Renée Smith

I glimpsed the future of work last week on a live stream. And it was human.

Hanna sat cross legged in her hospital room surrounded by her mom, a handful of friends, and “her team” that included her OT therapist, music therapist, and child life specialist. Upbeat music played in the background as 18-year-old Hanna connected with her friend Malissa in Colorado using FaceTime. They were ready. It was time.

The hand-lettered poster on the wall said it all, “No Hair! Don’t Care!”

Hanna was ready to shave away her long brown and purple hair, and Malissa was ready to shave hers too in support of her friend. Pictures of women with shaved or close-cropped hair had been collected by “her team” for inspiration.

You see, Hanna has cancer. Again. She already beat acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) just a few years ago, but three years after finishing treatment, in May she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) a consequence of the chemotherapy used during the ALL treatment itself. Less than 1% of ALL patients treated are later diagnosed with AML.

She was diagnosed a few weeks shy of graduating high school and a few months before heading off to the University of Washington to study medicine. Her school and community rallied and held a full graduation ceremony for Hanna right after her diagnosis. After treatment she will enter UW in 2020. The preferred treatment for AML is a bone marrow transplant, or if a donor can’t be found as in Hanna’s case, an umbilical cord-blood stem cell transplant.

Recently with the progression of treatment, Hanna’s hair began to thin and fall out, and she knew from past experience that it was time to take matters into her own hands. So her hair cutting party was arranged.

As both young women shaved their heads, words of encouragement poured in from “her team” and from friends in the room and on Live Stream. Hanna and Malissa laughed and encouraged each other as they shaved off their hair. Strong and bold, they both look great with their super short hair!

And as I witnessed all this from my kitchen on my phone, it struck me that support for Hanna’s hair cutting party came from her mom, Kelly, who is her constant advocate, and from her team of hospital care givers who made posters, provided music, shared inspirational pictures, and brought along supplies. And her team was present to provide physical, emotional, mental support in this critical moment. They are part of an extensive oncology team at Seattle Children’s Hospital doing all they can to bring Hanna world-class medical treatment AND world-class human treatment.

This glimpse into Hanna’s world provides one example of real human work that machines can’t do. Machines, even smart ones, can’t build meaningful relationships with a young patient. Machines can’t respond with sensitivity and awareness, or gather just the right items, or letter the perfect poster. Machines can’t show up with just the right mix of support and fun in just the way Hanna personally needed it, like Hanna’s team did. No machine can do all that; only humans can.

That is human work and it requires something special: Essential Human Skills.


I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of work. I am awed and fascinated by the technical breakthroughs in the application of artificial intelligence to be sure. And I am equally anxious and sometimes disturbed as I wonder about the place of humanity in this new world, with my children and grandchildren ever present in my mind. What priorities will guide what will be valued, what gets funded, who will be needed, how we will spend our time, how we will make a living, what world view will be normalized? And what unintended consequences will we face?

Three Eras

I found it useful recently to consider the ideas of Rita Gunther McGrath of Columbia Business School, who described the evolution of management science since the Industrial Revolution in her Harvard Business Review article, “Management’s Three Era’s: A Brief History.

Here’s a speedy reminder of where we’ve been in the world of work.

First, with the Industrial Revolution’s division of labor and scale-ability, came what she terms the Era of Execution focused on coordination and optimization. The works of Taylor, Gantt, and the Galbreth’s typify this period. The metaphor of the organization as a machine took hold. With this came command-and-control style leadership, “just do your job and don’t ask questions” edicts, and workers-as-replaceable-parts in the machine. Sound familiar? That’s because this mechanistic way of seeing the world still dominate how we think about work - and workers - to this day.

Next, according to Gunther McGrath, we entered the Era of Expertise with reliance on scientific problem solving, mathematical insights, operations management, and organizational gurus. Eventually those gurus came to see that workers could actually use information not just physical materials and parts to create value. Seems funny now that this was a new idea but it was a revelation at the time.

With knowledge work and the advent of computing I find it interesting to consider the rise of the metaphor of organization as a network, interconnected, less hierarchical, sharing information, but still ultimately mechanistic in its make-up of hubs, switches, bridges, routers, gateways, CSUs, DSUs, NICs, WAPs, and ISDN adapters. The network metaphor essentially still sees an organization as mechanistic, made up of a more modern set of connected machines perhaps, but mechanistic nonetheless.

The third era Gunter McGrath describes counterbalances the first two: The Era of Empathy. The focus of the Era of Empathy is on “creating complete and meaningful experiences” for customers yes, but also for employees. And with this, Gunther McGrath advocates, comes a change in the employment contract. What we agree to when we come to work is not to be a machine or a cog but fully human and a valued contributor to the workplace. Others agree. Metaphors in the Era of Empathy compare an organization to a living organism, or to a conversation, an analogy offered by Anthony L. Suchman, MD, in the journal Medical Care, which provides a very different and decidedly more human way of thinking about what it means to work, decide, learn, have conflict, change, compete, etc.

On Hanna’s live stream hair cutting party, the oncology team members were part of creating a complete and meaningful experience for Hanna, sensitive to her situation. And their employer, Seattle Children’s, supported those team members to bring their humanity to their work in this way. It is part of what makes that place special and filled with excellent care-givers.

Say it with me, “Essential Human Skills!”

In this rising Era of Empathy, our humanity will no longer be merely tolerated at best or if we are lucky seen as a nice-to-have, but instead human abilities will be universally valued by leaders, teams, organizations, and society.  In this Era of Empathy, Essential Human Skills will be highly sought after, seen as essential, and considered to be a competitive advantage.

Please note that I did not say “soft skills.” We need to stop calling them “soft skills.” That language is derisive and diminishing of their true power and value. Instead we need to call them what they are:

Essential Human Skills.

In the Era of Empathy, organizations will seek out those with Essential Human Skills… 

Those who are skilled at communicating will be highly valuable. Listening to understand customers’ stories and actively responding so they feel heard, forging shared meaning on a team, and interacting with awareness and nuance in a multitude of human moments, these skills will be of great value.

And so far, machines can’t do that.

Those who are skilled at collaborating will be highly valued. Creating trust, developing relationships, cultivating self-efficacy, fostering learning, and pointing to a higher purpose, these skills will be of great value.

And so far, machines can’t do that.

Those who are skilled at care, at showing compassion, kindness, love, and appreciation will be highly valued. When customers have specific needs, when colleagues face a personal challenge or are emotionally shaken, those who don’t shrink back but are able to create a supportive environment, those people with these skills will be of great value.

And so far, machines can’t do that.

Those who are skilled at fostering psychological safety, a term and area of study first coined by Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson to refer to group members feeling safe in the group for interpersonal risk-taking will be highly valued. Those who through a sense of acceptance and belonging make it safe for others to speak up, point out problems, and offer ideas, those who are inclusive and welcome diverse views, backgrounds, experiences, and cultures will be highly valued.

And so far, machines can’t do that.

Those who are skilled at creating, who find inspiration in making unexpected connections that form new options will be highly valued. When a team is stuck, when old methods are wearing thin, when new solutions are needed, when whimsy or play are called for, those who can bring forth new experiences or options in unexpected,healing, and innovative ways will be of great value.

And so far, machines can’t do that.

In truth, all these skills are valuable today, as recent research and our own experiences bear out. And the more we understand our essential human needs, the more we can prioritize these in our society, both in the products and services we offer, and expect, and in how we work together.  

In the book, “A General Theory of Love” authors, Doctors Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, describe the critical importance of being in “limbic connection” with other humans to ensure our neuro-physiological well-being and stability. The limbic center is the part of our brain that allows us to create attachments necessary not only to flourish but to survive. The authors remind us that we cannot be stable on our own; we need each other to be healthy and well. Other studies demonstrate the impact of positive social connections and positive human interactions on our wellness and performance too.

When we understand how essential positive human connections and interactions are, we will prize the ability to create them, and Essential Human Skills will be valued for what they are: The work of skilled professionals, to be highly prized, sought after, cultivated, celebrated, paid, and rewarded.

And as we are freed up from the work that machines can do for us, we can concentrate on the human work that is only ours to do. We can care for the needs and interests of people using Essential Human Skills to do distinctly human work in truly human workplaces.  

That is the future of work.


Tagged: future, work, healthcare, cancer, human-centered, empathy