To better understand what the future of work means for founders, I interviewed a number of people across the startup and venture landscape.
Drew Himel is the founder and CEO of PCR, a digital marketing agency and consultancy in Jacksonville, Florida. He’s an early stage investor in Calm and SpaceX and is heavily plugged into the VC world.
Nick Crocker is a General Partner at Blackbird Ventures. He’s founded multiple companies—including one that was acquired by Twitter in 2012. He has also worked at Under Armour and Boxee.
Phoebe Gardner is the co-founder of Bardee, a startup dedicated to reshaping the global food system by transforming food waste into protein and fertilizer. She’s at the helm of what just may be a revolutionary Australian unicorn, and we’re lucky to benefit from her insights.
Simon Cowan is the Research Director at Sydney’s Center for Independent Studies. He is an economist and policy expert and has previously discussed budgetary issues and health policy in front of the Australian Senate.
Asked, in his opinion, why people are leaving their jobs in droves, Drew noted that the pandemic caused a lot of people to look inwards and reflect about whether they found their jobs fulfilling and meaningful.
The ones who didn’t answer in the affirmative were incentivized to quit, perhaps driven by a life-is-too-short mentality.
Nick echoed similar sentiments, explaining that “COVID taught us all that we can work from home...which in some ways is the same as working from anywhere. COVID also forced us to reflect on what we value. As many of our freedoms were restricted, whether it was family, or friends, or nature...we suddenly saw what mattered to us much more clearly. And working from home spiked people's burnout...so you have people needing a change, wanting a change, and having the freedom to make one. That's where the shift has come from.”
Simon was less eager to conflate correlation with causation, expressing a reticence to blame the so-called “Great Resignation” on any one cause or set of causes. “Significant caution should be exercised from trying to interpret labour market changes stemming from a 1 in a 100 year global pandemic,” he noted. “Workers, particularly in Australia’s most populous cities of Sydney and Melbourne, have been locked down for months at a time, forced to work from home or furloughed. Welfare has been boosted by unprecedented amounts. All of these things have had unpredictable and unanticipated impacts on workforce trends and participation. Let’s see what the data says in three years’ time.”
Of course, this is all somewhat speculative, as neither Drew nor Nick has personally dealt with large degrees of turnover. Strong incentives, they believe, improve retention rates and have protected them as employers from the rising tide of leaving employees. According to Drew, “Working from anywhere, competitive salaries, flexible vacation policy, [and] in-person events and get together[s] to still foster a strong sense of unity with the team” have all worked well.
Nick elaborated on this further and spoke to what has worked for him and his team at Blackbird. “What people need changes as you grow,” he explained. “At Blackbird, as we've grown, we've had to invest in making sure each team knows what other teams are working on. We've moved to a RACI structure (Responsible, Accountable, Contributing, and Informed) to make it clearer who owns what. We've seen people struggle to take time off so we've implemented company-wide Kit-Kat days [of the same kind that Dovetail uses] where we all switch off for the day. We've bolstered the mental health support we provide our team. We've invested in training our managers to be better at what they do. And we've been really disciplined about making the first week of every month Zoom-free, and not having any Slack activity outside of business hours. There's some quiet on nights and weekends that is pressure relieving. There's a lot more than that but those are some good examples.”
While Drew and Nick seem to have adopted these policies voluntarily, Simon noted starkly that soon, employers won’t have much of a choice. If they want to retain their employees, they’re going to need to pile on the incentives. “Companies will need to be aggressive about providing both generous remuneration and rapid advancement opportunities for high performing workers,” he argued. “The idea of ‘doing your time’ was already becoming old-fashioned and inefficient but that’s been accelerated now. Ordinary workers are likely to expect and demand greater workplace flexibility, perhaps even more so than higher wages. Having worked from home for two years, even moderately competent workers will be increasingly less likely to tolerate a culture of ‘presenteeism’ in the workforce.”
In terms of where we go from here, it seems that the burden rests mainly on the shoulders of founders and employers. As the labor market reacts to the precipitous changes of the unprecedented events that have marched their way wantonly through the past two years, employees will have their pick of who they work for, how they spend their time, and under what conditions they do so.
To that end, founders and employers would do well to think outside the box about how best to move forward. There are few people that have done this better than Bardee’s CEO and co-founder, Phoebe Gardner. While she’s pursuing a hybrid work model, she has found that given the choice, her remote and in-office teams generally tend to stick to their ground. That is, at Bardee, most people are either fully remote or fully in-office. There’s little in between. To keep everybody in the loop, all communications and decisions are run through shared slack channels of which all employees are a part. For her and her team, this has worked well, and she’s had very little turnover in the last year.
While COVID has undoubtedly given us all a massive headache, it’s also forced us to rethink how we do business. And for some, like Phoebe, it’s been a blessing in disguise.
Bardee’s business is “quite multidisciplinary,” she told me, “and we’ve drawn from a lot of different pools of talent. We’ve ended up with 20 people and eight different first languages. There’s no way we would have hired like that without COVID…it means that the whole world is your talent pool and you can seek the best whereas without COVID we would have been very likely to look locally.”
Catastrophe, tragedy, and upheaval necessitate change, which creates new possibilities and opportunities and worlds for all of us. What the future of work means for founders remains uncertain. As Motley Crue’s frontman Vince Neil once put it back in ‘89: “Now it’s time for change. Nothing stays the same. Now it’s time for change.” The silver lining to an atrocious pandemic is that it will propel us into the future. It’s time for change, indeed. And employers probably need to wake up to this if they’re to retain their employees.