10 Trends to Watch in 2024

The lightning-fast ascent of generative AI isn’t the only sea change on the horizon for businesses in the new year.

The global economy is in flux as war, climate change, trade issues, and infrastructure problems demand attention. Many companies continue to struggle to develop and meet diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. And, four years after the COVID-19 pandemic upended in-person work, plenty of businesses are still wrestling with finding a hybrid balance that both employers and workers are comfortable with.

Harvard Business School faculty share insights from their research about the business trends that companies are expected to face in 2024—and they offer advice about how managers and their employees can navigate related challenges and opportunities this year.

Arthur C. Brooks: Set boundaries to ease ‘workism’

“Workism,” a term coined by Derek Thompson in 2019, is the idea that our work is the cornerstone of our life’s purpose. Thompson makes the case that we think work will provide a sense of community and transcendence, but that it ultimately falls flat. I tend to agree with this diagnosis, not because workism destroys our work-life balance, but because it makes our life and work indistinguishable, a concept I explore in my new book.

Workism—or the older idea of workaholism—stems from the tendency for some people to self-objectify, specifically on the basis of work. If you are wondering whether I’m talking about you, ask yourself: Is my job my identity? Do I sacrifice friend and family relationships for my job or career? If I lost my job, would I grieve as if there were a death in the family? If you answered affirmatively to any of these questions, you—like thousands (perhaps millions) of others—fall prey to professional self-objectification.

To manage self-objectification, I suggest following two practices.

  • First, get some space from your job. This might mean something as simple as actually taking a vacation (that is, not sneaking away to send emails at the beach). It could also mean taking a Sabbath from work on the weekend.
  • Second, find friends who don’t see you as a professional object. When you spend too much time with these friends—“deal friends,” not “real friends”—your worth and identity is only tied to your professional output. Alternatively, having real friends encourages you to develop interests and virtues outside of your career.

Arthur C. Brooks is the Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Professor of Management Practice at HBS.

Prithwiraj Choudhury: Hybrid work will keep evolving

I predict that the idea of hybrid work will expand from the rigid definition of “being in-person at a company office two days a week.”

Teams are innovating on both where to meet and when to meet. The downtown office building will be only one of the spaces where teams can meet for in-person work.

“Even brief periods of being in-person together help individuals innovate.”

My research suggests that work-from-anywhere (WFA) teams are meeting in multiple places, including at company offsites, suburban locations, and trade conferences. In addition to being flexible on where to meet, teams are also experimenting with how frequently they should meet for optimum outcomes.

Many of the teams I study have developed a ritual of being in-person together for a few days once a month or even once a quarter. Even brief periods of being in-person together help individuals innovate, especially when they meet team members from different time-zones or different cultures, my longstanding research documents.

Moving from a rigid version of hybrid (two or three days every week in a downtown office) to more flexible forms of hybrid (meet at offsite/suburbs/client conferences, monthly or quarterly) will help individuals work from anywhere and will help companies hire from anywhere.

Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury is the Lumry Family Associate Professor at HBS.

Joseph Fuller: Caregiving policies will help retain talent

The COVID-19 pandemic contributed greatly to the need for companies to revisit their posture on caregiving. Yet change has been slow. Companies need to make a far more concerted effort to help employees meet their caregiving responsibilities—in employers’ own self-interest, as my research indicates.

Demographic changes will continue to severely limit the growth of the workforce. Without a sweeping reform of America’s immigration system—which is highly unlikely—US employers will continue to face a mounting shortage of workers with the right skills.

But that’s not all. The pandemic had other longer-lasting effects. Employees and their families heard unambiguously reassuring messages from their employers. Employers repeatedly said they viewed the well-being of their employees and their families as an absolute priority. In the throes of a global crisis, that was an appropriate and responsible position for employers to take.

Yet no employer qualified these caring statements. None said, “for the duration of the pandemic” or “as long as there is a public health emergency.” Over the course of the pandemic and the gradual return to relative normalcy, many employees broadened their definition of what that commitment to their family’s well-being meant. They applied a new standard with greater consideration for caregiving and work-life balance.

In 2024, employees will look for more proof of this sincerity embodied in employer reassurances. They will test the boundaries of COVID-era policies in a post-COVID environment. Employers who are quick to adapt and show progress toward adopting thoughtful caregiving policies will attract and retain talent. Those who choose to cling to practices developed in the post-World War II era will pay a high price.

Joseph Fuller is a Professor of Management Practice and co-leads the Managing the Future of Work initiative at HBS.

Bill George: 2024 will be the year of emerging leaders

In 2024, emerging leaders—Gen X and Millennials—are poised to step up to leadership roles throughout business, non-profits, government, the military, and health care. The emerging leaders bring very different perspectives than most of those in the Baby Boomer generation.

Whereas Baby Boomers have been primarily focused on hierarchical, top-down management with the accumulation of money and power and leading with their heads, emerging leaders lead with their hearts as well as their heads and focus on empowering other people with passion, compassion, and empathy. While Baby Boomers are primarily concerned with maximizing shareholder value, emerging leaders focus on creating value for all their stakeholders—their employees, customers, shareholders, and their communities.

“Emerging leaders recognize the importance of having an integrated life, rather than a sole focus on work.”

By being authentic in their leadership, rather than trying to create an image, emerging leaders focus on a shared purpose that inspires their employees—especially those on the front lines—and creates collaboration within the organization, rather than internal competition. Viewing diversity as a strength, they create a deep sense of inclusion and belonging for everyone.

They are also willing to admit their mistakes and their shortcomings by building strong, diverse teams around them. Emerging leaders recognize the importance of having an integrated life, rather than a sole focus on work. Finally, having experienced complex social issues throughout their lives, they are prepared to ameliorate climate change, income inequality, discrimination of all forms, and the impact of wars and global conflicts on their global enterprises.

While the political world reels from constant attacks and gridlock, emerging leaders recognize the importance of being true to their purpose and their values as they build great enterprises that can thrive in today’s complex world.

William W. George is an executive fellow at HBS.

Linda Hill: Skills-first hiring can move DEI forward

What issue is top of mind for C-Suite executives? Talent shortages.

Companies are revisiting their talent strategies, and many are embracing a more inclusive talent architecture referred to as “skills-first,” an approach that prioritizes skills over degree credentials when specifying job requirements and assessing candidates. Delta Air Lines is one such employer on the cutting edge of this strategic shift.

Delta’s skills-first journey began in 2016, when Ed Bastian became Delta’s CEO. His mantra is to “obsess in taking care of our people, so that they are free to take care of our customers.” The company’s employee engagement data results were mostly positive, but employee concerns about developmental opportunities and career mobility consistently emerged.

“Doing good business means doing good for communities.”

In digging deeper into the data, Delta’s leadership soon realized that these concerns, as one put it, were “interwoven with diversity and inclusion,” especially for Black talent.

In December 2020, Delta became a charter member of the newly formed OneTen coalition, responding in part to the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Black and Brown people, and an increase in racially motivated violence. Bastian and 36 other CEOs from leading organizations like IBM, the Cleveland Clinic, and Merck committed to collectively hire and advance 1 million Black Americans without college degrees over the next 10 years into family-sustaining jobs.

Although Delta had been “bulldozed by the pandemic” (in Bastian’s words), he had signed on without hesitation and had charged his talent teams with outlining a strategic and sustainable approach to building internal career pathways for Delta’s diverse talent. After taking a hard look at their talent policies and practices, three years later, Delta has disaggregated all company demographic data. Its skills-first approach has allowed the company to reclassify more than 90 percent of its jobs, providing more equitable access to opportunity.

Doing good business means doing good for communities. In the words of one talent manager, the airline has come to believe that “there is brilliance everywhere at Delta” and that it is the company’s responsibility to upskill and reskill the talent right in front of them.

Despite these successes, Delta’s leadership team says they are just getting started. A skills-first approach and diversity, equity, and inclusion cannot be treated as “initiatives” or “programs.” To be successful, skills-first requires a long-term commitment and an alignment with corporate strategy.

Linda A. Hill is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at HBS.

Summer Jackson: DEI will remain crucial to success

Diversity, equity, and inclusion will continue to be crucial factors for organizational success in 2024. However, achieving DEI success is not easy and requires considerable effort and advance planning.

When companies try to hire employees from specific ethnic or racial backgrounds to meet DEI goals, research shows an uncomfortable feeling can creep into the process. These “repugnant market concerns” can cause well-intentioned and committed organizations to fall victim to three diversity recruitment traps:

  • Lost time: Some targeted diversity recruitment tools can make managers feel like they’re objectifying or exploiting the very people they’re trying to hire, causing them to lose valuable time as they sort through, and select against, repugnant options.
  • Missing senior hires: Oftentimes, the more widely accepted diversity recruitment platforms include developmental services, like resume writing, and take a community-based approach. While this can help organizations staff up at junior levels, these platforms tend not to attract more senior candidates.
  • More vulnerable to layoffs: Relying solely on developmental and community-oriented diversity recruitment platforms tends to attract more junior talent into the organization, creating an overconcentration in entry-level positions. If the company needs to make layoffs down the road, it will often let go of more junior employees than senior—thereby sending its diversity hiring efforts back to square one.

Hiring managers who consider these three diversity recruitment traps will have greater DEI success in 2024.

Summer Jackson is an assistant professor of management in the Organizational Behavior Unit at HBS.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter: Climate solutions are progressing

In 2024, the road to work will still be slowed by potholes, and the trains still won’t run on time. But at least the road will be paved with good intentions. Signs of greater attention to fixing America’s infrastructure and making it climate-ready include significant federal funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure and Inflation Reduction Acts, heightened awareness of the costs of neglect, and a growing number of state and local chief sustainability, resilience, and heat officers championing change.

Over 40,000 new climate-friendly infrastructure projects are underway or contemplated nationally, according to US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, while acknowledging delay-causing obstacles. These include significant partisan divides, lengthy permitting processes, and unexpected economic shocks.

“Innovations in services will also accelerate infrastructure and climate solutions.”

Private sector entrepreneurs can fill gaps. #ClimateTech incubators near universities encourage startup clusters, stimulating innovations that remove barriers. If permits for wind farms are delayed due to worries about the danger to birds, for example, a new sensor company can supply bird detectors to tell turbines to stop twirling while flocks fly by, alleviating concerns. Entrepreneurs will continue to offer novel solutions, such as 3D printed coral reefs to restore ocean habitats. Of course, ventures like these are still small and low-impact. Complex technologies with greater impact potential, such as carbon capture, take longer to move beyond pilot stages. But overall, innovative solutions will proliferate.

Innovations in services will also accelerate infrastructure and climate solutions. Services involve innovative business models. An electric school bus leasing company is removing financial barriers for school departments to electrify their fleets while offering children cleaner air and generating power to return to the grid when buses are idle. Similarly, a new financing collaborative is adding broadband to digital deserts while employing engineering students from historically Black colleges and universities.

Questions remain about the role of businesses in their communities. In addition to adopting climate solutions inside their buildings, business leaders can step “outside the building” to help legitimize investments in infrastructure transitions. They can join regional cross-sector coalitions seeking local actions directly relevant to their employees. Their voice on issues such as public transit, affordable housing, alternative energy, home digital access, or electric school buses can depoliticize the issues and encourage wider public support.

Business pragmatism can help build a sense of shared fate, and that will help increase demand for better infrastructure.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor at HBS.

Robert Simons: More companies may return to in-person work

Coming out of the pandemic, we are told that working from home is the new reality and managers must adapt. But has the nature of work and management really changed?

In my MBA course “Changing the World: The Life Choices of Influential Leaders,” students learn how famous people—everyone from Steve Jobs to Walt Disney—made choices that allowed them to rise to positions of prominence. In studying these cases, one striking observation is that management techniques for getting the best out of people haven’t changed much over the decades.

Mary Kay Ash believed that you could praise people to success, but achievement awards should be presented in front of peers. Accordingly, she arranged Monday night meetings that brought her beauty consultants together to share best practices and recognize each other’s successes.

Steve Jobs set demanding goals and insisted that people work together in teams until tasks were successfully completed. This often involved long hours, but working side-by-side to meet demanding standards allowed people to achieve the impossible.

For employees, a sense of belonging is critically important. Trust, friendships, and pride in purpose can only occur when people are in day-to-day personal contact working toward shared goals. This is in stark contrast to the isolation and anomie so many work-from-home employees experience today.

CEOs Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase and Tom Siebel of C3.ai are unapologetic that the success of their businesses requires people to work together in the office. As we reset after the pandemic, I predict that many other corporate executives will follow their lead.

Robert Simons is a Baker Foundation Professor at HBS.

Sandra Sucher: Labor conditions will require strategic staffing

The labor market continues to be tough and promises to be tougher in 2024.

Across the world, the workforce is aging, leading to persistent labor shortages. Layoffs across industries from tech to consulting to manufacturing have bred mistrust. Power has shifted from employers to employees with increased union activity and pushback on return-to-work and other policies. People are choosier and want to see alignment between how they want to work and how companies are managed.

Yet companies still need great people. Even companies that are cutting back are also hiring. Here are five strategies that can help companies avoid boom–bust hiring cycles as they shift resources:

  • Open clear paths for staff who are in units that are being disbanded to apply for and get jobs in growing areas and provide training to help them contribute. People who know your business, culture, and how to operate successfully are an overlooked resource. Companies that create opportunity are rewarded with increased loyalty and stronger, more capable staff.
  • Use disciplined hiring to ensure that people growth is managed. Require each new position to be justified on an individual basis, with a direct connection to whether it adds value. Keep a sharp eye out for reporting structures that layer single direct reports on top of each other, a clear sign of out-of-control growth.
  • Strengthen and streamline processes that create value, from new product development to improving existing products and services. Companies make up for bad processes with more people, and that leads to entrenched inefficiency.
  • Use the power of attrition to reduce staff in areas that need to shrink. The difference between a voluntary departure and a forced one through a layoff affects not only people who leave, but also the engagement and productivity of the far greater number who remain.
  • Encourage voluntary departures. Become a company that people are happy to leave, having acquired more marketable skills. They may even return for the right opportunity.

Sandra Sucher is MBA Class of 1966 Professor of Management Practice at HBS.

Christina Wallace: A new way to think about ‘work-life balance’

With the current state of near-constant disruption, virtually no job feels safe and secure—and rightly so. Employees looking for stability are increasingly finding it through building multiple income streams and cultivating diverse skills and professional networks that can be deployed in orthogonal ways. The world of following a single, linear path through one function or industry (let alone one company) is long gone.

Similarly, the idea of a portfolio life is replacing the idea of “work-life balance.” Rather than chafe against a framework that pits work and life in opposition to each other, individuals are increasingly allocating their time and talents across the various “assets” that matter to them: work, family, health, community, hobbies, and rest. The benefit of a portfolio life? Just like your financial portfolio, when your needs change, you can rebalance it.

As a result of these two shifts, organizations should be prepared to dramatically rethink talent models and management strategies. Three significant shifts come to mind:

  • Revision of rules related to external work and/or ownership of all intellectual property created during the period of employment. Top talent with creative side projects or entrepreneurial ambitions are not willing to sign away their freedom when they take a job.
  • A cultural shift that encourages workers to adjust their responsibilities and relationship to work to reflect the chapter of life they are in. Instead of the negative connotations of a “mommy track,” high-potential candidates of all genders and generations want the ability to take a lateral step while they deal with significant seasons of life, such as when they are juggling work along with children, elder care, a health issue, or burnout. They want to then return to the fast-track without prejudice when they’re ready.
  • More organizational flexibility for redeploying talent as the company’s needs change. Rather than face layoffs followed by hiring surges to meet shifting strategic needs, managers can and should take advantage of employees’ desire for diversification and look for opportunities to cross-train talent, build robust networks, and carve out non-linear growth paths. Flexibility at an individual level translates to agility at an organizational level.

Christina Wallace is a senior lecturer in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at HBS.

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