With Itxaso del Palacio, Paul Papadimitriou and Alicia Navarro
At our last Notion Now event we discussed the future of technology and, as part of the afternoon, Notion Partner Itxaso del Palacio looked at the tech trends impacting the future of work, life, health and ageing. Itxaso was joined for the discussion by Alicia Navarro, Founder and CEO at Flown, and Paul Papadimitriou, an adviser, strategist and futurist thinker. Here are some of the highlights and key talking points of that discussion.
Topic 1: How health and wellness can impact the employee-employer dynamic
Itxaso: The wellness industry today is around $3 trillion. It’s a trend that came about from wearables and tracking devices, or meditation tools such as Calm and Headspace, which were much more in the consumer space. However, it’s an area that’s becoming increasingly popular in the B2B space. For example, Notion has invested in YuLife, a preventative life insurance company that helps employees live longer and healthier lives through incentives for activities such as walking and practicing mindfulness.
Paul: In many ways being fit is the new ‘being rich’. If you look at trends in Silicon Valley over the last few years employers are increasingly offering health and wellness packages, which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, companies have been trying to repackage some existing consumer products into benefits for their employees, and this is likely to continue after the pandemic.
One interesting company here is Peppy, which gives female employees access to specialist support for major life transitions, such as menopause, fertility or parenthood. However, instead of directing it to the consumer, they offer it to businesses who can then offer it as an employee benefit.
Alicia: When looking at health and wellness in the workplace, there are two main topics to discuss. Firstly, there’s increasing competition for employees, so many companies are desperately looking for ways to attract and retain top talent. This can be especially difficult when hiring for tech heads because you've got the likes of Facebook and Google snapping up all the top talent at rates that most companies can't compete with. Historically, the thing that allowed you to differentiate yourself from the giants was a cosy, convivial, collegial environment in an office. But, if you no longer have that as a potential asset to attract and retain talent, and if you're just going to be hiring people who are going to be sitting by themselves, you need to think of ways to make yourself stand out.
Consequently, a lot of companies are looking for other ways that allow them to enrich their offering to attract and retain talent, which can mean looking at more creative ways to embellish their benefits package. That's going to become an even bigger driver in this post-COVID world, as many companies are now going to be becoming either partially or fully remote.
Secondly, the other big driver is what’s known as the Brené Brown effect. Brené talks about the benefits of being really open about your mental health and wellbeing. It's just a lot more acceptable to talk about your mental health in a way that really wasn't the norm, especially in a corporate environment, even five years ago. Now there’s this very active discussion about mental health in the office, so companies have an incentive to address it in these very creative ways.
Also, as an employer, it’s hard being the leader of a company and dealing with a distributed team- a lot of them are very young and struggling with being by themselves. A lot of my time is spent thinking about how to make them engaged. How do I make them feel healthy and well?
Trend 2: Tools that are changing our personal and professional lives
Itxaso: Our personal lives and professional lives are becoming increasingly intertwined; we’re using the same tools in both aspects of our lives. There are productivity tools such as Trello or Asana that we use in our work environment. But who hasn’t thought ‘okay, I could definitely use Trello to organise my wedding’. So, is the blurring boundary between work and personal lives increasing the consumerization of business tools? I think there is a lot more potential for many B2B or B2C companies to move from one side to another.
Alicia: There are three tools that have completely changed mine and my business’s life: Notion, Zapier and Airtable. At my company, Flown, we run our entire business on Notion; it’s our Wiki, document management, database and drafting system. Now I also use it in my personal life.
Once you realise the power of these no code solutions, you realise how tasks that you normally would have done in a very manual way can actually be made tremendously easy. Even for very non-technical people, they can set up sophisticated automations in their life. It's quite incredible how much can be achieved for quite a low amount of money using these solutions. I'm very curious how that's going to impact not just businesses, but people's lives. These tools will automate people’s lives in ways they’ve never contemplated because who hires a developer to build an app for organising their personal life?
Paul: I believe that tools and more flexible working are how you can keep employees engaged. An example is Happyforce, who do real time measurements to help the company's leaders see whether their employees are happy. It’s the same idea as the employee engagement surveys that you get once every four months, but the downfall with these surveys is that there’s always a lag and people are not always honest because they’re afraid of repercussions. This kind of engagement becomes even more important when people are working remotely because, when you’re not seeing them face-to-face everyday, can you see if they’re really happy, or is it just a face on Zoom? There are big opportunities with these tools to see if employees are totally engaged and happy.
Trend 3: There’s not just an ageing population to consider but also the growing number of people that are single, or who choose not to have children.
Itxaso: An ageing population is increasingly becoming a priority for many companies for two key reasons. Firstly, birth ratios are going down and people are living longer. Secondly, people want to live a longer and healthier life and are willing to spend money to be able to do that. Companies are able to tap into this and offer relevant services and benefits to their employees. We previously touched on Peppy, which allows employees to go through IVF or access services to help them through the menopause and companies are paying for their employees to get access to this - they’re tapping into the trend that employees are increasingly conscious about their health.
On top of this, there are companies being set up to help care homes of carers manage their businesses and more offices are improving accessibility and mobility - employees increasingly want to be somewhere that’s not just a work space but somewhere they can feel comfortable in, especially if they have any difficulty with mobility.
Paul: Obviously people are living longer and the most prime example of this is in Japan. I used to live in Tokyo and you see that the society itself is designed to accommodate the elderly. For example, the bullet trains are very big with lots of handles and accessibility everywhere.
Looking at this through a company’s lense again, their customers are ageing. At the same time, companies won’t just have older employees or talent, they’ll also have employees who need to look after elderly relatives. Previously, companies have always had to consider childcare for their employees, but now there’s this new dynamic of elderly care they’ll also need to consider. Numbers say that by 2030 we're going to go from around seven young people being able to take care of the elderly to about four people - this will create some new societal challenges, making a case for flexibility into work.
On a more technological side, there are now robots that can act as companions for the elderly and can also help them to deal with Alzheimer’s and dementia - it’s important to keep people suffering with these horrible diseases active, not only physically, but also psychologically by companionship, or talking.
There's a huge opportunity here that’s largely been underserved so far because, unless it happens to you, you don't really realise the scale of the problem. Most startups begin because the founder wants to fix a problem because they’ve seen it themselves. As the founders get older, they’ll realize the ample opportunity for technology to play a role here, and I think it’s an area that will only get bigger.
Itxaso: I think we’ll definitely start to see solutions for employees needing to take care of elderly employees. My parents are in Spain and, as an only child, if something happens to them I need to be there to take care of them. A company would have to provide solutions to accommodate situations like this.
Alicia: It’s not just an ageing population to consider in this space, but I think there's another interesting trend which is the growing number of people that are single, or who choose not to have children. They’re probably carefree but there's always going to be a niggling fear of what happens when they get older, who will look after them and then there’s that fear of dying alone (which I think is just such an existential terror that everyone goes through).
People in the age range of 30-50 have been thinking about a trend of intentional communities, where you can live with other people for the purpose of ageing together. There are already a lot of intentional communities that are springing up and I'm curious to see if it’s going to be normalised or perhaps companies will come up with sort of funding models to support it. At the moment, to buy one really big house is very expensive for a single person. But, there's a financial model in Australia that allows you to co-invest in a large estate with others, so you can grow old with them together. It’s a really interesting idea and I think it’s going to accelerate as people realise they don’t have a family and still want to live independently.
There’s also going to be the fear of death itself. I've been really fascinated with the concept of death doulas. Doulas are normally there for births but they’re trained towards helping people go through the thing that they’re pretty terrified of - and for a lot of people this will be death. I'm very curious to see if there's going to be innovations in this space.
Trend 4: An acceptance by employers that their employees do not need to be in the office in order to be productive
Itxaso: Going through COVID last year has obviously accelerated the propensity to work remotely and build remote teams. Should employers let employees choose where they want to live and work from? There are some statistics showing that productivity actually went up in the last year.
Alicia: I was the Founder of Skimlinks, which I ran for 11 years. My background is in computer science and I have always been working in tech. After 11 years of running Skimlinks, I ended up losing my mojo a little bit, so I decided to step down and take a sabbatical. In those two years of my sabbatical, I had all these ideas of books I wanted to write and companies I wanted to start but I felt that I had no way to do that kind of thinking. I was going crazy working from home all the time. I tried co-working spaces in London and found them all to be way too distracting and very uninspiring. I tried cafes and members’ clubs but you can't sit on those chairs for too long plus you don't have your monitor there and there's always a battle for power! I really struggled to find a place that was suitable for that kind of creative and deep thinking.
Then I tried being a digital nomad and I travelled for about four months around France and Spain finding properties to stay in using Airbnb and Booking.com that were suitable for remote and deep working. However, it was difficult to find places that had consistent Wi Fi and a desk that was near a power source. Consequently, I started to think about this concept of why there's all of these properties that probably are very busy during summer periods but probably have a lot of vacancies and availability during offseasons and mid weeks, which is when a lot of workers want a place.
I discovered the book, Deep Work by Cal Newport, which is a concept that's similar to flow-to-flow states; it's the kind of work you do in a state of focused distraction free concentration and it's the kind of work that delivers significant value. The modern work environment is just completely antithetical to that kind of thinking. Until now it’s been working in a way that’s geared towards teamwork and distractions, but not towards a place where you can work distraction free in an ergonomic way.
That was my inspiration for my company Flown. We pulled together a curated collection of deep work enabled properties, so properties that have kitted up with desks, monitors, whiteboards and projections for teams. A hostess will basically set up your workspace based on your requirements for your arrival. We’ve also created a set of software tools that help you with the rituals of accountability, focus and inspiration. As I was building Flown COVID hit, which was just a really fascinating coincidence but it totally accelerated the prime ingredient that I felt was needed to make this vision of the future happen - an acceptance by employers that their employees do not need to be in the office in order to be productive. Now that they've accepted that and have accepted that their employees can not only be productive while they're somewhere away from home but actually be more creative, it should provide companies with an opportunity to dive more deeply into more cognitively challenging tasks that can significantly increase the assets of the company.
Of course one of the factors we have to consider as to why people have been so productive in the last year is because they've got nowhere else to go. Yet, there is a definite productivity increase when you're no longer having to commute all the time and when you're able to create an environment around you that is conducive to just focus on bouts of work without having to try to drown out the conversations of your colleagues talking about what they did that weekend.
Paul: My business and my life have been built on being remote, usually I use contractors and freelancers around the world. My biggest struggle with the world of work is actually that, for all the personalisation and new technology we use, work is still thought as in batches - think monthly pay or 8 hours shift - while the rest of society, starting with the consumer market, keeps moving ahead and having a more flexible lifestyles.
One caveat to this idea of being completely remote is that, during the pandemic, some companies, like Facebook and others, have been telling their employees that they can work from anywhere but it must be in the country their office is based in- you're not allowed to work from abroad. This is understandable as, let’s say I have an employee in London and they suddenly move to France. After six months, the taxation changes, the pension system is different, the system of labour law changes, not even talking about compensation. My liability profile is totally upended. If I want to fire him or her, I suddenly have to go through an entirely different process. Some countries will even ask me to have a local entity to employ that person.
Whilst countries have been a bit laxer during COVID because they understood the situation, they’re now starting to crack down on it, which is why one upcoming trend aligning with working from anywhere, will be the opportunity for third-party companies to act as employers of record.
In general, I don't believe everybody will be fully remote - I actually think that there might be a big rush back to the office in a few months, especially in places where people have been stuck at home for long. The pendulum always swings, trends always take time to settle, and we will find an equilibrium in a few years, where flexibility will emerge as a prime choice for talent.
Alicia: There are some really interesting remote companies coming up in the space which should help facilitate a remote working trend. There’s companies like Remote Year which is a B2B service that helps you plan your employees sabbatical. You tend to give sabbaticals to your long serving employees and it can be a great way to retain them with the company for many years. Selina has just acquired Remote Year in their push to go into the B2B market, so that they can encourage their employees to get memberships to Selina for the younger employees that want to be able to work remotely, but want the ergonomics of an actual office to do so. There’s a few companies that are getting these physical properties and turning them into these mini intentional communities for people that want to work remotely, but not be alone while they do so.
Summary: Tech trends impacting the future of work, life, health and ageing have been evolving rapidly over the last few years. However, the biggest catalyst that has changed the way we live has been the Covid-19 pandemic and some of these changes, especially around the way we view our health and work/life balance, have been dramatically accelerated over the last 12+ months. It’s an exciting time to be in the tech space - we’re already looking forward to seeing how the trends we’ve discussed evolve and what will happen next!