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Forecasting the Future

Friday, October 8, 2021

Right now, the only thing certain about the future of work is that it’s uncertain. 


Right now, the only thing certain about the future of work is that it’s uncertain.

“Overall, we’re seeing upticks in job openings and labor turnover,” says John Kammeyer Mueller, professor and director of the Center for Human Resources and Labor Studies. “But, what that means long-term for the market, and different segments of the market, remains to be seen.”

Healthcare and hospitality employers are facing different effects than those in finance or software. Large, corporate human resources (HR) teams have different strengths and resources than those in small businesses, government, or nonprofit sectors.

“Organizations are feeling the turbulence [of the pandemic] differently and navigating through it with decisions based on what they’re seeing and how they interpret it,” says Kammeyer-Mueller. “It’s a lot like parents. When [they’re] cold, they put jackets on the kids.”

In corporations, HR often plays parent, monitoring the weather and determining the gear needed to manage. HR leaders from Boeing, Bristol Myers Squibb, and Microsoft say many departments already had long-range forecasts—so rather than be caught totally off guard, they’re adjusting to an accelerated pace. For instance, remote work was a blip on the radar; umbrellas were in the closet, at the ready. 

Aiming for Engagements

Competitive companies always have their eye on improving employee engagement to increase talent retention, foster loyalty, and improve organizational performance and stakeholder value. But high levels of uncertainty, combined with a rapid switch to remote work, caused intensified efforts to maintain company culture and help employees feel connected in a decentralized environment.

“Companies are always striving to help people reach their maximum potential mentally, physically, emotionally, morally, and professionally,” says Chuck Edward, ’93 MHRIR, corporate vice president of human resources at Microsoft. “Helping people be the best they can be during a crisis is a telling test of how we’re progressing in that direction.”

Leaning into the principles and practices that helped them weather the first stages of the pandemic, HR professionals are now helping reimagine the workplace. 

Listening to Learn

The 2020 Best Places to Work survey by Inc. and Quantum Workplace found listening was the top way workplaces earned high marks for employee engagement. Those workplaces have management teams who consistently solicit employee opinions through surveys, town halls, and check-ins.

Microsoft was already using regular employee surveys prior to the pandemic. That data was used to guide decision-making, create transparency, and build trust. That hasn’t changed.

“We were grounded in data from day one,” says Edward, a 16-year veteran of the company. “Everything was so uncertain during the beginning stages of the pandemic. People were craving some sense of reality.”

By providing weekly reports, including the number of COVID-19 cases across the world and in each U.S. state, HR clearly communicated what they knew. This data also informed big policy decisions, such as extending parental leave and adding wellbeing days to encourage balance for people who were not taking vacation days.

Lindsay Wenzel, ’16 MHRIR, HR strategy and operations, ex-US, at Bristol Myers Squibb, was in the midst of integrating new employees who came aboard after an acquisition when the pandemic hit. With other teams, Wenzel leaned on the company’s monitoring of internal and external environments to reassess priorities.

“We had to look even more deeply at ourselves and use that understanding to assess the market and how others were responding,” says Wenzel. “Our solid long-term vision and high employee engagement empowered us to learn quickly and move forward successfully.” 

Informing Decisions with Dialogue

In 2021 Boeing employees across the company began focusing on building three habits—seeking, speaking and listening (SS&L)—to strengthen its global team and drive stronger business outcomes. With the habits, teams are committed to building a culture where they seek out the places where things aren’t going well, where every team member feels safe to share or challenge ideas, and where they listen to one another with openness and curiosity.

“Seek, Speak, & Listen roundtables help us show up to meet employees where they’re at,” says Nicole Graves, ’97 MHRIR, director of human resources-global sales, marketing, finance, and business operations at Boeing. “People are our biggest asset. We want to know what they want, so we can accommodate and integrate those insights into the business.”

Boeing’s HR team has used SS&L habits to get input around business decisions, such as returning to the office. Graves says one team went into a SS&L discussion advocating for 100 percent virtual work. Through conversation, the team concluded they preferred a hybrid model.

“Our guiding principles are employee health and safety,” says Graves, who is also a member of the Carlson School’s Board of Advisors. “The needs of the business then guide how, when, and where the work gets done.” 

Reinforcing a Culture of Caring

Maintaining a cohesive corporate culture with a geographically scattered and increasingly diverse workforce brings its own challenges.

“Culture is an impossibly vague term,” says Kammeyer-Mueller, who teaches courses about organizational behavior and human resources. “Organizations have to figure out ways to maintain culture while taking into account how people are working now.”

At Microsoft, open communication, transparency, and learning had to be visible, even when most of the workforce was remote.

“We worked to maintain an open environment where no matter what position you are in, you feel safe to share what’s working, what’s not, and what you’re learning,” says Edward.

Showing and supporting vulnerability, from both leaders and the organization as a whole, was paramount as they faced challenges and change together. Modeling the behavior, Edward— diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2012—shared his disability for the first time at Microsoft’s 2020 Ability Summit. “The ongoing message is ‘We can figure this out together if we trust each other and do it constructively, without judgment.’” 

Watching out for Worker Wellbeing

Earlier this year, the Boeing HR team held a development week to grow personally and professionally while collaborating in a virtual environment. The agenda included sessions on health and wellness, roundtable discussions with colleagues, and virtual volunteering.

Graves says the program inspired new ideas and connections. “There are a lot of ways we can show we care about the mental health and wellbeing of our teams. The networking activities I held, like Zoom happy hours, scavenger hunts and paint-by-number classes, helped boost people’s spirits and create opportunities for fun during a challenging time,” she says.

The virtual volunteering also helped make a difference in people’s lives. HR team members paired with military spouses for help building resumes, doing interview prep, and getting career advice. “It is possible to make personal connections virtually and make an impact,” Graves says. “We’re not just limited to local communities. We can help people anywhere.” 

Doubling Down on Managers

In a remote work environment, translating company culture into actions that improve employee engagement often rests with managers.

“Managing remotely is a completely different skillset,” says Kammeyer-Mueller. “You can’t just wander by people’s offices to see what they’re doing. You have to find different ways to track productivity and keep people engaged. It requires more planning and different methods of communication.”

Wenzel believes HR departments recognize the elevated importance of managers and are ready to respond.

“If you ask an HR person what they’re working on, it’s management capability,” says Wenzel. “We’re relying on managers to use creativity and technology to help balance flexibility and autonomy, check in with their teams, and give employees feedback.”

Microsoft offers its managers training on the power of allyship, having difficult conversations, and more. Forums focused on building management excellence allow managers to learn from each other. Edward says role models are emerging who are making it work and setting new norms.

“There’s uncertainty, but there’s also so much creativity and innovation ready to meet the needs of the business and employees,” says Boeing’s Graves. “We determine the future together and we’re about to forge our own path in real-time.”

Soup for You

Keeping a small business simple when the world is anything but.

Running a soup delivery business isn’t how Ryan Rosenthal, ’11 BSB, expected to use his degree in supply chain and operations.

In 2013, Rosenthal and his roommate, Mike von Fange, cooked up a business plan to launch Simpls, a fast-casual “quirky child of 7-11 and Whole Foods,” Rosenthal says. By 2019, they had three locations in Minneapolis and 28 employees.

“We decided [early on] that we were going to make sure that paying above-market wages was a priority,” he says. “We’d rather invest in employees upfront and make sure they can live a good, happy life with the hopes that comes back around for customer satisfaction.”

Then, COVID-19.

“It’s one of the worst experiences I’ve had since coming into the real world,” Rosenthal says of closing all three locations. “Our revenue went to zero in a matter of a week—and the expenses didn’t stop. We went into immediate scramble mode…we weren’t sitting on a pile of cash.”

Everyone was laid off—including the owners.

Simpls began donating food and selling perishables to local co-ops to earn some cash. Still, there was the frozen soup, packaged in bulk. The best-seller. An idea glimmered. Three weeks later, they were delivering soup and sold out in a week. They re-hired the kitchen team.

“I hope [employees returned] in part because we took care of people from get-go and had real relationships that helped get people back on board,” Rosenthal says. The business and staff size is still recovering, but Rosenthal is optimistic about their retooled, e-commerce–based vision.

Simpls is an example that changing the restaurant industry is possible.

“We can…structure the business in a way that allows people to have a normal work week, day shift hours, paid time off, healthcare, and generally a good working environment that is not physically and emotionally draining,” says Rosenthal. “It’s already proving to be a competitive advantage.”

“We had a new person, who has become an amazing, incredible contributor to the team, who came to us and said, ‘I don’t care what I do here, I just want work here for a long time... I’ve never worked for a company that does what they say they’re going to do.’ I think it proves genuine intent and follow-through goes a long way for people.”


Fall 2021 alumni magazine cover

This article appeared in the Fall 2021 alumni magazine

Our world, our lives, and our work have changed. We must continue to adapt.

So, how do we do that? Where do we go from here? What’s next?

Fall 2021 table of contents