Workplace Experience Design. Like customer experience design, workplace experience design is about creating an intentional plan for when people come together face-to-face. In-person working sessions will likely become imbued with heightened expectations because they may happen far less frequently. There will be stronger reasons to come together and a deeper sense of purposefulness, rather than bumping into colleagues for a casual chat in the hall. Leaders will need to become intentional about engineering defining moments where big ideas are built.

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 David Carder.

David Carder is Managing Director at strategy execution and change management firm Kotter where he works with global clients to accelerate business strategies and develop top leadership talent. He serves as the lead consultant for many of Kotter’s largest client engagements out of the firm’s Cambridge office. David holds a B.A. in Communication from William Jewell College, as well as an M.A. in Organizational Communication from Northern Illinois University.

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.

In my late twenties, I went on a two-week Outward Bound expedition paddling canoes through the Florida Everglades as a mentor with college students from where I went to school. That trip changed my entire career trajectory in a positive way because it showed me the power of experience to shape who we are as human beings. At the time, I was exploring a different career path, so it sharpened my focus on leadership and personal development consulting.

Several years later, I had the privilege of helping a Hong Kong bank build a creative executive development experience, which used immersive simulations to ignite human cognition and leadership. It once again showed me the potential of powerful experiences to define and refine individuals into better versions of themselves. That project shaped my passion for the work I do and reinforced why I do it.

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?

What can best activate people to achieve extraordinary things that make a difference in the world will be the same in 10 years as it is today. Time and time again, research has shown that fueling true empowerment and unleashing talent remain the keys to achieving impressive results, which is good news for leaders. Human beings aren’t going to be fundamentally different a decade from now. The principles and hardwiring that have guided us for centuries can give leaders a degree of reliability as they prepare for the future.

The biggest difference will be how the accelerating rate of change impacts our workforce, which will compound our sense of what’s different. What we respond to will shift in ways that are hard to predict because change is increasing along an exponential curve. Another difference will be the blending of technology and what it means to be human. The Covid-19 pandemic has already shown us powerful versions of how automation can work alongside the human mind — which is not to say that artificial intelligence will diminish the potential for the human brain, but to point out that our current concept of work will evolve.

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

Future-proofing an organization ultimately means finding a way to shape the core of the company to better predict its success in the future. Regardless of industry or size, the core of every organization is human beings. More executives are believing in the power of people and shifting away from machine-mindedness as they leverage leadership at all levels to achieve amazing outcomes.

Organizations will still be staffed by people many decades from now, so investing in your employees is the best way to future-proof a company. This means empowering employees in ways that might feel uncomfortable, encouraging innovation, and creating opportunities to collaborate. Only when people truly become the core of your organization will it be prepared for whatever comes next.

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 our current environment, employees expect flexibility and a work experience tailored to their needs. The people within a given company are only becoming harder to generalize or fit within neat job descriptions, whereas during the earliest parts of the Industrial Revolution, people tended to be seen as interchangeable parts of a machine. Covid-19 has created a clearing for employees to specify what they need, versus finding themselves on a broad career trajectory defined by a company.

Creating a unique experience based on an individual’s circumstances has become the new normal and will continue to be something employees demand. Covid-19 has amplified this need for flexibility, which creates a gap between what companies may be willing to offer — either because they haven’t done so in the past or they balk at catering to thousands of individuals — and what they need to offer to retain employees.

One of the ways this gap can be reconciled is by investing in the leadership capabilities of everyone within your organization. Leadership can further unlock the power of people at scale by distributing the emerging demands of a new workplace environment between more people. In our work with organizations, we’ve been able to build this kind of leadership capacity across thousands, much more quickly than people believe is possible.

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

The extraordinary muscle-building people did to deliver complex work virtually would have been hard to imagine even five years ago. There have been incredible collective commitments to band together as a team or division or company to have a global experience. Everyone from school-aged children to CEOs rallied at so many levels. Our capacity to push through barriers has risen, and this ability to overcome challenges will undoubtedly influence the future of work, as those muscles aren’t going to stop working. Nothing is going to snap all the way back to the way it was.

Executive suites and top floors are no longer as overt as everyone came together more and more on the flat surface of a screen. The differences and barriers between employees working at corporate headquarters versus in the field were also reduced. True hierarchy is no longer as sharply defined and reinforced. Working from home has further opened the door for people at every level to share their ideas and expand their leadership without some of the traditional barriers. This is good news for the future of work and future leaders.

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 world slowed down in such a powerful way during those early months of the pandemic. Being able to stop and reflect as everything begins to accelerate again will be important to support a future of work that aligns with everyone’s needs. Social consciousness within organizations has been amplified, as well, in these past few years. It will be necessary to keep that sort of empathy for humans at the center of what we do moving forward.

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

What we have observed, even in the midst of a pandemic, is the power of human beings to adapt to big changes in a short period of time. How leaders have responded to the challenge and how we have developed ways to merge human thinking with technology are among my greatest sources of optimism. They stem from a broader belief in people’s capacity to achieve amazing things against the greatest odds. Our greatness has only been amplified by the effects of Covid-19. Building on a lot of the recent work we’ve been able to ignite in organizations, astounding achievements and incredible levels of passion at work make me optimistic about the future. The subtitle of Kotter’s most recent book, Change, sums it up nicely: How Organizations Achieve Hard-to-Imagine Results Despite Uncertain and Volatile Times.

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?

Mental health and wellbeing have been such enduring aspects of Kotter’s experience and that of the organizations we work with. People are pushing through extraordinary circumstances and dealing with issues amplified by Covid-19. As with an iceberg, there is so much we don’t see below the surface. Consistent attention to mental health and wellbeing, as well as reminders that we are all human, can go a long way to improving everyone’s experience. Covid-19 has allowed us to become more overtly human in work settings and that should not go away as we emerge from the pandemic.

Providing access to mental health coverage is essential, but even more important is actively reducing the stigma around using it. Leaders need to actively communicate that those resources are available and create a welcoming sense of support. Set the tone by telling stories, emphasizing flexibility, and overtly encouraging people to seek help whenever they need it. Social connections are also an important part of the equation. Thoughtfully designing accessible, virtual social activities that are deliberately low-key can create healthier cultures with employees who can connect on a human level.

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?

Data released by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics indicates that there is a huge difference between pre- and post-Covid-19 job availability and unemployment. Many of the headlines we see in the news try to explain what these numbers mean, pointing purely to fundamental shifts in supply and demand as the driver of The Great Resignation. In my view, burnout is a major driver. An immense number of people have experienced burnout at an expanded rate. The pandemic forced everyone to ask more fundamental questions about what they truly enjoy and can sustainably continue doing.

For some, leaving one job and starting another is a powerful way to reset their life or continue moving forward at a time when immense challenges in their current context may have been holding them back.

Evolving company cultures to heighten levels of empathy, as well as the level of meaning that people experience in their work, can have significant impact. Leaders need to celebrate short-term wins that reinforce positive behaviors to shape an effective culture. The kind of tangible momentum created by reinforcing desirable habits goes a long way in retaining people in the midst of a challenging environment like the one we’re all experiencing.

Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Hybrid Context. Before the pandemic, most employees either strived to work from an office or focused on working from home, with few who did both equally. As we now realize, hybrid environments are here to stay. A client recently held an executive working session where two-thirds of the attendees were comfortable being in-person, while the other third was not. Creating a true sense of collaboration meant that a colleague needed to become a TV producer, shifting and zooming the camera toward who was speaking — for two full days. This kind of concierge service allowed virtual colleagues to step into the power of the moment, engaging in complex, strategic dialogues, despite the hybrid format. These approaches will likely become more and more common.
  2. Workplace Experience Design. Like customer experience design, workplace experience design is about creating an intentional plan for when people come together face-to-face. In-person working sessions will likely become imbued with heightened expectations because they may happen far less frequently. There will be stronger reasons to come together and a deeper sense of purposefulness, rather than bumping into colleagues for a casual chat in the hall. Leaders will need to become intentional about engineering defining moments where big ideas are built.
  3. Automation and Collaborative Technology. High-speed advances in artificial intelligence and combining the human mind with technology are already well underway. Diligence around the human-tech interplay will become increasingly important. I recently worked with a healthcare technology client who reinvented and automated their legacy infrastructure in a series of 90-day sprints. By repeatedly asking the question, “Where can human brains have a bigger impact, and how can technology advance that impact?” they were able to completely turn around the performance of a business unit.
  4. Globalization. The appetite for global engagement has skyrocketed in the past two years as technology brings us closer together and allows colleagues on different continents to collaborate. You can’t change time zones, but you can change how willing people are to engage. This appetite is making our world a more accessible place, one in which you don’t have to get on a plane or open offices in other countries to reach more people. An organization I’m working with now has been able to pursue their expansion beyond North America in ways they never thought possible, building on this momentum.
  5. Organizational Adaptability and Renewal. Leaders have a rare opportunity to leap forward, build a social movement throughout a company, and convene people who joined that movement in much more powerful ways to do amazing work. This requires a nimbleness that Kotter has been able to further accelerate in organizations, even during the pandemic. We’ve been able to unlock potential in ways that demonstrated extraordinary resilience. This need for resilience will only continue to expand into the future.

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?

“When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind,” by author and motivational speaker Dr. Wayne Dyer. It is a quote I first heard 25 years ago and have since used to guide my life in many ways. In a few weeks, I will have been married for 29 years. There are so many moments that occur in a relationship when you are given choice, and for me, choosing kindness has often made such an incredible difference. This quote is also a constant reminder for me to focus on listening and exhibiting empathy, especially in the workplace. I’m known to often say the phrase, “Now let me argue with myself,” because it is so important to consider the other side and stand in other people’s shoes.

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.

Singer-songwriter and activist Bono. During the late 1980s, I was a roadie at a concert where I stood four feet away from him for 90 minutes. U2’s Joshua Tree Tour was a life-defining moment for me. I am a huge music fan who loves songwriting and the magic of groups like U2. It also feels serendipitous that Bono and his wife were married almost exactly ten years before my wife and I. His commitment to activism and social justice is also extraordinary. I would love to be close to that and be inspired around what more I can do.

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?

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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.