More purpose: We want to work on things that matter — I certainly do. Even if there are undoubtedly significant inequalities, our societies have become much wealthier overall. Today and in the future, work is not just about making ends meet but about having an impact and a source of meaning.
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 Eva-Maria Hempe.
Dr. Eva-Maria Hempe is a technology & healthcare executive and board member with a Ph.D. in organizational design. She is based in Switzerland and currently leads Enterprise Sales for DACH, Eastern Europe, and Israel for cloud giant VMware. There her mission is to enable and equip cross-functional teams to sell more strategically, in particular, to shape and close big(ger) deals through empathy.
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 learned early to question my worldview and empathize with the perspectives of others. When I was just 15 years old, I left home in Germany to live in the United States for a year as a high school exchange student. I felt alone in a foreign country and changed host families a few times, which I soon realized was due to a ‘culture clash’. I was raised to be very independent: In Germany, I could go everywhere in town by bicycle, and my parents placed a lot of trust in me. In the US, I was too young to drive, so I depended on getting rides, and my host parents were much more protective. This perspective was so alien to me at first. I felt controlled and not trusted. Until I saw the situation through my host parents’ eyes: after all, they were responsible for someone else’s kid! Since then, I have carried this lesson through the many times I have moved across cultural boundaries for work and life.
A second pivotal moment was about the importance of purpose. When I was one year into my Ph.D., I decided to start over again in a completely different field. I had gone straight from my physics master’s degree into a physics Ph.D. and was working in quantum optics. We tried to understand the fundamental mechanisms of interaction between light and matter. But after a year, I realized my heart was not into it. I liked the structured, analytical way of working but wanted to work on something with more real-world impact. It was a tough decision, facing the prospect of abandoning all those years I had spent in physics. The key realization was that even if I finished the physics Ph.D., I would be looking to do something else afterward. So why wait? And this is how I ended up getting a Ph.D. studying organizational design and development of healthcare services.
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?
First, there will still be enough work, even with robotics, AI, and machine learning. Ever since the start of industrialization, there were predictions that we would work less and would not even know what to do with all our free time. But on average we work the same or more — just the nature of work has changed. For example, the technology which VMware sells allows you to automate how you run your IT infrastructure. So, instead of doing repetitive tasks, we are freeing up scarce IT talent to creatively problem-solve and push the boundaries of what is possible.
For many people, work is very closely entwined with identity and purpose. And that will be the significant shift: the purpose of work will become more critical. We see this in the discussions about Gen Z, who is seen as demanding and spoilt by some. But from what I can see, this generation grew up materially secure and hence is not content with just being able to put bread on the table. Instead, they are looking for impact and meaning, something to which, given the choices I made about my Ph.D., I completely relate to. And it is not just the very young ones. The rise of the importance of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics is, on the one hand, driven by investors but also by the demands of employees of all ages who want to work for socially responsible companies.
A second significant change for me is that as societies age, we will see more diversity through migration, people staying in the workforce for longer, and an even stronger push for women to remain in the workforce. There is plenty of research that mixed teams are more creative and effective, but it will create challenges for managers. As team leaders, we will have to build our empathy muscle. We need to develop a willingness and curiosity to explore other viewpoints. I have been in work settings where the company line pushed for more diversity, but the managers saw being different as something to correct rather than celebrate. The result, unsurprisingly, was a very homogeneous organization where you either conformed or left. I did the latter.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
What I just touched on — be empathetic. Empathy is the key to future-proofing your organization. An empathetic leader is an opposite of being weak. Empathy requires you to question your lovingly held perspectives and to acknowledge other, alien, views even if you do not espouse them. Having empathy at the center of organizational life takes immense strength.
Of course, being more empathetic complicates things and means I must be humble as a leader. In some settings, it is easier than in others. If you rose through the ranks, you are more inclined to feel you know better. Consulting, an industry I worked in for almost a decade, is an excellent example: you usually start as an associate, sometimes referred to as “Excel monkey”, and you get promoted and promoted, and suddenly you are a manager. And then there is this big trap — “I have been there, done that myself. I know how associates do their work, right?” But the world has moved on. I left consulting a few years ago, but from what I see these days, it is no longer (just) Excel; they now work with Tableau and much more extensive data sets than we ever saw. And even if they work with Excel, maybe the associate has a different working style from how I worked back in the day. Perhaps she found indeed a more elegant way to solve a problem than how I would have done it. And maybe the approach is not more elegant, just different, and I prefer if the entire team does it the same, conventional way so that everyone can pick up where someone else lets off. But to get to that point where I can make the call about whether the new method is better, I need to be open and curious.
Research by the non-profit Catalyst backs me up: Empathy drives business results. Employees are demonstrably more innovative, engaged, and likely to stay. For example, with an empathetic leader, employees are 61% more likely to be innovative, and 76% reported higher levels of engagement.
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 dynamics around flexibility and stability are fascinating. And these cut both ways.
Employees want flexibility — to some extent. But they also want stability. The people I work with want flexibility to work remotely; they want flexibility on what they work and flexibility on how they work. But they also want stability in having a circle of co-workers they see regularly and some continuity regarding their work topics. And nobody likes to switch tools and methods every month. The same is valid for employers. As a boss, I want employees who are open to change, but at the same time, people need to be in place for a while to build routine and expertise.
The way to reconcile this is two-fold. Firstly, again empathy. Everyone is different and has a distinct sweet spot on the stability–flexibility continuum. With empathy, I, as a leader, can identify this sweet spot, and ideally, this can be matched to the role and balanced across the team. The second element of this reconciliation is empowerment. If instead of trying to top-down determine the split of work between the team members, the problem-solving process, and the team’s general way of working, I give the teams the tools and power to shape their own way of working; then the team has room to adjust between themselves and react to changing circumstances in a much more agile way.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
It is a bit of a paradox — you need to offer work from home to attract talent, but you must bring people together to keep them. In a study by the consulting firm Bain of tech workers in 2022, 40% of respondents said that flexibility, including working from home, was a top 3 reason for joining a company. Inclusivity, on the other hand, is vital to retaining talent. People need to feel connected and part of a team to stay. During the pandemic, we all built an arsenal of virtual team meetings, video 1:1s, and Zoom coffee hours. While these digital means of connection go some way to build cohesion, in my experience, nothing beats spending time face-to-face to create a sense of community and connection. So really, it is about finding a middle ground –whether this is set office days, a quota of days to work on-site vs. remote, offsites, or local hubs will depend on the nature of the work, the industry, the company, etc.
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?
There is nothing that works for everyone. But in general, I expect the future of work to be more purposeful and more dynamic.
We will see even more non-linear biographies, where over the course of a working life, people work for different companies in different roles. And maybe even take some time out in their 40s and, in return, work well into their late 60s. And this is not just beneficial for the individual regarding work-life balance. These more varied experiences are an essential source of creativity in a world where machines are taking over more and more routine tasks.
Regarding purpose, I believe we will continue to see people look at this more holistic than just work and instead as a balance or a combination between their private and professional lives. So, I hope we continue to see the societal shift away from mothers as primary caretakers and normalizing fathers taking an equal share of family time. This will reduce the “mother penalty” in the workplace and unlock a lot of female talent. Plus, it is also great for kids to have a present father in their lives and gratifying for dads to be there for their children while they are growing up.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
It is how far we have come! If I look at how the workplace looked like in the generation of my parents or grandparents, things have changed a lot. While there are always exceptions, if I look, for example, at my teams, their work has become more diverse, more self-directed, and since the pandemic, also suddenly a lot more flexible. Of course, there are downsides, as we discussed already. Being self-directed also means taking ownership; not spending my whole career at one firm gives me more varied experiences but also introduces uncertainty. But overall, we have so many more opportunities to do meaningful work in an environment where we no longer have to hide our true selves.
Our collective mental health and well-being 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 well-being?
I am worried I will start sounding like a broken record, but I keep returning to empathy. The Bain study I referred to earlier also showed that when leaders were more empathetic, 86% of employees felt that they could navigate the demands of their personal, family, and work obligations, compared to just 60% of those with less empathetic leaders.
But how to turn this into action? Empathy is a crucial element of design thinking, together with prototyping. So, when I want to make changes that optimize employee well-being, I do not just observe and listen, but I focus on involving employees in prototyping and testing changes. And with these prototypes, I then go back to observe and listen again to see if an intervention works or if I need to try something else. And so, I get fast, incremental improvements — in the spirit of “done is better than perfect”. And because every change is tested in the real world, design thinking allows me to adapt quickly to novel and changing environments.
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?
We need a new culture of leadership. We must move from top-down to a more distributed, empathetic, and empowered way of working. An essential part of this is also psychological safety. To me, it is vital that everyone feels safe to speak up, feels safe to be different, and feels safe to try out new things, especially if there is a risk of failure. I think it was Einstein who said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. Our modern world is powered by innovation, and innovation requires experimentation, and experimentation requires psychological safety.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
- More creativity: With increasing automation and artificial intelligence, many more routine tasks will vanish. As a leader, I need to prioritize on-the-job training to up- and re-skill workers. In the future, it is about using these new tools creatively to push the boundaries and stand on the shoulder of giants — and AI models. An example from the healthcare world: Already today, AI is better at identifying some cancers, such as metastatic cancer in the lung. But there are many other contextual factors that a physician must take into account. And of course, there is also the question of liability. Hence, there will still be physicians in the future, and they will work hand in hand with an AI that will alert them to patterns and offer a shortlist of possible interpretations.
- More diversity: I can see daily how my department’s most diverse team is also the best functioning. They managed to make diversity their superpower. Being able to do so will only become more critical as birth rates decline worldwide, especially in the developed world. Consequently, our societies are aging, and we will continue to see increased diversity in the workplace due to migration, increased participation of women and other marginalized groups in the workforce, and more flexible models that allow older workers to stay in the workforce for longer. This is a massive chance for again more creativity, better products that more accurately represent the whole breadth of society and more balanced decision-making.
- More empowerment: I work with ever more diverse teams in an ever faster-changing environment and experience first-hand the different expectations of the younger generations regarding remote work and purpose. All of this requires a new management style. The world is moving and changing too fast for someone at the top to be able to know and decide everything. More diverse backgrounds also mean that as a leader, I am working with people who are very different from myself on so many dimensions. I can only capitalize on the benefit of these different viewpoints if I give team members space to make decisions and take action. My role as a leader is setting boundaries and objectives for my teams and then removing any roadblocks to them reaching their goal. I have my areas of expertise which I happily bring to the table, but I know that together we will be able to find better answers and make better decisions.
- More empathy: Empathy is crucial for creativity, diversity, and empowerment. When I can walk into someone else’s shoes, that resolves many conflicts. We all tend to take many things far too personally. “He just walked past me at the coffee machine this morning. Have I upset him yesterday?” Most likely not. He is just deep in thought or is having a bad day. But you will only find out if you talk to him. And if you do not, you could even go down a vicious and self-fulfilling spiral: you think he does not like you, you will hence be less open and friendly, he picks up on this and in return, also become more reserved. In this way, perceived animosity can turn into real animosity. How to break out of this? Talk to each other! Communication is the not-so-secret sauce that powers empathy: asking others for their point of view, asking how they are, and conveying an interest in general. Again, empathy does not mean you need to agree with everything but be open to different perspectives.
- More purpose: We want to work on things that matter — I certainly do. Even if there are undoubtedly significant inequalities, our societies have become much wealthier overall. Today and in the future, work is not just about making ends meet but about having an impact and a source of meaning. As biographies get less linear, there might also be phases in one’s life where meaning comes primarily from work and others where family obligations take precedence. As a leader, I need to adjust for this — and by providing flexibility when required, I can build the cohesion and loyalty that retain talented staff in the long term.
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?
It is another Einstein quote: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving”. Life is constant change — we change every day: we learn new things, we forget old things, we make experiences that affect us, our bodies become older, etc. And the same is true for work. As our world changes, so will our work. And I think that this is exciting.
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 would love to sit down with the founders of BioNTech, Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci. I find their story very inspiring: they are scientists by heart who use their love of science to save lives. And it is not just the COVID-19 vaccine, where they were one of the first to market (by partnering with Pfizer for testing and logistics). They had initially started working on mRNA to battle cancer, and they are now taking the learnings from the vaccine back to immunology. Also, as a company, they are at an exciting point, having experienced hyper growth in recent years and now really scaling their organization and systems.
Another person I would love to have a coffee with is Trevor Noah, who is very vocal about the power of diversity, context, and empathy — both based on his history of growing up in South Africa as well as as a basis for great and witty comedy. And finally, I find Mira Murati, the CTO of Open AI, a fascinating person. She left her home country, made a name for herself as a young woman in tech, and is really changing our world with ChatGPT and DALL-E. But she is also acutely aware of the risks of this new technology and is a vocal advocate for regulatory frameworks in this space. I would love to discuss with her how to manage the environmental impact of large-scale AI and how we can ensure that AI helps to solve our sustainability problem and not adds to it.
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?
The best way to continue the conversation is to follow and contact me on LinkedIn. Besides reflections on leadership, I share interesting pieces of content I come across at the interface of digital and healthcare/ life science.
Another topic that I find fascinating is the sustainability of technology. Technology can help us reduce our carbon footprint, but if we are not careful, using digital to improve environmental sustainability might become like building more roads to improve traffic flow. We need to become a lot more mindful of the overall footprint of the technology. Digital might be more sustainable than the non-digital alternative. Yet, it is also more convenient, reducing barriers to usage, which drives increasing use, and leads to a bigger footprint overall.
It is like that extra lane that initially eliminates the 20-minute congestion. But then many people who used to feel that the trip was not worth the traffic jam start taking their cars — until we end up with a similar congestion level. Another example is mail: a letter is 6x the emission of an email — but it is safe to say all of us are writing a lot more emails than we used to write letters. And I would dare to bet you that that factor is much larger than 6.
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.