The New York Fed held the latest installment of its long-standing webinar series that examines culture and conduct in financial services on October 4. “Culture and the New Workplace” explored how work culture has been influenced by changing circumstances in the post-pandemic world, by technology, and by the expectations of employees and employers.
In introductory comments, New York Fed President John Williams discussed how leaders’ decisions about the workplace affect organizational culture. “Regardless of the new workplace model a company chooses to implement, leaders can expect their decision to shape organizational culture and have implications for behaviors, norms, and shared identities,” he said. “Of course, these things evolve. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.”
The panel featured experts and researchers whose work examines the norms of operating in a hybrid environment, and how companies may harness technology and data to create productive teams.
The discussion was moderated by Alison Taylor, who is the executive director of Ethical Systems and an adjunct professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Here are some observations from the panelists:
Starting from a place of trust: Dr. Roshni Raveendhran, assistant professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, acknowledged that while some employers have defaulted to mistrusting their employees and monitoring for productivity, more recent research has “started exploring how tracking can be done in a way that is informational but not evaluative.” Her research recommends putting the power of data and artificial intelligence in the hands of employees, with managers acting from a place of trust. Raveendhran emphasized that leaders must use new technology both optimally and responsibly. “The challenge for leaders is to stop relying on their intuition and start using the scientific method to understand how to implement new technologies for information about human behavior—not for surveillance or tracking.”
The “gospel of norms”: Dr. Jay Van Bavel, associate professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, said that the workplace norms that prevailed two years ago are being re-negotiated, providing an opportunity to create different norms and define a new “normal” that is more inclusive, ethical, and efficient. Van Bavel outlined his “gospel of norms,” which he sees as imperatives for a healthy work culture. He encourages employers to “design what the norms will be and make them highly visible; make sure leaders embody them; and identify people who are the hubs of social networks and deputize them to actively embody those.” Van Bavel also made the case for rewarding individuals who engage in the normative behaviors that exemplify the organization’s desired values.
Data over assumptions: Ben Waber, president and co-founder of Humanyze and a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab, also discussed the impact of workplace shifts over the last few years. Waber noted that companies may need to dismiss their hypotheses about workplace norms (e.g., that more days in-office benefits the organization) and focus more on normalizing experimentation, testing, and then sharing findings with employees. On the benefits of applying data to decision-making, Waber added, “There are certain things that people are very bad at observing; we don’t have certain perspectives on how we work, so a combination of qualitative and quantitative data can be far more revealing.” Similarly, Van Bavel argued that financial services companies may be missing an opportunity to apply their data-gathering expertise to analyze their own practices, rather than basing decisions about the workplace on intuition and past practices. “That’s almost a perfect recipe for stagnation and irrelevance,” he said.
President Williams concluded the event by observing that 20% of New York Fed employees were hired during the pandemic and worked remotely for many months after joining. “It’s a large number of people who don’t have the long experience with the norms, values, and behaviors,” he said. “For us it is a really important time to make sure that we take on board all of these lessons from research and from these discussions.”
Takeaways for Workplace Leaders:
- Use new technologies to gain insights into your employees’ behaviors—not just for surveillance and tracking.
- Replace intuition with a mix of qualitative and quantitative data.
- Design norms that are inclusive and make them highly visible. Reward employees who exemplify them.
- Encourage experimentation and testing. Share the results with your employees.
Esra Ozer is a communications advisor in the Supervision Group.
The views expressed in this article are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the New York Fed or the Federal Reserve System.