Preparing For The Future Of Work: Scott Brighton of Aurea On The Top Five Trends To Watch In The Future Of Work
An Interview with Phil La Duke
Metrics-Based Performance Management. Many jobs today — particularly those that are generalist in nature — are assessed qualitatively. I expect that as specialization and skill-centric staffing increase we will also see growth in the sophistication of how the performance of those jobs are measured and managed. More specialized jobs make it easier to create metrics and manage performance against those metrics.
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 Scott Brighton, CEO of Aurea.
Scott is leading Aurea’s reinvention of the software business as the “Netflix of Business Software”, embracing the public cloud early to build a library of SAAS solutions powering the future of work, commerce, and IT.
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 in New Jersey. I remember vividly when my father brought home an Apple II computer when I was in sixth grade. The power of software — the ability to command this machine to think — was nothing short of magical to me, and it changed my life.
When I went to work in business software, I was struck by how detested most of the vendors were by their customers. The software was expensive, customers were routinely nickel-and-dimed, and the product often didn’t work. Two-thirds of software deployments in those days failed to deliver the expected value.
It inspired us to build Aurea as a different kind of software company — patterned after a B2C leader (Netflix) rather than a traditional enterprise software firm like Oracle or SAP.
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?
The combination of several trends will change work dramatically over the next decade: remote/hybrid work, globalization, increased specialization, and the ability to collect all kinds of data.
It’s likely that many (if not most) of us will work from home — wherever our homes are, across the world. White-collar work, which today still remains largely the domain of generalists with broadly defined job definitions, will start to further specialize. I believe traditional generalist jobs will unbundle into multiple specialist jobs with more precisely defined work outputs. And technology will be used to monitor and measure the activities and productivity of these specialist roles, collecting all kinds of data that can be used by the company, managers, and individual employees to improve performance.
Employers can adapt to these trends by being open to new ways of working rather than militant about clinging to the status quo. We’ve seen this with the emergence of remote work during the pandemic. Companies that have embraced hybrid and remote work are using it as a recruiting advantage relative to those that don’t.
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?
The extreme cost of a college education (up 1200% since 1980, nearly 6x the rate of inflation) is attracting lots of disruptive innovators, such as the Lambda School, who see an opportunity to offer young people educational opportunities at a fraction of the cost of a traditional college degree.
In 15–20 years, I think the traditional college experience as we’ve come to know it may become a luxury item. There will be an array of more cost-effective alternatives as technology innovation increasingly targets education.
So my advice to young people is: put yourself in a position that maximizes your learning. That can certainly be a four-year college degree if the economics make sense, but it absolutely doesn’t have to be.
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?
At a fundamental level, I believe the recipe is no different than it has ever been. The first step is conducting an honest assessment of what one’s talents and interests actually are. The second step is networking to build relationships and connections. And the third step is selecting opportunities that provide great experiences and opportunities for learning. For the first 20+ years of a career, people should be in skill and experience accumulation mode.
The way to do these things has been made vastly easier through technology. For example, professional networking sites like LinkedIn have made it much easier to find and establish connections. But the core is still about building relationships and accumulating skills early.
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?
There’s no question that one of the unnerving implications of capitalism in the short-term and at the individual level is the idea of ‘creative destruction’ – new innovation will emerge that may eliminate or materially reduce whole categories of employment. As an example, in the last 50 years, the number of people fed by the work of a single farmer has increased from 25.8 to 155. Even with the increase in population, that means fewer farming jobs.
The good news is that we’ve seen repeatedly that as some jobs are washed away, whole new categories of jobs are created. I have an entire department in my company dedicated to social media marketing, a category that didn’t exist at all a decade or so ago.
So how do people plan? Continue to put yourself in a position to develop and learn new skills. If you aren’t learning and your skill base isn’t growing, you put yourself at greater risk of being impacted by creative destruction. Alternatively, if you are constantly learning new skills, it’s likely that those newer skills and experiences will be the ones most relevant for the new jobs that inevitably emerge.
Technological advances and pandemic restrictions hastened the move to working from home. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?
Yes, and I would suggest it’s mostly for the better. The majority of employees now want to work from home at least part of the time, and a surprising number of companies have found that productivity has been either unhampered or improved. This is where software is magical to me: imagine trying to stay connected to your team 50 years ago, before productivity and collaboration software changed the entire nature of work?
Most of the heads of HR for our customers that I speak with are planning some form of permanent hybrid work options for at least a portion of their employees, and plan to leverage work flexibility as a recruiting differentiator. That said, there will be jobs, companies, or even industries that can’t (or won’t) shift to a flexible work structure. But for those that can, the competitive pressure to recruit the best talent will push most companies into adapting more permanent flexible work arrangements.
What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support the fundamental changes to work?
Our societal constructs of work — from tax structures to real estate to benefits to retirement planning — were created long ago, and some have outlasted their utility. A person used to work an entire career at one company, then retire on a pension. Today, it’s becoming increasingly common for a single worker to contribute very specific and specialized skills to more than one company at a time. So the notion of “employee” versus “contractor” is a great example: why have different (often punitive) tax treatments and legal requirements based on how a company acquires talent, or how a worker earns? The much-publicized debates about the legal status of Uber or Lyft drivers is a vivid illustration of how work is changing and the challenge of rationalizing it with our existing constructs.
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?
Employers want control, and employees want freedom. I expect we are going to witness changes along both of these dimensions that may be unsettling for both.
The obvious example is the emergence of hybrid work as a new normal in many professions. For employers, this may feel like a loss of control. The physical office makes it easier to mentor workers and demonstrate a company’s core values and cultural norms. It also provides a structure of accountability: are you showing up for work? The absence of these things will feel like a loss of control for many employers.
On the other side, companies will introduce new technology to help them manage a widely distributed team of hybrid and remote workers. Some of these technologies may feel invasive and like a loss of freedom to workers since they monitor work patterns and drive adherence to best-practice workflows. A great example of this is Amazon’s use of technology that directs ‘pick and pack’ workers to the optimal work sequencing. I would expect these kinds of technologies to become a much larger part of work.
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?
The pandemic is a perfect illustration of the purpose of a social safety net. It’s a massive shock that, through no fault of individuals, extreme job losses occurred. This is the appropriate time for a large debt-funded government subsidy, and fortunately in the United States that was ultimately the response.
We need investment to help those affected by changes in the nature of work to have the time and resources to learn new skills. Creative destruction will destroy jobs, and it is incumbent on a society to provide bridges for its people from those jobs that no longer exist to the new ones that are created. This is good for the individual and good for the society as a whole.
But this is obviously a complex problem. These bridges need to be created without eliminating the economic incentive to work. Some societies (like those that are particularly rich in natural resources) can afford large payouts to all citizens — but the cost can be lost industriousness and growth.
Balancing these two considerations is hard to get right, but it’s one of the most important roles of government in modern capitalist societies.
Despite all that we have said earlier, what is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
I’m extraordinarily optimistic. Over time, work has become more meaningful, less laborious, less dangerous, more inclusive, and more flexible. The trends that are driving those changes are societal and technological, and there is no reason to believe those trends will be suddenly interrupted.
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 know that we can reduce the length of the gap: it’s a function of the unpredictable nature of economic growth and technological change. But there is much we can do to help people learn new skills when they find themselves in a job that is being disrupted and can’t jump straight into other roles that are seeing growth.
Capitalism is the best system we’ve yet found to enable large numbers of people to be brought out of poverty, but as we know, it’s not a perfect system. One of its imperfections is the relentless change and the fact that creative destruction — while extraordinarily positive at a macro-level — can have devastating impacts at a micro-level. We need to create a safety net structure that recognizes these imperfections and invest in re-skilling people for the emerging jobs that will push the economy forward.
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. The Permanence of Hybrid and Remote Work. This is the easiest trend to forecast because we are living in it today. Employees got a taste of remote work during the pandemic, and they like it. I read some data compiled by the US Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics stating that 70% of workers prefer the flexible work environment offered by hybrid work. Most companies are responding — with one survey by EY suggesting that 79% of businesses plan to make moderate to extensive hybrid work changes and accommodations. The chief human resource officers that I speak to all largely agree. “Employees are calling the shots,” said one executive. “If we don’t offer hybrid work models for workers, we estimate that we are losing out on between 50–70% of candidates.” The pandemic forced the experiment, and the experiment proved so successful it will become the new normal.
2. The Rise of Specialization. Over time we have witnessed a recurring pattern with many jobs, where they initially emphasize artistry and a generalist approach and over time move toward a more scientific, specialist approach. For example, automobiles used to be assembled by small teams of people who worked on every aspect of the automobile. Today, that work has been disaggregated into a set of highly specialized tasks (many of which then become automated), an approach that led to exponential improvements in both cost and quality. I expect we will begin to see the same type of changes in white collar jobs, many of which are still generalist in nature. These jobs will be unbundled into a set of discrete tasks with clear outputs, each of which will be suitable for different types of people with different skills. So, for example, instead of a financial analyst who may be creating all kinds of ad-hoc analyses, the role could be unbundled into separate roles each responsible for a different discrete task — one related to actuals reporting, one related to forecasting, and one related to planning. This allows individuals with more narrow and specific skills to be hired — creating a much larger organization made of people with very specialized skill sets.
3. The Shift to Skill-Based Hiring. As work specializes, broad educational credentials like college degrees become less useful than tests to evaluate the specific skills required for a given job. I expect we will see an increase in testing designed to assess these specific skills, and more emphasis placed on the results of this testing than the specific experiences or background of the candidates. As an example, in our Support organization, we have come to identify that people who (1) have an ability to learn quickly, (2) can solve problems, and (3) are directive in their communication style will be the most successful. We can use specific tests and assignments to test each of these three dimensions. The predictive power of these tests far outweighs the evaluative strength of a resume or an interview. If the candidate has the requisite skills, independent of their past experiences or specific educational or job background, they have a high probability of success.
4. Metrics-Based Performance Management. Many jobs today — particularly those that are generalist in nature — are assessed qualitatively. I expect that as specialization and skill-centric staffing increase we will also see growth in the sophistication of how the performance of those jobs are measured and managed. More specialized jobs make it easier to create metrics and manage performance against those metrics. As an example, a product manager today executes a number of different tasks including pricing, positioning, packaging, messaging, and other items. Part of the work that needs to be done often includes competitive analysis. If this work were ‘unbundled’ into a discrete competitive analysis role, and we were able to define a precise quality bar for this role, we can then easily measure its production — at what rate are we able to complete high quality work? While this might raise concerns of ‘big brother’ level invasiveness, recall that this is coupled with the freedom to work flexibly from anywhere on earth. Part of what makes this level of freedom possible will be the management tools that metrics-based performance management will provide.
5. Corporations as Global Citizens. From building diverse and inclusive workforces to understanding the societal impacts of their business decisions, companies will increasingly make decisions that explicitly take into account what is best for them as an organization as well as what is best for society as a whole. It will no longer be acceptable for companies — under the guise of creating shareholder value — to ignore their broader social responsibility. We are seeing this play out today as social media companies wrestle with their responsibility to police their platforms and their culpability in the spread of disinformation on those platforms. Companies will be increasingly expected to operate as moral actors and not just economic entities.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how this quote has shaped your perspective?
“Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time.” — Og Mandino
I have immense respect for the culture that Elon Musk has built at SpaceX, where everything that goes wrong — such as a rocket blowing up — is greeted with excitement because of the learning and improvement opportunity it has created. The ability to approach failure as a gift of knowledge is the most important attribute for any organization tackling something bold and difficult.
Our readers often like to follow our interview subjects’ careers. How can they further follow your work online?
I love to trade ideas on Twitter (@sfbrighton) and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/brighton/). Feel free to connect with me.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.