50. The future of work and the employee landscape | O’Brien McMahon, Senior VP at Lockton


O’Brien McMahon | Senior VP at Lockton


This week we caught up with Senior Vice President at Lockton, O’Brien McMahon
O’Brien helps HR and business leaders build better employee benefits, compensation, and retirement programs. 


This is part 1 of 3 in our conversation with O'Brien, in this episode we speak about the Great Resignation and is it here to stay.


OBrien MacMahon-1


O'Brien hosts “People Business with O'Brien McMahon”, a podcast exploring the human element of work. He has met with over 300 companies in the last decade and enjoys helping leaders make the most of themselves and the people around them.




[00:00:00] - O'Brien McMahon
I believe that humans need to be taught every skill that you want them to possess.

[00:00:14] - Doug Foulkes
Welcome to Episode 50 of the Future of Work, the podcast that looks at every aspect of work in the future, and it's brought to you by WNDYR. On this podcast, we speak to industry experts and thought leaders discussing how work is changing and evolving. I'm Doug Foulkes and I'm with WNDYR CEO, Claire Haidar. Claire, what have you been up to this week?

[00:00:36] - Claire Haidar
Spent some time on our farm this weekend talking to my sheep and just walking around in nature, and it was very good. Fall is beautiful here in the US at the moment. I know it's the complete opposite of your world. You guys don't really have a spring in South Africa. It just goes from a very cold winter straight into summer.

[00:00:57] - Doug Foulkes
How many sheep you got?

[00:00:58] - Claire Haidar
We've got a herd of 20. We're busy preparing them to start breeding so they're still young. So we are still raising them a little bit, keeping the rams and the sheep separate.

[00:01:08] - Doug Foulkes
Let's get into this week's podcast and we met O'Brien McMahon. He's a senior vice president with Lockton. Why is he on the podcast?

[00:01:19] - Claire Haidar
O'Brien is on the podcast because O'Brien has a very interesting view into what companies are really having to navigate right now in this new world of work that we find ourselves in. So naturally, as a benefits consultant and as somebody that has very deep expertise in this area, he has a lens and a direct line of communication with people teams who are having to navigate very interesting challenges right now.

[00:01:48] - Claire Haidar
And so if you look at the pieces that we've put together for this episode, there's essentially three different segments that we're going to be looking at. The first is focused on our current reality, where the great resignation is happening. It's a very employee favorable market. What are the implications of that for employers?

[00:02:09] - Claire Haidar
From there, we move on into segment two, which is more around employee mindset in today's world of work and how that impacts companies. And then in segment three, we look specifically at the gig economy versus full time employment and how the two are almost shape-shifting each other because of the changes happening in those environments.

[00:02:32] - Doug Foulkes
It was a really interesting hour that we spent together. What would you say are some of the main takeaways from our time together with O'Brien?

[00:02:39] - Claire Haidar
What I took from the conversation was there's certain rights that each employer have, but you can never assume that an employee knows how to be an employee inside your organization. There's certain basic principles that make work work. And when you realize what those are and you keep coming back to them, you're able to build better teams, better companies with better outcomes.

[00:03:05] - Doug Foulkes
Well, I think without further ado, let's turn to O'Brien.

[00:03:09] - Claire Haidar
Looking forward to it.

[00:03:10] - Doug Foulkes
O'Brien, very nice to meet you. Welcome to our podcast.

[00:03:14] - O'Brien McMahon
Thank you. Very excited to be here.

[00:03:16] - Doug Foulkes
Fantastic. We've got three basic sections we're going to look at this evening. And we're going to kick off with something that's very relevant at the moment, and that's the great resignation or the big quit. What, in your opinion, has been driving it?

[00:03:29] - O'Brien McMahon
I think there are a couple of things that are driving it. I think one is that we're seeing a catch up in turnover. I think you've seen this in a couple of different parts of the market. I've seen it in my business, where companies have pushed off strategic decisions in 2020. And now in 2021, they're doubling down and trying to make two years worth of strategic decisions on the business in one year. And I think you're seeing that in the individual marketplace, too, which is people were freaked out during COVID and were clinging to their jobs because they were seeing the news that a lot of people were losing their jobs.

[00:04:09] - O'Brien McMahon
And so now you've got people getting back to a place where they're comfortable and starting to look again. And so part of this, I think, is just a natural catching up of people who feel like they need something new. I think the other part of it is mostly driven by the fact that we've been locked in this some version of this Groundhogs Day for 18 plus months of COVID. And we're human beings that like autonomy and novelty, and we're just going out and trying to seek something new and trying to find some way to gain some control back.

[00:04:44] - O'Brien McMahon
And I think the way to do that is go look for a new job, and open a new door, start something new. So I think that's the other part that I see in conversations that I have that's leading to this.

[00:04:54] - Doug Foulkes
I think it's interesting because a lot of it isn't that people are leaving to go to another job necessarily. A lot of people are just almost like, as you say, they've had enough and they're just leaving.

[00:05:04] - O'Brien McMahon
Yeah, I mean, burnout is real. I've had some guests on my podcast talking about burnout and. I think we're seeing it at a collective scale. And so yeah, people need the opportunity to just reset, find something new, whether it's right now or whether it's three months from now. People just need a break and they need to mentally recover.

[00:05:26] - Doug Foulkes
In your opinion, is it do you think something that companies need to fix? Or is this maybe, possibly a new reality?

[00:05:34] - O'Brien McMahon
I don't know that this is a new reality, at least in the long term. It's a reality right now, that's for sure. But I don't know that it's going to be the reality at long term. I think businesses need to make an adjustment now and be doing a lot of listening, not just reacting to what people want, but thinking about what really makes sense. I think there are a lot of arbitrary guidelines put in place on what work is and where work gets done. And we've shown over the last 18 months that it doesn't necessarily need to be that way.

[00:06:08] - O'Brien McMahon
I do still think there's value to being together to build culture, to train people past knowledge. There's a lot of benefit to human beings being in the same room as other human beings. But I don't know that we need to do it in the same way. I think we're going through an adjustment period right now and we'll get to whatever the new version of normal is going to be.

[00:06:29] - O'Brien McMahon
But I think it's going to right size. I don't think the level of turnover that we're going to see in this next six to 12 months is going to be the new normal. I think people want stability in their lives. We're just seeing a reaction to the forces that have been going on in the world, and I personally think it'll settle down. It's going to be tough in the meantime, though.

[00:06:51] - Claire Haidar
I was going to say, O'Brien, a part relieved by what you've just said, but part of me is questioning what you've just said. Because a lot of the research that's starting to emerge. So McKenzie have recently released a report around this, and there's a few other places lesser known but still credible in terms of what they're releasing. And they're hypothesizing that this is the new normal, which from a business leaders perspective, it's really daunting. It's scary.

[00:07:22] - O'Brien McMahon
Which parts of the new normal, though? Because before the pandemic, we were talking about millennial turnover and how it was higher than it had ever been before. So turnover isn't necessarily something new. I think businesses had been adapting to that. We're seeing it at an ultra high level now, but it's not like turnover is something new completely.

[00:07:43] - O'Brien McMahon
I think virtual work is going to be something new, and I think we're all going to have to figure out what that looks like. I think of human nature. And people want careers, they want some stability, right? They may go get that stability somewhere else and therefore jump from job to job because there's opportunity.

[00:08:02] - O'Brien McMahon
I just think we're going to settle into something that becomes sustainable. I think right now it's not sustainable, the level of turnover that we're seeing, businesses are struggling. You have people opting out and so far not opting back in. But I think people will have to opt back in at some point.

[00:08:18] - O'Brien McMahon
Just some anecdotal stories that I've heard conversations with Uber drivers or people who have stepped out of the corporate workforce gotten into more of the gig economy, they want to go back, but they're just being more selective about when they go back and where they go back. And so I think the gig economy is going to force everybody to level up their game and really be providing good opportunity for people, providing meaningful work for people in a way that maybe it wasn't before.

[00:08:49] - O'Brien McMahon
I think maybe before it was everybody needs a job. And so even if it's not the perfect job, they're going to take it. Now they don't have to. So I don't know that it's going to fundamentally change how we work, but I think it's going to force leaders to be better leaders and to be providing more opportunity for employees.

[00:09:06] - Claire Haidar
I agree. So yes, we're right. My mind is going based on what you've just said. So yeah, I fully agree with you that it's ultra high right now, the turnover rate, it's not sustainable. Human nature tells us that we are going to drop back down to something that feels more normal. But are we in agreement that turnover is definitely higher than it has been in past years and that higher rate is going to be a new norm?

[00:09:33] - O'Brien McMahon
We could definitely agree that it's higher right now. I mean, it for sure is higher. I just I don't know that there's any way to know whether it's going to continue to be higher. I think you're going to get people on both sides of that argument.

[00:09:46] - O'Brien McMahon
And I think rather than focus on whether this turnover is going to continue to be this high, I think it's better, instead of worrying about the problem, to worry about what you're doing within your business, like do you have the mechanics set up to be recruiting good people? Are you thinking creatively about where those people are coming from? Are you building the right kinds of training programs so that when they come in, they can be successful quickly and grow within their career?

[00:10:13] - O'Brien McMahon
And then on the flip side, from a turnover standpoint, do you have a vision for the business? Are you communicating that? Do people have the ability to create mastery in a craft? Do they have autonomy to do the job in a way that that feels right for them? Is there some underlying purpose or meaning that that work gives them?

[00:10:33] - O'Brien McMahon
I think those are the things that all people want. They've always wanted it. It's just a matter of how you get it from your work. And so I think rather than worry about the sky is falling in, this turnover is going to keep happening, I think the focus instead should just be on what does it really mean to lead a group of people?

[00:10:49] - Claire Haidar
So I fully agree with you and this is, as you know, because you've cheated and looked ahead at the questions, this is where my next question is going to go. So fundamentally agree with everything that you've just said. You've referenced Daniel Pink there and his research around what motivates people and retains people in work, which is something that as philosophically, we actually adhere to as a company and really buy into and agree with.

[00:11:12] - Claire Haidar
My question, though, is... I'm putting the employee hat aside for a second, because we know all of those things. We know workplaces need to have those things, and I'm looking at it purely through a business lens here. So higher turnover, increased investment into training programs, and all other forms of retention programs essentially, all of those type of things require an extreme amount of resources both time resources, manpower resources, and actual financial resources. Do companies have those resources? Or are companies operating to leanly right now to actually be able to immediately make those investments?

[00:11:56] - O'Brien McMahon
Yeah, and that's a good point. I mean, whether they have the financial resources, I don't know. They always run tight. I do think you've seen a lot of companies do very well through the pandemic. And so maybe they have more cash than they've had before to invest in some of this stuff. I don't know. I think to speculate with that, somebody would listen to me like, "Well, we don't have that," and it's like, "Okay, sure.

[00:12:20] - O'Brien McMahon
Some people do, and some people don't."

[00:12:23] - O'Brien McMahon
I think the key there is the time. I think that's where there's a lot of opportunity right now. And I have a number of experts who come on my podcast and talk about all kinds of different people related topics. And when it comes to driving performance, the one thing that keeps coming up again and again and again is slowing down and being intentional.

[00:12:50] - O'Brien McMahon
And I think before the pandemic, for sure, and then even into the pandemic, as everybody switched home and there wasn't commute time or travel time between meetings, everybody's just plugged in all the time just go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go from meeting to meeting to meeting to meeting to meeting. And I don't see people slowing down enough to really create space to be thoughtful on this stuff. I think some of this stuff is basic leadership, basic human element stuff.

[00:13:19] - O'Brien McMahon
But it takes thought, and it takes time, and you really have to be intentional about it. And I see that boundary setting as an issue for a lot of people at all levels of organizations.

[00:13:32] - Claire Haidar
I would fully agree with you on that. I think the time factor is the one that we can really control and get most creative with because we've all got a finite amount of time in any given day, but we get to choose where to exert it or not.

[00:13:47] - O'Brien McMahon
Exactly. And some of our most creative solutions, pick a field, some of the best creativity comes from having really tight constraints. So if you don't have the money, it doesn't mean you can't still compete. It doesn't mean you still can't retain your people and attract good people. You see that. I mean, that happens all the time.

[00:14:08] - O'Brien McMahon
So I wouldn't get too hung up in "Do we have the budget or do we not have the budget?" I would say if it's a priority, you need to be making the time to be getting creative and figure out a solution that's going to work for you.

[00:14:20] - Doug Foulkes
And that's the first part of our conversation with O'Brien. Make sure you catch the next two parts of this interesting look at the employee landscape on Spotify, Google, or Apple Podcasts, or on WNDYR's website W-N-D-Y-R.com from Claire and myself. We'll see you soon.

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