How can we co-create the future of work ?

notes from Upasna’s cross-cultural work experiences


How can we co-create the future of work?

In conversation with @tobyruckert on a startup’s internship model that raised a larger question: as digitally connected individuals, what can we expect as we let ourselves imagine the future of work?

@Syamant recently wrote the most interesting piece on “re-inventing the employee experience”. It brought me back to the oft repeated conversations on gender, diversity and other topics that I see being discussed on my social networks. I see friends struggling to manage a career and kids or others that automatically question their priorities, couples spending 4 years in different cities and making it sound normal. I see me on the verge of a shift like this and being unsure. It is not my place to judge who’s right and who’s not. But considering we all have a vision towards creating something in our own lives and careers, this is me thinking through mine. And since I am digitally inclined, in the world of digital connections, how can we co-create our own future of work?

1. Future of work: Reverse mentorship

A few days ago, I found a screaming headline on Twitter: “two-thirds of people say working in a startup would be their dream job”. Startups were seen as creative, dynamic, with a sense of purpose and places that would allow employees to grow. How true could this imagination be? Did it represent a certain bias or were people really trying to experience this new?

I spoke to @TobyRuckert, CEO of Unified Inbox, a technology startup that just launched its first product. The interesting part on why I interviewed Toby was that, the company happens to have a “Global Internship Program”. In simple words, the company enables interns to experience the real startup culture. As a startup totally focused on creating new products, why have a global intern program? Would a focus on hiring already experienced folk not help more? Toby talked through the fine art of creating a balance of experienced and new talent for the company. He imagined a state where each experienced hire worked with a number of interns provided there was a skill-set and expectations match.

“The experienced folk should be like a mentor for the intern which is a huge task with a lot of responsibility. That said it is also very rewarding. As much as it is relevant for a senior manager to learn, it is even more significant to internalize the learning we receive when we mentor others. That way the internship program is actually an indirect training program for even our most senior team members”, explained Toby further.

How do you select mentors?

Toby’s company internally has a policy that every time a head (although they don’t have many of those yet) asks for an intern, they need to justify and ask themselves why. What value-add could they bring to the intern and what must the intern expect in return? Mentors, according to Toby, must be approved internally. Instead of finding a junior employee to place the blame on, the heads would need to question themselves- did they have all the mentorship qualities themselves? Were they ready for such a responsibility? The people ready to be mentors naturally needed to have leadership qualities. These included the ability to acknowledge that they do not know everything and by mentoring they were going to be learning something too. To avoid attrition of key people and to make it scalable, it is important to place a lot of importance to the selection of mentors. For the lack of sufficient training or sometimes just low resources, I see plenty of startups or actually even big companies where leaders get titles purely on the merit of “being there”. Many middle management leaders or managers somehow just don’t understand the comcept of giving back. In that light, this sounded like utopia. But something many of us needed to think through well.

2. Future of work: Diversity in thought

This reverse mentoring experience was enhanced from having people with different ideas that ensured there was always a refreshing new view point to consider. Toby sees his diverse intern pool as a value add to the existing innovation within the company. Plenty of startups and even big companies especially in the technology domain are not gung-ho about the diversity statistics in their companies. Talking about diversity already as a new startup was interesting. As a woman in technology, it wasn’t something that I was particularly used to hearing. How was this diversity defined, I enquired. Where was this coming from: the need to be different or was it a personal experience?

“I studied Music not IT. Machines or instruments don’t care who wrote it. Music is the language of the heart. It is a universal language no matter where you are from, if you have an ear for it, you will react to it. My earlier passion for this kind of openness (around diversity) comes from Music. As a startup, our real passion is to integrate communication channels. But when you include one you automatically exclude the other. But then the question is how do you balance it? Be neutral. Be inclusive. Be open”, shared Toby.

Keeping this in mind, from New Zealand to Germany to a non-descript coffee shop in the middle of China, as long as they have a working Internet connection and a computer, Unified Inbox seemed interested. Interns could come in all genders, shapes and age groups. The company sets no barriers and has a strict open-to-all policy. Toby and the team in Unified Inbox strongly believe that, the exchange of cultures, values and tradition often makes a globally intended innovation better. It can potentially be adopted faster by the respective local audiences. Research proves that the innovation as well as the bottom line has a strong positive impact when diversity is encouraged.

Employees of firms with 2-D diversity are 45% likelier to report a growth in market share over the previous year and 70% likelier to report that the firm captured a new market. (HBR report)

3. Future of work: Remote virtual desks

Considering an inexperienced intern could not be at a hundred percent productivity level and would need a bit of hand-holding in the initial stages, why was this program “remote”, I asked. This came from my personal experience of companies struggling to keep mothers, married women or just anyone from working full-time because they moved. From data privacy to team work to just the fear of not being able to manage or know what the employee was up to, would drive many company away from the concept of remote working. This one seemed close to Toby, being a digital nomad himself.

“It has been said many times that ‘the best are everywhere’. Those folks often won’t let themselves be confined into certain locations or working spaces. It is one of their new-found rights of freedom that the digital age has ushered in. I’ve experienced this myself when living on beautiful Waiheke Island, off New Zealand in the Pacific Ocean and have realized that we won’t be able to turn the clock back on remote working. Often when you demand people to work from a specific location, their salary expectation goes up. Why? Because you fundamentally take something away from the liberty and empowerment they feel when working from where they feel their best and most comfortable. I can totally relate to this: the location shouldn't matter. What matters is my commitment to get the stuff done which I signed up for and to do so while communicating exceptionally well with my friends and co-workers, no matter where they may be. It has been shown in many studies over the years that remote working is actually more productive than working in an office environment. But there are exceptions, if the company culture and/or processes and tools do not support a remote working environment or the hiring policy doesn’t place great care on filtering out candidates who are simply not ready for remote working”, Toby painstakingly explained.
“Eventually we asked ourselves, with this new paradigm and shift in working environments around the world, why would you not want to tap into the best talent early on, no matter where on the globe the people are from?”, he added.

My thoughts led me to my first “young” job that I left because they would not let me work from another office location. And a boss who stopped me from getting to office in off-peak traffic hours because she had an excessive need to micromanage. I remember my need to avoid conversation with them. Did they help their own selves? That’s hard to say. Did I want to work with them or those companies ever again? That’s easy. As a consumer, if ever I had to purchase their solutions, would I? Well.

4. Future of work: Hire the right culture

So, while I developed a mental picture of an intern working from a coffee shop in Costa Rica, how was this intern going to be selected? Who was an ideal intern in such a remote working, flexible and diverse startup culture? Toby came up with productivity numbers, explaining,

“The ideal intern is somebody who shows presence without annoying anybody. Who contributes pro-actively, without stealing others’ time. Who enables his/her mentor 10 hours of more productivity for every 1 hour the mentor invests. On day one, these things are impossible to achieve for any new intern. But, after 90 days the ideal intern should be able to understand different aspects and get there.”

But what would make other take notice, I continued.

“There are three areas in which everybody in a startup company will notice the positive impact and productive work of interns: Support, Social Media/Marketing and Product. Product because any comment (praise or critique) will ultimately affect everybody else. Any input to the product is eventually seen throughout the company. Support because they naturally interact with other team members, clients, suppliers and so forth. If they do a good job there, all those folks will love them. Social Media/Marketing because the intern is now making the company and/or product philosophy his own and publicly pushing the company agenda. While this isn’t for everybody, it is one of the strongest ways to say ‘I’m here, I believe, I do’”, Toby said.

So all you interns, here’s coming from a startup CEO himself, in the first 90 days should you be able to touch these areas if your role permits and demands it. It is important to work across teams and even cross-functionally if that is a possibility.

How are you co-creating the future of work?

I am not an intern anymore, I thought. And yet, the openness, diversity and flexibility that Toby and the team behind Unified Inbox talk about made me wonder. In our new-found digital freedom, how can we expect it to be any less? What opportunities could I have dreamed up already, if I had been able to perform on such a wide canvass without the usual restrictive boundaries?

After all, like Toby told me in the beginning, in one way or the other, everybody started as an intern.

The future of work is an imaginary concept and through her conversations with inspiring startups, Upasna plans to find her Atlantis.

Earlier: Should startup culture be written down? How do you create the right startup culture?

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