Leadership Upskill — The quality of leadership was patchy pre-pandemic. Many folks, learning on the job, were promoted because of their technical skills rather than their management skills. Ultimately, you lose a great technician and gain a poor leader.
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 Andrew Mawson.
Andrew Mawson is Founder and Managing Director of global management consultancy, Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA). He’s a leading pioneer, thinker and speaker on matters ‘work and place’, experienced at bringing together the worlds of business strategy, hybrid and workplace strategy, organizational and workplace design, and change management. Andrew is also a regular contributor to Forbes, recognized for his ability to join the dots between work, leadership strategy, science, technology and place.
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.
I grew up in a suburb of Manchester, England called Stockport where the people are friendly and brutal in their honesty.
At the age of 11, I failed my ’11 Plus’ exams which meant I went to a secondary school instead of the ‘grammar’ school — essentially a school for those who were more academically gifted. This hit me like a hammer. I was branded a failure at the age of 11. I remember my very first day at the new school when the Headmaster gave a speech in which he basically told us all that we shouldn’t worry that we hadn’t made it to the grammar school and the world needed people who could do more practical work. Looking back, it fuelled my sense of purpose. I now often find myself accused of being too academic by some folks in industry, which always makes me giggle.
I always felt I was reasonably bright, but school didn’t seem very interesting so I put most of my teenage enthusiasm into writing music, playing in my band and trying to become a top tennis player. The music released my creativity, the band developed my organizational skills and patience and tennis taught me about focus, hard work and resilience.
In spite of my secondary school education, I managed to achieve some A-level passes and ultimately win a place on an undergraduate course in Applied Statistics. Statistics was the only subject that made sense to me because it provided the opportunity to describe the world in numbers — something I felt might have a use. The degree gave me a toolbox of statistical techniques to use in the real world and a scientific approach to life.
This degree led to my early career in the IT and Defence Electronics Industry in the UK. It taught me a valuable lesson that still guides me to this day as a business owner and employer: I didn’t like being judged on my last presentation or the way I presented. I was more interested in results and making a difference. I always knew I’d end up building a business where I could create the conditions that would help people be themselves and be valued for what they did and not their optical persona. I’m always amazed at how much time and energy is used inside big organizations just to keep the optics moving.
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?
Organizations depend very heavily on the energy, enthusiasm, intellect and commitment of their people, and moving forward into the knowledge era, these characteristics will be even more important. As we head towards an increasingly virtual and hybrid world, I still think there will always be value in face-to-face, in the same place human interaction, but just not every day. When people come together it will be for ‘special’ time. Thus, making hybrid working a norm as offices get smaller.
Moreover, hybrid working will challenge pretty well everything that has been the norm since time immemorial. If you think about it, to this point, everything and every brain in the world has been wired to a model of command, control, hierarchy and physicality. What the pandemic taught us was that people could get their work done virtually using technology, and that given the right support and clarity of outcome, they could actually be trusted to get on with the job.
As we go forward into a world that is increasingly knowledge-based, this trend will continue to prevail. I think we’re on the edge of a profound shift in how organizations operate and leaders lead. But all of this will challenge the status quo. Employment Law and Taxation systems around the world will have to unify in order that people can truly work anywhere in different jurisdictions. Command and control organizational models will give way to flatter networked models. People will be working regularly across time zones using AI tools to overcome translation and cultural boundaries allowing natural trusting relationships. By 2030, AI will have decimated the number of service-related jobs in economies around the world. Any task with repeatable processes will be undertaken by software robots. Basic transaction call centers will not exist, replaced by AI processes. The brain and the management of brain power will be center stage.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
Stay nimble, keep as little fixed cost infrastructure as possible, reduce hierarchy, build socially cohesive networks of workers and keep your people’s skills and outlooks current. Leaders need to create an atmosphere of ‘comfortable discomfort’ to ensure their leaders and teams stay on their toes. There will be no time for complacency or resting on past achievements.
Organizations will necessarily become universities, constantly re-skilling their people and deploying those skills in continuously emerging new markets and functions. I think education in the workplace will be a key component of the employee proposition and will become center stage, as opposed to it being seen as a nice to have once the real work is done.
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?
Right now, employees are demanding training and development. However, as an employer, it makes no sense unless you can continue to deploy the individual’s skills and give them more and more money. Many organizations are investing in their people only to find that they are making them more valuable in the marketplace. I think we’ll ultimately need to move to contracts more akin to sports contracts where there are transfer fees and buy out clauses.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
Dramatically. The default place now is home and people will only spend money and consume time in going to a central location if it demonstrably adds value. The Genie is well and truly out of the bottle and it’s not going back in any time soon. However, it’s clear from all our work around the world that this is more than just an issue of where people work. Hybrid working means we’re spending less time together synchronously and, as a consequence, organizations are going to have to sharpen up to ensure hybrid working flourishes. That, which passed as being acceptable management practice in the old world, simply won’t moving forward.
Performance management will need to evolve from a once-a-year meaningless chat that links to pay adjustments to a continuous assessment and feedback loop in which those around you are able to provide honest feedback almost in real time. Leadership skills will need to develop such that all leaders are as good as the best. Our own research at AWA into this area suggests that six factors impact the workforce and they are mostly linked to leadership. Social cohesion, perceived supervisory support, information sharing, vision and goal clarity, external outreach and trust all matter and organizations will need to work hard to strengthen these. They need to become organizations’ North Star if hybrid working is to be sustained into the long-term.
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?
Training, training, and more training. For as long as we can remember, education from post-secondary learning institutions has been immensely valued. In the future of work, education and skill development from different streams, in and out of the traditional schooling system, will prevail. More than a nice to have, it will become necessary for workers to remain competitive on the job market. If you are a ‘professional’ knowledge worker with a saleable skill or a professional that supports personal needs like plumbers or electricians you’ll do well, but low skill roles will be poorly valued and I fear we’ll see a widening gap between the haves and have-nots in our societies.
Additionally, technology advancements will only become more impactful, catalyzing important changes. Perception shifts and open-mindedness to these progressive technologies such as Web3 and the Metaverse will unlock even more opportunities for the future of work and the society as a whole.
Let’s take call centers as an example. Call centers soaked up many jobs that were lost from the manufacturing sectors in many countries over the last 30 years, but many of those roles will disappear. Call centers that do exist will have some real people handling calls, but they’ll be aided by very slick AI tools to handle increased volumes, complexity and speed of response. I imagine we might have video call centers, aided by avatars in the metaverse. It’s quite possible that you’ll think you are having an interaction with a real human in the metaverse when in fact you are dealing with a human look-alike Avatar. Imagine going to see an Avatar Lawyer!
Adding to this challenge, I think we’ll see organizations hiring people from other lower-cost high-skill geographies as they seek to remain competitive. We might see salaries converge around the world as the markets for skills become less dependent on geographical proximity.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
Although there are many challenges around us, I am pretty optimistic about the future. In fact, I wish I’d been born 30 years later than I was. Technology is clearly going to continue developing at an alarming rate, come down in price and accelerate innovation in all sectors. The metaverse could be a power for good, giving people a shared virtual office experience, binding people together without the need for as much carbon generating travel. New roles are emerging that didn’t exist even 15 years ago and I expect even more new roles to emerge for those with the foresight to have skilled-up for them.
The pandemic itself gave rise to many people reflecting on their lives and what was important to them. Having gotten off the conveyor belt, many have made new life choices, realizing their old employment wasn’t delivering what they needed. I think technology will continue to help people change their lives, giving them more time for themselves and their families whilst still having a decent standard of living. So much will depend on individuals taking responsibility for their own skills and marketability.
It’s sometimes worth looking back 100 years to see we have come an incredible distance in a short time. In many places in the world life expectancy has gone up, quality of life has followed and, if we’re smart, we can use all the tech developments to give people better food, better lives and better quality of life for longer.
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?
It became clear to us 10 years ago that the future of knowledge work depended on organizations recognizing that they were trading in human brain power. Organizations are, in the end, communities of connected brains, each one with its own unique knowledge, energy and potential for innovation. During the pandemic people became very much aware of their mental capacity and wellbeing, both as a result of the anxiety caused by the pandemic, the learning curve they were experimenting with new technology and methods and the torrent of back-to-back unrelenting Zoom calls.
Right now we’re working on the development of Cognitive Wellness programs to help our clients manage their brain power better. Most leaders have little understanding of how the brain works, the things they need to do to be on their ‘A’ game, the impact of their behavior on colleagues, or how to manage mental workload for both themselves and their teams. I see much more education and training in these areas to help people stay mentally fit and well. Wellness isn’t a nice-to-have massage once a week anymore; it’s a fundamental part of managing a team, community or organization.
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?
As mentioned, corporate cultures will evolve to support a greater level of professionalism and trust, particularly as the proportion of knowledge workers goes up as process jobs are lost from organizations. I also think the role of leader needs to be recognized not as a step-up in the hierarchy, but a professional role like an engineer or analyst. Organizations need to promote based on value and competence and stop promoting great technical contributors into leadership roles only to enable them to receive a pay rise.
Although staying in tune with headlines is important, I’ve always tried to drive our business using our own science and evidence. We’ve spent the last 10 years working to understand the science that is associated with the productivity of knowledge workers which has led us into the world of leading neuroscience and sports science. Science acts as our North Star. It’s important to filter out the noise, but it’s equally important to stay in tune with what’s going on in your external environment to establish facts and be able to pivot when necessary.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
- Cross Border Working — Unification of Taxation and Employment Law — Right now, there are many taxation and employment law risks associated with allowing employees to work in different jurisdictions. I expect these to be progressively resolved over 10 years.
- Leadership Upskill — The quality of leadership was patchy pre-pandemic. Many folks, learning on the job, were promoted because of their technical skills rather than their management skills. Ultimately, you lose a great technician and gain a poor leader.
- The Emergence of Workership — Pre-pandemic, all the onus for performance went onto leaders. I think we should see ‘Workership’ (or some call it self-leadership) coming to the fore, and organizations should provide coaching and support to help every individual become a better worker, taking responsibility for their perceived trustworthiness, their skills, knowledge and the development and maintenance of relationships they have with others in their organization.
- Cognitive Wellness — Organizations are, in the end, communities of connected brains. Humans are brains on legs. We are our brains. They do everything and, in the world of knowledge work, managing brain power matters. Yet, most leaders often fail to understand how their brains and the brains of their people work and consequently don’t understand the things they should be doing to maximize their performance or the performance of the team. I expect this to become a big deal as we head into a digital knowledge fuelled world.
- The Reduction in Office Space Per Head — Hybrid working has set the default place to work in most organizations to home and those adopting remote-first strategies are already putting much of their office space on the market as they realize they need 50% or less. The property industry is putting a brave face on it, but from where I sit, there will be a glut of office space on the market in most cities before long as organizations realize they have too much. And organizations that do need office space are realizing they only need half as much as they did pre-pandemic.
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 harder I practice the luckier I get” is a golf quote used by Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and other top golfers, but it was actually derived from a quote by the Polish-American Film Producer Samuel Goldwyn, who was one of the early Hollywood film pioneers. I’ve always taken the view that regardless of one’s intellectual gifts, the one thing that you are in control of is the energy and time you put into something and that, the more you do the right things, the more likely you are to succeed. My strategy is always to give new ideas a go, watch and listen, modify and refine. Certainly to get a new business off the ground takes hard work, clarity and commitment, but also the ability to learn, pivot and not take yourself or your failures too seriously.
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.
Jamie Dimon. I like Jamie’s style; I’ve read some of his stuff and listened to him on YouTube. He’s a great guy and, most of the time, I love his outlook. But I’d like the opportunity to talk to him about the way his people work and his organizational strategy. He, like quite a few top leaders, has been reluctant to allow their workers to have more choice in where and how they work and I’d like to understand their point of view better and put forward other thoughts based on our scientific research in an open-minded exchange of ideas and perspectives.
Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?
I’m on Twitter: @amawson, LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/andrewmawson/ , I’m open to emails at [email protected] and you can find some of my contributions to Forbes.
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.