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June 13, 2022 12:15 PM EDT

The EmTech Next conference, co-produced this week by Charter and the MIT Technology Review, covered technology and the future of work. But many of the takeaways from the two days of conversations with top executives and researchers concerned the importance of low-tech considerations, like maintaining a learning posture as a leader, cutting back on meetings, or studying philosophy. Here are some of the observations that stayed with us even after the summit was over:

Employers can’t make all of their employees happy on every issue, but they can continue to evolve and learn. Employers cannot and shouldn’t try to please all of their employees, said Katie Burke, chief people officer at HubSpot. That being said, “I do think all of us as leaders have an obligation to stay curious…. [you] can never get it wrong if you’re approaching things with empathy and curiosity.” As an example, Burke cited the response she said she gives when a colleague tells her she has made a mistake: “Talk to me about why….Let’s understand what we can learn from it, understanding that I’m not necessarily going to work to make you happy or perfectly content here, but I am going to listen with a ton of intentionality about how I could have done better.”

Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts start at home. Leaders can’t create truly inclusive companies if their focus starts and ends with the workplace. Stephanie LeBlanc-Godfrey, Google’s global head of inclusion for women of color, recommends taking stock of the diversity you encounter while off the clock: “Who’s your doctor? Who’s your accountant? Who’s your interior designer? Who are the people taking on leadership roles within your life?” she said. “You can’t say that you’re this diversity champion… and then when you go home, you’re in a homogenous environment in every aspect of your home life.” Making diversity a priority outside of work—in your social network, in the brands you seek out, in the books you read—will make it more of an authentic value within your organization.

Figure out how to make best practices the easier choice. Just as workers contribute more to their 401ks when plans are opt-out versus opt-in, managers are more likely to try new approaches when discovering those approaches is a frictionless experience, explained Stefanie Tignor, head of data science and insights at Humu. Organizations can share reminders of proven people-management tactics, such as nudging managers to recognize high-performing team members in different ways.

Instead of cultural competence, aim for cultural humility. Where the former can be treated as a box to be checked, the latter is more open-ended, requiring an indefinite learning posture. “I want to be more than competent,” explained Randal Pinkett, cofounder and CEO of the diversity-focused consulting firm BCT Partners. “I humble myself to acknowledge that there’s always more.” For example, cultural competence for a white manager might look like reading anti-racism literature; cultural humility might involve using those texts to consistently evaluate how their organization’s practices create institutional barriers for employees of color.

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Apply design thinking to culture creation. “I consider myself to be an engineer or an architect,” said Tiffany Stevenson, Patreon’s chief people officer. “You’re thinking about what an employee will see, do, touch, feel, interact with from the moment that they start.” Culture manifests as a series of actions, she explained—and each point of interaction between worker and organization is a chance for a company to act in a way that communicates its values and priorities. An earlier iteration of Patreon’s internal culture guide, for instance, contained a section explaining company norms around hosting visiting musicians for performances, designing an experience (the show) in support of a value (serving creators): “When a creator leaves Patreon, they should feel like it was the best show of their lives…We hold each other to a ridiculously high standard as an audience.”

Companies should look to cities to understand where the metaverse is headed. As the rise of remote work pushes cities to compete for new residents in increasingly creative ways, one lure that will likely gain prominence in the coming years is a municipal “digi-physical” infrastructure that includes cultural programs, said John Egan, CEO of L’Atelier BNP Paribas, a technology forecasting company. Egan also argued that Web3 jobs will be primarily side hustles rather than primary sources of income for the near future.

Management training should include philosophy. When the online-learning platform Coursera launched its leadership academy last year, it included a module focused on non-technical knowledge and skills, such as moral philosophy, ethics, and emotional awareness. As companies grapple with their responses to social and political issues and learn how best to manage a remote workforce, “both managers and executives need to learn how to think,” said Leah Belsky, the company’s chief enterprise officer. “How do you actually think about your career and your future? How do you actually think about bigger macroeconomic issues? How do you make a decision on Covid?” To Coursera’s initial surprise, the module proved most popular among technical leaders.

Employers and unions can align on both flexibility and business performance. Thomas Kochan, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management’s Institute for Work and Employment Research, described the new social contract between workers and employers as an agreement that both parties “are held accountable for meeting each other’s expectations … for a workplace that values democracy, values productivity, and values worker respect.” In practice, that agreement happens when leaders and employees alike engage in “interest-based bargaining,” which goes beyond stating asks to exploring the issues and concerns undergirding them.

Hybrid work alone isn’t climate-positive. Even when people forego their commutes, the carbon impact is currently canceled out by factors like increased local driving and greater in-home energy consumption, according to Kent Larson, director of city science at MIT Media Lab. Rethinking city design to accommodate greater density and walkability, and to create neighborhoods where people can both live and work, has a positive effect on both carbon emissions and the “innovation potential of the community,” as people can more easily gather in third spaces such as cafes.

Experiment with ways to cut back on meetings. Ideas like core-collaboration hours and no internal meetings on Fridays are a good starting point, suggested Brian Elliott, executive leader of Future Forum, a future-of-work consortium launched by Slack. Meeting-free Fridays “may just compress all of your meetings into the first four days of the week. But even if it does, that means people get heads-down, focus time on Friday to get work done. And that’s better than not doing it at all.” He also said Slack has been using “async weeks,” a week each quarter when all recurring meetings are canceled.

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