Accelerated adoption of digital technologies: With automation and AI taking on a significant amount of labor in repeatable design processes, positions with lower skill requirements will continue to be replaced with technology. Providing valuable upskilling opportunities is going to be critical for both talent retention and company health.
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 Jim Horn.
Jim Horn is the Chief Human Resources Officer at Ulteig — an engineering and technical services firm with just over 1,000 employees spread across the United States and Canada. Over the last seven years with Ulteig, Jim has enjoyed the privilege of growing and leading a fantastic Human Resources and Business Services team that has enabled the growth of the company. Jim lives in Minneapolis.
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.
During my last year of college, I signed up to be a door-to-door salesperson for a company (Southwestern) that recruited college students on their summer breaks to move to another part of the country, live with a family in the area, and work 80+ hour weeks for the entire summer. Talk about a growth experience! It’s easily the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, and I needed it at the time. Beyond the obvious growth areas of resilience and persistence, it helped build my confidence to take on just about anything.
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?
There are a few trends we’ve started seeing as well as some elements that are more enduring that I think we’ll still be talking about in 10–15 years:
- Work: People will continue to seek out and really require genuine connection — to the work they do, the colleagues they do it with, and the company and customers they do it for. They will want alignment and connection to a clear purpose. They will also expect regular opportunities for growth — either within their own company or by moving to another one.
- Workforce: I believe we’ll continue to struggle with the talent gap — finding individuals with the technical capabilities needed in our business.
- Workplace: I think we’ll see some version of a hybrid workplace shake out in the next few years.
And of course, plenty will change. From where I sit, the key changes will be:
- Work: Work will look dramatically different with higher levels of automation, AI, and efficiency.
- Workforce: For mid-size companies like ours, I expect to see a much more global workforce with very few boundaries. Workers will need more advanced skills, especially with digital technologies.
- Workplace: That’s a tough one. I don’t think we’ll ever see the type of workplace we saw pre-pandemic with most employees in the office every day. So, employees will have the ability to call the shots on where they work to a great extent.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
The healthiest, most successful employers are going to help address the challenges of today without losing sight of the bigger-picture future. And as leaders, it’s our job to make sure we are connecting the dots between now and what’s next. A few ways we can do that:
- Keep a wide lens to what the future could look like: Utilize scenario planning to consider the various futures that could exist based on what we know today and what could happen in the years ahead — including the possible disruptions.
- Empower your leaders: Make sure all your leaders have access to economic trends and are discussing the signals. In many cases, the goal isn’t to ring alarm bells but to help understand broader trends and implications.
- Seek knowledge beyond your usual sources: Have leaders get out to the boundaries of their organizations and industries. It’s a great way to inspire the creative, innovative thinking we need in the long term.
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?
Employees are the heart of almost any organization, and this is especially the case within professional services firms like Ulteig. When we look at trends over the last five years, it’s obvious employee expectations are rising. They expect more from their employers: a stronger voice in decision-making, more autonomy in their roles and how they do their work, consistent growth and work diversification opportunities, and a more diverse and inclusive workplace. Employers will need to continue to listen, evolve and take meaningful action as those expectations solidify or change in the next few years. A few specific strategies all leaders should have on their radar:
- Flexible work arrangements: this isn’t a new concept at this point, but I think we can all agree we haven’t quite figured out the best way to do it.
- Quality training: Training is going to be critical for both talent development and creating more inclusive work environments. It really is the employer’s job to help employees grow and develop, and we can do that by investing time and resources. Especially considering the potential development gap due to hybrid/remote work and the larger volume of employee turnover and other work changes, training can be an organizational differentiator that warrants the additional investment.
- Supporting connection: We are going to have to get creative about how we continue to support a sense of connection and belonging for our teams. One way to do this is by building communities of identity, interest, geography and capability within our workforces.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
It has profoundly shifted the way we work. For some organizations, like Ulteig, it accelerated the shift to a workforce with a much higher percentage of remote workers in nearly every U.S. state plus provinces in Canada. For others, it offered a proof point about the productivity of remote work. The future is more digital, more dispersed, more connected (regardless of where you live), and more intentionally inclusive.
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?
A few things I spend time learning and thinking about:
- Greater collective investment in remote work infrastructure to meet employees where they live: Investing in high-speed internet, remote communication tools, and other technologies will be crucial for supporting the type of connection we need to work effectively and authentically.
- Accessible and affordable childcare: Providing the mechanisms for more accessible and affordable childcare options is foundational to workforce participation and career growth for those with caregiving responsibilities.
- Greater emphasis on mental health and wellness: The pandemic has taken a toll on mental health. Providing resources for mental health support, promoting work-life balance, and addressing burnout can help ensure employees are healthy and productive.
- More inclusive and equitable workplaces: Addressing systemic inequalities and promoting diversity and inclusion in the workforce is essential for creating a future of work that works for everyone. This includes addressing things like pay equity, unconscious bias, and barriers to career advancement.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
Our team seamlessly made the workplace switch at the start of the pandemic, although it felt like a big adjustment at the time. That experience gave us the confidence, and frankly also the necessity, to try new things with our workforce. Our team members have been resilient and supportive throughout. They are willing to be part of the long-term solutions as long as they have an opportunity to provide input to the changes and understand the ‘Why’ behind the decisions.
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?
I have found the more recent trend of employers getting involved with employee mental health really compelling. It’s not something we were talking about even five years ago, but it is so important. I think the organizations doing their best are the ones who are listening closely to their employees and taking real action. From my perspective, one of the most impactful things organizations can be doing to influence employee mental health is actually closely tied to diversity and inclusion efforts — making sure all employees feel safe and truly valued at work. This is foundational to wellbeing. Developing communities of interest and identity can help employees connect with others who share similar experiences and values, promoting a sense of belonging and connection. I’ve also seen how simply opening a dialogue with your team to discuss current events or other stressors can do a lot to bring the more human side into work. There are so many ways to support wellbeing and it’s going to look different for everyone, which is why real inclusion is such a critical starting point.
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?
Ha, I think they need to keep pounding the antacids! Seriously though, I think we all need to be careful not to overreact to the latest thing. The Quiet Quitting phenomenon had about 30 days of fame, and it seemed like everyone was talking about it and writing about it. And, then it was gone. We are going to continue to see new trends and ways of describing our changing workforce. The focus should be less on what the movement is called and more on the why — the underlying issues causing these movements. If you address those, you are getting to the root of the problem instead of just chasing the latest symptom.
Having said that, we need to pay attention to what’s going on around us. Our workforce wants different things than they wanted a few years ago. We must continue to evolve by listening to our team members from the manager-employee relationship level to the broader relationship they have with our organization. As we continue to become ever more geographically dispersed and virtual, we need to improve the connectivity of our team members, especially during the first couple of formative years they work with us. We also need to make sure we have the mechanisms in place for employee learning to occur when the opportunities for organic learning from in-person interactions have been reduced in many of our workplaces. Employees have a ton of leverage in our labor markets. We need to adapt, but not sacrifice the core cultural values we’ve developed over the years.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
- Accelerated adoption of digital technologies: With automation and AI taking on a significant amount of labor in repeatable design processes, positions with lower skill requirements will continue to be replaced with technology. Providing valuable upskilling opportunities is going to be critical for both talent retention and company health.
- An increase in career and organizational transitions: Employees will continue to be restless about their work, seeking change to do more fulfilling work. To meet these needs, organizations will have to figure out better internal talent mobility programs, such as “player swaps,” to help employees gain more of the experiences they want in their current roles and organizations.
- Workplace diversity and inclusion: We have only started scratching the surface of workplace diversity and inclusion, and I can only see it getting better in the future. By advertising positions more broadly and connecting with a larger talent pool, our workforce diversity has increased by 500 basis points over the last couple of years. I hope to see even more efforts to support real belonging for all types of people.
- Flexible workforce: A flexible workforce is becoming increasingly important, with organizations leveraging global, gig workers and other non-traditional options to fill talent gaps. This also includes an assessment of qualification requirements to ensure the broadest possible talent pool.
- Hybrid and remote work: The rise of hybrid and remote work will drive an even greater dispersion of workers in organizations. How do we compensate for the training, development and collaboration gap created by the work environment? Likely, it will require more formal training and other intentional investments.
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?
‘Don’t sell yourself short.’ I’m not sure who first said that to me, but it’s a message I frequently share with others. I grew up in the upper Midwest, where humility is practically a badge of honor. I’ve had to learn to be comfortable sharing what I can bring to the table without violating my core values.
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 meet and have a conversation with Bill Gates. Beyond his incredible business accomplishments, I admire his approach to being a global thought leader, activist and philanthropist.
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?
Feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jimhornhr/
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.