‘What we’ve seen in the last year is that work, as we are all experiencing it, is much more dynamic than we ever imagined’

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Jeffery Schwartz *87, the author of Work Disrupted: Opportunity, Resilience, and Growth in the Accelerated Future of Work, leads the Future Work practice for Deloitte. Over the last decade or so, his team has said that we are on the precipice of major transformations in how and where we do our work. In this PAWcast, he speaks about his findings over the years and how COVID-19 has, in many regards, resulted in changes his team saw coming, such as working remotely, and how the timeline for the onset of those changes to the status quo has accelerated dramatically due to the pandemic. 



Hi and welcome to the PAWCast, I’m Carrie Compton. Today I’m joined by Jeffery Schwartz *87, author of the new book: Work Disrupted: Opportunity, Resilience, and Growth in the Accelerated Future of Work. Schwartz, who received a master’s degree from the School of Public and International Affairs in 1987, is the head of the Future Work practice for Deloitte. In that role, he consults on and researches ideas and innovations around how businesses conduct their work, what a typical career path will look like in the 21st century, and the potential technology has to enhance job satisfaction across industries.

Over the last decade or so, Jeff’s team has produced reports, which you can see on our website, predicting we are on the precipice of major transformations in how and where we do our work. 

Jeff and I speak about his findings over the years and how COVID-19 has, in many regards, resulted in changes his team saw coming, such as working remotely, and how the timeline for the onset of those changes to the status quo has accelerated dramatically due to the pandemic.

CARRIE COMPTON: Jeff, thank you so much for joining me today.

JEFF SCHWARTZ: I am delighted to be here, Carrie.

CC: Jeff, your work is based around consulting on the future of work. Tell me, how do you think about work, at least as we knew it before the pandemic? And in relation to that, how do you think about work as it might, ideally, be in the future?

JS: Carrie, this is a great question. When we think about work, we’re actually thinking pretty much about a fairly narrow topic. We tend to think about the jobs that we do, and we tend to think about our jobs in a way that they’re separate from our lives. Our jobs are one side, our lives are on the other side, and we think about our work and our jobs as if they are relatively static, right? You choose a career, you study in school, we study at Princeton, we pick a profession, we get on a career ladder, we do that for a couple of decades and then we retire. What we’ve seen in the last year is that work, as we are all experiencing it, is much more dynamic than we ever imagined. It involves different combinations of employment models, different ways that people are working with technology, and when we come on to questions like careers, a career model in a world that is dynamic is very different than a world that is static. 

When we think about work, pretty much historically, we think about output, and we think about productivity. We think about “how do we do the work that we’re doing now more efficiently?” Again, on the other side, we know that work is increasingly — and what drives value in work — about innovation. It’s not about the same output, it’s about new outcomes. So there are all these potential shifts that we’re looking at. And I think we’re at a pretty important inflection point right now.

CC: So because of the timing of the release of this book — it was just released in January —  I am going to go on a limb and say you probably had it pretty well written before the pandemic hit. I’m curious to hear: how much did you have to change it to accommodate for COVID-19?

JS: I wish I was further along when COVID happened, we sent the book to the publisher July 1, and the book came out in January, so that was a fast publishing cycle. I’ve been working on the book in some way since 2013 when I started to research these issues. I wrote one of the first articles in my research on the future of work in 2013 on the open-talent economy. And we were looking at the sharing economy and freelance workers, and gig workers, and crowd workers, this was before these concepts were as common as they are today. Then a couple of years later we wrote a piece literally titled “Machines as Talent” and then we began to explore what does it mean to actually put technology onto the workforce? In 2016/2017 Deloitte started its Future of Work practice, I became the U.S. leader, and that was really when my sense was that two things were happening. One was that there were some significant shifts in trends going on around how people work with technology, how employment models are changing, how workplaces are changing, and the implications that those changes have on careers, on management and organization. And so the book was really structured around those shifts. When COVID came on the scene here in the U.S., really last March, the trends that we were looking at actually were not only accelerated they were accelerated dramatically. I was fortunate to have about three and a half months to look at the manuscript through the lens of what we were seeing in COVID. And you know in many ways the book is a reflection of a great quote from another Princetonian, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is head of the New America, the think tank in Washington. And Anne-Marie literally said last March that the coronavirus is a time machine to the future. And things that we thought would happen in five years were happening in five weeks. And so that was really my takeaway, which is that what we were thinking about in terms of these overall trends were not only greatly accelerated, but we were thrust into a disrupted world. Having taken the time to think about these trends it was even more relevant that we think about them in terms of disruption and new lenses and new ways of looking at work and management and career problems.

CC: I wanted to go back to something you said earlier about technology in the workplace. I think anyone who is listening to this has probably had a moment where they had to ask themselves whether or not they could one day be replaced by automation. You have a very unique take on that, why don’t you describe what you’ve found?

JS: Well the question of the relationship between people and technology and among people, technology, and work is one of the greatest concerns right now that we have in our work and personal and public policy lives. In many ways, Carrie, I find when I talk about this, whether it’s with family or friends or in professional settings or academic settings, people have one or two images in their minds around the future of work and technology. There is the image of the robot apocalypse, which is literally robot and AI and technological anxiety, and there’s the image of what I call, and others call humanity unleashed. Imagine a world where there’s no drudgery, where there’s no carpal tunnel syndrome, where physical work is safe, where mental repetitive work can be done by partnering with machines. But I’ll just highlight two points here: One is that there’s little question I think that many of us will find literally in the next five to 10 years that we will be working with and next to smart machines and robots if we’re not already doing that today. And that this same group, which is many of us, certainly includes those of us in management consulting, we’re working with different technologies all the time, will find that our jobs will change. Our jobs will not go away but our jobs will change, and they will change rapidly. 

What I try to explore in the book are the ways that as work changes, and its technology becomes part of the way we work, I think there’s the real possibility that work becomes more human and more interesting. And I talk in the book about what happened when we introduced automated teller machines to banking, which happened in 1979/1980, and actually since that point there are more people in retail banking, there are more retail bank branches. And if you look at the job of retail bankers, people working in those bank branches 40 years ago they mainly did the work of a teller machine, they actually handed out cash and they took cash. Today, what retail branch bankers do is help us with financial products, help us with mortgages, help us with cybersecurity issues. It’s a much more interesting job, a job focused on more complex questions and relationships. 

One of my favorite examples for thinking about the relationship between people and technology, and it comes from Eric Topol. Dr. Topol is a medical doctor, he wrote a fantastic book called Deep Medicine, and I use this in the class that I teach, an MBA class that I teach. In one of the chapters, he talks about how radiologists are working with AI; the book is about AI in medicine. And radiology is an interesting field because there are some people who thought a couple of years ago that as AI gets better at reading and diagnosing medical scans and different digital images that we will basically not need radiologists anymore, so they will be replaced, if you will, by AI. And Eric Topol I think presents an image to us, this really is the humanity unleashed image, which is the opportunity for radiologists is to become a renaissance radiologist who stands on the shoulders of the technology. She actually uses the technology to see further and to do different work. She or he are not competing with the technology the same way that I don’t compete with my Roomba or my dishwasher to do certain things. What these technologies is give us the gift to do things that human doctors can uniquely do, and he uses this other expression: deep care. Deep care are the things that human doctors, human nurses, human clinicians can do. So the opportunity, and it’s not easy Carrie, is to stand on the shoulders of technology, to recognize that our jobs will be changed, and ask the question what is the renaissance version of what you are doing, and what I’m doing? What’s the renaissance version where we can combine technology and people, humanities and science, something we really understand, I think, not to do the same thing but to do new things?  

CC: I want to talk about the 100-year life, 60-year career, talk about that a little bit.

JS: So this, the concept of the 100-year life is a concept that was really popularized to professors at London Business School, Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, who wrote a book a few years ago called The 100-Year Life. That people born in the last decade of the 20th century, people who who are being born in the first couple of decades of this century can reasonably expect to live to be 100. What’s interesting about a 100-year life is that in a 100-year life you can expect to work for 50 or 60 years, and we know that the average time in a job is three to four years. We know that the half-life of a learned technical skill like a computer language, for example, is five years and dropping. So if we work for decades more and we spend three or four years at a job, and the half-life of skills is coming down, then we will have many, many, many careers. Our careers are not ladders, right? One of our clients calls their image for a career is a jungle gym; my image is a portfolio, that our careers are portfolios of lifelong reinvention. And in a career of lifelong reinvention, it has some pretty dramatic implications for how we prepare and for how we manage and think about careers both in a corporate setting and organizational setting, and from an education and public policy setting. So what is a career in a 100-year life and how is it different than what a career looked like 20 or 30 years ago, is one of the really good examples from the book that I’ve tried to explore.

CC: So you discuss some of the cognitive attributes that are the most beneficial to 21st century work: Among those are an emphasis on liberal arts education, creativity, adaptability, and emotional intelligence. And it sort of occurred to me that these are attributes that are really well emphasized in American education, but not in some overseas cultures as much where the emphasis tends to be towards the rote. Do you think, whether wittingly or not, some cultures’ approaches to education are doing a better job at preparing their citizens for this future?

JS: So Carrie this is a great question. I think there may be two or three questions rolled in here. One is the question of at least one person’s perspective, my perspective on what are the core 21st century capabilities? We refer to them often as enduring human capabilities or essential human capabilities, which are different than soft skills. We’re not going to call them soft skills or hard skills, at least I’m not going to call them that. And then there’s the question of, if these are the capabilities, and we’ll talk about them in a second, are they relevant all over the world and where are they relative to different educational cultures and strategies? That’s a really interesting question.  

CC: There’s your next book right there for you.

JS: There’s no shortage of topics and the decade we’re in, the ’20s is going to be one for the books, there’s some amazing stuff going on. You know there’s been a very broad discussion and I don’t think it’s a U.S. discussion, I think it is a global discussion, on two sort of central ideas here. One is that, and we’ve touched on this, as we are living longer lives, lives with multiple chapters in them, 100 year lives, 50, 60 year careers, you know 12, 14 jobs that we’re going to all have to undertake, our ability to retool ourselves becomes really, really important. The metaphor that I’ll use is we need to be like a machine tool. A machine tool is a tool that makes tools, right? And what we’re talking about when we’re referring or I’m referring to enduring human capabilities are what are the capabilities we want to develop in ourselves, in our children, in our workforce so that they have the capabilities to learn new skills, to create new tools as they go. So we know what those are, they are problem-solving communication, social intelligence, the ability to ask questions, the ability to communicate, sort of those are the machine tools if you will that we need to develop. 

You know it’s interesting I have a liberal arts background, my first degree is in intellectual history, and then I did one of my graduate degrees at Princeton, and did I international development economics in the graduate school, and I also have an MBA from Yale, but it all goes back to the enduring capabilities that I learned as an undergraduate that I really build on. But I think that this underlying challenge of enduring human capabilities, of sort of building, sort of learning as a machine tool, I think is a pretty global one. And I’ll end with one or two quick examples. There’s a test that’s implemented by the OECD every couple of years called the PISA Test. They look at secondary school capability around the world and you know there are a couple of places that do really well on it, one of the places that does the best in the world is Finland, and Finland has something that would look more like an enduring human capability curriculum than a highly skill-based curriculum. So I think that there is an element of that. The other is if we look at places in the world, I lived in India for five and a half years in the last decade, although the curriculum in many of the schools is highly prescribed, it’s a very entrepreneurial place, you know, there’s a word in Hindi called jugaad which is the ability to innovate and use what you have in order to produce new results.

CC: That’s interesting. 

JS: So I think that there’s what we’re looking at in terms of the core capabilities in education, but I think the idea that we all need to be adaptive and innovative in some degree in some way is becoming a universal. But the overlay of culture is probably one of the biggest complexities and challenges we’re looking at now as we’re trying to create global future of work strategies both for companies and for educational institutions.

CC: Yeah, so you discuss the future workplace from the vantage of the worker as well as the manager, let’s start with the worker. If it were up to you what do you see as being some of the most necessary changes that workers can benefit from?

JS: Well, we’ve been in this, we’ve been in a forced experiment over the last year. We’re recording this in February so we’re entering our 12th month of COVID lockdowns here in the U.S., a little bit more for people who are in China and other parts of Asia. 

In terms of virtual work the flexibility and the ability to some degree set your own schedule, the lack of commute for many people has been a real benefit — as opposed to getting on the subway for 45 minutes, you walk across your house. Many of us were used to coming home late or traveling, have spent more time with our family, with our kids, that’s been a real plus. It’s been very hard on the other hand on parents, and particularly women, who have found that they have had, if they’re working which most of them are, both a full-time job and trying to sort of co-teach their kids who are learning remotely, that’s been very tough. So I think one of the really interesting questions is what’s going to happen to remote work when our kids go back to school? And I think there are some real advantages in the ability to work remotely. I think the big challenge both for workers and managers, if you will, when we can go back, is being deliberate about what makes sense, and where the real value is in being in the same place at the same time. And most workers, I think, recognize, I certainly recognize, that there are things that I miss, there are social aspects of work, there are activities that I think will be really very beneficial to be back in the same physical space. But a lot of the things that many of us do during the day we can do from home or from a third location. So there’s going to be a very interesting period in 2021, second half, and 2022 where we’re not asking the question do we work at home, or do we work in the office, or on the campus, or in the hospital, or the laboratory, but rather we’re asking: Given all the choices we have how do we want to construct the working day, the working month, the working year, and how does that work for us? And that’s a new muscle, that’s a new mindset, we’re not used to working with that many choices. Before the pandemic most of us felt as if the place to work was in the office and working from home was an exception, right? We now need to really explore and sort of shift that perspective, but I think it’s a big shift, I think it’s more of a choice than anything else, Carrie.

CC: What are some changes that managers and business leaders would most benefit from in the 21st century?

JS: This is, to me this is the most interesting question, this is really the top lying question of both the future of work discussion and Work Disrupted, my book, which is how do we look at 21st century business and organizational challenges through 21st century lenses, not 20th century lenses. And, like, we still have a hangover of scientific management in the U.S. and around the world. The shadow, the long shadow of Frederick Taylor and scientific management and the notion that work is mechanized and process oriented and can be prescribed and optimized really is the language of management and business. And if I were to summarize it in a couple of phrases, when work is mechanistic and process-oriented and optimized, then managers are process flow experts and compliance experts and efficiency experts. And what we’re seeing I think in the 21st century is work is moving from being process-based and mechanized and automated and looking like a factory if you will — even white collar work if you will looks like a factory — to work that is more project-based, initiative-based, experience-based, mission-based work. And when the nature of work changes, the way that we need to organize, and management needs to change as well. 

So it’s obviously supervision and controls are important, but we’re seeing a shift to managers and executives as coaches. The image that I like to use is team leaders increasingly are player coaches, people that really know the game but are on the field with the team at the same time. Managers and executives are behavioral economists, understanding the way people think, understanding the cognitive biases we have. One of the lines I use in the book is “we all need to be choice architects now, we need to think about how we can design environments that help people to be productive.” We need to be designers; we need to design the future much more than we need to manage the future. We need to be inspirational; we need to be digital Sherpas; we need to not just build the digital technology but help our teams and our clients navigate that new world. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal so I like the Sherpa metaphor, and we need to be cultural anthropologists, we need to understand what the cultural institutions are that are around us and understand the categories that we create. So there’s a whole new set of lenses if you will that we can look at management through that we think are maybe more relevant and might be more useful as we’re going forward. So we need to take the old tools of the 20th century and some new mindsets and ways of working and really put them together.  

CC: You emphasize in the book alongside the project-based future that you envision high levels of democratic participation and teams as being the most effective way of working, but teams with a higher percentage of women. Talk about that.

JS: One of the things we’ve learned in the COVID 2020 period was that when we stopped looking at people’s resumes, when we stopped looking at the job rec that we had when we hired them, and we started asking the question, what can Jeff do? What can Carrie do? Not, what did we recruit her to do? Not, what has she been doing? But what is her potential, what are her capabilities, what are her interests? We’ve seen organizations of people really perform amazingly. The other side of this is from research that Tom Malone who is a professor at MIT, with colleagues at MIT and Carnegie Mellon, did a study about 10 years ago and they looked at the IQ of teams. You know, these are pretty sharp people at MIT and Carnegie Mellon, they designed a set of experiments to study this, and they, you know, the first hypothesis that most of us would have is what makes a smart team? It’s a team made up of really smart individuals. Well it turns out that that is not the winning formula, obviously it’s good to have intelligent people on the team, but the three things that they found that were associated with team intelligence were 1) what they describe as “social perceptiveness” which is literally the ability to sort of read the audience and the people that you’re working with, the more socially aware and socially perceptive the team was in aggregate, the better the team could work together. You can say if we sort of recognized what’s going on among the team members whether it’s virtual or not that’s helpful. The second thing they recognized was that the more democratic the team was in its operations, the smarter the team, I mean literally the better results they achieved. Or put another way, the more democratic the discussion, the more even the discussion flow in the group, the more people participate, the smarter and the better the results as a team. And the third thing they found was that the more women on the team the smarter the team appeared to be. Now I’ve heard a few views of that, one is that women, in general, and this is a generalization obviously, women are better at one and two, women are often more socially aware and perceptive, often women both participants and managers are better adherents to a democratic way of running a team, and there may be some other benefits that we haven’t necessarily articulated. But it’s not just having really good individual players, it’s social perceptiveness, participation, the way the team works and having women on the team, that according to Tom’s research produces smarter teams and a higher team IQ.

CC: Very interesting. How would you characterize the difference in what businesses were most concerned about pre-pandemic as opposed to what you’re hearing from them today?

JS: This is a very interesting question and let me highlight sort of two data points from some research that we’ve done. At Deloitte we do an annual survey, a global survey of human capital trends. We did a survey last September and October, it’s a global survey about 3,600 senior executives, 99 countries, a pretty good survey, very good survey. So it’s about 7-8 months into COVID and then we released the report in December. And there were two major findings. One was we asked business leaders how their views of crisis and preparedness had changed pre-COVID and post-COVID. And pre-COVID, the focus of crisis management seemed to be what we might describe as business continuity, right? We had an idea of what could go wrong, we had a small list of highly probable and likely events: you know, if you’re living in San Francisco, an earthquake; if you’re living in New Orleans a hurricane, those would be two hopefully obvious examples. Nobody seemed to have a pandemic on their list. And the view was that we were prepared for a known limited set of eventualities and our goal was to withstand them and then get back to work doing what we were doing before. 

So the first change we saw was a significant shift where executives were saying, “Look, in the future crisis preparedness is not about a small number of known challenges, it’s about multiple challenges including unseen and uncertain challenges.” We need a much more agile playbook for crisis preparedness. 

The other piece was very forward looking. We asked business leaders how their views of the work that they do in their organizations were changing. Pre-COVID, 70 percent said that their focus on work was optimizing work, making it more efficient and redesigning work with the aim of substituting technology for labor, right? 29 percent pre-COVID said that their focus was transforming work or reimagining work. Post-COVID they said something almost the reverse of that. The post-COVID perspective was 61 percent, so pre-COVID 3 out of 10 said that reimagining work was their priority. Post-COVID, more than 6 out of 10 said that reimaging work was their priority. But reimagining work, what we’re talking about is not doing the same work but doing new work, new outcomes; think of innovation, think of new impact, new combinations of people and teams and technology doing new things, from 3 out of 10 to 6 out of 10. If you hear the excitement in my voice that’s because I think what we’re hearing from executives is that after COVID we’re not going back to what we were doing before. COVID is not a detour, COVID is on an onramp, and it’s an onramp to doing something different. Now the question is whether, you know, how far business leaders push themselves on it, how far workers and communities and citizens push business and public policy leaders on it. But it’s very interesting to see shifts from predicted futures to more uncertain futures to optimizing work, to reimagining or what we call re-architecting work, building new futures.

CC: Fantastic. I’d just like to ask you to offer one piece of parting advice to all the working Joes out there listening to this. What would you like to tell them to prepare themselves for?

JS: So my advice really comes down to, it’s got two pieces to it. And you’ve been talking with me for a while, you know it’s very hard for me to come up with one thing. But one is you need new maps, and you need new mental models, you know, that Albert Einstein quote that you can’t use an old map to explore a new world and we are exploring new worlds all the time, we are certainly doing that as we pivot from pre-COVID to post-COVID. So really challenge yourself to have good maps, good guides, good teammates as we’re going forward. And I think my second piece of advice is find new maps and new guides, but get started today. These changes are afoot, we’re in the middle of some major transitions, whether it’s for yourself as an individual or the people you care about, your kids, your family, your friends, the people that you work with in your organizations, your businesses, or as citizens, we need to get started on these new ways of thinking and new ways of working. So those are my two pieces of parting advice.

CC: Thank you so much Jeff.  Thanks for joining me on this, I really appreciate it.

JS: Thank you Carrie.