Summer 2021
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CTDO Magazine

See Where Workplace Paths Lead

Thursday, July 15, 2021

As companies and employees emerge from the pandemic, CTDOs need to watch for where stakeholders are guiding the cultural norms and return to work.

In 2017, when I first became the chief learning officer at Visa, I had the opportunity to participate in the Learning Innovation Laboratory (LILA) at Harvard University. Each year, the LILA team picks a year-long topic based on member input, and the theme that year was “Engaging Emergence: Shaping the Future as It Unfolds.”


I confess I found the theme a bit esoteric. However, little did I realize how prescient the findings from that experience would be for considering how to plan for a postpandemic workplace.


Think of emergence as the way complex systems interact and respond to changing circumstances as a collective, differently than could be predicted from the sum of the parts. From my back porch, I can see this in the way flocks of geese respond to an unexpected sound; how the bees hive inside my old cottonwood trees; or how certain plants adapt and thrive in my garden, evolving in ways I didn’t plan. You can see why I found the topic a bit arcane and puzzling when trying to consider how to apply it pragmatically in my workplace.

But now consider what an incredibly transformative time we live in. As LILA stated in its 2017 year-end research summary, it’s “one where old paradigms no longer help us solve the challenges we face and where new ways have not fully evolved.”

Tempting as it may be to think our future workplace will merely be an extension of the past, we are all emerging from a once-in-a-century pandemic. The social injustice awareness during this same period also informs who we want to be, not only as individuals but as just organizations. Assuredly, these events profoundly affect how we consider the work we are re-emerging into.

According to the science of emergence, what leaders and those of us in chief talent development roles can count on is that new synergies will create unpredictable reactions, not just minor changes. Think of the decades we’ve attempted to convince stakeholders that virtual learning was viable and, further, the near overnight acceptance for virtual solutions.

Paradoxically, by knowing a bit about emergence, we can answer the question: What can we do as practitioners to predict and prepare our organizations for that uncertain, near future?

Seeing the future

Imagine how disconcerting it will be for leaders when even the fundamental tenets of corporate purpose shift. In August 2019, the Business Roundtable significantly revised its statement of the purpose of the corporation, shifting from shareholder primacy to leading for the benefit of customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders.

Our ways of working have fractured deeply, yet also have exposed fresh possibilities and new collegial connections—from watching a colleague’s cat prance in front of the camera during a videoconference meeting to forming new bonds as a result of exposure to a co-worker as a whole person, interrupting children and all.

Nonetheless, it is possible to speculate on the future of the workplace so we as CTDOs can plan accordingly. The caveat is that despite predictions, what lies ahead will be unpredictably different. It will emerge and appear for us.

Different techniques enable us to step back to look at paths already forming. Putting on that lens, here are a few emerging trends or cycles we can prepare for.

Facilities will change dramatically to serve the purpose of collaboration and almost nothing else. In the 2010 book The 2020 Workplace, Jeanne Meister and I present 20 predictions and some possible wild cards, including that a pandemic or natural disaster would forever change how organizations use facilities. That prediction has indeed come true.

Across organizations, employees have now experienced collectively that work can be done remotely. Why go into work to sit at a desk unless it is to escape a chaotic household environment or to collaborate with others?

Our brick-and-mortar classrooms and corporate university facilities will need to shift to not only serve a more collaborative approach to learning but to embrace other collaborative functions with shared facility requirements, such as innovation centers.

Company cultures that don’t emerge will lose talent. For more than a year, organizations and learning institutions have shown that remote work is sustainable and maintains or even increases productivity. Those companies that are just waiting for the day when everything goes back to business as usual will lose a certain amount of talent who prefer frequent or full-time remote work.

Some employers are already establishing new “work anywhere” norms, yet others value in-person collaboration and are reluctant to change. That collaboration may be a real business imperative, but there will be some people who, for personal lifestyle choices, will elect to depart to find a more flexible workplace. For the CTDO, determining how and what learning requires being in person will set a cultural tone as well.

A new flexible workforce will lead to growth of internal opportunity marketplaces for talent. At Visa, a positive result of working remotely is that the company has been able to commission more project-based, cross-functional teams to address specific growth initiatives. Anyone in the organization can apply for these six- to eight-week project assignments, and up to 50 teams at a time are in motion.

According to a Deloitte/MIT Sloan study, “One of the surest ways for leaders to create better opportunities for their organizations is to create better opportunities for their people.” New technology offerings are emerging to support these opportunity marketplaces, providing evidence that this trend will continue.

There will be a spike in attrition and job changes. Voluntary job changes slowed with the pandemic. Fast Company reported in February that 59 percent of middle-income workers are contemplating changing jobs. The implications will go beyond just replacement hiring and onboarding, because those who stay will be burdened with the mentoring and temporary workload adjustments.

Short hiring cycles and onboarding to reduce time to productivity will be increasingly important. An emphasis on retention strategies beyond compensation will be key for us talent development executives.

Companies will increase the trend of taking positions on social issues. As a result, people will seek to align with companies whose values and purpose align with their own.

Having a purpose-driven brand will be vital to attracting and retaining employees. For talent and learning organizations, embedding purpose in everything from onboarding to leadership development will be an imperative. Using human-centered design principles in our processes and programs will validate purpose beyond those of just shareholders.

Preparing for the unknown

Assuming at least some of the above trends play out, we must prepare for the workplace re-emergence. Here are some tips for doing so.

Plan for emergence. To say it a different way, anticipate that any plans you make for the return to the office will change. Name the initial plans as version 1.0, as one MIT Sloan Management Review article recommends, setting an expectation that new norms will evolve and that the organization will adapt as needed. Leaders, including CTDOs, need to imagine a new collaboration space.


Visa University has a Project Hogwarts in the works to reimagine the classroom of the future. The talent development team believes that when it has the opportunity to engage with learners in a physical space, it will do so to leverage interactions among participants—not primarily with the instructor.

Virtual learning works for many topics, and we do not need to unwind what we’ve discovered is effective. At the same time, workplaces and corporate classrooms will need to evolve to serve new purposes and to be more inclusive.

For those who can’t travel to the classroom, how can you design space and technology to involve and include those who can’t be physically present?

Prepare leaders. As psychologist and author Adam Grant has written, many people are in a languishing state, somewhere on the spectrum between depression and thriving. Perhaps the leadership challenge of a generation is yet to come—re-energizing and re-engaging our workforce now and as employees return to the office.

McKinsey describes the need for leaders to convey empathy about the grief individuals have experienced, move beyond with bounded optimism, and provide hope about a future that is better than before. One of Grant’s solutions for individuals is to set small goals with a just-manageable difficulty level. At the team or organizational level, leverage the power of small wins to mark and communicate progress.

Connecting the company’s purpose to people’s work is another leadership imperative, because purpose-driven brands outperform their competitors. Embrace preparing leaders for this challenge, and give them tools such as communication playbooks, management effectiveness reminders, or focused training to lead even when they themselves may be languishing.

Watch for the desire paths. Despite urban planners’ best designs, people have always bypassed the prescribed walking paths in favor of convenient or expedient shortcuts to arrive more easily at their destination.

Desire paths are the routes walkers use as the most convenient path to their destination, regardless of a formal, paved infrastructure. Broadway in Manhattan, for example, was originally a desire path that Native Americans used to navigate between hills.

As people return to work, the old ways of working will morph and change, developing into new cultural norms. Anticipating change, we can do as some urban planners have done and watch how people move between buildings before literally paving them with stone.

How and when do people use our facilities? How and when do they choose live classrooms over continued use of digital and virtual modes? How and where do they collaborate? If we watch the desire paths emerge, we can plan our offerings accordingly.

Here’s my recommendation for fellow CTDOs: Supercharge your powers of observation as the work world re-emerges. Given a choice, and circumstances allowing, go back to the office early so you can see what the emerging patterns and paths are.

Leaders have a role in shaping the future—but not the exclusive role. When stakeholders—whether employees, customers, or partners—set a desire path, we must be there to stabilize that path or offer a valuable alternative.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Karie Willyerd is the senior vice president and chief learning officer for Visa globally. She was formerly head of SAP’s Global Education business unit and was the Workplace Futurist at SuccessFactors, an SAP human capital software company. Prior to that, she was the cofounder and CEO of Jambok, the industry’s first video-based informal social learning software platform, which was acquired by SuccessFactors in 2011. Willyerd served as the chief learning officer for Sun Microsystems, and in that role, she was responsible for employee, customer, partner, and Sun community learning. The Association for Talent Development named Sun the number 1 BEST learning function in the world.

Willyerd is the coauthor of the award-winning bestseller, The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop & Keep Tomorrow’s Employees Today. She is a regular blogger for Harvard Business, coauthored a feature article on Mentoring Millennials in Harvard Business Review, and has authored dozens of other articles or publications.

In prior roles, she was a chief talent officer for Solectron (now Flextronics), led the people development function at Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems, and ran executive development at H.J. Heinz. Willyerd holds a bachelor’s degree from Texas Christian University, a master’s degree in instructional and performance technology from Boise State University, and a doctorate in management from Case Western Reserve University. She serves on the global leadership council for the business school at Colorado State University. Additionally she serves on the board of City Year, San Jose supporting the young leaders who are making remarkable changes in high school dropout rates. Her newest book is Stretch: How to Future Proof Yourself for Tomorrow’s Workplace, which was selected as an Amazon Editor’s Pick in Business and Leadership in 2016. ATD honored Willyerd with the Distinguished Contribution to Talent Development Award in 2017.

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