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Preparing For The Future Of Work: Amy Kates of Kates Kesler Organization Design & Accenture On The Top Five Trends To Watch In The Future Of Work

An Interview with Phil La Duke

Organization life is only going to get more complex. Most companies need to be both global and local, to create shared meaning while driving individual accountability, and to deliver their products and services in the form of customized solutions. This creates incredible internal complexity that simplistic ideas about teamwork won’t solve. Understanding the organization as a complex system is the new work of leadership.

There have been major disruptions in recent years that promise to change the very nature of work. From the ongoing shifts caused by the COVID19 pandemic, the impacts caused by automation, and other possible disruptions to the status quo, many wonder what the future holds in terms of employment.

To address this open question, we reached out to successful leaders in business, government, and labor, as well as thought leaders about the future of work to glean their insights and predictions on the future of work and the workplace.

As a part of this interview series called “Preparing For The Future Of Work”, we had the pleasure to interview Amy Kates.

Amy Kates is an organization designer. She advises CEOs of corporations, nonprofits, and government leaders around the world. Her focus is on building dynamic organizations that are the best in their industry and provide great work environments. In addition to consulting, she has co-authored five of the leading books in the field and teaches at Cornell University. Kates Kesler, the firm that she built with Greg Kesler, was acquired by Accenture in 2020. She started her career as a city planner and lives in New York City with her family.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?

I grew up on farm in the Hudson Valley dreaming of living in New York City. A graduate degree in City and Regional Planning got me to Manhattan and a job at the Department of City Planning. For the past 30 years, I have enjoyed being a citizen of this great world city.

Early in my work life, after five years with city government, I had the chance to transition from urban design to organization design. I took the opportunity to apply my curiosity about complex systems to the business world.

As an organization design consultant, I’ve been able to observe patterns of human behavior in organizations across industries and cultures around the world. And I’ve been able to learn from a series of inspiring business partners — Diane Downey, Jay Galbraith, and Greg Kesler.

I am not an academic but writing and teaching have always been an important part of how I make sense of these fascinating patterns. This has resulted in five of the best-selling books in our field, written with these partners.

The little boutique firm that Greg Kesler and I started 12 years ago — Kates Kesler Organization Consulting — was acquired by Accenture in 2020, and we are now on an exciting new journey with over 620,000 global colleagues across the organization.

More recently, I have also tapped back into my farm roots. The cessation of travel when the pandemic hit gave me a chance to stay put for a while. Over the past two years I’ve put a lot of energy into building a productive garden on a small piece of property in northeast Pennsylvania. It has introduced me to the equally complex world of horticulture!

What do you expect to be the major disruptions for employers in the next 10–15 years? How should employers pivot to adapt to these disruptions?

I have learned not to make predications or generalizations. But, I do see a couple of patterns that were apparent before the pandemic, have accelerated since, and I believe we can reasonably expect to continue.

One is that employees will continue to demand clear purpose and meaning in their work. As part of our projects, we conduct organization assessments with employees at all levels and in all types of jobs. Consistently, I hear the desire for a clearer line of sight between individual contribution and the larger purpose of the company. People want to know that their work has meaning, that they are seen as a whole person, and that their contribution is appreciated. When leaders don’t provide this, people lose engagement and connection to the work, and the company loses excellence in execution, innovative ideas and effort, or even the people themselves.

Second, it is a cliché that all companies are now tech companies, but it is true. And what is disruptive about this from an employer perspective is that technology is no longer a support or enabling function, but an integral part of product and service development and delivery. All leaders in a company need to deeply understand the technology underlying their business model and keep up with trends. It is no longer how good your technology function or digital talent is. The differentiator is how well the rest of your company can connect business processes and product plans to technology.

The choice as to whether or not a young person should pursue a college degree was once a “no-brainer”. But with the existence of many high profile millionaires (and billionaires) who did not earn degrees, as well as the fact that many graduates are saddled with crushing student loan debt and unable to find jobs it has become a much more complex question. What advice would you give to young adults considering whether or not to go to college?

As the mother of two sons in their 20s, this question is close to home. Both of my sons certainly benefited from the experience of college — the opportunity to mature socially and explore intellectual interests. But neither are in the fields that they studied. And while both are pursuing personally fulfilling paths and noble pursuits, neither are in fields that will earn them the salaries that would justify the tuition we paid, at least in the short term. Honestly, if they were saddled by significant loans, they would not be able to make the career choices that they have.

Higher education is the last industry to be disrupted, and this disruption is long overdue. We need many paths, options and delivery methods for learning. A stronger foundation in our primary and secondary schools is the start. Then, that just-in-time learning that can be accessed at different times of life. I believe that for some time there will be a place for the really good liberal arts college and certainly the research university. But the time has passed for the four-year factory model of the mid-tier school that is producing neither critical thinkers nor technical experts. The education industry won’t change, however, until employers stop using a bachelor’s degree as a substitute for really looking at a person’s experience and potential. At Accenture, we’ve begun this process, having removed bachelor’s degree requirements from 48% of our roles in the United States.

Despite the doom and gloom predictions, there are, and likely still will be, jobs available. How do you see job seekers having to change their approaches to finding not only employment, but employment that fits their talents and interests?

Right now, these predictions are more about not enough workers, rather than jobs. The service industry can’t fill positions and wages are going up for professional work. Many factors are driving the trend of people dropping out of the workforce. Some are short-term, such as the pandemic, and some are structural, such as the mismatch between jobs that require highly trained technical skills and the realities of experience and expertise in the workforce. This is exacerbated by the fact that many jobs are still secured through personal networks, which disadvantages people without access to social, professional, or academic networks.

LinkedIn can provide a great equalizer by creating the possibility of a direct connection between people. I encourage people to not be afraid to reach out to interesting people. It is actually quite flattering to receive these inquiries. I have people messaging me weekly who are interested in the organization design field.

Here is what works. Do some real research on the person you are reaching out to. Not just their background but also read what they’ve written or posted. Ask a question that shows you understand who they are and that is relevant to your background. I have engaged with several people in this way, have become an informal mentor to many, and have actually hired a few!

What doesn’t work. Sending a generic LinkedIn message that says something like “will you meet with me to tell me about your career in consulting,” or “can you tell me about careers in organization design.” For those I politely direct them to our website.

Technological advances and pandemic restrictions hastened the move to working from home. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?

For years, many employers fought what were called “flexible work arrangements” which were often no more than allowing a person to work one day a week from home. The pandemic showed that there was no need for so many people to commute to an office just to get on a computer and have meetings with people not in that office. And in fact, many of my clients have said that global teams have found meetings to be much more effective with everyone on their own screen.

Based on our observations, the worst situation seems to be going back to the hybrid meeting where one group is together in a conference room and four poor souls are on the screen unable to hear clearly who is talking, feeling left out of the hallway conversation, and often just completely forgotten.

The work from anywhere trend will continue post-pandemic. And effective meetings will always be a struggle, whether in person, remote, or hybrid. But listening to business and HR leaders in a variety of companies I’m hearing a few consistent, perhaps more important, themes.

On one hand, many companies are getting comfortable with true choice and flexibility. We’ve proven that we can have incredibly high levels of productivity with people working from anywhere, thanks to video conferencing technology. That said, it is also clear that the office is still an important locus of activity. For some, it provides a place of focus, as not everyone is in a home set up that is ideal for work. Others are craving the social environment that the office provides, and some value having a clear transition between work and home life. In this role, the office will become a vessel for high value conversations and collaboration. A space to create and transmit the culture of the organization. Perhaps no longer a regular place of work, but an important symbolic physical location.

I primarily work out of Accenture’s newly opened Hudson Yards district office, which is centered on building an environment of innovation and collaboration. I enjoy going there once a week or so to have a change of scene and meet colleagues for coffee or lunch. I recently went to Denmark to see a client, and I also spent a day meeting with my Accenture Nordic colleagues in the Copenhagen office. I was surprised that by just seeing the consistency of company signage as I walked in, I immediately felt connected and that I belonged.

But all this flexibility is also raising some challenging questions. Should people be paid the same regardless of where they work? Will people who come to the office be advantaged by the informal relationships that are built? How much choice should be given when there is team-oriented or physical work to be done? Suddenly, for those who can do their work remotely, the whole meaning of the “office” has changed.

What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support the fundamental changes to work?

None of these stresses and issues are new. They are just now being focused on because they are impacting people at scale. And of course, flexibility is a nice idea except when other parts of your life need stability. Accenture’s Future of Work survey found that even the productive individuals were also experiencing burnout, fatigue and frustrations — at times at even higher levels than the non-productive group reported.

We may not be able to create solutions that meet all the needs of employers, employees, and teammates, but this is a very ripe area for policy, experimentation, and learning.

Despite all that we have said earlier, what is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

Human beings are incredibly resilient and innovative. I often cite Yuval Harari’s notion that what distinguishes us from the other mammals is our ability to have “shared imagination.” I am always optimistic about what collaboration can bring. I see it every day. People coming to work and creating outcomes that couldn’t be realized without a sophisticated system of interaction, sometimes reaching around the globe. That is what I love about my work. In a small way as an organization designer, I can help make that collaboration easier. It is also why I love living in the middle of New York City. Eight million people creating experiences through their daily interactions, the vast majority positive.

Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Trends to Watch In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Organization life is only going to get more complex. Most companies need to be both global and local, to create shared meaning while driving individual accountability, and to deliver their products and services in the form of customized solutions. This creates incredible internal complexity that simplistic ideas about teamwork won’t solve. Understanding the organization as a complex system is the new work of leadership.
  2. Good leadership is more important than ever. I am not just talking about individuals being good communicators and inspirational, but leadership as an organization component. In our work we focus on layers of leadership. What do executives need to do together to create clear direction, purpose, and make the hard trade-offs so that the company’s priorities are clear? How does the broad band of senior managers working across boundaries need collaborate to create the processes and mechanisms that will empower managers closer to the customer to make better, faster decisions?
  3. Technological shifts will create more societal unrest. Technology has always displaced work in the short-term while creating new opportunities through productivity in the long-term. These cycles are compressing, however, and we aren’t able to retrain our workforce fast enough to see the gain from these opportunities. This is a government, education, and societal issue and I believe is at the root of much political friction. One part of our society is becoming incredibly wealthy off these shifts and other parts are being left behind.
  4. The education system will be disrupted. It won’t be immediate as the old models are so entrenched in every facet of our society. As participants, we are all for change, but not until we personally get that credential or put our own kids through college. It’s clear no one wants to be at the forefront of making change in this area. As we move toward a post pandemic reality, we seem to be eagerly going right back to familiar constructs, but I feel that the experience of the past 18 months will help to hasten change, or at least the openness to experimentation.
  5. Work will have a new place and meaning in our lives. It is much too early to tell, but I think we’ll look back in 10 years and see real change coming out of 2020. One will be new demands for what employers provide in the work experience. And perhaps a shift in boundaries between what the government, our employers, and the market provide in terms of education, healthcare, and income. We have so many assumptions about these relationships that shape our discourse. Many of these assumptions are starting to feel very out of date. The solutions will transcend political categories.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how this quote has shaped your perspective?

“Do your work with pride.” I always notice when people care about their work. This was something I learned from my mother. She wasn’t able to go to college or have a career. But whether she was weeding her garden or baking bread, it was always with focus, enthusiasm, and a desire to learn. To make the world a nicer place for others. She appreciated that in others and I try to do the same. For example, I will notice someone in a store arranging shelves just so, picking up a bit of litter, or walking a customer to where a product is rather than just pointing. I know that this behavior is the result of a complex system of events and choices over time for the individual and for the company they work within. I feel fortunate that the focus of my professional life is to help leaders create environments that allow people to do their work with excellence and pride and feel that satisfaction of contribution.

Our readers often like to follow our interview subjects’ careers. How can they further follow your work online?

Our team loves sharing what we are learning. Visit us here to learn more about our perspectives on this topic and more.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.

Thank you for the opportunity!

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