What 30 Experts Had to Say About the Future of Work
There is no doubt that the future of work is important: for most Americans (next to sleep), work consumes the largest portion of their lives and serves as a primary lynchpin of how we define ourselves. In the context of our work at the Alliance, we are focused on a geographically-bounded area (Southern California), so if work becomes predominantly uncoupled from place, then focusing on regional impact might lose its relevance. Employers around the world are peering into their crystal balls in hopes of gleaning critical insights so they can thoughtfully adapt and ensure both a robust workforce and vibrant culture. However, as often is the case with quickly evolving circumstances, our crystal balls are cloudy and the messages they convey are colored by our individual viewpoints.
Given the importance and difficulty of addressing this question, we hand-selected 30 experts for a “pop-up Think Tank” symposium focused on the future of [office] work on April 6 at Coretrust’s Workplace Innovation Lab at FourFortyFour South Flower in downtown Los Angeles. Each of the experts was selected for their unique perspective and area of expertise – these experts became our “brain trust.” Our hypothesis going into this event was that no single person would have the full picture of what lies ahead for the future workforce, but everyone would have given lots of thought to “the great return”. Our goal was to have an open and energetic exchange among all participants across three core facets of the future of work in the hopes of crowdsourcing a more robust perspective:
- People – Worker expectations, mental health, culture, work/life support
- Places – Evolution of workplace needs, community, and mobility
- Spaces – Physical as well as virtual spaces & tools
We started at a high level looking at human behavior and culture, then zoomed in a bit to examine the built and planned environment; then finally all the way down to the tactics, tools and systems for making it work. We utilized a fishbowl format – not a traditional panel but an arrangement designed to encourage debate and idea exchange. The symposium was a bit of an experiment so a special thank you to our experts for agreeing to be our guinea pigs!
Setting the Stage
The opening paragraph of Dr. Adam Ozimek’s (chief economist at Upwork) recent white paper “The New Geography of Remote Work” seemed like a good way to frame the day’s conversation:
Nearly two years into the remote work revolution, it’s easy to feel that a lifetime has passed. However, the reality is we are just at the beginning of seeing the impacts of remote work. From working habits to commuting patterns, there is an undercurrent of change. This is especially true when we look at the geographical implications of remote work. For the first time, remote work allowed many people across the country to see a life in which the location of their job and where they live did not have to be one and the same.
Furthermore in a recent interview on Tim Ferriss’ podcast, Mark Zuckerberg called out “the rise of distributed work” as perhaps the most significant societal trend of the day. Surprisingly not the rise of the Metaverse!
A few stats about the U.S. workforce (not just office workers) from a recent NY Times article by Emma Goldberg provide a analytical baseline for the conversation:
- May 2020: over 1/3rd of US workers partially or fully remote
- Feb 2021: dropped to 22.7%
- Mar 2022: 10% (it was 4% in 2019)
In an April 6 BisNow article on the slow return to work, Bianca Barragán states “Office occupancy in top U.S. metros reached 42% of pre-pandemic levels in the week ending April 4, the latest data from Kastle Systems’ card-swipe readers show. In the Los Angeles metro, about 39.5% were back at their desks….[Y]ou see now lots of companies, big and small starting to put stakes in the ground saying we want our people back in the office…but return-to-office plans have been met with skepticism from people who say working from home improves productivity and mental health.”
Clearly there is a disconnect between employers’ desires and employees behaviors. In today’s market where talent holds the upper hand, you would expect “the great return” to move at a pace more in line with employee desires. Let’s hear what our three expert panels had to say about this topic.
People – Worker expectations, mental health, culture, work/life support
Facilitator: Andy Wilson, Executive Director, Alliance for SoCal Innovation
Jared Baker, SVP HR, MEUS, Mitsubishi Electric US, Inc
Brian Elliott, SVP, Slack – Future Forum & Co-Author of How the Future Works
Kian Gohar, CEO & Founder, GeoLab & Co-Author of Competing in the New World of Work
Jessica Ku Kim, Vice President of Economic & Workforce Development, LAEDC
Jim McCarthy, CEO/Founder, Goldstar/Stellar
Katherine Perez, Los Angeles Office Leader, Associate Principal, Arup
Maria Salinas, CEO, LA Chamber
Natalie Schilling, SVP HR, Edison International
David White, Deputy Chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Venture Partner, Ulu Ventures
We were lucky to have two respected authors open this session. First was Brian Elliott from Slack Future Forum where he has extensively studied the future of work for his soon to be released book “How the Future Works.” He reminded us that the number one challenge for leaders of top corporations is finding and retaining the best talent. He cited Future Forum’s recent survey showing 78% of people want flexibility in when they work and most do not want to be fully remote. Most of them want to come back together on an episodic basis – averaging two to three days a week. Surprisingly, schedule flexibility is actually more important to workers than location flexibility.
Kian Gohar recently released his book with Keith Ferrazzi and Noel Weyrich: Competing in the New World of Work. Their research shows that most knowledge economy tasks can be done remotely, but there is value in in-person engagement for specific activities that may include a complex problem, solving emotional connectivity, and also emotional celebration. Teams that really struggle with the remote work era are those that layer their analog ways of work with digital tools and don’t step back to thoughtfully reassess their assumptions and their workflows. Those companies with lazy managers say let’s just go back to the office because that’s the easiest way to do it. Those are the companies that are fighting the great resignation while the savviest companies are actually thriving and have become leaders in workforce innovations. The choice is up to us, whether we go back to work or whether we go forward.
The other panelists reminded us that most corporations have a long history of remote workers including geographically distributed sales staff and remote service teams. Our facilities and real estate experts in the room pointed out that your average office occupancy was probably 60% on any given day with people showing up at their desks and we are currently approaching 40%.
Corporate culture is a set of behaviors — you can change your behaviors and therefore change the culture of the company. Most companies will recognize that they’ll need a different culture going forward in this new hybrid world than they have in the past. It really falls to forward-looking CHROs to figure out how to preserve important legacy elements while creating new elements for this new workforce. For instance, you have to design and initially create a mentorship program online where you are connecting junior staff with senior staff – these system redesigns need to be both intentional and flexible.
Several of the CHRO panelists mentioned the change in worker priorities to focus more on happiness, work-life balance, and social impact versus “pleasing the man.” There was a consensus that the pandemic was particularly difficult on women who took on extra burdens setting them back in the workforce. It was also acknowledged that people of color have different experiences at the workplace relative to their white counterparts — people of color experience the traditional workplace as a much less supportive environment. As a result, during the pandemic people of color often found greater support and improved mental health when surrounded by their community, avoiding more of the interpersonal micro-aggressions that they encountered in the in-person workplace.
An important point was raised about the critical role of the middle manager. These ranks are the ones who need to adapt and translate this transformation to the frontline. Bringing them along and supporting them on this journey will be vital to success.
Places – Evolution of workplace needs, community, and mobility
Facilitator: Nick Griffin, Executive Director, Downtown Center Business Improvement District (DCBID)
Peter Belisle, Market Director, SW Region, JLL
Bryan Berthold, Global Leader Workplace Experience, Cushman & Wakefield
Marty Borko, Executive Director, Urban Land Institute
Rick Cole, Executive Director, Congress for New Urbanism
Suzanne Holley, President & CEO, Downtown Center Business Improvement District (DCBID)
Michael Maltzan, Principal Architect, Michael Maltzan Architecture
Hilary Norton, Executive Director, FastLinkDTLA
Nick Griffin of DCBID kicked off the session citing their recent study of downtown major employers which showed that despite people spending fewer hours in offices due to hybrid work, they didn’t expect to reduce space needs but convert them from dedicated offices to more open community and collaboration spaces. These offices of the future will be designed to facilitate connections, collaboration and culture building. Employers must position them as places workers want to be versus have to be, so they would need to be high-quality buildings connected by transit and have compelling amenities.
Other panelists highlighted the need for better placemaking in an employee-centric world where office drives both recruitment and retention. The office is no longer where you go to get your work done but a center of community and connectivity – more of a clubhouse. Furthermore, the workplace needs to be part of an integrated workplace ecosystem where people come together and engage with not just fellow employees but broader aspects of civilization offsetting the isolation often associated with remote work. Though productivity was maintained through the pandemic there was a meaningful drop in both connectedness and wellbeing. Effective workplaces are critical to delivering that connectivity and integrating the workforce into a coherent culture. The office of the future will swap from ⅔ desk space to ⅔ community space where people come to connect and celebrate.
A few cautioned about getting too far ahead of ourselves. Cities have endured for thousands of years and are likely to continue to do so. Let’s not recreate the mistake of depopulating our cities and moving people to sprawling soulless suburbs. We are already seeing many of those workers who left urban areas looking to return so they can live more complete lives in energized communities. So rather than radically reinventing work and office, we should instead keep what is working and improve on what isn’t. The pandemic and remote work has allowed the role of the office to become more focused and compelling but not obsolete. Interestingly 75% of the younger generation say they have trouble working at home and will either return to the office or seek a 3rd space (co-working) in order to be productive.
Spaces – Physical as well as virtual spaces & tools
Facilitator: Spike Whitney, SVP Asset Management, Coretrust Capital Partners
Simon Bamberger, Managing Director, BCG
Andy Cohen, Co-CEO, Gensler
Laurent Grill, JLL Spark Global Ventures, Partner
Rob Jernigan, Senior Vice President, Clayco
Laura Johnson, VP Delivery System Strategy, Kaiser Permanente
Duane Mataczynski, General Manager, Modern Workplace – Microsoft
Ariel Maidansky, GM of Suites and Access, Industrious
Thomas Ricci, Managing Principal, Coretrust Capital Partners
Long tenured and respected commercial real estate developer Tom Ricci of Coretrust Capital Partners introduced this segment. Though the pandemic has accelerated emerging market dynamics, the fundamental philosophy of delivering a quality product that attracts tenants still remains true. Certainly with the wide acceptance of hybrid work, the office must be a compelling place to do things that you cannot effectively do at home: collaborate, connect, cultivate relationships and build community/culture. Embedding both health and wellness into buildings is essential. Thoughtfully conceived class A office buildings in prime locations will be ground zero for hybrid work while lesser buildings in less desirable locations will suffer (read more on the downfall of lower quality office in this report). However poor public policy and backward-looking regulations can threaten this critical transformation of office stock necessary to meet workplace needs of the future. Specific examples were cited about challenges in securing permits for converting space and the inclusion of outdoor space in FAR calculations.
The pandemic has resulted in the primary use of office from a place where people come to focus and do work to a place where they engage with each other. The unexpected 2-year experiment associated with the pandemic hurdled the trust barrier that many managers associated with adopting remote work. For a portion of the workforce, working from home can offer a magical combination of convenience, flexibility and productivity. However for others they still have a need for a third space in order to escape the chaos of everyday life. An interesting concept of “living off peak” was raised – specifically when workers flex their schedules to best meet their personal needs while minimizing commute times.
Though virtual video conferencing has existed for more than a decade, it has been primarily office to office versus person to person. The pandemic accelerated the adoption and refinement of these and other remote work tools to the mainstream. Technology leaders on the panel see remote work tools continuing to develop and ultimately level the playing field between remote workers and those in the office. However, they generally agree certain interpersonal activities like mentoring, brainstorming, and socializing will be harder to instrument. In any case, it was clear that this dynamic landscape would offer more options to meet the diverse needs of workers, with the key being tailoring various approaches to best meet the unique needs of the workforce.
As this session came to a conclusion, there was an important point about whether the pandemic was just a blip/minor disruption of the long term macro trend of people coming back to vibrant urban centers that offer diverse experiences, rich amenities, and connected communities or a more seismic shift back to suburbs and remote communities. One speaker suggested that the next generation savored dynamic and stimulating experiences and those needs were best met in urban centers. Others wondered if the development of the metaverse might ultimately offer the next generation similar benefits thereby uncoupling their lifestyle desires from specific geographic locations – perhaps but over what timeframe?
The final word
As you probably ascertained, our Pop-up Think Tank didn’t deliver a singular concise answer about what the future of work will bring. In some ways I think that is the answer. The legacy world of office work as a homogeneous one-size-fits-all is extinct. We are now entering a world where the workplace can take many forms based on industry, job type, talent availability, seniority, personal circumstances, work culture, and other factors. While some might mourn the loss of a single known approach, the future of diverse solutions with its associated complexity is certain to offer more to both employee and employer once we figure out how to best navigate these uncharted waters. Exciting times indeed!
Much appreciation goes to each of the thought leaders who participated enthusiastically on these panels. You can learn more about them in the bios section of the Future of Work event page.
We want to thank our collaborators, Nick Griffin and Spike Whitney for their help in planning this event. We also acknowledge Michelle Boos-Stone of Five Elements Consulting Group for her amazing real-time graphical recordings and event photographer Justin Han for capturing the magic of the afternoon. Final shout out to our event staff including Coretrust Capital Partners’ Samantha Kai Smith and Jessica Wang as well as the Alliance event team Sue LaChance, Gigi de Pourtales, Eric Eide & Steve Gilison.