The Human Hedge

Over the past year, I’ve started investing time and money into projects that defy one of the biggest macro trend happening today: the marginalization of workers.

Uber and its gig economy brethren are walking the fine line between enabling sidelined people to rejoin the workforce and downgrading employees to contractors. Others are working tirelessly to build AI that could replace a large chunk of the workforce from truck drivers to accountants and other white collar “knowledge workers” (RIP Peter Drucker). And suddenly entire career paths look the way factory jobs did during the industrial revolution, bound for a slow extinction documented on the evening news.

Despite that context, I am doubling down on people, hedging against the trend by betting that soft skills will remain valuable and that the talent pipeline will remain one of the most effective growth lever a company can wield.

On the one hand, I am embracing some of the changes afforded by technology, and encourage my staff to replace the most tedious of tasks with automation (rss feeds, IFTTT, hacking CRM for other uses while grabbing its rich data, etc.) and to elevate their contribution with the now freed time. There simply is no need for manual work for the sake of manual work.

On the other hand, With Awesome Boss I’m betting that a factor as hard to quantify as employee engagement can drive meaningful business results and more importantly meaningful relationships in the workplace. I’m investing into the idea that face to face conversations, water cooler chats, and scheduled feedback meetings can still be relevant. In fact, I’d argue they have the potential to bigger factors now than ever before.

Think about it, 20 years ago the workplace was a finite environment, a box with space-time boundaries you could draw. You worked from 9am to 5pm, from a specific location, with a team that sat a few feet from you. Communication only happened during these hours, in the office, by way of a few mediums: meetings, phone, memos, etc.

Fast forward to today, work is a continuum that often doesn’t have geographic boundaries, rarely is contained to office hours, and often relies on scattered communication mediums (email, phone, video conference, slack, text messages, chat, trello cards, comments in documents, feedback logged into ERP HR module, banter on facebook or twitter for those willing to break the work-life wall and befriend coworkers). In the midst of all that, over 80% of the workforce still isn’t engaged (the big 3 HR consulting firms agree on the “actively engaged” group ranging from 10% to 20%).

Creative thinking, customer-centricity, business development, strategic thinking, and many other skills and behaviors simply can’t (yet) be automated, replaced by big data, or simply driven by KPIs. Unfortunately these skills only express themselves in engaged employees, but when they do, they transform a task-oriented contributor into a problem solver, an analyst into an innovator, a salesperson into a consultant, a supervisor into a leader.

Unleashing these traits requires two decidedly human inputs:

  • Mentoring / coaching, because guidance, governance and the establishing of a safe climate are important aspects of breaking out of a shell.
  • Relationship nurturing, because very few will want to surpass themselves for a stranger, or someone will will treat them as one.

Much like culture, engagement is an art rather than a science, and cannot be directed through simple calculated stimulus. Culture is an influence at the level of a group (team, department, organization) but engagement operates at the individual level. In both case though, they start from above, with the “boss”… and that’s why rather than AI, drones or “tinder for HR”, I’m delighted to be involved with Awesome Boss to make unlocked the human component of productivity: employee engagement.

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