Issue #69
#69 - How will we work here? Job titles -- and job content -- go haywire in the new world of work
June 02, 2023

#69 - How will we work here? Job titles -- and job content -- go haywire in the new world of work

Last week, Usman and I had the chance to speak with a few startup founders about the leadership and communications challenges they're facing. What stood out? Time and again, founders brought up how hard it is -- how hard it continues to be -- to run teams and businesses remotely. From setting and creating culture, to connection, to coordination and execution, remote work continues to present a massive hurdle.

Compounding the challenge -- or adding complexity to it -- is the onset of AI. Machines and computers have automated our work for decades, but the recent leaps we're seeing will soon lead to conversations at scale about what work can be automated, and how that automation will necessitate changes in the content, priorities and composition (resourcing, structure, etc.) of a team.

So this week we use our 3 Stories to ask: given the challenges and changes -- distributed work, technology, demography -- and given the human and business stakes, do we need new and dedicated resources within our organizations to be able to define: how will we work here?

Story #1 - Most of us have heard of a "chief remote officer", but what do they actually do? What are their priorities, and what does a typical day look like? We dig in, via our first Story.

Story #2 -
If everyone has a day job to tend to, who has time to explore all the no-code and AI tools, and figure out what they mean for the organization, and whether and how they should be used to automate its work (routine or otherwise)? Enter, dear reader, the "Chief Automation Officer" -- the focus of our second Story.
Story #3 - Who should "own" the process of redefining how an organization should look and function as it goes from one radical shift to the next in the years to come? Should it be those in newly created roles like a chief remote officer, or chief automation officer? HR? The CEO? To explore, we inventory the skills required to redefine, reimagine and implement "the new work" -- and we arrive at an answer that has big knock-on effects for leaders.

Thanks for reading and exploring with us -- and have a great week!

Aki + Usman

P.S. Usman and I recorded our podcast episode of issue #68, "(Psychological) Safety First". It's right here.


#CAO #Automation #Redefinition #HowWeWork

When writer-podcaster Steph Smith first proposed this "Chief Automation Officer" role in June of 2021, it was an interesting idea: a dedicated resource whose charge was to make everyone else's job smoother by automating their work with code, or no code tools, or virtual assistants or by streamlining work process.

But just two years later, in an "AI moment" in which hundreds of new automation tools are launched each week, Steph's idea now begs serious consideration. Albeit, consideration of a much more profound responsibility: the CAO role is no longer just about optimization and script-writing to eliminate routine tasks. Rather, as AI shows works its way up the value chain, there is a much more urgent need for a CAO to be able to explore and exploit the upsides which AI offers, while assessing the impact it will have on the organizational structures that have guided our work for decades. 🤔


#CRO #HowWeWork #Redefinition #Adaptation

This quote 👆🏻 is from an article in the BBC that profiles the "Chief Remote Officer" of software company Doist, Chase Warrington. What does Chase do?

Warrington ends up spending much of his workday focusing on the in-person experience. “I’m in charge of our company offsites – it’s crucial to have a good IRL [in-real-life] strategy among distributed teams,” he explains. “Human connection was the top priority when I took the role.”

He says his job is cross-functional: alongside designing company retreats across Europe, current day-to-day tasks involve coordinating with the finance department on a compensation strategy for 100 global employees, and liaising with HR on a new internal communications tool.

It's interesting to note that "early" reporting about the advent of Chief Remote Officers (like this, from way back in 2021 😂) tended to focus on the functional aspects of the job: onboarding, training, home office setups, recruiting, etc. Whereas, now, the role is more often described by the challenges that we now appreciate define remote work: connection, culture, asynchronous productivity, and goal setting, as well as when and how to get together in real life.

The BBC article ends with a great quote from the same chief remote officer:

Even companies that had distributed teams long before the pandemic are seemingly benefiting from having a senior-level figure respond to the various frictions and challenges of remote working. “The hope is that remote work becomes just work,” says Warrington. “But that future may not be here for a while. For now, the playbook of work has been thrown out: having someone oversee the next version makes sense.”

We love the idea of "remote work" one day becoming simply "work". And Warrington's point about having someone oversee the next version of the work playbook, in the meantime, makes a ton of sense. But the question we pose in our final story is, "Who should that someone be?":


#HowWeWork #ExponentialChange #ExponentialLearning #Adaptation

Our first two Stories introduced two new roles. Both are functions of drastic change -- decentralization and technology -- and both are charged with redefining how their organisations should work in response to that change.

On the one hand, we applaud companies that invest the time and money to learn -- and learn early -- this way; those that draw a line in the sand, and signal, loudly, that they "get" that work has changed, and that they are serious about adapting to it.

On the other, we wonder if it's right to "give" a question of this magnitude -- "How do we work now?" -- to a one employee, no matter how senior. Will that employee have enough leverage and credibility to make and implement the changes required? Particularly if -- as in the case of a CAO or CRO -- they have never held that role before?

Alternatively, should the responsibility sit with the CEO? Or come to think of it, this all sounds pretty HR'ish --- why don't we just "give it to HR"?

To think the question through, we found it useful to ask: what skills and traits do these designers of "new work" need, whether or not they are new hires with new job titles?

This is a brief list, which is not stack-ranked:

  • Organizational design skills
  • Understanding of the organization's culture
  • Understanding of the job content, job functions and processes that comprise the org's "work"
  • Empathy and people skills
  • Business acumen, and the ability to understand the organization's business goals and drivers
  • The communication skills to explain and contextualize the changes being made
  • The courage and curiosity to explore and dabble with new tools and new models of work
  • The imagination required to start from first principle, and ask: what should work be? What should work be?

If that list of requirements sounds familiar it's because it reads like the job description for the leader of any modern organization.

In the end, the answer to: "Who should own this: a CRO, or CAO, or HR, or CEO, etc?" will depend on the context: on the organization, its size, its resources, and its culture. But we don't see how the adaptation goes well if those closest to the work, to the culture, and to the business -- it's rank-and-file leaders -- are not intimately involved. If those leaders are not empowered and incentivized, and embedded in the learning, the process, and the transformation -- how does it succeed?

This brings us to our quote in Story #3 ⬆️ from management thinker John Seddon. We feature it because it underscores the need to redesign leaders' roles first. Leaders need time and space to focus on this level of change and complexity; they need space to engage in the learning and exploration required to transform, and to model that engagement to the rest of the organization:

The Manager's role has been conceptualised as 'resource management' not work management. How much better would our organisations be if top management were focused on increasing knowledge -- their own and others -- of the way the work worked and how to make it better?

Exponential change is here, it's already upon us. The question is how we'll respond, and whether the organizations we work for and the people who lead them will learn just as exponentially.

Thanks for reading. 🙏🏻

Work moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
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