Job cuts reveal an unconventional shift in worker power

Written by: Isabel Berwick and Sophia Smith
Published on: 21 Mar 2023

FT reporters often interview great business leaders, but we recently published a piece written by a CEO himself — Barclays’ CS Venkatakrishnan. Venkat, as he is known, has been undergoing treatment for cancer and wanted to share the lessons he’s learned.

His words are worth reading in full, but what struck me especially was that having less time available for work forced him to prioritise what information he took in. “Now, with fewer occasions to probe colleagues, I had to decide which questions mattered — and when I should engage with them. It is a habit I should have cultivated more carefully earlier,” he writes.

The idea that we should be curious about everything is embedded in many of us, but Venkat’s words have made me reflect critically on this — as did a new book called Purposeful Curiosity, which also suggests a more selective approach to information gathering. The author, Bayes Business School professor Costas Andriopoulos, wants us to stop being “butterflies” and steer our inquisitiveness towards “goals that we care about and that give meaning to everything we do”. That means setting boundaries and priorities and being selective about what we investigate and learn. It’s creating a real mind shift for me, after a lifetime of “butterfly” pursuits.

We are taking a break from new episodes of the Working It podcast, but this week we’re replaying a listener favourite: why friendship at work matters.

And a note to readers: Sadly, this is Sophia Smith’s last week at the FT. She’s been a fantastic launch editor for the Working It newsletter and we wish her well for her future career. There will be no Working It newsletter next week, but we’ll return on February 22. (Isabel Berwick)

Top stories from the world of work:

1. The challenge of management research: Business schools and academic initiatives that research management have a problem — the findings often don’t reach their target market, and academics debate whether research ought to be more relevant to industry.

2. Memo to staff: dress fabulously: Even when we choose our own clothes, or are encouraged to dress “as wildly fabulous as you feel like”, as one law firm recently was, our work clothes are a uniform that conveys the type of worker we are, writes Robert Shrimsley.

3. We should all be asking more questions: Many people avoid asking questions, worrying that they will look stupid. But fear of asking “stupid” questions can lead you to pretend you know more than you do, which makes you more vulnerable to bluff, bullshit and fraud.

4. Workplace bullying should have no place in politics: Civil servants who challenge the harmful behaviour of aggressive ministers are brave, not “snowflakey”, writes Hannah White. New claims of bullying against deputy prime minister Dominic Raab (allegations he denies) offer an alternative narrative about “woke” civil servants with a vendetta.

5. A business school battles on in Kyiv: Despite the conflict, Tymofiy Mylovanov, president of the Kyiv School of Economics, has resolved to stay in Ukraine and lead the Kyiv school. He’s crafted what he calls the school’s distinctive “MBA on the frontline”.

Interested in going to business school? Sign up for our free newsletter course MBA 101, your guide to getting into business school

Why workers still have the upper hand amid mass job cuts

Mass job cuts
© FT montage/Dreamstime

Google cut 12,000 jobs. Meta axed 11,000. Amazon and Microsoft each dismissed 10,000 workers and Salesforce and Amazon trimmed 8,000 apiece from their headcount. The staggering number of job cuts in the technology sector over the past few months may feel like a gloomy indicator of the widely anticipated recession. However, the latest wave of dismissals is catalysing a shifting mindset among workers — and new attitudes towards trust, stability, and the employer-employee relationship could be here to stay.

Despite talk of a looming recession, the US has seen an increase in productivity and widespread job growth — particularly in professional and business services, including tech — and the vast majority of managers expect to hire in the first half of the year.

While skilled workers remain in demand, it is likely they will take on jobs on a contract basis. Business consulting firm Robert Half found that 72 per cent of managers plan on hiring more contractors, a significant increase from 45 per cent six months ago.

According to McKinsey’s American Opportunity Survey, 36 per cent of Americans are already independent workers. And it’s not just car service or food delivery workers in the gig economy; a third of those earning more than $150,000 a year say they’re independent. As companies prioritise cost-cutting, some full-time knowledge workers are losing trust, and see freelancing as a more attractive and secure option.

Raphael Ouzan, chief executive of A. Team, a platform that allows freelancers to form project-based teams, says the employer/employee relationship has been “disrupted”. A full-time job, which used to be “a synonym for stability”, now feels like it holds more risk. “If you’re a full-time worker, you could be laid off tomorrow,” says Raphael.

More workers are “acknowledging the transactional nature of work”, says Allyn Bailey, executive director for hiring success at SmartRecruiters. She’s seen this shift even among workers who remain in full-time jobs. “People are not hunkering down to stay for 25 years. People are saying ‘I’m a free agent, and if I don’t like it, I’m going to leave.’”

In the aftershock of mass job cuts, some employers might see an opportunity to crack down on worker freedoms and enforce policies like returning to the office. But given low unemployment rates and the growing popularity of freelancing, these moves could drive staff away.

Phil Libin, co-founder and chief executive of mmhmm, a video conferencing company, believes the right thing to do is actually grant greater freedom to workers, and that the issue of trust — or lack thereof — has been a major undercurrent in recent workplace trends. In a recent survey, mmhmm found that 77 per cent of people had left or would leave a job if they didn’t feel trusted.

Indeed, workers may be more attracted to contract work if it means freedom from a micromanaging boss. Whether workers are salaried or contract, Phil believes companies should “give people the space and time to do meaningful work. Trust by default.” (Sophia Smith)

PS As Isabel mentioned, this is my last week writing for Working It. The work world is often contentious, evolving exponentially, endlessly fascinating — and it has been a joy to cover its most important stories for you, reader. Perhaps we will cross paths again at some future water cooler. Until then, clocking out.  — Sophia

A word from the Working It community:

In efforts to monitor productivity — and deter workers from slacking off — some companies are implementing spyware technology that can track a worker’s computer activity. FT readers are resoundingly anti-tracking.

FT reader Bunje points out that these tracking apps don’t realistically reflect the effort that goes into knowledge work, which takes place not on a screen but in one’s own thoughts:

"What about the employee who is creating a marketing document and mocks it up on paper first? Or someone who sits there and tries to assimilate all of the information that they have just read? In both cases the computer assumes they have gone to sleep. I suspect that the person who pauses to think is more productive than the headless chicken flipping from one document to another."

Reader Grass Fed’s perspective on the fraught relationship between productivity, outcome and pay is one reason why spyware’s insistence on measuring time is frustrating to salaried workers:

"The thing about increasing productivity is that your only reward is more work. If I am not compensated for the extra work that I could do within the same amount of time, then the extra time that I get from finishing early is my reward."

And reader Claus in CPH does see some benefit in tracking time spent on work — but only for personal reasons:

"If you need TimeCamp to monitor your employees, you are a rotten boss. They should make an employee-centred version, so each individual can log their own usage of time for themselves and not for other people to see. I have done that on paper, in periods of my life when time just seemed to go without any visible results. It made me focus on when and how often I checked emails etc, and made it possible to measure my own productivity."

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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