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Preparing For The Future Of Work: Aubrey Blanche On The Top Five Trends To Watch In The Future Of Work

An Interview with Phil La Duke

Shift to Flexible Work. While I think we’ll see a rise in the number of “remote first” companies, the majority will likely shift to “distributed by default”, where collaborating with folks far away is the norm. While this is already true for many global companies, we’ll see this accelerate even for companies with a smaller geographic footprint.

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. For example, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute that estimated automation will eliminate 73 million jobs by 2030.

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 Aubrey Blanche.

Aubrey Blanche is The Mathpath (Math Nerd + Empath), Director of Equitable Design, Product & People at Culture Amp, and a startup investor, and advisor. She questions, reimagines, and redesigns the systems that surround us to ensure that all people access equitable opportunities. Her expertise covers talent programs and accessible product development to event design and communications. She is the inventor of the balanced teams approach and a culture of belonging, and the Balanced Teams Diversity Assessment in the Atlassian Team Playbook. She open sources these methods and releases thought leadership and tools to create positive change at aubreyblanche.com.

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?

Oh gosh, what a complicated question! In many ways, I feel like I’ve come from everywhere. I’ve spent time living in a variety of different places in the U.S. and abroad, but home will always be Michigan. From an identity perspective, being Latina, queer, and disabled has undoubtedly had a major impact on my experience. As a White-passing person, I’ve experienced both the privileges of being White and the Otherization that comes with being from a racialized group. I’ve seen both the stigma and incredible community that comes from being queer and disabled (although I likely “look” like neither to most people). These experiences of having identities on both sides of the line — I call them liminal identities — mean that I’ve had some significant experience sitting in a lot of different viewpoints, and I hope that makes me more effective at considering others’ views and experiences as well.

Professionally, I think I’ll always identify as a recovering social scientist, and my career has taken me through journalism, academic political science, business development, product management, venture capital, and diversity, equity, and inclusion leadership roles. I like to think that my professional focus is in making systems work better for people, and that includes both organizational, technological, and financial ones.

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?

Well, the most obvious one is that the workforce of tomorrow (and let’s be clear, this is a long-term trend that’s already begun) will look meaningfully more diverse than the current one. That means that what’s needed from employers will change: they’ll need to offer a wider variety of programs, policies, and benefits to support people with a broader and more varied set of needs and skill sets.

Expectations for leaders are also shifting. Those skills we’ve derided as “soft” are the skills that predict success now, and that will only accelerate in the future as many technical aspects of work will be automated or machine-assisted. Leaders who are still questioning the value of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work should be put on performance improvement plans (PIPs), as should leaders who aren’t yet able to lead in an inclusive and equitable way. That will require significant investment from companies (rather than the current trend of investing in branding and PR-related DEI initiatives), but will ultimately predict which companies are able to attract the best talent.

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?

I think I’d first stop and question why we should look to “millionaires and billionaires” as people to emulate. The ravages of late-stage capitalism are producing inequalities and extremism that we need to meaningfully counter, and I’d much prefer that we focus on what makes people responsible and responsive members of their local, national, and global communities. We should be pushing people to educate themselves in a variety of ways, and I see the fetishization of formal education (and the chasing of extreme material wealth) as an extension of the White supremacy culture we all live in, and should seek to disrupt.

In terms of going to college (as the holder of multiple degrees), I think we need to de-stigmatize non-university ways of learning, and more importantly value life experience as legitimate expertise. The fact is, not all knowledge comes from books and tests, and not everyone is best suited to learning in a classroom environment. I’ll be excited when we provide both access and respect for a wider variety of learning modalities, and provide more pathways to people who want to grow (that don’t cost on average more than $20,000). The smartest employers are already beginning to explicitly value lived and/or “informal” educational experience, and I see this trend continuing.

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?

There’s a ton of research that shows that more and more workers are seeking out companies that align to their values. For people from historically marginalized groups — who are making up more and more of the workforce in countries around the world — this also includes serious and ongoing investments in building equitable workplaces. Employers should expect that employees will also have a higher bar for being invested in and engaged at work. At Culture Amp, the largest factor that predicts our employees’ engagement is whether they feel that they are making contributions to their development (and this is common for our peer companies and those with large knowledge-worker workforces).

That said, I also want to highlight how much the automation of hiring (especially resume screening) is a meaningful hindrance to the economy and human flourishing. The algorithms that employers are increasingly using to “screen” applicants are woefully poor at recognizing anything but the most boilerplate resume information, and are an entirely unnecessary block on people’s ability to use their talents, at least in the workplace. The use of personality-based assessments (on which the science is woefully shaky for anything resembling job performance) is equally concerning and something that there needs to be meaningful regulation around.

The statistics of artificial intelligence and automation eliminating millions of jobs, appears frightening to some. For example, Walmart aims to eliminate cashiers altogether and Dominos is instituting pizza delivery via driverless vehicles. How should people plan their careers such that they can hedge their bets against being replaced by automation or robots?

I think this answer depends heavily on what type of work we’re talking about, and that we need macro-level social and governmental programs to support this transition to a machine-assisted workforce. I’m not of the persuasion that believes that jobs will necessarily disappear, but what’s expected and the skill sets needed to achieve them absolutely will shift.

I think it’s important to address the implied systemic issue before diving into what individuals can personally do. We’ll continue to see folks in customer service roles, where a human touch is needed. But we also have to consider that these changes in automation will pull many folks who are currently service workers to parts of the economy that don’t yet have stringent labor protections. I believe that one of the most powerful things that we can do (and we’re seeing the emergence of a more robust labor movement) is invest in pro-worker initiatives to make sure that these changes in automation aren’t destroying the lives of those most vulnerable to exploitation.

From a personal perspective, people who want to stay competitive in the future of work will need to invest in their “soft” or interpersonal skills: emotional intelligence, cultural fluency, and resiliency, to name a few key traits. These qualities — which are harder to both assess for and for machines to replicate — will be crucial as collaboration, rather than simply productivity, becomes what sets successful companies apart.

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

Data already suggests that greater flexibility for knowledge workers is going to be a key part of what’s required to hold on to the most effective talent in that market. While most companies are reporting difficulties with attrition and millions of jobs remain open, huge numbers of job seekers are saying that flexible work (extending even to remote work) is a key driver of their employment decisions, and the lack of flexibility would be a deterrent to joining a company.

For companies, this means that they’ll need to re-think how their office spaces are used. At Culture Amp, we’re thinking about how we turn our offices into spaces that prioritize collaboration and also create space for deep, focused work. I’m confident that we’ll see a shift from “off sites” to promote togetherness to a shift to “on sites”. This doesn’t necessarily mean that companies will see increased costs, though: savings from square footage (from a smaller on-site workforce) can be used to build team camaraderie and cover travel for remote team members. I see this as becoming increasingly standard as more people prioritize remote or semi-remote work options.

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

On a governmental level, we simply need greater access to affordable childcare. The “She-cession” is real, with women significantly more likely to have left the workforce — especially because of child or other caring responsibilities — during the COVID-19 pandemic. Increases in employer flexibility will support this trend, but I’d love to see companies put some of their significant lobbying dollars on this specifically.

What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employers to accept? What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employees to accept?

I think the biggest shift will be that the fundamental social contract between employers and employees has already shifted. It’s a job seekers’ market and companies are having to do more to attract great folks. I think a lot of companies make the mistake of thinking that they need to offer more “perks” (like gym memberships, etc.), but the research shows that this doesn’t really have an effect on employee engagement or retention for the overwhelming majority of companies. Companies that invest in a positive, welcoming, growth-oriented culture are the ones that will ultimately thrive and navigate this changing landscape the best. Companies that have historically neglected (or failed to fund) initiatives to support that kind of a culture will absolutely struggle.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight the inadequate social safety net that many workers at all pay levels have. Is this something that you think should be addressed? In your opinion how should this be addressed?

I think I’d counter that executives, by and large, are doing just fine (the ratio of executive to average employee pay has ballooned in recent decades). We should really be thinking most about contingent and/or contracted workforces, who often are shut out of the significant benefits many companies now provide, and this move to freelance and contract work is a direct cause of the instability so many face. But another is the inhumane obsession with cutting social safety net programs. On a social level, it’s a failure of empathy and knowledge that we need greater political organizing around. While I don’t believe that’s necessarily all on companies, this is again a place where companies have an option to lobby the government for these programs or incentives to bring on more full-time workers. .

Secondly, we should absolutely be decoupling healthcare access from having a job. The coupling of these things was a post-WWII invention to attract employees when there was a shortage of labor, and something that is no longer appropriate for the world we live in. We’ve seen how this practice that’s seen as “normal” has been devastating in a pandemic where millions lost their jobs or were forced to leave the workforce for caring reasons. It’s time for our policies to catch up to the modern era. We are the only “advanced” country (and I use those quotes with maximal sarcasm) in the world that allows people to lack access to preventive and primary care, and bankrupts individuals for medical bills. The solution is clear: absolutely everyone should have a governmentally enforced right to accessible physical and mental healthcare.

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

My optimism is rooted in seeing a lot of companies take greater responsibility for the way that they treat their employees, and in how they are affecting society. Whether that’s huge increases in the investment in sustainability and green technology to surging demand for DEI work (and professionals), there are huge numbers of people that believe that the future can be more humane than the past and they are working to get us there. Now, we just need folks to help or get out of the way (and that includes ceding their seats when they’re able to recognize that they may not be the leaders for the current or future moments).

Historically, major disruptions to the status quo in employment, particularly disruptions that result in fewer jobs, are temporary with new jobs replacing the jobs lost. Unfortunately, there has often been a gap between the job losses and the growth of new jobs. What do you think we can do to reduce the length of this gap?

I don’t think I have a perfect answer to this, but I do think that this is another area where the private and public sectors absolutely need to partner together. I’m a huge fan of many proposals on the table, including the jobs guarantee that was a part of the Green New Deal proposal. There is so much work to be done to transform our economy into one that’s sustainable for people and the planet, and we simply need to be willing to create the opportunities as a society, for people to step into.

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. Equity. Employees are increasingly holding their employers to higher standards when it comes to DEI, especially Gen Z. We also know that fairness in the workplace is a huge motivator of engagement and retention.
  2. Sustainability. More and more companies are beginning to take note of the way that their operations are impacting the planet. This is absolutely crucial not just to the future of work, but the future of human habitation on this planet. I’m excited to see what’s possible as companies apply their innovation muscle to this urgent emergency.
  3. Data. More companies are collecting more data on their employees’ experiences and outcomes. We’re still at the beginning of this trend, but it will help companies make more accurate and effective decisions across all areas of the business.
  4. Employee Experience. Companies are simply going to have to invest more in building a company where employee experience is a priority. At Culture Amp, we call these “Culture First” companies: those that know that culture is not only the secret sauce to success, but an absolute imperative for business sustainability.
  5. Shift to Flexible Work. While I think we’ll see a rise in the number of “remote first” companies, the majority will likely shift to “distributed by default”, where collaborating with folks far away is the norm. While this is already true for many global companies, we’ll see this accelerate even for companies with a smaller geographic footprint.

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

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” — Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

In my career, and as well as the path of anyone who has wanted to make change, moving the status quo has almost always come with pushback. Doing new things will often invite skepticism, especially from those who lack imagination because we’ve “always done it that way”. Additionally, I see this as a pushback against “professionalism”, which is a mostly arbitrary standard that’s most often weaponized against BIPOC people.

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 or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to have lunch with Alexiandria Ocasio-Cortez. I think that she has an incredible and bold vision for what’s possible with greater empathy and care for the marginalized in the world, and it would be an honor to meet her.

Also, as a note, I’d love to see the column use “they” as the neutral pronoun, as non-binary people should be considered!

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

Folks can tune into my digital soapbox at @adblanche on Twitter, and follow my other work at aubreyblanche.com and cultureamp.com.

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

About the Interviewer: Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 500 works in print. He has contributed to Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrive Global and is published on all inhabited continents. His first book is a visceral, no-holds-barred look at worker safety, I Know My Shoes Are Untied! Mind Your Own Business. An Iconoclast’s View of Workers’ Safety. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. His third book, Blood In My Pockets Is Blood On Your Hands is expected in March followed by Loving An Addict: Collateral Damage Of the Opioid Epidemic due to be released in June. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke or read his weekly blog www.philladuke.wordpress.com

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