Smarter Working

It's Time To A/B Test Your Work Life

Small firm/big firm? Home or office? Retire or no? We tap ‘A/B’ testing to tackle three tough calls.

Pam, as we will call her, was doing just fine in the big leagues, working as a senior-level manager at a Fortune 500 company. Then, 27 years into her career, she decided to go work at much smaller company for more money.

Why did she go? And did it work out? “In a huge organization, you don’t have a seat at the table,” says Julia Wexler, who runs an executive consulting firm in New York and who helped Pam. “At her new company, she talks to the CEO every day and she’s sought-after for many high-level decisions.”

Tough career decisions can mentally cripple employees if they don’t plan ahead.

Throughout anyone’s career, there will always be some tough decisions—and they’re really difficult when there’s no turning back. The small firm will come offering less prestige, but more money and more responsibilities. Your boss decides to let you work from home, but you know it may put you out of the loop. And then there’s an even bigger choice, very late in most careers: Is it time to retire?

Expert says such decisions can cripple employees mentally when they don’t do their research or plan ahead. But they also say there’s a decent analogy in the business world that helps: A/B testing. That’s when a company takes two versions of, say, a design, and changes just one or two things in it—and then puts both versions online to track which does better.

To be sure, career decisions are much more complicated than this tactic. But we decided to do a deep dive on three career biggies with a whiff of A/B testing.

Big firm vs. small business.

Some people crave the resources, perks and prestige of a large corporation. Others are more comfortable in a smaller environment with less hierarchy and the chance to exert greater influence. Career pros say the decision of small versus large often comes down to the company’s characteristics, rather than its size. If you want the chance to be a bigger fish, opting for a small firm is a better route—particularly if you’ve been at the same company for a while and sense your days of rapid ascent are over. “People realize it’s only a matter of time before they cap out in compensation and responsibilities,” says Wexler. “They can increase their market value, because the other company needs them more.” 

Assimilation, though, can be tough, especially for executives moving from small to large firms. When one private equity manager left his small enterprise to take a job at a multinational company, with a big pay raise and more resources, it didn’t take him long to realize he had made a mistake. “He hasn’t gotten over the culture shock of being at a company where half the time you don’t know what’s going on in the department right next to you,” Wexler says.

Home office vs. office office.

In theory, it’s nice to have a commute that entails walking from your bedroom to the den. In practice, choosing to work from home isn’t that straightforward a decision. For starters, much of the decision lies in the need for in-person interactions. Kristi Hedges, a leadership coach and author of The Inspiration Code, recently worked with a senior executive who was recruited by a large global corporation. She wanted the prestigious job but didn’t want to relocate for it. The company agreed to let her work from home—but for the first six months she kept a demanding travel schedule to meet people in person and establish relationships.

If you can get your job done without frequent face time, then there’s the deceptively simple challenge of self-discipline. Will you be tempted to binge-watch Netflix or take an extended lunch? To test, try completing several tasks—from simple ones such as filing your expense report, to more arduous ones like writing the firm’s quarterly newsletter—to see where you’re more efficient. Career pros say work that involves creativity or collaboration is often best done in the office.

Retire now vs. later.

You’ve run the numbers and found you have the resources to retire sooner than you’d planned. Should you?

That decision rests in large part on what you’re going to do with all that time. Generally, retirees who have a plan—something more than playing golf—are happier than those who wing it. According to a 2017 study by Rand Corp., 39% of workers over age 65 who had retired changed their mind and returned to work. Some made the move for money, of course, but others did it for non-financial reasons.

Take Mary, for instance. An executive with a major energy company, she recently took early retirement after working 30 years for the corporation. Six months later, she was going stir crazy. She was thrilled when her former employer offered her a consulting contract. “I felt completely at a loss,” she says. “Now I feel I’m making a contribution again.”

One way to A/B test this big move? Go on vacation for a month or two and see how good (or bad) you feel.

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