Continuous Reskilling, A growing number of organizations have already started applying continuous performance management as a way to provide more regular and in-the-moment feedback. Growing out of this will be a need for continuous skill updating and development to (a) fill the gaps that may be emerging in performance management, but also (b) better leverage existing talent to meet emerging talent needs.

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 for them. 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 Jeff Jolton.

Jeffrey Jolton is a data-driven change agent. Over the course of his career, he has conducted research with hundreds of organizations to help them better understand their people, processes and culture and determine what is working, what’s not, and what needs to change. He loves the theater, the Buffalo Bills, walking his dogs, and early morning coffee in bed with his wife. If not there, you might look for him at Kincentric, a global HR advisory firm where he serves as the Managing Director of Research and Insights.

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.

After receiving my doctorate in industrial/organizational psychology, I was helping design employee selection tests and that often involved working with clients on validating the assessment tools they were using. One of my first projects was with a large organization that placed custodial workers into hospitals and a variety of other industrial settings. We were validating a safety assessment that was designed to screen for people who were less likely to violate safety rules or have an accident at work. I was working with the Vice President of Risk Management and was really excited because we were doing some geeky statistical work and we found some very statistically-significant relationships between the assessment and accidents in hospitals. We showed that those selected using the test had fewer accidents and fewer on-the-job injuries. The company had previously had one or two deaths a year, but since using the test, there were none. As I was beaming about the statistically-significant findings, the VP turned to me and said “You’re missing the point. We’re saving lives here. We’re keeping people safe and healthy, and we’re saving their family from pain and concern. Yes, you got a beautiful statistic, but the reality is that we’ve created a really big impact on people’s lives!”

Given that so much my career has been about employee measures, analytics and insights, these words stayed with me because ultimately, everything we do affects people. The employee survey work I do isn’t just about measuring perceptions. It helps people to have better work experiences. And if they have a good work experience, it can carry over and help improve other parts of their lives. Yes, we have great processes, assessments, analytics and tools, but at the end of the day, our work is ultimately about real people and their lives.

As for a personal experience, I was born with a moderate to severe hearing loss and as I got older, it got progressively worse. By the time I was 40, I had basically lost all my hearing and qualified for a cochlear implant. It just totally changed my world. And not just what I could hear, but how I experienced the whole world. It changed how I could understand and communicate with my young kids. I heard things in music (and lyrics!) that I missed before. And even simple things like hearing my dog’s nails clicking on the floor was amazing! It is rare, especially as adults, to get to see the world in a whole new light. Getting these implants gave me that as a gift as much as the gift of hearing.

I also feel like my hearing loss has given me the ability to gather and synthesize information in ways that have been of benefit in my professional life. Growing up hearing impaired, I had to deal with ambiguity all the time (hearing some words, not hearing others). Today, my work requires me to put together insights from various data sources and try to make sense from pieces of a story that doesn’t readily make sense to others. It has allowed me to find insights and patterns more easily because my brain is wired to make sense from ambiguity and noise.

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?

Having spent 30 years looking at human behavior at work, one of the things that I can say with confidence is that a lot of the things that we currently value about work, we will continue to value — and conversely, those things that we have struggled with, we will continue to struggle with. Most of the top drivers of employee engagement have remained constant for the last 20 years — such as leadership providing a motivating vision for the future, having meaningful career development opportunities, feeling included and heard, and being recognized in a way that makes you feel valued. The expectations around these things and how we execute on them have evolved over time, but they remain important now, and they’ll continue to be important in 10 to 15 years as well. The challenge of people management is knowing how and when to evolve around these topics — realizing that what worked previously or for some, doesn’t always work now or for others.

OK. So what will be different?

The optimist in me sees a shift towards healthier perceptions about the role of work in our lives, with organizations becoming more accommodating to these expectations. Twenty-five years ago we were just starting to talk about employee engagement. This was a new shift in thinking about work. The focus went from simply getting your people to show up and get the work done to wanting your people to align with the goals of the organization and be active in bringing those goals to fruition.

Engagement remains important, but what has shifted are the expectations people have about engagement. We’ve gone from employee engagement being seen as something some organizations do to it becoming an expectation that every organization should actively work to drive their people’s engagement. Up to this point however, the actions organizations took to engage people were largely dictated by what the organization and its leaders felt they should, could and wanted to do.

Today, the expectations are shifting from being organization-defined to being more individualized. People want a more personalized experience at work. This makes sense, as we have personalization in so many other aspects of our lives (just think about how we listen to music now compared to 5, 10, 25 years ago — remember mix tapes?!). As such, employees are less driven by how they fit into the values of the organization, and have become more focused on finding an organization that fits their values (as indicated by any number of things ranging from social responsibility to work flexibility to career possibilities or diversity and so on). With this personalization will come more flexibility on how, when and where people work. We are already seeing experimentation around work week hours and days, but this will expand to things like part-time careers, shared employers, manager specialization (some are people managers, some are skills managers), and beyond. It will be dictated by what employees feel they should, could and want their work experience to provide.

We only need to look at how things are emerging with virtual and hybrid work. There are people who want to work in an office and people who don’t. It is chaotic right now, in part, because organizations are having to accept a new reality that there are different preferences they need to accommodate. The future is not going to be a one-size-fits-all. Just as we’re not all willing to go back into an office every day, we’re going to move towards a work experience in which we can manage people in a more adaptive way to meet them where they are at in terms of their needs and interests.

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

I don’t think there is any such thing as being “future-proof”, and I’m happy about that because dealing with the unexpected provides inspiration for experimentation — trying new things and developing new ways of thinking. Instead of trying to predict the future, we need to be ready for the present. The best way to do that is being able to let go of the past.

One of the things that I’ve seen, stemming all the way back to when I was doing my dissertation, is the reality that both successes and challenges can create rigidity. In other words, we’re wired as human beings to want to hold on to what is familiar. When we have success, we stop looking for new and different ways of doing things because “Hey, this works!”. And when under stress, we find ourselves saying “Let’s wait on changing anything…we’ll get through this and then the time will be right for change.”

Both of these perspectives are preventing some organizations from making meaningful changes. Either it is a desire to return to what was working before, or “weathering the storm” first before making adjustments. Both, as research and history prove, are recipes for failure.

If we really want to be ready for the future, we must be ready to try something new. This doesn’t mean you always abandon what is working, but that you intentionally keep the door open to possibility. Do more experimentation. Focus on what could change for the better. Force a new perspective. A lot of the work I have done with companies has been around improving the work experiences for employees using their input and feedback. But real change gets stalled so often because they feel like whatever solution they come up with has to be “the solution!” This creates a lot of pressure to get things perfect right out of the gate — and that often results in nothing happening. We need to stop trying to make everything an initiative or a program or make everything a big, heavy lift.

When trying to create better work experiences for employees, companies need to get more comfortable with just trying stuff. With this approach, there’s not a sense of “We’re committed to doing this forever.” Instead, experimentation gives you permission to tweak and fix and even abandon. As you discover what works, you can roll it out and then you begin exploring the next thing.

I will add that experimentation also means, very critically, measuring and learning. You can take a step back to “see how this goes ‘– but you must also find ways to track the change and impact. This gets missed so often — being ready for the future also means understanding the past as well as what is working in the moment. It is important to think about how you are going to evaluate your experiments — it can be as simple as feedback from employees, to tracking utilization, or significant changes on key business metrics. But how you evaluate it is as important as the experiment itself.

Long answer short, we get fixated on what has worked for us, making it harder it is for us to adapt to the future. The remedy is to intentionally challenge and test and create. Complacency has no home here.

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 think that people are going to expect the organization to meet their own individual and personal needs and wants in a more intimate way. In the past, the thinking was “I work hard, I get paid for it. I show up. I have healthcare”, etc. — and in many ways, it was more about work covering our basic needs. But now, people are wanting and looking for more. They are searching for a job that fulfills them or gives them the time to find fulfillment outside of work.

This has been attributed to the COVID pandemic, and although COVID did accelerate things, we were already on this journey long before 2020. Over the last 10 years, I have seen a dramatic shift in expectations about work and life, with a desire for greater flexibility in how, when and where we work. But that amount of flexibility can often result in feeling “always-on” and people are starting to push back. The predictive analytics have indicated that well-being has come to the forefront of driving retention and performance. But at the same time, we’ve seen some tension, with leaders trying to address well-being while still pushing hard for performance. The result is people feeling they are not heard, and increased distrust of leaders whose words seem insincere or incongruent with the priorities and actions they are promoting.

Similarly, pre-pandemic, we were already talking about things like inclusion, belonging, equity and fairness. These are all things that reflect employees’ needs to have an experience that resonates with them — connecting back to having a more personalized work experience than in the past, instead of a one-size fits all.

The challenge is that (cold water splash here), organizations have a need to drive structure. They have a need (and obligation) to drive performance. The best way for them to do that is to do things in a more consistent way. In my research over the years, I have seen that indeed, business success is driven by a consistency in processes, experiences and structure. That becomes the gap we are facing — the conflict between consistency and personalization.

However, the reality is that these two constructs do not need to be opposing forces. Our thinking needs to shift to how we can best blend the two together. For example, consider the work experience of recognition. Everyone wants to feel recognized in some way and organizations want to recognize appropriately to reinforce the behaviors they want to see. We know from our research that meaningful recognition increases retention as well as both individual and organizational performance. All good stuff. To this end, we can all agree that we want consistency in having recognition in our work experience.

The personalization element is realizing that not everyone wants to be recognized in the same way. Younger people may want to be recognized with opportunities and advancement, while more tenured employees may seek visibility to leadership and bonuses. But even if the expression of recognition is different, the desire and purpose behind it is consistent.

As we think about experience design — specifically how we actively shape the employee experience — we need to move away from one-size spin offs and really embrace how the experience meets the needs of different key personas. This is an exercise in expansion and adaptation versus the creation of separate systems for different groups. We’re still building on a common foundation, but allowing ourselves to furnish the rooms differently along the way.

By the way, personas are often defined demographically, such as males vs females; younger workers versus experienced workers; managers vs non managers, etc. But be open to the possibility of other personas that may help shape the experiences you are creating. For example, in helping a client create opportunities for career development, we used statistics (cluster analysis if your inner data geek must know) to define different career motivation personas. We had a variety of personas, including life-long learners, ladder climbers, creators and more spanning a variety of demographics. This expanded the way the client thought about career development — which up to that point had really only catered to “ladder climbers”, resulting in frustration and attrition among those who fell into the other categories. Embracing personalization can definitely help open the organization identify new ways of operating consistently that can help meet business goals.

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

We were talking about the future of work long before COVID, but it was more in terms of digitization of the work experience. For example, how work tasks could be automated or how to leverage AI in new ways. But then COVID happened — the “experiment” happened — and I think it has caused us to return to a focus on the “humanness” of work.

During the pandemic, our focus wasn’t about the tech. It wasn’t about the automation. It was about how we relate to one another. How we can make ourselves visible when we can’t be physically present. How we include people when they are sitting alone in their home. And then the focus turned to wellbeing and how we could best support each other. Now we see the focus moving to being intentional about when we should be together in a room and when can we do things over a screen, and how we value the time people spend at work and protect it for the right activities and outcomes.

The future of work will depend on how well organizations embrace a more intentional approach to work itself as well as the people performing it. Before the pandemic, there was so much that we took for granted, and that some thought could never change. Those organizations that previously did not allow people to work remotely because of fears of its impact on productivity learned that those fears were unfounded. We lucked into massive change. But as we emerge from the pandemic, we need to be intentional in thinking through how we work now and in the future.

Firms that are not embracing “intentionality” are making claims like “everyone is going to return to the office…period!” Or “We’re not sure where things are going, so we’ll stay virtual or hybrid… for now.” In the former case, there needs to be more value derived by coming into the office than there was before — it isn’t enough to expect workers to return just because “I say so.” And the latter case results in inconsistency of experience, which not only hurts business performance but also creates mistrust, as people are waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop.

This all ties back to experience design. Being intentional means really considering what your people need to do, how they want and can do it, and how it can meet the needs of the business. Your employee experience design should always align to business needs. When they remain exclusive from each other, that is when we find leaders lose interest in it and make experience an “HR” thing. The argument isn’t that we need to force people back to the office, but rather that we need to create more intentional value by coming into the office. We can come into the office to learn. We can come into the office to connect. We can come into the office to develop.

Organizations that will learn and practice this intentional approach to work and experience design will be better positioned for a great future of work. It elevates the work from doing what is routine to doing what is of value, and in turn, should open new paths for creativity and innovation as well.

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?

Well, in the United States as well as some other countries, there now exists a greater political or ideological division between people, and my biggest fear for the future is that those rifts will continue to expand to the point that some people go to this restaurant because they’re left-leaning and some people go to that restaurant because they’re right leaning. Or they will elect to work for an organization that is left-leaning versus one that is right-leaning. I believe that’s the worst thing that can happen to our society.

We benefit from diversity of thought. We benefit from being able to question and challenge one another. The shift to aligning to organizations that meet your values and have experiences that are more personalized can overshoot the mark, so much so that we ultimately risk creating homogenous organizations, not diverse ones. The goal is to open up potential and expand, not contract and become limited. But if unchecked, that is the risk we face. When I talk about personalization, that is the certainly the direction that we need to go, but as a society we should strive to accommodate everyone, not just one specific persona or demographic. We need to embrace what comes from this level of inclusion.

Over the years, the work I have done has repeatedly shown that when at work, people want to do good things for other people. For the most part, people want to have a positive impact on customers, on society, on colleagues. People get engaged when they know they are doing something that feels like it is part of a greater good in some way. This is why it is so important that organizational leaders convey an exciting vision of the future that allows people to feel like they’re part of something bigger and something that they feel is making a positive impact in some way.

When I think about the future of work, and even as a society, I believe we need to lean into that more. We have to get away from the divisiveness of it all. If everyone has to be like me and think like me, then ultimately I have no value — because we’re all the same. Only by embracing uniqueness do we feel we contribute more value. Personalization then isn’t just about my needs being met but about realizing there are multiple needs to consider all at the same time, and that together we get a richer experience. Those who pivot in the other direction will fall into a trap of homogeneity and stagnation.

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

My greatest optimism is that at the end of day, we’re all people and we embrace our humanness at work. That is when we’re at our very best. Think about your best day at work — it is likely going to be about collaborating and creating and serving. That is the best of who we are. We have gone through phases in which we start leaning too much into technology or leaning too much into the zeitgeist of just one best way of working, but we always seem to come out of that. Sometimes it’s the result of a shock of some sort — something like 9/11 or the pandemic that forces us to realize “Oh, we’re all human beings here”.

And sometimes it’s just something simple that brings us together and makes us feel connected as people, like a solar eclipse or some other phenomenon in nature that inspires curiosity or awe in all of us. Work is best when there is that sense of connection — it can create purpose and value and all those things that help get us out of bed in the morning. I know we’ll ebb out of this at some point — but I’m confident that we always flow back to remembering how much we like to be connected to each other.

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?

The biggest innovation that we’re seeing right now is around time — trying to give time back to people. We are seeing things like 4/40 work weeks or six hour work days or Fridays off. There is a new negotiation about time. That isn’t the only answer, but it is helping to prevent burnout and preserve mental health.

Experience design is another big step forward in terms of creating a healthier work experience. Encouraging people to take time off or to use wellness and mental health resources is great, but let’s make sure the work environment itself is as healthy as possible as well, and not put it all on the individual. Creating cultures that promote openness and psychological safety. Having leaders better understand how to meet business objectives in ways beyond just having people grind. Creating new processes and leveraging technology to give us more time rather than consume our time. Innovation will be measured by how organizations make and sustain these environments in a way that works for them (again, always keeping business goals in mind) and by developing/selecting/rewarding leaders who can sustain the environment.

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 that the most important message leaders need to hear is that it’s always going to be something. The risk of these labels is that they create a sense that somehow there is a beginning and an end — that at some point, this will be behind us and we can go back to where we were before. But what you have to realize is that we’re always evolving and there really is no going back.

Leaders who push to return to the way things were before the pandemic are missing out on the new opportunities that sit before them. For example, one organization in a mid-sized city is mandating a return to the office, and now is wondering why they can’t compete in hiring new talent. They are missing the benefit that a virtual work world provides access to more talent in more places than just their city.

These labels are great in that they can help capture the moment, but leaders need to keep in mind that this too shall pass. They provide context that can help leaders question where are we growing and how do we learn from this? Leaders would do better to define their own future as opposed to being held captive by the present (or worse, by the past). Don’t become fixated on the Great whatever. Focus on what you can control in the moment (in this context) and what opportunities you can seize. Do something as opposed to being held captive by whatever headline is the highlight of that week.

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

1. Mental health will become a bigger focus for organizations. We’ve already seen mental health and wellbeing become a more critical driver of engagement and retention for employees. With the increase in burnout and the full impact of remote work on employee well-being yet to be understood, it can be expected that organizations will be tasked with not only providing increased support in terms of benefits around mental health, but also expand leadership and manager behaviors to help identify and mitigate mental health risks with their employees, as well as evaluating and changing organization work experiences to better support employees’ mental health.

2. The role of Managers will evolve. We have witnessed an increase in stress levels as well as responsibilities on managers over the last few years. There is evidence that while other job levels are becoming more engaged and feeling better about their work experience, managers are lagging behind, expressing more frustration around organization change, staffing, their own development, recognition and more. The reality is, senior leaders are pushing too much off on to managers — expecting every manager to be able to do everything, be it people leadership, task management, strategy rollout, etc, not to mention serving as team leader, local ethicist, and whatnot. To be effective, manager roles will need to evolve so that not all managers are doing all things. We are already seeing organizations do things to split out people management responsibilities from skill/expertise leveraging responsibilities. This model, which is more present in technology firms, will become more prevalent in other sectors and will impact how managers are selected/promoted as well as how they are developed and recognized (performance mgt). This should provide employees with better support, as well as expand the kind of career paths people take — one that builds on their technical skills vs. one that builds on how to motivate and support people, for example.

3. AI will become our Performance Coaches. AI has already become a routine tool to help us get work done faster or automate tasks in order to leave people more time to work on “higher order” activities. As AI evolves, we will find that it will advance so that it is riding along with us on our work journeys, providing regular coaching and feedback on how we can best perform. There are already rudimentary aspects of this, such as the speech coach function in Microsoft Teams or meta-data analyses from your work collaboration tools that help you evaluate how you are spending your time. These tools will evolve further to help design the best plan to get something completed in a set period of time, or best evaluate your work over time, identifying what to automate and where you should spend more efforts. If applied well, these tools will lead the way to help us bring our best to work without grinding to get there. If poorly applied, they will become nagging nuisances that people will ignore or shut off. The more developers learn about what support people will accept (versus just what support can be provided), the better adoption will likely be.

4. Continuous Reskilling, A growing number of organizations have already started applying continuous performance management as a way to provide more regular and in-the-moment feedback. Growing out of this will be a need for continuous skill updating and development to (a) fill the gaps that may be emerging in performance management, but also (b) better leverage existing talent to meet emerging talent needs. The increase of online courses, badging and certification will help support this, but organizations will need to step up in terms of job design, skill taxonomy and workforce planning for the benefits to be realized. This will require more clarity and thought around what skills will be needed when, which means skills and workforce planning will need to be more tightly aligned to business strategy and goals. Predictive modeling will become more essential to help in the planning here — expanding from just anticipating the flow of talent in and out of the organization, but also evaluate the individuals readiness and capability to adapt and take on and apply new skills.

5. Engagement will remain critical, but it will evolve. It seems almost daily, someone is heralding the death and demise of engagement in one way or another. Be it that “engagement doesn’t matter” or “here’s the next new thing…” the reality is that engagement is real, it matters and is here to stay. The research and analytics around the value of engagement is too robust to suggest that it is a fad that has done its time or is something that will lose relevance to something else. That isn’t to say that engagement isn’t evolving. What will change is how organizations create engagement (finding new drivers of engagement and new ways to execute on those drivers of engagement) as well as leveraging engagement as a way to meet various business goals. This can include using engagement for the benefit of the individual (e.g., openness to continuous reskilling) as well as the organization (expand the ways in which the organization wants to “spend” the energy that engagement brings).

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’m a Stephen Sondheim fan, and his “Sunday in the Park with George” is one of my favorite shows. In it, a character sings a song, “Move On”, which contains the lyrics “Stop worrying if your vision is new, Let others make that decision — they usually do. You keep moving on.”

I find myself sometimes worried about what I’m putting out in the world and have doubts if the insights I share are valuable to others. But what I’ve learned in life and what I’ve learned from that song is that there is always going to be someone judging you and your work. I could think I’m making the most perfect thing in the world, but once I release that, someone else is going to look at it and think it is either brilliant or it is rubbish. You don’t have control over what other people think, so you can’t let it hold you back. Put things out in the world. And then good or bad, it’s out there. Learn from it, and then move 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.

There’s that saying about not meeting your heroes… It is less that I think they would disappoint, as much as I am not sure what I would really have to say to them. Some have passed (like Sondheim) and others I don’t know what I would really say (I love Carol Burnett but fear I would only be able to say something like “thanks for making me laugh until I wet my pants as a kid”!) I could imagine a geek-out session with Malcolm Gladwell. So much of my passion is about making connections, and he seems to be a master of putting together the story. I would love to learn about his process and bring more of his ethnographic style to my own work.

That said, I really do try to appreciate the value of the people around me — I don’t long to meet a celebrity as much as I enjoy riffing with my friends and family or getting into an intellectual sparring match with a colleague, learning from my clients or team, or innovating with people in the moment. Now if Malcolm (or Adam Grant, or Daniel Pink) became part of my inner circle… that might be a new story!

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?

It’s probably best to reach out or follow me on Linkedin if you are interested in my periodic musings or thought leadership. You can also contact me at [email protected].

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