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Enterprise hits and misses - HR leaders enforce unpopular return-to-office mandates, generative AI raises sustainabiity questions, and AI boosts earnings morale

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed July 31, 2023
This week - the data doesn't look good for HR leaders, stuck with enforcing unpopular return-to-office mandates. Transformation lessons separate the winners, and AI boosts vendors' outlook (if not their earnings). Generative AI gets a sustainability critique, and your whiffs show that work futures aren't.


Lead story - The data says HR leaders are getting it wrong - what's next?

As corporate leaders put HR execs in charge of enforcing unpopular return-to-office mandates (more on that in the whiffs section), the problems go deeper. Brian parses the data in Chickens coming home to roost - when HR decisions impact morale. So, Brian, what's the problem? Check out Brian's terrific positive/negative HR assessment graphics, and consider this:

According to the executive I spoke with, the return to office mandate is likely the principal trigger for some dramatically lower engagement scores in their recent study.  And, even though the executive I spoke with cautioned the leadership team against the return to office mandate as it would create morale and retention issues, they went forward with it. Now, their scores (on a five point scale) are down approximately two points across several dimensions. 

Why is this coming to a head now? Glad you asked, says Brian:

For many firms, the current wave of employee surveys are the first to occur since the pandemic ended and return to office (RTO) mandates have been issued. The timing is also interesting as the war for talent has gotten worse and people are more willing to change employers than ever before. Tone-deaf leaders won’t just get survey surprises, they’re going to see a flood of people bolting for the doors and no one rushing in to take their places.

Brian goes jugular again:

The willingness of people to leave their employer today is, in a word, epic.

He cites this amazing stat from "A whopping 96% of workers are looking for a new position in 2023." Yes,'s data set is bound to be biased in favor of job change, but these are all time numbers. Brian concludes:

Waiting a year or more to find out that there’s discontent smoldering away is way too late and damages morale even more. Surprises are great for birthdays but not for engagement scores.

Agreed - modern HR simply cannot afford to wait for annualized data, and neither can the executive teams that HR serves. Most HR software vendors are working on this problem, into more continuous employee feedback loops. No, this is not fundamentally a tech problem, but HR tech should enable better practices, not hinder them.

I will, however, push back on Brian's war-for-talent point. Yes, this certainly applies to the top 20 percent of talent (or so). But overall, I believe the corporate push for generative AI/more sophisticated robotics is also being used to bring employees to heel.

Employees are being made to believe that their contributions can be automated in unprecedented ways (there is some truth to this, but not as much as is evangelized). The end result: a counter-productive "cling" to unsatisfying work environments, and a muzzling of vocalizing employee issues, or, perhaps, your job could be the next automation experiment. I think there is a better way to introduce and implement these AI tools, in a way that affirms the role of human talent, and transparently acknowledges the changes. I truly hope that's where HR goes next; I suspect it will be a very mixed bag.

Diginomica picks - my top stories on diginomica this week

  • Busting the myth that existing legislation protects individuals against AI harms - Derek's title says it all; new data from the Ada Lovelace Institute backs that up.
  • Tackling generative AI’s sustainability problem - Cath brings attention to an overlooked aspect of LLMs that must be reckoned with. As Cath points out, not all forms of AI are as compute-intensive, but LLMs certainly are: "Organizations need to start getting to grips with the implications, and quickly, if they are to mitigate its worst effects." Sidenote: I believe the future of enterprise LLMs will (mostly) lie in training/refining the models with smaller, specialized data sets. This doesn't change the importance of the sustainability issue, but it may help to mitigate. It's a departure from the mantra of the last few years: "let's expand the parameters of this massive LLM again, to see if we can improve its accuracy further."
  • Why digital twins require an incremental process - After skewering gamification and blockchain in recent pieces, George returns to his digital twins wheelhouse. He calls for a focus on integration: "Getting all the tools to talk to each other is incredibly challenging."

Microsoft and ServiceNow earnings reports - common themes: AI is a boost against macro-economic headwinds, and, in Microsoft's case, cloud revenue growth requires some context: companies are taking pains to optimize cloud environments, rather than spend willy-nilly.

Vendor analysis, diginomica style. Here's my three top choices from our vendor coverage:

A few more vendor picks, without the quotables:

Jon's grab bag - Automatic for the people - how robotics is transforming life sciences research - Chris documents a company doing automation the right way. Cath examines how companies are still falling short in Women in tech - why enterprises need to tackle systemic issues affecting retention, not just recruitment.

Neil explores the potential of AI in the energy sector in From grid optimization to data management - can AI revolutionize the energy industry? (He also revisits the problem of messy data in Can AI solve the messy data predicament?) Finally, Stuart returns to the scorched earth of past critiques in No turning back from pursuit of the Metaverse White Whale for Mark Zuckerberg, whatever the cost. Juxtaposing Zuckerberg with Herman Melville from Moby Dick is strong stuff. But then again, I do like an epic voyage against all odds... I'll keep my (rarely-used) Quest headset handy just in case.

Best of the enterprise web

Waiter suggesting a bottle of wine to a customer

My top six

Overworked businessman


About those return-to-office futurists I referred to earlier:

But as Brian Sommer points out, Amazon has nothing on this particular McDonald's:

Not the most impressive exhibit of "cleaning up after yourself" I've ever seen:

I'm not sure if this is great news for the "dungeon masters" out there... I'll look into it and get back with you:

If you find an #ensw piece that qualifies for hits and misses - in a good or bad way - let me know in the comments as Clive (almost) always does. Most Enterprise hits and misses articles are selected from my curated @jonerpnewsfeed.

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