Humans have always done some things far better than machines, but what those things are is continuously evolving. We need to continuously re-examine our preconceptions what work can and should be done by humans and what work can now be done by some combination of software and hardware.

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 Tony Fross, leader of the Organization & Culture practice at Prophet, a global consultancy.

Tony has more than 20 years of experience working with clients around the globe on culture, engagement of talent, and growth strategies. He leads Prophet’s Organization & Culture discipline focusing on providing a human-centered, holistic approach to redesigning organizations and driving cultural transformation.

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.

There are three key things that shaped me. A Quaker education at Westtown School inculcated a strong desire for service to others. I did my undergraduate and graduate work in theatre and being an actor requires one to live in the moment, accept what’s unfolding in front of you and to respond authentically. Finally, I was fortunate to have been apprenticed to Dr. Min Basadur, now professor emeritus of innovation at McMaster. Min’s work changed my life forever by giving me a straightforward and universal framework for navigating every thorny challenge in both business and life. Those three experiences combined yielded a strong service orientation, an ability to be authentic in the workplace, and a toolkit for bringing groups to breakthrough.

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?

Society is full of interrelated complex systems so a 10–15 year window pretty much ensures our best predictions will be wrong. That said, I will take my best shot at a few predictions, secure in the knowledge that it’s highly unlikely anyone is going to see how well these ultimately tick and tie.

1 . The 5-Day Work Week Will Begin to Evaporate
This may seem preposterous upon first read. However, we forget that the five-day workweek is a relatively recent 20th century invention. We used to work a lot more, but technology increased productivity and social mores changed.

As our productivity continuously increases through technology and automation, the need for a five-day week will likely erode to the point where the standard week will become four days. We see a lot of experimenting with this now and early results from the ongoing UK experiment suggest it’s not only viable, but it’s also likely quite desirable.

Will some firms and industries continue to work five or more days? Sure. There are firms and industries that are working de facto seven-day weeks today, for instance, hospitals. But even within firms that provide 24/7 service for customers, workweeks will shorten.

2. The Future of White Collar Work Will Be Hybrid
Physical and remote participants working synchronously together will be commonplace for knowledge workers across most industries. We’ll solve this by incorporating new technologies into our group work environments to enable remote collaborators to participate fluidly just as if they were physically present, for instance drawing and adding ideas to the walls and whiteboards.

3. A New Word Will Replace “Office”
For eons now, “the office” has meant where work happens. With mobile computing, digital backgrounds, and AI-driven sound filters, work takes place in many locations: in our homes, in coffee shops and even (sadly, perhaps?) on the beach.

That said, there is little question that being physically present with co-workers affords important opportunities for humans to bond, connect, and collaborate. Going forward, organizations need spaces which prioritize connection and group work instead of our traditional spaces which devote most of their floorplan to individual knowledge work with conference rooms for didactic presentations.

Additionally, we will see real estate strategies shift from aggregating thousands of workers in large singular sites located in centralized business districts to connecting a “string of pearls”, meaning many, smaller sites spread throughout the exurbs.

What might we call those places? This is an opportunity for organizations to apply skillsets that have often only lived in brand teams (e.g., understanding needs, defining a value proposition, messaging, naming) to be applied internally into truly designing a new employee experience.

4. The Entry and Exit Ramps to Work Will Move

When we started and stopped working in developed economies has changed over the last hundred years and will continue to do so. In the future, much of what constitutes entry level jobs today will vanish to automation. For instance, robots are already running many warehouses and self-checkout is quickly taking over grocery stores — even in France! It’s not hard to imagine that the onramps to enter the workforce in both white and blue collar settings are going to be quite different than they are today.

At the other end of the working life, we are seeing that as our lifespans extend that more and more people are resisting the kind of full retirement between ages 60 to 65 that was previously perceived to be a reward for what was then a lifetime of work. I think we’ll see a lot more people continuing to work because they find an important sense of purpose being active in the world of work, without necessarily being workaholics.

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

It’s daunting, but future-proofing requires a great deal of systems thinking. At Prophet, we view all organizations as a macrocosm of the individual: having a collective DNA, Body, Mind and a Soul.

  • The DNA is comprised of things that provide direction and tend to change infrequently. The elements that define the destination and direction of travel such as the corporate purpose, values, brand, strategy and employee value proposition.
  • It is the elements of the Soul which motivate employees to believe in the DNA. Those are the mindsets and the daily behaviors and ways of working those mindsets motivate; and it’s the stories and symbols that are used to signpost what an organization will and will not embrace.
  • The skills and capabilities of an organization’s talent are the Mind of the organization and, when properly cared for and nurtured, enable goals to be achieved.
  • And finally, the Body is how collective efforts can be directed. It’s the operating model and organizational design, and the governance, processes, systems, and tools which enable it to cohere.

An organization needs to be understood as a holistic ecosystem and successful transformation today requires leaders to think about every aspect of it. One of the important aspects of this Human Centered Transformation Model™ is that it ensures that humans stay front and center in your thinking. Because business doesn’t change. Humans change. And then humans change the business.

So whether you’re driving growth from the lens of your brand portfolio, or how your marketing and sales functions generate value, or trying to innovate new products, services, experiences or even new businesses, the DNA, Body, Mind and Soul of the organization are all directly implicated in those efforts. Ignoring any one of them is going to have unintended consequences.

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?

We’re in the midst of an enormous shift. It’s extremely hard to take away something you’ve already given to your employees. And it’s also hard to hide from the moves you made when the chips were down.

For knowledge workers, we’ve collectively given them a lot more autonomy of place and time than most had previously. And it’s clear they do not want to give that up. Employers are going to need to get good at true hybrid work — and management of that work — in the coming 12 to 18 months. To be clear, hybrid does not mean what days people are in the office or not. Hybrid means real-time collaboration between physically collocated colleagues and remote ones. Simultaneously, organizations are going to have to build their muscles for asynchronous work, something that remote-first organizations have already mastered. My advice would be to invest significantly in experimentation with the ways of working and technologies required to support hybrid and asynchronous work so that you’re fit for the changes yet to come.

For frontline workers, a lot of different kinds of organizations made significant missteps over the last two years. The workforces in hospitality, healthcare, transportation, and logistics were treated poorly by their employers in many instances and, in some cases, by the end customers as well. We will see a lot more collective bargaining, unionization, and lobbying on behalf of those workforces as they seek better treatment, fair wages, and greater security. This movement, combined with the pressures of the greater societal shift to force organizations to focus more on the issues we collectively group as “ESG” will mean that companies would be well advised to focus on their right to operate with the same intensity they have previously given rather singularly to shareholder value.

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

As Lawler Kang pointed out in his wonderful book, Passion at Work, work/life balance is, and always has been, a false dichotomy. We are not dead during the workday and alive outside of those hours. It’s all life. The question is what are our priorities? How do we want to spend our precious hours?

Until 2020, this false dichotomy was structurally enabled by a literal geographical compartmentalization (home versus office), which in turn supported the shared psychological one of the workforce. But working from home meant they were no longer able to maintain the false dichotomy.

Going forward, we are going to see that the workforces who are capable of working from home are going to select their employers with a greater focus on the firm’s alignment to their personal values. This was a trend emerging in Gen Z and now the pandemic has brought more generations of workers around to thinking in this 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 love that you asked this question. The truth is that not everyone desires a future of work that works for everyone. But for those who do desire a future of work that works for everyone, there’s little question that our society needs to embrace sustainability. And that requires organizations to confront the fact that they are currently designed to input unrenewable energy sources and output materials that are single use at best and simultaneously toxic at worst.

The pandemic has also shone a light on the inequalities that exist in our current systems and further blurred the lines between work life and personal life. To support a future of work that works for everyone, we need to make structural changes to enable more equal access to opportunity (childcare, affordable education, access to technology and internet, etc.)

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

It sounds cliché, but the younger generations offer great reason for optimism. There is so much raw talent, combined with the levels of societal engagement and commitment that lead to a better future. They want a just and better future and they’re far more committed and empowered than my generation (Gen X) to leaning in to make it possible.

Additionally, there is now the potential for organizations to recruit and retain a far more diverse workforce through hybrid work. And that can only be a good thing.

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?

There might be two altitudes to consider with this topic. The higher altitude is the strategic shifts in how employers think about their employee value proposition (EVP) and the lower altitude is specific strategies around mental health and wellbeing.

In terms of EVP, we see increased flexibility for employees in when, where and how work gets done and a greater emphasis on measuring business outcomes versus activity. We also see a greater attempt to deliver value equitably to a diverse workforce. These actions effect mental health and wellbeing because they increase an employee’s status, certainty, autonomy and sense of fairness, which are key dimensions for creating meaning and psychological safety in the workplace.

As it relates to specific strategies, we see more and more firms recognizing programming with various kinds of purposeful interruptions to potentially harmful cycles. For instance, we see some firms offering a paid vacation week before official start dates to help new hires enter the firm with a clear mind and clean agenda. Other firms are experimenting with new working norms to reduce pressure, such as having no meetings on Fridays; or adding electronic signatures explaining that communications are sent when it’s best for the sender and do not require an immediate response from the recipient. And we also see paid sabbaticals becoming increasingly popular to reward service and prevent burnout. The most thoughtful People teams are considering holistic and more flexible approaches that address not just physical and mental health, but support for financial and social health as well.

There is another critical aspect of physical and mental wellbeing that is being somewhat overlooked by many organizations, perhaps because they feel they have less control over it: the physical environment in which employees work. This has many dimensions including the equity in and quality of access to light, ergonomics, air quality, water quality, temperature, and ventilation. The high volume of unoccupied office spaces today is driven in no small part by employees’ concerns about wellbeing. For employees to feel safe in employer-owned spaces, organizations need to push their landlords and architects to enable the development of healthier workspaces, starting with the fundamental infrastructure.

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?

It’s time to move from a “recruit to commute” to a “recruit to compete strategy”. At the end of the day, talent determines your business outcomes. If we no longer need to be confined by geography, then determine where is that talent today and where does that talent prefer to be? Figure that out and go get those people.

As you’re considering your strategy, it’s also a great time to think about your fundamental employee value proposition. What makes your firm special going forward? There are a lot more options in today’s world for smart and talented people to choose from, so don’t rest on your history. That’s what’s going to hurt more staid industries and firms that believe they’ve always been desirable and therefore will continue to be. (I’m looking at you, Wall Street. And also you, Healthcare.)

Finally, how might you quickly, truly, and deeply diversify your leadership team? And let’s define those terms: quickly means in the next 2 years. That means some people are going to have to get out of the way. This truly means eliminating tokenism. Twelve 55-year-old, straight white men and a single woman of color on your leadership team is not true diversity. Deeply means seeking lots of different types of diversity, including age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and neurodiversity. Why the urgency? Because if the talent you need cannot see themselves at the top of your firm, while you might get them in the door, the data shows they simply will not stay.

Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”

In truth, we’ve already covered a lot of trends that need to be tracked: increasing diversity of talent, hybrid and asynchronous work, new uses for corporate space and shortened workweeks. But there are more to cover, so I’ll offer a blended list of previously discussed and add some other trends.

  1. Hu Do Hu

Humans have always done some things far better than machines, but what those things are is continuously evolving. We need to continuously re-examine our preconceptions what work can and should be done by humans and what work can now be done by some combination of software and hardware.

For instance, if you feel you need an original illustration for this article you could hire a freelance illustrator or you could use one of many freely available advanced AI-driven image production tools. To hire an illustrator because that’s what you’ve always done might not make business sense. Perhaps that kind of commercial illustration will go the way of highway toll collection.

Each organization needs to ask itself each year, what volume of work activity might we shift from humans to software, and how fast can we do it?

2. Demand for Purpose Driven Work

As noted earlier, people want to be alive and engaged in their professional lives. And. building on the previous trend, letting humans focus on what humans do best is one piece of the puzzle to meeting the rising demand for purpose and meaning in the workplace.

This is more complicated than it might appear at first glance because it’s about more than an individual’s role or job. Purpose-driven work also brings the expectation that the externally expressed purpose of a firm’s brand will be lived internally. If your external brand stands for sustainability, for instance, but your internal operations do not live up to that promise, your employees are going to be unhappy with that dissonance.

3. Functional Siloes Will Shatter

The highest value work requires a shattering of the functional silos that developed in the latter half of the 20th century. Those silos worked well in more mechanistic and hierarchical models, but the pace of business today requires more agile, flexible, and cross-functional work methods than the older structures can support.

For instance, innovating new products, services experiences and businesses requires teams of designers, engineers, researchers, product management and data scientists, actively supported by matrixed and engaged finance, HR, and legal colleagues. Similarly, go to market functions that have long been siloed, meaning marketing, sales and service need to work in cross-functional efforts using agile methods and a panoply of digital products, services, and touchpoints to continuously connect brand to demand to service.

Organizations need to be shifting to deep, cross functional approaches and developing their talent to broaden their skills so that they can effectively participate in this fundamentally flatter, team and initiative-based approach to work. Additionally, our 2022 Catalysts research report on cross-organizational collaboration revealed not only the importance of collaboration to achievement of strategic business objectives, but also the real benefit to members of the workforce in terms of their professional development and personal satisfaction.

4. A Tapestry of How

We noted above that the future of knowledge work is hybrid and needs to incorporate asynchronous work as well. Combined with an increasing diversity of talent and a new awareness of how that talent works best, we will see new ways of working and the technologies that support them form a new and novel tapestry of how work gets done.

Picture a cross-functional service design team comprised of eight people which includes colleagues of varied ages, physical abilities, ethnicities, and neurotypes. For one particular meeting, some of them prefer, and are able, to be physically present in real-time. Others are virtual participants with equal agency to those in the room. They might be using a combination of human vision, computer aided vision, physical and virtual environments to collaborate for three hours. Following the meeting, sub-teams address their action items, but move to asynchronous collaboration which enables people to contribute during the hours that they work best, according to preference, neurotype, time zone, and backlog.

5. Increasingly Diverse Diversity

We’ve spent a lot of time discussing relatively few types of diversity over the last couple of decades, mostly gender in binary terms and, in the U.S., race. As implied above, our definition of diversity will continue to expand to the benefit of all.

Going forward, a range of stakeholders, including governments, investors, and the workers themselves will increasingly bring employers to embrace as fact that mixing generations, neurotypes, lived experiences, and disciplines yields better outcomes, both financially and societally.

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?

As I noted above, Lawler Kang wrote this in his book Passion at Work that, “There’s no such thing as work/life balance.” It’s all life. The question is, what are your priorities?

This concept hit me like a hammer. We’re not dead at work, so separating our time into “work” and “life” makes no sense. Because if we decide to metaphorically write off the hours we spend at work as time when we don’t want or need to be fully engaged, then we’re sacrificing most of our time on earth.

For me, this means I’m not willing to compartmentalize my behavior at work under the common rubric of “it’s just business.” I do my best to live by my values, which means prioritizing creating positive outcomes for the largest possible number of people. And I only accept employment that challenges and engages me in the service of others so that I’m making the most of the time that I have.

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 torn. I would love to spend time with Brit Marling. We were at Sundance for her breakout year and have followed her career as a writer and actor ever since. She and her creative partners, like Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij, have produced such hopeful and imaginative films and series, most recently The OA for Netflix. I would love to discuss some of the books and texts that have inspired her and to know what she’s thinking about next.

I also greatly admire Maria Popova. I return to Figuring, her history of queer innovators, again and again. Like everything she writes at The Marginalian, it’s beautiful and expands one’s mind and sense of possibility in much the same way that listening to Bach does.

Since it’s my fantasy, I would like to propose that I invite them both to lunch.

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 am @tonyfross on social media. Readers can find posts from me twice a day from Monday to Friday on LinkedIn and Twitter. And on LinkedIn they’ll also find a weekly rhythm of short form original content focused on bringing our full selves to work in a healthy way, which are tagged #humanatwork.

One of the most powerful tools humans have is our ability to frame. What we set the boundaries around visually and mentally determines a surprising amount of our felt reality. If readers want to see what I frame with a camera, they can find me on Instagram. That account will be of particular interest to those who love Iceland as I spend my summers there with my wife, Katrin van Dam, and I take a much higher volume of pictures in July and August!

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