PERMANENT ADOPTION OF REMOTE OR HYBRID WORK. Hybrid or remote work isn’t going away. Businesses must learn to operate with distributed teams. Multiple global studies have confirmed this: the 2021 Microsoft Work Trend Index found that 73% of employees don’t want to go back to full-time office life. The Future Forum from Slack found that 93% of knowledge workers want flexibility in their schedule and 76% want flexibility in where they work.
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 Larry English.
Larry is the author of Office Optional: How to Build a Connected Culture With Virtual Teams. The book draws on his experience founding and leading Centric Consulting, which began more than two decades ago as a virtual-first organization — long before the current remote work revolution. Larry is an expert on the future of work and creating a great virtual culture that attracts and keeps top talent.
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.
I had a mid-life crisis at the age of 25. I was working nonstop (I’m talking 100-hour weeks) for one of the big international consulting firms. I knew there had to be more to life, so I took a leave of absence and my wife and I bought one-way tickets to Iceland. We spent the next year wandering around the world.
This experience was eye-opening. It grew my appetite for risk. I knew I wanted to try something big. After returning home to Ohio, I reconnected with some of my like-minded co-workers, and we began building a different kind of consulting company. We wanted to do great work but also have a life. Thus began Centric Consulting. We decided to be virtual-first, an almost unheard-of model at the time, but we thought being untethered from the office would mean a better work-life balance, and we were confident we could create a great culture, even without an office. We were right — Centric now has over 1,200 employees across the U.S. and India, and we’ve earned numerous awards for our culture.
Also pivotal: guiding Centric through two massive upheavals (the financial crisis of 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic). These were the most stressful times of my career, but also the biggest times of growth. Both were tremendous disruptions and tough-love bootcamps on how to navigate an organization through a crisis. Both started with panic and a bleak outlook, but I and other leaders at Centric had no choice but to mobilize and learn quickly — there’s no other way when dealing with an existential business problem. The lessons I learned molded me into a much more effective leader today.
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?
Before the pandemic, I would have predicted it would take 10–15 years to get us where we are today, with the massive shift to remote work and widespread digitalization of businesses. The pandemic shot us forward. Because technology is improving exponentially, I think we’ll continue to see the disruption and transformation of business models unlike any other time in history.
Many changes that will continue to have an impact over the next decade are already underway:
- Businesses tapping into talent all over the world, and not just in their geographical proximity.
- Companies becoming smaller and nimbler, running everything in the cloud.
- A massive rise in the freelance and gig worker economy.
- Leadership skills evolving to meet the needs of workers that interact virtually and asynchronously.
- An increase in data-driven, flatter, smaller organizations that leverage outside services (both people and tech) to scale.
Looking ahead longer term, in 10+ years, Web3 will massively transform the business world (and the world overall). The use of smart contracts, blockchain and DAOs will potentially cause the decentralization of every business function (e.g., DeFi), radically changing how business is conducted. No organization will be immune from this disruptive force.
What will stay the same? The things humans have always been great at: creativity, solving complex problems, collaboration and management.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
Technology stands to disrupt every industry. The greatest risk to an organization is to stand still. Businesses must continually reinvent and innovate to remain relevant. They should have a relentless focus on employee and customer happiness. If they can do these things well, they will have a shot at surviving the coming changes.
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 beginning to demand remote work as a benefit for everyone, all the time (assuming their job function allows it). A recent report found that employers that fail to offer remote work will be passed over by 58% of candidates.
Yet many companies are not going all in. They’re clinging to the need to be in the office, mandating employees come in a certain number of days per week. This simply isn’t what employees want and often isn’t effective. The faster organizations can embrace a remote/hybrid model that maximizes employee flexibility and choice, the better shot they have at retaining their workforce.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
Centric has been remote since it was founded more than 20 years ago. We’ve known for a long time that remote work leads to happier employees. We know firsthand that the concerns people have about remote work and innovation, culture, etc., are very solvable.
I always thought the world would come to embrace remote work, but I thought it would take another 20 years. The pandemic changed that. The organizations that have figured out that it is a business advantage to go remote are taking off with it. As a result, they’re recruiting talent away from the laggards.
Remote work has won — it isn’t even really debated by many businesses anymore. We’re now entering a period of innovation which will only make remote work more effective and efficient.
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 structure of cities will change as companies move away from expensive downtown hubs, a change that will impact real estate, housing, support business infrastructure and tax distribution.
This will also bring about a population redistribution. More young people will move downtown to replace the human interaction they’re no longer receiving from the office. Meanwhile, suburbs will expand as other groups flee busy, expensive city centers — a continuation of a pre-pandemic trend.
Society will have to figure out how to support individuals left behind by the virtual work revolution. According to the World Economic Forum, more than 40% of skills required for existing jobs will have changed by this year. We’ll need to build infrastructure to help train people in new in-demand skills. If government, industry, higher education and the nonprofit sector can collaborate, I believe we can address job loss and retraining at scale.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
The remote work revolution will impact the world even more than the invention of the internet. The future of work is about so much more than companies offering more flexibility. When remote work becomes the norm and businesses tap into skills of employees all around the world, opportunities will open to more people than ever before.
This quote from Marc Andreesen, Netscape founder, entrepreneur and tech visionary, sums it up best: “This is perhaps the most important thing that’s happened in my lifetime, a consequence of the internet that’s maybe even more important than the internet. Permanently divorcing physical location from economic opportunity gives us a real shot at radically expanding the number of good jobs in the world while also dramatically improving the quality of life for millions, or billions, of people. We may, at long last, shatter the geographic lottery, opening up the opportunity to countless people who weren’t lucky enough to be born in the right place.”
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 pandemic and the changes it brought to the business world have a silver lining: It opened companies’ eyes to the necessity of supporting employees’ wellbeing and mental health. It’s exciting to see companies not only begin to recognize the value in doing this (better retention, more productive employees, etc.) but also take steps to permanently adopt measures to support employees. Some innovative benefits companies are beginning to offer include a four-day work week, mandatory mental health days and better support for parents. The laggards are losing good people, fast.
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?
If you look under the covers, the root cause behind these trends is companies failing to put employees first. Many companies losing talent have toxic cultures or cultures that don’t value their people. Companies are learning that they must adopt cultures that truly value people, and it can’t be just lip service. They actually must live those values.
When we started Centric, we deliberately centered everything — our policies, processes and informal rules of how we operate — around employee and client happiness. We naturally evolved into a culture that employees love.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
- PERMANENT ADOPTION OF REMOTE OR HYBRID WORK. Hybrid or remote work isn’t going away. Businesses must learn to operate with distributed teams. Multiple global studies have confirmed this: the 2021 Microsoft Work Trend Index found that 73% of employees don’t want to go back to full-time office life. The Future Forum from Slack found that 93% of knowledge workers want flexibility in their schedule and 76% want flexibility in where they work.
- THE (CONTINUED) RISE OF THE GIG WORKER. There are already around 60 million independent workers in the U.S. Experts predict that independent workers will make up about half of the workforce over the next decade. Remote work and the increasing proliferation of gig job platforms will make it easier than ever for companies to engage gig workers. Teams of the future will include more freelancers, contractors or gig workers. Some will come on board for one-off projects, while others will become integrated into organizations for longer-term initiatives. To continue working with top talent, companies must learn how to incorporate gig and contract workers into their organizations.
- A NEW MODEL OF LEADERSHIP THAT PRIORITIZES RELATIONSHIP-BUILDING. It’s time to rethink what makes a great leader. The leadership style of the last 70 years won’t work in an era when virtual interaction is the norm. The most effective leader of tomorrow will trust their people, encourage trust and authentic relationships among teams, model strong work-life boundaries, and help their teams feel connected to and inspired by their organization’s mission. Research shows that when people feel trusted, they also feel more engaged and energized and less burnout.
- EMPLOYEES DEMANDING WORK-LIFE BALANCE. One side effect of the pandemic is that everyone realized that life is more important than working endless 10-hour days with a long commute. Employees of the future will want to work for companies that allow them to live a balanced life. For many, this will mean an end to coming into the office. To cite a more extreme example of work-life balance, the number of digital nomads in the U.S. rose 49% in 2020, the increase driven largely by people with traditional jobs. My own recent digital nomad experiment shows me how valuable the experience can be for employees and employers — I returned with a refreshed sense of creativity and enthusiasm.
- WEB3 DISRUPTING EVERYTHING WE KNOW ABOUT BUSINESS. Web3 will change how businesses are structured, how data is owned and used and more. Smart contracts, blockchain and DAOs have the potential to disrupt many business functions in many industries. Because contributors of DAOs act similarly to freelancers, choosing how much and in what manner to participate, this could also greatly expand the pool of freelancers — people will increasingly see the appeal and possibilities of choosing what projects to work on.
Evidence that Web3 and DAOs are gaining traction: Andreesen Horowitz, a venture capital firm cofounded by visionary technologist Marc Andreessen, has led major fundraising rounds for DAOs and firms that back DAO creation. Some theorize that DAOs will disrupt the Y Combinator startup model, gaining an edge through an ability to rapidly scale.
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?
In The Drifters, James A. Michener writes: “Southern Florida is filled with people sixty-eight years old who were going to do something big in their lives but waited until it was safe. Now it’s safe and they’re sixty-eight years old.”
I read this quote when I was backpacking around the world trying to figure out how to live my life. This has always helped remind me how short life is, and that the greatest risk is not taking a risk at all.
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.
Tim Ferriss — his podcasts and the insights from his guests have been consistently impactful to my life, in ways big and small.
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?
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.