hypotheses

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

Jason Lauritsen