Well-trained managers will be the vital connection to company culture.

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 Chris Williams, Interaction Associates

Chris Williams serves as the Chief Operating Officer for Interaction Associates. His background includes more than twelve years in the professional services space in business operations, recruiting, business development, and complex research roles. Learn more by visiting https://www.interactionassociates.com/ and connect with Chris on LinkedIn.

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 was born a quadruplet at 28 weeks old; three of us survived. When I tell people they are often shocked as they have never met a quadruplet before! I also have three younger siblings so I grew up in a very large family where a work ethic, commitment to each other, and integrity were major themes and values.

Throughout college and graduate school, I worked in residence life as a resident advisor and graduate coordinator. The responsibilities ranged from coordinating social events, counseling others, mitigating conflicts, being with students at the hospital to represent the dean of student’s office, and building and leading teams. The entire experience invariability provided a crash-course in crisis management, leadership, and shaped how I relate to others. One of my big insights is the value of understanding each person deeply, knowing their story, and relating to others from a place of service and respect.

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?

In the future, work will still be a major source where workers seek to find purpose, connection, and a calling. Remote and hybrid work arrangements will continue to persist where possible, and there will be a continued emphasis on teamwork, wellness, and aligning one’s values with place of employment.

There will be a greater importance on having managers who are skilled in setting clear goals and expectations, developing and guiding employees with empathy and understanding, and coaching with a balance on results, process, and relationships. Gone are the days when your performance is measured by the number of hours you sit in the office chair. In the future, managers will need to be able to lead from a distance with trust, empathy, and compassion.

Millennials (those born 1981 to 1996) will become managers and senior executives. More women will be represented in senior level roles as they rapidly outpace men at all levels of degree obtainment. There will be an increased amount of diversity (primary, secondary, workplace, and style). There will be a greater reliance on using gig and temporary workers who have specialized skills that fit specific project needs.

Technological advances such as advanced robotics, automation, machine learning, and natural language processing will reduce the need for jobs that involve routine tasks. Certain routines jobs will be displaced and new jobs will be created. Organizations will use these new advances as tools to augment their workforce and make employees more efficient. The most in demand skills of the future will be critical thinking, creativity, leadership, digital literacy, emotional intelligence (e.g., empathy), and collaboration. At current state, artificial intelligence cannot replicate empathy and collaboration and poses a risk of serving up inaccurate information.

What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?

First, focus on developing talent early and have opportunities for ongoing learning — both formal and informal. The earlier you can understand someone’s values, interest, and skills, the more time you can develop a longer-term plan on how you can set that person up for success and build towards the future. People that are developed, are grown, and have their aspirations met are fundamental ingredients to having a strong organization that lasts and evolves. Jim Goodnight, CEO of software firm SAS, once said “95% of my assets (my people) drive out of the front gate every night, and it’s my job to make sure they come back the next day.” Although many organizations don’t operate anymore at a fully on-site facility, the theme from Goodnight is sound advice.

Next, look to technology as an enabling tool. Ensure you are clear about the utility and requirements for what you are aiming to solve or improve. Remember that when incorporating new technologies, you have a people and change management element that cannot be underestimated.

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?

I predict the biggest gaps will be around workplace flexibility and training and development. What does it mean to allow an employee to set their own work schedule and location? When and how do you offer up paid training and development opportunities?

I’d recommend first taking time to do a thorough assessment. What does flexibility mean to that individual and what do they seek? What are minimum expectations the employer has outlined? What autonomy does the manager have in building working agreements with an employee? On the skill front, focus on identifying a few specific skills or behaviors that you want individuals or leaders to have. What do you envision they will do differently having gone through a training experience? Ensure the training is highly-practical, focused, and drive towards long-term behavior or skill changes. Having bite-sized in-person or virtual training experiences with a learning cohort time for applied practice and coaching is a more powerful experience for building soft skills than watching self-paced videos. Realize that soft-skill development are often the hard skills to learn and there is rarely a shortcut. Put an emphasis on building a culture where ongoing learning is tied towards promotions, retention, and company growth.

We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?

The pandemic demonstrated that many knowledge worker roles could be effectively performed in a remote setting. It also cast a very bright light that revealed some deep cracks in organizational values, cultures, operating procedures, and needed skill sets. Many organizations realized that their goals or processes weren’t as clear as they could have been, their managers weren’t as well-trained as they thought, or their collective ability to facilitate an online meeting via Zoom was subpar.

The future of work will demand massive workplace flexibility, clear alignment across goals and outcomes, and an ongoing concerted effort around targeted skill building and higher-order cognitive tasks. In many ways, the pandemic created the realization that work could be done anywhere, anytime, with a much wider range of workers than one constrained by a geographic boundary. The focus on the future will be less on when and where work gets done but who and how work is performed. This is a more worker-centric approach.

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 the United States, there is currently a massive shortage of affordable childcare. This causes enormous strain for our working parents, particularly those with low or middle income jobs. The raising of starting salaries to $15/hr in the retail and fast food industry and increase in the gig economy has led to a mass exodus of workers in child care programs. We’ve positioned the child care industry as a private market good instead of a social good like a fire department. This leaves parents on their own and often leads to either a massive monthly expense or one parent (disproportionately women) deciding to reduce working hours or stay home and out of the workforce. The US has massively underinvested in early child care and education compared to other developed nations and moved those services increasingly to the private market. So, I think we’ll need some serious conversations and solutions on how to care for our youngest citizens and parents while allowing for economic growth.

There is a need for a greater emphasis on employee connection and well-being. The pandemic made this visceral and evident. Organizations must acknowledge that their greatest assets are their people and that people are not machines. They are complex social creatures that have a need for psychological safety, security, belonging and connection, respect, and acknowledgement. Societally, we need more community and less individualism.

What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

Globally, our standard of living has continued to increase and accelerate. If you read the daily news, you may not feel this, so it is important to take a historical perspective. The World Bank outlines that within the last 100 years, extreme poverty in the world has gone from 75% to 40% to now below 10%. Literacy rates, a decrease in child mortality, and education levels have all improved. The transformation of our world requires our collective minds and collaborative effort. I’m very optimistic that the future of work, incredible innovations, new industries and jobs, and technological advancements offer amazing opportunities to improve not only how we work (efficiency and effectiveness) but also for collective global well-being and flourishing. Progress will be made. In a metaphorical sense, don’t we all want to be operating a hydraulic excavator than using a hand shovel?

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?

Improving and optimizing employees’ wellbeing can be done in a multi-faced way including, offering mental health benefits, providing structured mentorship programs, and training leaders to be coaches. Remember that at the end of the day, you are dealing with people, not machines. A social aspect of work that connects people to the organization’s mission, values, and relational needs is imperative. This can be as simple as ensuring you have consistent team meetings where employees can share what’s happening in their lives (highs and lows) and how others can support them. At the end of the day, an employee’s direct manager has the greatest impact on offering support. Having excellent managers who come from a place of respect, compassion, and care coupled with a strong social support structure at work is vital for long-term employee well-being. Finally, I would offer up the idea that people want to be involved in decisions that affect their day-to-day and future. Take time to involve employees in decision making by asking for their input and feedback.

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?

The workplace has fundamentally shifted. Employees now have greater flexibility, autonomy, and boldness to ask and demand for a stronger worker contract. At the end of the day, employees will place a massive value on a workplace that offers development and growth opportunities, flexibility, respect, and empathy. Small businesses may not be able to match compensation levels of well-financed large firms; however, they can win on the company cultural front if designed and implemented well. This includes having powerful, engaging conversations with employees where you gather their input on how the day-to-day is going, soliciting process improvement ideas, and offering times for social connection and team building.

Recent research I’ve seen outlines employees would be willing to take a 15% decrease in pay if provided workplace flexibility in a role (such as the ability to work remotely).

Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”

  1. Flexibility will be seen as a competitive advantage.

Flexibility in one’s work schedule will be seen as a competitive advantage both for the employee and employer. This flexibility will expand beyond remote or hybrid knowledge workers and increasingly enter occupations that are performed onsite such as healthcare, manufacturing, teaching, food service, and retail. Employees will seek flexibility not only in when they work but also how much they work and where they work. The flexibility to set one’s working hours to support child-care needs, desired commute times, and optimal working hours and location will become the norm.

Office space needs will dramatically change as the value and demand of flexibility makes a way through the labor force. Remote or Hybrid-work will become the norm. Organizations that have a physical footprint will increasingly collaborate and move to shared spaces with other like-minded organizations. Other companies will downsize their office space to be nimbler and more flexible. You’ll see an acceleration of space conversations from office to residential, especially within core business districts as the existing office space becomes functionally obsolete.

2. Continuous learning and retooling talent will be a lasting strategy.

In the past employees were hired and worked in a single company for 30-years or got a degree in a specific field and focused on the field indefinitely. In the future, employees and employers will need to embrace continuous learning, including retooling existing talent with new skills. The mantra will be learn-do-learn-do. Workers who display a high level of learning agility and initiative will better positioned to meet future market needs. The former VP of Human Resources for Microsoft (coincidentally also named Chris Williams) says that asking the question, “Tell me something you’ve learned in the last couple days” provides a great framework for understanding one’s passions, style of learning, and depth of subject mastery.

Organizations will continue to expand their talent pool in creative and flexible ways, including increasing use of gig workers with specialized skills to gain access to talent.

3. Well-trained managers will be the vital connection to company culture.

An employee’s direct manager is the strongest connection to one’s company culture. In the future, managers will receive increased training in critical thinking, goal setting, stakeholder management and interpersonal skills, facilitation, leadership, motivation, and communication skills in order to effectively interact and collaborate with employees from a distance. Managers of the future will be the critical link between employees and the company culture, focusing on outputs versus inputs and taking time to coach, develop, and train employees while acknowledging and celebrating success.

There will be a greater emphasis on periodic offsite retreats to revitalize a team and build social connections. Organizations will shift some of their former office space investments to new areas like employee training and offsites.

4. Automation anxiety will be short lived

Within the news cycle of today, there is a lot of anxiety around new technologies such as generative artificial intelligence like ChatGPT. These new tools have amazing capabilities to produce text, image, and video content. There are a lot of current unknowns in how this technology will be used, the ethical implications, and its impact on knowledge workers. My prediction is that AI tools will over time be tested and regulated to serve as tools for workers and allow them to perform tasks more efficiently and creatively. Work will still persist, even if new industries or new jobs/roles are created. There will be an increasing shift and displacement of workers whose work can be automated or aided by machines. This trend is already being seen in retail establishments like Home Depot, Target, and Whole Foods. You can return an Amazon item to a locker at a Whole Foods location without any direct human involvement. At my local Home Depot and Target, as much as half of the registers are now self-checkout kiosks. The workers in the store either oversee these kiosks, restock merchandise, or are freed up to better serve and advise the customer.

5. There will be an increase in worker autonomy and accountability

In the future, there will be a greater emphasis on measuring performance based on outcomes while ensuring the approach is human-centric. Moving from location-centric to human-centric will grant employees and teams increased autonomy and focus on being accountable for results. Employees will be increasingly involved in decision-making, empowered, and motivated to take ownership of outcomes. Higher levels of collaboration come down to many small working agreements; agreement building is the currency of collaboration. Employees will feel trusted and valued as their involvement increases, which will lead to higher levels of discretionary effort.

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?

Calvin Coolidge once said, “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

I’m now less worried of being the smartest or most talented person in the room. It’s things like being on time, doing a little extra, being prepared, and having a strong work ethic gives me the confidence to press on.

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.

I recently spent a much-needed vacation at Disney World. I’d love to have an opportunity to have breakfast with Bob Iger, CEO of Disney to understand how he thinks about the future of Disney, work, and leadership.

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?

Connect and follow me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/chriswilliamsleadership/ where I frequently share new insights.

Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.