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Why Are Bosses So Miserable?
Talking about the future of work with Sheela Subramanian
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Back in the Fall of 2020, when Charlie and I were just beginning to research what would become Out of Office, we spent a lot of time looking and hoping for good data. At that point, the pandemic was still only six months old — and most of the data about productivity and working from home was 1) from well before the pandemic and 2) failed to think broader than productivity.
We wanted to know how working from home was affecting people of different races differently, and how they thought about their job, and their general feelings about work, and their rates of burnout. We wanted to cross-tabs on moms and dads, on managers and employees, on new employees and veteran ones. We wanted to know about their childcare and eldercare situations, their health and exposure considerations, the amount of space and privacy they had to do their work, and who else in the house was also working remotely. We wanted data on everything and had (good) data on basically nothing.
Then we found Future Forum. It’s a “consortium” of various research groups, backed by Slack, that looked around in the early months of the pandemic and realized, like any good data scientist, that if they wanted good data, they needed to start collecting it now. They put together their first survey about how people were working remotely (and how they felt about it) in June 2020, and released their findings in October. And they keep doing the survey — distributed to over 10,000 employees doing “desk” work, at all levels of organizations, across the U.S., Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and the U.K. Here, finally, was some good, compelling data.
Now, does Slack have a vested interest in hybrid and remote work scenarios? Of course. So does Microsoft, which has also been amassing troves of internal data. And that interest influences the types of questions that show up on the survey and the way that survey data is framed in each report. Which is also why I’ve been grateful, as the pandemic has proceeded, to mix the findings in these reports with findings from other academics (see especially: Nicholas Bloom, an economist who’s been studying remote work for decades over at Stanford).
But I still don’t see many places drilling down — at least not quite in the way Future Forum and Microsoft do — on how work flexibility intersects with all these other parts of our identities as workers. And I’ve found their data sets particularly effective in getting people who are older, or white, or men, or executives (or all of the above) to start thinking about why people who are not those things are drawn to more flexible work.
In our conversation below, Future Forum Vice-President Sheela Subramanian and I talk about why employees of color’s sense of belonging in an organization has actually gone up since going hybrid or remote, why bosses are miserable (even while non-boss employee well-being scores are going up), why middle managers are burning out fast, and what she, herself, is still trying to figure out when it comes to hybrid work. I’m eager to see your questions about the data (and what you still wish we had more data on) below.
You can find the current report from Future Forum — as well as reports from the last two years — here. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
I’ve found whenever I give a talk, and even just in conversation with people, they don’t always respond well to an opinion — where, I’m like, this is what I think is happening based on my observations. But they respond to data really differently — and I get it, they feel like they need to make the case for any changes in a way that feels “objective.”
So if I say “people of color are actually feeling an increased sense of belonging in hybrid and remote organizations,” they might respond “huh, I dunno about that.”
But if I put up that slide with a Future Forum stat and say “this is from an ongoing survey of over 10,000 people from six different countries, and it’s been running quarterly since the beginning of the pandemic” showing that same finding, they’re like “huh, tell me more about that.” Have you seen that, too?
I think showing the data, showing the trends, and also our ability to cut that information by different groups has opened up a conversation — especially around inclusion and diversity — that I would say that many leaders were not prepared to do or to have prior to 2020. It takes the conversation from *I* and *we* to something broader, like, these are the trends that you're seeing, and then we can tie those trends to the other labor trends — like 57% of people are open to looking for a new job in the next year. And that then ties the stat to the health of a business.
I oftentimes get the question of, all right, sure, flexibility, choice — where is that going to go when we hit an economic downturn? My argument is that you actually need to double down on what your top talent wants in order to stay relevant, in order to succeed, especially during economic uncertainty. That argument around talent is one people are receptive to right now .
What we've seen consistently through the data is that people want flexibility in where they work, but more importantly, people want flexibility in when they work. What we see from our data is around 80% of people who want flexibility in where they work and about 94% want flexibility in when they work. That data has stayed very consistent quarter after quarter.
So that opens up the conversation about schedule flexibility — but then the response is well, we have too many meetings, or I need my team to work synchronously, so I don't know if I can do schedule flexibility.
We're seeing pretty high levels of burnout quarter over quarter as well in our data and in particular, that's hitting middle managers. It's hitting women. It's hitting caregivers. Then we have a conversation about schedule flexibility and how that helps with burnout. People have more autonomy in their jobs, they're less likely to feel, I mean, this is one solution among many, but they're less likely to feel burnt out rather than sitting in front of their computers day after day in front of their screens on meetings because they feel like they need to do that. But I think we're still in the early days of leaders embracing that trend.
Do you think bosses are surprised by the percentage of people who are looking for new jobs?
There's been ample dialogue about the Great Resignation, but that doesn't necessarily open up eyes as much as, hey, according to our data, if people don't have flexibility in how they work, then they're even more likely to look for a new job in the next year. And that helps elevate the conversation about flexibility from just where you work, to yes, when you work, and ultimately you work — leading with trust rather than power, and leading with more choice rather than predetermined ways of working that have been rooted in anachronistic norms.
What do you see developing when it comes to workplace equity — both gender equity and racial equity — over the course of the last few years?
What we've seen from the data — from May 2021 to today — is that the sense of belonging scores have continued to rise among employees of color in the US. We've seen a slight decline among white employees during that time. When we first saw this data in 2020, we said, "Well, that's interesting. People are not in the office every single day, but employees of color are feeling a higher sense of belonging. Why is that?"
As we dug more into the data, we talked more about code-switching — which is the act of changing the way you dress, the way that you act, the way that you speak, the foods that you eat in order to fit into the prevailing norm that's largely been shaped by white male executives.
Being able to work flexibly means that you're often closer to your communities and your family, but it also means you don't have to code-switch every single day when you walk into the office. It means that you can focus more on the work at hand rather than wondering who's sitting with whom at the cafeteria or how you're going to fit into that happy hour. I’ve personally had that experience, and I have to say that I’ve worked in very inclusive environments, or environments that are “all-embracing,” and I still felt that need to code-switch every single day as a working mother and as well as an employee of color. I personally have found myself being able to more of an authentic leader (and employee) when I’ve been given more choice in terms of how I work.
An executive once asked me what I thought was going on with those sense of belonging scores and I was like, well, being around white people can be exhausting. It’s hard to articulate in a way that doesn’t sometimes seem offensive, but if you have an overwhelming, dominant culture, it’s work to assimilate to that dominant culture. And that’s what the workplace was and is for a lot of people. But if you diffuse that dominant culture, there’s less work that you need to do to be able to feel like you’re part of work culture in general.
Yes, and you're able to focus. I mean, I think so much of the conversation around equity is also rooted in how we have measured success and performance. It's historically been looking at, like, this person — they’re the first in, they’re the last to leave, they clearly have a great work ethic and deserve to get promoted. Or: this person is sacrificing time with their family and friends and their health in order to succeed in their job, that’s success, that’s how you get a promotion. I’m aging myself with this anecdote, but one of my early performance reviews was: “She lives on her Blackberry. She responds to emails at midnight. She deserves to get promoted.”
And that’s one area where we still need to work on changing when it comes to equity — especially as some people are in the office, and some people are not. The concern I have is that those who prefer to work flexibly tend to be working mothers, women, and employees of color. Those who prefer to be in the office full-time tend to be male, white, executives (with commas between each of those). If we continue to celebrate folks who are nearby, who are first in-last-to-leave, we’re actually going to see a lot of the equity gains from the last few years get erased. So we really need to focus, and train managers to focus on the outcomes and the value that people are delivering, rather than the time that they’re spending in the office.
Sometimes I have people who hear about the survey say oh *of course* Slack would be invested in this, the same way that, of course Microsoft would be invested in it. And yes, it makes sense — but also, if Slack wants people to continue to use its software to have remote and flexible workplaces, they also don't want that workplace to burn out on using too much Slack, so they want to figure out how to use it and how to foster a remote or flexible workplace that uses the technology responsibly, that uses it to become a better company instead of a more burnt out or exhausted one.
First off, working with Slack is not at all a requirement to be part of the survey. Future Forum is a consortium backed by Slack, but if you go to our website, you’re not seeing the Slack logo, mainly because we do want to stay independent and have a broader view of work. So no, we don’t select Slack users for our survey, not at all.
I think we’re trying to have broader conversation around how to make work better. There's the burnout piece, yes. There's the inclusion piece, too. But I think what we've seen, especially those early days in the pandemic is just how broken work was. And that was the original vision for Future Forum: how do we make work better for different types of employees?
For example. There’s this exception for transparency — for leaders to lead with candor, and say, we don’t know the answer to this question, we’re trying to figure it out. They’re also trying to figure out how to bring their employees into the conversation when it comes to the planning around the future of work. But what we see from our latest research is that 60% of leaders are not actually including their broader employee base when it comes to their future of work planning.
That’s created a disconnect, and it’s one we’ve been studying. In the data, we see that executives that over the past year, their overall satisfaction with their work has decreased by 15%. Their stress and anxiety has increased by 40%. They now report 20% worse work-life balance.
[Executives’ ability to focus, productivity, and feelings of inclusion have also fallen. For non-executives, stress/anxiety and overall satisfaction scores have actually improved by 4% each, while work/life balance, ability to focus, productivity and feelings of inclusion have remained relatively flat.]
This new data around bosses and leaders, I’m fascinated by it. First, there's this emphasis in the report that the worry about culture disconnect, like “what’s going to happen to our Culture” have been overblown. And then there’s those pretty startling numbers about just how miserable a lot of execs and managers seem to be, especially when you put those numbers next to the experience scores of people who aren’t execs and managers.
Executives are struggling. Their jobs, in many ways, have been rewritten, and I don't think this is enough of the conversation. It's oftentimes executives versus employees, but executives are trying to figure out what the best path ahead is. The challenge, though, is that executives are reverting back to returning, returning to how things used to be. The three reasons that they cite are productivity, culture, and connection.
What we see from the data, especially among those who are working flexibly, is that culture's actually better when you're working flexibly. You have stronger connections with your manager and your colleagues when you're working flexibly because you actually trust one another to do your jobs and productivity — both in our data as well as we've seen in other data — has gone up in many companies over the last couple of years. The data's actually countering these points that a lot of executives are making [about why we need to return to the office], but it's also now for them to focus on, alright, how do we actually shift the conversation from command-and-control, I'm in power, to one about trusting employees.
I think a big part of that also is middle managers — and what we're seeing in terms of burnout scores is that middle managers are also struggling, and there hasn’t been enough investment in terms of helping middle managers do their jobs well. [According to the report, 43% of middle managers report feeling burnt out, compared to 40% of individual contributors, 37% of senior management, and 32% of executives.]
Yeah, I mean, I look at these numbers about executive misery and I'm like, well, you could just stop — it would be so much easier if they would let go of these antiquated understandings of what culture of what leadership or any of these things look like. But I also try and remember that sometimes, if you’re an exec, and you’ve worked your way through these levels of management, and you’re older….you’ve been in the workplace for a long time. It have been decades since you were in the position of not being a leader. So it’s harder to put yourself back there, in that understanding of what daily life looks like. They have this understanding of what daily productivity looks like, too, that’s really tied to walking around and being in meetings, and you can see how that would feel very different if they’re not in the office.
And then I also keep going back to the stats around, like, average commute times for executives versus the employees, and it’s always telling to me why certain people want to be in the office.
Yeah, I think there's a broader trend that's happening as well in terms of how people are viewing the role of work in their lives. That's a shift — there's the grind culture, the hustle culture that so many leaders have embraced, and that's how they've gotten to the place that they're at. It's meant sacrificing time with their family and friends and their health. When I was in business school, the piece of advice I got as I was graduating was, burn the candle on both ends until you're in your 40s and then reacquaint yourself with your family and friends.
That was really enlightening for me, because even then, I was like, no, I don't want to live that life. That said, I think now the conversation is: how does my work fit into my life, rather than the other way around. We're seeing all these trends come up that are fads — phrases like quiet quitting. And quiet quitting at its worst is the idea that people simply don't want to work anymore, but that's not true. All the data shows that people want to work, but they just want more choice in how they work. They want to be trusted. There's a great quote from Katarina Berg, who's the CHR of Spotify — she said, "If you hire adults and then treat them like kids, this whole thing is going to backfire." I completely agree with that. People want to be trusted and they want to be treated like adults. As a result, we're seeing shifts in how people want to work, instead of reverting to the way that executives made their way to the top.
Right, which makes me think of the new productivity monitoring software. It’s like putting monitoring software on your kids' iPad. It's treating people like children and it evinces a complete lack of trust that you are doing your job correctly.
My mom would always be like, I'm going to treat you like I trust you and then hopefully you will give me that respect and return and not sneak out and go to a bonfire in the middle of the night or whatever. So when that level of trust is not there — then everything begins to fall apart. It’s the monitoring software, but it’s also stuff like “You can work remotely, but not on Fridays, because we don’t trust you to get your work done then.”
Yep, or "We need people to wear pants again." Again, focus on the outcomes rather than what your employees are wearing and you'll have happy employees. Focus on the outcomes. Focus on the wellbeing of your employees, and then skill your managers to be able to lead to focus on those two things.
In the last report, you basically sent up a flare about employees being very afraid of proximity bias developing in their organizations. What do you see now as another thing that companies need to be worried about?
We are seeing disparities in terms of who is feeling burned out. Female workers show 32% more burnout than their male counterparts. We're also seeing higher burnout amongst younger employees, because they don't necessarily know what good looks like because they're new to their jobs. 43% of middle managers are also feeling burnout. That's why I think it's important to, again, focus on what are the outcomes that people need to deliver rather than always being on. Part of the problem is that nearly half of employees feel the need to show that they're working in addition to their actual work — LARPing their career.
I don't think that this is the only solution, but we've seen that scheduled flexibility helps a lot with burnout. It helps with giving people autonomy, the trust, feeling like they have more choice in how they work.
What is the data, at least now, not picking up? Where are the blind spots that you want to try to figure out how to ask questions that pick up additional things?
We talk about the disconnect between executives and employees and how they continue to grow. [60% of executives said that they’re designing their companies’ policies with little/no direct input from employees]. We have asked questions in terms of how are executives solving for it, but I would like to know more as to why are they not listening to their employees?
We know that two of the reasons are confirmation bias and different experiences [in the office], but I’d love to dig in even more as to what’s continuing to influence leaders to want things to return back to how things used to be. And what are employees doing in response, and how are they giving feedback to [leaders] in terms of what’s working and what’s not?
I saw this older post the other day that was basically, employees don't have survey fatigue, they have the company not doing anything fatigue. And if you get all of this information from employees about what they want and then the company does exactly the opposite, it's just going to make people feel like, well, why would I want to fill out another dumb survey if it's not going to do anything?
That's also contributing to people wanting to leave their jobs because they're like, hey, we want more transparent leadership and we want to see some accountability in terms of some of the feedback that we're giving. If we're not seeing that, we're open to looking for a new job in the next year.
So the first Future Forum survey was distributed in June 2020, and the first report was released in October 2020. How long do you see this going?
I think we have a ways to go. I think this is going to be a five- to seven-year experiment. The changes that we've seen even in the last two and a half years, they've been pretty massive in terms of employee sentiment, in terms of how we work, in terms of investment in technology. But we're still in the beginning in many areas, especially as we talk about hybrid, because I think that the conversation needs to continue around scheduled flexibility, how we're re-skilling our managers and ultimately what sort of executive behavior is going to succeed in the long term. Again, I think we're still in the beginning of the shift from command and control to leadership with trust and playing out what that will look like in the coming years.
That, to me, underlines the fact that this whole figuring out what the future of hybrid work looks like is not something that you can do in six months. It's not something you can do in a year. It is an ongoing iterative process. A lot of the frustration, I think, especially on the leadership side is, why is this not figured out yet? We came up with a new plan, but it takes a long time.
It takes a long time. It takes a lot of experimentation as well, and then also building that feedback loop to get a sense of what's working and what's not. I think that a lot of these policies of, hey, this is how it is from here on out — well, you need to have a group of people actually dedicated to making this better, improving and listening to employees in order for this to be the best long-term solution for an organization.
When you tell people what you do, I'm sure people are like, here's my personal struggle with how I'm working or the thing that is going on in my office. What do you hear? What is the thing that people say to you all the time?
They say, flexible work couldn't work for us. They say, my company is too small and I need to build culture, or I just need people to be back in the office to brainstorm, or sometimes I get oh that’s cute, it’s only going to last for so long, people are back at my company. I get that at kids’ birthday parties. I get that when talking to my neighbor. The question I love to ask in response is: Well, why is that? Why do you feel like you need to come back into the office to build culture? It’s really fun to just test some of those assumptions and, again, use our data to show, hey, maybe there’s a different way you could be thinking about that.
How have you changed the way that you've worked over the last two years?
Gosh, where do I start? How much time do we have? One, I have embraced scheduled flexibility. I have core team work hours with my organization and they're between 9:00 AM and 1:30 PM Pacific to accommodate different time zones. That's Monday through Thursday with Friday being a focus day.
Here's why it's important: I am a mom of two young kids. Both of them are sick as well as my husband today. We're at the beginning of this fun sickness season, but I'm able to drop them off at school. I'm able to take them to their activities, but I think I'm also able to better take care of myself. I'm still learning how to do this because so much of my career was focusing on my job, focusing on my family, and I'm learning how to take care of myself, eat better, exercise, and there's a phrase that you’ve used that I love — we can't expect our office to solve our loneliness problem.
What's something that you feel like you are still really working on in terms of figuring out your flexible life balance?
Mixing up my day so I don't feel like every single day feels the same way. Every day feels like Groundhog Day sometimes. It's very easy to say, I'm going to drop my kids off at school. I'm going to come home. I'm going to clean the kitchen, come down to the basement, work to a certain hour and then pick them up, make dinner and go to bed. I have been really working on, like, how do I actually grab lunch with someone in the middle of the day or maybe work together with a friend? I have felt feelings of loneliness and I'm actively trying to figure out how best to address them in a way that doesn't require me to go into the office to feel whole.
You can find the current report from Future Forum — as well as reports from the last two years — here
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