#110: Trends At Work

Good morning friends

Before we get started today, a few practical things. First, I won’t be writing to you next weekend. I will be taking a short break. Second, if like me, you find your body getting stiffer from too much seated work, you’ll want to take advantage of this free offer. Third, also free, is the Conscious Business Summit that is currently underway. Still to come on the program are Jerry Colonna and Lex Sisney, two highly regarded organisational coaches.

The way I think about food is neatly captured in this cartoon. This week saw us revisiting old favourites – potstickers at Chef Ed Hung’s South China Dim Sum Bar, oxtail ragu at twin sisters Jesse and Jamie Friedberg’s Between Us, and meze at Maria’s Greek Café (the home of some of Cape Town’s most charming waiters). On Wednesday, we bunked work and had a mid-afternoon beer at House of Machines, the bar with Cape Town’s cheekiest shopfront.

Hopefully, that has inspired you to visit Cape Town soon 😉 It is a great little city. When you visit, you might want to stay in one of the Art House Collection’s amazing properties – gorgeous homes filled with astonishing art.

Having gotten used to this view from the V&A Waterfront, you might want to stay, which opens up conversations about remote and hybrid working. Let’s start there. What is happening in the world of work?


In March, Microsoft’s WorkLab published their annual Work Trend Index. They survey 31,000 people in 31 countries and have the enviable (and disconcerting) ability to analyse the data from millions of Microsoft 365 and LinkedIn users.

They identified five major workplace themes:

  • “Employees have a new ‘worth it’ equation.
  • Managers feel wedged between leadership and employee expectations.
  • Leaders need to make the office worth the commute.
  • Flexible work doesn’t have to mean “always on.”
  • Rebuilding social capital looks different in a hybrid world.”

Their study showed the extent to which people’s priorities have shifted:

  • 47% of respondents were more likely to put family and personal life over work than they were before the pandemic.
  • 53% are more likely to prioritize their health and wellbeing over work than before.

You might be tempted to say ‘well, that’s only half’. True, but try running your company with only half of the people engaged. The other temptation might be to say, ‘well, that’s not our culture. They must adapt.’ But it is the reality. It is what people are feeling. Leaders who ignore it, do so at their peril. It’s far better to get creative about what might be possible.

18% of people left their jobs in 2021. Think about the costs of that. The recruitment costs. The lost intellectual property. The lost momentum. You want to mitigate turnover. It costs a lot.

The top five reasons for employees leaving were:

  • Personal wellbeing or mental health.
  • Work-life balance.
  • Risk of getting COVID-19.
  • Lack of confidence in senior management/leadership.
  • Lack of flexible work hours or location (Wharton Business School Professor, Adam Grant, recently shared a Stanford study (the full report is here: stanford.io/3je2FVS) on a randomized 3 days in office, 2 days remote vs 5 days per week in the office for 1600 professional graduate employees for six months which showed a 35% reduction in quit rates and 12% reduction in sick leave with no loss of performance).

A positive culture was regarded as the most important aspect of work for an employer to provide, and fostering strong relationships has a powerful impact:

  • “Employees who have thriving relationships with their immediate team members report better wellbeing than those with poor relationships (76% versus 57%). They also report higher productivity (50% versus 36%) and are less likely to change employers in the year ahead (61% versus 39%).
  • Employees with thriving relationships beyond their immediate team members say they’re more satisfied with their employer (76% versus 57%), more fulfilled by work (79% versus 59%), and have a more positive outlook on workplace stress (40% versus 30%) than those with weak organizational networks.”

The Stanford study mirrors this, noting that “consistent with US survey data workers come into the office mainly to see co-workers (not to see their manager or to use the equipment).” And employees overwhelming see the primary advantage of hybrid work as avoiding the commute. Which just makes sense all round – fewer cars on the road, less carbon emission, less time-wasting.

Simply put, creating a positive culture with strong connections and increased flexibility helps increase engagement and reduce turnover.

Where possible, hybrid work is a powerful option. LinkedIn’s data shows that remote jobs attract nearly 3 times more applicants compared to on-site roles.

Happily, the research also suggests that ‘no meeting days’ can be beneficial.

In January, the MIT Sloan Review published this research of 70 companies’ (each employing more than 1,000 people) approaches to reducing meetings. Nearly half (47%) of the companies studied reduced introduced two no-meeting days per week. 35% instituted three no-meeting days, and 11% implemented four. The remaining 7% eradicated meetings entirely.

The report’s authors concluded that 3 meeting free days a week was ideal. Of course, you’d need to make an assessment as to what is appropriate in your context. It’s never one size fits all.

Even two meeting-free days triggered impressive results. Productivity increased by 71% and job satisfaction by 52%.

There will undoubtedly be a desire to wish it all away, to ‘return to normal’. This data shows us that normal, the normal of February 2020, is gone. No strongly-worded executive decree can change that. Our challenge is to adapt ourselves and our businesses to new expectations. Build positive cultures. Enable work-life balance. Allow flexibility. Intentionally nurture connections within and between teams. Deepen trust.


The WorkLab report notes that “over half of managers (54%) feel leadership at their company is out of touch with employee expectations. And 74% say they don’t have the influence or resources they need to make changes on behalf of their team.”

You might be one of those managers.

Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, in Nine Lies About Work, tell us that there are 8 variables that validly predict sustained team performance:

  1. I am really enthusiastic about the mission of my company.
  2. At work, I clearly understand what is expected of me.
  3. In my team, I am surrounded by people who share my values.
  4. I have the chance to use my strengths every day at work.
  5. My teammates have my back.
  6. I know I will be recognized for excellent work.
  7. I have great confidence in my company’s future.
  8. In my work, I am always challenged to grow.

You might not have control over all those variables but regardless of your executive status, you do have an impact on many of them.

The three most important are:

  1. I have the chance to use my strengths every day at work.
  2. My teammates have my back.
  3. In my team, I am surrounded by people who share my values.

That does not diminish the areas that are frustrating you, but this shows that you can have a material impact on the quality of your colleagues’ work experience. That is in your hands. You can create a culture of mutual support. You can explore values together and take action to build them. You can help people identify and work to their strengths. This you can do.

And, if you’re a C-suite leader, know that there’s a strong chance that your managers are feeling torn. Pause. Listen to them. Look at the above research. Get creative. Do as Jim Collins advises; abandon the tyranny of OR and embrace the genius of AND.


I have also been immersed in Joanne Joseph’s Children of Sugarcane.

This novel tells Shanti’s story, a teenager who is lured into an indentured labour contract, taking her from her village in India to the sugarcane plantations in the then British Colony of Natal.

Joseph does an incredible job of bringing to life an important, and not often written about, part of South Africa’s history. She weaves together themes of race, class, gender, and caste under the dark shadow of colonialism, to give an account that moves you from hope to rage to despair and back again.

Without spoiling it for you, the pages of the book in which Shanti’s lawyer, Mr. Arjunan represents her case, are a powerful exposé of the narratives that legitimated oppression and violence.

A witness for the state comments that Shanti’s actions were “simply the work of a woman who refuses to accept her station in life and wilfully chose to act outside the rules governing the conduct of an indentured labourer.”  When you know what she was forced into, those words will unleash fury in your soul.

Our history is our foundation. Knowing it strengthens us. So much of it hasn’t been written. Sometimes, just the word history makes it inaccessible. By wrapping history in narrative and character, Joseph’s work brings our past to life and in doing so, she has enriched South Africa.

I leave you with Shanti’s Aunty Saras’ words, they seem like a suitable blessing for the week ahead.

“Remember this – you are a store of innate knowledge. You have already lived a thousand lives and the sum of that is vested in you. The struggles of your ancestors are sown into you. Their joys are wound around your sinews. The secrets of love already circulate in your heart.”


PS: You can follow me on LinkedIn or Instagram. You can find previous issues of this letter here and subscribe here.

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