Asynchronous collaboration is the new norm. In the new world of work, success will define those who can shift comfortably between in-person and hybrid collaboration. When Gil West, the former chief operating officer of Delta Airlines joined the autonomous mobility company Cruise as its first president, he called a meeting of his lieutenants to discuss a problem. But to his surprise, his team suggested they first collaborate through asynchronous shared documents and tools to identify the correct problem before they convene as a team.
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 Kian Gohar.
Kian Gohar is a bestselling author, keynote speaker, entrepreneur and futurist, and inspires organizations to harness innovation and “moonshots” to solve complex problems. A former executive director of the XPRIZE Foundation and Singularity University, Kian has coached the leadership teams of dozens of Fortune 500 companies on innovation, leadership and the future of work through his leadership development firm Geolab. He’s co-author of the Wall Street Journal bestselling book “Competing in the New World of Work” published by Harvard Business Review Press in 2022.
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.
When I watched a video of the initial invastion of Ukraine on Feb 24, 2022 and heard the piercing sound of the air raid sirens over Kyiv, I immediately flashed back to childhood, hiding in a bomb shelter in Tehran as Iraqi fighter jets dropped bombs overhead and destroyed our neighborhood. For the next several years, I was a child war refugee, and my family hopped from place to place in search of safety and shelter. Even when we finally immigrated to America, we moved around every six months depending on where my father could find work, and I switched schools at least 10 times in six years. This constant moving around and early childhood exposure to adversity made me unusually comfortable with change, disruption, and uncertainty. As an entrepreneur, this resilience has been a blessing and given me skills to thrive in all walks of life, and commune with all kinds of people. But even as I reflect right now, it makes me wonder how this childhood experience continues to color my perception of stability, relationships, and the American dream. It’s a never ending journey, and one that I suspect will animate the rest of my life.
Fast forward to 2002 and I was living in Shanghai and working for the first ever Chinese venture capital firm on an international fellowship. I was passionate about how entrepreneurship could be used as a tool to promote broad economic development and reduce the likelihood for social conflict and war. You see, the strains of war connect throughout my life, even in subtle ways. I was asked by the dean of the leading Chinese business school to create a course in social entrepreneurship — the first of its kind in China — and teach 125 MBA students, and start China’s first venture capital startup competition. I was just 25 years old, and had been entrusted with an enormous educational responsibility. I had never taught before, and worked harder than I had ever before to make it a success. In the process, I found teaching opened up a lifelong passion for mentoring, advising and coaching, which has led me to where I am now coaching some of the most talented leadership teams in America on developing high performing teams.
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?
I think what will change is that we will be much more comfortable working in virtual worlds and we’ll have better technological tools to navigate between IRL (in real life) and the currently overhyped metaverse. Instead of zooming-in using video conferencing tools, we’ll “rem-in” (remote-in) using distributed physical avatars that will allow us to accomplish physical tasks remotely. Work will become increasingly bionic as we co-create side-by-side with “co-bots” (collaborative robots) and intelligent algorithms.
I think what will not change about work is that humans will still matter and remain the center of decision-making, albeit with augmentation. As technology advances and shifts how we work and what we do, the uniqueness of human problem solving, communication, creativity, emotion and empathy will become even more important and relevant for success. We’ve become savvy leveraging exponential technology, but now we need to focus on developing exponential teams. That will be critical to success in the future, and what I’m so passionate about helping organizations do.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
I’ve spent the last 10 years helping executive teams future-proof themselves, and wrote extensively about it in my new book (“Competing in the New World of Work”). But the short answer is that organizations need to do 3 things to succeed regardless of what the future brings:
1/ They need to future-proof their teams by developing the muscle (and mindset) for what I call radical adaptability. This means learning how to most effectively practice collaboration, agility, resilience and foresight to be able to proactively anticipate the future. If you can learn to see around corners, crowdsource ideas inclusively from everyone on your team, run fast experiments, and recharge your team battery, I believe you can climb any hill, no matter how steep.
2/ They need to future-proof their business model by looking out ten years and creating a vision for how they think their industry will evolve, and be impacted by exponential technologies. Then they need to zoom-in to the next 12 months and run one or two experiments using these new technologies to learn, unlearn, pivot and scale. Business models are constantly under disruption and executives need to iterate this cycle of business model innovation consistently, rather than leaving it to be done once every few years.
3/ They need to build a workforce that is nimble, agile, fluid and flexible. What I call a “Lego block workforce” — which if you think of Lego blocks, can be arranged and re-arranged in infinite ways depending on the structure you are trying to build. Similarly, a Lego block workforce can be assembled and re-assembled depending on the task that needs to be accomplished. Rather than having a formal, fixed workforce similar to 20th century employment models, the most successful companies in the future will draw from a multitude of labor inputs (human, algorithmic, contingent) to create a super agile workforce that can be deployed based on circumstances.
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?
In a recent study by AT&T about post-pandemic workforce plans, 86% of employees said they prefer a hybrid work model, while 64% of organizational leaders prefer on-premise work. Obviously there’s a disconnect here between the two sides. The last 2 years were an anomoly and employees recognize the extreme circumstances that led us to work from home. Few employees now expect to be fully remote 100% of the time, like they were in the last 2 years. They recognize there’s a need to be co-located some of the time for specific tasks and celebrations. But they also insist that they have actually been quite productive over the last 2 years while working remotely. So they are pushing back on management edicts to “return to the office.”
The pre-pandemic model of 100% in office work will never come back again. And employers that insist on this inflexibility are going to struggle in this new world of work. But there’s a happy medium. Instead of relying on feelings (either by employers who want employees in the office, or employees who want to work remotely), I recommend both sides approach this using data and experimentation. Employees should offer suggestions to employers of potential A/B tests for how they could accomplish a certain task remotely (or hybrid) and evaluate the effectiveness of it from a collaboration, inclusion, culture and innovation perspective. Once the experiment is done, both employees and employers can review the results and jointly agree based on the data (rather than feelings) which way to decide on how that task should be done. This de-politicizes the decision and reverts to more objective measures that both sides are more likely to agree on.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
The future (and present) of work will be hybrid, where we will work in blended teams that will be co-located some of the time, and remote from home some of the time. A recent AT&T study about the future of work reveals that 56% of work will be done fully offsite by 2024. This is a huge increase compared to pre-pandemic levels at less than 5%. Given this dramatic shift in just a few years, success in the future of work will depend on marrying the ability to use digital tools effectively for remote and hybrid collaboration, along with vastly improved interpersonal communication skills necessary to foster team empathy, connection, and belonging in a blended work world.
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?
The societal effects of the pandemic will be wide ranging, and will continue to impact us even after the health emergency recedes. As work becomes more easily done in remote locations, and potentially by different kind of workforces, we’ll need to innovate our social saftey net to make sure we don’t leave people behind in a 20th century workforce model. For one thing, much of current employee benefits like retirement and health care coverage are connected to a specific job and company. We should explore creating portable benefits that are connected to the individual worker, rarther than to the job. So if workers perform contract work, they can continue to accrue benefits and not be left in the wildnerness of self-insurance. This would accelerate the move to a more flexible workforce that can more easily shift to new types of jobs as the future evolves. And it would have the added benefit of revitalizing mobility and dynamism within America as workers search for places that match their life expectations, even if these locales are outside traditional centers of employment. Unfreeing workers from traditional employment structures of the past would be win-win for both workers and employers. But it requires a reinvention of our social safety net. Otherwise we’ll likely see a bifurcation in workforce outcomes that could amplify inequality, which nobody wants.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
That it can be more purposeful and provide better matching opportunities between individual hopes and organizational expectations.
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?
In our research with over 2000 executives across 300 global organizations during the last two years of the pandemic, we found that the highest performing teams had a rigorous practice devoted to strenghtening team resilience. By peering into team members’ homes through video conferencing, we learned that everyone comes to work with different levels of resilience daily, and everyone has different challenges (and opportunities). So the savviest team leaders learned how to encourage a culture of resilience to make sure their teams crossed the finish line together and no one was left behind. Individually, that meant putting blocks on personal daily calendars so team members could attend to personal wellness time (however they defined it). From a team component, it meant using survey tools to diagnose team energy as a whole, crowdsourcing team solutions to stressors, and offering offramps to help team members struggling that particular day/week. And from an organizational perspective, it meant instituting “bumpers” (like in bowling alleys) that would reinforce the culture of resilience through employee benefits like meditation apps and wellness passes, and blocking email access when employees went on personal time off. There’s no one-size-fits-all magic bullet for ensuring a resilient team; it requires a multitude of levers to be pulled and the savviest leaders are deploying them all.
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?
Some companies are struggling with retaining talent in what people call the “Great Resignation”, but I think this story is misframed by the media. Yes, people are looking for new work, and in record numbers. But the truth is, people are looking for workplace environments that match their post-pandemic expectations of how they want to live and work. And they are exploring new chapers in what my co-author Keith Ferrazzi calls the “Great Exporation.” The companies that tap into the cognitive intelligence of distributed work and create inclusive workplace cultures and resilient teams will thrive in this new era of exploration. Those that double down on “returning to work” and pretending as if the last two years didn’t happen will become victims of the so-called Great Resignation. The choice is up to leaders. Go back to work. Or go forward to work.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
- Asynchronous collaboration is the new norm. In the new world of work, success will define those who can shift comfortably between in-person and hybrid collaboration. When Gil West, the former chief operating officer of Delta Airlines joined the autonomous mobility company Cruise as its first president, he called a meeting of his lieutenants to discuss a problem. But to his surprise, his team suggested they first collaborate through asynchronous shared documents and tools to identify the correct problem before they convene as a team. This allowed all team members to think about the problem inclusively and provide thoughtful input before the actual session, and it saved invaluable meeting time. Asynchronous tools like shared documents, virtual whiteboards like Mural, AI-generated video highlight snipets like Snackable.AI, and other collaboration modalities will become a foundational part of how we work in the future, just like word processing revolutionized the office in the 1980s.
- Inclusion will be paramount to strategy. During the pandemic, videoconferencing tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams allowed every team member to inhabit the same square footage (on screen) regardless of company rank or title. As a result, we saw a democratization of voices and inclusivity that we previously would not have heard in the old construct of physical meetings. At Unilever, the CEO Fabian Garcia and CHRO Mike Clementi decided to lean into the inclusivity afforded by video tools and asked the top 300 managers to crowdsource the company’s 2021 annual plans, rather than mandating it top-down like yesteryear. The result was 90 ideas and 6 key strategic initiatives — which wouldn’t have been heard in business-as-usual mentality — that led the company to a breakout year.
- Resilient teams out-compete individual superstars. At one point or another, we’ve all been told to have a stiff upper lip and separate our personal and professional lives. But we learned in the pandemic that this wasn’t possible. We’re human after all! Crystal Zell, the chief customer officer of the Home Depot developed a simple practice to guage her team’s anxiety during the pandemic, by asking them to rank their energy level on a scale of 1–10. Most team members had a baseline that they usually reported, but when they reported a number that was widely different than their norm, Crystal knew that some sort of peer-to-peer coaching and support was needed to destress that individual. This led her team to great success in an otherwise very difficult environment. Going forward, it’s not superstar individuals’ resilience that will determine success in a fast-changing world, but the resiliency of superstar teams.
- Purpose will be core to business. At job search platform Indeed.com, every employee can recite the company’s purpose word-for-word: “We help people get jobs.” This purpose served a critical function in guiding the leadership’s decision-making during the pandemic, and helped steer the company towards its north star regardless of the crisis at hand. And employees and talent flocked to the company in consequence. After two years of existential threat, employees have awakened to the fact that their professional lives must have meaning and purpose, broadly defined. This doesn’t mean everyone will suddenly jump ship to work for a nonprofit, but it means employees demand seeing a higher level purpose beyond the mere products and services offered by a company. And those companies that lean into identifying and leading with purpose in mind will attract talent and better compete in this new world of work.
- Services will become globalized. As globalization led to an offshoring of manufacturing across the world over the last 30 years, the next 30 years will see a globalization of services, as employees and employers connect through digital and virtual platforms like never before. White collar jobs like marketing and accounting will be outsourced and offshored to lower cost labor destinations, just like manufacturing and IT services did over the last few decades. In our own coaching practice, we have a fully remote team based in the Philippines that manages our marketing services and support. Prior to the pandemic and the ubiquity of globally connected labor pool, we would have hired locally for this function, and at much greater cost. Now we’re able to supplement our existing local team with additional marketing talent offshore and amplify our work for a fraction of expanding locally. This trend towards globalization of services will continue in all white collar discplines, and will be amplifid further by easy to use automation and AI technologies.
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?
“The day before a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.” I first heard this from my mentor Peter Diamandis, the founder and chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation. I worked for Peter for 6 years as an executive director at the XPRIZE Foundation, and was in awe of how humanity was able to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of sending private citizens to space using what everyone thought was a crazy design for a spaceship (which is now the same technology behind Virgin Galactic). And this quote has stayed with me ever since, reinforcing my belief that anything is possible, if we spend enough energy and creativity to focus our personal goals and not be distracted by narcissists, naysayers, and nonbelievers. Crazy ideas changed the world, from sailing across distant oceans without navigational tools in the age of exploration hundreds of years ago, to spaceships that can safely transport humans to the cosmos. Put me in a room full of crazy ideas, or a library full of crazy thoughts, and together we’ll figure out a way to change the world.
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.
Marc Andreesen reconfigured how humans interact by inventing Netscape and democratizing access to the early internet; I would love to talk with him about how we can reinvent human capital at scale using decentralized systems and organizational models to realize the full potential for human abundance.
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I can be reached on social media (Twitter and Instagram) at @fromthekgb or also on LinkedIn where I share longer thoughts and updates.
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.