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What ‘work of the future’ means to 5 business leaders

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Leaders preparing for work of the future often focus on data and technology, which are already fueling artificial intelligence and algorithms that are transforming the workplace.

But human workers shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle. Savvy managers are arming employees with the skills they need to integrate these new technologies into existing workflows.

At the same time, leaders anticipate that the challenges and opportunities that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, like remote work, will continue and become standard, though there is still a lot of work to be done in that area.  

“We are at the most important pivot point of the past couple years,” said Dannielle Appelhans, LGO ’11, chief operating officer at biotech Rubius Therapeutics. “It finally feels like we have a path to move forward into what will be our new normal, or our ‘work of the future.’”

Here, five MIT Sloan alumni in leadership roles at Target, Google, and other companies share what work of the future means to them:

Going all-in on data

Dannielle Appelhans, MBA ’11, chief operating officer at Rubius Therapeutics

For many companies, data will be part of day-to-day work and overarching strategy, if it isn’t already. This is especially true at Healr Solutions, which uses data to create solutions for biopharmaceutical supply chains, according to Guadalupe Hayes-Mota, SB ’08, LGO ’16, the company’s founder and CEO.

Hayes-Mota said he is making sure his employees are fluent in data analytics and using large datasets.

“They are becoming versed in working with data, analyzing it, and communicating the implications of this information,” he said.

Data is also top of mind at the leadership level.

“As we progress to the future, work will be heavily dependent on making decisions based on large datasets,” Hayes-Mota said. “And I am learning new ways to analyze extensive data to tell insightful and meaningful stories for the company's growth and operations.”

“At Target, we use data-driven tools to support quicker, more effective decision making,” said Heath Holtz, LGO ’05, a senior vice president of field operations at Target who is responsible for the company’s store replenishment and “direct-to-guest” fulfillment network operations.

 “The way of the future is using that information to improve speed and quality of service to meet guest expectations,” Holtz said. 

Integrating artificial intelligence into the workplace

Technology, particularly AI and robotics, is a priority for many leaders, who expect intelligent tools to bring substantial returns. Integrating these technologies into the workplace presents unique opportunities and challenges, which vary by industry.

Isma Benattia, MBA ’18, vice president of R&D strategy and operations at Amgen

Bots offer a particular opportunity for highly regulated industries like health care that have codified activities, said Isma Benattia, MBA ’18, the vice president of R&D strategy and operations at Amgen, a biotech company. Doctors and other highly trained employees end up doing required administrative tasks that are repetitive and time-consuming, distracting them from more innovative work.

“A bot can bring a quick solution, reducing risk of human error and freeing up time for researchers,” she said. “Integrating a bot in the existing R&D workflow is usually rapidly adopted by scientists.”

Amgen is thinking about existing skills and determining where gaps are, with an emphasis on involving employees in solutions, Benattia said. This includes explaining why changes are made and how more and new technology will benefit employees by helping them develop new skills and free up time.

“People are worried they’ll be replaced by technology and lose their jobs,” she said. “This can be quickly addressed once individuals understand how these tools will help them perform better and more efficiently.”

Hayes-Mota agreed that the human side of technology is often overlooked.

“When speaking of the future of work, we tend to focus on creating systems and technology that will do jobs for us. In a sense, we are preparing ourselves to be replaced by technology,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have not paid much attention to what types of work we will do. We need to invest in brainstorming and developing new roles for those displaced by technology.”

Managing remote teams with technology

Guadalupe Hayes-Mota, SB ’08, LGO ’16, founder and CEO of Healr Solutions

Business leaders said they are preparing for remote work to be a long-term trend affecting everything from communication to worker retention. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 60% of workers with jobs that can be done from home say that even when the COVID-19 pandemic is over, they’d like to work from home all or most of the time if they have a choice. Some argue that in the future, remote work will just be called “work.”

“Personally, I am still working on how to leverage IT tools and best practices to create an inclusive environment, particularly for hybrid work,” Appelhans said. “As a leader, I think we need to be role models in how to use technology efficiently and show our employees how they can leverage it to their advantage and the advantage of their work.”

Hayes-Mota said Healr is also expecting employees to use technology to communicate and share information, and become more comfortable with video and virtual meetings.

“Currently, my team is learning to share information electronically that will be viewed by others around the globe,” Hayes-Mota said. “We also use telecommunications to brainstorm solutions to everyday problems we face in the business. This makes us much more agile and able to react to sudden changes within the market.”

Focusing on skills technology can’t replace

Heath Holtz, LGO ’05, senior vice president of field operations at Target

Remote and hybrid work puts a premium on some skills that technology can’t replace — such as empathy, collaboration, and communication.

An “acute challenge” in the near term is getting the best from employees as they become more geographically dispersed, said Wendy-Kay Logan, LGO ’11, a director of business strategy at Google.

“How do we equitably collaborate across all locations, given you have some real constraints around time zones,” Logan said. “You want to meet people where they are.”

This means looking at how meetings are conducted — perhaps with all participants on individual screens, whether they are in the office or remote, and making sure in-person and remote participants can equally engage in a productive way.

Logan said she is also focused on having empathy as people work from different time zones and with different technology infrastructures — making it acceptable for people's cameras to be off, for example, or having people in the U.S. start work earlier one week so people in India don’t have to stay up late, and vice versa.

Connection and empathy have always been important to Target’s team culture, which is focused on care and connection, Holtz said, and with the team spread across the country, it’s always been top of mind.

“But the last few years gave us an opportunity to build even more routines to stay connected and collaborate, which will be paramount moving forward,” he said.  

Wendy-Kay Logan, LGO ’11, director of business strategy at Google

Holding on to talent

Retaining talent will also be extremely important in a world where individuals can switch companies and remain in the same location.

“I anticipate that for most organizations, culture, employee engagement, and retention are going to be challenging,” Appelhans said.

“I think the emphasis should be on building relationships and meaningful connections. Because employees now have even more self-agency, we’ll need to recognize the value of these relationships, and will need to be deliberate about the time we dedicate to cultivating them, which happened more organically when everyone was spending their full week in their workplace.”

And above all, Benattia said, companies should manage the risks of burnout that remote work brings.

“The lines between home and office are blurred,” Benattia said. “Everyone is available around the clock. It is harder to disconnect. We need to adapt and help staff separate and manage work and home life priorities, ensure breaks during the day, and encourage vacation days.”

Rethinking geolocation

The future is likely to include new business hubs as companies reconsider their location strategies in response to remote work.

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“We should be going where talent is,” Logan said, noting that Google has publicly announced that it is growing its footprint in Atlanta, New York, and Chicago, where there is a more diverse talent pool than Silicon Valley. This will help Google attract talent who are generally underrepresented in tech hubs, she said. “We want to tap into the richness of perspectives and have a diverse workforce so we build products for a broader range of users.”

There tends to be a lack of Black and Latinx talent in traditional tech hubs, and “you can't rely on importing diversity because it's not just about how many Black employees can be convinced to relocate near a company’s headquarters, because life isn't just work,” she said. “If the second you step out of your work you don't see anyone else who has the same lived experience, then it doesn't work.”

This means rethinking major tech hubs.

“It's showing there isn't just one place where innovation happens and where the next big AI company, the next big unicorn is going to be,” Logan said. “It’s about being flexible and thoughtful, about how do you position yourself for talent, because that is the most important asset.”

Read next: Why distributed leadership is the future of management 

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