Work and organisation design — how work is done, in person, remote, hybrid, and how people are configured to achieve goals e.g. flexible teams vs traditional structures. People will be more in charge of their work. Teams will form around a problem and disband when that is solved (think agile working).
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 Dr Joan van den Brink.
Dr Joan van den Brink is an Executive Coach, founder of Araba Consulting, and author of The Three Companions. Joan has global experience working with senior business leaders and executives, providing bespoke leadership services for teams and individuals to create inclusive environments in which people can thrive.
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.
The first one was when I was working for HayGroup as a leadership and talent consultant. People were drawn to me and turned to me for advice and support from the time when I was at university. I didn’t understand why or the positive impact I had. When I joined HayGroup I was exposed to the psychology of human motivation and what makes great leadership. I learnt how to understand deep-seated drivers of behaviour in myself and others, and how to support and enable them. This allowed me to be more mindful and intentional in my interactions and develop my empathy. I facilitated many individual and team development programmes and became an executive and team coach. I learnt a lot about the diversity of people and the challenges they faced. And I learnt a lot about myself.
The second life experience was my divorce from the father of my children. I decided to leave them with him as I felt that I would be more able to maintain a strong connection with them from a distance and he wanted to rebuild his relationship with them. It took resilience and inner strength for me to navigate this path; my daughter refused to come to my apartment for the first 7 months and my now ex-husband demonstrated behaviours that reminded me of why I took the decision to leave after 28 years together. That was 15 years ago. What I felt then has borne out, I have a sound relationship with them.
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?
That’s a great question and not an easy one to answer. The world has changed so dramatically in the last 2 years that I find it hard to forecast what work, the workforce and workplace will be like in 10–15 years from now. I can share my thoughts with you about what factors are currently impacting this and the direction of travel.
Technology has profoundly changed the way we work and will continue to disrupt jobs, which will drive a re-shaping of roles. Individuals will need to evolve their skills to focus on complex situations that require a sophisticated and nuanced understanding to achieve the best results. For example, in coaching sessions we pick up on changes in tone of voice, body language e.g. a change in posture, a shrug, where the eyes are focused, and so on, the words used, a shift in energy, what is happening within the coach in response to what is occurring in the session, and so on. Some of this is easily replicated e.g. language, repeated words, whilst others are not e.g. what is being evoked in the coach. Coaches need to enhance their skills in these latter facets of coaching.
Whilst remote working did not take off to the extent predicted a few years ago, the pandemic forced organisations to make this a reality for those members of the workforce who could work from home. Now that governments are moving to living with COVID, some organisations have opted for a hybrid model of remote and in-person working. Others, however, have demanded that their staff return to full-time office working, citing that collaboration and innovation works much better in person. I expect this to shift as employees reappraise what they want out of life and work and technology enables them more options to work from anywhere and earn money from side gigs e.g. AirBnB, Upwork etc.
It must be remembered that not all employees have the possibility to work from home; they need to be on-site e.g. production and processing facilities, restaurants, healthcare, utilities — water, waste treatment, communications, transport, energy, to name but a few. I think there will be increased emphasis on how to provide better working conditions for these front-line staff and ensure their safety.
Continued focus on the environment and sustainability. Governments are placing increasing pressure on organisations to reduce their environmental impact. In turn organisations are transforming their operations and supply chains. For example, developing energy from waste technologies, investing in the circular economy, improving their social impact. This will impact the nature of work as organisations develop new processes, and engage with different stakeholders, such as local communities in which they operate.
More people will feel able to express themselves as organisations focus on inclusion and belonging. This includes being more open about not feeling ok/struggling at work (and home), for example due to mental health concerns. Those organisations that continue to focus on creating a more humane culture will be the best places to work.
Learning has shifted from in-person, classroom training to just-in-time, online, bite-sized learning. With the introduction of AI, and ML, learning and development experiences are curated based on the learner’s interests and progress. L&D platforms permit learners to consume learning on the go, anytime, anywhere. There are apps to suit various needs, for example, coping with anxiety, meditation, coaching, project management, creativity etc. I anticipate that these will become more sophisticated, so that they can facilitate group learning and problem solving.
The pandemic has brought out the humanity in many leaders, who have collaborated to provide for the greater good of society. For example, ‘big pharma’ collaborating with research institutes and biotech firms to develop the vaccines, companies transforming their production lines to manufacture PPE, food distributed to the needy and key workers. I think there will be much more focus on the greater good of society as we face more global threats.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
Fully embrace diversity, inclusion and belonging. The organisation needs to create an environment that allows everyone to be the best they can be. That is about recognising the diversity in the workplace and making appropriate accommodations e.g. using technology that enables less-abled persons to feel included and contributing. Going beyond an intention and desire to be more inclusive to driving real change.
Equip leaders and managers to create the psychological safety that allows people to speak out/give their input without fear of recrimination.
Flexible work design. Forming and disbanding teams. Employees will want to have more say in how and where they work. The pandemic has allowed organisations to experiment with different ways of working. Moving to online meetings has levelled the playing field and allowed individuals in remote locations to contribute equally with their peers. This creates the opportunity for leaders to identify the best people to work on assignments irrespective of where they sit in the organisation and geographical location. Employers need to invest more in creating environments that bring out the best in their people and foster high performance.
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 believe that the biggest gap will be to create truly inclusive cultures, where individuals can be themselves and receive the opportunities that enable them to maximise their potential.
I would urge leaders to go beyond lip service and performative inclusion to effect real change. That means educating themselves and their people about diversity and what it means to feel that you belong. This includes increasing awareness in difference, whether that be individuals who are less abled, neurodiverse (e.g. individuals with ADHD, dyslexia, Downs syndrome etc.), of different faiths, socio-economic backgrounds, and so on. This education can come from various sources including first-hand experience such as reverse mentoring, intentionally seeking out individuals whom we do not know, listening to their stories. In addition, leaders need to foster an environment in which individuals gain insights to their responses to different stimuli, be that people, viewpoints, art, cultures etc. and the actions and decisions they take without thinking. For example, selecting individuals to work on projects, assumptions about where and how work needs to be done, their definition of expectations, what they value in employees, what behaviours and accomplishments they reward or discount? Leaders need to create an environment in which people feel safe to speak their truth even when it’s painful for the leaders (and others) to hear. They need to encourage free speech, to hear opposing and potentially obnoxious views, so they can learn how to provide inclusion for everyone. They need to be curious and open their eyes and ears to the real experience of everyone in the organisation. They need to foster dialogue where individuals listen and seek to understand others. And ensure that they have the courage to change their ways of working.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
I think this experiment allowed leaders to experience first-hand the benefits and limitations of remote working for individuals in jobs that made this possible. As I said earlier, it increased the possibilities of leaders to involve individuals across the globe more equally. Leaders learnt how they could recruit, onboard, and manage staff remotely, focusing on outcomes and being flexible about how and when people work. However, there are downsides that come from no in-person contact including less social cohesion that comes from informal contact, being able to ask questions, resolve misunderstandings and tension, build networks etc. I hope that leaders will take the best from working from home and combine with the best of in-person working.
Also, I think that there will be a greater emphasis on employee safety and a broadening of the definition of what is safety. Currently the focus is on preventing accidents and injury with some arrangements to ensure employee health and well-being. I think that there will be more directives and not just initiatives to promote health and well-being. The best places to work will take a more holistic view of performance and put systems and structures in place that support employees to stay away from work when they are ill rather than soldier on and possibly infect others.
Tackle the inequities in the workforce. For example, employees who are required on site including factories, healthcare workers, care home staff, hospitality, utilities etc. We have taken these individuals for granted. I hope that will change.
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?
I believe that society needs to feel gratitude to appreciate what we have rather than take it for granted. For example, in the western world we have virtually continuous access to clean water, gas and electricity, food. How often do we stop to think about what it takes to provide those services? Instead, we complain when we are faced with shortages. Conversely, in poorer countries, they are accustomed to inefficient services, poor infrastructure, power cuts, and so on. They seem more able to make the best of what they do have and be more self-sufficient than us in the West. Growing their own food, using natural resources creatively to build houses, make health remedies, etc. They seem to have more patience and an abundant mindset. I believe they place more value on relationships and community than in many western societies. We could learn from their philosophies and way of life e.g. Ubuntu — I am because we are.
I also feel that as a society we need to embrace the qualities of courage, compassion, and wisdom. We need to show more compassion to ourselves and others. Have the courage to face and be alongside suffering. This could be about having meaningful conversations about emotive subjects, reaching out to people who we would typically avoid, letting go of our egos so that we can commune with individuals who we do not like. And the wisdom to know the best way to behave in the situation. Do we speak or remain silent? Do we listen and provide a comforting space? Do we challenge? If society adopts these qualities, we can effect positive change that will create a future where the workplace works for everyone.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
An increasing number of organisations are adopting conscious business principles which benefits employees and the environment. Partly through legislation and partly due to social responsibility in which they aspire to be good neighbours in their host communities. The conversation about DE&I in many organisations is also enhancing awareness about difference and inequities and prompting people in positions of influence to change their behaviours to foster better work environments for all.
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?
What I have seen is that employers sponsor employee resource groups (ERGs/BRGs) focused on mental health. These groups provide support and resources such as, mental health first aiders (people who have some training and can be a first port of call), videos where senior leaders talk about their mental health struggles, events focused on mental health, inspiring talks, self-compassion workshops, leaders who tell their teams that ‘it’s ok to not be ok’.
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?
I think ‘The Great Resignation’, ‘The Great Reconfiguration’ and ‘The Great Re-evaluation’ signify that employees are not happy with the way they have been treated by their employers, particularly during the pandemic. They have reappraised what is important to them in their lives and want to have more balance, prioritise their families and interests outside of work. Some have benefited from working from home and don’t want to return to the office, whilst others need the in-person contact. Company culture needs to evolve to become more employee-centric and involve employees in designing the work experience in a way that suits the greatest number of employees.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
- Work and organisation design — how work is done, in person, remote, hybrid, and how people are configured to achieve goals e.g. flexible teams vs traditional structures. People will be more in charge of their work. Teams will form around a problem and disband when that is solved (think agile working).
- Use of AI technology to enhance effectiveness — technology is still developing rapidly. For example, mobile technologies use facial recognition, there are apps that track employee movements and who they are connecting with, virtual assistants that advise us of the meetings we have coming up and suggest preparation materials and follow-up tasks, take meeting notes, and so on. I can imagine AI will be used to facilitate group sessions, e.g. learning from experience, brainstorming, creative workshops, problem solving, and so on, where AI adapts to what has emerged in the session and directs the group through the most appropriate tools that fit the moment.
- Employee health, wellbeing, and safety — the pandemic has forced leaders to think more broadly and systemically about how they protect their workforce, clients, and others in their ecosystems. I believe there will be increased emphasis on this as we normalise and embrace mental health, neurodiversity, different abilities, and we learn more about our different experiences, how that impacts how we see the world and how we can engage more productively with each other.
- Employee-centric workplaces — employees will be more involved in the design of their ideal workspace and culture. They will exert more influence on how they are treated. This extends to creating more inclusive cultures where individuals feel that are enabled to bring their best selves to work.
- Individual and organisational learning, creation of knowledge — learning and development has evolved from classroom to e-learning. During the pandemic, the use of digital tools to facilitate remote learning & development was accelerated, e.g. virtual classrooms, online, bite-sized training, curated learning experiences, and so on. We are now hearing about learning in the flow of work in which learning is incorporated into platforms that employees and leaders use during their work to make them more effective at their jobs. I think we should watch this space as technology continues to transform the ways in which organisations develop the capability that they need.
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?
I don’t have a specific quote. I am a Buddhist and have for a long time tried to live by the qualities of courage, compassion, and wisdom. Since I wrote the book I feel even more determined to embody these qualities. Courage, compassion and wisdom has become a mantra that enables me to face into tough situations and have those difficult conversations in a way that is constructive.
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.
Satya Nadella, Global CEO of Microsoft. I believe he has a humanist style of leadership, which resonates with my own. I would love to talk more about that and learn from him
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?
They can connect with me on LinkedIn, https://www.linkedin.com/in/joan-van-den-brink-88148b2/
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.