Kate O’Neill has a knack for being ahead of the curve. Long before “hybrid work” entered the business lexicon, she wrote Pixels and Place, a book about connecting human experience across physical and digital spaces. As an early employee at Netflix, she developed e-commerce practices with her team that became industry standard, helping to shape the way people interact with brands over digital platforms. Today her consultancy KO Insights advises business leaders and their teams on how to take a human-centric approach to digital transformation.
Here, O’Neill talks strategic optimism, a more balanced approach to work travel, and the emerging technologies that excite her most.
WorkLab: In your latest book, A Future So Bright, you make the case for strategic optimism in the face of an uncertain future. What keeps you optimistic?
O’Neill: My optimism is around the rise of hybrid and remote work and how it has shifted our focus to meaningful work for employees—and to new ways of measuring that. If we get this right, work is not only more fulfilling for people, but also more productive for companies. I think businesses are struggling a little with how to realize that right now, but we’ve got a really good chance of establishing work norms that benefit all parties.
What do you attribute that struggle to?
I know that Microsoft has been talking about productivity paranoia and people not being in sync about coming back into offices.
It’s very reminiscent of the dilemma: How do you manage productivity when it comes to things like writing or writing code? This has been such a long-standing thing in the 25 years I've worked in tech—the developers that I worked with were always railing against being measured by lines of code. Because obviously, many of the most elegant programming solutions are shorter, not longer. It takes being able to have a little space and concentration to come up with those more elegant solutions.
Right, productivity paranoia refers to the idea that leaders fear employees aren’t working enough, even though all signs point to people working more than ever. How can leaders overcome this?
It’s important to have honest and transparent communication about what people are up against right now, and what they’re valuing. I think if we fail to have those conversations it won’t be possible to build cultures where team members feel supported—like they’re making headway on something that’s meaningful to them.
“How do you manage productivity when it comes to things like writing code? The developers that I worked with were always railing against being measured that way.”
But also, leaders need to involve employees in communication around how we bring people back to the office. What I see as a best practice right now is having a very candid conversation with employees and saying, “Look, there’s a lot of nuanced and intangible value that comes from having people in person together, and we really want to get that benefit. But we understand that there’s a lot of convenience and comfort to being able to work from home or remotely. So how can we bridge that gap? What are some of the ways that we can go about trying to accomplish both of those objectives?”
A lot of companies are adopting Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) to align employees on priorities and empower people to do their most impactful work. Recently at Microsoft we’ve embraced “NoKRs”—the work we won’t do so we can stay focused on what matters most. What are your current “NoKRs?”
Travel has become a different animal than it was in 2018 or 2019. When I’m on the road, I’ve conceded that I can’t be a productivity machine. I use my out-of-office notifications to set the expectation that I won’t be responding immediately unless the topic is critical. And it has been a good opportunity for me to recalibrate with my team on priorities more broadly. Some of our content plans or business strategies may have been too aggressive, so we’re adjusting and reprioritizing in response to the current business environment. Ideally we’d always be doing that, but sometimes we allow new work to come in and just stress us out instead of thinking critically about what matters most.
“On workshop floors or in warehouses, augmented reality would provide guidance on wires to avoid or give nudges of best practices to avoid dangerous situations.”
Okay, let’s talk technology. What emerging innovation is most compelling to you right now?
Augmented reality. I see it as transformative on every level. The idea of being able to present just-in-time information that’s contextually relevant and doesn't remove you from your environment opens up tremendous opportunity for augmenting the human experience.
What impact do you think augmented reality will have on business in the future?
The most immediate transformation would be the use of AR technology in healthcare. Augmented reality tools could be great learning aids for medical students or even provide additional insights for a surgeon during an operation with heads-up displays that share patients’ vital signs. You could also imagine the transformation that mechanics or electricians could see in their daily activities with AR technology. On workshop floors or in warehouses where safety is a critical issue, AR would provide guidance on wires to avoid or give nudges of best practices to prevent dangerous situations.
Knowledge workers would be able to benefit from AR too. The implementations range from scientists exploring new concepts in virtual environments to TV correspondents getting just-in-time insights. Maybe that’s providing news anchors with heads-up displays or audio cues that could prompt them to ask interview questions that have worked in the past or provide them with further context on a topic of discussion as it happens live.
Okay, let’s come back to the present. Share one key step that leaders can take right now to help people and organizations navigate the future of work.
I think the most important step leaders need to take is to focus on the reset of the employee-employer relationship. Take this opportunity to create environments that are more reflective of a wholly transparent and wholly human work culture. Leaders who embrace all the change and uncertainty we are collectively facing—and use it as an opportunity to realign on the human needs of workers and codify healthy work habits—will be well-positioned to guide their organizations into the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.