Category Archives: Work and Employment

In “The Conversational Firm,” MIT Sloan’s Catherine Turco Looks at Motivating a Millennial Workforce

Is it possible for a company to shed some of the key trappings of traditional bureaucracy and still be competitive in the marketplace? Catherine J. Turco, an associate professor of work and organization studies at MIT Sloan, went undercover for ten months at a fast-growing social media marketing company to find the answer.

In her illuminating new book The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media, Turco takes an in-depth look at a young enterprise called TechCo, a pseudonym she uses to protect the identity of company and employees. She finds that TechCo has developed a deeply engaged workforce by promoting open company-wide dialogue. That sense of freedom, she notes, has contributed to a culture that is invested, innovative, and adaptable to change. She calls this new style of company “the conversational firm.”

One of the principal tools of the conversational firm, Turco reports, is social media. TechCo provides its employees—who are primarily millennials—with social media vehicles so that they can offer input into major business issues. Because millennials relate to the world through social media, she says, it only makes sense that they would feel comfortable relying on apps to register ideas and opinions in the workplace.

In The Conversational Firm, Turco leverages her interviews with 76 employees, her attendance at hundreds of company meetings, and insights from cultural and economic sociology, organizational theory, economics, technology studies, and anthropology, to portray a company that has found a way to be open without relinquishing control.

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Stress—a Good or Bad Sign in an Employee?

Will the calm, cool, and collected applicant turn out to be a better employee than the person who exhibits stress? Traditionally, companies have tended to think so. In fact, many industries conduct stress tests with current and prospective employees to see how they perform under pressure. Those who remain calm during the simulations are commonly seen as the best fit for stressful on-the-job situations.

Juan Pablo VielmaMIT Sloan professors Juan Pablo Vielma and Tauhid Zaman and graduate student Carter Mundell beg to differ with the conventional wisdom. By measuring galvanic skin response (GSR) over the course of an increasingly difficult exam, the three researchers came to the conclusion that those who perform best under duress actually exhibit some degree of stress when the stakes are lower.

Lie detector technology predicts success

GSR, which is used in polygraph tests, measures changes in skin resistance owing to sweat—a relatively easy way to measure stress, as the body’s sweat glands are connected to the central nervous system. In their paper “Predicting Performance Under Stressful Conditions Using Galvanic Skin Response” Vielma, Zaman and Mundell note that, in the past, the study of stress has focused on understanding it as opposed to predicting it. “Everyone else was looking at, ‘Why are you stressed now?’ We stumbled on whether they would be stressed in 10 minutes.”

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How much is a living wage? MIT Sloan faculty experts weigh in

Arguably, a living wage is the goal of all civilized societies—that is, the amount of money a person needs to maintain a basic standard of living. But what exactly is a sufficient wage? And will increasing the minimum wage create a knee-jerk effect among employers to hit the brakes on hiring?

At present, the hourly minimum wage in the United States is $7.25, and the Democratic Party platform is advocating more than doubling that rate to $15. MIT Sloan asked three of the School’s top economic and labor experts to weigh in on the idea of raising the minimum wage. Here’s what they had to say:

ErikErik Brynjolfsson
MIT Sloan Professor of Information Technology
Director, MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy

Having more people working and earning good wages is good not just for the people we help, but for all of us: People who work are more engaged in community, creating a virtuous cycle. If we do these three things, we’ll be on track to becoming a richer, more engaged, and more dynamic nation.

#1 Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit
Suppose that someone is earning $12 per hour, and we’d like them to earn $15. With an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) they’d get an additional $3 per hour worked from the government. The money to pay for this would come from general tax revenue including income taxes, or ideally increased taxes on carbon dioxide emissions, congestion, and other things we’d like to discourage.

#2 Reinvent Education
The wage gap between the most and least educated workers has grown enormously since the 1980s, and better-educated workers also have much lower unemployment rates and higher rates of workforce participation. But it’s not enough to simply do more of the same. We need to reinvent education for an age where machines are increasingly doing cognitive tasks—the second machine age. That means a greater emphasis on skills like teamwork, project management, persuasion, leadership, coaching, and creativity.

#3 Reduce unnecessary occupational licensing
Over 25 percent of workers now require a license to do their jobs, a five-fold increase since the 1950s. While some licenses are important for safety or other reasons, research has shown that excessive licensing requirements reduce employment and mobility.

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Transforming workplace culture with micro-affirmations

Mary RoweEarlier this year, a group of undergraduates launched Random Acts of Kindness (RAK) Week at MIT. Members of the community encountered various “kindness crews” dispensing an array of happy surprises—from hugs to hot chocolate. RAK, which has burgeoned into something of an international phenomenon, illuminates the pioneering work of IWER’s Mary Rowe, adjunct professor of negotiation and conflict management at MIT Sloan’s Institute for Work and Employment Research.

An economist and conflict management specialist, Rowe joined the Institute in 1973, becoming MIT’s first ombudsperson. In that role she encountered, defined, and worked to help resolve workplace inequities (large and small) that often had not been identified or articulated. Issues raised in Rowe’s office led to the establishment of MIT’s anti-harassment policy, one of the nation’s first.

Some of Rowe’s reports to the MIT community discussed the ubiquitous phenomenon of micro-inequities—small, thoughtless unfairnesses, often unintentional and difficult to prove, toward those who are perceived as different. Neglecting to invite someone to a group event, for example, or not introducing someone—the only person who appears as “different.” Such slights are often the result of unconscious bias or not understanding another culture. In the aggregate, however, they can isolate and alienate those on the receiving end.

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