Episode 16: Ben Reno-Weber, Director at the Microsoft Future of Work Initiative
The COVID-19 crisis is accelerating changes to the Amerian workplace that were already on the horizon. Some companies and organizations have been anticipating those changes and the role emerging AI technology is going to play in their sector. Others have not. What we are seeing now, with the economic “pause” caused by COVID-19, is an opportunity to reassess and retool the future of work emerging from the pandemic.
In this episode of Employee Connectedness, Unitonomy founder Charley Miller discusses the future of work and how COVID-19 is escalating shifts in that future with Ben Reno-Weber, Director at the Microsoft Future of Work Initiative, UofL researcher Dr. Brad Shuck, and OnPlane consultant Martin Low.
In this discussion, they will walk through the potential impact of AI and some of the associated concerns and opportunities. The conversation will examine what has changed or been illuminated due to the pandemic. While AI sounds scary to some, there are ways to harness the changes it brings, along with concurrent changes in the future of work, to improve the workplace more broadly.
Episode 16: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPkOoDMijkY
Employee Connectedness is live-streamed weekdays at 10:15am EST on the Unitonomy YouTube channel. You can join there and ask questions in the chat. You can also find previous episodes posted there and on the Unitonomy blog.
Employee Connectedness: Ben Reno-Weber, Director at the Mircosoft Future of Work Initiative
Charley Miller 0:05
All right, we’re back. We attempted to start the show once before about two minutes ago and our internet zapped out. I’m Charley Miller, Unitonomy. I’m back with our regular guests Dr. Brad Shuck, University of Louisville, way down there Martin Low, On Plane Consulting. And our special guest today, Ben Reno-Weber. I’m gonna use the same joke I already use this morning, which is, if you don’t know Ben, you should know that he’s short, shy, and soft spoken. And thank you for joining us. Mr. Ben. The Future of Work Initiative here in Louisville. Everything I just said by the way about Ben is not true, of course. He’s a force of nature here in town. He’s great at moving a lot of things forward in this latest organization is powered by Microsoft and is making a dent already in the conversations locally about how does this community transition as we think about the next decade of work now.
This thing was set up pre-pandemic so a lot of the talk today would be kind of a pre-pandemic mode of thinking about the future of work. And I want to make sure I describe the organization’s mission right: you guys are really focused on AI as it relates to people, retraining as it relates to getting ready for the AI revolutions in our region. And I think another aspect is helping ensure corporations in the region understand how they can leverage AI. Okay, great. So, Ben, you’ve been doing this, leading this organization for about six months, obviously, its infancy. We just had this awesome event in late February, right as the pandemic was unfolding. Luckily, no one got sick, knock on wood. And that event was awesome. I was there with my hand sanitizer and then had a lot of great conversations about retraining and then what do we need to be thinking about as a community, what businesses need to be thinking of get ahead of things with AI. Before we go too deep into all that though, I want to give you a chance to just explain to us: what is the future of work, in your mind, sort of in the pre-pandemic world…that the future of work.
Ben Reno-Weber 2:06
I think the interesting piece of how we think about what’s coming in terms of the data economy and the future of work is this is not a tech thing. It’s not a tech issue, it’s not an IT problem…this is a fundamental technological shift on the order of electrification or the internal combustion engine or the Internet, and the responses to it can’t be tech responses. It has to be a cultural response. And that’s actually why Microsoft, and also by the way IBM and Pfizer, are investing in communities like Louisville, because there is a belief, that I think is correct, that we can be at the cutting edge of the cultural components of this, which are going to be the important parts. Jeff Guan at the University of Louisville says this all the time “the technology has evolved to the point where we can focus on the problems.” And that’s really interesting stuff.
What’s coming in terms of the data economy and the future of work…is not a tech thing. It’s not a tech issue, it’s not an IT problem…this is a fundamental technological shift–on the order of electrification or the internal combustion engine or the Internet–and the responses to it can’t be tech responses. It has to be a cultural response.Ben Reno-Weber, Microsoft Future of Work Initiative
Charley Miller 3:16
Well, yeah, it’s awesome to know groups like Microsoft and IBM are obviously known for their tech approaches to things understand a wider opportunity and problem as it pertains to culture and helping the region. Similarly, something I got out of that conference was the fact that we shouldn’t feel daunted by what’s happening, as this sort of giant wave called AI approaches us, but it’s actually an amazing opportunity to improve people’s lives and provide meaningful opportunities in context of giving people jobs and roles to play within this. Because I think a lot of the talk we all hear day in day out is it’s going to take all the jobs. And I think there’s plenty of forward-thinking individuals now that are pointing to this and that as it comes to what’s really happening connected us with opportunities. And I guess, Ben, one question for you is, because you’ve been so embedded in this conversation, what side of it, of this the thing that gets you most excited? What makes you the most optimistic given viewpoint that you have related to this?
Ben Reno-Weber 4:27
So there’s two pieces that get me really fired up. One is the individual. AI doesn’t do a job, machine learning doesn’t do a job, the Internet of Things doesn’t do a job: all those things can do a task. Now, most people’s jobs are made up of a set of tasks. And if we can shift some of the boring or difficult things for humans to do tasks out of that job, we give that person superpowers to focus on the things that only humans can do. So that’s the interesting piece on an individual level.
AI doesn’t do a job, machine learning doesn’t do a job, the Internet of Things doesn’t do a job: all those things can do a task. Now, most people’s jobs are made up of a set of tasks. And if we can shift some of the boring or difficult things for humans to do tasks out of that job, we give that person superpowers to focus on the things that only humans can do.Ben Reno-Weber, Microsoft Future of Work Initiative
On a community level, what’s exciting to me is that we have the opportunity to really be at the cutting edge of this, because the issue is cultural, because we can focus on how this technology plays out in our existing industries where we already have expertise. And then by giving people the power to innovate or automate parts of their jobs, we as a community can be on the front edge of this. As someone who spent a lot of time on the coasts and currently in their home in the middle of the country, like that’s really exciting to me.
Charley Miller 5:56
Okay, now let me get to the third question. What worries you the most?
Ben Reno-Weber 6:01
I have two pieces for sure. One is bias and one is privacy. So, yeah. You said this earlier in conversation: you can’t out-program bias. Right, so the way that AI works is that you train the machines, who are your tools, on the data you have, so the cultural shift that has to happen is that you come to value your data. And you come to use that data to do your daily work. But the problem is if that data is not what…there’s a woman on our staff named Alisia McClain, who is also a researcher at the University of Louisville and she talks a lot about complete datasets. And if the data you’re using to train your machine reflects the bias that is built into the system already, that machine is going to be biased. You know, Microsoft tells the story all the time of the AI bot doing natural language processing that they trained in Twitter, who became just racist, sexist, a little scary. Yeah. And then I think the private citizens, you know, we’re seeing that hugely compounded by the COVID in ways that I think we’re only at the very beginning of understanding.
Charley Miller 7:29
Yeah. So that’s a good segue into the next thing I’ve been thinking about. This #FutureOfWork right, it’s been picking up steam for several years now, everyone thinking about AI next decade. Now, COVID-19, coronavirus, here we are and wow, what are we talking about the future of work in the last two months, and we’re talking about it’s kind of a different thing. We’re talking about do we go back to the offices, you know, what does it mean to ride elevators or be in big buildings with what’s going on. Are we gonna have more flexibility and more people are gonna stay working from home for a very long period or is it just gonna be a cultural shift in the workplace? And I think that’s a good one to go around the horn on as we kind of put these two things together, because obviously AI still gonna happen. There’s gonna be these monumental shifts we think relative to the pandemic. You know what are your latest thinkings on how these things are going to converge and disrupt what we’re used to and sort of the cadence of our work places? Brad, I’ll start with you over there.
Dr. Brad Shuck 8:34
Yeah, I mean it’s incredibly fascinating Right. I mean, AI is transforming the way that we understand the modern workplace and what I love about this particular initiative is driving is it’s a focus on how work gets done, not just how much work gets done. And I think we have been driving that train towards this station for a long time, and we’ve said here on this podcast and livestream a couple of episodes ago, we’ve policied and procedured things to the max, and the nature of work is going to fundamentally shift, like the COVID crisis is only going to accelerate that. And we’ve seen that out in our communities that technology in the future of work is grounded in what is happening in this particular initiative, but I think my one takeaway is it is gonna is going to cause us and maybe empower us to lead differently to think about how that work gets done. And not just how much work gets done.
AI is transforming the way that we understand the modern workplace and what I love about this particular initiative is it’s driving a focus on how work gets done, not just how much work gets doneDr. Brad Shuck, University of Louisville
Charley Miller 0:48
I love that. Martin, what about you? What comes to mind when you think about everything with your clients at the consulting group On Plane in their thinking related to AI and everything?
Martin Low 1:00
Yeah, you know it’s it’s interesting, I’m not sure how many people are truly thinking about AI, because they haven’t figured out how to really leverage it, you know, in that small to medium sized business. It’s really hard to get that, you know, appropriate use case without doing a deep dive and a lot of them just aren’t sophisticated enough technologically to get there. I mean, we’ve got people, when we talk to them, they’re still hardly digital. And that’s not just a Louisville thing, that’s across the country thing. So I think there’s a tremendous gap there and I think that the winners and losers are going to come out of that pretty quickly over the next probably five years in terms of just how much leverage you can get on the business.
To Ben’s point that this is a leverage thing. The thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot, and we’ve talked about this in past shows is, is what was there before COVID, and what goes faster now post COVID. And one of the things that we didn’t talk about that I think is really important and a part of the reason why I started the business that I started, was that the wealth disparity gets accelerated out of this. We’ve already seen, you know, certain groups of people are just getting absolutely crushed by COVID and their inability to work or inability to generate an income. Other groups of people, while maybe their financial nest egg or something like that has been hit, they’re still working and they’re still able to be part functional, in all things considered. I think that this AI thing because it accelerates because of most of the issues we’re dealing with right now which are people problems. There’s an increased premium now to automate those people related tasks, the basic ones that they know it’s going to do. So I think that that speeds up.
And then I also think without a lot of intentional intervention from multiple parties, you know, governments, as well as companies and probably nonprofits, that you have the people that are on the most vulnerable low end of the wage scale already continue to really get hit by this. And I think that because it speeds up coming out of COVID. I think they get hit even harder, because these jobs are going to go away. I think they’re going to get replaced by better jobs, there’s a lot of data out there to back that up, they’re gonna get replaced by better jobs. But are these people going to be ready to do it and what does that skill mismatch look like when I go from being a truck driver to a drone pilot or whatever the gap might be? So, that I think is a huge question so sitting out there and then it’s good things to come, but there’s some hurdles to get over,
The people that are on the most vulnerable low end of the wage scale already continue to really get hit by this…because these jobs are going to go away. I think they’re going to get replaced by better jobs, there’s a lot of data out there to back that up, they’re gonna get replaced by better jobs. But are these people going to be ready to do it and what does that skill mismatch look like when I go from being a truck driver to a drone pilot or whatever the gap might be?Martin Low, On Plane Consulting
Dr. Brad Shuck 3:40
you know, just to hop in here for a second and piggyback on what Martin is talking about. Some of the grant funding that we’ve been looking at, over the last couple of months has really asked us to reconceptualize “what does it mean to have a good job?” What is the definition of a good job? How do we get at that and I think, Martin, to your point here is, is the definition of that is changing. The initiatives that Ben’s involved in driving change technologically in the city is going to get at some of those, we’re going to arrive at those answers for sure. And the other thing I want to note is the overlay of what would happen in our city if we really took the time to overlay a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion on top of this, and how it might fundamentally transform communities and neighborhoods in ways that we, I can’t even wrap my mind around? Yeah, it would change the way people live their life, it would change the way their work and that’s kind of all of our missions here is that we help people live better lives through their work, not by their work, if that makes sense.
Charley Miller 4:53
Easier said than done. But yes, the idea of applying compassion to the idea of the premise of what work is and what it provides. Ben?
Ben Reno-Weber 5:04
I want to add one piece to this. So I think, you know, coming out of my last startup that was focused on how do we create meaning at work so we managed volunteer engagement and you know, just asking probing at these exact questions. I think as we think about what the future of work is for us as a community, as a society, you know, one piece is it’s not really about AI. Like AI is this big broad term that’s, you know, most people can spell it, but no one knows what it means. Like, it’s really under that bucket is the idea of shifting how we think about data, how we collect data, how we use data, how we recognize data as an asset and a tool. And that doesn’t require this massive level of technological understanding to really get behind that fundamental piece.
So you know in the same way that there aren’t really very many “internet jobs”, there aren’t going to be very many “AI jobs,” but it is going to impact everyone. And so I think about like Martin is a perfect example. So when Martin was starting On Plane, he and I talked a lot about because he was, has been a wonderful resource and mentor to me over the years. You know what are the pieces of human interaction that he can help support a culture that he can create and that doesn’t change with technology? This is still a question of leadership and engagement and meaning and motivation that hasn’t changed at all post-covid. There are new tools that we become comfortable with around them, but the fundamental questions about how do we build a company that people want to work for how do we create meaning in people’s lives, how do we support them in achieving their dreams like that hasn’t changed at all.
Charley Miller 6:49
All right, so I’m gonna go back to like what Brad said which is I think to paraphrase you were saying, how do we make sure jobs are good jobs? Which I love that idea. And of course Brad, your research is very much around employee engagement and looking at how someone is feeling, right, connected to their role and the mission of the organization, etc. What do you see, or what worries you even potentially related to that idea of understanding employee sentiment, as it relates to AI, and the new normal that’s going to be emerging post-pandemic?
Dr. Brad Shuck 7:25
Yes, a couple quick things and I’d love to hear, add ons hear from Ben and Martin. The first thing is that we weaponize data. And that data is used as a, as a weapon, and not is used as a destructive tool versus a constructive tool. And we’ve seen pockets of that and some companies where data gets used as a, as a punitive lever, versus something to get better with over time.
The other thing is, emotion is complex and multi-layered, right, and I think sometimes we think about engagement like I can just, I can just *clap* it on and then when I’m done with it, I can *clap* it off and we’re good. That just doesn’t work like that. Emotion is this constant stream of connections and values and meaning and all of this information that’s coming into me and I’m running it through my individual lens, as one human being. And I would, I would be concerned that we might lose a little bit of that individual nuance. And so that’s what we’re working toward when we’re creating these psychometric tools that really get at effect. We are digging into the psychology of what does it mean physiologically neurologically in the moment? What does that effect mean, at that time and how does it translate into an emotion that then drives? Because we know we can’t rationalize people to change. If that was the case, we would all wear seatbelts, nobody would smoke cigarettes. I mean, like, there’s a lot of data out there but it really is about how we nudge emotion, and how we create effective experiences, that, that, that literally create the future of what work is going to be like.
Ben Reno-Weber 9:28
And I think if I could add in there is a really interesting cultural overlay to this, that, you know, for white dudes sitting around this habit the conversation around diversity. You know within our team, we’ve got people from widely varied backgrounds and so when I say this, I feel like I’m being super clear because I understand the cultural context from which I am coming and what that you know implies. But even in the six months that we had been pulling this team together which was intentionally constructed to have a variety of cultures within it, like we have really struggled to appreciate the differences in communication style and I think that could get exacerbated as we try to use technology as a mediator.
Martin Low 10:24
I think the interesting thing inside of all of this, though, is that if you properly leverage AI and technology right, you all of a sudden, the utility that you can create out of one person in terms of value goes way up, which gives you some space to actually have these conversations. And so you step back and you say, how does, how will it fundamentally change with AI with technology. I want to make the case that you know, everybody that is part of a yard mowing service is in jeopardy of losing their job because that thing is going to be automated sooner rather than later. Right. And if you say that that’s true, there’s a couple of questions that will follow from that. One is, is the person that’s doing that job actually in a “good” job today? I would say that person probably isn’t driving that mower feeling like they’ve reached their full potential. Right, so like there’s a thought behind that says, What if that person could get a different job, make twice as much money, actually feel like they’re, they’re doing something that benefits the world in a way that meaning is meaningful for them?
But I think the other thing that can naturally come out of that is some actual time for the company to step back and say, all of these things that Brad’s thinking about how do I motivate that person internally, how do I create and build a culture? If I have to keep that person on a mower driving that thing around, you know, 8, 10, 12 hours a day, and that’s the only way for the business to make money and for that person to make what little that they make, I don’t have the breathing room to actually have those cultural conversations. And I think that’s a big piece of why that doesn’t happen today or is it more intentional today. And I’m really looking forward to being in a place where that can start to happen inside of a business because there’s enough leverage on that person’s time with the value that they can create because they’re using technology to actually start that process up in more in more areas.
Ben Reno-Weber 12:22
Yeah, and I think there’s a real cultural and societal conversation that has to be had. So let’s say we automated the McDonald’s to the point that it only takes 12 people to run it for three shifts. Right. I mean 12 across the three shifts. Yeah, so this thing now spins off $2.4 million dollars a year, with 12 people. Right, so each one of those people is generating $200,000 in profit. How much of that profit did they get to keep? And that’s a societal question right, what kind of a life does that level of productivity afford us? You know, and I, we have answered that question up to a certain point now, in one way, and I think COVID gives us the opportunity to really spend some time exploring. Are there other ways that we should be thinking about that?
Charley Miller 13:26
I hope so. You know, this is my biggest worry right now is if the world looks the same five years from now, I’m going to be so depressed, like we really didn’t learn anything, we didn’t push anything forward. As tragic as the pandemic is, it is a chance to reset. The optimistic side of me calls it the forest fire, that’s going to promote new growth. And I hope that it happens across everything from kind of rethinking capitalism to the ideas of rethinking technology and what technology can be used in its best ways for not just how do we make someone click on this thing, but really, how do we help people find meaning in their jobs like we’ve been discussing this morning. Let’s do a final around the horn here as we wrap it up. And I think we’ve got a lot of thoughts going here. This has been a great stimulating conversation. Brad, I’m going to throw it over to you what are you, where are you gonna walk away thinking about today as you’re talking to Ben here?
My biggest worry right now is if the world looks the same five years from now, I’m going to be so depressed…like we really didn’t learn anything, we didn’t push anything forward. As tragic as the pandemic is, it is a chance to reset. The optimistic side of me calls it the forest fire, that’s going to promote new growth. And I hope that it happens across everything from kind of rethinking capitalism to the ideas of rethinking technology and what technology can be used in its best ways for not just how do we make someone click on this thing, but really, how do we help people find meaning in their jobsCharley Miller, Founder of Unitonomy
Dr. Brad Shuck 14:19
I’m wondering how we’re going to redefine currencies at work. And if there’s a super currency beyond money, a year, 100 years from now, we measure value and meaning differently. And what that super currency might look like. And my, my suspicion is that it’s its capacity. Its capacity to be creative, to think, to be innovative, rather than to be busy.
Martin Low 14:51
Super interesting. I want to make, I’m gonna make the case, Brad, that the currency is purpose. I think the currency has always been purpose, but I think that we actually put more people in a place to achieve that purpose or to chase that purpose because they have the breathing room now to actually get there. And there’s a lot of data out there that shows that as an early trend today. You know, in, whether it’s in an hour’s work, or in terms of, you know, data from people back to say what do you really want most out of your job. And I think two things come out of this. One is the purpose conversation. But I think the other thing is time. I think people are gonna choose to, I think this turns into a 30 Hour Workweek or a 25 hour work week, and I can spend more of that time actually like chasing a purpose and there’s a lot of data to back that trend up already. In terms of lower hours work because I can make more money. You know, and you see that in the economy today but I think it accelerates when AI shows up because I just get so much more leverage out of my work time.
Ben Reno-Weber 16:01
Yeah, I think that’s gonna require a really intentional cultural shift for organizations. And that’s, you know what, if, if I’m expecting a certain level of productivity, then how do we not then take this moment and just say okay well now we’re going to ratchet it up again. And I think that’s what I really like about the idea of, you know what, what you guys are all engaged with is, is there a way for us to really have intentional conversations around what does motivate people, you know that autonomy mastery purpose community. Do I feel those things? And some of the things that are being exposed in our society right now are actually, you know, grocery workers aren’t less happy right now. They’re actually more happy right now, I would theorize, because even though the, you know, their financial circumstances haven’t changed that much, they’re recognized for the purpose and the value they bring…people are thanking them. And that is a currency all its own. And so I think you know that’s one of the real opportunities here to shift the conversation. And, you know, part of that is having the data like making that part of our everyday conversations around a company.
Charley Miller 17:27
I’m gonna put a reminder on my calender to have us all back in about three months so just revisit this topic, explicitly , and see where are we noticing any subtle shifts. In three months isn’t a whole lot of time in the grand scheme, but in the case of the pandemic, things are moving at such a rapid pace that we’ll see if what innovations can we recognize in the next three months? what shifts are we seeing in the news related to companies either responding and adjusting. I think it’s just something we’ve talked about taking a pulse the employees, it’s going to be inteesting to take a pulse of how these companies are continuing to work in the environment. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. And Ben thank you for joining us here. Really great to hear your thoughts on this. And Brad, Martin…always a pleasure. Alright, so thank you everyone and we’ll be back on Friday for another conversation on Employee Connectedness.