The intersection of experience, culture, and physical space is shaping the corporate world today. At least that’s the point of view from leading author and futurist, Jacob Morgan, who moderated a recent Churchill Club panel discussion we hosted here at Citrix in Silicon Valley. Rishi Vaish, Vice President on the Watson Work team at IBM, and Steve Wilson, Vice President of Product and Cloud at Citrix joined the discussion with Jacob. As with all discussions hosted by The Churchill Club, a highly-regarded organization that brings together Silicon Valley leaders to discuss the innovations driving the technology world today, several key insights emerged.

The jobs apocalypse is coming … or not

It wouldn’t be a future of work discussion if we didn’t discuss AI and automation. Jacob Morgan kicked off the conversation by describing the big disconnect that his research has brought to light. He has found a huge disparity between research and what’s actually going on in the business world. Research data shows that 47% of jobs will be automated, which leads to gloom and doom predictions of a world without jobs for anyone! Yet Jacob’s conversations with influencers, such as the Chief People Person at McDonald’s and the head of human relations at Ernst & Young, provide a more positive take, as all agree they are automating jobs, but without displacing workers.

Both Steve and Rishi agree there is no way to stop this move to AI. As Rishi cleverly stated, “Automation is like a train. You have to embrace it because it is a technology shift. It doesn’t replace people, it changes jobs. The people get freed up to pursue higher pursuits where human intelligence can be leveraged. Much like any other tech, it has the potential for misuse like any other, and we are responsible for keeping our focus on the track.”

Physical space — What do employees really want?

Culture, technology, and physical space all shape employee experience. Jacob’s research shows that culture accounts for roughly 40 percent of the experience and the others about 30 percent each. That’s why Jacob asked Steve and Rishi to comment on how, together, they impact the overall experience for employees, especially in a place like Silicon Valley where real estate and commute times are key factors. Jacob asked, “What role does the physical space play towards shaping employee experience?”

In response, Steve noted research done at Citrix that provided insight both on the company culture and the physical space. In terms of culture, in 2016 after the departure of a much-loved CEO whose personality had shaped the company for 20 years, the company decided it was time to reinvigorate its culture. They settled on five values: Integrity, Respect, Curiosity, Courage, and Unity.

Steve called out one that speaks directly to the future of work: curiosity. Everyone at Citrix is expected to embrace risk-taking and is encouraged to take risks even if they sometimes lead to failure. Events like hackathons and tech fairs give employees the opportunity to attach to these core values and express them. If a company finds ways to infuse these things into its culture, people will then start to provide feedback on themselves.

Rishi commented on physical space and the changes IBM has instituted in its Silicon Valley buildings. First, IBM instituted design as a formal discipline at IBM, which almost automatically lead to the creation of highly collaborative spaces that can be reconfigured easily and that suit the type of employee personalities that work in design roles. But they also learned that the type of space also depends on the type of job. For example, some jobs have projects that include a planning phase where an open space is more suitable and welcome; for other jobs, there can be more focused work in a quiet setting. They also looked at other factors like the horrendous commute times in the Bay Area. Rishi suggested that Silicon Valley-based companies need to look at workers and the data; should a worker who travels two hours focus on work or waste valuable time commuting? The answers lie in providing not only collaborative spaces for when people are in the office, but also enabling flexibility and mobility. This leads to the next discussion point: Which technologies are most critical to create this new way of working?

One Tech, Two Tech, Red Tech, Blue Tech: How Do I Know Which to Choose?

As Jacob noted, applying learning and data to technology choices is key to figuring out the best technology fit for employees.

Rishi outlined the three “waves” he sees when looking at the landscape for his collaboration division, Watson Work.

  1. Productivity wave – Companies need to provide desktops and all that comes with that technology.
  2. Engagement wave – Companies need to build systems that allow people to collaborate and engage inside and outside the office.
  3. Applying learning and intelligence to help work get done – Solving problems by curating content and delivering it at the right time allows companies to address the massive amounts of data coming in every day.

Steve reflected on a time, not that long ago, when you joined a company, the question from IT was simply, which PC do you want? Today, as more and more data can be accessed anywhere from the cloud, there is an increasing proliferation of devices being used. With workers no longer tied to a desk, it’s essential to purchase the technologies that simplify the experience for employees while still giving IT the security controls they need. It’s also the right time for technology companies to consider unique partnerships, like Citrix has with Steelcase, for example, to design furniture with technology in mind. Learning to think differently goes back to the basic company culture that is essential to enable change and learning.

And as Rishi highlighted from personal experience, even the way younger employees learn today is driving expectations for technology use. Rishi has two kids – one in high school and the other in middle school. The child in high school learned how to use technology by using a traditional keyboard; the one in middle school learned with only touch screens. Now, with his nieces and nephews, they all talk with and to their technology: texting, SnapChat, Instagram. The quickly changing expectations of technology are shaping our choices in the corporate world.

Think like a lab, not a factory

Both the panelists and Jacob agreed that placing value on learning as an organization is essential to enabling the new future of work. Embracing new ideas and figuring out which are important and which are not needs to be a part of every workplace environment, as does allowing failure. And these rules are especially true here in Silicon Valley where people like to be on the front end of adoption.

People skills are the last things machines will ever understand.

Steve drove this idea home when he talked about the need to teach people skills in this rapidly change tech landscape: “People skills are the last things machines will ever understand. When you look at kids today and education, you see parts driven by teaching more math, for example. I say, teach logic and problem-solving. I don’t think you having knowledge of the quadratic equation is essential anymore in a world where we have increasing compute power. We need to teach soft skills of how to deal with people, how to use creativity, how to solve problems rather than insisting on the learning how to memorize facts that I can now ask Siri to look up on my phone.”

Rishi agreed that now, more than ever, it is key to teach people how to learn. Today, he notes,  “There isn’t a career ladder. You have to allow people to curate experiences. And those experiences require other skills. It’s incumbent upon corporations to give people the time and space for that learning.”