Work Awesome & The Workies: Acknowledging the Value that People Officers Bring to Companies to Enable the Future of Work

By Loralyn Mears PhD Loralyn Mears PhD has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
Published on October 25, 2019

The organizers of DisruptHR NYC (Grace Cook) and Work Awesome (Felix Zeltner) united to create a new event, complete with a unique bit of hardware. /Work Awesome & The Workies was designed to recognize and honor those in human resources (HR), also called “human capital,” who are making a difference to the colleagues they serve and the companies they work for. On October 24, 2019, a large group of people officers gathered in NYC to be inspired by some of the most celebrated, and some controversial, leaders in the field.

Through a combination of panel discussions, individual lectures and workshops, interspersed with networking sessions accompanied by a keyboard-vocalist duo, attendees learned about the future of work and how to better prepare their teams for it. Throughout the day, Workies trophies were handed out. Winners were voted by an expert panel following an extensive nomination and review process.

Technology, talent, and culture

Work Awesome & The Workies was a full-day event focused around three themes: technology, talent, and culture. HR has evolved so quickly and so far beyond hiring and firing that it was time to showcase how people officers were breaking ground and to move their stories beyond the office. Cook opened with, “Our dream is for The Workies to go international so that we can share stories across what is becoming a small world. Brexit taught me the value of coming together to share learnings and differences and how doing so is the best way forward.”

From AI to ageism

An eclectic and impressive panel was assembled to begin the day’s dive into the future of work around a few hotly debated topics. These included ageism as a new source of discrimination and how AI purportedly aims to eliminate the human workforce. Panelists included Douglas Rushkoff, author and media theorist; Amol Sarva, co-founder, and CEO of Knotel; and Rajkumari Neogy, founder and CEO of iRestart. Zeltner facilitated the discussion.

Rushkoff, an early evangelist of the internet, was chastised for becoming “darker” over the course of writing the 20 books that he has published on technology and the relationship of tech to humanity. He defended the darkness arguing that the world has become a lot darker. “We’re missing the opportunity for tech to unleash the imaginative capacity of humanity. Instead, we’re submitting it to corporate capitalism. How much longer can we last?”

Sarva, who is one of the recent additions to the Unicorn Club, studied cognitive science and philosophy. He invests in upcoming companies, including Work Awesome. “It’s naïve to think that corporations believe in purpose over profit. If we think that’s going to do the work for us, we’re wrong.” Known for outrageous marketing stunts, like parking a bus in front of Knotel’s competition, Sarva postulated that “the term coworking was probably dying. What’s simply changing is how we access and use offices. The office is changing. Open offices are going away and phone booths are changing everything for workers. File cabinets have already been replaced with robots moving and archiving digital content within folders.”

Neogy took a refreshingly unique and provocative position on the future of work. She believes that epigenetics and the active control of neurochemical reactions (that is, feelings) can affect corporate culture. “Research says we carry the traumas of the last 210 years of our ancestral heritage. I focus on how to bring human spirit into organizations. If colleagues don’t know how to deal with each other, the revenue potential is diminished. We need to shift from a cycle of chaos at work that leaves us stressed, diseased and medicated to a more neurochemically inclined place of joy and aliveness.”

Enter the era of conscious capitalism

The panel was unified in their position that platform cooperatives represented work past but also the future of work. Rushkoff lamented, “I want to return to the world of work that was around before employment … where you work to produce something versus work to put the time in. I want people to value their ability to establish rapport and to return to an era of making eye-contact.” Companies were urged to invest in their communities, the people, the land, the municipalities, to evolve from growth-based to flow-based capitalism. Rushkoff continued, “If we ignore the land, we get climate change. If we ignore the people, we get disenfranchisement.”

Sarva stated, “Tech is at our service. We should put it to work to do the things we want and to use it for well-being, not just productivity.” In the era of conscious capitalism and Chief People officers, companies need to consider adding a different skill set to the executive roster. Anthropologists were called out as the only group that could effectively evaluate a company’s impact on the world. Sarva suggested that an Ethical Auditor would be a welcome addition to a leadership team. Rushkoff was a bit more cynical suggesting that every company needed a Don’t Do Evil Officer. The audience erupted in loud laughter.

Ditch your heroes

Although Lorna Davis, Chief Manifesto Catalyst (a title she deliberately chose) at Danone eschews applause because it drives hero behaviors and not engagement, her keynote struck a cord and the audience couldn’t hold back from clapping loudly. Danone is now the world’s largest B Corporation (a banner for sustainability and corporate responsibility), and Davis is its chief advisor for the cause. She described how her years in China as a CEO shifted her thinking and set her on a journey for purpose. Davis highlighted the urgency for the “radical interdependence of our leaders and no heroics. Leaders need to connect purpose with people and inclusion.”

Using the “floating on a river” example, Davis called for empathy and a concerted effort to understand everything that happens upstream and downstream of whatever it is that you as the individual is doing or consuming on your little floating raft. There are consequences for every action. She compared the behavior of heroes versus interdependent leaders, synergizers or Chief Symbionts or “Help, everyone, please suggest a good noun for this group!” as follows.

One, heroes define their goals tightly in a way that ensures they can achieve them on their own whereas symbionts propose stretch goals – noble achievements that can only be accomplished through collaboration. Two, heroes only announce their goals when they know that they can achieve them and proclaim their goals in preparation for triumph. In contrast, symbionts share their goals as an open invitation and solicitation for help to achieve them. Three, heroes seek applause at their meetings. “Applause is a sign of failure. It means your attendees are impressed but it doesn’t mean that they are included or know what to do next.”

During her presentation, Davis challenged us to push back when we get invited to those meetings that we have “no clue why we’re going.” She was earnest, opening up about how she “had to overcome my own desire to become heroic. It forced me to come to grips with some of the embarrassing things that I’ve done trying to be a hero. When you have humans in the room together, there is no point in having a diverse group of people there if you don’t include them.” She was visibly proud of the efforts by Danone who had embraced becoming one of the 3,000 B Corporations by shifting from production to activism.

“None of what I did wrong in the past matters. Now, I just try to have fun. I used to focus on always getting it right but that’s not the right approach. Next month, I’m going to be 60. It’s such a cool age. I feel like I was born to be 60. I finally realize there is no way to be right all the time. And that’s alright.” ~Lorna Davis

Reskill, upskill or vanish

When Zeltner polled the room to assess how many felt that the “purpose tour” and declaration signed by 180 high-profile CEOs was a big marketing stunt to excite Millennials or the new future of work model. Surprisingly, the room was equally split. Zeltner was joined by an executive panel comprised of Pooja Anand of Siemens, Brenda Wagner of Grant Thornton and Daniel Masata of Volonte. The conversation centered around the importance of harnessing purpose to drive change within an organization and how the next generation of talent is craving purpose. In fact, most are leaving their jobs due to a lack of it.

The panelists focused the discussion around three predictions. One, machine learning and AI will go mainstream which will have the greatest impact on those with “middle skills.” Two, talent is portable, global and instant. The average tenure for an employee 35 years of age or younger is now 2.8 years. And, 57 million Americans are now freelancing and new entities such as freelancer associations were springing up to lend support to this group of workers around health insurance and other needs. Three, the employer-talent relationship will endure throughout professional lifetimes as employers attempt to re-recruit former employees.

Ready for Freddie

The CEO and affectionately self-assigned “Chief Old Person,” Aria Finger, is passionate about sparking action by young people. Their non-profit has tapped into the link between purpose and the future of work. Back in 2015, their social media leader, Alicia, was posting weekly content to over 2 million users. The organization, which boasts the highest participation in church and religious activities of any group organized around youth aged 13-25, was presented with a dilemma. Alicia was transitioning gender and it was unclear how to move forward.

After extensive discussion, decided they had to take a stand and support Alicia’s transition. With a final text by Alicia, they launched #Ready4Freddie and he fielded more than 45,000 questions regarding his decision to transition. Of course, he had some help from natural language processing and his colleagues, but every single question was answered. The outpouring of support and a new community bonded to create Spotify’s largest coming-out playlist.

Today, with more than 5 million youth members, they are fostering a generation that’s more socially conscious. They fund some of their efforts by selling data to employers and uphold three simple rules: 1) forget about the cause; 2) fight for the user, and 3) focus on community. Bluntly stated by Finger, “you can’t put purpose on top of poop!” Their collective efforts are driving teens to register to vote, to donate jeans to help homeless kids and to become citizens focused on inclusivity.

On the importance of feeling safe

Czechia’s best-selling author, Petr Ludwig, hosted a workshop on how to end procrastination. However, Grit Daily was in attendance at the epigenetics workshop hosted by Neogy.

Neurochemicals are up- and down-regulated based on circumstances as a result of gene activity, “epigenetics.” Specifically, brain hormones are activated based on how we feel about what’s happening to us and around us. The workplace is no different. Burnout is costing employers billions of dollars per year, people are highly medicated and disengaged at work because of how they are being treated or how safe and included they feel.

How we feel is correlated with engagement. In response to any given situation, we can freeze, “flight,” fight or engage. Exhaling releases acetylcholine which communicates to the brain that you are “safe.” Positive relationships modulate the release of oxytocin which is associated with happiness and trust. When we have a purpose, we release dopamine which is analogous to the stimulation we get from caffeine. “Ever wonder why coffee is a multi-billion dollar industry?” quipped Neogy.

She runs “Belonging Bootcamps” to demonstrate to leaders that how you feel impacts your life and how you make people feel impacts your business. Belonging is equated with feeling safe. Neogy ended her workshop with a pro tip: appreciation is the #1 driver of engagement.
























By Loralyn Mears PhD Loralyn Mears PhD has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team

Journalist verified by Muck Rack verified

Dr. Loralyn Mears is a Columnist at Grit Daily and a podcast host (The Grit Files, which aims to shine the spotlight on female founders). She is a content marketer, founder of the WORKtech startup, STEERus, specializing in personal and professional development to address gaps in soft skills - communication in particular. In her consultancy practice, she helps clients with content and strategy. Loralyn spent over a decade playing with mosquito DNA, got her PhD, decided she would rather market science than be at the bench and has never looked back. Along the way, she’s wined and dined her way around the globe. She's authored two books, including the 2018 Gold Medal Indie Book award-winning, One Sip At a Time: a Memoir and the hard science thriller, "The Battle for Humanity: How Science Saved Us." 

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