Change is constant. This one’s pretty obvious, right? But it’s so true. The way we did things is not going to be the way we do things going forward because of the collision point of all those four things above.
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 Joel Abramson.
Joel Abramson is the CEO of Produce8 — a future-of-work-focused SaaS platform that enables digital-first teams to measure and analyze their interactions with their technology. He’s also the Chief Strategy Officer and leads the corporate development team for technology services company Fully Managed. Abramson additionally serves as a Partner with Top Down Ventures, where his focus is on deal-making and strategy in the technology ecosystem.
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.
Here’s a story I often tell because the experience really impacted how I began looking at the world and approaching my own life.
I had just turned 30 and my fiancé — now my wife — and I had planned a trip to Peru. We were going to be hiking Machu Picchu so I Googled ‘cell phone reception Machu Picchu’ because I knew that I had to be online during the trek. I was worried about what would happen if a customer or a staff member needed me.
But when the search came back, one of the top results was a silly thing from Yahoo Answers. It said: ‘Why are you Googling cell phone reception in Machu Picchu? You’re going to be at one of the wonders of the world. Put your phone away and enjoy it.’
That’s when it dawned on me. Here I was two months away from this incredible journey and I was actually anxious about not being connected. I thought, ‘if this is worrying me now, how am I ever going to live a life that’s untethered from my digital world?’
So, I spent the next two months figuring out exactly how I could build systems around me so that I didn’t need to worry about the cell phone reception in Machu Picchu, or anywhere for that matter. Instead, I’d have the people and processes in place to support important downtime.
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?
In 10 or 15 years from now, work is still going to be heavily driven by people. Of course, some jobs will be replaced by advances in AI and automation, but at the heart of it, work will still come down to people sitting in chairs — regardless of where those chairs are — making decisions about how we shape the future of work and our world.
What will be different is that the next generation of workers will have been born into a completely digital world, so the next generation of leadership is going to have a completely digital-first mindset.
Right now, we still have a fringe group of leaders that didn’t grow up in the digital world. So we’ve got a balance of views on digital work and non-digital work.
But in 15 years, everybody in the workforce will have grown up with an email account. Everybody will have grown up with social media. So the entire workforce will be penetrated with a mindset that’s conditioned to think about work as a digital activity. The overall aptitude of digital usage is going to be that much higher. And everything that flows out of that is going to be a little bit different.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
Know that this entirely digital-first mindset is coming and understand how you’re going to prepare. Any concessions you’re making today on app utilization for work or if you still have any paper processes, know that in 10 years, nobody will stand for those paper processes. All of your workers will be comfortable using a smartphone and all of your workers will be comfortable doing whatever you require from them in a digital format.
So if you’re still on the fence about moving to that system or starting to understand how you can work most effectively in a digital-first manner, it’s an inevitability at this point. All you’re doing is delaying it by not embracing it.
You should also know that employee experience is going to be a very common nomenclature going forward. And the employee experience is not necessarily going to be about the physical perks and benefits you provide — although that will be worth something. It’s going to be about how they live their days, including their digital experiences.
So again, if you have legacy systems, if you have processes or tools that make it difficult for people to do their jobs, the average employee isn’t going to stand for it. There are more frictionless experiences available with other employers, and that’s going to be something your employees demand. They’re not going to sit in that frustration for very long.
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 we’re going to have to find common ground around ‘what is work?’, because time-in doesn’t necessarily represent work done.
It’s very similar to the timecard of 30 years ago and how it didn’t necessarily represent that work was getting done. Just because you were at the office, it didn’t mean you were working and doing a great job.
When you’re actually doing work, there has to be an agreed-upon level of output between the employee and the employer. So how do we get to a place where we can agree upon that? And what does work look like when time-in doesn’t matter anymore? I think that’s going to be the biggest gap to close in terms of expectations and perspectives.
All of our digital activities are not work — a lot of them are actually just distractions. Just like standing around the water cooler is not work, as much as you could justify it as building social relationships. There are a lot of things you could do in an office that aren’t work, like sleeping under your desk for example. We all agreed a long time ago that’s not work, even though you’re in the office. And there are digital equivalents of those, but right now they’re very tough to identify.
Slack availability is a perfect example. Am I expected to respond to messages at 10:00 PM? You may choose to work at that time, but when you message me at 10:00 PM I feel bad if I don’t respond. But is that part of the expectation? And maybe it is, and if so that’s fine and I will. But that needs to be a clearly identified parameter of work because right now it’s totally ambiguous.
So, I think that’s the bridge we’re going to have to build. What is work?
I guess it starts by admitting there’s a problem. It starts by admitting that, and then doing some looking inside at your organization to understand what the current work patterns are.
We’ve let everybody go home and we feel like we’ve been supporting what was required to continue to work for the last couple of years, which has been fantastic. We’ve had all the tools and infrastructure to allow for a fairly straightforward transition to distributed work. But the next step is understanding, are we more or less productive than we were before we all went home? And not based on a feeling, but true understanding based on measurable work outcomes.
If we’re more productive, what are the things creating that productivity? And if we’re less productive, what are we doing to address that?
I think it all starts with a look inward at every organization, because it’s not going to be the same for each.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
It has been proven that a lot of organizations have the tools, or at least have the ability to deploy the tools, that allow for distributed work to occur. But just because we have a hammer, it doesn’t mean we know how to build a house. And until we understand the nuances associated with all the things that make up the outcomes of work, it’s going to be very difficult for us to exist in perpetuity in a state that lacked any upfront design.
You could argue that work evolves. And so with each medium shift — and this is a major medium shift — we first bring forward the old habits and then we start to understand how to build a new framework going forward. So right now we’re still in the ‘bring forward the old habits’ stage of remote work.
The next step is going to be establishing a new framework for how this is going to be an actual evolution forward and not just a medium shift that doesn’t improve the outcomes of anything.
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 future of work is going to be highly dependent on what function is being served. Societal changes are going to have to span from just an overall willingness to accept that flexible work habits can produce equivalent or even better outcomes than rigid work patterns, to making a shift toward focusing on the outcomes of work, regardless of what the means are to serve those outcomes.
For example, automation and AI will become more pervasive, and that will change what work looks like for some. Driverless trucks may be the better way to go in the future, but that’s going to require a lot of people to make sure those driverless trucks work and are safer and on time. As a society, we’ll need to commit to working smarter for the betterment of all.
In terms of flexibility in the workplace, there’s such an opportunity to allow for greater inclusion and to leverage all the incredible talent out there that’s currently being underemployed. The reality is, the rigid workday we’re slowly starting to let go of never worked for a lot of people’s lives. It was built to support a family and societal structure that simply doesn’t reflect our modern society anymore.
It’s time to move on. It’s time to start embracing a more balanced vision for the future of work. It’s time to enable more equitable access to the workforce. And the businesses that can’t see how this will be a win-win for all are going to be left behind.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
While there can be a lot of fear around the fact that we’ve let go of the old ways, this digital-first generation coming up can be a source of greatness. I see all these incredibly talented young people coming into the work world and their technical aptitude is really high. They understand things I certainly didn’t understand when I was 20 years old around things like workflow automation, the digital experience and the importance of the customer experience.
They’ve been served really well in the digital world with these Amazon-like experiences. So they’re keen to create these types of experiences in other industries where it may not quite exist yet. That’s a very inspirational thing to see. You’ve got higher expectations of customer experience and higher expectations of employee experience. And to me, that shows an evolution in the way we think about work.
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 employees’ mental health and wellbeing?
It starts with access. Ten years ago, it wouldn’t have been commonplace to have access to wellbeing coaches and mental health resources from the workplace. And I’d say that’s becoming more common thanks to the benefits providers and different programs being offered.
But even more so, I think we’re really embracing how people work and the evolution of that, whether it’s four-day workweeks, flexible work schedules or just giving people the ability to work from anywhere. When they’re thoughtfully approached, these are all things that can provide teams massive uplifts in their overall mental health and wellbeing. Because whether we like it or not, our digital lives are not good for our mental health.
Our digital devices are constant. And being tethered to our phones and tethered to our work communications — these are not things that lower our heart rates. They keep us in a constant state of distraction and thought interruption every time the phone buzzes, every time a Slack notification goes off.
We have to be proactive about battling the outcomes of that, which is mental health challenges, burnout and feelings of anxiety. But also, how can we start to change the behaviors of those technologies?
Employers will need to get serious about analyzing and understanding what the digital workday looks like for their team members. Process and technology changes will need to be made to ensure our future work environments truly support better 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?
The thing is, headlines are headlines for a reason. They’re meant to capture readers’ attention. But they certainly are a great way to start the discussion.
I don’t think there are any definitive conclusions to be had from any of the assertions about the way the workforce is changing. But I do think the assertions are great lead indicators that we need to really think and have real conversations about how we design the future of work.
The way we work today is not the same as it was even 10 years ago — certainly not the same as it was 20 years ago. It’s incumbent on all leaders to look at their organization and decide, ‘how are we going to be a positive part of that change and how can we best support our people to unlock their full potential?’
I think we need to truly embrace the fact that people crave more balance in their lives. They want to do good work (and your business wants that too), but people don’t want that at the expense of their families and their personal lives. If companies want their people to bring their best to the table every day, then company culture needs to support that, from the top down.
The alternative? Your company will be part of the stats tied to those headlines.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
1. Flexible. The pandemic has shown us the 8–5 workday is dead. People want the ability to work on their schedules. And the technology we have available to us, plus the fact that more and more people are becoming very comfortable living in this digital-first world, will lead to that being the new norm.
2. Distributed. I think there’s still a strong argument for people to gather together in person and create that community — it’s impossible to completely replicate that in a remote-first world. But that being said, the ability to work in a distributed fashion is bringing incredible teams together.
My Produce8 team, for example, is spread out right across Canada, from the West Coast to the East Coast. And we also have the pleasure of working with international freelance talent as well. I’d have a very difficult time ever giving that up — the ability to build my team with great talent from anywhere.
3. Automated. Automation is only going to be embraced more as we continue on into the future of work. We’re building the ability for systems and technology to do a lot of the work that used to require either manual intervention or manual labor.
If you think about how revolutionary the calculator was for mathematicians, for example, it’s multiplied by a hundred for the opportunity of workflow automation. And the quicker we embrace living in a world where automation matters, the more likely it is we’ll have a real chance to gain back some of the productivity we’ve lost with all the digital distractions.
4. Intelligent. The world has the opportunity to get smarter with our access to information, our ability to consume great amounts of information in a smaller amount of time, and the ability to share information with our peers without any boundaries. We have the freedom to train ourselves to get smarter and to work smarter, and I think that’s a real opportunity.
As we work smarter, something as simple as the average workday can be completely transformed. Right now we’re still trying to use the same habits and patterns we used when we were all in the office. But those simply aren’t productive in the digital-first work world. We need to learn how to augment our workflows and our styles of teamwork to be productive in this new future of work.
5. Change is constant. This one’s pretty obvious, right? But it’s so true. The way we did things is not going to be the way we do things going forward because of the collision point of all those four things above.
The only way to adapt is to keep an open mind, stay up-to-date on shifts and trends and try our best to not be resistant to finding a better way forward. The leaders will always be the ones who are embracing constant change.
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 have a couple. Gandhi, of course, was attributed with the saying: “be the change you want to see in the world.”
In other words, instead of criticizing and blaming, get your act together and change the way you do things and the world will change with you.
I also like Henry Ford’s: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
It’s a little more informal, but it’s that same sentiment, which has forced me to always act with intention and curiosity.
We don’t live in a stagnant world. One of the skills I’ve been trying to master, and I feel is one of the hardest skills, is the ability to think about where things will be one year from now, three years, five years, and then just extending that horizon.
If you can gain the ability to see around the corner — even just a glimpse — then you can start to be part of what’s over there.
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 really love to meet Tim Ferriss one day. His progressive ideas and his work around the 4-hour work week really helped inspired Produce8 in its early days, and even now.
I think his approach to work as well as technology is about as inspirational as it gets for a company like ours that’s building into this emerging space.
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?
Finally, our Produce8 blog is another great way to stay current on what I’m discovering and building on my latest professional journey.
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.