FEATURE

Panel Discussion: The Future of Work.

Last month Claris hosted a panel discussion in San Francisco’s iconic Alamo Drafthouse Cinema to discuss “why we need to innovate at work to avoid a post-apocalyptic hellscape.” The conversation was moderated by CNBC’s Ari Levy and featured executives from Google, HIRED, Trinity Ventures and our very own Claris, followed by a screening of Mad Max: Fury Road - a portrait of that hellscape - and a movie best enjoyed on the big screen.

With topics ranging from (ahem) Silicon Valley’s most recent tech scandal, to automation in the workplace, to the best HR benefits to bring with you during the apocalypse - it’s needless to say our panellists’ answers did not disappoint...

Here were some of our favorite takeaways from the evening:

CNBC: WeWork is trying to go public but struggling. Was something fundamentally missed or do you think that there are things that have happened in the last couple months that opened the investor’s eyes?

Jeremy Neuner, Head of Google Launchpad, San Francisco: I’ll say this: Nothing is fundamentally wrong with WeWork as a concept. In the early days of NextSpace (a co-working business he started), we were told we wouldn’t be able to move fast enough and I think that holds true today as the workforce continues to disaggregate and people are looking for other ways, not just where to work, but who to work with. That trend, that kind of once in a century shift in how, where and why we work is here to stay. What was missed with WeWork was that they were able to sell early investors something that wasn’t fundamentally true; they were able to hype it up in a way that wasn’t sustainable, but the idea of the disaggregated workforce needing to re aggregate in different ways is definitely spot on.

Allison Baum, Principal, Trinity Ventures: I think they’ve been able to become as big as they have because they were able to break into the enterprise. Coworking spaces in the beginning were catering to startups, which were niche. I think something like 40/50 percent of [WeWork’s] business comes from large companies looking to rent a large space opposed to having employees operate in a traditional office. At the end of the day it was shoddy governance and people not asking the questions they needed to and that happens often in the highly competitive, well-funded environment we work in.

Mehul Patel, CEO, HIRED: They got the shift that the modern worker wants to work on his or her own terms and that includes working remotely. Our platform finds that 65 percent of engineers want to work remotely. But as humans, we need that social interaction, otherwise it can be lonely. It doesn’t justify valuation, but they definitely caught on to a secular trend.

CNBC: Zoom, Slack, DataDog: there is clearly a big trend in office productivity tools - but how far along that path are we? Is there going to be a next-gen office suite that emerges and pulls all these easy to use tools together. If so, where are we on that journey?

Allison Baum: Somewhere in the middle - there’s a competition between a bottom-up and top-down strategy and one of the things that a lot of people in my ecosystem are talking about is consumerization of the enterprise. Today, something like 80 percent of companies rely on employees to bring their own device to work, meaning people are used to consumer-grade products and experiences and are able to buy Slack with a credit card and expense it, so there is potential for the best product to actually win and disrupt a lot of these incumbents. Will it be a world where the Slacks can win eventually, or the incumbents will take all the good ideas, so it remains to be seen who will win.

CNBC: In thinking about the future of work and how we will be working - there is a thing that will make us more productive and things that will put us out on the street. One is good; one is bad and both are operating in parallel. Is there one that brings them together for you?

Brad Freitag: It took 70 years for the telephone to be adopted by the majority of Americans, and fewer than 10 year for half the world to adopt smartphones - which speaks to the rate of change. In terms of the workplace, the risk of irrelevance is as real and high as most economists forecast. Coming from a sales background, everyone has the opportunity to participate in IT; we need to wear an IT hat to work everyday in order to stay relevant and drive digital transformation. Good news is we now have collaboration tools and ways to educate people to stay relevant, but the challenge will be getting people on board.

Allison Baum: There is a shift between employer-led vs employee led workplaces and when you are faced with potential disruption of your job, either you rise up, re-skill and figure out how to iterate and find a way into a new opportunity, or you can sit back and complain that the world is no longer accommodating to you. Smaller is faster and smaller teams can do more and smart leaders have been able to adapt their culture in order to accommodate, but many haven’t and they’re the ones being left behind.

Mehul Patel: Where we are on the adoption curve is not quite yet at a dystopian society where all the jobs are gone. Right now we are seeing that repetitive, standardized workflow has been automated. The goal is to freak people out enough to do higher value stuff and become more productive. It may require more re-skilling but there’s an opportunity to do it now. With time we can see jobs disappearing but we don’t see that today.

CNBC: For people who are learning to code - where are the actual jobs for them or is it something we need to have as part of our everyday existence?

Allison Baum: There is this eternal debate between whether it’s better to be a generalist or a specialist and it could be tempting to try to specialize, since that artificially inflates your value in the short term, but in the long term, in a world where things are changing more than ever before, there is a lot of value in being a generalist.

Mehul Patel: Jobs available as a developer now have changed; 10 years ago, you had to have a CS degree from x, y, z school and living in the Bay Area. Now we see people who are self-taught, who have gone to coding school, and have skills that can be assessed algorithmically, and they get jobs at Google. Companies are willing to hire based on skills and education is just a proxy for those tools. These folks are going off to become engineers at Google and Facebook and are going off to start their own companies after that.

Brad Freitag: I’d bet that the people we invited here tonight, the professional developers, the bulk of them started with a liberal arts education and learned to code along the way and now they are incredibly successful. I have a son that happens to be dyslexic. He proved to me he the premium for learning Spanish was two percent in his career outlook, but JAVA was 70 percent. He then was allowed to drop out of Spanish and take up a coding class. Point is, there is so much opportunity for people to pick up new ways of learning to code/develop. And as we talk about automating workflows and orchestrating how businesses are going to function, shifting away toward easier to use tools, where having an understanding of business process is just as important, if not more important, particularly at a micro level, than being able to code.

Jeremy Neuner: There is value to have that lens through which you view the world. Even coding now is going to be automated in the next 5-10 years. Lots of tech orgs are thinking about that - so how do you then have people who are tech fluent and can talk to engineers, but who are also able to step above and make sense of everything and tell a story around what’s happening; to be able to say these bits and pieces for you and here’s how we make sense of it. That skill and ability, along the smart generalist guideline, is going to become increasingly valuable.

CNBC: Do you see anything generally in areas where tech is actually harming us in the workplace?

Jeremy Neuner: There’s this thing called digital distractions as you are trying to do focused work and then phones buzz, pings show up on desktops. On top of it there is this idea that just because we are connected to each other through these tools doesn’t mean we are really connected. The real harm comes when we equate digital connection with the actual connection required for us to do the deeper and higher work. Not that those tools aren’t great and useful, but also be aware of what you are leaving behind in your lives when you rely exclusively on these tools.

Allison Baum: 80 percent of people check their phones within 15 minutes of waking up and 50 percent of people wake up in the night to check their phones. It is unhealthy from a balanced standpoint as well. As we move into a future where so much of our simple tasks will be more automated than ever - it’s more important than ever that we invest our time and brainpower into being creative, but it’s impossible to do that when you are constantly distracted.

Any particular novel thing you’ve seen within a company that worked out well?

Allison Baum: Many of our companies are implementing this concept, which I write and talk about, called the “flipped workplace” which is a hybrid model between in-person and remote work. There are lots of conversations around remote teams working well, however there are challenges when people are increasingly isolated. In-person culture is very inefficient and what our most successful portfolio companies have implemented something where individual people do their own work outside the office and they only come into the office to meet and collaborate. Or if they work in different DMAs, they come together regularly to spend time with each other.

Brad Freitag: We have a great challenge at work to monitor fitness company-wide which offers a great way to build connections through tech. It’s fun, it’s connecting us and its healthy.

Press contact

Lucy Goss

Clarity PR

Lucy@clarity.pr