5 Words to Help You Master the Future of Work

5 Words to Help You Master the Future of Work 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Some of the best advice I ever got came almost 30 years ago. I was in high school. 

Being a bonafide band nerd, I was spending a week of my summer vacation at the Clark Terry Jazz Camp hoping to polish my trumpet skills enough to become king of nerds—First Chair Trumpet. (Not sure that’s how I would have described it at the time, but I digress). 

As a high school trumpet player, getting to spend the week hanging out around and learning from accomplished professional jazz musicians was a head trip. These musicians seemed like musical gods to me at the time. 

That might be why I can still vividly remember a piece of life advice offered to me by one of those musicians (not coincidentally, a trumpet player)  so many years ago. 

A few of us were standing around in the hallway talking. And while I don’t remember what specifically was said that sparked the offer of advice, it must have involved one of us youngsters making some bold declaration about our future. 

What this trumpet player said next has stuck with me ever since:

Never say what you ain’t gonna do.” 

I can still hear him saying it. 

He went on to share how when he was younger, he said he was never getting married. Then, he got married. He said he was never going to have kids, then he did. 

He had a whole list of things that he’d been certain about as a young man, but that had gone a completely different way later in life.  

The real wisdom has grown with me over the years as I’ve thought more about his words. 

Our human instinct is to try to bring certainty to the future. So we make declarations about what we’ll do or not do and who we’ll be. 

If the future were a person, she would likely smirk and think, “good luck with that.” 

What does this have to do with the future of work?

Most organizations and leaders have spent several months trying to sort out what to do with the workforce they sent home in March of 2020. 

Bring them back to the office? 

Make work from home permanent?

Or pursue the mystical third option, the “hybrid” arrangement (whatever that means). 

This feels like a big decision, particularly given the increasingly hot job market and threats of a looming “Great Resignation,” where hoards of people will quit their jobs to move on to new, more fulfilling adventures. 

It’s unclear what the future holds. It’s hard even to get clarity about what’s happening right now. 

One survey will tell you 85% of employees want to return to the office. Another will say it’s only 10%. So, which is it? 

In all of this uncertainty after a year defined by uncertainty, it’s our natural human tendency to grasp for clarity and make declarations (just like the young camper in my story). 

Twitter was among the first to declare they are going to a work-from-home-forever policy. And on the other end of the spectrum, Goldman Sachs is requiring everyone to come back to the office

This is where the advice I received about 30 years ago is worth considering:

Never say what you ain’t going to do.

We don’t know what the future holds. And, we don’t really know what our employees will want or need going forward. 

Instead of grasping for certainty and making declarations, we should instead learn to use these five words to help us navigate the path forward:

I don’t know. Let’s experiment.

The future is unknowable. It hasn’t been written yet, and we play a vital role in shaping what it will look like. 

Sorting out what is going to be best for your organization or team is going to be complicated.

Chances are you’ve got employees within your organization who have very different needs and preferences regarding how they’d like to work going forward. And, you probably also have business units and teams that have different needs and requirements based on what they do. 

You don’t know the right answer now. 

Making some declaration today about what your forever policy is around “where” your employees can work might feel good in the moment, but you’ll inevitably end up having to revisit and change that decision in the future. 

Instead, when attempting to answer the question of what to do next, try saying this:

“I don’t know. Let’s experiment.”  

Employees crave certainty, so they’re probably calling on you for a decision. But, they also crave trust and flexibility, which you may inadvertently diminish by rushing to a conclusion.

Let’s admit that we don’t know what’s coming or what will work best. Then, let’s invite our employees to experiment with us. Nothing says you have to solve this riddle today. You just need to be working on it. 

You just need to think like a scientist. 

How to Experiment at Work

If it’s been a while since you’ve been exposed to the scientific method, that’s okay. I’m here to help. (Fun fact: I have an undergrad degree in biology). Here are the basics you need to know to create a meaningful experiment.  

1. Start with a hypothesis.  

A hypothesis is simply a proposed explanation or theory that you can test. Creating your hypothesis is a critical first step of any experiment. The purpose of the experiment is to prove or disprove the hypothesis.  

You likely have some insight into your employee’s preferences regarding where and how they work. And you have some ideas about what’s needed to get work done the best way. Unfortunately, those two things may be at odds. 

A hypothesis is your best guess at how to create the best possible win-win solution given both sets of needs. 

An example of a hypothesis related to work location could be, “We think the best way to optimize employee performance and engagement is to work two days a week onsite and three days work-from-anywhere.” 

2. Test your hypothesis.  

This is what we typically think of when talking about experiments. You design a way to test if your hypothesis is correct. There are many ways to approach this at work. 

One popular way is to run a pilot. You might identify a division or two and ask those managers to implement the work plan you are testing (two days onsite, three anywhere). This allows you to test the approach with a smaller group to see how it goes.

If your organization is large enough, you might be able to run pilots testing multiple hypotheses at once. Every experiment gives you new information about what the right solution may be. So running several of them at once can be a way to accelerate towards a solution.

If your organization is smaller, another way to test is to deploy the solution to the entire organization for a fixed period of time. In this case, you’d communicate that as an organization or team, you were going to try out this approach for the next 60 days and then re-evaluate. 

3. Measure results and gather insights. 

The purpose of an experiment is to learn. So, it’s critical to determine upfront how you will measure the test outcomes against the hypothesis.  

In the example I’ve been using here, there would be two obvious ways to measure the test’s success. You could track measurable employee performance over the trial period. And, you’d want to gather employee feedback.  

If performance holds steady or goes up and employees are happy and engaged at the end of the test, then it seems like your hypothesis has proven correct. If one of these indicators goes the wrong way (i.e., employees hate it), your hypothesis fails. It’s back to the drawing board.

4. Go back to step 1 and begin again. 

Experimentation is a process used to solve problems and find truth. One experiment informs the next, and so on. It frees us from a need for certainty and gives us the means to explore our way to an answer.  

Master the Future of Work

By learning to embrace and use these five words, “I don’t know. Let’s experiment,” you equip yourself to successfully navigate forward into a wildly disrupted future of work. 

When you let go of the need to know the future and instead use what you know about the present to shape informed hypotheses that can be tested through experiments, you will find your way to success regardless of what the future holds.


Related Reading:

The Simple Way to Avoid Being a Bad Boss

No. The Future of Work is NOT Work From Home

3 Big Things You’re Getting Wrong about Post-Pandemic Work

  • Latrice Torres, SPHR

    What I find interesting about this topic is that we are all acting as if the concept of workplace flexibility is foreign because it is on a larger scale. But have we not been moving towards it for decades now? Some organizations have even advanced to job sharing and split schedules. The HR golden rule of “ask the people” seems to somehow get thrown out the window for this almost as if there is a purposeful effort to make this difficult and complicated. I love the “try and find out” approach because we all know assumptions get us nowhere pretty fast. And if we are going to push everyone towards efficiency, and adopt agile principles for innovation and rapid execution, then why not apply those same principals to understanding the best workplace model for your organization.

    You got forced to accept a total work from home model, and guess what, nothing broke, so you have the ability and time to figure this out while your employees figure it out for themselves. As a empty nester parent, I personally would have loved a balanced schedule that made me able to produce the best work possible – or is that the fear? That people are basing their decisions on producing the worst work possible? Probably not! I cannot count how many times I heard that we should assume good intent from management, but when it comes to empowering employees with managing their work, that is going out the back door.

    So I’ll co-sign your 5 step process of try and find out…and I’ll add the obvious, ask – that’s it, survey YOUR people, not rely on the data “out there” and get your own, then try it, and adjust – I’ll even give a tie period – let’s say, 8 weeks at a time (like a sprint).

    Thanks Jason, always insightful – and by the way, MANY lessons get learned at band camp, I raised a trumpeter who eventually graduated from Berklee with his Masters and this guy always has the most insightful view on life – it’s clearly a musician thing!

    • Jason

      Thanks Latrice. Yes, many lessons at Band Camp. Some more useful that others. 🙂 Really appreciate your added perspective and additional suggestions. Asking for feedback from employees is rarely the wrong move.

  • Eryc EYl

    Great insights as always, Jason! I love those 5 words–they provide a clear and certain way of dealing with a lack of clarity and certainty. I’ve been telling folks three words that express the same sentiment: pilot and pivot. What I hear in your story about Clark Terry Band Camp is advice against dogmatism. When we commit ourselves to a course of action in the face of uncertainty, we set up unnecessarily rigid rules that can lead to fall-on-your-face failure as often as they lead to positive outcomes (or maybe even more often). Thank you for this reminder to counter uncertainty with experimentation as opposed to false certainty. P.S. We’ve gotta talk some time about our shared history of being teenage jazz trumpet nerds. Right there with you! 🙂

    • Jason

      Thanks Eryc! It seems as though by putting this trumpet thing into the universe, I’m finding many kindred spirits. 🙂 My youngest son is starting trumpet next year. The legacy will pass to a new generation. Anti-dogma is definitely a theme in my career. Thanks, as always, for sharing your insights.

  • Will Matthews

    Thanks for this, Jason! I love this perspective. It makes it clear to me that the opportunity is in the mindset shift from this being a massive organizational change to mange, to the mindset that this is a massive teachable moment for organizational leadership and innovation. A great indicator that a team is primed for innovation is the number of times they say “let’s try this and see what happens.” It seems to me if we can get leaders on board with treating this as a big experiment in discovering new ways to build collaboration and innovation, it can’t help but to be more successful than if we treat it as a tug-of-war between individual needs. And as Latrice rightly points out, remote work is not a new phenomenon, and our collective experience and access to opportunities hasn’t been universal to begin with—this becomes a great chance to discover new ways to remedy that. Much appreciated!

    • Jason

      Thanks Will. I love the idea of “let’s try this and see what happens” as an indicator of your capacity for innovation as an organization. It seems that the reasons work wasn’t more flexible before 2020 was a fear of whether employees could perform remotely. Now we know it’s possible and have so much more information to use for experiments. The reasons not to be flexible going forward are also fear based, but it’s more a fear of loss of control and irrelevance on the part of leaders. Experimentation is a great way through that fear.

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Jason Lauritsen