For this column, I’m going to try something different. Instead of opining or delving into one theme or issue, I’m going to run down a number of talent-related stories I came across throughout the week that sparked my interest — and, in doing so, offer my views on how each is evident of wider trends leaders should pay attention to in the talent economy.
Here are some of the big issues and stories I’ve followed the past few days:
Companies are doing more to creep on employees’ behavior — but it’s not what you might think.
For years now we’ve heard stories of how companies are building up their Big Brother arsenals. Tracking employees’ online activity, emails, chats and other online behaviors certainly isn’t new, as more companies aimed to ensure their workers weren’t spending their days online shopping or on Facebook or other social media. But, as The Wall Street Journal wrote about this week, more firms are using advanced tracking technologies not to spy on their employees’ behavior necessarily but to learn more about how they communicate and interact at work to help improve workplace efficiency.
Firms such as Microsoft, Boston Consulting Group, among others, are monitoring employees’ use of email, workplace chat tools and even their physical office movements to learn more about how workers relay information. Indeed, some of the firms mentioned have come to use digitized employee badges to track their office movements as well as the amount of informal time they spend talking to other employees, including who they talk to and where — although the device doesn’t record the contents of their conversations. The purpose of the effort is to learn more so companies can adjust how their physical office spaces are designed as well as reduce formal meetings. Another goal is to identify workers whose communication styles aren’t as successful so managers can coach them up.
This is very, very interesting stuff. I have to admit: I’m no fan of the type of internet monitoring or Big Brother spying we’re used to hearing about in the workplace. Employees are adults; treat them as such. But if these efforts are genuine — and, if you read the article’s comments section, there are plenty of skeptics out there — then this is a far more productive use of Big Brother tactics. We’ve heard now for the past few years that companies need to put more resources into modernizing how they structure work as well as their physical offices. Kudos goes out to these firms for taking a data-centric, scientific approach to studying the issue. Time will tell if those efforts actually pay off as intended.
The rural-urban divide can teach us a lot about new business creation and where companies need to invest.
The 2016 presidential election taught us a lot about where our country is at in terms of our demographic divides. This is especially profound when looked at through the lens of urban vs. rural. Business Insider this week took a nuanced look at what divides rural U.S. counties from urban ones, and the findings shed some light on interesting information that business leaders ought to consider.
The first is that, perhaps unsurprisingly, poverty is higher in rural areas compared to urban ones. As blue-collar rural community dealt with the blows from automation and globalization in the manufacturing sector, many people living in these areas found themselves out of a job without great prospects for a new one on the horizon. This points to the second divide Business Insider points out — the fact that most new jobs are created in urban, not rural, areas. More and more jobs are coming from white-collar work, and more and more white-collar work is originating in urban city centers where companies are opening up offices.
However, there’s one divide in the article that surprised me. As it turns out, according to U.S. Census Bureau data cited in the article, rural areas are actually more entrepreneurial than urban ones. Nonmetropolitan counties have higher rates of self-employed business proprietors than metropolitan areas — not the other way around, as many might have suspected.
The divide between urban and rural areas in the U.S. tells me that more companies need to invest in putting outposts in rural areas. I get that, for the most part, companies want to be where the high-skilled talent is — and that talent, it appears, is overwhelmingly living in urban areas — but it’s paramount that companies rethink this approach and invest more in rural parts of the country. To this end, it’s also important that more urbanites take a chance and move out of the city — a big ask, but, as Business Insider’s analysis points out, a hugely imperative one. Some analysis shows more are already moving back to the suburbs.
Finally, here’s proof that startups that ignore human resources in their early growth stages are doing themselves no favors.
Consider the case of Thinx, a period-underwear company that is largely in a tailspin because its CEO, Miki Agrawal, never developed HR policies or hired an HR manager for the firm, according to this piece in Bloomberg. Agrawal was ousted as CEO earlier this month after revelations of Thinx employees complaining of low pay, sparse benefits and erratic behavior by its management team, the Bloomberg article said. The company, which touted itself as a champion of feminism, was also accused of mistreating its largely female workforce. Agrawal wrote an essay on Medium last week expressing contrition that she didn’t address HR early enough at the company, as well as some advice for other startups that may be neglecting the function for too long. It’s worth checking out.
Look, I get that HR probably isn’t top of mind to most entrepreneurs. Creating and building a product and scaling the company’s top-line growth understandably consume most of an entrepreneur’s efforts. Uber, as Bloomberg points out, didn’t hire its first full-time HR manager until 2014 when it reached 500 employees. Still, as this example demonstrates, it is critical that startups with more than a few employees take active steps to consult an HR expert on these sorts of things, and once the venture is more than 10 or 20 employees, it might be time to bring an HR person on full time. Not only will doing this avoid the tactical or back-office issues around pay and benefits that Thinx appeared to ignore, but it will help the startup’s leaders to shift their focus to building and scaling cultural values as well as their company’s top-line growth.
Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.