Machine Learning. In the modern, digital world, your behavior is being tracked, associated, and commodified. Think of Netflix or Amazon and how well they know your preferences, then look at how Facebook and Instagram are in tune with what you like or follow. This predictive modeling will nudge preferences and create new market opportunities. As we move forward, the shaping and curating of content that feeds our social media and physical worlds will become even more sophisticated. Job opportunities await the data scientists and those who are comfortable working with actionable data.

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. Vernon C. Smith.

Dr. Vernon C. Smith is Provost of American Public University System, a leading provider of online higher education headquartered in Charles Town, W.V. He joined as Provost in 2016 bringing his extensive background in online learning issues and practices, including effective quality, assessment, and retention strategies. Dr. Smith was an early adopter in the use of big data for predictive modeling and teaching excellence to promote student success.

Prior to APUS, Dr. Smith was with the University of the Pacific where he served as Vice Provost of Distributed Learning and Associate Professor of Practice in the Gladys L. Benerd School of Education. At Pacific, he led digital and adult learning initiatives including oversight of the Center for Professional and Continuing Education, the Center for Teaching and Learning, and support for hybrid and in-person programs and faculty on the Sacramento and San Francisco campuses.

Previously, Dr. Smith oversaw the successful launch of a new online college: Portmont College at Mount St. Mary’s, Los Angeles (now MSMU Online) through MyCollege Foundation, a Bill and Melinda Gates funded initiative where he served as the founding Chief Academic Officer and Provost. He served as Vice President of Academic Affairs at Rio Salado College, the largest public, online two-year community college serving over 70,000 students, 42,000 of those online during his tenure. In his over two decades of service at Rio, he served as Dean of Instruction overseeing institutional effectiveness, strategic planning, accreditation, and early-college programs. As Faculty Chair for Foreign Languages, he was a pioneer in online language courses and programs, and served as Faculty Senate President.

Dr. Smith was recently elected to the Executive Council of WCET (WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies) a division of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. He currently serves on the Advisory Board for ELI (EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative) and served on the EDUCAUSE Board of Directors. He served on the membership and data working groups for Transparency by Design, a national higher education accountability initiative that included APUS as a charter institution. His research interests include high-quality, cost-effective production models for online courses, the unbundling and re-bundling of the faculty role, adjunct faculty issues, academic integrity, and teaching and learning.

Dr. Smith earned his Bachelor of Arts degrees in Latin American Studies and Spanish at Brigham Young University, graduating Magna Cum Laude. He has a Master of Organizational Behavior from the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University. He earned a Doctor of Philosophy in Organization and Administration of Higher Education from the Center for the Study of Higher Education at The University of Arizona.

Dr. Smith has received the Dolores Brown Award from Arizona AATSP, Administrator of the Year Hallmark Award from Phi Theta Kappa, and has been recognized for outstanding teaching, presentations, and service including the Homer Sarasohn Award for Meritorious Service.

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 share with the audience one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today.

A defining experience for me was doing missionary service in southern Peru. I left college for a couple of years to serve others. Conditions were rough and I had to learn Spanish, but the experience shaped my educational and life journey — which is to continue to serve others. A second notable experience that helped define me was when I answered a job posting for a part-time Faculty position at Rio Salado College in Arizona right after finishing my Master’s in business with an emphasis in organizational behavior. You could say I found my tribe. I have been in higher education ever since.

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?

The future is here, and although it is not widespread, it is embedded with sporadically. We will see a continued expansion of trends that have manifested during this COVID era. The increased use of technology and the comfort of using that technology has been catalyzed by the pandemic. The flattening and globalization of economies and social structures will continue with hiccups in supply chains and logistics until it reaches a type of equilibrium. Work will continue to be less bound by geographic needs than by other market forces. The ability to problem-solve, critically think, work and lead diverse teams from across time zones, should be the hope for future talent acquisition and retention. The workplace will be less place-bound, more global, and require a higher level of mobility with increased choices that are highly influenced by worker values.

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

Employers need to self-reflect and capture data on why employees are leaving, then act on that collected data. In order to be successful, employers will need to verify if market or organizational gaps exist, and then work to fill those gaps. It used to be that working remotely was a perk — now it may be table-stakes and expected. Do you allow remote working conditions? What does a remote workforce opportunity do to the change in market? Can an employee working remotely in Iowa make the same salary as if they were based on the East or West Coast? Currently, there is extensive recalibration of compensation and working conditions within organizations because of this paradigm shift. Being able to take your dog to work is not a perk if your dog is already beside you while you work from home.

I also recommend that employers have conversations with employees who have chosen to remain with the organization. Help employees define what their future looks like — and that of the organization — going forward. What is a realistic career pathway that they should expect? What good things are happening within the organization? Where can improvements be made? It has been said that employees do not leave an organization, they leave a supervisor. I don’t think it is that simple. Employers need to look at what areas within the organization they are losing talented employees and then have those hard conversations to better understand how to adjust. The information gleaned will help employers know where to move strategically.

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?

Although there will always be transactional aspects like salary, benefits, working conditions, etc., there are other organizational, cultural, and generational gaps that will need to be addressed. If your organization isn’t benchmarking around this, it will be necessary to do this before employees do their own benchmarking. Innovative approaches to attract and retain employees should be considered, such as helping millennial and Gen-Z workers to continue, or complete their education, and help pay off their student debt, or the use of other creative paths. It is critical to foster a sense of true belonging and comfort to enable an employee to bring their “whole selves” to the workforce. An employer needs to ask what is going to attract and help the employee “stick” with the organization?

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

You can’t un-ring this bell. It has added flexibility and autonomy to the workplace, and it’s good for the environment. In many cases, organizations are gaining productivity and satisfaction, while employees have more time and flexibility. Time is the most prized resource in life. If someone has a 45-minute commute to their workplace, remote working can add an hour and a half of time back into the employee’s life — that is a valuable benefit to the employee.

An effort to track employees that work remotely may result in some organizations employing tactics that attempt to increase surveillance and monitoring of the employee’s effort. In contrast, forward-looking organizations are instilling common decision-making assumptions and shared mental models, while shifting the focus to outcomes and productivity measures that are transparent to both the employee and the manager. This is where artificial intelligence will have a distinct impact on how work is monitored and then measured for the future. The pendulum may swing toward Fordist Taylorism or another emergent model.

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 largest societal change is a cultural and generational change to the understanding that remote work is as effective, if not more effective, and it is possible. It removes the need for a commute, is more environmentally friendly, reduces traffic on the roads, is more family friendly, and opens the talent pool thanks to the removal of the geographical location barrier. Since organizations are no longer bound by geographic location, it is now possible to recruit from the best talent available, no matter where a person chooses to live. The change for society is in its acceptance of this new normal, and then working to ensure that fears of the future and binding regulations do not stifle our steps forward that have already been made.

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

Looking at the progress over the last 100 years, it is astounding how much work has changed. My grandfather witnessed the age of flight that led to the moon landing, and our ability to travel into space. This is accelerating. The digitization of all things, along with the globalization of talent, means we should experience a similar leap in the next 50 years for what defines work, what is produced, and how it is produced — as by robots or artificial intelligence. I am more optimistic than ever about finding ways to bring creativity and personalization into the workplace. My hope is that work becomes so imbued with meaning that it will feel more like play in the next half of the century.

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 has been a critical issue during the pandemic. Studies show that stress levels have increased significantly in individuals, especially among women and younger, Gen-Z workers. Concurrently, a shift to telemedicine to reduce in-person contact has also occurred. It is now possible to triage and treat mental health through a telehealth interaction. Offering these services and finding providers who utilize telehealth and telemedicine strategies will ensure access. At American Public University System (APUS), just like at other higher education institutions, we have seen a precipitous rise in mental health needs among our students. We proactively chose to address this by incorporating a flexible, student-focused telehealth solution to augment our existing services. One student shared that they were so thankful for this service, because it would have been several months before an appointment could be scheduled through their employer-provided healthcare. Opening access when and how it is needed is the key to a solid foundation for mental health and wellbeing.

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?

When 30 million people quit their jobs, something big is happening. Again, this requires self-reflection, including an assessment of the organizational policies and practices to align with new market realities, as well as transparency and commitment by organizational leadership to drive the direction of talent management and retention.

Organizations will have to overcome what I call the “watercooler challenge.” Much of the flow of information, political maneuverings, gossip, and the smoothing of relationships happens during watercooler meetings in informal ways. To preserve this, organizations will need to find methods for connecting employees that will take the place of a physical watercooler conversation. That is a challenge today, because, based on generational cultures, some Gen-Z employees may never have that type of interaction. How will the informal organization flourish, and how will star employees be noticed, supported, and promoted? To fulfill these challenges, I foresee the need for hybrid connections so that employees can make contact, break bread with each other, and build meaningful relationships with co-workers beyond the imperative day-to-day tasks.

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

  1. Machine Learning. In the modern, digital world, your behavior is being tracked, associated, and commodified. Think of Netflix or Amazon and how well they know your preferences, then look at how Facebook and Instagram are in tune with what you like or follow. This predictive modeling will nudge preferences and create new market opportunities. As we move forward, the shaping and curating of content that feeds our social media and physical worlds will become even more sophisticated. Job opportunities await the data scientists and those who are comfortable working with actionable data.
  2. Artificial Intelligence and Robotics. Work will not be the same because AI and robotics drive down costs and increase scale and efficiency. Technology is truly the destroyer of professions when machines replace people and processes. Professions will be replaced or repositioned as a result of these technologies. AI will develop exponentially over the coming years, and we will not be able to distinguish whether an AI bot is chatting with us or if it is another human being.
  3. Virtual Assembly Lines. The combination of freelance or gig workers who are enhanced by collaboration technologies allows the creation of virtual assembly lines that work across time zones and geographic borders. Use your imagination. If you can build an assembly line with the key workers and subprocesses from around the globe, the possibilities are endless. To envision this, just think about movie or music production using talent around the globe.
  4. STEM and Healthcare. Demographics rule. The aging population and the digitization of all things makes caring for humans or caring for machines that care for humans — whether biological or silicon-based — a significant area for future job growth and opportunity.
  5. Continuous Learning. It takes about 18 months before a freshly minted engineer needs to update and refresh their knowledge. It is not the same in every field, however, the need for continuous learning across the lifetime of an employee is expected amid changing technologies, shifting markets, and automation. A career plan should include both a successful entry into the world of work, along with an awareness of when to refresh skills, abilities, and competencies throughout one’s lifetime. A career plan should be coupled with an education and training plan. Employers should partner with universities that offer both training and educational opportunities that can be scaled and are cost-effective to meet the ongoing needs of their employees.

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?

A saying that I believe can help manage change, especially cultural change, is “Honor the past, but don’t live it in.” Optimism is about the future; change is about the future; opportunity is about the future. Future-thinking is a skillset that can be enhanced at the individual and organizational levels.

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 met John Doerr a number of years ago while doing a college start-up in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He had some great insights on the economy and education in our short meeting. He is someone I’d love to cross paths with again. (John is a successful venture capitalist and author of “Measure What Matters,” a book about goal setting, and “Speed & Scale: An Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now”.)

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?

@drvcsmith on LinkedIn or Twitter

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