Last month I participated in a discussion on Quiet Quitting at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos. Workforces are changing fast, and it strikes me that we, as leaders, are engaging in many of the right questions: the pros and cons of remote work, the risks and opportunities presented by AI, the need to create more inclusive and sustainable organizations.

But one question is worthy of more attention: if our workforce is changing, technology is changing, and post-pandemic behaviors and expectations are changing…don’t we as leaders need to change too?

There is an entire generation of digital natives entering the workforce. They grew up creating and sharing videos instead of calling or texting, and consider TikTok or YouTube their best source of information. In their personal lives, they are hyper-connected and equally hyper-engaged.

Yet in their work lives, it’s a different story. We’re seeing significant declines in engagement and employee satisfaction among remote Gen Z and younger millennials. Fewer than four in ten young remote or hybrid employees know clearly what is expected of them at work, and more than half of Gen Z employees are ambivalent or not engaged at work. If we think of employee engagement as a leading indicator for workforce productivity, this has major implications for every company and every bottom line. 

What is causing this disconnect? In work as in life, we all want to be part of something greater than ourselves. We have an innate need to belong, to feel a sense of community that is transparent, unfiltered, and human. Yet the more our workforce becomes digitally distributed and AI-enabled, the more difficult it becomes to experience true connection every day. Particularly when we haven’t evolved how we work to meet the next generation. We still ask our employees to digest dense documentation, write lengthy emails, and attend inefficient meetings. They learn about layoffs and company priorities through comms so scripted and robotic that they could have been generated by ChatGPT. And the only pulse we as leaders have on this comes through cookie-cutter engagement surveys, live events with low tune-in and high drop-off rates, and the occasional snarky chat or Q&A.

The traditional managerial model is failing us. It’s time to adapt how we as leaders show up and connect with our employees. Just as we are focused on reskilling our workforce in the face of changing population, demographic and technology trends, we also need to reskill ourselves as leaders, to better build trust and connection at scale.

I’ve experimented with much of this over the last few years at Vimeo. Here are the skills I’m learning and embracing, that I believe can help us show up differently and lead more effectively:

1. Be real, be you.

GIF of Anjali and the Vimeo Executive Leadership team during the pandemic

At the start of the pandemic, I ran a global town hall from my parents’ house in Flint, Michigan — sleep deprived, wearing my velour pajamas, with both my toddler son and my grandma shuffling in and out of the background.

It might have been my most effective communication ever.

Why? Because it was unscripted, vulnerable, and messy. We tend to gravitate to “us versus them” dynamics when we work at a company, particularly in times of stress and challenge. It’s so easy to think of “leadership” as a nameless, faceless machine. Being video-first and visual in your communication is a powerful antidote. It forces you to remove the mask and protection of written and edited comms. The best way to break through is to show up as you are.

By the way, there are definitely examples of leaders being vulnerable and it backfiring…but I suspect in most of those cases, the issue was that it was too performative. You have to be willing for that raw version of yourself to fail in front of your team. Flaws are what make us human. And we all want to see our leaders be brave — it only makes us want to follow them more.

2. Start with the “why.”

Like many leaders, I’ve made difficult decisions in the last year. From layoffs and executive changes to re-organizing and shutting down projects in the name of efficiency. It is my job to make the hard, unpopular calls and enact changes quickly across our organization.

Increasingly, I see employees craving transparency behind these decisions— not just the “what” but the “why”. This includes a desire to understand the broader market or competitive context, the trade-offs balanced and weighed, and the process of who was involved and when.

The old comms playbook would say that when you have a piece of critical communication and limited attention, you start with the “what” and get to the point and needed actions. But I have been far more successful getting people to embrace a difficult decision when I treat my team as key stakeholders who deserve to understand the context.

As a result, starting with “why” is a first principle for all comms at Vimeo. Of course there are always constraints to being fully transparent (legal, PR, governance, customer risk), but I’ve found that most of the time perceived obstacles to transparency are just that. Perceived. People will not always agree with your decisions, and I could argue that if they do, you probably aren’t doing your job. But they will respect and embrace those decisions when you start with the why.

3. Invest in in-person, and get personal.

Anjali smiling with the Vimeo team based in Ukraine
Members of our Ukraine team in NYC for Company Kick Off

Yes, I recognize the irony of the CEO of a video company saying this. But one of my biggest lessons over the last few months is that we waited too long and weren’t intentional enough in bringing our teams together in real life.

In January, a week after conducting layoffs, we hosted a company kickoff in NYC. We flew in employees from more than a dozen countries. We had employees based in Ukraine who took trains, planes, and cars to get there. We ditched the typical event confetti and opted for a low-key vibe on a budget. It was one of the most energizing and needed investments I’ve made.

It is even more powerful when, as leaders, you get on a plane and meet your team where they are. I have a fully distributed executive team spread across eight locations from Seattle to Switzerland. Most were hired in the last year so are still new, and we are just starting to gel as a team. To help accelerate this gelling, we started hosting offsites in each leader’s home city. We met our CFO’s mom around her fire pit in Vermont. Our Head of Sales wore his apron and made us frittatas for breakfast. We held working sessions around our Head of Product’s dining table.

Josh, Head of Sales at Vimeo, sharing frittatas during a leadership offsite event.
Vimeo’s Head of Sales baking frittatas

The pandemic gave us a literal window into each others’ homes and personal lives — if we lean into that, and integrate it into our day-to-day, we have the potential to create better connected and higher-performing teams.

4. Go from “lean back” to “lean forward” experiences.

A critical communication skill will soon be the ability to create “lean forward” experiences, instead of “lean back” broadcasts. As humans, our attention spans are getting shorter (now less than eight seconds, less than a goldfish!). Yet we still communicate primarily through one-to-many messages, whether through an email you read or a highly produced town hall you sit back and watch.

At Vimeo we see this tax on engagement appearing in our own data, where the average time to drop off from watching a Vimeo video has been declining over the past few years. If we don’t change our approach, tune-out is going to seriously hamper our ability to keep our teams aligned and productive.

The good news is that we have the tools at our fingertips to break through the noise. An example I’m versed in is video. Today leaders can communicate updates asynchronously, with a quick and casual video recording that feels more like TikTok than a 60 Minutes segment. We can start making all our video updates snackable and searchable in a cinematic video library that feels more like Netflix than work. We can easily turn any piece of training content or documentation into an interactive video where our employees actively participate and build their own personalized journey.

The key here is to shift our mindset and willingness to try new things. We have a new generation entering the workforce who are ahead of us in their ability to create and capture rich and authentic information. They are ahead because they are free of the constraints our generation experienced for decades in traditional communication modes at work.

They say that employees don’t leave jobs; they leave managers. Well, CEOs are the ultimate managers, and according to a study of more than 113,000 leaders, the number one factor for effective leadership is trust. As leaders we must teach ourselves how to show up in more authentic, interesting, and trustworthy ways. I’m betting that the CEOs who embrace this brave new world will be far more successful in leading the next generation of workers. They will better inform and engage distributed teams, align people to more productive outcomes, and build lasting relationships that bring out exceptional work. They will stop communicating more, and instead, connect better.