The Great Resignation & The Future of Work: Tolga Tarhan On How Employers and Employees Are Reworking Work Together
An Interview with Karen Mangia
Increase flexibility: Employees will expect flexibility in where and when they work, within reason. This will be an expected benefit, just like health insurance or a 401k.
When it comes to designing the future of work, one size fits none. Discovering success isn’t about a hybrid model or offering remote work options. Individuals and organizations are looking for more freedom. The freedom to choose the work model that makes the most sense. The freedom to choose their own values. And the freedom to pursue what matters most. We reached out to successful leaders and thought leaders across all industries to glean their insights and predictions about how to create a future that works.
As a part of our interview series called “How Employers and Employees are Reworking Work Together,” we had the pleasure to interview Tolga Tarhan.
Tolga has more than two decades of experience leading product and engineering teams. He was an early pioneer of cloud native thinking and is a hands-on technologist at heart. Tolga recently founded Kibsi (https://kibsi.com/), an end-to-end, low-code platform designed to build custom vision-enabled apps with ease, eliminating complexity, risk, and expense.
Prior to Kibsi, Tolga served as CTO of Rackspace Technology and Onica. He was also the co-founder and CEO of Sturdy.cloud. Tolga continues to show thought leadership in the field through his extensive speaking engagements at events, industry conferences, and educational groups. Tolga holds an M.B.A. from the Graziadio Business School at Pepperdine University.
Thank you for making time to visit with us. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today.
I think every customer, employee, project, and company I’ve interacted with has helped me grow as a leader. But there are two incredible stand-outs:
First, in my late-20s and early 30’s, I served as an Incident Commander for the Civil Air Patrol — a volunteer organization that flies disaster relief, search and rescue, and homeland security missions as the auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force.
As a volunteer organization, Civil Air Patrol was a unique leadership challenge. Unlike employees, our volunteers didn’t get paid, and had no obligation to donate their time and energy. This was perhaps the most pivotal leadership lesson in my life — when you learn to lead volunteers who are making selfless sacrifices to serve their community, it becomes relatively easy to lead those who receive a paycheck.
Second, fast forward to 2017, when the company I co-founded was acquired by our competitor Onica. We were both in the cloud consulting space, working with Amazon Web Services before it was a well-known household name. The ecosystem was experiencing tremendous growth and so were we, we quadrupled in size and 10x our revenue in less than two years. This kind of hypergrowth leads to lots of leadership lessons — from scale, to strategy, to operational execution. This was the point in my career where I morphed from a technologist and leader of technologists to a true executive leader.
Let’s zoom out. What do you predict will be the same about work, the workforce and the workplace 10–15 years from now? What do you predict will be different?
Nothing will be the same in the workplace 10–15 years from now. We will continue to see increased flexibility as the norm for knowledge workers. Employees are getting really good at being productive from home and working remotely, anywhere they choose, and they will continue to enjoy more flexibility in the future. We will continue to see an increasing number of jobs that allow employees to work when and where they want, within reason.
I also think the old notion that employees owe something to their employers is breathing its last breath. This type of imbalanced relationship where employers hold all the cards will be flipped on its head, or at least become more balanced in the employee’s favor as employers continue to struggle with attracting and retaining top talent.
Finally, I predict we are going to see more change in how performance is measured in the workplace. Everyone entering the workforce in the last 10 to 15 years grew up with a cell phone and laptop, they are used to having instant gratification for almost everything in life — i.e., they want to buy something now, sign up immediately, or look up the answer instantly. This generation does not have the patience for bureaucratic annual review cycles, it’s too slow for those who grew up in such a fast-paced, information-centric world. Performance, compensation, and retention management from employers has to change.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
The best way to future proof your organization is to recognize that things will always change and whatever the plan on your desk says today, you’d be lucky if it was twenty percent right tomorrow. The best future proofing is ensuring that your organization remains nimble and can adapt quickly. We often spend too much time planning, rather than executing. I’d rather try a couple of things to see what works, instead of getting stuck analyzing and missing an opportunity.
What do you predict will be the biggest gaps between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect as we move forward? And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?
Two gaps come to mind. First, the relationship between “leaders” and “doers,” which is often very top down: you were told what to do and you did your job so that you would be paid. Most workspaces are a very typical and hierarchical command and control structure. Today’s workforce does not want a “boss,” they want a mentor — someone who can help them excel in their career. This doesn’t mean that they are less productive or less willing to work; it means you need to lead with an understanding that your role isn’t just to manage but make employees better. It might be hard for leaders who have developed their leadership style over many years to change styles and embrace this new way of leading.
Second, employees continue to demand more balance between work and life. COVID was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” here, and I predict we will see more and more workers clarify that they are “working to live” vs. “living to work.” This is both good and bad for employers: bad because employees are less likely to work 12-hour days or 7-day weeks to build their careers. And good because this was never sustainable and it’s forcing us to recognize the right staffing models and balance to create a happier and healthier workplace.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
I’d propose we redefine this from the lens of flexibility. Work from home and hybrid work are a part of a broader push towards flexible work. And flexible work is more than this — it could include working a split shift, or it might include the ability to run an errand midday or pick up the kids from school. This flexibility is here to stay.
But I’m going to disagree with the consensus on fulltime work from home: I think this is going to fall out of favor. But ironically, I don’t think the pushback will come from employers — they’ve been forced to accept this model. Rather, employees and teams are getting frustrated with social disconnect. I think everyone misses the social and collaborative aspects of an office.
So, I think most will land on a mixed model that includes some time in the office with colleagues and some time remote. And if implemented well, it will be up to individual teams to make the decision on how often and when to be in office; it won’t be a leadership decision.
We’ve all read the headlines about how the pandemic reshaped the workforce. What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support a future of work that works for everyone?
I don’t know what the solution is, but I do think that the pandemic highlighted how fragile the childcare system is in the United States. When schools closed, working parents without nearby family were out of luck and many people were forced to put their careers on hold for a year to take care of their children.
And while school and daycare closures made sense in the early days of the pandemic, it brought into focus how important, and possibly inaccessible, childcare is for some families. To continue to make the workplace fair and accessible to all who are willing to work, I think we need a universal childcare system that’s available to all families.
Secondly, I think we are seeing our medical system stretched to its limits. It’s a system that’s designed for high utilization and efficiency during normal times, which means it doesn’t have much slack when it needs to stretch to meet large, unexpected demands, such as a global pandemic. COVID-19 showed us all that healthcare professionals are nothing short of heroes — working nonstop to save lives in unbelievably difficult conditions. We should help them by building a stronger foundation for the future. This won’t be the last pandemic, after all.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
Despite the incredibly difficult two years we’ve had, most of society — and most workplaces — kept going. Employees adapted quickly, employers figured out how to support a remote workforce, and most business activity kept going.
One would expect to see a much worse economic outcome from the pandemic, but the incredible resilience in our workforce got us through. By and large things are still working, and if we can do two years in a pandemic, we can do pretty much anything!
Our collective mental health and wellbeing are now considered collateral as we consider the future of work. What innovative strategies do you see employers offering to help improve and optimize their employee’s mental health and wellbeing?
Borrowing from one of my MBA professors, I really believe employers should strive to build a workforce of “happy , high performers.” While the need to hire, develop, and retain high performers is quite intuitive, the need to cultivate happiness within the workforce isn’t as obvious. But it needs to be a focus; I don’t think there’s any path to managing retention and the impacts of the great resignation without making employee happiness a key leadership objective.
This means organizations must invest in building and maintaining an exceptional workplace culture. The exact mechanics of how to do this are very situational, but it requires great leadership, the right investments, and deliberate action.
It seems like there’s a new headline every day. ‘The Great Resignation’. ‘The Great Reconfiguration’. And now the ‘Great Reevaluation’. What are the most important messages leaders need to hear from these headlines? How do company cultures need to evolve?
The most important thing for leaders to understand is that worker mobility is at an all-time high. Most of your competitors will hire your employees and allow them to work remotely. Changing jobs is no longer the same difficult task of days past — no need to sell your house and move across the country. With employees able to live and work anywhere, leaders must ask themselves: why would someone choose to work here instead of any other company in the world? I think the answer to this question is a great way to understand the parts of your culture that should be celebrated and advertised, and where there’s more to develop or improve.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends to Track In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Increase flexibility: Employees will expect flexibility in where and when they work, within reason. This will be an expected benefit, just like health insurance or a 401k.
- A new kind of transparency: Employees will continue to see through typical “corporate speak.” Companies will need to continue to become increasingly transparent and speak to their employees genuinely.
- Tangible career growth: Employers will have to provide career growth that is tangible and visible in smaller increments. Traditional annual performance cycles won’t do. When employees don’t see career growth, they can and will move somewhere else.
- Employee buy-in: In the past, employment was seen as an exchange of labor for pay. Increasingly, however, employees want to love where they work, in the same way they love their favorite consumer brands. They must be bought into your vision, mission, values, and brand.
- Purposeful focus on culture: Culture is a key element of a great workplace. But it will continue to be a challenge to build strong relationships inside and outside of the workplace in these new hybrid environments. Employers need to be purposeful in delivering more opportunities for employees to connect, build relationships, and come together to form an amazing culture.
I keep quotes on my desk and on scraps of paper to stay inspired. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective?
My favorite quote is from Steve Jobs:
“For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
This quote pretty much sums up the whole article for me: I think it is what employees are thinking about right now. I am so lucky to get to do what I love and am so passionate about everyday — working with a brilliant and amazing team to build great technology.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she, or they might just see this if we tag them.
I’ve had a front row seat to watch AWS go from a relatively unknown entity to the tech company that has the most profound impact on everything we do. I’d love to have lunch with Andy Jassy (@ajassy) to hear about the journey and read his “six-pager.”
Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?
I had a large platform in my last role, but since then have “lost my microphone.” I would love to connect on Twitter, where I plan to be more active. You can find me at @ttarhan.
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.