Reworked Recap: 3 Big Things We Learned at CONNECT 2023
Reworked CONNECT kicked off Thursday in Austin, Texas, with a full day of keynotes, panels, roundtables and general camaraderie. In every breakout room, every hallway and every impromptu coffee, beer or dinner gathering, one key theme emerged:
“Wow! I haven’t done this since before the pandemic!”
Many far-flung colleagues enjoyed their first reunion since 2019. Others, especially those who changed roles at any point in the past four years, got to meet colleagues and peers for the first time face-to-face. COVID changed our conference habits…and our workplace ones. There is no going back to exactly what we were in the before times, and yet in some ways we are still settling down into the comfortable, familiar grooves of old patterns.
So how are we adapting and leading our workplaces into the brave new present and future? Here are the three key themes we heard on Day 1.
Nobody’s Settled on the 'New Normal' Yet
Is your workplace fully remote? Fully on-site? Some weird hybrid that nobody can quite define or wrap their head around, but that definitely is totally what’s happening? Yeah, you and everyone else.
Remote work is here to stay, but is it everything? How flexible do you need to be? What are the benefits of blended work, and how can you even identify them? Digital workplace, human resources, internal communications and other employee experience experts are all still trying to figure out what is and isn’t working — and trying to gather both the quantitative and the qualitative data to back their findings up.
“Sometimes it’s frustrating for us to hear that there is benefit to coming into the office,” Kristin Hancock, VP of community and engagement at Icology, said, echoing a common thread during a breakout session. “We all like working from home. I like working from home! But there is a benefit to in-person connections,” and her qualitative work talking to people about community-building has borne that out more than once.
Hancock was apparently right when she said the vast majority of us with jobs that can be done from home seem to prefer doing them that way. Lauren DeYoung, workplace futurist at Allstate, said during a Q&A that when presented with the option to choose their own designation, a whopping 83% of Allstate employees chose to be considered full-time remote and only 1% selected full-time in-office work.
“But folks who picked home-based work are going into the office,” DeYoung noted. “They want to collaborate. It’s not one size fits all. We’re continuing to test and learn to help our leaders do what’s right for their teams.”
Nobody Knows the 'Right' Number or Combination of Tools Yet
Do you have too many digital tools? Not enough? Some weird overlapping combination that’s both too many and also not enough, along with both pointless and costly duplication you didn’t even know about? You’re definitely not alone. Enterprise leaders, vendors and consultants alike all spoke on the theme of trying to quantify how many tools are in place, trying to identify the effective ones and trying to educate the workforce how to use the available tools at hand most effectively. (Stay tuned for an upcoming episode of our Get Reworked podcast, recorded live on site, where Tapestry’s Dante Ragazzo delved deep into these ideas.)
And sure — as almost every speaker on every topic during every session all day long said at least once — more AI use is definitely coming. But general-purpose services like ChatGPT aren’t quite ready for primetime just yet, Deep Analysis CEO Alan Pelz-Sharpe pointed out during a breakout session.
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"Accuracy rates for generic, large purpose LLMs are not that high," said Pelz-Sharpe, showing a ChatGPT-generated biography of himself that contained two books he'd never written and cited nonexistent work with a company he described as his "arch-nemesis." And while each new release does improve the tool rather dramatically, he noted, "There's only so much you can do if you haven't curated the [input] data. That's the problem with all AI: The quality of the data predicates the outcome."
Or, as several attendees said at once, agreeing: Garbage in, garbage out.
You Need Data to Sell Your Vision
It seems trite to say, but you need to identify what, exactly, it is you really want to do before you can start gathering the right data — both quantitative and qualitative — to figure out what your baseline is and what the challenges and opportunities are for improvement.
Some organizations can be surprisingly open to qualitative information, if you gather it scientifically enough. “We’re very accustomed to looking at numbers and spreadsheets,” said Mary Slaughter, global head of employee experience and communications for Morningstar — which, as a financial analysis firm, she noted, is perhaps even more spreadsheet driven than most organizations.
“For us, the starting point was when I said that we’d been working on employee engagement surveys for years, but they were mostly operational in nature — do you have the tools that you need? The processes that you need? We weren’t paying that much attention explicitly to people’s emotive states. And if we knew anything from the pandemic itself, it’s: You don’t get to separate and leave out half the person, the personal person, from the work person. It’s all one human combined together.”
That drove Slaughter and her team to push for a different focus: “We chose to go down a path that was focused on the individual,” she said. “What set of emotions do we want our colleagues to feel when they work at Morningstar?” That focus, in turn, has begun to drive more cross-functional, collaborative experiences where leaders consider what kind of emotional response a new design, policy, process or procedure will generate, she explained.
“It isn’t obvious how to tell that story,” Spencer Mains, head of digital workplace experience for PG&E, said during a different panel. “We’re getting much better at letting the data tell the story.” And when it came to looking for concrete metrics, his team found they could measure the amount of time it took for a newly onboarded employee even to be able to begin to access their work.
“We’re starting to understand time and the value of that time,” Mains said. “If you have someone come onboard, then their day one productivity is the metric we want to hit. We can measure: how many hours before they’re logged in to our environment? … When you start to quantify the problem in those terms, the conversation changes completely,” he added. “But until you can quantify [a problem], get data, it doesn’t exist. It’s just a complaint. In the absence of those numbers, it’s not a conversation.
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