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Tech’s 'Hiring Crisis'​: It's Time to Rethink Way More Than WFH

Tech leaders love to tout their prowess for disruption, but they've been much slower to rethink their biggest strategic imperative: talent.

Mike Lazaridis was a genius of his time. He designed a record player out of Legos and rubber bands when he was four. As a teenager, he invented a state-of-the-art quiz bowl buzzer that paid for his first year of college.

Lazaridis never graduated from college, though, because he dropped out to found Research in Motion. You might know it as the company that created the Blackberry.

Blackberry was visionary. Its sleek design and delightful keyboard was beloved across demographics: Business people plowing through email on the go, millennials forming exclusive cliques on Blackberry Messenger, heads of state (looking at you, Barack) who had to GSD.  

In 2009, Blackberry had over 20 percent of the global smartphone market. Five years later, it barely had 1 percent. What happened? The iPhone.

The power of rethinking

This is the story that renowned author and organizational psychologist Adam Grant uses to open his latest book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.

As Grant tells us, Lazaridis was awed by the iPhone when it debuted in 2007. “They’ve put a Mac in this thing,” he said. But Lazaridis felt confident that people didn’t want an entire computer in their pocket with web-browsing, media, and entertainment. They just wanted to get work done. At least, that’s what his customers—from Oprah to Obama—told him.

(Disclosure: Adam Grant is an investor and advisor for A.Team, where I work.)

Lazaridis failed to rethink his assumptions, trapped in what Grant calls an “overconfidence cycle,” and missed opportunities to retool the browser, the keyboard, or its walled-garden messenger as the years ticked on.

Blackberry serves as the perfect cautionary tale for the central message of Grant’s book: consistently rethinking your plans and testing your assumptions like a scientist will lead to significantly better outcomes—and failing to do so is a huge risk. Grant’s research found that entrepreneurs taught to think like scientists pivoted twice as much and achieved 50x the revenue of those who did not.

When I finished the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about one thing: just how long Lazaridis had to change after the iPhone debuted. He had four years to make a move until Blackberry’s popularity fell off the deep end. Think about the rate of technological and cultural change today. It’s hard to imagine having four years of leash to reimagine anything—nevertheless a smartphone.

Consistently rethinking your plans and testing your assumptions like a scientist will lead to significantly better outcomes.

As change occurs exponentially faster, the speed at which we rethink our plans and assumptions hasn’t kept pace. And I think we’re seeing that manifest in one really big way today.

Rethinking The Great Resignation

Before March 2020, the consensus was that remote work wouldn’t work. “Working from-home is a privilege, not a right!” company handbooks declared. After all, business leaders worried, how could managers know whether employees were productive without actually seeing them at work?

But as the pandemic forced us into a giant social experiment, it quickly became obvious that our assumptions about remote work were wrong. We had the technology to work together from anywhere, and most of us are such workaholics that instead of slacking off, we worked more—nearly 2.5 hours a day more, according to one study, and we were significantly more productive.

Many assumed this would lead the corporate world to re-examine how we work, and some did, going remote-first or greatly increasing work-from-home (WFH) flexibility. But many did not. As the vaccine rollout ramped up last spring, employers from Facebook to JPMorgan Chase made loud proclamations that it was time to herd employees back into the office.

As the pandemic forced us into a giant social experiment, it became obvious that our assumptions about remote work were wrong.

However, unlike Blackberry, it didn’t take years for these companies to feel consequences. It took weeks. By summer, The Great Resignation was in full swing, with over 4 million workers quitting each month. Notably, the resignation rates have been the highest in tech—an industry filled with highly-skilled workers. It’s gotten so bad that the New York Times Magazine’s feature story recently declared it tech’s hiring crisis.

Forty percent of those workers quit for another job because it offered the ability to work remotely, according to a Limeade study. Even more startling, 28 percent quit without another job, with many opting for the freedom and flexibility of independent work.

In my first month at A.Team, I’ve witnessed this firsthand. Thousands of the most in-demand engineers, product managers, designers, and growth marketers have brushed aside full-time job offers to work as “A.Teams” of independent builders on meaningful product “missions” through our platform.

Resignation rates have been the highest in tech—an industry filled with highly-skilled workers.

This growing subset seems to be motivated by something more than a good work-from-home policy, which most companies adopted by the time Omicron came around. Based on anecdotal evidence, that something is pretty simple: After facing an existential crisis, people just want the freedom to say no to pointless projects, mandatory meetings, and corporate politics that hold no real value.

After two years of death counts, they want the freedom to devote their most valuable resources—their time and brainpower—to things that are actually meaningful. This indicates that we need to rethink way more than WFH.

Rethinking tech’s talent strategy

Tech leaders love to tout their prowess for disruption. (You only need to spend 15 minutes on Twitter to see that). But as former Waze CEO Noam Bardin explained in a recent interview, they’ve been much slower to rethink their biggest strategic imperative: talent.

Most companies, Bardin argues, are pursuing the same strategy they did 15 years ago.

This seems like a huge miss for an industry known for rapid adaptation, which begs the question: What if instead of viewing The Great Resignation as a threat, we viewed it as an opportunity?

What if we attracted people not with high-end cafeterias and yoga classes, but compelling missions? What if we rethought the way we build and structure our teams altogether so people feel like they’re building something meaningful together—with freedom, flexibility, and autonomy—instead of being cogs in a corporate machine?

A.Team is one example of what a new model could look like. We’re building our company with an integrated mix of full-time employees and independent A.Teams—it’s literally a 50/50 split right now—organized around autonomous work missions. We’re helping our customers do the same, and the results so far are promising; we’ve seen companies like Apprentice, McGraw Hill, IRL, and Lyft build products with a new kind of speed and agility.

What if instead of viewing The Great Resignation as a threat, we viewed it as an opportunity?

The truth, though, is that we’re all still discovering what the new model of work looks like, and it’s going to be different for every company. But the current talent crisis begs for the approach that Grant espouses: to experiment with new talent models and hypotheses, adapt based on the evidence, and think like scientists to meet the needs of workers.

The companies that do will likely win the talent war. And those that don’t? Well, they can always buy a Blackberry off eBay.  

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