Nick Sonnenberg, MFE 07
CEO and Founder, Leverage

Nick Sonnenberg, MFE 07.If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed with work, you’re not alone. Nick Sonnenberg heard the complaint so often that he wrote a book to solve the problem: Come Up for Air: How Teams Can Leverage Systems and Tools to Stop Drowning in Work.

It provides a framework for eliminating unnecessary tasks and focusing instead on work that drives results. Along with his operational efficiency platform, Leverage, Sonnenberg is reinventing the way people get things done.

Before he became an efficiency expert, Sonnenberg was barely staying afloat himself. He’d originally started a freelancer marketplace called Leverage that scaled very quickly. Then, his business partner walked out, jeopardizing the company’s future. Sonnenberg soldiered on, quickly noticing how much inefficiency there was, specifically in three areas: communication, planning, and resources.

“To have any chance of saving the company, I needed to get some time back,” he says. “Focusing on those buckets, things started turning around.”

Soon, people began contacting him for organizational advice. Eventually, he pivoted the company to become an efficiency training firm.

Sonnenberg says his success with Leverage wasn’t a case of getting lucky when his back was against the wall. He credits his MFE training and his years as a high-frequency trader, where he learned every second matters.

“Being a financial engineer, I’m programmed to find pattern recognition,” Sonnenberg says. “I started connecting the dots that there was this big opportunity to help a lot of people hopefully save millions of hours by teaching best practices of how to leverage all these amazing systems and tools, like Slack and Asana.”

comeupforair.com

Keeping Company

Know your gig workers to retain them

An Uber driver wearing a face mask and hat.When done right, the gig economy can mutually benefit companies and workers. Companies can tap into deep and vast labor pools, and workers can create their own schedules. But such flexibility challenges gig platforms in committing to a service capacity. What incentives, then, can entice workers to work more hours more often?

A recent study co-authored by Assistant Professor Park Sinchaisri and published in Manufacturing & Service Operations Management sought to answer that question.

The researchers utilized data from a U.S.-based ride-hailing company that included 358 days of driving activities and financial incentives for thousands of New York City drivers between 2016 and 2017. Perhaps not surprisingly, they found that drivers work toward their income goals and are less likely to work after meeting them.

More surprisingly, Sinchaisri found that workers who have previously worked longer shifts are more likely to start a new shift or work longer than drivers who have worked less. This finding goes against previous research on taxi drivers, who have more of a “time-targeting behavior.”

Sinchaisri says that gig platforms should ask what specific goals workers have and make targeted adjustments. “Once you know your workers’ goals, you can think of better ways to incentivize them,” he says.

There’s No Place Like Work

How place identity enhances engagement

Illustration of man sitting at work desk with sunlight being painted upon him.Post-pandemic workspaces have become increasingly fluid, and companies are trying out hot desks and hoteling spaces as they struggle to entice workers back to the office. But new research suggests that leaders wanting to build employee engagement should think less about rearranging the furniture and more about how employees relate the office space to their own work.

“When people feel a sense of self-esteem and distinctiveness derived from their workspace, we found it enhances their engagement,” says professional faculty member Brandi Pearce. “It also increases collaboration and their commitment to the organization.”

Pearce and colleagues from Stanford and Pepperdine universities studied “place identity,” as they refer to this sense of connection, at a software company transitioning workers at sites worldwide from traditional offices to open-plan innovation centers.

The research, published in Organizational Dynamics, found that whether people accepted or rejected the innovation centers didn’t align with their work functions or professional backgrounds, nor with age, gender, location, or other factors. “What seemed to matter more than the space itself was how people felt the space connected to them personally, positively differentiated them, and reflected a sense of belonging to something meaningful to them,” Pearce says.

“When people feel a sense of self-esteem and distinctiveness derived from their workspace…it enhances their engagement.”

What’s more, workers with a distinctive sense of place identity collaborated more actively with one another and were more engaged and committed to the organization.

So how can leaders cultivate place identity? Whether the setting is physical, hybrid, or virtual, Pearce suggests three best practices:

Broadcast the vision.

No matter the setup, leaders should clearly communicate the purpose of the space and what kinds of work are best done in the various workplaces: brainstorming sessions, workshops, and other collaborative tasks in work offices, for example, and focused time in home offices. To help define virtual workspaces, leaders can state whether video conferences are meant for efficiency or connection.

Model Enthusiasm.

Equally critical to visioning is the way leaders convey a positive attitude about space. In a hybrid setting, leaders can express enthusiasm by holding in-person meetings on in-office days and visibly blocking calendar time during remote-work days for solitary work.

Empower employees.

The researchers found place identity was highest when employees were encouraged to tailor their spaces to suit their needs and preferences. In one location, for example, employees were given resources to co-create furniture and other artifacts, enhancing their personal connection to the office. Remote workers could be given materials to customize their home spaces to create a connection to their team or organization, or—if they do visit the office—to create something with co-workers to bring home.

Assoc. Professor Andrew Shogan

Operations research expert

Headshot of the late Associate Professor Andrew W. Shogan.Associate Professor Andrew W. Shogan, 74, an expert in operations research, died on May 30 in Orinda, Calif. Shogan joined Berkeley Haas in 1974 and spent his entire professional career at the school until his retirement in 2007. He was beloved by faculty and staff alike. His passion for teaching and advancing the use of mathematical models to formulate and solve problems arising in business, industry, and government earned him several teaching awards, including the Earl F. Cheit Award for Excellence in Teaching—the highest honor given to faculty by students.

In addition to teaching, Shogan served as associate dean for instruction for 16 years from 1991 to 2007, where he oversaw the growth of all six degree programs and introduced innovations to the MBA program, including the creation of a shared virtual classroom with MBA students from Haas, Darden, and Michigan Ross. In recognition for his contributions to Haas, Shogan earned the Chancellor’s Distinguished Service Award in 2007.

Donations in his memory may be made to the Haas School of Business Undergraduate Program. Visit our giving site and note “in honor of Andrew Shogan.” Read his full obituary.

IN MEMORIAM

Herbert Ems, BS 47
Terry Haws, BS 49
Robert Hake, BS 50
Robert Elder, BS 51
Frank Corona, BS 53
Edward De Matei, BS 56
Beryl Robinson, BS 57
Richard Emerson, BS 59
Will Gassett, BS 60
Robert Buchman, BS 61
Robert Hermanson, BS 63, MBA 65
Barbara Tosse, BS 65
John McCue, MBA 69
Robert Hickey, MBA 77
J.P. Sheehan, MBA 78
Julie Leuvrey, MBA 88
Stockton Rush III, MBA 89
Leonora A. Burke, PhD 90
Susan Kobayashi, MBA 92
Candace Bennyi, BS 94
Beidi Zheng, MBA 08
Daniel Potter, MBA 19
Victor Garlin, Faculty
June A. Cheit, Friend

Study: In the gig economy, getting to know workers is key to keeping them

Asian woman car sharing driver wearing face mask checking mobile phone searching for job destination
Photo: Gahsoon for iStock/Getty Images

When done right, the gig economy can mutually benefit companies and workers. Companies can tap into deep and vast labor pools. And workers can create their own schedules, enjoying flexibility and working as much—or as little—as they want. But that can also create some headaches. What if workers collectively only want to work during specific times? What incentives can get them to work more hours more often?

A recent study coauthored by Berkeley Haas Assistant Professor Park Sinchaisri set out to answer these questions. The study, published in the journal Manufacturing & Service Operations Management, concludes that financial incentives increase both the frequency and duration that people work. The study also finds workers will work less after reaching a daily or weekly financial goal, but those that start work earlier in the day are more likely to work beyond the time required for their financial goal.

Robust data set includes nearly a year of ride-hailing data

Sinchaisri and his fellow researchers—Gad Allon of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Maxime Cohen of McGill University—utilized a comprehensive data set from a U.S.-based on-demand ride-hailing company. The data included 358 days’ worth of driving activities and financial incentives for drivers in New York City between October 2016 and September 2017.

The data included thousands of drivers and millions of work shifts, as well as each driver’s vehicle type, experience with the platform, number of hours driven, and financial incentives offered and earned. “The key advantage of our data is that we observe the incentives that were offered to every driver regardless of the decision to drive. In other words, even for drivers who decided not to drive for a particular time period, we still know their offered wage and promotions for that period,” the authors wrote.

Drivers demonstrate an ‘inertia’ when it comes to working hours

Perhaps not surprisingly, the researchers found that drivers have an ‘income-targeting behavior’ easily tracked in most apps that give real-time earnings reports. That is, drivers will work toward their income goals but are less likely to work once they meet them.

More surprisingly, Sinchaisri and his team found an ‘inertia’ regarding working hours. Workers who have previously worked longer shifts are more likely to start a new shift or work longer than drivers who have worked less. The finding goes against previous research on taxi drivers, who have more of a “time-targeting behavior.”

“This difference could be driven by the unique flexibility of gig work,” the paper says, suggesting that inertia could represent drivers’ strategic behavior.

“Inertia is why it is so hard to bring gig workers back after the pandemic—they currently aren’t used to working day after day, so it’s a matter of attempting a cold start,” Sinchaisri said. “However, there is a flip side. Once these workers go back to working, they are much more likely to continue working.”

Get to know your gig economy workers

Sinchaisri says getting to know your workers better can help create more specific targeted incentives. Companies should ask gig economy workers what specific goals they have to understand their workers more and make adjustments based on that feedback, Sinchaisri advises. “Once you know your workers’ goals, you can think of better ways to incentivize them,” Sinchaisri points out.

Or, as the paper states, “Targeting specific workers with different incentives can be beneficial. We examine how the platform can improve its operational performance by offering personalized incentives based on workers’ attributes.”

Incentives are good, but not everything

While incentives are good, and Sinchaisri says gig companies should pay their workers as much as possible, good pay and incentives alone are not everything. And in today’s climate, where gig workers have plenty of options, companies should do what they can to continually attract and retain workers.

“The recent rise of the gig economy has changed the way people think about employment,” the paper states. “Unlike traditional employees who work under a fixed schedule, gig economy workers are free to choose their own schedule and platform to provide service. Such flexibility poses a great challenge to gig platforms in terms of planning and committing to a service capacity. It also poses a challenge to policymakers who are concerned about protecting workers.”

As this research suggests, that also goes into considering behavioral factors.

“We find that financial incentives have a positive effect on the decision to work and on the work duration, confirming the positive income elasticity from the standard income effect,” the paper concludes. “We also observe the influence of behavioral factors through the accumulated earnings and number of hours previously worked. The dominating effect, inertia, suggests that the longer workers have been working so far, the more likely they will continue working and the longer duration they will work for.”

Sinchaisri noted that these insights are not specific to the particular platform they studied, and could apply to other types of gig-work platforms. “Many gig platforms do offer more certainty in pay,” he said. “This could be one way to improve the retention and the motivation of the workers.

Read the full paper:

The Impact of Behavioral and Economic Drivers on Gig Economy Workers
By Gad Allon, Maxime C. Cohen, and Wichinpong Park Sinchaisri
Manufacturing & Service Operations Management
March 2023

Work in Progress

Haas experts on what to expect in the ever-evolving arena of work.

Change has long been coming for the world of work.

Automation and artificial intelligence technologies have been on the horizon or among us in their rudimentary forms for years—we’ve grown used to customer service conversations with chatbots, for example. Online hiring platforms (such as Upwork for freelance gig workers) have been complementing more traditional approaches to hiring for roughly a decade. And even pre-pandemic, the proportion of remote-capable U.S. workers in fully remote arrangements was inching up slowly, by 2019 climbing to 8%, according to Gallup.

COVID-19 kicked these slowly evolving trends into a turbo-charged rate of dizzying change. By mid-2022, nearly a third of remote-capable U.S. workers were fully remote. A survey by Upwork found that 53% of businesses said the pandemic increased their willingness to hire freelance gig workers. And the pandemic-induced imperatives to social distance and to adapt to fluctuations in demand spurred new investment in and utilization of automation technologies. 

Several Haas thought leaders are focusing their research on the questions many of us are asking ourselves as we reel from the rapid changes imposed on our work lives and work identities. For whom is the shift to remote work a net-positive change, and for whom is it a detriment? In which situations might these newly pervasive work arrangements be narrowing inequalities among workers—and where are they creating new ones? What does the newest research suggest about the likelihood that cutting-edge AI tools will render obsolete whole sectors of workers? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we define “good jobs”—and how can we, as a society, ensure that they don’t go extinct? 

The Haas thought leaders featured here don’t have all the answers, but they do have research-backed predictions, policy recommendations, and reasons for both concern and optimism as we chart our way through the end of work as we knew it—and orient ourselves in the world of work that’s emerging in its place. 

The remote future

Man floating on an island in a water cooler.Assistant Professor David Holtz signed the papers that made official his doctoral research internship at Microsoft in March 2020—timing that would prove portentous. He’d been invited into the technology firm’s Redmond, Washington, offices to study online marketplaces. Soon, however, Holtz found himself working not from Microsoft’s campus but remotely from his East Coast apartment—and on an altogether different research question: How was the swift decampment to remote work affecting communication and collaboration within Microsoft? 

Before the pandemic descended, 18% of Microsoft’s U.S. employees worked remotely. By April 2020, the firm had instituted a mandatory work-from-home policy for all of its non-essential U.S. employees.

To investigate how remote work reshaped communication practices among Microsoft’s more than 60,000 U.S.-based employees, Holtz and his co-authors analyzed anonymized data summarizing individual workers’ time spent in meetings and on calls, the number of emails and instant messages they sent, the length of their workweeks, and the patterns of their collaboration networks. 

Their data covered December 2019 to June 2020—so, the several months before and after the firm-wide work-from-home policy took effect. Access to this before-and-after data was important, Holtz emphasizes, because it allowed the research team to compare the working patterns of those 18% of employees who’d been remote pre-pandemic to the patterns of those who shifted to remote work because of COVID-19.

“We took really seriously the matter of trying to separate the effects of remote work from the effects of the pandemic,” Holtz explains. Already in 2020, many were speculating that a wholesale return to offices might never happen. “We wanted to understand, if that were the case, what would the effects of remote work be once the pandemic had subsided?”

Overall, the picture of remote work that emerged in their findings was not one of an arrangement particularly conducive to innovation. One of their main findings was that working remotely was associated with a decrease in the number of (and amount of interactions with) a person’s “weak ties”—that is, those colleagues with whom you don’t work directly but with whom a casual interaction can prove helpful or illuminating in surprising ways.

“There’s all this research that shows weak ties to be really important for the diffusion of new ideas and the propagation of information through an organization,” Holtz says. 

Relatedly, they found that the rate of change within employees’ networks fell considerably when working remotely. “The network kind of ossifies and starts to freeze in place,” Holtz says. “Research shows that creativity is associated with fresh teams, working with new folks.” 

Inequalities, old and new

A three-person shell with a one-person shell on either side, with all people rowing in sync.Research from Associate Professor Aruna Ranganathan adds a more positive dimension to this picture of remote work’s effects—especially when it comes to creativity. For some individuals within an organization, her research suggests, the adoption of a remote setup may actually act as a booster shot for creativity and performance.

Ranganathan has always been a scholar of work and employment, with a particular focus on individual-worker outcomes. “I’m interested in understanding how remote work perhaps exacerbates some preexisting inequalities, creates new forms of inequality, and also has the potential to mitigate some inequalities that existed in more traditional forms of work,” she says. She points to research indicating that women have long been held back from performing to their full potential at work, given that they experience more interruptions in team discussions and generally face lower performance expectations. Of course, this previous research has presumed a traditional synchronous team environment (imagine employees chatting in real time around a conference table). But as many of the world’s workers moved remote during the pandemic, asynchronous collaboration (via email, say) shot up.

For some individuals within an organization … the adoption of a remote setup may actually act as a booster shot for creativity and performance.

In one project, Ranganathan and her co-author studied folk music ensembles (consisting of a singer and a few instrumentalists) in eastern India performing traditional songs, each having many versions and interpretations largely determined by the singers. In these groups, gender roles are prescribed. When women are members, they typically only sing. Because each ensemble member has a distinct role, songs can be recorded either live as a group or solo and later combined digitally.

Ranganathan and her co-author found that working alone afforded women singers greater freedom of creative expression than when working within a group of men in a more traditional synchronous environment. But tempting as it may be to conclude that remote work is the magic salve in addressing the problem of unequal treatment in the workplace, Ranganathan cautions against it. 

“If we just embrace remote work, we’re not solving the root problem, which is that when these teams come together, certain members are not making other members feel included,” she says. “Embracing remote work shouldn’t mean we don’t try to continue also reshaping the synchronous work environment to be more inclusive of women and other minorities in the workplace.”

Protecting workers

Distinguished Professor Laura Tyson, who has written extensively about the future of work, technology, and trade policy (and who formerly served as an advisor to President Clinton), looks further ahead as she considers the disrupting force of technology on workers. In particular, her books, columns, and papers have lately focused on automation and AI and whether “good jobs” will be able to proliferate as these technologies—which perform tasks more cheaply, faster, and often better than humans—assert greater influence. 

Her prognosis is not hopeful for those blue-collar jobs one might reasonably consider “good”—that is, those that offer middle-class incomes, safe conditions, legal protections, career advancement, and benefits. She’s written that she fears any economic growth spurred by advancing AI technologies will not be widely shared and will further fuel economic inequality. 

“AI will automate many tasks, change existing tasks, and create new ones. There will be both winners and losers in this process,” she wrote in her recent article, “Automation, AI & Work.” 

Firms investing more in AI were also the ones with higher employment rates. … When firms adopt AI technologies, it actually creates the need for new types of human expertise.

Tyson says diverse communities across the U.S. will need to devise “tailored strategies” to meet the changes wrought by technologies still on the horizon. For instance, she points to the need for more affordable housing in major cities and better digital infrastructure to support remote work in rural areas. “All communities can expect to face challenges relating to workforce redeployment and mobility, skills and training, economic development and job creation, and support for those undergoing occupational transitions triggered by automation.”

A string of connected paper people with one of the people being a robot.

Research from Assistant Professor Anastassia Fedyk offers some optimism on how AI could enhance employment in some areas. In one study, Fedyk found that the firms investing more in AI were also the ones with higher employment rates. She says this suggests that when firms adopt AI technologies, it actually creates the need for new types of human expertise.

“What the data show is that the main effect of AI in most industries is not replacing human labor,” she says. “Instead, AI is allowing firms to innovate and grow.” 

Where her findings align with Tyson’s concern is on the topic of inequality. Fedyk’s other research has found that firms investing more in AI go on to hire more-educated workforces. “It seems that firm investments in AI are conducive to greater demand for college-educated and technical workers,” she says. “These findings suggest that it’s important to invest in upskilling the workforce as firms adopt new technologies such as AI.” 

Investing in education

Haas Dean Ann Harrison places similar emphasis on the importance of schooling and worker training in countering inequality as the nature of work transforms. One of the leading scholars in trade and development economics, Harrison points to educational programs as one of the most important public provisions in countering inequality. 

“A school like UC Berkeley, and all of California’s public universities and community colleges, play a key role in leveling the playing field,” Harrison says. “But we could do even more. What scares me most is that significantly less than half of our young people get a four-year college degree—we need to change that by increasing public educational opportunities and scholarships.” 

It’s not too late for policies written by humans, for humans, to help determine the ways in which rapidly advancing technologies will shape workers’ lives.

Harrison also says increased social protections need to be considered as well as incentivizing firms and innovators to grow in ways that employ more of America’s labor force. “In other words,” she says, “we need to encourage labor-using innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Indeed, worker training is one of the policy interventions Tyson emphasizes, too. She also recommends tax policy reforms to lower payroll and other payroll-related taxes, increasing social benefits and protections for gig workers, and introducing measures to enshrine workers’ ability to collectively bargain and unionize. 

The upshot? Harrison and Tyson agree that it’s not too late for policies written by humans, for humans, to help determine the ways in which rapidly advancing technologies will shape workers’ lives.

“How the benefits of automation are shared among workers from a diverse array of backgrounds is not technologically predetermined,” Tyson has written. “It is entirely up to us.” 

In fact, it’s even possible that AI tools can help clarify some of the most human parts of our work lives—such as allowing for a deeper understanding of how people are experiencing organizational life. Haas professors Jennifer Chatman and Sameer Srivastava developed a machine-learning method to integrate data from an employee survey with eight years of emails from a mid-size technology firm, giving a longitudinal look at “culture fit”—and how it’s formed and maintained within workplaces. 

The results gave them valuable insight into what draws people to certain workplaces and sours them on others.  “We found that two types of culture fit really mattered,” Chatman says. One type was “value congruence”—that is, the alignment between an employee’s personal values and the dominant ones within their organization—and the other was “perceptual congruence”—the extent to which an employee accurately perceives a workplace’s culture and behaves in accordance with it. These two distinct types of culture fit impacted different outcomes at work: Value congruence predicted how long people stayed with the organization, and perceptual congruence was closely tied to workers’ performance success.  

As the workplace and the nature of work itself continue to transform in ways both predictable and less so, understanding workers’ motivations and the drivers of their performance will only grow more important. After all, for the time being at least, humans are still the most complicated machines keeping the world of work running.

Dean’s Speaker Series: Reddit COO Jen Wong on her leadership journey

Growing up as a shy introvert, Reddit COO Jen Wong said she never saw herself as a leader.

“I think I assumed a leader was a person who told other people what to do,” Wong said.

It was her fascination with companies and the people who lead them, as well as a drive to solve new problems, that led her to pursue a career that has included leadership positions at Time, Inc.; PopSugar; AOL, and now Reddit.

“I’m a puzzler at heart, and when my mind starts searching for a new problem to solve, and there’s something I can learn, that propels me forward,” Wong said. “I always want to move into something that has a clear lane for me to have an impact.”

Wong, who topped Reddit’s Queer 50 list this year, shared her leadership journey with MBA students and the Haas community at a Dean’s Speaker Series talk on Sept. 21. The talk was co-sponsored by Q@Haas as part of Coming Out Week, September 18-22.

As Reddit’s Chief Operation Officer, Wong oversees business strategy and related teams.  Only four years into her tenure as COO, she has helped lead the growth of Reddit into a profitable business by scaling ad revenue to well over $100 million.  Her leadership goes beyond growing the business; she is also passionate about Reddit’s company goal that’s just as important as revenue: diversity and inclusion. In addition, Jen is viewed as an expert in the digital landscape.

Watch the full talk:


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