The pandemic created a 'Great Resignation' era when working from home and furlough schemes caused swathes of people to quit their jobs. CEO Jack Altman explains that investing in workplace culture and talent retention is the only way to counteract this trend.

Pizza meeting in the office

Employees expect more than pizza on a Friday afternoon if they are to stay on long-term. (Credit: A Lot of People/Shutterstock)

The 21st-century tables have turned. In the post-Covid ‘Great Resignation’ era, companies must fight for the best talent – not vice versa. The $1bn San Francisco start-up Lattice is here to help.

With massive clients including Slack and Reddit, this people management platform gives enterprises the AI and data analytics tools needed to keep a constant pulse on company culture. Here, CEO Jack Altman tells Isabel Ellis what he’s learned about getting the most from his people.

As mass movements go, even a ‘Great’ Resignation lacks a certain something. It’s no ‘Revolution’ – and it’s almost the opposite. Meaningful change is supposed to take passion, drive and commitment, all those words that huddled together on the job applications people used to fill out like crosswords.

Now, it seems, people would rather do crosswords. A record-breaking four million Americans quit in April 2021 and 4.3 million more followed them in August.

In December, the US boasted 6.9 million people out of work, and 11 million job openings mostly failing to attract their attention. It’s much the same in other developed countries.

In July, over a third of all companies in Germany were struggling to find skilled staff. Having previously been resigned to their jobs, the workers of the world are resigning from them. Jack Altman, CEO of leading people management platform Lattice, hasn’t quit. His customers will be pleased to learn that he doesn’t intend to either.

That’s one less person to worry about – which is particularly useful given Lattice’s conviction that “people strategy is business strategy”. Altman’s platform combines transparent performance and goal management apps that can be adapted to a firm’s specific needs.

It’s all brought together by analytics dashboards that centralise performance, engagement, and growth data to give companies an understanding of their culture – that Lattice claims would otherwise be impossible.

Since the pandemic changed remote working from a rare perk to a practical necessity, companies have rushed to integrate those capabilities. Lattice now has more than 3,250 customers worldwide – including companies like Slack, Reddit and Monzo – and is valued at more than $1bn.

As Altman sees it, Covid lockdowns stripped people’s lives back to the fundamentals, giving an unprecedented swathe of the population the opportunity to reconsider just where their countless commutes had got them.

“This is where we start to see friction between the lives people were leading and the ones they want to live going forward,” he says. “Some people realised they truly loved their job. (I was one of them.)” Others, conversely, “discovered that their job didn’t align with their core values. For many of them, there was no way to reconcile the want and the reality.”

With reports estimating that between 41% and 95% of Americans are considering quitting their jobs, Altman also suggests that the trend might still be accelerating. Of course, this presents another “potentially existential” challenge for businesses and even whole industries.

Having spent so long in suspended animation, most can’t afford to simply raise salaries, but next to none could continue without employees to pay. In Altman’s view, it’s time for them to rethink their relationship with their people.

Watch and listen

This isn’t a new idea. Altman might be the only CEO to have written a bestseller called People Strategy: How to Invest in People and Make Culture Your Competitive Advantage. But it’s not like many of his peers are extolling the benefits of the suspicion, toxicity and lack of trust they’ve cultivated in their businesses.

Rather, tech executives are having to actively defend their companies against charges they have a corrosive influence on culture and society at large.

Of Lattice’s Silicon Valley neighbours, it’s now widely accepted that Facebook knowingly sows discord, Twitter is despised by its most avid users and Zoom is a hall of carnival mirrors that makes people more aware of their own face than anyone else’s.

As such, tech companies need to tread carefully. Lattice’s approach to helping its clients foster the best possible culture is to build its systems around employees – developing and investing in people to help them succeed, rather than treating them as resources from which value can be extracted.

But the pandemic has catalysed a very different model of people management. While no one is boasting about their weak company culture, many seem willing to sacrifice it on the altar of productivity.

Tools for everything from recording employees through their webcams to logging their keystrokes and tracking their browsing are increasingly common.

With the right software suite, bosses can even tap workers’ calls or remotely take control of their devices. And, if any of these privileges should fail to increase company loyalty, many IT departments are now tasked with monitoring emails for words like ‘recruiter’ or ‘salary’, so management can track resignation risks.

The only thing that this wealth of corporate spyware fails to reveal is why anyone would want to work for
a business that uses it.

Rather than addressing the reasons that people might want to quit, to put it another way, these tools constitute a strategy for squeezing as much as possible out of them before they do. With the balance of power shifting from employers to employees, it’s a dangerous game.

“As the saying goes,” says Altman, “people don’t quit their job: they quit their bosses.” Surveillance tools can turn managers totalitarian, but companies rarely have the power oppressive states enjoy to prevent defections.

Moreover, by prioritising simplified measures of attention and productivity over the interpersonal, communicative side of leadership, workplace surveillance technologies could even automate managers who use them out of existence – if they have any employees left to manage.

Lattice, by contrast, creates space for the more qualitative aspects of management, and positions its software as a foundation for turning managers into “expert career coaches”.

Equally, its engagement suite doesn’t simply track screen time, but asks employees how engaged they feel, connecting findings to performance measures and helping companies understand the most impactful actions they can take to improve their people strategy.

A place and a purpose

Managers should bear in mind that productivity can’t just be pressured out of people, but people can be pressured out of jobs. Altman points out that the average tenure for a tech employee is a mere 22 months.

“Low tenures and high attrition hurt businesses because people don’t – in fact, they can’t – contribute from day one”, he says. “Most employees take a couple of weeks to simply onboard and a couple of months to learn the ropes.”

A sales employee might take this long before they start hitting their quota, but that doesn’t stop them learning and improving. “It’s only by year three that they start properly crushing it.”

Companies in Lattice’s space are falling more than a year short of that threshold, which Altman is quick to stress isn’t some “weird sales eccentricity”. Indeed, sports scientist Ben Darwin has shown that sportspeople’s performance often dips when they move teams.

“They’re in a new environment with new processes and colleagues,” Altman explains. “Just like the sales rep, they onboard, learn, and ramp. And they hit peak performance at the same time – three years.”

So what can companies do to retain their top talent? For decades, they’ve relied on golden handcuffs. Stock options that endow after a certain period or bonuses that have to be repaid if workers quit before a particular date are undoubtedly good for making people stay, but they don’t motivate them to do their best work. “In some cases, it even bred toxic work environments,” notes Altman.

More recently, businesses have pivoted to creating ‘fun’ office environments, turning workplaces into homes away from home (or a bar away from the pub). “This stuff makes a nice workplace, but it’s all superficial,” Altman says.

“IPA taps and bean bag chairs could be anywhere – at Wonka Candy Company or Walmart. Besides, after the year we’ve all just had, it’s not even an option anymore.” Pleasant as they might be, these offices were designed to give companies competitive advantages over less welcoming workplaces, not over employees’ actual homes.

Once people were given the chance to work within their own four walls, Altman says, “they began asking: ‘Do I want to work a soul-destroying job just because they had beer and pizza on Friday afternoons?’ Their answer: probably not.”

Lattice’s research suggests employees care more about their company’s purpose than its pizza. Unless the company’s purpose is to make pizza, anyway. Purpose is “the reason we get out of bed every day,” argues Altman. “We find meaning in our careers by aligning our personal purpose with the work we do every day.”

Producing food people love to eat is a perfectly valid purpose – a leader who appreciates that and builds a team that feels the same doesn’t need to do much more than get out of its way.

“While there’s no one ‘right’ purpose, leaders need to be crystal clear on their company’s,” the CEO adds. “Are you building technology to provide communities with clean drinking water like Charity: Water? Or maybe you’re transforming work communication like Slack? Get specific, sew it into the fabric of your company, and rally your people around it.”

Go forth and multiply

Unlike purpose and community, Altman readily admits that “growth is an unusual concept in culture”. Often, the two feel like opposites.

It was the pursuit of growth that led Facebook to prioritise negative over positive engagement and emphasising it would also seem to push companies towards using worker surveillance tools to squeeze the most out of every asset. In fact, Altman started Lattice after the growth of his previous company disrupted its culture.

“Most venture-backed companies want to grow,” he explains. “Many need to grow or else they’ll go broke. But growth is important to Lattice for more than necessity.” Rather, it’s how the company keeps its people engaged, and it enables Lattice to incorporate productivity into a more sustainable, employee-centric cultural framework.

“If we’re expanding, we’re constantly challenging our employees and providing new career opportunities,” stresses Altman. “They can earn promotions faster and move into management earlier. They can sidestep into new departments and take on roles that didn’t exist before. I want the company to grow all the time – and grow fast – because it’s good for our people.”

The Lattice platform is a way to ensure the cultural advantages of small start-ups – their clear sense
of purpose, their tight-knit communities and their empowering experience of growth – can be maintained and replicated in larger companies. But no business can keep its people forever.

“There’s a tension to great culture,” Altman says. “When you give folk the right conditions, they’ll grow into brilliant professionals. A lot of the time, they’ll race ahead of your company’s growth.” That’s when many companies are tempted to get aggressive and take out the golden handcuffs. “But,” argues Altman, “that undoes all the great work done before.”

Instead, Lattice takes completely the opposite approach with its ‘Invest in Your People Fund’. As Altman puts it, “It’s a simple offer: if you’ve been at Lattice for three years and want to start your own company, we’ll back you up to $100,000.”

In January 2020, Lattice’s first head of product, Ming Lu, became the first employee backed through the fund. “I said it at the time and I’ll repeat it now,” says her former boss. “We’d be nowhere close to where we are today without Ming…But she wanted to own something of her own. She wanted to build her own business from the ground up. That’s not something she could do as an employee.”

More than making culture a competitive advantage, Lattice is finding value in resignations. “We parted on great terms and now we’re invested (literally) in [Lu’s] success,” Altman concludes.

“As more people reach the natural end of their tenure, I’m sure she’s the first in a long line of people we actively help to leave.” The great resignation is upon us, then, and the winners will be able to look back and say they embraced it.

This article originally appeared in CEO 2021.