Geographical Equity. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “the future is here, it is just not evenly distributed,” or “the lottery birth.” Remote work can level the playing field and give more people access to opportunities, regardless of their zip code or passport stamp.
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 Tamara Sanderson.
Tamara is the co-author of Remote Works: A Manager’s Playbook for Designing Great Remote Work Experiences, to be released Jan 2023 by Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
With over 12 years of distributed work experience, largely while traveling the world, with 70 countries and 7 continents under her belt, she’s passionate about helping others find their own paths and believes in the power of personal autonomy.
Professionally, Tamara cut her teeth in design at IDEO, in tech at Google and Automattic (WordPress.com), and in finance and operations at Oliver Wyman and Audax Group.
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.
Hands-down, the semester I studied abroad in London in 2004. It was a sliding door moment for me. I had never really considered leaving Texas beforehand and had only traveled domestically. I know this is cliche, but my eyes opened to the richness the world had to offer and my life has not been the same since.
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’ve read scary headlines predicting that jobs will all be automated, everyone needs to upskill, etcetera, and while I do think there’s truth behind that statement, I also take a longer-view approach. First, human beings tend to be tribal and have all these other social and psychological needs outside of efficiency that they get met through work. Even though John Maynard Keynes predicted that his grandkids would work just 15 hours a week, that has not come to fruition.
So while technology will change the landscape and what jobs are available, it probably will not look straight out of a sci-fi novel. When automobiles leapfrogged horses, some jobs were deprecated, but others were created. That’s the nature of change, which carries with it the good, the bad and the ugly, and it will be important that there’s support nets for people as we muck through the muddy middle.
I do think that the rise of remote work will have an imprint on our landscape. New hubs, new ways of working, new cultures. Before the pandemic, I was a digital nomad, living out of a single carry-on bag while visiting Mexico, South Africa and the country of Georgia. Last summer, I spent a month back home in Texas and ran a DIY “camp” for my nieces and nephews in my parents’ backyard. I love how remote work enables life experiences that would have been nearly impossible in a traditional, 9–5 job. That’s just my story, and I’m excited to see what sprouts collectively across time and space.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
I’m a designer at heart with some Buddhist leanings, so my advice would be two fold.
1) Approach change with curiosity. Ask questions. Be willing to learn and change your mind. Find ways to test new ways of working in small ways across your organization and then iterate.
2) Let go. Remember, there’s only so much in your control. It’s great to think and organize and plan, but at some point, you have to let nature take its course. Your company will not be the same today as it is in five years; and it’s not the same today as it was five years ago. And that’s okay.
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 knowledge workers are going to expect more and more freedom over the way they work. Right now, that looks like remote work and geographical freedom, but I suspect there will be a blurring between part-time and full-time work. Knowledge workers will want more flexibility, whether that looks like taking a sabbatical or expecting to be paid based on work completed rather than time-at-desk. In the US, this will require an unbundling of health care / benefits with full-time employment, as well as more transparency and measurability around work outcomes.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
Remote work is not the same as working remotely during a pandemic. As a remote work advocate, I’m excited by the traction in the last few years, but I also hope we can de-couple those two paradigms. Remote work when kids are in school and cafes are open looks and feels completely different from what most have experienced. Society has been in a state of shock the last two years.
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?
While interviewing experts for my book, Remote Works: A Manager’s Playbook for Designing Great Remote Work Experiences, I kept hearing stories around the lottery of birth. Historically, opportunities have been limited by your zip code. A great engineer or sales person in a small town or a developing country didn’t have the same access to opportunities as someone born in a big city or industry hub. If they were lucky enough to jump past that hurdle, it required re-locating their entire lives for work. I’m excited that remote work levels the playing ground and encourages us to think critically about geographical discrimination. Is it fair to pay two people doing the same work different wages based on where they live, if the job can be done over the internet? How is that different from other forms of wage discrimination in the past?
Labor laws need to catch-up with this new way of working, whether that be work visas or healthcare and benefits access. Countries like Malta or Portugal are already moving in that direction with the “digital nomad visa;” same as states, like West Virginia and Hawaii which offer remote work incentives. Once these changes are made, I expect you’ll see a decentralization of talent and industry hubs. Sure, Silicon Valley will still have power and cache, but it will no longer be the end-all, be-all of the tech world.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
I also think the pandemic has shifted beliefs around work. In the US, we’ve shaped our lives around our work, and in the future, we’ll shape our work around our lives. I’m hopeful that our communities will be less tied to our profession and livelihood, and more tied to our non-work interests and local communities. For example, my social life looks very different now than it did while I was working full-time in an office; I have the time and flexibility to take local art classes, volunteer at a food bank and get involved with spiritual communities.
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?
When remote work is done well, I believe it can be a boon for mental health. According to the self-determination theory, humans are motivated to change and grow based on three fundamental needs: for competence, for connection, and for autonomy. In fact, historically, many people opted for remote work after being burned by negative emotional and political experiences in the traditional workplace.
As an employer, if you can give your employee meaningful work and the freedom to complete it in the best way they see fit, you’ve ticked off competence and autonomy. If you’re able to truly encourage boundaries and a life outside of work, as well as look out for signs of burnout and isolation, you’ve also ticked off connection. And, remember, by making work a part, not all of someone’s life, you’re giving them the mental capacity and time to get some of their needs met outside of work, through friendship, relationships, families and hobbies.
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?
In design, we use a framework called the “5 Whys.” Essentially, you keep asking why until you get to the root cause or issue. While I do believe that each person who resigns has their own backstory, collectively, I think it points to the fact that an old way of working no longer makes sense. In tarot, there’s a concept called the Major Arcana; twenty-two cards represent the stages of life and generally follows Joseph Campell’s “hero’s way.” And while, I’m not going to pull calls to predict the future, I do believe there’s symbolism we can pull from.
The fifteenth card is the Devil, which represents your shadow or darker side. All those forces that hold you back. When this appears in the deck, you’ve been tricked into believing that you have no control over your negative habits and thought patterns. Next comes the Tower, which represents massive change and upheaval, that is then followed by the Star. A symbol of renewed faith and hope.
I don’t believe work was “working” for a lot of people before the pandemic, but we were blinded to the idea that “that’s just the way work is.” I think the Great Resignation, the Great Reconfiguration and the Great Reevaluation are all Tower moments. We’re experiencing massive change. And if there’s any truth to the monomyths that underpin the Major Arcana as well as many other story arcs, then I think we’ll soon experience a Star moment. We’ll approach work with greater insight and reflection in order to make work “work” for more people.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Outputs over Inputs. Historically, we’ve relied on a “field of dreams” metaphor at work; if employees come, work will get done. Remote work encourages focusing more on outputs (what you’ve delivered) over the inputs (how many hours you were at your computer today).
- Geographical Equity. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “the future is here, it is just not evenly distributed,” or “the lottery birth.” Remote work can level the playing field and give more people access to opportunities, regardless of their zip code or passport stamp.
- Not all Time is Created Equal. According to science, we each have different circadian rhythms which fall under three main chronotypes: AM-shift, PM-shifted and Bi-Phasic. And according to Mckinsey studies, executives can complete 5x as much work during their peak energy hours, though only 5% report being deeply engaged at this time. The flexibility of remote work will enable people to design a schedule that works best for them, not only from a lifestyle perspective of being able to pick-up kids after school, but also from an energetic level.
- Digital First. While there’s been a lot of online debating around whether the future of work will be remote or hybrid or in-person, I think the lines will blur between the three. Instead, knowledge work will be digital first and your “digital office” will be the same (e.g., your project management systems, your email account), regardless if you’re co-located.
- Local Reimagined. In 2000, Robert Putnam wrote the book, Bowling Alone, that captured the decline of social capital in America since 1950. What does that look like? Well, a collapse in the local bowling leagues, lower voter turnout, fewer public meetings and committees. He believes a lot of this disengagement stemmed from work: transferring for work, long commutes to the suburbs, more sedentary leisure after work (TV), more women in the workforce. And while there’s benefits to this change, like employment opportunities for women, there has been a real abandonment. As work gets done faster and requires less moving around, I’m hopeful that more energy will be put back into forming and developing local communities.
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?
“Between stimulus and response lies a space. In that space lie our freedom and power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.” — Viktor Frankel
While working in partnerships and corp dev at Automattic (WordPress.com), I met bi-weekly with an amazing executive coach, Akshay. We worked a lot on mindfulness and observation; through that process, I was able — at least for moments — to step back and get my “observing ego” online to deconstruct high-stress situations and better understand myself and my motivations.
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’ve been heavily influenced by the writings of Parker Palmer, Thomas Moore and Richard Rohr lately. (Sorry, I know that’s not one!) I’m inspired by their reverence for the quotidian sacred and their alternative approaches to orthodoxy. I love how they approach life through a lens of openness and humility while still maintaining a soulful core.
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?
I’m always happy to connect on LinkedIn (Tamara Sanderson). Also, you’re welcome to follow along with us on our writing journey at https://www.remoteworksbook.com/.
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.