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We had the pleasure of talking to four thought leaders in the tech industry about the Future of Work, and what things might look like over the next few years.
We were joined by Wendy Cohen, Principal at Accenture, Chris Herd, Founder and CEO of Firstbase, Jibril Sulaiman, Founder of Incluzion, and Krish Ramineni, Cofounder and CEO of Fireflies. The conversation was thoughtfully facilitated by Olivia, Head of Corporate Engagement & Partnerships for Forum Ventures.
All four panelists are focused on the changing work landscape, whether that be enabling remote work through equipment or software, connecting remote employees with companies, or helping companies navigate the trend towards a distributed workforce.
While we organized the event pre-COVID, this topic is now more top of mind than ever as companies across the globe, both large and small, have been forced to shift to remote work overnight.
The discussion was thought-provoking and filled with unique perspectives on how our workplace might evolve over the next few years, and the challenges and opportunities that come along with that. Let’s take a look at the four main insights we uncovered.
We’ll start with the obvious trend that everyone agreed on: remote work is here to stay, in one form or another. This could mean all or some employees will be remote, employees will mix and match office and remote work, or another version we haven’t seen yet.
Remote work was already a trend that was sped up exponentially when COVID forced offices to shut their doors and continue business remotely for the foreseeable future. “COVID accelerated remote work by 10-15 years”, Chris Herd, CEO of FirstBase, the physical OS for remote teams, explained. “Before this pandemic, remote work would have been something driven by world class people demanding this from employers.” And that wouldn't have happened overnight.
Everyone agreed that a huge benefit of remote work, to both companies and employees, is how productive teams are, and how this was a surprise to a lot of people.
Wendy Cohen, Principal at Accenture, works with companies to navigate large-scale transformations. She explained that at the start of COVID, there was “a lot of fear, as companies were forced overnight to accelerate digital adoption, which otherwise would have taken many years. However, organizations are finding they are more productive working virtually, which reaffirms that this works!”
“Offices are the worst places for deep focused work,” Herd added, confirming that there is a business ROI case to make for employees to work more from home.
Another benefit to companies that Herd pointed out is that they may be able to cut their office footprints by up to 50%, depending on the remote working model they decide on. That’s a huge potential cost savings.
Krish Ramineni, Founder of Fireflies, an AI voice assistant for meetings, commented that for employees, there is huge benefit to working remotely: more work-life balance, less time commuting, and less cost to not have to live in the city.
The productivity we’ve seen thus far during COVID is “in large part due to all of these new collaboration tools out there”, Cohen explained. Cohen is referring to meeting tools, video conferencing software, collaboration tools, remote event software, and more. “These tools are actually effective and can make working virtual possible”.
“Tools that were previously nice-to-haves, cool, and cutting edge are now taking centre stage as they are needed to operate and collaborate remotely”, Ramineni told us. “If we had to make this adjustment 10 years ago, we wouldn’t have been as effective as today,” he continued. “We’re now going to see existing technology and tools, such as Meeting assistants like Fireflies, leveraged in creative ways to assist working remotely.”
Ramineni goes on to explain that processes will need to change – how we document, how we communicate, how we meet customers – and we are going to need tools and technology to support that. That’s a huge opportunity for new startups today.
In terms of employees, there will be a need to upskill or reskill people for how to be productive when working remotely. Jibril Sulaiman, Founder of Incluzion, a company that connects companies with diverse talent, advised that in order to have employees that thrive in a remote setting, companies should hire self-starters, or mini entrepreneurs, that can manage their time, stay on task, and get things done.
“It takes a certain amount of emotional intelligence to be able to negotiate bandwidth while remote”, Sulaiman explained. “There is a certain education piece here needed [for employees to gain these skills]”.
As companies build remote teams across geographical boundaries, they will have access to a nation-wide, if not global, talent pool.
Herd explained that rather than hiring the best talent in a 30 mile radius, companies now have access to talent globally. Ramineni added that “hiring the best person anywhere, not just local, opens up to more diverse groups that don’t live around the corner. And you can build a product used in different countries because you’ll have people representing those places.”
On the talent side, Sulaiman talked about how people will have more choice – where they work, where they live, how much work-life balance they have. For example, talent who previously didn’t live in Silicon Valley may now have the opportunity to work for those exciting Silicon Valley companies.
At the same time, people who previously felt bound to the same specific geographical location as their office are free to live in places they never thought they could.
Tech companies across North America often suffer from a lack of diversity, which hinders the company, culture, and even the product. The shift to remote will be hugely beneficial to this initiative.
Sulaiman was very excited about the potential here, as his company is focused on placing remote, diverse talent in tech companies. He believes the shift to remote will increase access to opportunities for his clients, and that niche products will be built that focus on inclusion as well as how companies and diverse talent connect.
“It’s about deep diving into communities and providing a message that resonates with talent that you’re trying to attract,” Sulaiman said. “Then allowing your message to reach as many parts of the country as possible in order to reach that best, diverse talent.”
This also extends to personality diversity. Cohen explained that virtual work will allow companies to “tap into [the strengths of] both introverts and extroverts. Introverts will have that time and space to think. Extroverts have those opportunities to collaborate through tools. The hyper-personalization of culture will be made even more possible through remote.”
While there was a lot of excitement in the room about the future, the group discussed how remote work will also have its challenges. Things like working across different time zones and in turn always having to be on and available. And taking extra care to make sure teammates aren’t feeling lonely, and that they still have a way to feel like they are part of — and get involved in — a community.
Cohen explained the mental health impact for those already living alone. However, she also sees this as an opportunity for startups to invest in this space and help people build resilience. “WHO has cited a 400% return on improved health and productivity when investing in treatment for anxiety and depression,” Cohen further explained. “There is a huge opportunity to invest in the individual as this will have a positive impact on business results.”
Another challenge, and opportunity, will be that a remote workforce will require a different type of company culture be built and maintained. Ramineni advised that if we are “transitioning to remote, then Culture and People plays a huge role.” He predicts that companies are going to have to create a dedicated HR role to make remote work successful.
With a shift to remote, Ramineni continued that there will need to be “a DNA shift to companies, especially new startups, who will have to think about how to build a successful, remote workplace from day one.”
And for those companies that wouldn’t have adapted to this new normal otherwise, they will need to re-tool and re-educate themselves quickly.
All in all, it was a fruitful discussion about a topic that is on the minds of a lot of companies and employees. While we don’t know exactly how the future will look, it seems clear that remote work will be part of it. And with that, comes a ton of exciting opportunities and challenges for new startups to explore.