Expanding employment options — this is the new paradigm of working where the employee wants to be — work from home, hybrid, flex schedules, and a range of contingent labor options.
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 Rob Kjar.
Rob Kjar, PhD, Senior Managing Consultant, The Vaya Group.
Rob has over 20 years of experience in leadership consulting and coaching inside organizations and across multiple industries including pharmaceuticals, financial services, B2B marketing, oil & gas, high tech, and manufacturing. Rob earned his Ph.D. in Organization Development from Benedictine University and has written articles for and has spoken at National Academy of Management conferences in the areas of global mindset, change, and organization development. He has authored articles for the OD Journal and contributed a book chapter for Strategic Organization Development: Managing Change for Success. Currently, Rob is a Senior Managing Consultant with Vaya Group and has led leadership efforts at Takeda and Astellas Pharmaceuticals, Nielsen, and Discover Financial Services.
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.
One that immediately comes to mind was among my first jobs in a call center. It was a startup organization and we were hiring about 200 employees per month for the first six months. We all sat at folding tables and less-than- ergonomic chairs about two feet apart from each other. It was noisy and a bit of a grind, but we were all excited to see the growth and be a part of something bigger than ourselves.
The CEO paid us a visit, and he was one of the most inspirational leaders I have met. There we, hunched over our folding tables and patched-together CRT equipment, and his message to us was how glad he was to be one of “we happy few.” He was quoting Shakespeare’s Henry V — and we ate it up. The CEO was wise enough to know that our sub-par office furniture would be replaced in time, and what we needed was not a leader immersed in tactics, but someone who could inspire us with how lucky we were to be part of something great. He exemplified an often-misquoted line: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” He got it. His example has guided how I counsel Vaya’s client leaders to inspire their own workforces during times of uncertainty.
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?
I think we can say with some certainty that there will always be a class of entrepreneurs emerging on the scene to disrupt, invent and replace what we thought we could never live without. Too often, we see progress and disruption in terms of the devices we carry around, and may fail to see it in the workforces we are part of and those we lead. I don’t know anyone who predicted the seismic changes brought on by the pandemic, but some of the reactions to it were more foreseeable. When working remotely, hybrid or not at all became a reality, managers scrambled to make the most out of the talent they had. Many leaders who had been stuck in “command-and-control” ruts, were unwilling to look beyond their borders for talent, or were hesitant to invest in tech upgrades found themselves falling even further behind workplace demands.
How will the future be different? I think we can be fairly certain that the concepts of “workforce” and “workplace” will become increasingly fluid. The workforce may exist more as a loose configuration of remote and hybrid workers who have multiple other pursuits and side gigs that occupy their time. Employers who can bring on new talent quickly will have a distinct advantage, as will those who can see their workforce as an ecosystem of full-timers, part-timers, flex workers, former workers and future workers. In the past, we were hyper-focused on counting bodies and management by objectives. The future belongs to those who are willing to cultivate and inspire a workforce that exists through strong cultural ties rather than close proximity. It will also belong to those seeking workers who can couple, uncouple, stay the sidelines and recouple to a central source of locomotion — their leaders, infrastructure and mission.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
We have certainly learned through the pandemic some unavoidable realities: 1) if you don’t have a remote work strategy or a hybrid working plan, you are late to the game and may have already felt that rush of wind as employees look for the door; 2) if you don’t have leaders who can remain resilient and flexible through these challenging times, and if they are unable to demonstrate a level of humanity or relatability as a minimum, then you know now that you promoted individual contributors but didn’t focus on the right behaviors; 3) if you haven’t opened the floodgates to hire the best talent wherever you can find them, to the extent that you have roles that can be performed remotely, then you have missed the one positive future-proofing step that could have added to your talent bench. In other words, future-proofing today is about enabling remote working, promoting leaders who care about helping people perform despite obstacles, and mining the best talent wherever they live.
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?
It might surprise you, but going all the way back to Frederick Herzberg over 50 years ago, we know that some of the most innovative benefit packages and compensation systems still fail to engage the hearts and minds of those looking for illusive purpose, autonomy and mastery in their work. The biggest chasm to cross is the engagement gap, which still hovers around 50 percent.
What engages? We have experimented with carrots and sticks (ala foosball tables and onsite dry cleaning — meh!). We have tried career pathing and job rotations (and abandoned them just as quickly for cost and impatience). We are attempting corporate activism (hoping most of our employee base and candidates are on board). I’m all about experiments, but at the core of what we know works is someone at a local level, a frontline or immediate manager, who listens, promotes personal growth, cares about me as a person, and creates a culture that rewards those who add value with teamwork and good ideas.
We have to keep examining what engages and what disengages employees. We then ask ourselves if we can afford to continue to foster disengagement through our management, our systems, our comp and benefits, and what we choose to recognize and what to ignore.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
I view it as a positive in that it opens up more opportunities for those who may have been sidelined in the past for choices they wanted to make that kept them at home. If more people can have lives at home while achieving performance on par or better than commuting to and from an office, then the future looks bright for working from home. My hope is that companies will divert resources that would have been spent on proximal working to high-quality networks and support employees with office supplies for their home office. If I’m being asked to essentially set up a lease-free office space in my home for my employer, it would be reasonable to expect some help in a few baseline set-up and ongoing expenses. No, you don’t have to buy me a foosball table — I’ll take that on myself.
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?
I fear that remote working will further distance us from daily interactions beyond the realm of our work “to do” lists, and that some of the skills we learned about speaking to each other in person may be undermined as a result. I’m not a fan of organizations trying to change society — they can only be the meeting ground where society works itself out. The workplace is a grand experiment in whether or not people of differing belief systems, cultures, ethnicities and traditions can set aside their differences for a common purpose, whether it is a commercial one or something more value-driven. I’ll admit I’m a bit skeptical. I don’t foresee society becoming more tolerant or enlightened. In fact, we may grow more fragmented, tribal and cliquish in our own group of followers. We used to agree on something called “societal norms,” but today we are in a phase of disagreement about what those norms should be, and this is not likely to be resolved anytime soon.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
For all the uncertainty, there is a lot to find hopeful. Redefining workplaces that are more flexible opens the doors to workers who want options to contribute in ways that suit their lifestyles. As technology continues to improve, it will be easier to float more freely among an ever-widening network to do jobs that were once limited by geography, connectivity or remained closed to other than full-time employees.
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?
Certainly, table stakes are about employee benefits that foster mental wellbeing with better access to mental health professionals. One innovative employer started an employee mental health campaign called “Not yourself today.” It was a well-crafted piece of internal communication that was backed by external public relations resources to carry the message through multiple channels to reach employees. At its core, the company put value on employee conversations about mental health. This effort began to take some of the stigma away by teaching employees and managers what they could say if they noticed someone exhibiting signs of stress, depression or anxiety at work to help them feel supported. They found an appropriate balance that stopped short of attempts to counsel or treat, but referred those to their appropriate network of providers.
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 chuckle a little at the headlines because some can be truly dire. I suspect those most concerned about “The Great Rewhatever” are nervous for the right reasons. It ought to humble employers a bit who thought that line of employees waiting to join them would never go away. It ought to humble anyone who thought workforces were static and employees were choiceless cogs in the machinery. These headlines point back to the notion of a social contract that once existed between the employer and the employee and is becoming important again. Where choices exist, options must increase. This is not a time for constraining the workforce, but for empowering it.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
My top 5 trends are as follows:
- Expanding employment options — this is the new paradigm of working where the employee wants to be — work from home, hybrid, flex schedules, and a range of contingent labor options.
- Tech-enabled work support — rather than machine learning and AI taking over the world (at least not yet), employees will need to learn ways of working alongside work systems that anticipate, automate and speed routine processes and decisions. This has the capacity to elevate employee satisfaction with a sense of greater purpose while bringing additional emphasis to technical upskilling
- Broadening of benefits, especially mental health and work from home support — this is already happening, but as employees seek more flexibility outside of work, they want to see the expansion of a benefits profile that more closely suits their needs.
- Defining essential work — the pandemic caused private sector employers and government entities to give greater thought to work roles. In a world where resources and available workers is further constrained, employers will have to choose what products and services they will keep in house and grow vs. those that they can outsource or eliminate entirely.
- Porous competitive boundaries — with the evolution of work, companies will continue to look beyond their four walls to current competitors who can accelerate their growth through partnerships, co-ownership, joint ventures or sharing networks to access new markets and expand their solutions.
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?
Someone I still consider a mentor once said to me that when you are in room with a bunch of colleagues and you realize you know the answer and no one else does, you have an obligation to lead. That’s not written anywhere on my desk, but it still reminds me today to look for the diamond in the rough — the person who holds the answers — and to be the diamond in the rough when you feel the spotlight fall on you. It’s equally compelling and daunting.
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.
It would have to be a writer. I am a big Malcom Gladwell fan for the way he constructs an argument and so artfully turns a phrase. He seems like an interesting person with big thoughts, so we’d need to enjoy a long lunch at a quiet bistro.
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?
Find me on LinkedIn, or jump in a kayak and join me on Lake Mead — you’ll run into me most summer weekends out there paddling around listening to the latest podcast or audio book.
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.