Be More Podcast: The Future of Work with Al Adamsen

In this episode, Al Adamsen, the founder and CEO of People Analytics & Future of Work (PAFOW), joins us to discuss big data, systematic empathy, and the future of work.


Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work, hosted Workday’s Patrick Cournoyer. This week: Al Adamsen, the Founder and CEO of People Analytics & Future of Work (PAFOW) joins us to discuss Big Data, systematic empathy, and the future of work.

During 2020, organizations created crisis management teams that spanned HR, facilities, IT, operations, finance, and more. In 2021, these same teams can look at how work is designed, and make significant changes that might otherwise have been ignored.

"I really want us to get to a place where we’re balancing the productivity and business performance needs of an organization with the humanistic needs of individuals, particularly as they’re working from home."

Al Adamsen

If you want to know more about how data can be the basis of empowering your team members, then check out the key takeaways or read the transcript below. 

Key Takeaways

  • People want three things: to be seen, heard, and empowered. If you can provide your team members with these three things in a systemized way (but not robotic manner), you will improve both someone’s performance and enjoyment in their role.
  • Confidence is the trust or belief in a better future. People leaders have a responsibility to instill this confidence in their team members so that they can do what is needed for the organization to thrive.
  • Jobs roles are changing fast. The pace at which jobs are changing has sparked the need for organizations to provide content, platforms, and experiences that facilitate learning and enable their people to excel in their roles.


Patrick Cournoyer: I’m sure that many of you listening today have attended a People Analytics & Future of Work or PAFOW event over the past 10 years. PAFOW is the premier network of passionate professionals influencing how people data, analytics and AI will affect the future of work. Joining me today is the founder of PAFOW, Al Adamsen. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Al for the past few years, and I am continuously impressed with his outlook and positive forward-looking perspectives. Not only does he have an extensive background as an HR practitioner, he has a meaningful voice that is shaping the future.

Al is a pro podcaster, and I was able to be a guest on his podcast, so I am thrilled that he has agreed to spend some time with me today. Al, I’m really happy to have you join the conversation. Thank you.

Al: Patrick, thank you for having me. Thank you for that introduction. It really warms my heart. It humbles me. It sets the bar high, so I’m going to have to bring my A game today. Thanks for having me.

Patrick: I appreciate it, and I meant every word of it. I think that your perspective, and as I’ve listened to you and been able to work with you over the past couple of years, I truly believe that your positive perspective and your holistic view on the future is very much needed for us as we start out this year. Today, I thought it would be good for us just to chat a bit about the opportunity that we all have as organizations, and not only as organizations, but as people in the workforce and in the world of work to look at things a bit differently, to look at what we’ve learned over the past year and how we have an amazing opportunity to create a pretty brilliant future.

There’s a lot in that, and I thought maybe we could start out by chatting a bit about what you think some of the core learnings have been over the past year as we start out 2021.

Al: It is a great question. I think we have a great opportunity ahead in 2021. Let me just frame this in the way I see it, and feel free to pick up on any of these points. First off, in response to the pandemic, we created these crisis management teams or Tiger teams, or whatever you want to call them. They involve not only HR, but they involve facilities. They involved IT to empower folks. Legal was involved, operations, of course finance.

We have now these groups and many organizations formed that now have a great opportunity to look systematically in terms of how work is designed, where work is done, what the employee experience or even worker experience can and should be for the benefit of not only the organization but for the individuals themselves. We have a great opportunity to create new decision-making processes. Is that going to happen, or is the inertia of history going to take us back to these old functional silos? I don’t know.

I’m seeing here in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live a lot of movement towards a more innovative way of making workforce related decisions, and that relates to a number of people. It relates to location, like I mentioned. It relates to culture. So I am hopeful. Now, are organizations in mass going to take advantage of this opportunity? I don’t know, but I’m trying to do my part to bring some innovative ideas in terms of what data is brought to the fore, what processes should be in place to not overburden people with minutiae, but also keep them involved in critical decisions that are going to influence how people actually do their jobs day in and day out.

I’m extremely hopeful, and I don’t just say that flippantly. I am just like, I really want us to get to a place where we’re balancing the productivity and business performance needs of an organization with the humanistic needs of individuals, particularly as they’re working from home. We’ll see.

Patrick: You bring up a good point around data. We share that passion around data and using data to be able to make strategic decisions and really understand perspective a bit better. Thinking about that and being in the world of analytics and people analytics and seeing a significant amount of data from many different aspects over the past year, how have you seen–

You talked about remote work, and we can look into or talk a bit more about remote work. When we look at topics like diversity, equity and inclusion and mental health, mental well-being, how have you seen or how are you helping organizations with looking at change from that data perspective? What have you seen in the data that you’ve been able to look at, particularly maybe over the past six months?

Al: Again, I’d say I’m excited a lot because I am. Forgive me for saying it, but it’s authentic each and every time it comes out my mouth because we have so much more data now that is reflecting what people are actually doing. That’s extraordinarily valuable from an analytical perspective. Now there’s ethics around that which we can touch on and explore. What it is doing, however, is highlighting where people are struggling. You can cluster that data by diversity, group, gender, level in the organization, geography, any number of dimensions or variables we can look at in ways that formerly were a bit of a blind spot when people were coming into the office. There are some exceptions to that, but I won’t get into that.

We have a lot of “data exhaust.” What has also happened, and I’ve been jumping up and down about this for many years because as a former researcher, I would go in and just take the data that was available to me at a certain point of time to answer a given business problem. Now, with tools like you have there at Peakon and other tools, we can now create what I call more appropriate data, so I talk a lot about data appropriateness.

We are asking questions now around well-being. We are asking questions about workload, and more specific actionable insights are coming out of this. Is that being used systematically by all organizations? Is it getting to the right decision-makers so they can optimise work for the resources or people that they have in an organization? Are they thinking about how collaboration tools are going to facilitate work? Sometimes, yes, sometimes no.

At the end of it, I put us at a 2 or 3 on a 10-point scale in terms of where we will be in terms of leveraging data-driven insights over the next four or five years. That gives me a lot of hope. It gives me a lot of excitement. I think it’s going to be the case where we have an evolved leadership team, not only evolved CHRO, but an evolved leadership team that says, “Yes, I’ve been doing this for 30 years, but there’s new data out there. There’re new insights, and we need to leverage that to make more informed decisions that’s going to reduce risk for us as an organization, and it’s going to deliver a better experience for our workers.”

We have not only a moral or ethical responsibility to take this approach, but often case with publicly traded organization, they have a fiduciary responsibility to take that approach. Again, very excited with what the future holds in that regard.

Patrick: You brought up leadership, and that’s a great topic because we both, I think, share this passion around the opportunity that leaders have now. Leaders really do have a new horizon for them. They have a new opportunity in many different ways, from thoughtful leadership to empathetic leadership. We’ve seen over the past year that so many leaders, and when I say leaders, that is we’ll talk about it from senior leadership all the way down to frontline managers, and first-time people leaders who are leaders of small groups. There’s a very big opportunity and expectation on leaders for the successful future of organizations through 2021 and beyond.

We’ve seen over the past year expectations of managers or leaders within organizations have increased substantially. The relationship between individuals and teams and their direct manager has become even stronger because all of a sudden, as we know, the workforce has completely transformed outside of the office. Let’s talk about what the opportunity is for leaders for this year. What do you see are the biggest opportunities, maybe the top two or three opportunities that leaders have for this year?

Al: There are a couple of things that jumped to mind: number one, systematic empathy. That is related to intention and appropriate response. If I am a leader, am I clear with my intention? Am I willing and able to take an appropriate response to achieve that attention? If I’m a leader by definition, I am effectively leading a large number of people, and so to hold space for dozens, if not hundreds of people, is impossible. Logistically, physically it’s just you can’t. Like, “Hey, what the hell are you doing? What’s going on for you?” How do you do that at scale? How do you do that systematically?

If there is an authentic approach to ask questions that are meaningful– You’ve heard me say I believe in our discussions in the past, after the basics, I believe human beings want three things. We want to be seen. We want to be heard, and we want to be empowered. In other words, we don’t want to be invisible. We don’t want to be ignored. Oftentimes, particularly in a knowledge economy, we don’t want to just be directed and told what to do. We’re not on a manufacturing floor in 1901. This is a different environment, a different situation. We want to be resourceful so we can bring our creativity to work, and of course, we want guidance and so forth.

What was happening before 2020? Behind me is a book by Dr. Jeffrey Pfeffer, Dying for a Paycheck. Here in the States people were overworked. They are underappreciated, and this is more common than many leaders want to admit. Now we’re been asking questions, how are you? How are you feeling? What can I do to help? Now it invites the question, was that a BS ask that was just in a moment, or is that a sustainable way of being for leaders to be? I hope it’s the latter.

We have this now communication channel. We’ve built up this trust, and there’s research that validates organizations are one of the most trust– the most trustworthy entity in most people’s lives, their employers are. What are we going to do with that trust? Are we going to leverage it for good, or are we just going to bring them in and then we’re going to throw a bunch of work at them and say, “Hey, I don’t care if you have two kids running behind you. You got to keep producing because we got our quarterly results to meet”?

I would hope that there is visibility with all this data that we have to say, “Hey, this person actually is struggling. They have too much work, particularly given now there’s two kids running behind them. Why don’t we carve out some of that work, give it to another worker?” That might decrease that scale or margins, but it is the right and ethical thing to do. Again, for leaders, systematic empathy and being really, really clear on your intention and having the fortitude and creativity to deliver an appropriate response, that’s where my energy is right now.

Patrick: We talk about trust, and organizations have been very focused on building trusted relationships. Something that we’ve been looking into is productivity. Many organizations have been struggling over the past year with almost this internal, I think, poll which is, “I want to trust my employees and their productivity from working remotely and working from home, but I’ve never had to release control as much as I’ve had to as an organization.” I’m using this in a very odd third-person way, but basically, organizations have had to let go some control around understanding or what their perception of understanding of productivity is.

We’ve been focused a lot around empowering organizations to build trusted relationships and trusting their teams and their employees to get worked on in a way that works for them with really strong levels of autonomy, really strong goal setting, and building these trusted relationships. Then ultimately the outcome of having that trusted relationship is going to be a higher level of productivity. Naturally, it’s going to happen. organizations have been quite focused on trust, but there is something that parallels trust. It’s this idea of confidence and this idea of confidence from not only an individual level, but from a team level and from an organizational level.

How do you feel or see confidence guiding behavior when it comes to individually and all the way through organizational behavior?

Al: Thanks for bringing that up because in the way I define confidence is firm trust or belief in the future. Right now, there is a lot of anxiety in the world. Am I going to have a job in three to six months? It used to be, am I going to have a job in a year? Now it’s like the time horizon. What’s the health of my company? What is the quality of the relationship with my immediate manager? What is the confidence that I have in my support system at home to provide me the space to do my work?

All of these relate to someone’s ability to focus and actually get stuff done and at a very basic level because productivity for us in the analytics world has been an elusive metric. At its essence, it’s output over time. If we wave a we model this, my background is in economics, so I like to model things in my head or on a whiteboard or what have you. It would be great if work gets done in a day or even faster, but that’s not the reality. It takes time.

We have been in not only HR and analytics but in general very presumptive, and it’s been a huge blind spot this notion of capacity: how people use time. How much can they get done in a fixed amount of time? The logic historically has been, let’s just throw a bunch of work at people and let them figure it out. If they’re talented, they’ll figure it out. What does that do? That burns people out. It undermines their confidence that their employer sees them, hears them and is truly empowering them. They’re in fact setting them up for failure and in many cases, taking them for granted.

I might be coming across to a listener as a cynic here, but I’m looking at decades of data now that are reflecting this reality where people are getting burned out, and their health is compromised, and their relationships are compromised. Their standing in an organization ultimately is compromised. Where I believe there’s great opportunity is to hold on to this construct of confidence. Am I as a leader elevating the belief that this organization is going to be alright, that you as a worker are going to be alright? That I’m not only saying nice things and asking the survey and in the communications that go out.

That I’m actually making fundamental changes in the organization to sustain it financially so it’s a growing concern that is going to stay healthy, but also that I’m really seeing you, that I’m really hearing you. Then I’m going to manage your workload in this new reality, and I’m going to make sure there are ample resources around you. If I see that happening on an ongoing basis, I’m going to be confident that, number one, this is a place I want to be working for an extended period of time.

I’m going to bust my tail to do what’s asked of me because again, I have this trust that has been built up based on evidence, based on actual action. Again attention, appropriate response, and that’s where I really believe that leaders can anchor their work on this notion of confidence. Right now, there’s still too much anxiety in the stories I hear from workers, associate levels as well as middle managers. There’s a lot of nice things being said, but there is not a lot of true, authentic confidence that, hey, we’re going to be okay.

It’s going to take some time, obviously, before most organizations get to a place where they can exhale because we’re still– Even through the first half of 2021, we’re going to still be in a pretty intense time. Hopefully, it eases out in the fall, but who knows.

Patrick: One thing that we saw last year was overall that there was an increase in employee engagement across the board in all regions, a lower increase in the US, but in certain regions– Like I said, overall there was an average increase across the board in all the different regions. One of the things that we looked at was, could this potentially be driven by people feeling just really happy that they have a job and that they’re getting a paycheck? I definitely think that that is part of it.

I was speaking with some other colleagues recently, and there’s two aspects of this, and I’d be curious to get your perspective on. One is they are still a highly competitive market in certain areas of business, for example, engineering, product teams. There’s still a very high and just getting even more aggressive with the talent market when it comes to engineering and product talent, for example. We didn’t really see that much of a lol over the past year in a lot of growing technology companies. Maybe there was a pause with some technology companies with growth, but the ones that were continuing to grow, they were still feeling a significant amount of challenge with recruiting talent. I think 2021 is going to be a pretty significant year for companies that are growing that there’s going to be a pretty significant need for attracting talent. Employee value proposition I also feel is probably never going to be more important than it is in the next year because there’s a lot of organizations out there that are saying, “I’m not sure how comfortable we are with having a flexible work environment. We had to have it in 2021, but we want to get people back to the office.”

We don’t know what the future is going to be with flexible work in some of this remote work. I think a lot of that has to do with this level of trust with employees as well, like how do we manage that as an organizational level? The challenge, I think, that organizations are going to find is that 80%, 90% of other organizations are going to be providing that. When you have this talent that is out there and that is looking at the choice if I’m going to work for XYZ company or ABC company and this flexible work, really strong employee value proposition, strong focus on individuals, on growth, when they’re articulating that in a good way that some companies may end up finding themselves a bit behind because they haven’t incorporated some of these more future looking aspects or policies or potentials in what they offer.

A, do you agree with that? I’m curious. If you don’t, I think that’s great if you don’t as well, but I’m curious what you think about that. If you do agree, what do you think organizations need to do to more effectively show externally what they’re doing internally?

Al: It’s a great question, and there’s a real example that just– I had a discussion last night with a head of strategy at a tech company here in the Bay Area, where there is a prospective employee. She was interested in working at home but also having the option to go to a workplace in the foreseeable future because many people are really digging working from home. Others say, “I’m done with this. I need a place to go. Are you going to offer me a place to go?” So having those options and having that be part of your employee value proposition.

One thing I just wanted to take your question. There’s a lot of buzz around employee experience and rightly so. It’s not a new concept. You go back to The Experience Economy, which is a book that came out in the late ’90s. Even when I was at Gap, we were talking about, and Mark Levy has since gone on and built a brand around employee experience. Good for him because he has done some great work in space, Airbnb and other places.

That is really the case where, “Okay, if we’re going to spend all this time crafting appropriate experiences for different personas, how are we now marketing that to the world because if we’re not, then who’s going to know about it?” It’s going to diminish the value that’s there. Ultimately, what do organizations want to be known for? Are they actually going to be delivering on that promise?

Historically, there’s been a significant delta between what’s promised and what’s actually delivered when somebody gets in house. That’s where I would hope in this new reality that we can shrink that delta. I’ll just give you a quick example. Workforce planning historically has been in the recruiting domain, and it’s like, “Okay, how can we put butts in seats?” Forgive the metaphor, but you get it. I’m like, “What about internal movement? Are they even the right seats? Are you not giving somebody internally an opportunity to elevate or switch roles because they’ve been in a role for four years, done a great job, but now you’re going to give it to an external person, and you had no idea that other person actually was well suited for that role, and in fact, wanted it.”

Now, what’s one of the biggest drivers of disengagement or low engagement? It’s a lack of career opportunities. How can we make that part of the employee experience, the employee value proposition, and market it to say, “Hey, once you come in, we’re actually looking out for you. We’re going to help elevate not only your career inside this organization but your employability because the idea that you’re going to come in here and be here for 30 years and 40 years and retire, it’s not realistic where we are now.” What’s going to be this promise? Are we, as an organization, actually going to deliver on it?

The final thing I’ll say on this point, if I’m a listener, it’s like, “Okay, that makes sense. That all sounds good.” Where most leaders and organizations fall down is they just don’t create the space to do the work. They don’t have a guiding framework. They don’t put the right people in the room. This takes work. You don’t just magically wiggle your nose, and all of a sudden, it appears. It takes work, and that work has been undervalued, underappreciated, and there has been a lack of tenacity to actually follow through, implement it, and make it stick.

I don’t want to come across as a critic in that way, but I’m just observing what has transpired over the last 15-plus years, and it’s like we’re in a new place right now, and the cost of doing it now, particularly as we come into with the vaccine, hopefully, coming towards springtime, and the economy starts picking up and hiring starts picking up, those who are not delivering, they’re going to stick out like a sore thumb. They’re not going to get the leading edge talent that they’re going to need to thrive and potentially even survive.

Patrick: The other aspect of that, Al, is that Gen Z and millennials are going to be, I believe, 80% of the workforce within the next two to three years. One of the main areas that– or I should say, one of the main drivers of engagement of Gen Z and millennials is growth opportunities, individual growth opportunities and how they shape their career, how they are an active, probably the most active player in how their future individually evolves. That’s a very valid point of saying getting the right people in the room to have discussions around internal career mobility. That’s not even just career growth or when I say growth, just vertical. Mobility can be through multiple parts of the organization, right?

Al: Absolutely.

Patrick: As you said, it’s a great analogy saying, “What seats are in the organization?” Maybe I have some opportunities in my team, and I should look at maybe the finance team, or the marketing team, or the product team. Maybe they would make a really great member of the people team, for example. This internal mobility is a big opportunity for organizations, and not only is it an opportunity.

To your point, it is probably going to be a foundational need for businesses to be resilient for the next two to three years because with such a high expectation of those two generations in the workforce and the significant percentage of Gen Z and millennials in the workforce, very soon over the next couple of years, now is our time for organizations to start, if we have not started doing this work, to start doing this work and start incorporating that in this year because if not, we’re going to find ourselves behind.

Al: 100% agreed with that. As you’re sharing that, there’s a few realities. Number one, the pace in which jobs are changing is increasing, and that’s going to be the case. What someone has sold in a job description is going to change within months of them coming on board. Then it invites the question, is an organization embracing that? Are they providing the content and platforms and experiences to learn and excel in these new adjusted roles? Even if they have the same title, the underlying work often changes for a variety of reasons, and there are, of course, exceptions to that.

What I want to share in echoing that and taking it to a different place is, and it seems like a bit of a non sequitur, so bear with me for a second, is I have long been jumping up and down and screaming for disruptive innovation in the way we formulate our people strategies or talent strategies. What has historically been the case is that you have a business strategy. It goes through finance, and then it trickles down to HR, and HR has to line up to all this stuff. At the far right of this spreadsheet, there’s, “How are we going to measure all this?” I’m like, “I got headcount and engagement probably.” I only got a couple of things. Now, if I and others were involved in the conversation earlier, then I could actually help you formulate your business strategy and formulate your people strategy. Now we have what happened in 2020 with the pandemic this massive disruption which facilitated digital transformation. It also transformed how we formulate people strategies. Our organization is codifying that in new ways of identifying the priority processes and going back to where you were just talking about learning. If we’re looking at internal mobility and enabling that from an internal perspective, why aren’t we looking at that externally as well? How are we filling our pipeline? So we have to use a term that has put forth and– Oh my gosh, I’m going to not remember the name. Oh gosh, he’s going to have to forgive me, but talent on demand and the– Oh my gosh, I’m so embarrassed. I’m going to get a lot of notes about that one.

Anyway, it is the case where, again, going modeling and really looking at the ideal future state. What it’d be like? “Okay, I need talent.” I can go and pull that talent within days as opposed to weeks or months to find the appropriate talent. We have this opportunity. The data is there. The systems are there. The processes have to be put in place that takes creativity, that takes, again, some innovation that historically has not been– The appetite hasn’t been there, but we have this great opportunity with this disruption in 2020. Now here in 2021, we’re going to be able to do a lot of what we had hoped to do historically, and now it’s just a matter of will and leaders to say, “All right, this is the right thing to do. Let’s do it.”

Patrick: I think that’s the perfect place to wrap up the conversation because as I said at the start, your positive, future-focused energy is what we all need. I know the audience is going to very much accept that and this concept that you just said of, we just have to have the will to do it. We have to have creativity, and we need to be intentional in what we’re doing in this year because it is a formative year for organizations.

In my career, we’ve never had an opportunity like we have right now with building and course-correcting in so many ways that maybe we’ve wanted to do. Like you just said, maybe we’ve wanted to do it in the past. We’ve had a forcing function now over the past year to give us the opportunity to do this. Now we just need the will, the creativity, and the positive intention to make it happen because intentions are great, but outcome is really what we need to be focused on.

Al: Thank you for saying that. This applies to people strategy which applies to how people are thinking and feeling about their work experience, which relates directly to everything from learning to diversity, equity and inclusion and belonging. Obviously, in the wake of George Floyd in 2020, it invites the question, what is the responsibility of organizations to stamp out racisms to create safe places for all people? When we have this level of fortitude and creativity and get the right people in a room, great things can happen. It starts in my view with having the discussion first, and that means getting the right people in the room. Obviously, right now, it could be a virtual room, it likely is, but at the same time, this is work.

There’s been a reluctance to have it, and say, “Hey, are we a social organization here, or are we a business trying to produce stuff and service customers?” It’s clearly an ant in 2020 and beyond. We, as organizations, whether you’re a public benefit corporation, nonprofit, or a startup, scale-up, or large enterprise, we all have a social responsibility for the well-being of our people, for the safety of our people. That’s not only physical safety. That’s emotional safety. That’s psychological safety.

I hope we embrace this and really think if that’s our intention, then are we going to take the appropriate responses? The appropriate responses have to be created. It’s not just looking at a HBR article and saying, “Okay, they did that, so we’re going to do that.” It’s going to have to be designed for what’s appropriate for that system at that point in time, and that’s work. Let’s make that happen. Let’s do the work.

Patrick: I agree. Al, thank you for the work that you’re doing. Thank you for your positive perspective and for being a voice that truly is shaping the future and encouraging so many of us, including myself. Thank you for being you, for the work that you’re doing and for spending some time with us today. We will have another conversation, hopefully. Maybe we’ll relook at this in 12 months from now, and say, “What did we do? What did we accomplish?”

Al: Hopefully, we can reflect back with a source of pride that, “Hey, we did some good things.” What I will say too as I close is thank you. Thank you for supporting our community. Thank you for the research that you put out in the public domain for the benefit of all. I highlight your research because it’s first-rate, and it has been very influential in my thinking. Keep up your great work, not only with your clients but with serving the broader HR community and leader community really because it’s not just HR anymore. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

Patrick: Thank you, Al. Very good. All right, we’ll speak with you soon. Be well.

Al: All right, you too.

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