News & Views


Looking into the Future of Work, Workforce & Workplace

Massive, enduring shifts happen infrequently. Modern examples include the advent of high-speed internet, the mobile phone, and cloud computing. Each of these innovations created monumental shifts in how businesses are run, and how people go about their daily lives. Today, we are seeing an entirely new force at play driving that shift: a global pandemic.

The effects will be lasting. In many ways, they already are. In order to survive, businesses have had to adapt to new realities that would have otherwise taken years: continuing to acquire and serve customers as well as attract, manage, and support employees absent of the physical presence of an office or storefront. In the blink of an eye, millions of companies, people, and jobs shifted to working online and remotely. It was a shocking predicament that, just a few years ago, would hardly have been possible. At the all-virtual EmTech Next conference in June, Stuart Butterfield said, “If you asked any CEO before (the pandemic) with more than 100 employees, ‘Could you get your whole org working remotely within the space of a week?’, they would have said no… And yet, they did it.”

To be clear, the future of work was not created by COVID-19. Many, if not all, of these trends existed before. But – the current global climate has dramatically accelerated the adoption of new technologies in all aspects of work and ushered us into this new era.

Now that the proverbial band aid has been ripped off, it is imperative that organizations think more strategically and long term about what the future of work will look like. What tools and processes will be needed to sustain and grow within these new ways of working? Embracing the future of work will require leaders everywhere to operate differently and enable their employees with the right tools to get the job done. There are massive opportunities for entrepreneurs and start-ups to build the next wave of platforms and tools to support these new ways of working – and we want to fund those opportunities.

But first of all, what does the “Future of Work” mean?
The future of work has strong ramifications on the workplace, workforce, and the nature of work itself.

(1) The workplace, or physical office as we know it, has undergone a massive change. With the sudden onset of COVID-19 cases, workers and companies have been forced at the drop of a hat to learn how to accomplish things that traditionally relied on in-person interaction as physical businesses and offices closed and extended social isolation swept the country. This has led to a surge in usage of cloud-based software tools that allow for what we call ‘multiplayer collaboration.’ These tools enable synchronous and asynchronous collaboration across teams, managers, and customers.

(2) The workforce is also changing. Not only do we now see physically distributed workers en masse, but companies are also thinking about the make-up of their workforce very differently than they did 10 or 20 years ago. Companies are using fluctuating blends of full time, seasonal, contract-based, and gig-economy workers as the needs of their businesses evolve. There need to be new HR and people management tools that can adapt to serving these different worker types and allow management to have better visibility and actionability across the entire workforce.

(3) Finally, the work itself has changed. We are seeing unprecedented levels of business and robotic process automation (RPA) across the board, from back office to customer success functions, marketing and finance. There need to be tools that enable digital-first workflows to augment existing tasks via automation and increase productivity via digital-first platforms.

We’re excited to see so much activity in this space, even in the last few months. In the following sections we dive into these three pillars in more detail, but we’d love to hear your thoughts as well – How are you thinking about the Future of Work? Have a vision to shape this next era? Let’s talk!


The Future of Workplace: Multiplayer Collaboration

We believe that the future of the workplace will be more collaborative than ever, especially because of this new distributed nature. The workforce of the future will look different across employers — from fully remote to on-site only to a fluid combination of the two. This will lead to a “flipped workplace” model whereby more work is accomplished at home rather than at the office, and these teams will need tools to be more flexible and powerful than ever before.

Legacy applications are primarily built for “single player” usage. Think: Microsoft Word and Excel. These are powerful applications, but they don’t enable real-time, collaborative engagement. The future of work is built around software for multiplayer use cases. Continuing to use Microsoft as an example (although you could make the same arguments for Google), we see many startups today attacking different elements of the Office 365 ecosystem, reimagining productivity and introducing new, collaborative capabilities. Below are a few examples of companies doing this today and the strategies that are leading them to becoming breakout category-winners.

We believe there will be opportunities to build many more “multiplayer-first” productivity applications, and here are some of the attributes we expect to see: 1) Relentless focus on reducing the amount of friction created by working with someone digitally, and distantly. 2) Powerful “low code” capabilities, such as the ability to integrate with 3rd party apps. 3) Simple, intuitive, and flexible user interfaces that appeal to technical and non-technical users.

The Future of Workforce: Distributed and Diverse

Tomorrow’s HR and recruiting departments and even first-line people managers will need better tools to attract, hire and manage a more distributed set of workers of diverse types that range from full time to contract to gig economy. There need to be specialized tools and capabilities that provide these managers advanced search, management and analytics workflows. On the worker side, there will need to be better tools and offerings for facilitated and self-learning, to become better at the job in a fast-paced environment as well as to more easily learn the skills of tomorrow as organizations and their needs grow.

Recruiters need more powerful capabilities to see and reach specialized candidates at scale. We believe the users of these tools can be flexible — whether an in-house recruiting team or specialized recruitment agencies. One such example of a new solution in the market is SeekOut, a Madrona portfolio company. SeekOut is a talent search engine that pulls from multiple sources to surface the best talent. They are applying modern AI and algorithms to people’s information, helping recruiters turn what would have been an 8-hour manual search process into a 5-min process with the click of a button.

In terms of managing and retaining employees, we believe a renewed focus will be necessary in helping the organization more intelligently understand and connect with its employees, manage them using smart tools, and help these employees grow the skill sets needed for the roles of today and the roles of tomorrow. Uplevel is an engineering effectiveness management tool which uses work data from calendar meetings, Slack, GitHub, and others to help understand what conditions lead to engineers being their most productive (E.g., achieving deep work time) and making recommendations for how to minimize distractions and disruptions.  Polly is a specialized survey software tool used inside of Microsoft Teams and Slack that helps teams better communicate. These tools are built with the worker and manager in mind to better enable teams to communicate, collaborate, and get work done virtually.

The other important angle of managing and retaining is training – how to empower and upskill your employees so that they can perform at their best level today and be better prepared for their job tomorrow. The demand for certain roles and skill sets that were in high demand 10 years ago are fading, and in turn seeing the demand rise for other roles and skills, such as cloud computing management, sales leadership, and analysis. Go1 is a portfolio company of ours that delivers an aggregator platform for online education and training. It works with hundreds of companies to house thousands of courses in its learning library and is scaling up to be the de facto next-gen learning solution.

The Future of Work: Digital-first Workflows

The flipped workplace model, where more people are doing work out of the office and away from their teams, is accelerating the trend toward all-digital and automated workflows and processes. A byproduct of this is the opportunity to leverage automation and augmentation into different tasks and processes to improve efficiency, accuracy, and speed. We see this trend happening across many functions including the back office, finance, customer success, and more.

There are a multitude of opportunities to create these newer, nimbler, and smarter workflows. Looking at specific functions or departments, SAP SuccessFactors and Workday have been stalwarts of back office management. Today, newer tools such as Moveworks which uses automation and augmentation to speed the time it takes to fix IT issues. Finance and accounting departments are also seeing a significant explosion of new tools to replace the manual usage of PDFs, Excel, and Salesforce. Some of these tools include Tesorio, a Madrona portfolio company, that help finance leadership have better visibility into AR collection and cash forecasting, among other things. Cross-functionally, there are a number of powerhouse automation and augmentation tools that have matured over the past several years and are perfectly developed for new businesses looking to add general automated workflow capabilities to their businesses. UiPath, another Madrona portfolio company, is incredibly powerful in this regard with RPA processes for anything from human resources to legal to healthcare payers.

In Conclusion

These digital-first, collaborative, and smart tools that augment workers’ and leadership’s ability to collaborate, allow for better management and development of teams, and enable a new kind of leverage via automated and augmented workflows are a necessity now and in the future. Given the rapid shift happening as a result of the “flipped workplace,” there is an incredible amount of new opportunities for the tools and platforms of tomorrow to be built today.

The new way of working is here. Let’s embrace it together!