Sophie Wade on the Future of Work

An interview with Sophie Wade, founder at Flexcel Network and a leading authority on the Future of Work

March 13, 2019

The Future of Work is something that everyone wants to understand, but few of us fully do. What we can all agree on is that in many ways, the “future” is already here. There are more freelancers, an increased need for workplace flexibility, and changing technologies that shrink opportunities in some areas while creating opportunities in others. As these technological advances continue to accelerate at a previously unseen pace, it will be increasingly important for businesspeople to anticipate new changes and face them head-on.

Sophie Wade

Sophie Wade

Sophie Wade, founder and Workplace Innovation Specialist at Flexcel Network, is one of the leading authorities on the Future of Work. Her recent book, Embracing Progress: Next Steps for the Future of Work, is a roadmap for anyone interested in integrating Future of Work know-how into their daily business practice. Wade covers a span of topics, including digital integration and workplace flexibility policies in her book, and is now working on new perspectives of Generation Z.

Hoping to better-understand how businesspeople can adapt to these evolving realities, InfoWorks reached out to Wade with our most pressing questions about the Future of Work. With her arsenal of experience working with leaders and CEOs on how to “future-proof” their work environments, Wade provided fantastic insights along with specific, practical recommendations.

InfoWorks: In your book, you wrote about how both technological changes and changes in family structure—with both heads of household working—have shaped the future of work. Do you think one of these has been the bigger driver?

Technological advances. The social changes since the 1950s and 60s have certainly been substantial. The family composition has become more blended as divorces increased. Family economics have changed with a huge increase in the number of households where both parents need to work or mothers in the primary caregiving role are also the breadwinners. We are living longer which has necessarily been changing people’s approach to retirement.

That said, I see technology developments causing more significant and pervasive impact—particularly the resulting accelerated pace of business. We are interconnected like never before with access to extraordinary amounts of data. Work has become less structured and linear, less predictable and more iterative. It is a starkly different business and working environment.

InfoWorks: You have worked abroad, including in Hong Kong and the UK. How has this international experience informed how you think about the future of work?

After studying Chinese at university in the U.K., my first ever ‘real’ job was in Hong Kong. I have also lived and worked in Taiwan, Germany, and the U.K. before coming to the US. Each country has different rules, norms, and perspectives about work. I have adapted to each country’s work culture to try and fit in and thrive wherever I was. I therefore understood that there isn’t one set definition of ‘work.’ It has been natural for me to contemplate other ways of working based on the experiences I have had. For example, in Hong Kong, I worked half-day most Saturdays till 1pm. In contrast, when I was working in Europe, I found that very few people ever worked on weekends. They also get much more vacation time than here AND they take it!

InfoWorks: When people think about workplace flexibility, they usually think about telecommuting—working from home. But there’s much more to it. Aside from telecommuting, what are the most important kinds of flexibility that can be built into a company’s framework?

There are many different models which have been utilized for a long time in different organizations. There’s the compressed work week—working 10 hours a day, four days a week. There are share jobs, where two people share one role. An employee can work from a third place rather than home, such as a co-working space. It could actually mean any combination that is not a fixed schedule of 9-5, five days a week in the office. The objective is to figure out an arrangement that works for a particular person and the others they work with. Then work can get done effectively and each individual is able to adjust their schedule to suit their particular circumstances, work preferences, and style as much as possible.

InfoWorks: You work with leaders and CEOs who want to make their companies more adaptive, but many struggle with this. What is the most common reason you see for resisting change?

Fear and inertia are the two most important impediments to change for human beings. We don’t like change and we fear the unknown. Business is now moving much faster and often not in a predictable way, which means regularly confronting unknowns. There is a necessary transition from a fixed, static, and linear structure to a more flexible interconnected framework which can allow for frequent iterations and update adjustments or course corrections. This often requires a transformation in mindset and overall approach to the business as well as operationally. While the internal disruption is necessary, it gives most leaders pause for thought before it is launched into.

InfoWorks: In your book, you wrote about the importance of workers having an emotional connection to the organization and creating company mindsets and cultures that are well-entrenched, even reflected in the office space. Yet today, more people work from home or as independent contractors. How can people working remotely be a part of the company culture?

The workforce is increasingly decentralized with many more employees as well as freelancers working from different locations based on their needs and preferences. However, as human beings, we want to belong so we can feel safe and contribute fully. This is a core reason companies develop corporate cultures that connect people and have a strong sense of community.

It is obviously harder for people to feel integrated if they are not working in the same place. However, it can certainly be achieved if the organization’s purpose or mission and values are clearly and frequently articulated as part of the corporate culture and are integral in how business is done on a daily basis. If the mission and values resonate with the workforce—whether employees or contractors—they will drive people’s behavior. Moreover, if employees and freelancers are hired who are aligned and fit well with the culture, they become a mutually-reinforcing part of the corporate community and culture, which are not dependent on the location. The corporate offices are one physical expression of the corporate culture and are best consistent with it and supportive of it.

InfoWorks: Your book focused a lot on metrics, and measuring things like employee engagement, communicating the company’s culture, strategic use of tech, and more. Have business leaders done well with measuring variables that are important for the future of work?

Choosing the most relevant metrics to measure aspects of business performance isn’t easy or obvious. This is also true for what will best monitor progress towards an appropriate future-of-work environment. It is specific for each company based on how the business operates, what transformation is needed to future-proof it, and the combination of talent and technology at the company. Qualitative metrics—which have not been widely valued until recently—can bring much understanding to supplement quantitative metrics.

For example, a company rolled out a flex-work policy and tracked the number of employees using it. Management was satisfied with the initial participation rate. However, a later qualitative survey discovered progress towards more productive working conditions was limited. Many existing and potential participants felt inhibited or restricted from using the flex-work policy fully, expecting to be negatively impacted if they did. It is not just new policies or other updates that matter, but the mindset behind them, how they are communicated, and how employees are reacting. This is why I give many examples in my book to illustrate what different measurement options there are and what they can mean for an organization’s Future-of-Work transformation. Metrics are important because you need to understand where there is progress and figure out from trials what needs to be tweaked during implementation.

InfoWorks: I was fascinated by your book’s discussion of the gig economy, freelancers, and independent contractors, and how these workers can be seen as part of the company—an extension of it. What can companies do to make freelancers feel this way?

I think one aspect is finding people who are a good cultural fit, while still able to bring different perspectives. I have clients I’ve worked with many times because we are well-aligned culturally – we have similar values and have nurtured great relationships. If you find freelancers who are a good cultural fit, your culture extends easily to include them because that is what is comfortable and natural to them anyway. It then easily becomes a smooth working relationship. They become familiar with how you work, they know how and where to access the files they need, they understand your process, etc.

Existing employment laws dictate specific ways of operating with contractors. However, you can include them in certain events, share company updates with them or new research to keep them in the know. These are some of the ways they can feel part of your extended community and be kept up to date even when they aren’t working on projects for you. When you establish relationships with these contractors, it’s more than just a one-off transaction.

InfoWorks: In the book, you wrote that “Government policies are ready for revision to provide support in matters such as specific worker protection, health care, and retirement.” You also wrote about the Hamilton Project, which is seeking to create a new tax category, the “independent worker.” As we wait for policy change, many companies are experimenting with ways to provide freelancers with benefits. Do you think the private sector will continue to step in?

In this country, the private sector is left to take care of many labor-related aspects, compared with Europe where the government does much of this. With the social changes I mentioned at the outset, there is a challenging lag right now as many workers do not have all they need to support balanced and healthy working conditions. Paid maternity leave and affordable child care are two examples. In addition, current US labor laws and bank policies do not fully support the rapidly growing freelancer/independent contractor portion of the work force – in terms of healthcare, being able to get affordable mortgages, as well as retirement planning, etc. There is extraordinary innovation emerging to change these dynamics and the private sector is starting to fill in some of the gaps, but there is quite a long way to go.

I thought the Hamilton Project’s “independent worker” proposition could be an exciting solution—and it was backed by many reputable corporations, institutions, and business leaders. However, it would require updating a few labor laws which would amount to a significant change. There has been little reaction to it since it came out in December 2015, so I think it is unlikely to happen. I have been told that there is little government desire to support the freelance population. This is possibly connected to a more traditional way of viewing what a ‘good job’ is—i.e. full-time work as an employee—even though these jobs now do not have the security or upside that made them ‘good’ in the past.

I foresee that the next ten years are going to be messy at best. I predict Millennials and the incoming Generation Z [1995-2015] population will come up with more solutions – they intuitively understand the more fluid, faster, less linear way of working that we are experiencing.

InfoWorks: Is there anything that’s important to you that we haven’t discussed yet? What do you see as some of the big challenges for the future of work?

There are challenges and opportunities that Future-of-Work environments are bringing. At the core, we each need to be aware of how, where, and when we work best, and doing what. This then enables us to understand how each of our team members work best and what their strengths are, so we can manage them or collaborate as effectively as possible – wherever we all are working. In addition, when it comes to the evolving skills needs, we are all facing life-long learning. Many people don’t feel they can learn the new skills, or don’t want to.

One other big topic is Generation Z. What will be needed to integrate and support them well? They are used to extraordinary access to information, much agency over their lives, and to contributing actively. These habits are not necessarily aligned with how many companies currently include their newest hires. In addition, many younger workers find it hard to channel their efforts now that the boundaries of traditional work routines have blurred. New flexible but guiding frameworks will be important to help many people be productive. These are the elements that I see having a big impact on future workplace dynamics and successes.


Interview by Katherine Don

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