to where they work.  Often, being an employee means more than simply having a job that pays the bills.  Anything that companies and brands can do to make that identity “work” for the vast majority of their employees will go a good way towards keeping morale high and avoiding the kind of fraught “drama” that can make it onto social media or even the news broadcasts.

[More information about the Clutch survey results can be accessed here.]

What about you?  What’s been your personal experience with employers in the “woke” era? Is your workplace one that is tolerant of all viewpoints while avoiding showing explicit (or implicit) support for any one view?  How successful has your company been in the current environment?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.