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Ep 549: Rethinking Work, Jobs and Recruiting


The way we describe work and jobs is mostly by long-standing assumptions that have been in place since the Industrial Revolution. The world is now a very different place, and the employers breaking free of our ingrained mindsets around jobs and recruiting are giving themselves considerable talent market advantage.

My guest this week is one of my favourite thinkers around the reinvention of work. Dart Lindsley is Strategic Advisor for People Experience at Google. Dart believes that rather than being seen as resources or units of production, employees are actually customers of a product we call work. There are some vast implications for talent acquisition here, and this is a must-listen for anyone developing a strategic plan for the future.

In the interview, we discuss:

• How we should be looking at work

• The legacies of the industrial age

• A multi-sided business

• Business architecture

• Employees as customers, not as units of production

• The implications for HR

• Bringing marketing thinking to HR

• Market research, product market fit and route to market

• Work as a subscription model

• A land and expand sales motion

• Job to be done theory

• How do recruitment marketing and employer branding need to evolve

• A different data model for describing work

• The implications of AI

• What does the future look like?

Listen to this podcast on Apple Podcasts.


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[Recruiting Future Podcast theme]

There’s been more of scientific discovery, more of technical advancement, and material progress in your lifetime and mine than in all the ages of history.

Matt: Hi, there. This is Matt Alder. Welcome to Episode 549 of the Recruiting Future podcast. The way we describe work and jobs is shaped in many ways by long standing assumptions that have been in place since the industrial revolution. The world is now a very different place, and the employers who are breaking free of the ingrained mindsets we have around jobs and recruiting are giving themselves considerable talent market advantage. My guest this week is one of my favorite thinkers around the reinvention of work. Dart Lindsley is Strategic Advisor for People Experience at Google. Dart believes that rather than being seen as resources or units of production, employees are actually customers of a product we call work. There are some huge implications for talent acquisition here, and this is a must-listen for anyone developing a strategic talent plan for the future.

Matt: Hi, Dart, and welcome to the podcast.

Dart: Thank you very much for inviting me.

Matt: Well, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Please, could you just introduce yourself and tell everyone what you do?

Dart: I’m Dart Lindsley. My current title, which I’m still working on is Strategic Advisor for People Experience at Google. The reason I’m still working on it is that until recently, I was leading a group called Global Process Excellence. I led that for about four years. Before that, I was at Cisco Systems. I also host a podcast called Work for Humans. Most of what we explore on the podcast is the idea that employees are customers, and so work is a product that companies are selling to them. Then the question is, how might we design that product better? If we stand back and look at it as a product and apply the tools of product design to it, what would we do differently?

Matt: I think you’re thinking on this is absolutely fascinating. I’m really excited to talk about it and get into it and talk about the implications for things like recruiting, recruitment marketing, and talent acquisition. Let’s start from the start. How are we looking at work the wrong way? How should we be looking at work?

Dart: Right. The way we’re looking at it the wrong way is we’re not looking at work, we’re looking at employees. So, here’s the background. This is a very industrial age idea, which is that employees are seen as an input to production. And so, that means that employees are framed as the same way that we would frame capital equipment, or raw materials, or real estate, which is something that needs to be brought into the company in order to produce something for our customers. You can hear it in the way we speak about employees, which is that we say employees are our most important asset. So, we are framing people at– In fact, that’s considered a compliment. When a CEO stands up and says, “You know what? You’re the most important asset in our company.” They’re still calling you an asset, and so framing it as an asset, human resources.

The word acquisition means to take ownership of, and where ownership means control. So, it’s very much framed around people as objects acquired. In fact, there’s been a couple of different alternatives have been put forward, but the one that I think is the most compelling is that employees are customers. If employees are customers, a couple of different really big things happen. One of the things that happens is that work becomes a product. A second thing that happens is that every company in the world is now structured as a multisided business.

So, to define a multisided business, a multisided business is one in which you have two customers, both of whom need to be satisfied in order to satisfy the other. There are lots and lots of companies like this, the New York Times.So, for instance, any ad-based media service is a multisided business with an advertiser on one side and a reader on the other. Lots of businesses are like that. I’m just saying that all businesses are like that has employees.

Matt: What led you to think like this? What was it that made you flip things around and start to think about working this way?

Dart: I ran two functions. I ran several functions at Cisco Systems. One of them was employee experience design, and the other one was business architecture. These are really different. These are not normal HR methodologies. They’re operational methodologies to a large extent. And so, in particular, business architecture is a method for planning large transformational change. So, if your company is going into a new market, the question is, what are all the operational components of your company that need to change in order for your company to meet that new transformation?

So, at Cisco Systems, we were going from selling hardware as a point sale to selling software as a subscription. Well, the question is, how many parts of your company really need to change if you’re going to make that transformation? So, business architecture was something that were using. We had business architecture in every part of the company. So, there was a team of business architects for sales. There was a team of business architects for engineering. My team was the team of business architects that were helping with that transformation in HR. Perfect example of how that changes is–

Here’s the thing. If you change, let’s say, 50% of the things that need to change in order to make that kind of transformation, you’re going to fail with the transformation. You have to pretty much, in a coordinated way, change everything. A good example of that is that if you’re going to start selling software as a service, you need to know how to incent salespeople to sell services. That means that you have to change your whole compensation system. Then you need to be able to get the information from the services to know that they’re being consumed, so that you can actually reward people for selling the service. So, that’s just one of the things that has to change, or you’re not going to fail. You’re not going to be successful.

What this made us do is it made us think about HR. It made us think about how HR fits into the business, which is, what is the purpose of HR inside a company? It really tied us in to thinking about not HR from the inside of HR like we do when we work inside HR or talent acquisition, but how does it fit into the business and into the world? What we realized was that employees showed up in our models in two very different ways. One way was as an input to production. And in that case, they showed up inside the company. But they also showed up as a customer outside the company. And so, that started to destabilize my thinking.

It started to mesh really well with what we were seeing in the employee experience design work that we were doing, which is that people wanted things from work that we were not delivering to them. Those things came together in a way to just radically start to transform the way I thought about work.

Matt: So, with employees as customers and the product as work, I mean, this isn’t just something that affects the way that companies sell their jobs for want of a better word. It affects the whole way the company is structured. We’ll get into the talent acquisition part of this a little bit later. But before we do, what are the implications for HR as a whole?

Dart: Today, HR has been looking at employees as an input to production. And so, we’ve been using tools from psychology to figure out how to motivate and how to make them more successful. The customer of HR is the business. The fundamental change here is that now you’ve got another customer. It means that HR organizations need to see themselves as customer facing, where employees are customers, and they need to develop the exact same kinds of motions that you would have delivering a product to any customer. It means that you need to have market research where you’re really understanding what people want from work, and then you need to really focus on the route to market for that product, and you need to focus on the design of that product.

So, a couple of things happen. First of all, you’ve got a very different set of skills, because now you’ve got a complete product development and delivery motion. Then the second thing is that the Chief People Officer, who today is a servant of the leaders who are customer facing. The Chief People Officer becomes a peer of the other leaders in the organization, not a servant of those leaders, but a peer. As a peer, selling a product that is very, very valuable to the company. And in fact, you can do the math on this, which is how valuable is the product work that we sell?

The way you do it is you look at your operating margin, and let’s say your operating margin is 25%. That means that for every dollar you spend on this particular thing, you’re going to make a $0.25. So, you do that math and you find out that this product, this line of business is enormous. At Cisco Systems, it was larger than all of our sales to Europe and Asia combined. So, it’s an enormous product. You start to realize that HR doesn’t have to be a servant. It can be a peer of the other leaders in the organization.

Matt: So, one of the things that you do when you’re marketing and selling a product is you have a deep understanding about what the customer wants and their motivation for buying the product, for using the product. How does this translate to companies trying to build a great employee experience, but also bring new employees into their business?

Dart: Yeah. I think this is one of the most fundamental changes, and it’s one of the most important things to talent acquisition, in particular. Theodore Levitt at Harvard said that, “The job of sales is to get rid of things the company has. And the job of marketing is to make sure it has something that sales can get rid of.” So, what that means is that talent acquisition is out on the forefront of bringing people into the company, which is now selling a product, which is work. The problem is that we are not producing a product that’s easy to sell in many cases. The thing about work is that work is not a point sale. It’s a subscription model.

So, the way to think about work is that employees subscribe to work. That means that the sales motion is a land and expand sales motion. So, that means that you’re going to first win a subscriber, and then over time, you’re going to build a business on top of that subscriber. You’re going to grow their willingness to subscribe. So, the sales motion is very different. The truth is, people in talent acquisition know better than anybody in human resources organizations that this is a sales motion. But we are not following through on the complete sales motion and we’re not producing a product that talent acquisition can necessarily sell.

Matt: How could companies do that? How do companies shape their worked product to really follow through all that way? Because I think I know that a lot of talent acquisition people who are listening this will really resonate with them in terms of they understand this, that’s what they’re trying to do. But how do companies shape the product?

Dart: There’s some macro scale things that you can do. What I mean by that is there are policies that you can change or there are things like benefits that you can change. But my research on what people really want from work is that people want very subtle and very diverse things, which I’m sure we’ll talk about at some point. There are big things that you can do. You can do them from a policy or from a process perspective. But I’ve come to believe that the very, very central thing in this is management. So, managers today are put in an incredibly difficult position, which is that they’re being given the tools that are produced by a paradigm that believes that people are objects that can be bought. They are then left on their own and they are stuck between what the business wants and what the employees on their team want.

They’re not given the tools to actually really think about how to give two people what they want from work. So, here they are in this tough position being given the wrong tools, and they are asked to be largely in a command-and-control role, which is that you’re going to get these people to be productive. That’s your job. So, the role of a manager really changes under this model. So, manager now has a couple of different responsibilities. One is their job is to really understand what every person on their team wants from work, to allocate work in a way that meets the wants and needs of the people on the team. It’s not less work because when in my research it’s not actually what people want. People don’t want leisure, they don’t want less work, they want good work. They want the work that they really enjoy.

So, one of the things is to know what every member of your team really enjoys, allocate work with consciousness based upon what they want and win the kind of work that they want to consume. So, what happens is you recognize that the traditional customer is now a supplier, and they are a supplier of work that comes to your team. So, curating who that customer is and curating how that work comes to your team and then allocating it accurately based upon people’s understanding and what they want, really changes and makes the role of manager much more concrete.

The thing about thinking about focusing on work as the product is that all the traditional tools of HR were psychology tools. They were tools that we used to try to understand what people’s motivations are. We were trying to look into people’s heads, which is really hard to look into people’s heads and then know what to do. But we know how to design products and we know how to design services. Look around you can see, you’re surrounded by products, most of which are pretty good. So, we know how to do that. So, what this does is it externalizes the problem from needing to get into your head to actually looking at work as a product and working on designing it better.

Matt: Traditionally, we talk about interesting work, and career advancement, and all this kind of stuff. Work would be done very much externally to potential employees to try and find motivations, as you say, use psychology and things like that. But you’ve got a different way of thinking about that, haven’t you, a different question to ask. Tell us about that.

Dart: I use all marketing tools to understand what people want from work. But the one I’ve used the most is the question, which was popularized by Clayton Christensen. It’s called job to be done theory. I asked the question, what job do you hire your job to do for you? The importance of this question is that frequently, when we buy a product, the main thing we care about in the design of that product is whether it can do the job we want it to do. This microphone I’m using right now, I love this microphone. Why? It seamlessly does the job I want it to do, which is captures my voice without any background noise. That’s what I want it to do. So, I don’t have to delve into psychology to understand what you want. I just have to ask you what the job of that product is for you? So, I’ve asked hundreds of people this question now and have gotten a very broad range of answers.

Matt: You asked me [laughs] actually not so long ago when I was doing a recording for your podcast. I think it’s a fascinating question to think about.

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Matt: Thinking again about how companies market themselves in this way. Obviously, what we’re talking about here is essentially trying to find that product market fit. So, it’s like who are the people who can deliver what you need them to deliver, who see the benefits of buying your product with the product being work. Now, traditionally, recruitment marketing has been more about marketing communications than some of the other aspects of the marketing discipline. How does recruitment marketing and employer branding need to think about this and evolve as it moves forward?

Dart: So, I think the best way for me to answer that is first to do a short survey of what people have told me they want from work, and then talk about how we build that into branding. So, a lot of what people say they want from work when I ask them this question are things you’d expect. They want enough money to take care of their family. They want enough money to retire. They do want enough money to buy other experiences like eating out or something like that. Almost every company provides that. So, that’s not really a differentiator anymore. In fact, money is a base commodity, which is that most companies will give you money. They want learning. Again, pretty much what you’d expect, they want to grow themselves.

But as you go deeper into this, people have answered this question a lot of different ways.
People on my team tend to answer this question, “I hire my job to give me puzzles to solve,” which is these are people who do crosswords on the weekend. In fact, one of my team members used to take the GRE logic exam over breakfast, the test booklets that she kept next to her table. That’s because she loved to solve problems. And my job as a manager was to give her the puzzles that she loved to do. One person said, “I hire my job to pretend.” When they said that, I didn’t understand what they were talking about. I asked them, I said, “What do you mean you hire your job to pretend?” They said, “I hire my job to pretend to be a vice president. So, I like to put on my vice president costume and I like to go to work and pretend to be that thing.”

I said to them, “You are a vice president. You’re a vice president at a fortune 50 company.” He says, “No, I’m not a vice president. I’m a jazz musician. I spent so many years on the stage as a jazz musician that I became addicted to an adoring audience. So, that’s what I want from work. I want the stage. I want the lights.” Since then, by the way, every time I find one of these things and I interview somebody about them, I find out five more people who want that. A lot of people hire their job to build things. That’s what they love to do. All they really want is a tool, shed, well-equipped supplies. They’ll build whatever you want, but that’s what they love. So, there’s lots of different things.

One person said, “I hire my job to pay my debts.” I said, “Your student debts?” He said, “No, the debts to my grandmother who worked weekends to put me through college.” Some people say, “I just hire my job to get out of the house. I want it to structure my life. I don’t need to get out of the house, but my spouse needs me to get out of the house at least four hours a day.” Some people say, “I hire my job to make me look good at parties. People say, what do you do for a living? I get to say I do this title at this company. Then the conversation goes from there. But it’s a status symbol. It’s adornment.” So, these are very diverse. There’s 30, 35 of these answers that I’ve gotten over time.

The thing is, when we are, for instance, advertising jobs and here’s the way we advertise them, at the top of the job, we’re going to say in general what’s good about the company. We’re going to say this is a company, it has great benefits, that’s a commodity. It’s got great pay, that’s a commodity. We collaborate. Everybody’s going to say that. There’s basically not very much differentiation in what we say about the company. Then underneath that, we’re going to lead with what are the skills we want from you. When you lead with the skills, you are leading with what you want people to pay to get this job, because skills and labor are what people pay to buy a job. Well, when you go to Amazon to go shopping, it doesn’t lead with what currency do you pay in.

Matt: [laughs] That’s very true.

Dart: It leads with the attributes of the product that you’re going to buy and how other people have reviewed it. And so, when you go to shop at, let’s say, a car company like Toyota, it doesn’t talk all about Toyota. It talks about the Toyota Camry and what you’re going to get from the Toyota Camry, what are the features, what are the specifications. So, the way we should be advertising jobs is, “This is a job where you get to solve great puzzles, and here’s the nature of those puzzles.” When I used to recruit, I recruited through most of the 1990s and I used to go to campuses and I would go top technical schools like Carnegie Mellon and I would say, let me tell you about the problem we’re trying to solve at this microscope company. We’re trying to look at features so small that we have to use ultraviolet. That’s the only way we can see them. That’s the only frequency that’s fine enough to do that.

Here’s the problem. Ultraviolet is so energetic that it destroys the sample. So, all we’re able to do when we examine in these chips, because that’s what this was, this is a semiconductor microscope company is we can say, “Well, that was a pretty good chip that we just destroyed.” That’s our problem. When you give that problem to somebody who’s a problem solver, it’s like catnip to them. And so, we should have a completely different data model for how we describe work. It should, of course, say what skills we need for it, but it should also be saying here’s the unique delights for you of this particular job facing this particular problem in this particular function.

Matt: I think that’s fundamental, because if we look back over the last few years, or particularly pre-pandemic, a lot of the ways that companies sold their culture, their work experience was the quality of their office, or [laughs] the location of their office, or perks that you got in the office and those things. As we know, we’ve now moved to this hybrid remote world although obviously there are lots of companies trying to get their employees back in the office. We do need to describe work in a different way because I think there’s something much more fundamental going on. So, this makes perfect sense to me.

Dart: One of the struggles with the move to hybrid work is that a lot of companies who had invested a lot on prem experience were very unhappy that that sunk cost was being lost. They were also very unhappy that something that they had invested in that they felt was a differentiator of their brand was now irrelevant. So, they felt like their differentiated experience was now something that wasn’t going to be a differentiator. And so, what I’ve argued to people who feel that way is Toyota doesn’t sell one car. It sells Camry’s, it sells forerunners, it sells a whole product line. Companies should start to think of themselves as having a product line and they should say, “I’m going to have an on prem office product, I’m going to have a remote product, I’m going to have this product and for each of them I’m going to have the best product in that market.”

If you’re a smaller company, you may have to decide on which one you’re going to sell. If you’re a bigger company, you actually have a product line and then you need to coordinate because you need to bring people together in a comprehensive way, so that they can work together, but knowing that you have a product line and investing appropriately for that and designing appropriately for that.

Matt: Over the last few years, seems like the last few months, but it’s really the last few years, we’ve seen some tremendous leaps forward with things like artificial intelligence and technology in general. How does that mesh into all of this? How could something like AI help facilitate this different way of thinking about work and marketing work?

Dart: Two different things. One is AI is an incredibly powerful tool, which if it is applied to the wrong model, which is the employer’s input model, will still not produce the outcomes we want. This is one thing I see when I go to conferences and I speak at conferences. There’s a lot of people talking about how to power up the standard model using AI. I’m thinking, “That’s still not going to get the outcome that we really want.” But when I look at AI, I look at it a little bit differently, which is now AI is going to be an attribute of the product I buy when I buy my experience of work.

So, one of the kinds of works I would like to do is woodworking. So, I have built wooden boats. Do I use hand tools when I’m building wooden boats? I don’t. I could use a brace and bit drill instead of a power drill, or I could sand by hand instead of using a power sander. But the truth is, that’s not the part of my job of that work that I love. The part of that work that I love is seeing the boat come together. And so, seeing that moment where I’ve sanded the wood and the wood is all dusty and dry because I’ve been sanding it, and then I apply a coat of varnish, and I can suddenly see down into the grain. I can see the grain leap out and it glows and I can see the character of the wood. That’s what I love about woodworking.

Is that going to be any different if I use a power sander that moment or if I use a hand sander? It’s not. So, AI is going to become a part of the experience of our work. Is it going to be a good part? I’m already using it as a great part of my work, which is, it accelerates the pace at which I can produce great prose. I apply a lot of judgment because I hate its pros. But it’s a partner in writing great prose and in structuring great like I’m writing a book proposal right now, it’s helping me to structure it. I’m going to get to a great outcome faster and I like that.

So, I think AI is going to make a huge difference in terms of the experience of work. But if I was going to apply it to the space that we were just talking about now, I would apply it this way, which is, I would ask people six months after they got a job and a year after they got a job, “How great is that job for you? Are you loving that work, or are you hating that work? Did we sell you something that is what you thought you were going to get or didn’t you?” Then I’d go back to how we’re selling it, and I would ask the question, “Are we selecting people based upon what they’re going to love?” So, I would create a virtuous loop around asking people what they wanted from work and then trying to pick work that they’re going to love and then seeing whether or not we’ve done it and bring it back around.

Matt: Where is this all going and how quickly is it going? Where do you think we’re going to be when it comes to work in 10 years’ time?

Dart: So, this approach that I’m talking about, which I call the Work for Humans approach, and that’s the name of the podcast is Work for Humans, the whole history of work has been about finding humans for work. And so, this philosophy is finding work for humans. There are different places where this is emerging. Surprisingly, it’s emerging somewhat from Gigwork. And that’s because a company like Uber recognizes that drivers are customers. They know that if they don’t provide the kind of experience that their drivers want, they’re just going to drive for Lyft the next hour. So, they are recognizing, not that’s a great job, but they recognize that that’s a customer. They look at customer churn, they think about whether or not they’re delivering the product that’s going to attract that driver.

It’s emerging from B Corporations. So, B Corporations are those corporations that have a triple bottom line. They recognize that they’re shareholders, employees, and the environment or social good. B Corps are starting to care about employees the same way that they might care about a customer. They don’t really have the tools yet, in my opinion, that I’m talking about around really treating work like a product, but they do frame it that way. You see this emerging in shoots in companies. Maybe the whole company is not able to transform, but you see it emerging as shoots.

So, if we keep going down this path toward work as a product and employees as customers, what I see is that there are enormous economies of value flowing through companies that are non-monetary that are flowing toward employees and that are not optimized today. So, there’s the economy of puzzles flowing through a company. Today, we allocate that work randomly, but if I know what kind pf puzzle one employee loves versus what kind of puzzle another employee loves, I can allocate work in a way that’s attentive to what they really care about. And the world’s better for that. It doesn’t cost the company anything to just be mindful about who likes what work and allocate it accordingly.

So, what I see when these economies of non-monetary value start being optimized is that I don’t want to say it– Let me think about how I really want to say this. Imagine companies where way more people come to work and instead of feeling dull and dead and not alive, they feel whole and alive and impassioned by their work. We consume as a species eight trillion hours of this thing work a year. And to date, it has not been designed as a product. That’s a tragedy. So, when I look at the future of work, I see companies where they have kindled a fire at their heart. And that fire is that both sides of the multisided business are getting something that they love as opposed to one side of a multisided business getting what they love. So, it’s a historic shift that’s possible. We see hints that it’s emerging and I’m arguing for a much greater movement in that direction.

Matt: Dart, thank you very much for joining me.

Dart: It’s been delightful to be on the show.

Matt: My thanks to Dart. You can subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcasts, on Spotify, or via your podcasting app of choice. Please also follow the show on Instagram. You can find us by searching for Recruiting Future. You can search all the past episodes at On that site, you can also subscribe to our monthly newsletter, Recruiting Future Feast, and get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks very much for listening. I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.


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