Decision-making in complexity. Given the uncertainty, who will still make 5-year plans? It’s even hard to plan for the next 2 months in the face of uncertainty around health, regulations, supply, demand.

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 Ted Rau.

Ted Rau is a consultant and coach for self-management. Born in Germany, he completed a Ph.D. in Linguistics and moved to the US, where he moved into an intentional community with his five children. He co-founded the nonprofit Sociocracy For All to promote self-management with consent-based, distributed self-governance and has (co-)authored two books on the topic: “Many Voices One Song. Shared Power with Sociocracy” (2018) and “Who decides who decides. How to start a group so everyone can have a voice” (2021).

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.

The first thing that comes to mind is that I have five children. That’s very helpful to my career in self-management! You wouldn’t believe how many lessons one can learn in parenting that directly translate to leading a self-managed organization! I’m pretty used to everyone running in different directions and constantly changing plans that involve a lot of people. So it’s hard to shock me at work. Living in an intentional community also means we live with 70 people, and that adds even more perspectives and interactions into my life.

I’m also an immigrant where I live, and I’m the child of an immigrant. I grew up hyper-aware of how many different viewpoints there are, and how everyone is influenced by their personal experiences, their world. I also transitioned genders a few years ago, so I have a bit of a split perspective on gender. One side of the story is that transitioning made be belong nowhere. Another side of the story is that I now belong everywhere. I’m not really willing to give up on what I’ve learned on either side. So I’m not sure what the answer is, but I enjoy the ability to shift perspective!

To some extent, some of that is true for all of us. None of us fit neatly into all of the boxes, categories, and expectations because real stories always have extra edges in their story. I personally struggled for many years because I wanted things neat, and to know where I belong. But messy and complex is part of the human experience, and I embrace that more now.

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 assume that people aren’t going to be willing to accept power-over hierarchies anymore. A few hundred years ago, people thought it was normal to have a king. Now we’re appalled by that idea. But somehow, companies still have kings, and we just accept that as normal.

I find coercive hierarchy outlandish. Why would I want to boss people around that work with me? But I think the concept of coercive hierarchy is on its way out, and I’m working on teaching people how to do things differently, with hierarchy and structure but without coercion. My hope is that in 15 years, we will look back and say “Do you remember when we still had supervisors at work who forced us to do stupid stuff? So glad that’s not happening anymore!”

What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?

I am often surprised by how low the skill level is when it comes to collaboration skills. For example, it’s really time for everyone to learn how to plan and moderate a good meeting. It should be taught in 5th grade and be a skill like essay-writing because we need it just as often- maybe even more frequently.

Meeting facilitation and collaboration skills are rocket science and without them, we are adding unnecessary friction. For example, every time we cut someone off or dismiss someone’s idea in a meeting, we make it less likely that they will stay engaged or continue to contribute their ideas. Every time we talk in circles and forget what our topic was, we waste time and energy. Ineffective, inefficient, and toxic meeting culture is a pretty avoidable mistake, and it sets the tone for everything else.

Another aspect of that is learning how to make decisions in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) situation. I’ve heard “We can’t make a decision here because we don’t know x” way too often. We will never know everything, and we will be able to predict less, so we better get used to that. Again, these are learnable skills — and they are the future. Whatever the future will look like, one thing is for sure: there will be collaboration.

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’s voice. People leave organizations because they’re not listened to. So in my work with sociocracy, I show people how they can set up an organization so that everyone is a decision-maker where their voice needs to be heard the most. We end up with a system where individuals and teams are able to make things happen without approval from above, a much more empowered and flexible way of making decisions that work for everyone in the room.

But some employers have a hard time with that. In many organizations, using buzz words from self-management is mere window-dressing. Here’s an easy way to illustrate that. There’s a lot of talk about how “people need to feel heard”. I want to run away screaming when I hear that. No, people don’t need to feel heard. They need to be heard! If you give people a say, they will feel heard. If we only create talking spaces, but no action follows, what’s the point of that?

I don’t want to teach feel-good self-management. I want a real transition of authority from one boss to a distributed model with collaborative and collective, consent-based leadership. So that’s a real gap because those in power are sometimes too scared to share responsibility. Those with less power are often not used to stepping up.

This can easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I’m the boss and say on the outside that I want to share power but I’m too scared to do it, people will still make decisions in the hope of pleasing me or guess what I would have decided. So those who allegedly shared power with will never fully step up and take responsibility. Then the boss can say, “see it doesn’t work, they are not willing to take responsibility. I guess it’s better if I decide everything”.

But people are absolutely able and willing to step into responsibility if we set up a system where that’s real and we work with them to empower them in a well-defined, mutually agreed-upon way.

We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?

I’m curious about the aspect of loss of control. A person who is sitting at home can’t be controlled as easily. So the only chance to get them to do work is to create a situation where they want to do the work. That’s a game-changer right there.

Another trend that I am watching is how the mixing of private and work will play out over time. For some teams, working from home has created more intimacy — we’ve now seen each other’s living rooms and we’ve met each other’s children. Can we just go back into offices, forget that and pretend all this never happened?

While some employers would love to ignore the real-life needs of employees, there’s a limit to how much we can play that game. For example, as a parent, it’s not a matter of motivation or willpower to work full time in a pandemic. There’s just an actual limit to how much one can do at once. You can’t write a report while helping a first grader that forgot how to submit their work in google classroom. The same is true if you’re worried about your sick mother in a nursing home and your teen’s mental health. So wise employers have to factor in the humanness of everyone. Pretending the humanness of employees doesn’t exist is not only morally wrong, it’s also unrealistic and therefore short-sighted.

Remote or hybrid work is here to stay for many of us. I’m curious to see if it will shift things in people’s minds and encourage people to see employers more as human beings and treat them that way.

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 wonder what will happen with the patterns of where we work and live. For example, I have always worked from home. So I work with people globally but I live in a tiny community of direct neighbors. To me, that combination of the very big world on the screen and the very small world locally is sweet, really the best of both worlds.

But that might not be true for everyone. If we want to make work work for everyone, we have to involve everyone who works. Who would know better what is needed than the people in it? The system I work with the most, “Sociocracy”, translates to “those who associate together govern together”.”And it means that each team can make their own rules on how they want to work and decide everything about it. A simple example is that we have teams that want to work in the early morning. Being their leader, who am I to dictate whether work begins at 6am or 9 am? It’s not my decision to make. Instead, it’s each team’s decision to make.

The next level is to focus on purpose. The pandemic was a catalyst for that. People started thinking about how they want to live their lives and what’s worth spending time on. It’s about the organizational purpose and the authentic overlap with our personal purpose. Not the glossy kind of purpose statements in a frame but the real question: what do I care about? What’s worth doing? With climate change and ecosystem collapse, I ask myself that every day. What’s worth doing today, given where things are?

If people vote with their feet, hopefully, those organizations that offer compelling causes will grow and thrive, and those that make meaningless plastic crap will shrivel and become insignificant.

Of course, there’s a class divide here — we can’t all choose where and what we work. And that’s a huge problem. In my perfect world, we’d all be in choice about where and what we work, and that would take care of a lot of necessary restructuring. I work with cooperatives and DAOs, and I’m always curious about how economic wealth could be distributed more equally, so people have choice and competition isn’t distorted by economic despair.

What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

Young people. I am a big fan of the coming generations! Their priorities resonate with me. And they’re much faster to grasp collaborative decision-making. Maybe it’s because there’s less unlearning to do for them because they have not having been brainwashed as long in power-over hierarchies as older people. They also deeply care about consent. Many young people I know have a systemic awareness that I only reached when I was 10 years older than them so I wonder where they will take things.

My work as a governance coach definitely feeds my optimism too. I see people get more confident and proficient in collaborative decision-making. Shiny words don’t interest me as much, I care about changing practices on the ground. And that’s growing. I remember 7 years ago I was at a conference about democratic workplaces. No one had heard about methods like sociocracy. Just 3 years later, at a similar conference, while standing in line for my lunch, I had conversations left and right where people wanted to discuss with me different strands of sociocracy.

People have learned a lot, and the field has gathered more and more experience over the years. As a movement, we’ve moved beyond rigid systems, and we have blueprinted a lot of the best practices so people don’t need to reinvent the wheel anymore. Overall, I think flexible methods like sociocracy are just short before leaving the realm of early adopters and spilling into the mainstream. And that’s exciting and a very positive development — we need power with the people to create a world that works for all.

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?

In my eyes, people’s well-being isn’t separate from the organization’s well-being because everything is connected.

Any strategy or tool one proclaims as a one-size-fits-all approach to promote well-being is bound to fail because it doesn’t consider context and interdependence.

So it’s not cookie-cutter strategies. For example, let’s say we prevented people from working weekends to protect their family time. Then we’d take their choice away to do an extra 2 hours on Saturday before the kids wake up and trade it for being able to spend time with them on Wednesday afternoon. It’s flexibility that’s key. And trust that people know what they need.

That said, people sometimes don’t do well with choice and freedom. Having all the freedom in the world can mean people don’t know how to stop working. But worker voice doesn’t mean nothing has boundaries. For example, to address overworking, a team could define boundaries for themselves together that they find useful as a mechanism to protect themselves and each other from working too much. It’s not all or nothing. We’re totally able to create healthy boundaries for ourselves together.

Another point on mental health is creating places where people listen and hear each other. We use tools for listening, connection and efficiency. For example to start every meeting with a check-in round where we say in a few sentences how we are right now. That helps us all arrive mentally in the meeting. And the more we know each other, the more we can care about each other and watch out for each other more. We’re all full human beings, and check-ins rounds are a way to bring a little bit of our full spectrum into our consciousness.

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?

Make work meaningful. Work is meaningful if it aligns with our values and it’s with people that we care about. I care a lot about my time and energy because it’s limited. If I spend time away from other things I care about, like my family, then I want it to be useful. That means to honor my and other people’s time. Creating workplaces and meetings where everyone’s time, ideas and energy are valued is possible. We need to learn how to decide who decides what, how to draft and decide proposals together, and how to make sure all the empowered pieces still form a coherent whole. That’s something one can work on today and transform workplaces over time, making high-quality self-management our expectation and daily practice.

This doesn’t just happen overnight. If you take a potted plant out of its pot, the little roots will still be all squished and entangled. If we take structure away without replacing it with skills, we’ll still be in imaginary flower pots, far from our potential. Give people the skills, let them learn, and trust that they will use them for good.

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.)

  1. Moving towards shared power. Complex problems can only be solved collaboratively, and with distributed authority. For example, I remember a school principal telling me that the decisions around COVID protocols would have broken her neck in her top-down management style from the past. But just before the pandemic, they had adopted a distributed management style where teams made decisions independently. When the schools moved online, each team adjusted in their domain, making for a smooth transition without creating a bottleneck at the top. She says it saved her life.
  2. Better care for the whole being. We need to stop reducing employees to assets and see the whole person. A few years back, we were trying to fill a leadership role for a project. Our most competent candidate wasn’t willing to take it on because he was worried about being overloaded. So we asked him, what does “overloaded” look like? He said, “if I’m overloaded, then I don’t take the time anymore to go for runs and swims during the day.” So the rest of the team offered him to check in on him every meeting and ask whether we had gone for runs and swims in the past seven days. Even after the project ended, we continued that practice. Sometimes others would also share whether they had spent time on their art or for walks. We had turned an objection into something much more beautiful for everyone!.
  3. Decision-making in complexity. Given the uncertainty, who will still make 5-year plans? It’s even hard to plan for the next 2 months in the face of uncertainty around health, regulations, supply, demand. Someone told me the other day “We can’t decide this because xyz isn’t certain.” Human minds don’t do well in uncertainty, but the uncertainty isn’t going away. With growing uncertainty, there will be fewer and fewer decisions we can make based on solid predictions. But not making decisions can be big mistake. So we better acquire those complexity skills.
  4. Moving towards shared ownership. This might be a slow-moving trend, but it’s hard to think about employer well-being and voice without the economic side. Shared power highly depends on shared ownership. Two of my corporate clients who are currently implementing sociocracy are at the same time turning their business into a cooperative — it’s a logical next step. So innovative ownership models are crucial.
  5. Purpose. Having no meaning is excruciating. Humans are meaning-making beings. We know that a meaningful work-life contributes to wellness and health as well as motivation. And now in the face of the uncertainty of the pandemic, so many are wondering: what’s worth my time? I never struggled with that, I find plenty of meaning in what I do. My only worry is that we’re doing it fast enough to meet the demand of our time. I really enjoy what I’m doing. I remember I was on a Zoom call with someone in Australia. It was in my evening and her morning. And I saw her sit there with her coffee, and I felt a rush of envy. So I asked myself, where did that envy come from? And I realized that I was jealous that it was her morning, and she had her workday ahead of her while I had to stop and rest. That’s how much I love what I do!

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?

It comes from a song that my younger kids love: “well, it’s all an adventure that comes with a breathtaking view”. In other words, a friend who is wiser than me told me a while ago: “Ted, you’re approaching life like a problem to be solved instead of a process to be lived”.

She was right. The more I live, the more I see that there are no easy answers, and whenever we think, “oh, I can just solve that easily”, we’ve probably not seen the complexity involved yet. So taking in the view a bit more, enjoying it, and suppressing that urge to fix things single-handedly, that’s a good reminder.

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’m interested in weaving the work that we do with other frameworks. My colleague blend sociocracy with Agile, Permaculture, Nonviolent Communication, Beyond Budgeting, Theory U and some others.

I wonder if there are other frameworks that mesh with what we do? For example, I’d love to hear what Brené Brown has to say about the interface of her work and governance. That seems like a meaningful lunch conversation!

Being a nonprofit, we’re also always interested in working with foundations that understand the significance of self-governance skills. Reach out!

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 can be reached by email [email protected]. The organization I work with, Sociocracy For All, puts out newsletters that feature my and my colleague’s writing. I’m also easy to find on social media.

Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.