Posted: 11 Jan. 2021 25 min. read

The Future of Work: How corporations can create human-centered transformations

Interview with Steve Hatfield, Principal and Global Future of Work Leader, Deloitte LLP

As part of a two-part series, Humanity in Tech Fellow Kaiwen Zhong interviewed Steve Hatfield, Principal and Global Future of Work Leader at Deloitte, on the topic of the Future of Work and human-centered transformations.

As a self-described “Corporate Anthropologist,” Steve was one of the pioneers of what we now call “Future of Work.” He believes that the Future of Work has transitioned from a business strategy to social responsibility, a responsibility that requires all stakeholders in society to create and shape work in a way that is meaningful and that prioritizes human welfare.

In our conversation, we spoke to Steve about an ever-flexible workforce, what the COVID-19 pandemic means for workplace trends, and the kinds of approaches organizations must take to embrace technological progress while adding greater human value to society.

Steve shared that the most effective corporations undergoing Future of Work transformations are taking a human-centered approach. Instead of focusing on using automation for substitution, they are focusing on augmenting humans and embracing the “art of the possible”. We discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic provides a lens into the future, even for organizations that have not traditionally embraced digital technology, and continues to push organizations to rethink how to leverage the Future of Work to ensure humans thrive in the long-term.

As the Global Future of Work Leader at Deloitte, Steve has advised global organizations on how technology transforms work for more than twenty years. As a thought leader in the field, Steve was one of the pioneers of what we now call the “Future of Work.” He is an expert and advocates for the Future of Work as an opportunity for organizations to provide more meaningful work to their employees. He is part of the team at Deloitte that has published the largest and longest-running longitudinal report on human capital trends, surveying over 110,000 people across 120 countries. He is a regular speaker worldwide on the topics of innovation, disruption, and workforce transformation, including recent presentations at SXSW, Singularity University’s Global Summit, and the New Profit Venture Fund Gathering of Leaders. A former member of the Peace Corps, Steve has a Master’s in Social Change & Development from Johns Hopkins and an MBA from Wharton.

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As a corporate anthropologist, I look into how a corporations function and how that evolves over time due to technology.

Kaiwen Zhong: I’m here today with Steve Hatfield, Deloitte’s Global Future of Work Leader. Can you share a bit about what has inspired you, especially in the last few years, to be involved in the Future of the Work?

Steve Hatfield: My interest in this topic area goes way back. Out of undergrad, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali in West Africa, serving as one of the first Small Enterprise Development volunteers in rural Mali, helping farmers with their businesses. At the time, Mali was consistently among the bottom five countries in terms of any human development index, and to help them, I had to study how they thought about their economy, about work itself. I really ‘caught the bug’, if you will, became passionate about the anthropology of how economies work—what it means for entrepreneurs, for farmers, for everyone.

It became a real fascination for me. After my Peace Corps service, I attended a joint program at Johns Hopkins SAIS and Wharton, studying the anthropology and sociology of economic change and business. In some ways, I really did become a corporate anthropologist. Fast forward to today, in consulting, I’m taking a similar anthropological approach to understand how corporations function and how technology contributes to their evolution.

I started my career at a time when even the internet was new. At the time, there were 36 million people using the internet and businesses were trying to figure out the internet could be useful for gaining access to new customers.

One of the companies I worked with was a large financial institution. My role on the project was not just creating the digital strategy, but also helping their workforce—25,000 financial advisors and front office staff—get excited about the internet. In 1996, people thought of the internet as a thing kids used to play video games—not a critical business opportunity. During the project, I had to bring in anthropology to help them see what was coming and that became, in many respects, exemplary of the kinds of things I have done since.

After I became a partner at Deloitte in 2006, I was still practicing in this area of how technology can transform work. We started a “Human Capital Trends Report” in 2010 and, ten years later, we continue to publish this report as the largest and longest-running longitudinal study of its kind. Over 110,000 people have participated in it across 120 countries in the last 10 years. Half of the participants are in HR and the other half are in other functions, so it represents a very comprehensive perspective on the changing trends.

In 2016, through this survey, we identified several trends we consider today as the “Future of Work.” I remember writing one of the first chapters on “man and machine” back then and being among the first to describe the Future of Work to the market. We decided to formally launch our Future of Work initiative in 2017, and I was asked to take on the role of global leaders in 2018. As I entered the role, my first thought, “what is the Future of Work? Is it a practice group? An offering?” As I explored and understood more of what was happening in the market, I began to think of it more as a movement—a movement that garners voices across our society to think about what the Future of Work could be, and to push ourselves to create more meaningful work for everyone.

Admittedly, transitions in technology and the market can create disruptions in society. There are ways to look at the Future of Work in narrow terms. Oxford came out with a report around 2013 that said 47% of the global jobs will be gone by 2023. Many latched on to this.

However, we know that you cannot hold back progress. You need to shape what is happening to drive the outcomes you want. With that in mind, the Future of Work became about helping organizations understand what is happening around them and how it is creating new imperatives for their business. The changes and disruptions became a storyline for us to demonstrate the broader landscape of why these transitions are taking place.

Therefore, the Future of Work went from a business strategy to also become a social responsibility—creating a preferred future—and I am very driven by the fact.

We’ve been investing more in technology in the last decade than any time before and yet our productivity levels globally are going down. I personally believe it’s because we’re not spending enough time thinking about humans.

Kaiwen Zhong: Some companies have been more successful in adapting to the future of work. What are the traits within an organization that has successfully created meaningful work and provided opportunities for growth for its employees?

Steve Hatfield: Amongst the companies that are thinking about the Future of Work, there are different ways that they are approaching it. If you approach technologies as a way to be more efficient and reduce cost, then you are likely only going to focus on substitution and replacing jobs. So often today, unfortunately, organizations are jumping to automation, rather than taking a step back and saying, these technologies can truly help us work differently.

Automation only means that you are not actually bringing the “art of the possible” to the table. If you approach technologies as a way to create more value, you get very different outcomes.

This is where the anthropologist in me kicks in. We were mostly agrarian or artisanal societies before the Industrial Revolution. Then the progression of the Industrial Revolutions quickly and swiftly shifted organizational systems. The first and second Industrial Revolutions, it was about mass production and efficiency. On a production line, all one person does is the same thing over and over all day. It was not geared to an environment where you own the final outcome from start to finish.

Now we are at a point where the World Economic Forum has coined the term “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. This is where the cyber and physical worlds come together, and the artisanal dimension of things is resurging. People now work on teams, connected through technology, to create, design, and produce, owning an outcome from start to finish.

For organizations that are thriving within the Future of Work, they are able to create a sense of venture in the workplace. They focus on meaning while providing people with guidance to enable them to drive new outcomes. We also see organizations that are less hierarchical and more adaptable in their structure doing better in the trendline because they deploy and redeploy more rapidly across different parts of the organization. They also do better at attracting the right level of talent. These are the ones that are succeeding.

On the contrary, companies that are focusing only on automation are not doing well in the trendline. We’ve been investing more in technology in the last decade than any time before and yet our productivity levels globally are going down. I personally believe that’s because we’re not spending enough time thinking about humans.

I think what’s transpired is that the COVID-19 pandemic is what is possible in both elevating the needs of the human and the application of technology.

Kaiwen Zhong: In one of your interviews, you mentioned that “physical connectivity will become less relevant. Flexibility and a hyperconnected workplace are key aspects of the Future of Work. With the COVID-19 pandemic, this is happening sooner than most of us are expecting. What do you see are the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Future of Work?

Steve Hatfield: I remember a quote by Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America Foundation and a Princeton economist: “The coronavirus, and its economic and social fallout, is a time machine into the future.” 1 It is true that the trendlines we thought were going to happen across the decades are now happening in the span of weeks.

The critical thing about the COVID-19 pandemic is there is a demonstration effect. For example, just the way we’re interacting right now, just the opportunity that you and I have to do this interview online—it would have been much more logistically difficult in a pre-COVID time.

For business leaders, the pandemic demonstrates that they have many different options on how to deliver on their business outcomes, for example bringing on alternative talent. This type of talent is extremely good at providing specific expertise, delivering a targeted outcome. They are paid by what they accomplish and, for knowledge workers, are very facile working virtually on digital platforms. I think what’s transpired is that the COVID-19 pandemic has created a mindset shift for the “art of the possible.”

The pandemic also revealed the parts of our economy that will not work. It has shown that companies that are further along in their digital transformation journey can adapt to a virtual team-based work style more easily. Even if people are on a physical production line, organizations have been using digital technologies to have less on the line, managing the line remotely and connected via digital platforms. One organization used digital technologies to take better advantage of the brainpower of their people connecting them across dispersed places to fix a problem on a physical machine, with most of them remote from the machine. Organizations that are already on this journey, exploring examples like this, tend to have an easier time scaling across their organization while maintaining productivity.

Therefore, organizations are now asking the question: “what is that next to normal?” Pre-COVID, some organizations were already experimenting with these ideas. Working remotely was a perk. Now, these ideas have proliferated in order to maintain health and safety. And we’re not going to go back to what once was.

So often today, unfortunately, organizations are automating processes rather than taking a step back and asking, how they work differently because of these technologies.

Kaiwen Zhong: For organizations that are increasingly moving towards a remote and digitally connected environment, how do you think they can maintain a coherent culture in this environment?

Steve Hatfield: This is a critical question. Many organizations that are thinking about it correctly are worried about the culture, but the word “culture” requires some clarification—are you talking about connection? Innovation? Leadership? Productivity? All of the above?

Many aspects of culture can be facilitated in the digital world. In terms of human connection, people can build strong connections in a digital environment. For example, we are learning more about each other and building deeper relationships thanks to having to be more authentic working remotely, as our home lives and work lives blend together. Now, I have a little bit of insight into your home as you have in mind. People’s kids or dogs start showing up on calls, creating a whole new dynamic. In many ways, this drives a tighter connection.

Some mentioned that they miss the serendipitous interactions in a physical office—both for human connection and innovation. Though hard to fully replace—we are social animals and work is a social environment—it is, however, possible to use AI toolkits to support this. They can sort through information generated between different teams on the organization’s knowledge management system, connect the dots across a vast network of teams, to nudge teams to connect in lieu of this serendipity.

In terms of productivity, it is possible to organize the work on these toolkits in a way that is actually more productive. A Stanford study 2 showed that people are 13% more productive in a remote environment. A remote work environment requires though that team leaders organize work in a way that works for the team. Additionally, automation might replace the parts of the work that are repetitive and focus everybody on the parts that are more fun, create more value, and are meant for individuals.

On the flip side, what does remote work mean in terms of the psychological toll? What about work-life balance? When companies are able to clarify what they mean by “culture,” some solutions become evident. For example, many companies have begun to elevate the importance of wellness and building that into work. Teams are doing online yoga classes, or becoming more aware of the issues emerging from exhaustion working on Zoom, and sharing solutions to reorganize work accordingly.

For organizations that are thriving with the Future of Work, they are able to create a sense of venture in the workplaceThey focus on meaning while providing people with guidance to enable them to drive new outcomes.

Kaiwen Zhong: As you have conversations with business leaders around the Future of Work, how has the rise of machines and the increasing relevance of human happiness impact decision-making in organizations?

Steve Hatfield: There are a few different things to consider here. First, many organizations have shifted the way they operate to be more like a “social enterprise”—a phrase we at Deloitte coined in our Trends report three years ago. The World Economic Forum called it “stakeholder capitalism” this past January at Davos. We see that the power of the individual has increased thanks to social media. Employees take to social media to protest and push organizations to address societal gaps in the way they conduct their business.

As the power of individuals emerges, many organizations are investing heavily to re-skill their workforce and their communities. For example, a large financial institution we work with is investing $350 million over the next five years in the Future of Work 3. Their investment aims to support community colleges with strategic planning and organizing for the future. They are also working with the National Skills Coalition to help those who are left behind to gain the knowledge and skills for success.

This trend was further cemented by the pandemic as organizations started to pay more attention to their workforce’s health and safety. Corporations have to actively prioritize human welfare as a way to ensure that they as an organization survive this period and thrive in the long term.

Corporations have to actively prioritize human welfare as a way to ensure that they as an organization survive this period and thrive in the long term.


1 Slaughter, A. (2020) Forget the Trump Administration. America Will Save America. The New York Times

2 Bloom, N., Liang, J., Roberts, J., & Ying, Z. (2014). Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Environment. The Quarterly Journal of Economics (2015), 165–218. doi:10.1093/qje/qju032.

3 Horowitz, J.(2019). JPMorgan Chase is investing $350 million to get workers ready for the future, CNN Business

 This article originally appeared in Humanity in Tech. Humanity in Tech (HiT) powers vital conversations on the future of technology and society. They explore and empower humane leadership in the age of tech, so no human is left behind. They are a global civic project that is part of the Global Shapers Community of the World Economic Forum.