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Session Digest: Understanding Your Workforce in the Age of Agency

Posted at: 09.22.2022
A discussion with Jared Spataro, Anne Helen Petersen, and Michael Gervais on the future of work.

Spataro, Petersen and Gervase on stage at VivaTech. Photo credit: VivaTech


The power of who has the say is tipping in favor of employees. With remote work and flexible schedules more appealing than ever to their workforce and recruiting the right people with the right skills becoming more tough, employers are left no longer holding the upper hand. So, what does this mean for the future of work How far can employees go in their demands for different working conditions And will employers ever get back the control they had before 

During our sixth edition, we welcomed Jared Spataro, the Corporate Vice President of Modern Work at Microsoft on stage at VivaTech to lay out his thoughts on where the future of work is heading. Halfway through the session, he was then joined on stage by Dr. Michael Gervais, a high-performance psychologist, and Anne Helen Petersen, an author and public speaker, for a short panel discussion. 

Spataro speaking on stage. Photo credit: VivaTech


The Age of Agency

It’s evident that the workforce has changed its opinion on how we should be working, but to understand how much, Microsoft completed a survey of 31,000 people from 31 different countries titled “Great Expectations: A Road Map For Making Hybrid Work Work”. The results showed that now more than ever, people are prioritizing their family, health, and freetime over their careers. Spataro shared some key numbers with us.

  • 53% of employees are prioritizing health and wellbeing over their job and 47% would prioritize their personal life and family over their careers.
  • 18% of the global workforce changed employers last year. But the number one reason wasn’t pay, it was health and wellbeing – specifically work-life balance.
  • 46% of the global workforce is now made up of millennials and Gen Z and 70% of them have a side hustle – typically something they are passionate about.

What these results show is that employees are looking for a ‘new deal’ when it comes to employment,” Spataro noted. “People might think that the future of work is about where we are working and new work patterns. That is true superficially. But what is actually happening here is we are negotiating a new deal between the individual and the organization.”

So, what is the new deal The CVP described it as Agency. Which is a fancy way of saying that workers want more control over how, when and where they work – they’ve been able to assert that control during the pandemic and now want to keep it.

The idea of agency comes from Hollywood and the dissolution of the Studio system in the 1950’s,” Petersen explained further. “Agents would work for agencies on behalf of individuals and give them the ability to advocate for themselves and create a new deal with the work that they did. So the word Agency, in the way that we are using it, means autonomy.

Some parents who worked from home during the pandemic realized that the flexibility allowed them more time with their kids as well. Photo credit: Tatiana Syrikova


Hyper personalizing work

Where does this sense of agency stem from “For me, it’s the hyper personalization of our world,” Spataro said. “For example, everything we do with our phones, shopping, reading, gaming, is hyper personalized around the individual and what we want. And workers are taking this expectation for hyper personalization to work. They want their employers to understand and support their needs and values.”

People voicing their concerns in the workplace actually leads to more diverse opinions and challenges the status quo of how organizations function by putting the individual at the center of the equation.

Yet this comes with a warning too. If left unchecked, this hyper focus on individuality on the agency of workers comes into direct conflict with the unity required for an organization to function,” Spataro warned.

Better leaders for a better workforce

So, how do employers balance agency within their workforce Between giving individuals more voice in how, when, and where they work and also creating a cohesive work environment so that employees can collaborate, many employers have felt lost after the pandemic. Setting full-time return to office mandates has received lots of pushback. But at the same time, completely giving up office space to allow 100% remote work can result in a lack of company culture and employees feeling isolated. 

The deciding factor is firm leadership. “It takes real leadership to take a group of diverse actors and bring them together and turn them into a team, because this is not just about coaxing people back into the office, this is about the tension between individuals and organizations.” 

In Spataro’s opinion, this requires a new pattern of leadership based on two concepts: empathy and stewardship. Empathy means being the leader that listens carefully, tries to understand, and finds solutions together. Stewardship means creating culture within a team, which is the most effective way to build and sustain the unity that is required for an organization to pursue its mission.

“Leaders who are able to balance this equation of the empathy required to focus on individuals and the stewardship of the mission, set the tone for their organization and teach others how to be leaders with this example.”

Managers also need to learn to be leaders. Photo credit: RODNAE Productions


Taking up the challenge to upskill leaders

Right along with the upskilling revolution for employees, managers and leaders should also be learning new skills. Becoming a leader doesn’t happen overnight, so investing in learning how to be a better leader is gaining more importance in every company.

“The investment in culture is one of the deepest investments that we can make and from our standpoint, culture is the artifact of relationships,” said Gervais. “The investment in self first is where leaders are going to help build that sense of belonging and purpose at work. And teaching the psychological skills to help do that is a requirement in the new workforce.”

Yet the pandemic has not only brought to light the issues of leadership nowadays, but also why it is important to have leaders who know their workforce. Spataro put it, “It’s easier to think that this is a moment of getting people back into the office, or refurbishing your conference rooms. It is not that. This is a moment of change. It’s the moment for the emergence of new leaders and new leadership patterns. When we think about the Future of Work it is all about how we are going to change culturally the way that we get things done. And I’m excited about that. I think that there is real opportunity there, if we take the bull by the horns.”

Leading into the future

As many businesses struggle to find a good balance for their teams in this age of agency, it’s important to remember that no one else knows much better! With such big changes happening in the workplace, companies all over the world will be trying out new work models, remote structures, learning tools, and managing frameworks.

Even with the looming of an economic recession, I still think that our best days are ahead of us,” Spataro reminded us. “And if we realize what is happening now, if we understand the issues at play, I think that together we can build a better tomorrow for employers, for employees, for everyone in the world.”

If you want to watch the full session, you can watch the replay on our Digital Platform here !


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