Dr. Jack Wiley of Engage2Excel and Employee Centricity: “Helping Virtual Teams Be More Effective”

Virtual teams are those comprised of members who are often geographically dispersed, interact electronically, and in many cases never meet face-to-face. The pandemic has given rise to more and more virtual teams. A major challenge with this arrangement is creating a sense of belongingness and togetherness, one of our most basic psychological needs. Managers are […]

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Virtual teams are those comprised of members who are often geographically dispersed, interact electronically, and in many cases never meet face-to-face. The pandemic has given rise to more and more virtual teams. A major challenge with this arrangement is creating a sense of belongingness and togetherness, one of our most basic psychological needs. Managers are judged on the performance of their teams, however comprised, but they will need help learning new skills as virtual teams proliferate. Employees want managers who are supportive and understanding, rely upon participative decision-making, provide recognition, and unite the team around exciting goals. This is a stretch for many managers and organizations need to help them adapt before the talent exits for a more psychologically rewarding workplace.


There have been major disruptions in recent years that promise to change the very nature of work. From the ongoing shifts caused by the COVID19 pandemic, the impacts caused by automation, and other possible disruptions to the status quo, many wonder what the future holds in terms of employment. For example, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that automation will eliminate 73 million jobs by 2030.

To address this open question, we reached out to successful leaders in business, government, and labor, as well as thought leaders about the future of work to glean their insights and predictions on the future of work and the workplace.

As a part of this interview series called “Preparing For The Future Of Work”, we had the pleasure to interview Dr. Jack Wiley.

Jack Wiley is an award-winning organizational psychologist who has worked as both an internal consultant in Fortune 500 companies as well as an external consultant to companies both domestically and around the world. He has taught courses related to work psychology at the university level and authored three books, including one in 2021 entitled, The Employee-Centric Manager: 8 Keys to People Management Effectiveness. Jack holds degrees from DePauw University and the University of Tennessee. He and his wife, Rhonda, have four married children and 13 grandchildren. The Wileys live near Wabash, Indiana.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?

I grew up in small-town Indiana but enjoyed the advantage of attending DePauw University, a first-rate private liberal arts college where I played basketball and majored in English and psychology. After graduation, I married Rhonda, my high school sweetheart, and we moved to Knoxville, where I completed the PhD program in organizational psychology at the University of Tennessee. That was followed by internal consulting positions for firms in the manufacturing, financial services, and high-tech industries. In 1986, I co-founded a Minneapolis-based consulting firm that specialized in conducting employee engagement and customer satisfaction surveys for corporate clients. In 2006 I sold my firm to Kenexa, a fast-growing HR technology company but stayed on board to help grow the revenue of my new employer, a company that was acquired in 2013 by IBM. I then became a full-time university professor, teaching courses in psychology applied to work, at Manchester University, a small liberal arts university located close to my Indiana childhood home. In 2015 I also became the chief scientific officer for Engage2Excel, allowing me to work on an array of R&D projects and with an expanded set of corporate clients. I left the university in 2020 to found Employee Centricity LLC and focus on my writing projects.

My wife and I have been married for 47 years and enjoy life in rural Indiana. We have four married children and 13 grandchildren, with another on the way. Our faith in God has provided a constant source of direction to our lives. Apart from my professional life, I enjoy hunting, fishing, motorcycling, and horseback riding. I enjoy the work I do and have no near-term retirement plans.

What do you expect to be the major disruptions for employers in the next 10–15 years? How should employers pivot to adapt to these disruptions?

There will always be future disruptions in the world of work. Here are some that I expect to see.

  • Employers are in a war for talent, and they are painfully aware of this. As our economy grows, this tension will increase. This puts job candidates and talented employees in the catbird seat. While it is true there is value in employee churn and the bringing in of new ideas and innovative thinking, there is also great value in retaining the talent employers already have on board. Replacement costs for knowledge workers can be exorbitant and so it is imperative that organizations understand how employees define a great employee experience.
  • We are awash in studies that state that AI and robotics will create disruptions in the workforce. But many of these studies also indicate that as jobs disappear, new ones will be created at a commensurate or even faster rate. So, organizations need to be staffing up with employees who are open to new experiences and capable of adjusting to new demands. Training budgets will need to increase to support employees as they transition to new roles.
  • As a leadership style, command and control is no longer viable in most situations. C-suite leaders and those who aspire to that level of influence will increasingly need to inspire their workforces. I am not talking about charisma per se. But there are three things followers are looking for: (1) capability, as in smarts and relevant experience, (2) a winning strategy for how the organization’s vision will be achieved, and (3) the ability to communicate that strategy in an honest and trustworthy way. Employees also want empathetic leaders who will reward their contributions. These are leaders who will have enthusiastic followers.
  • The dynamics of industries differ but in a general sense, the organizations that will be most successful will display these five organizational design attributes: (1) a strong customer orientation, (2) high-quality products and services, (3) an emphasis on innovation, (4) good technology — not just IT but technology in the broad sense — as in the tools and equipment used to get the job done, and (5) a diverse talent pool — not just observable diversity but diversity of thinking styles and backgrounds.
  • Backlash — it is already emerging and will grow in strength. Many consumers don’t want the brands they purchase to push their political agendas. What they want is value. What seems trendy now is going to fade as the patience levels of more and more consumers are breached. They are tiring of the preaching, which oftentimes comes from virtue-signaling organizations who are or will be exposed as hypocritical. Do you really want the company who sells you razor blades telling you how to think?

The choice as to whether or not a young person should pursue a college degree was once a “no-brainer.” But with the existence of many high profile millionaires (and billionaires) who did not earn degrees, as well as the fact that many graduates are saddled with crushing student loan debt and unable to find jobs, it has become a much more complex question. What advice would you give to young adults considering whether or not to go to college?

First, these non-degreed high-profile millionaires and billionaires represent an incredibly small percent of the working population. It’s akin to little league baseball players thinking they will one day be playing for a major league team. You don’t want to dash anyone’s dreams but the reality of playing at that level is incredibly remote — I thought I would one day play first base for the Yankees but my baseball dreams did not outlast my high school career. That said, every society should want a well-educated workforce. But the four-year college degree is not the right choice for many currently on that path.

Two things need to happen. We need to guide students into the kind of occupations that really click with their interests. Psychological research is showing increasingly that the match of personal interests to the work itself has an outsized impact on overall life happiness and success. We also need to make high school students aware of the increasing need for workers in the skilled trades — and how well-paying many of these jobs are. We should be stressing the value and importance of vocational education and apprenticeship programs. Germany would be a good model to emulate. Their apprenticeship programs require students to attend classes at a vocational or technical school while also working for their employer. This way trainees are paid for their time worked, and often transition to full-time jobs with their employer once their schooling is completed.

Despite the doom-and-gloom predictions, there are, and likely still will be, jobs available. How do you see job seekers having to change their approaches to finding not only employment, but employment that fits their talents and interests?

This month the US Bureau of Labor Statistics issued new information about trends in future employment, and total employment should grow from 153.5 million to 165.4 million between 2020 and 2030. “Employment in the leisure and hospitality sector is projected to increase the fastest, largely driven by recovery growth, while the healthcare and social assistance sector is projected to add the most new jobs. Among occupational groups, healthcare support occupations are projected for the fastest job growth.”

My advice to job seekers is to develop skills that are applicable to multiple industries, such as customer service orientation, technical skills, skills in problem-solving and decision-making, and leadership skills. Developing these transferrable skills can help weather the ups and downs of the economy. In addition, job seekers should look at certifications that can give them the leg up in an evaluation process. For example, human resources (HR) professionals often pursue their PHR or SPHR certifications to be certified as an expert in the HR industry; project managers can get their PMP certification; and product managers and marketers can get certified in the Pragmatic Framework.

To ensure job seekers are pursuing a job that will pique their interests, they should consider: (1) having informational interviews with individuals in the job or role that interests them; (2) shadowing someone in that job; (3) doing research to see what growth looks like in that particular job sector; (4) conducting online assessments that will analyze person-job fit; and (5) reflecting on past successes and failures to help them put together the pros and cons of working in a particular job.

There is one more thing that will help all job seekers and that is understanding what managers really want in a subordinate employee. Managers around the world have told me it boils down to three things: (1) work ethic, as in being hard-working, dependable, committed, and loyal; (2) interpersonal values, as in being honest and trustworthy, respectful, and cooperative; and (3) relevant skills, as in being competent and capable for the job at hand, but also being skilled in upward communication. It may sound simple but these three bundles of attributes are gold to a manager. Job candidates who develop a reputation for delivering these attributes will find themselves in the pole position.

The statistics of artificial intelligence and automation eliminating millions of jobs appear frightening to some. For example, Walmart aims to eliminate cashiers altogether and Dominos is instituting pizza delivery via driverless vehicles. How should people plan their careers such that they can hedge their bets against being replaced by automation or robots?

The most important thing is to adopt an attitude of flexibility and openness to change and new experiences. Change and disruption will continue and likely at a faster pace than before. People who have the mindset of being able to adapt will be the happiest and most successful. We must help employees understand this reality starting at the very beginning of their work careers. A willingness to continue to learn and invest in one’s own development will be the wisest course of action. Also, employees who are good problem-solvers and decision-makers will always command a premium.

Technological advances and pandemic restrictions hastened the move to working from home. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?

Absolutely. The World War I song comes to mind: “How ‘ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” Of course, this work-from-home movement doesn’t apply to all jobs and roles, such as many in manufacturing, processing, and distribution. And, a recent McKinsey study showed that 60% of the eligible workforce cannot work from home. But for a significant portion of knowledge workers the employer-employee dynamics have changed. Many employees have come to realize far too many benefits of working from home to be excited about going back to the office on a full-time basis. A hybrid model which gives employees more control over their working hours and locations will likely emerge as the most common approach. While we have a basic need to achieve autonomy in our work lives, at the same time we also have a basic need for belonging and togetherness that can’t be satisfied fully with full-time remote work and virtual meetings. This will put more demands on managers to be supportive and understanding of their employees and to be fair and open and honest about working policies.

What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support the fundamental changes to work?

Have you noticed how many workers are relocating from major population centers to exurbs and rural locations? As a society we will need to make investments in real infrastructure — roads, bridges, and especially broadband internet service. Communities that are on top of this trend and managing it accordingly will be the most appealing to those wanting out of cities.

What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employers to accept? What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employees to accept?

As organizations increasingly move to full-time remote or hybrid work models, there will be an urge on the part of many leaders — at all levels — to want more information about how remote employees are performing. This is understandable, especially considering how easy it has been historically for managers to monitor the work performance of their subordinates by simply walking around. In the full-time work-in-the-office condition, managers could intervene, provide necessary coaching and feedback, and be in-the-know about current performance levels.

Some organizations will respond to this urge by installing performance monitoring systems. This will prove difficult for many employees to accept. Here’s the simple reason why: employees want a sense of control over their own lives and behavior. Further, being treated with dignity and respect is one of the most important attributes employees want in their managers, and by extension, their employers. In other words, employees want to be treated as competent adults who want to make useful contributions to their work team’s efforts and can be trusted to operate independently of close supervision. This is true for all workers, but particularly true of knowledge workers.

Installing monitoring systems in the remote work context will serve neither to bolster employees’ sense of autonomy nor cause them to feel that their managers are treating them with dignity and respect. It would be far better for managers to communicate clear performance expectations, define what they consider to be good performance, and make sure employees feel well-supported in getting the job done while providing consistent coaching and feedback to know where they stand. This is the route to creating a great employee experience, higher levels of performance, and low regrettable turnover rates.

Organizations taking the pathway of hybrid work solutions but who also feel a need to install these so-called monitoring systems are likely the same organizations who are subpar in selecting and developing talent, especially managerial talent.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight the inadequate social safety net that many workers at all pay levels have. Is this something that you think should be addressed? In your opinion how should this be addressed?

Addressing an inadequate social safety net requires workers and employers to plan for the worst — or the inevitable — and it’s a shared burden. For example, HR typically does a decent job promoting benefits like a 401(k). But the best organizations are helping employees with all aspects of their financial well-being. Younger Americans are not saving enough for near-term emergencies. And while many Americans were once told that having three to six months of living expenses saved would be enough, the COVID-19 pandemic has made us realize that 12 months or more is a much safer bet. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics on 2020 data, a household spends nearly 43,000 dollars each year on average — from food, to essentials, to healthcare, housing, transportation, and more. According to Personal Capital, a wealth management company, the median balance of liquid savings for Americans at every age is far less than this annual spend. Houston, we have a problem! Employers should partner with their providers of insurance, disability, and supplemental benefits to help educate employees. Open enrollment sessions often focus more on medical, vision, and dental benefits and less on supplemental benefits, but those supplemental benefits deserve equal attention.

Despite all that we have said earlier, what is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

Employee voice. By employee voice I have in mind the making of contributions to management decision-making for the purpose of improving productivity, the quality of products and services, and how the work is organized. Employee voice has already identified the attributes of a great employee experience: interesting, meaningful, and challenging work, psychological recognition or appreciation for a job well done, confidence in the organization’s future, being compensated fairly, opportunities for both skill development and career growth, having the tools and equipment needed to get the job done, supportive policies regarding work-life balance, feeling part of a team of cooperative co-workers, and being kept informed and told the truth.

In the future, employee voice will play a larger role in defining what constitutes effective management, for both first-line supervisors as well as C-suite executives. Of course, there is more to being successful than a reliance on employee voice, but this increased role of employee voice will help create organizations where the most basic psychological needs of employees can be met: the need for autonomy, the need for belongingness, and the need for competence. I am not prophesying a workplace nirvana, but I do foresee more employee-centric workplaces. And I believe that these workplaces will enjoy the most long-term success.

Historically, major disruptions to the status quo in employment, particularly disruptions that result in fewer jobs, are temporary with new jobs replacing the jobs lost. Unfortunately, there has often been a gap between the job losses and the growth of new jobs. What do you think we can do to reduce the length of this gap?

In the wake of the Great Recession, we saw many new jobs opening up, but they often required skills that displaced workers did not possess. Further, far too many employees could not relocate to the new hiring hot spots because they were underwater on their home mortgages. They simply could not afford to move. We are in a much better place now, of course, and we did learn some important lessons. One lesson is the need to prepare our current employees for change — emotionally, cognitively, and skill-wise. We must share with current employees — on a regular basis — what the future holds and what skills are needed for the organization to succeed. Training budgets will need to be increased. Smart companies will seek to retain those talented and loyal staff members whose skills are becoming obsolete but who have the interest and motivation to keep developing and want to remain part of the team. This increased training expense can be offset by the lower investments needed for recruiting and socializing new employees. Imagine the result — how would you feel if you knew your employer was investing in you so that you could contribute to its future growth? Employee commitment to the organization will increase and regrettable turnover rates will decline.

We also need greater cooperation at the local level between the business community and educational institutions. Employers can team up with local community colleges and technical and vocational schools to help ensure that these institutions are preparing students to step into forecasted roles with the right set of skills. Students can be guided into those offerings that increase the likelihood of an attractive job right out of the gate. The better we do at guiding students into technical and vocational fields where the demand for workers is high and forecasted to stay high, the better off we will be as a society.

Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Trends to Watch in the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

Normalizing Remote Work and Flexible Working Arrangements

A consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the employer-employee dynamic vis-à-vis remote work has forever changed. There will be, of course, significant variations across industries, occupations, and geographies but a hybrid model will emerge as the most common. Within the context of flexible working arrangements, the conversation will gravitate from where to when employees perform their work. The results of a Gartner study indicated that 1 of 4 employers have purchased new technology to track and monitor employee performance. Employees will not be happy about this affront to their sense of dignity and their innate desire for autonomy.

Heightened Attention to Employee Well-Being

Workplace psychological health and well-being refers to the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of employees at work, which has taken a big hit since the onset of the pandemic. Much of this boils down to stress, which results from demands outstripping available resources. The consequences for employees can be brutal as they not only attempt to handle their work responsibilities but also manage the schooling of their children and the illnesses of family members, among various other demands. Employer benefits costs continue to rise as organizations step into help. But failing to do so produces an even worse outcome: the deterioration of engagement, performance, and commitment levels.

We Will Come to Realize We Are Better Than We Are Told

In a very systematic way, I have been tracking work attitudes of employees in the United States on a variety of topics for over 35 years. Let me share some illustrative findings from the 2020 dataset. Consider overall satisfaction: 69% of Whites would recommend their employer as a great place to work, compared to 72% of Blacks and 70% of Hispanics. Let’s look at belongingness: 76% of Whites feel that they are part of a team, as do 74% of Blacks and 74% of Hispanics. Or let’s consider support for diversity: 73% of Whites believe their organization has a track record for recruiting people from diverse backgrounds as do 74% of Blacks and 73% of Hispanics. Practically speaking, these racial/ethnic origin group differences are minor — of no real significance.

But how would these results compare to those of just 15 years ago? The results for Whites and Hispanics were largely the same. However, the results for Blacks lagged in favorability by 15 to 20 percentage points. The conclusion is obvious: in the United States workforce of today, Blacks, Whites, and Hispanics rate overall satisfaction, inclusion, and support for diversity equally. The progress employers have made in just the last 15 to 20 years on these and related topics is startling. Attitudes are important because they are reflected in our behavior. And the attitudes of typical working Blacks, Whites, and Hispanics are fundamentally the same on a variety of important workplace topics. But that is not what mainstream media or trade publications would lead you to believe. It doesn’t make good copy.

Helping Virtual Teams Be More Effective

Virtual teams are those comprised of members who are often geographically dispersed, interact electronically, and in many cases never meet face-to-face. The pandemic has given rise to more and more virtual teams. A major challenge with this arrangement is creating a sense of belongingness and togetherness, one of our most basic psychological needs. Managers are judged on the performance of their teams, however comprised, but they will need help learning new skills as virtual teams proliferate. Employees want managers who are supportive and understanding, rely upon participative decision-making, provide recognition, and unite the team around exciting goals. This is a stretch for many managers and organizations need to help them adapt before the talent exits for a more psychologically rewarding workplace.

An Increased Reliance on Gig Workers

Another trend is the rise of the independent worker (contractor, gig worker, freelancer). Global gig economy transactions are growing rapidly. This is to be expected as the number of skills employers are seeking has increased. Organizations are and will continue to struggle to upgrade the skills of current employees to meet emerging needs in a timely way. This will put pressure on employers relying only on traditional full-time and part-time employees. Organizations that are flexible and think about their entire ecosystem of talent — FTEs, contractors, freelancers, and so forth — will need tools to recognize, engage, and motivate that talent in an efficient and fair way.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how this quote has shaped your perspective?

Matthew 7:12. “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” For 40 years of my career, I have had people-management responsibilities. These responsibilities have presented me with my fair share of tough conversations. The more I relied upon this teaching, the better the result. Invariably, the outcomes of those conversations were typically acceptable to all, and respectful relationships were largely maintained. It is hard to place a value on that. But, given the source of the instruction, I shouldn’t be surprised.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in business, VC funding, sports, and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Daniel Henninger, WSJ Editor. He seems like a wise and trusted friend whose perspective on the world I look forward to reading each week.

Our readers often like to follow our interview subjects’ careers. How can they further follow your work online?

There a several ways readers can further follow my work:

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jackwiley/

Employee Centricity website where I blog about the research in the book: https://www.employeecentricity.com/

Engage2Excel where much of my research is used in thought leadership: https://www.engage2excel.com/resources/and https://blog.engage2excel.com/

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.

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