The Future of Work: A View from Seattle

Major economic forces are shaping the Future of Work. Toptal sits down with executives from Seattle to hear their perspective on topics impacting companies across the US, including the talent gap and the looming threat of disruptive innovation.
5 min read

Multiple forces are shaping the future of work. Tectonic shifts within industries and rapidly evolving consumer behavior are forcing companies to reinvigorate their strategies, often guiding them to develop new technologies in response to disruptive innovation. As backdrop, a humming economy - led by rapidly-expanding technology innovators - continues to drive unemployment to nearly two decade lows, forcing expanding companies to more creatively source new team members.

While these trends are familiar, less-so are the front-line perspectives of company executives who navigate them. Their observations clarify several facets often glossed over. Seeking such perspective on the future of work, Toptal hosted a dinner roundtable discussion with executives from several leading Seattle-based companies. We discussed questions central to challenges posed by an evolving workforce and economy.

With the modern workforce, what does it take to successfully bridge gaps across age, culture, and distance? How do you contend with multi-year low unemployment? How does your organization avoid the fate of obsolescence, bourn of disruptive entrants?

A Familiar Challenge: Record Low Unemployment in Seattle

An extreme microcosm of the broader US economy, Seattle has been compared to Silicon Valley. Both boast deep technology roots, have unemployment rates below 3%, skyrocketing real estate prices, and unsurprisingly, witness an all-out war for talent.

Over recent years, many technology companies have established satellite offices in Seattle, joining mainstays Amazon and Microsoft. As a result, as the Economist notes, these engineering offices have been “hoovering up highly qualified staff.”

Hungry for capable talent, companies must draw increasingly diverse labor into their ranks. For example, they’re tapping older workers who are returning from retirement. They’re also accommodating younger generations seeking non-traditional arrangements, including remote work and flexible schedules.

A number of executives noted the new efforts their companies have made to attract and retain young talent, in particular. One executive from a data analytics company said that it has been crucial for senior leadership to actively challenge young team members with engaging and consequential projects, despite their lack of experience. Doing so, the executive explained, both fuels the younger team member’s personal growth and tangibly shows that the company, from the top down, respects and invests in its people.

For hiring managers, an increasingly diverse and dispersed workforce presents a more challenging puzzle to assemble. As one such manager noted, “There are a lot of talent types, and people can provide various types of commitments. My challenge is how to adjust, and stay with markets.”

The New Realities of the Modern Workforce

Pursuing new sources of talent is half the challenge, and retooling business practices to maximize their impact is the other. Companies ranging from startups to multinational brands are taking action.

BMW is redesigning work streams that help older workers remain productive. Other companies are applying new methods to unlock capabilities from previously overlooked populations. For example, one hiring manager from a leading multinational telecom noted her recent discovery of Fieldglass, a subsidiary of SAP, tapping into spectrum talent through its Autism at Work program. She noted that autistic talent contribute high intelligence, excel at specific types of tasks, and also display high loyalty.

Companies must also adopt new tools to connect and educate their diverse workforce. Executives from various industries, including telecom, insurance and higher education confirmed their need for such technology. One manager cited the growing need to give her employees “resources to learn, get trained and get comfortable with new technology,” particularly as her company shifted from on-premise to cloud-based solutions.

The Innovation Cycle

In 2011, Marc Andreessen wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal, asserting that “software is eating the world.” With this short statement, the Netscape founder and early investor in Facebook and LinkedIn captured the prescient notion that all companies face the existential threat of disruption - or outright extinction - by technology startups.

In response, many non-technological companies are adopting a defensive posture. When the topic of conversation shifted to disruptive innovation, several executives took notice. Highlighting the increasing sense of paranoia, one director within the cloud technology practice of a global insurance company shared the context for which he was hired.

“With me coming on, we called it cloud, but really, it was about using technology to disrupt the current business,” he said. Instead of complacency, his management team acted from a position of potential vulnerability, “looking around at mom and pop shops, companies that aren’t doing it the way we are” and recognizing that “any one of them could hockey stick up in growth.”

Other executives observed the distinctions between terms often assumed synonymous: innovation and technological disruption. While technological disruption can seemingly happen overnight, the innovation that enables such rapid change is usually incremental, occurring gradually over a long period. Executives cited virtual reality as one example. Considered burgeoning, cutting edge technology, today’s virtual reality applications grew out of far older applications, developed in the 1960s and even earlier (also as described in a Toptal Insights article).

Executives seized on the idea that many of the most important innovations are often the least flashy. Outlined in a 2017 Forbes article, the idea that important innovations often come in decidedly unsexy packages hit home for many executives, particularly those whose companies specialize in providing behind-the-scenes infrastructure and support to other businesses. As one executive said, “with innovation, it’s not about making headlines – it’s about helping companies execute better.”

A Common Thread

What stood out most from our discussion was the general consensus about the trends. The topics covered resonated with executives from a wide range of organizations, both in terms of scale and industry. Multinational enterprise software companies and regional higher education institutions witness surprisingly similar external forces and internal transitions.

As Toptal continues to meet similar enterprise executives based in other US major metropolitan regions, we will share our observations and highlight the salient trends shaping the future of work. Undoubtedly, themes surfaced in Seattle will play out in other markets, while others will present new learnings.

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