I asked a CEO, a President and a VP about the Future of Work : here's what they told me
Ever since the pandemic began, and workforces went home to begin a long period of remote work (which has yet to fully end), we’ve been inundated with think-pieces discussing the “New Ways of Working”. Supposedly, the Old World is never coming back, and we all have to adapt to the reality forced upon use by COVID, or be left behind. I tend to agree.
Much like most other “thought-leaders” out there, I however don’t have much of a clue about specifics; what’s a “New Way of Working”, exactly? What skills do we need to thrive in this new environment? What comes next? I thus put on my fanciest journalistic hat and asked these questions, and many more, to three people who ought to be particularly in the know with regards to these matters. Laura Baldwin is President of O’Reilly Media, a training platform with over 5,000 corporate clients and 2.5 million users, Kyle Jackson is CEO of Talespin, an XR training company working with some of the largest employers in the world, and Lakshimi Duraivenkatesh is VP of Buyer Experience Engineering at eBay, managing a large team of engineers.
If anyone knows about the future of work, it's them.
Why the buzz around New Ways of Working ?
If you type “New ways of working” in Google trends, you’ll see attention for the concept peaked in September 2020. But why now? Don’t we always slowly adapt our ways to whatever reality presents itself? “New ways of working” is indeed a bit of a tautology; Fax, printers, Minitel, internet, Cloud, IoT… With a little technological help, we’re constantly changing the very nature of what it means to work. Even the concept of remote work has changed drastically since 1979, thanks to new tools and solutions.
Over the past few decades (if not centuries), change has been incremental. First, major multinational companies adopt a technology and bend to it to the will of the social and economical requirements of its time. Then come the large national companies, then the SMEs, and so on.
But 2020 was different. Firstly, because of sudden national lockdowns, most (if not all) non-essential companies had to adapt to remote work from one day to the next. Secondly, unlike previous transformation, this transition was neither thoughtful, nor brought about by technology. Thirdly, remote work has lasted much, much longer than anyone thought it would. Laura doesn’t mince her words on the matter. “This concept of remote work was forced on many companies” she argues. “It wasn’t a thoughtful decision. Cities locked down all of sudden and employees weren’t allowed to come to work.”
Kyle tends to agree with this analysis. Many of the changes we see today would have probably become reality one day. But he wonders if we would have made the necessary investments had we not had the shock to the system the pandemic brought about. “there seems to be a real opening of the mindset”, he told me; “We need to be more accepting of things that seem hard, but now appear to be more obvious. From my perspective, it became a whole new and different conversation as of this summer.”
This explains why we hear so much about new ways of working and see so many think-pieces being written : the unprecedented immediacy and unparalleled investments are what created the buzz (with a little help from McKinsey).
New Ways of Working definition
As with every buzzword, a clear definition is hard to come by. When we think of 2020’s New Ways of Working, we obviously think about efficiently and empathically managing a remote workforce : ensuring workers are healthy, happy, and have the tools to carry out their daily tasks.
This empathy was particularly important for all companies during the first few months of the pandemic, to better understand what needed to be provided to employees at a time when a fog of war was descending over many households. Lakshimi recalls spring being a challenging time : “People are in very different situations. There is no childcare, people are maybe caring for loved ones at home, there are people who are alone at home… There is also no outlet for people to break the monotony, places where they can hang out with others. There is an emotional toll to not getting out of one’s house and chatting with people.”
To find solutions quickly, she and her team put in place regular top-down / bottom-up meetings, supplemented by focused group works to find the best possible solutions to a worrying situation. One initiative that came from these discussions is the creation of dedicated “coding-days” across all geo-locations. During these days, meetings are heavily reduced to allow engineers to concentrate on “deep work”, which does not require collaboration. As many of us can attest, time boundaries were the first thing to fly out the window when our bedroom became our office. Other such policies include ending meetings 5 minutes earlier to give everyone time for a breather before the next one begins. Lakshimi insists that those small changes made a huge difference.
Mental health, work life balance, and a new way of approaching time might very well be the keywords of the New Way of Working.
The same could be said for adapting ways of working to specific teams within organisations, to ensure any medication prescribed fits the ailment. Company-wide policies worked in the 90s and 00s during the McDonaldisation of work, but it will not cut it over the next decade. Workers are looking for empowerment and meaning specific to their history, beliefs and role. And why shouldn’t we have it, now that our professional and personal life are so intimately intertwined?
While caring for employees is obviously important, Laura also insists that there is more to it. “In 2020, the focus has been on remote work and the individuals versus the importance of taking care of customers no matter their location. (…) We read a lot about managing a remote workforce, but the key questions we should be asking is how do you still meet company goals and satisfy customer needs with a remote workforce.”.
Indeed, it can be easy to forget during a deadly pandemic that one’s customers still come first. New ways of working have to adapt to their wishes, too. Forgetting this is costly : some great SMEs thrive by putting their employees ahead, but no market leader has ever gotten to where it is without a psychopathic attention to its clients’ needs.
What are the skills needed in this new reality ?
As many of us will attest, some key skills are needed to survive in the remote environment. Laura, Lakshimi and Kyle all agree that soft skills, in particular, are absolutely critical to this transition, both for individuals and organisations. Communication, self-motivation, adaptability, resilience, time-management, collaboration, transparency, rigour… all these concepts make remote work easier, and are skills needed to succeed regardless of the position or the hard skills acquired in the past.
Why do we need these skills today more than ever ? According to Kyle, it’s because “we’re going to continue to go through a pace of change at a higher rate than we are used to. For a lot of people it’s super uncomfortable unless you have [soft skills] built into how you operate everyday. There’s a lot of friction there for bigger organisations. People don’t like change at this pace”
One soft skill is more specific to 2020 than the others : managing egos is particularly key during remote work, wherein collaboration is more important than ever. Laura puts it best : “I don’t believe in the nature of the individual contributor because I don’t see a single product that comes out of my own organisation where one individual did something completely by themselves.” In the New Ways of Working world, going solo is nearly impossible. Gone are many of the after-work drinks people would use to get ahead. Gone are the self-serving sociopaths back-stabbing their colleagues during a coffee break. And gone are holiday parties, where promotions are handed out at the back of a taxi. We are also more conscious about people’s absence in meetings, as their presence is the path of least resistance, and more willing to accommodate differences in working schedules.
If anything, the pandemic levelled the playing field for many; we may very well be more of a meritocracy than a year ago.
Can leaving one’s ego behind be learnt, though? Can we learn to communicate better, collaborate better, be more rigorous, more transparent? We tend to think of soft skills as concepts acquired through years of experience, not webinars, seminars and online courses! More on that below. Regardless, companies have to do something to train workers who will thrive in today’s very specific work environment. “It’s one of the things that has come up from our customers” says Laura. “When they’re hiring kids out of college now, they see that these kids may have computer science skills, but they don’t know how to work collaboratively, and in a team format”.
Soft skills are not everything, though. What about hard skills ? Do we need any to survive in the New Way of Working world ? Apparently, not really. Laura believes that hard skills are specific to a role, and are thus not transferable. Kyle doubles down on that idea, arguing that the deeper we get into XR (mixed reality), the more we can ask yourselves the question “what do we actually need to know”?
Indeed, one can imagine wearing a glasses-like mixed reality headset in a few year’s time, allowing the users to pull up blue-prints to assist them with many hard-skill tasks. With the right mode of operating, an employee can be parachuted into many new situations with this type of technology and be pretty proficient. “You’re not gonna blow things up” ensures Kyle, which is exactly what you want to hear when a technician is installing your WIFI.
How can companies train their employees ?
In early 2020, the World economic Forum released an article arguing for the re-skilling of a billion people by 2025. The path ahead is long and winding, but some of the comments made below give us a hint of the arduous roadmap that needs to be developed to train all the people that wish to be a part of the New Ways of Working
It would appear a mixed approach is necessary : training, mentorship and technology. “Whatever works”, says Laura. “Every company operates differently and everyone learns differently. (…) Some people like reading long form, while others prefer snippets, while others prefer videos, or sit in a class. The choice needs to be the individual’s choice.” It’s also about listening to current needs, adds Lakshimi. “Through the mechanism of listening to people (…) around the world, we are able to understand what are some of the things that we need to provide for our employees”.
Technology, as per usual, can be both a catalyst of change, and a solution to best face it.
XR, in particular, now seems like an obvious technology : by providing virtual trainings, companies can fully validate both hard and soft skills through series of realistic situations, instead of barely knowing who completed what module, or who passed what coding test. Employees can train over and over with a virtual human until they’ve learnt the right lessons, providing a safe space to fail around a topic. This gives workers a chance to experience a variety of situations that they would otherwise have to find in real life before they’re prepared.
These insights are incredibly valuable for companies. Armed with the right stats about their talent pool, they can better strategize their next moves to meet customer needs, safe in the knowledge that their workforce will be able to handle coming changes, says Kyle. “It allows them to look at their talent based with a more verified lens”.
He adds that the use of this technology is now a lot closer than we thought it would be just a few months back : “If you talk to the largest companies in the world about XR back in November 2019, the conversation was very different than it was starting in march . It went from something that was two to four years away from becoming more broadly accepted to not even having to sell the conversation anymore”. There’s a passage in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises in which a character named Mike is asked how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” he answers. “Gradually, then suddenly.” Clearly, what applies to bankruptcy also applies to technology adoption.
Interestingly, Lakshimi and her colleagues stress the fact that it’s important to train not only employees, but also clients through classes and programs. These goes back to what we mentioned above : adapting to the new way of working is useless if clients are left behind. Huge corporations can pay McKinsey a wheelbarrow of money for their annual reports, but most of the world is not made up of those huge conglomerates. It’s made up of SMEs that need to know what’s coming so they’re not left behind. And a lot of things are coming their way, at unprecedented speed.
Finally, we also have to remember that we don’t train front-line workers and managers the same way. Hard skills AND soft skills for the front line, soft skills for management, from Kyle’s experience (sounds unfair? Trust your instincts).
What will be the New Way of Working post-Covid?
We’ve been in the middle of this damn pandemic for months now, and are all getting used to it (isn’t the human spirit fantastic?). And so, as per our nature, we look to the future. What will work look like when we go back to the office? Do we even ever go back to the office? And if we do, what changes? What stays the same?
As Kyle says, “we are going to be working differently going forward, regardless of what happens and how quickly we can get back to the office”. He and Lakshimi argue that we will go back to the office on certain days of the week, and be remote on others days, as we simply can’t fully do without face-to-face interactions. A hybrid solution indeed seems to be best, and will allow a lot of people to achieve a healthier balance : people caring for loved ones and young mothers might no longer be left to the side in the corporate world, as management will be much more willing and able to accommodate their specific situation.
As mentioned above, there is a chance for us to level the playing field over the coming months, so that we may come back to a fairer office.
For Laura, we will definitely go back to the office, but that won’t be such a difficult change from working from home, as old habits die hard, and in-person skills will not have disappeared. What will however be notable is the fact that technology assistance (or worker augmentation, as she calls it) will be bigger than ever, as its development thrived in 2020. This change will need to be well managed : many fear that A.I and robots will replace workers.
We’re nonetheless hearing more and more executives agree that AI will merely assist decision-making, hence slowing down the bleeding of worker redundancy. Fundamentally, what it means to work is changing. Having acquired the soft skills necessary to better cooperate, employees will use tools and technologies to innovate at a rate never before seen. Laura explained what this means : “that’s critical for people to understand. Right now, moving remote, those soft skills are critical, but the next level is going to be augmented workers. The challenge will be making people accept these many changes : innovation fatigue is indeed very real”.
The New Way of Working is soft-skills-based…
But the New New Way of Working is technology-based…
And so the cycle goes on and on, Corona or not.
I know, the above is a lot to take in. To help, below are the key take-away from the article :
The phrase “New Ways of working” is making the rounds because the pandemic was so sudden
New ways of Working means adapting to employee needs in a remote environment, while continuing to serve clients efficiently
Soft skills training is key to thriving in this new world, and the playing field is more even within corporations than it’s ever been
Hard skills might become increasingly irrelevant
Training needs to be tailored to a corporation’s needs, using the relevant technology
The New Way of Working post-corona will mean going back to the office in a hybrid fashion
It also means a greater emphasis on worker augmentation
Good luck out there.