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Preparing For The Future Of Work: Steve Black of Topia On The Top Five Trends To Watch In The Future Of Work

An Interview With Phil La Duke

Business travel will return. There will always be a need to have facetime, especially for sales and team collaboration. Early on, Bill Gates declared that business travel is dead, and we’ve been arguing that he’s wrong all along. I’m not saying he listened to us, but his investment firm did just buy the controlling ownership in the Four Seasons hotel chain for over $2 billion, so maybe he’s changed his mind?

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 Steve Black.

Since co-founding Topia in 2011, Steve has been there to see the company grow from a small London-based startup to an award-winning Global Talent Mobility platform supporting organizations around the world. At Topia, Steve leads strategic initiatives leveraging deep industry and customer insight. An expatriate himself, Steve understands the challenges of moving abroad, and is dedicated to ensuring that everything he does at Topia is in the best interest of the customers.

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’m an expat from the Midwest now living in the U.K. I lived and worked in Chicago, and when I got the opportunity to go on a temporary assignment in London, I jumped at the chance. It was my first foray into mobility, and I saw how overwhelmingly clunky it was. My company was paying top dollar for someone else to manage it and it was still painful. The entire process was a headache. That experience stuck with me. Fast-forward a few years, and I met Brynne Kennedy. Together, we set out to solve the mobility problem and ultimately founded Topia, where I’ve spent the last decade doing just that for numerous companies around the world.

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?

Where work happens will only get more complicated. We’ve already seen an overnight shift to remote work, and employees are now demanding ongoing flexibility. But regulations lag way behind, which means you can’t really work everywhere like people want. Governments work in decades, corporations in years and startups in months. We need government regulations to catch up with reality, but in the meantime, companies have to figure out a way to deliver what employees want within the confines of the current rules.

We’ve also seen that employees can get work done anywhere and I expect we’ll see a continued shift toward gig and freelance economies. Where my dad worked in one career for over 30 years, for me it’s been two in under 20, and it’s becoming even more fluid with the next generation. We’ll see permanent, freelance, contract, on-location, remote…all of these models working together at once, which will create new challenges, but also great opportunities for folks who can do it well.

I also think the demand for international experiences will only increase. There’s a great desire for cultural understanding and experiences in today’s workforce. And while governments may have been doing more things to close borders, we’re seeing a real generational shift toward wanderlust. This conflict between personal desire and regulator landscape will only make it tougher for companies.

Companies will have to adapt to embrace a more fluid, distributed workforce in order to compete for talent, but they’ll also need to implement the tools and technology to do it effectively and stay compliant to lower their risk.

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?

In my opinion, you go to college as much for the learning experience, the social experience and the maturity that comes with it, not just for the degree. And let’s be honest, the millionaire or billionaire is akin to the odds of a lottery ticket, a rarity, so that’s not a realistic reason to opt out of college.

But in certain disciplines, where it’s easy to prove skill and capability, like coding, you certainly don’t need a degree and there’s no correlation between earning a degree and performance. Which is why Google, Apple and even IBM have dropped the requirement for a college degree. That doesn’t take away from the college experience of finding new interests and figuring out what you want to do with your life — but will going tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt get you a better job? It will be interesting to see how it evolves, whether the allure of an Ivy League education continues. My kids are just 5 and 7, so we’re not quite there yet — but at this point, my advice would be to go — if not for specific career development, for the personal growth and time to learn and explore who you are and what motivates you.

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?

Technology will play a big role. Now, instead of just getting a job, people are more interested in finding a career that fits their talent and passions. And there are some interesting new approaches to that. Kareer.ai is a good example. It’s basically using crowdsourced career path data to show people what they need to do in order to get where they want to be. For example, if you want to be a CTO, Kareer.ai will show you the most successful career path based on the experiences of people who have become CTOs. It’s a really interesting approach to finding and achieving your dream job.

I also think we’ll see people and organizations focusing more on skills not job titles — where can they apply their skills in an area they feel passionate about regardless of formal education or corporate hierarchy? This is partly why we’ll see growth in the consulting/gig economy and on talent marketplaces like Upwork and others.

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?

We’ve been having this conversation for a long time, and we’ve automated a lot of manual tasks. But it has also created infinite new jobs in tech…innovating, building, installing, and managing all of that automation. If you’re in an industry where the work is highly repetitive, you probably should be somewhat worried.

But it’s also a great opportunity to figure out how you can use your experience in that work to be part of the evolution, rather than just waiting for it to happen. What are people predicting in the next 5 years? And how can you start to move in that direction now? The truth is, AI and automation don’t happen overnight — it takes time, but when it’s done, it feels like it sneaks up on us in hindsight.

Right now, there are so many opportunities for reskilling and upskilling, free self-paced trainings like Udemy and other free open university programs and online classes. Take advantage of it. For example, if you’re a cashier at a retail store, right now, you could take free online courses or trainings in the tech field that would equip you with the skills necessary to find a job — you could become a developer for free and get a job in retail software development that pays far more than your cashier’s job.

I guess the bottom line is to embrace the change and prepare for it. Don’t just sit back and wait for it to happen.

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

Of course it will continue, because employees now expect it. We may see a bit of a pendulum swing…right now everyone wants it, but when offices really reopen, some may feel left out and want to return. But I think in the end, it will balance out with the majority not going into the office most of the time.

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

Childcare is a big one. It’s been better over the last 18 months for a lot of folks than ever before. Sure, there are challenges with working from home with the kids also home, and maybe they watch more TV than they should. But it used to be that someone had to take a day off, and now that’s not always necessary. But for those that can’t work remotely, if daycares or schools are closed due to COVID or lack of staff, they have no option but to stay home and lose out on that income. These pandemic-related closures aren’t likely to go away any time soon, so we need to figure out the childcare situation ASAP, especially because it disproportionately impacts women and minorities, who are very often already in lower income brackets…. but that’s a whole different topic.

There’s also a lot of work to do around how to engage employees and keep them engaged during remote work, as well as workforce regulations around breaks, safe environments and making sure people have the right technology in place. The current engagement models and regulations don’t work anymore because we’re not working in that environment anymore. So, we have to figure out how to adapt there.

Finally, we have to figure out how to protect people from being discriminated against when they don’t get as much facetime. How do we keep them from getting overlooked for opportunities like mobility, promotions and compensation? Again, women are at greater risk here because they’re home more, so we need to find ways to keep their career growth and pay equitable.

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?

For employers, we’re already seeing pushback on the lack of control and visibility that goes along with remote work. There’s an increased level of trust that’s required and it’s made a lot of employers uncomfortable. We must find ways to maintain that connection, engagement and interaction when we don’t have the “soft touch” that we used to.

For employees, if we’re half in the office and half at home, there could be things we’re going to miss. Does it put us at risk for missing out on promotions, career growth or mentorship opportunities? If everyone’s not in the office, does everyone need to be live on Zoom, just to make everyone feel included?

For both sides, the fact is you build trust with people you spend time with. We have to figure out ways to be more intentional about building that trust, and really focusing in on mentorship and performance.

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?

Yes, it’s highlighted a lot of issues that we’ve been talking about for a long time, and it’s made them more acute. Women and people of color have been most impacted, and they were only just beginning to make strides with equality and inclusion in the workforce. It’s exposed that our healthcare system is appalling, and we have no means to keep people safe when others are sick — for years we’ve forced people to go to work when they’re ill because they can’t afford to take the day off, and we absolutely can’t do that anymore.

We must address these issues because it impacts us on a much larger scale. With the globalization of the workforce and the ability to work remotely, it doesn’t just put companies at risk of being unable to attract talent. It puts the entire US at risk of being unable to attract talent. If I can work for a US company but live in another country where I don’t have to worry about going bankrupt if I or someone in my family gets sick, why wouldn’t I do that?

Having been fortunate enough to have grown up in the US and now lived in the UK for the last 14 years — I’ve seen the benefits of a national healthcare system. Sure, tax rates are higher — but form a societal point of view, I think it creates a much more stable foundation for all.

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

We’ve proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that remote work works. Whether it’s all the time or everyone should do it remains to be seen. But I’m optimistic it will reduce borders and barriers — physical and otherwise. It will allow people to be exposed to a broader mindsets and different perspectives and it can be a way that connects people. I believe that inherently people are good, and they want to do the right thing. But a lot of issues arise simply from misunderstandings and not knowing people who have different points of view. This new way of working can break some of the isolation and give us all a broader perspective and I think that’s a pretty cool thing.

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?

We’re working to recover job losses from the pandemic, and I think the more jobs that emerge that we do with our brain, as opposed to with our bodies — more knowledge work and less physical labor — the less the location matters, and it becomes easier to add new jobs.

By contrast, if you shut down a manufacturing plant, it’s a huge process and recovery is very difficult. It takes 20 years to rebuild the community. But when jobs are digital — like customer service, writing code or consulting — the ability to grow jobs is huge. You don’t need to make a big investment in opening a new plant. If I’m in Atlanta, I don’t have to look for a job in Atlanta, I can look much wider and that opens doors of opportunity for employees, employers and communities to market themselves to remote workers as opposed to just new manufacturing facilities.

Another reduction of this gap can come from making relocation easier. There are many industries that have job openings, but they aren’t able to fill these roles with the right people because they are location specific roles. It becomes crucial for companies to look into creating a seamless relocation strategy so that they are able to get the right candidates to their location. However, this too can negatively impact communities. If a large factory closes and everyone is relocated out of the town, it will be nearly impossible to rebuild.

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 growth of Permanent Employment Organization (PEO) or Employer of Record (EOR) organizations. We’ve already seen companies like Remote.com, Papaya Global and Shield GEO take off over the last year, and with the shift toward remote and distributed work, that growth will continue.
  2. Location compliance issues. As remote work becomes the norm, immigration and tax compliance will become a bigger issue. We’ve seen companies drastically overpaying taxes in places like San Francisco due to remote workers no longer being in the office. On the flip side, underpaying and not adequately dealing with immigration issues will result in penalties as governments and regulatory agencies start to clamp down on rules. Many were giving companies a pass because of the emergency situation surrounding COVID — employees may have been literally stuck — but now that the initial emergency is over and people are choosing to relocate, I expect we’ll see a crackdown.
  3. Growth of the remote-only organization. We’ve seen very few of these before — GitLab and Automaticc are two well-known examples. But I expect this will grow tremendously now that we have the technology, capabilities and widespread attitude of acceptance. But it requires a much different working model to be successful.
  4. Employee engagement. Many companies are putting increased emphasis on monitoring the employee experience. Some have implemented specific teams whose job it is to look at the employee journey in detail. Using survey data, they can improve the experience for the next hires. Through this, even simple changes can be found like hiring in cohorts rather than individually to improve comfort. As work environments change, it’ll be interesting to see what other creative strategies companies come up with to keep employees engaged and motivated in a hybrid environment and over the course of their career.
  5. Business travel will return. There will always be a need to have facetime, especially for sales and team collaboration. Early on, Bill Gates declared that business travel is dead, and we’ve been arguing that he’s wrong all along. I’m not saying he listened to us, but his investment firm did just buy the controlling ownership in the Four Seasons hotel chain for over $2 billion, so maybe he’s changed his mind?

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

As cliche as it may be, it would have to be The Golden Rule: “treat others how you want to be treated.”

This applies across so many areas of life. Especially on social media, but also in everyday activity…the way you handle a long wait at a restaurant when they’re slammed and understaffed, misunderstandings with family or co-workers, etc.

It’s also a great business lesson — to have a customer-first mentality. When building a company, you absolutely need to treat your customers and employees the way you’d want to be treated, and that approach will shape a much better company.

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.

Setting aside on his predictions of the death of business travel, I’d have to go with Bill Gates. What an incredible journey at Microsoft, but I’d be more interested to discuss his vision and plans to continue tackling global crises through The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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

https://www.linkedin.com/in/steveblackuk/

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

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