Leadership will have to accept and adapt to having less control over fixed work models.
When it comes to designing the future of work, one size fits none. Discovering success isn’t about a hybrid model or offering remote work options. Individuals and organizations are looking for more freedom. The freedom to choose the work model that makes the most sense. The freedom to choose their own values. And the freedom to pursue what matters most. We reached out to successful leaders and thought leaders across all industries to glean their insights and predictions about how to create a future that works.
As a part of our interview series called “How Employers and Employees are Reworking Work Together,” we had the pleasure to interview Dr. Karen Sobel Lojeski.
Dr. Karen Sobel Lojeski is the CEO of Virtual Distance International (VDI), an executive advisory and consulting company specializing in Workplace Transformation — powered by her award-winning predictive Virtual Distance Analytics. During the Covid-19 | Pandemic Era, her work has become especially prescient as remote and hybrid work skyrocket in a long-tail crisis management era. She’s the author of three best-selling books including The Power of Virtual Distance: A Guide to Productivity and Happiness in the Age of Remote Work (Wiley, 2020), Leading the Virtual Workforce (Wiley, 2010) and Uniting the Virtual Workforce (Wiley, 2008).
Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today.
Before Covid-19 sparked the steep rise of professionals into remote or hybrid work, I’d been searching to find a better way to describe and empower leaders in the technological age; one built on our shared humanity. And one day, sitting in the front passenger seat of a 4-person helicopter, I found what I’d been looking for:
I was on holiday in Antigua. Nearby, the tiny volcanic island of Montserrat still seethes and spews steam after a major explosion on July 18, 1995. Much of the island is uninhabitable and off-limits to visitors. However, I found out there were helicopter tours available to see the spectacle up close. So I decided to take a ride.
I sat next to the pilot. As we lifted off, I heard him talking to the air traffic controller and he said, “Four souls on board. Four souls on board. Over.” I couldn’t help but wonder why he used the word “souls” to describe the people on board. He told me that in aviation, all types of aircraft carry people who are alive and some who are not alive and have passed away. All are listed by name on the manifest. But on takeoff, the air traffic controllers need to know how many are alive. To distinguish them, they are counted as “souls.”
It was at that moment that I created a platform called Soul-Based Leadership that has informed my work since then, but especially in this new era. It’s a systematic approach that enables leaders to create a work experience that is intentionally built to carry more meaning, well-being and empathy for others and more self-compassion for ourselves — and it’s desperately necessary in our current work environment.
Let’s zoom out. What do you predict will be the same about work, the workforce and the workplace 10–15 years from now? What do you predict will be different?
We are never going to replace the human element of work. In other words, the one thing that will remain the same is that people working together and talking to each other will continue and collaboration will remain absolutely essential to work, regardless of the process or whether we are fully remote, hybrid, or in-person. That continued communication will be what gets us to the innovations we need to move the world forward in a positive direction — no matter what changes, technological or otherwise, come about in the future.
What will change is that virtual distance will increase and become more widespread. Virtual distance is a sense of psychological and emotional detachment that begins to grow little by little and unconsciously when most encounters and experiences are mediated by screens on smart devices, which is where many of us are now spending 100% of our time as the pandemic continues unabated. Unfortunately, it’s only going to get worse in the years ahead as screens become even more ubiquitous in all aspects of our lives than they are now.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
Reducing virtual distance and managing it over time is what’s most important. We can reduce it episodically but to commit to reducing it over time is really the key. There has to be a recognition that this is at the heart of so much of the dissatisfaction we in the workforce are feeling, even if we don’t know what to call it. And then there has to be a commitment to reduce it over time by making it a key metric in our evaluation of how well our workplace and our culture is functioning. Many organizations have started to do this already both in the public and private sector including institutions like the Department of Defense. The Canadian School of Public Service had thousands of their employees attend a learning session on Virtual Distance management. Other organizations that have started using Virtual Distance management include Bank of America, Coca-Cola and Saab.
What do you predict will be the biggest gaps between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect as we move forward? And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?
The big thing I was talking about 20 years ago was the leadership paradox, and it has become THE issue. When interviewed, we see senior executives talking about their 100-hour work weeks, but the work they are doing is not what employees are doing. In other words, they have no idea what it is to be in a customer service pit or sitting in a cubicle working on a spreadsheet while worrying about their aging mother and how they’re going to get healthcare — and about their job performance and security! There is such a divide that the biggest problem they are going to have and are already having is that they completely lose sight of not only the work pressure, but the life pressure that many of their employees are under and the existential threats that so many are already struggling with. But there are ways to bring people together who seem to have little to nothing in common if — and this is a big if — it becomes obvious that all parties care enough to do so based on our mutual interdependencies as human beings.
The Book of Joy has long been one of my most treasured books and a must-read I often recommend to leadership. It is a book-long conversation between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. They talk extensively about the need to find a way to talk about the most difficult struggles between people who are “worlds away” in how they live and see things. By starting with an unshakable commitment toward building a road toward peace through mutual understanding, respect and forgiveness no matter how far apart they may be, they have succeeded on many fronts to begin to break down tensions. But they pop up again and again so this effort has to be ongoing.
Leadership around the world can use these and other examples as a way to reframe the unrest building among employees as a group as well as the big divides between them and leadership. However, unlike the more obvious general tensions between management and employees, today we face a situation where in the bigger society, in our culture, people are being encouraged and actively taught to hate each other on many levels — look at January 6th, as an example. All this at a time when we are all grappling with the very real problems and injustice among racial divides as well as global climate change and deteriorating healthcare for many in the pandemic era. We are being pushed further and further into two camps and it’s getting harder and harder to keep these tensions out of the workplace. It’s built into our bureaucratic culture to see “us vs. them.”
Now, how we bridge it is to use similar tactics as Desmond Tutu took during Apartheid in some ways: we have to find courageous leaders who are willing to step up to the table first to begin the process of healing the chasms between us. People are people, and there is no magic bullet other than to do this difficult work. We have to acknowledge that — especially in a 100% remote or hybrid work model. We’ve often stopped really communicating and hearing each other, and we have to relearn to do that again, screens be damned.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
It’s already breaking us into a dichotomous workforce . Here again we see a break into two camps: the people who want to work at home and those who don’t. It’s a fragmentation and a fracturing problem. There are some benefits to both conditions, but when people see the world through completely different eyes, it’s hard to get to some kind of unified view that can include both — without a lot of resentment on one side or the other. We’ve got one part of the workforce that’s happy working in a fragmented way, and one that isn’t and wants to have the type of human interactions typical of in-person work that seem more coherent and include a lot more shared context. We’re starting to move toward hybrid work as a compromise. This is unavoidable and has many benefits for a lot of professional workers. But the future of work will include those changes between pre-Covid and the pandemic era that have already created a more permanent behavioral and attitudinal shift that will have to be addressed and integrated in some way.
We’ve all read the headlines about how the pandemic reshaped the workforce. What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support a future of work that works for everyone?
In societies that work well, people accept that there are things they may not personally like but that are in fact best if the larger population is to not just survive, but to thrive. So we have to move to a model that embraces some sense of shared sacrifice. Otherwise, the rifts between us that uel social fracturing will continue and likely get worse. The biggest issue starts with the notion that we can solve these problems without changing that much., But this is just magical thinking. Things don’t happen overnight and therefore we need people who are ready to stay committed to a process that may take more than one generation to solve. Everyone wants a quick fix, tips and tricks to make this or that better. And that’s understandable. But as we know — what has become crystal clear — is that relying on such things is not going to get us to a future of work that works for all. Patience, understanding and strong leadership with a seamless vision to stay the course is much more likely to ultimately succeed. And it will have quick wins to sustain the longer haul — wins that can improve life in small ways but still have a big meaningful impact.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
My greatest source of optimism is that the human spirit will always find a way back to itself and at our core — we basically want what’s best to create a meaningful and generally peaceful life for ourselves and our families. To allow this positive vision to unfold for more of us, we need to start thinking farther out than we are right now and understanding the unprecedented human scale of what we are all experiencing, which is potentially the largest sea change since the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions combined. And time is not on our side which may paradoxically be the most significant “forcing function” behind coming together now in ways we have not done in the past. Technology cannot save us — it can help here and there but our human fortitude is what must ultimately come forward to create the conditions for each other’s long lasting well-being.
Our collective mental health and wellbeing are now considered collateral as we consider the future of work. What innovative strategies do you see employers offering to help improve and optimize their employee’s mental health and wellbeing?
The thing that has worked the best has been leaders using soul-based leadership to focus on hope that as a person, there’s a chance for a brighter future — which is not easy these days — but doable when we start with our fundamental aliveness. You can’t have mental health improvement without people being able to see movement towards a hopeful future. The way you start to see this is to reduce virtual distance and clear away the fog that’s set in as a result. When put in place, people start to see that we share some common values — the opacity starts to fade. We are able to see through the mist and realize we are a lot more similar than we are different. That leads to a sense of shared future and fate. Once you put that into place, you can start to meaningfully work to improve mental health and well-being.
It seems like there’s a new headline every day. ‘The Great Resignation’. ‘The Great Reconfiguration’. And now the ‘Great Reevaluation’. What are the most important messages leaders need to hear from these headlines? How do company cultures need to evolve?
Well, let’s throw out the word evolve, for starters. Instead, we have to start becoming much more consciously aware that we’ve maladapted to conditions that have created injustices that people can no longer tolerate and will do almost anything to change — including leaving behind what just a few years ago was accepted as a straightforward path: get the job, the house, the kids and live the dream. The Covid virus illuminated that much of the veneer about the way we live did not really exist for far too many. And as these realizations became clearer — what we thought we could control turned out to be things that only made it look that way. So much of what we thought were stable parts of our life were indeed things that are not in our control anymore. As a result, there’s a lot of chaos out there. These headlines are representations of that chaos. People running this way or that, and the media, along with people who desperately want to believe we can ‘go back’ are trying to convince many that this chaos is actually evolution, but it’s not. It’s just chaos.
We have to stabilize the situation and the way to do that is with thoughtful adaptation; to see our situation as it really is and understand the actual benefits we’ve accrued and separate those from what’s driving the chaos; putting a moratorium on words like evolution and instead deal with the actuality of having to do the hard work of turning toward a more just world of work and community.
Take a pause — a much needed rest — and a breath and adapt in a way that is helpful — slow down the chaos and start to reshape human relationships into something that makes a lot more sense. If we can just do that and adapt in a positive way and stop thinking of ourselves as having to continue to evolve toward an unrealistic road back to some idealized state that never really existed to begin with, we can start to put a stop to what can feel like organized insanity. Put a stake in the ground and say we are going to adapt to where we are in a positive way. It’s the fact that we’re not doing this that is powering downward trends and stifling upward progress.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
- Unexpected and Big Changes Will Continue: Soul-Based Leadership will become more important than ever.
We are squarely in the Pandemic Era. Some of the tipping points of climate change are already in progress. Geopolitical divides and other global bifurcations are widening and technology underpins almost every part of modern life — leaving us exposed to power imbalances that used to be only the stuff of science fiction. But we are a hearty bunch, us humans, and underneath these cascading catastrophes we continue to challenge ourselves to find better ways to live and work. Soul-based leadership and living will be key to keeping up our spirits and momentum. When we focus on our aliveness and the infinite capacities of our imagination there emerges a realistic hope that the positive aspects of our relationships with each other will dominate.
At a large government agency where virtual distance management is going into effect, a senior manager recently said to me that when she heard about the initiative, she was squarely in the camp of “this will never work”. She was not only skeptical but felt it would be a waste of time. However, with many of her colleagues embracing the human side of work with the virtual distance framework, her attitudes and behaviors started to change. She now finds herself amazed and delighted when she approaches someone with their “whole person” in mind and often gets a positive and productive response. We can reverse bad habits if we commit to planning on doing so.
2. Leadership will have to accept and adapt to having less control over fixed work models.
Following the first trend, work models will have to become more “generally” flexible. Walls, furniture and fixed space conditions will play less of a role and virtual distance management, along with related human-based practices that support authentic trust and collaboration will have to prevail if we are to avoid autocracy from becoming the norm further fueling separations and bifurcations.
At one engineering company leadership knew they had to adopt a more flexible style in order to avoid losing significant intellectual capital. They adopted regular reviews of situational conditions and adjusted policies as needed while also integrating virtual distance practices into all types of communication strategies. This resulted in a quicker “time to awareness” of issues that had been causing problems but were deflected as a result of having no elastic leadership structure.
3. Net-Centric operations will become crucial to organizational effectiveness.
Net centricity is a dynamic model that keeps centralized leadership in constant communications with people “on the ground”. Communication is designed (not left to chance) in a way that is composed of hubs and spokes where people at the intersections relay information about what’s happening around the organization to a hub of leadership who then consider that information and get it back to the people at the intersections very quickly. There is a collaboration loop that forms that’s much wider, faster and more highly trusted when organizations are purposely designed in these broad and deep forms. In professional organizations, place becomes much less of a consideration than clear and fluid communications — where virtual distance — not feet or meters is the main metric.
4. The trend toward people claiming to be experts in solving problems never seen before, will continue, but leaders should not take the bait.
Companies will continue to need people who can deal with complexity and stay open to new ways of operating. But they will need a lot of self-control before jumping into agreements with people who see opportunism at every turn because the problems we face today are full of more variables in different combinations than has ever happened. But as Bloomberg News pointed out late in 2021, Return-to-Office Chaos Is the Best Thing to Happen to Consultants Since Y2K many ‘snake-oil’ consultants made millions pretending to know something about this future state that they had no knowledge of whatsoever — because they couldn’t. Instead, organizations should invest in training programs that help people develop their “executive function” or what Daniel Kahneman calls “slow thinking” — more control over less reactive thinking and more practice on critical thinking skills that lean toward asking better questions and developing higher tolerances for taking the time to understand problems more fully before jumping into reactive solutions.
The James Webb telescope that recently launched to help us understand the beginnings of our universe, of time itself, is one such example. The project took almost 20 years and billions of dollars. However it is one of the best examples of long term collaboration in history. There were debates on all sides as to whether such time and resources should be spent on such basic science. Fortunately, the decision was in favor of spending the time and money to figure out how to get this new perspective which, if successful as we will see in the next week or so, will give us a view into potential solutions for human beings that could never have been imagined without this magnification of source data. Metaphorically, organizations should be eager to try the same approach. New ideas that come from orthogonal places help us calm our fast thinking and give us the time and space we need to ask the kind of questions we need to eventually get to solving the right problem.
5. Health and Wellness will have to be operationalized in REAL ways.
Today, every time I open my email there are courses on mediation and mindfulness. Headspace has jumped out in front as the online version. But one has to question how a machine can help guide us to ourselves in ways that only we can know. Well — it can’t. And ideally the language of meditation and contemplation should have been off limits to marketers but it wasn’t. It’s not that these techniques may not yield some superficial benefit, however spending some time walking along a real beach because you have more time off to spend with a new baby is more of a real answer that will last longer over time. Laws that favor technological solutions for human issues will need to be overturned and instead, leadership should be held accountable for how to create the new net-centric organization in a way that is humanly fair and just.
Unfortunately most of the examples of such organizations lie in countries that are vilified by many law and other rule-makers in the US who see people as machines and yet give HUMAN legal status to corporations. But we all know that the Scandinavian countries and other pockets of Europe where people are treated humanely by their employers produce incredibly effective economies that work for everyone. With stress reduced at basic levels like ensuring that everyone has a place to live, access to good healthcare and free educational systems built for our future peoples, everyone thrives and happiness is the result. As the clock ticks louder toward the issues stated in trend one above and the trough of disasters gets deeper in the west, we need to throw away the business models upon which these problems sit and start to create the conditions for people to feel better before we can make real progress in our collective health and well-being.
I keep quotes on my desk and on scraps of paper to stay inspired. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective?
“No problem can be solved with the same consciousness that created it.” — Albert Einstein
It’s shaped my whole life perspective because we keep looking for answers in places we expect to find them — they are usually never there. If we don’t stop thinking in metaphors and understanding how similar problems have been solved in completely different contexts, the answers can become clear so much more quickly because the answers are in our world — they are everywhere, but we tend to think that if you’re not a say, org behaviorist, you can’t find an answer in organizational science. But nothing can be further from the truth. Go look at dolphins swimming in packs and how they talk to each other — in other words, somewhere else. That quote reminds me that the best answers are not going to be found where you expect to find them and we have to find ways to get ourselves out of our own head.
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, she, or they might just see this if we tag them.
The Dalai Lama because he doesn’t think in terms of work, best practice, industry standards, etc. The DL looks at human relationships in a secular way and tries to understand how we can better see reality through other ways of knowing and unless we put those two things together, we are always going to be stuck in a kind of mental and feeling cage. Nothing is never one thing or the other — business is not just business — it’s people, ethics, morality, relationships, behavior. If you look to a business leader to talk to, you’re going to get much narrower thinking. DL sheds light on business in ways that can be the most useful.
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Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.