SXSW 2018: Insights into rapidly evolving workplace culture

Between bites of brisket and breakfast tacos, CXO Magazine has spent the past few days at the 2018 South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, listening to some of today’s smartest and most innovative businesspeople tackle the thorniest issues nagging employers.

At the event that draws tens of thousands of people to the Texas capital annually, the changing nature of workplace culture emerged as a major theme for conferencegoers and speakers alike. This year, topics have ranged from artificial intelligence to diversity and inclusion to reskilling workers to how the youngest cohort of employees, Gen Z, is changing how companies think about engagement and retention (it’s official: Millennials are old news).

But essentially everyone is getting at the same big question: What makes workers thrive at work?

To the chorus of speakers at SXSW tackling that question, the answer is complicated because the definition of “at work” is constantly changing. More people do their jobs remotely or as contractors working for several different firms. Workers change jobs, on average, 10 to 15 times during their careers.

The younger generation also thinks about allegiances to employers much differently than workers who came before them, according to a session by Heather Watson and Denise Villa of the Center for Generational Kinetics. Gen Z workers consider themselves “loyal” when they’ve been at a job for just one year. For older workers, it’s at least five years, Watson and Villa said.

That leaves business leaders the difficult task of cultivating a sense of stability and connection in an increasingly dynamic, unsteady work environment. And it’s even more challenging for managers who supervise remote workers.

Many of this year’s SXSW speakers are working on solutions. Radney Wood, who runs a network of remote and freelance workers called GlobeKick, has set up a “virtual water cooler”, where his team’s digital workers can shoot the breeze on things other than work. Michelle Davey at Enzyme Health sends out care packages. Katy Stover, engagement manager for General Assembly, said her company that specializes in employee reskilling has a dedicated Slack channel for pictures of corgis as a fun way for teams in Austin and New York City to make connections.

Vuka Collective founder Brian Schoenbaum set up more stringent engagement parameters for his far-flung teams. At his company, remote workers have to touch base with management for a minimum of one hour a week. That seems easy enough, but Schoenbaum said that at many firms it’s surprisingly easy for offsite staff to go “six months or more” without talking to anyone from the main office.

Miguel McKelvey, cofounder and chief culture officer of WeWork. Photo courtesy of WeWork

WeWork, the one company that has emerged as a workplace culture juggernaut, was also at SXSW to dispense its wisdom about tomorrow’s office (whether virtual or physical) worker. “We have to be specific about culture in the way we would any other aspect of a business,” said Miguel McKelvey, WeWork cofounder, during a discussion this week. “It’s an ephemeral thing, but we think you can improve it in a proactive way.”

With so much attention on fostering culture and connection inside companies everywhere, the rise of WeWork—and its eye-popping $20 billion valuation—is less surprising. On its face, WeWork is simply a company that rents out co-working spaces. But beyond that, it’s selling an increasingly elusive sense of community for you and your workers.

And that’s more important than ever when employees are switching jobs with increasing frequency. “Seventy-one percent of workers are looking for new jobs. A lot of that can be attributed to the environments they work in,” said McKelvey.

In the coming weeks, CXO will be digging more into these questions of how to foster a thriving workplace culture while remaining nimble to the demands of the economy. Keep an eye out for that, as well as deeper takeaways from our time in Austin. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter @cxo_magazine.