Applied Futurist Tom Cheesewright challenges leaders to widen their lens and time horizon in the face of COVID-19

I recently interviewed Tom Cheesewright, a respected applied futurist based in the UK. We spoke about charting a course through COVID-19 and how organizations should seize the moment to embrace ambitious ideas and take big swings. Tom recently contributed to Poly’s Hybrid Working Report which features insights from experts on the future of work, workplace design, cultural change, and explores how work will evolve as we emerge in the “next normal.” Below are highlights from our conversation. Don’t miss Tom’s practical advice at the end of the post for how leaders can apply futuristic thinking to their organizations right now.

Watch the 30-minute discussion here.

But first, here are my three biggest takeaways from the exchange with Tom:

1. Combine COVID macro-trends with industry challenges to spot intersections of opportunity.

Companies should triangulate their organization’s or industry’s greatest struggles with the bigger forces outside of their control—like climate change, aging populations, and immigration—to discover the high potential possibilities.

2. Be bold, harness change, and take the opportunity to move with greater speed.

With so much in flux, now is the time to make big moves. Companies can’t go backward—and many are more ready to embrace ambitious plans than they’ve been in years. There’s no way but through, so don’t push off what can happen now.

3. Break with cultural and management norms that no longer serve their purpose.

With so much up for grabs, use this time to redefine culture, management, and leadership practices– thinking carefully about how they can evolve with a changing work environment and workforce.

Tom Cheesewright and Carl Wises on video call


Carl: As an applied futurist, you talk a lot about finding the intersection between macro-trends and existing stresses within an organization or industry. Can you apply this principle in terms of COVID-19 and the impact on work environments as well as culture?

Tom: COVID exposed lots of pressures. Suddenly everybody has to work from home or remotely. The immediate pressures are the challenges of technology, user learning, user behavior, connectivity, and bandwidth. We know the technology is there, and it works. You get people over that small hump and get into issues of culture and privacy as well as presentation—being on camera for lots of the day and letting people into your home—and how that changes your behavior.

Then you get into the really interesting pressures around the culture of work. How do we assign work to people who are working remotely? How do we change our managing style? How do we collaborate in this environment? And how do we do challenging things, like on-boarding new staff members?

Carl: The burden is going to fall on the management team. They’re the ones who have to set the change in culture and expectations. Have you thought about the management team in terms of how they operate differently going forward?

Tom: In Future Proof Your Business, I wrote a whole section about how lots of organizations are sensing this need to be more adaptable and responsive to what’s going on. One thing I prescribe is to push more power, autonomy, and responsibility to the edges of the organization. We can’t use the old methods of management that came straight out of the factory. We’ve got to start accepting that our organizations are now lots of small units—even individuals—that have to take on responsibility for things. And we have to accept that they will return results.

Carl: With COVID, one of the bright sides is digital transformation. We’ve been talking about this for a decade and while some companies leaned forward into it, most hadn’t.

Tom:  The initial response from organizations was, “The office is dead—it’s going to be remote working from now on.” Now it’s more of an equilibrium position where people have recognized the weaknesses in that argument. Undoubtedly, there will be fewer offices and they are probably smaller. People are not going in day-in and day-out, but they are taking advantage of the things that the office offers.

We’re all having to get much better at handling our workloads. There is a role for leadership to say, “How do we allow people to work with maximum productivity but also maximum quality of life?” We want to set those two objectives and maximize both of them.

Carl: Any predictions about how verticals like healthcare, transportation, and manufacturing are transforming? What are your thoughts around industries and how they are evolving?

Tom: Healthcare is facing this perfect storm where you have the pandemic combined with big issues around international migration. Lots of healthcare labor comes across borders in the UK and the US. That’s a real challenge for them. How are they going to find the labor in the next few years?

Combine that with the existing crisis around obesity and an aging population. We have this high pressure on our healthcare environment in terms of taxpayers contributing to the system—or insurance contributing to the system—versus people largely drawing on it. Those numbers are going to flip within the next 50 years. For years it was, “How do we do more for less?” Now, it’s “How do we build the maximum adaptability into the system.”

(on transportation)  

The COVID crisis created the impetus for looking again at how we build transportation infrastructure. How do we think about the daily commute? How do we plan for peak times? How do we think about whether and when people have to travel?

Right now, we overbuild transport infrastructure by 30% to 50% to cope with those big peaks. Can we leverage the technology that allows people to work remotely and flexibly? Can we time-shift peoples’ commuting hours so we don’t have to build so much infrastructure? We are probably 30 years out from fully autonomous vehicles and Class Five vehicles, but there’s lots we can do around the design and build of mass transit and individual transport.

(on manufacturing)

I had a conversation with the creator of WikiHouse—which is basically an open-source house—about this idea of “networked manufacturing.” You have these small local factories building different components, In this case for housing but it could be any sort of manufacturing project. These small factories can rapidly adapt to new demands, scaling up and down quickly. The digital-to-digital, machine-to-machine aspects of this communication technology allow them to move information, shift control, and automate control so much more easily.

Carl: You write a lot about the changing role of the city. How have the trends that were already in motion pre-COVID been accelerated or changed? I hear for example that people are trying to quickly exit New York or London because they want to get more space.

Tom: There is really interesting tension between people recognizing they can—and deciding they want to—get out of the city. That’s your demographic age group in their late thirties, forties, and fifties. Kids of school age. Careers are in the right place. Financially secure. And in jobs where they can work remotely.

Counter that with some of the big incoming challenges that are facing us, such as climate change. Living in a densely packed city is one of the greenest things you can do. You’ve got easy access to all of the amenities at your doorstep. You can use public transport very easily. We really need to be moving people into more densely packed city environments. This is challenging in a pandemic, but if we are to address climate change without dramatically cutting the population, that’s a big driver.

Then you pose the aging challenge. The global population is aging much faster than we thought. How do we ensure we can afford to care for these people? The only way to do it is to bring them into more densely populated areas where the healthcare services, amenities, and cultural amenities are right on their doorstep.

Carl: Today, we’re constantly tethered not only to the desk but to the screen. We’re always on stage with video. What is your self-care prescription for those who want to recharge versus just enduring through the process?

Tom: The first thing you have to do is forgive yourself. If you’ve been brought up in a 9-5 or 8-6 environment, get out of that mindset. Stop thinking about how much work you do and start thinking about how much value you add. Measure yourself purely on the value you’re adding—not the effort you’re putting in. Over-deliver if you can. But listen to your body, listen to your mind, listen to your brain, and your soul about what it is telling you it needs.

Carl: People use to take vacations to recharge but I don’t see people doing that today. What is your view of vacations in the current COVID world and how does that change in the post-COVID world?

Tom: We’re going to see quite a shift in the nature of holidays in the next few years. You could just go to work in a different place. They say a change is as good as a rest. Go rent a home on the coast for three months. You can still keep working but do it in a different place—with a different daily schedule, different environment, different food, different people.

We might see people taking fewer big holidays but taking longer ones. So rather than taking two weeks every summer, they’re saying, “I’m going to take three months every 2-4 years but I’m going to take a complete sabbatical and do something different.”

Carl: You say those who stay focused on the future are the ones who prevail. How do we do that in such an uncertain world? And what’s your secret to staying optimistic during COVID?

Tom: Take one percent of your time to focus on the future. One day every six months. We use a simple process to scan the near horizon. It’s not about jetpacks or microchips in your brain in 30 years. It’s about the biggest challenges or opportunities in the next five years.

  1. Start by looking at the pressures you face today. What are the challenges in business? Talk to colleagues, partners, and customers. It’s really cathartic and people love to tell you.
  2. Look outside of the organization at the big trends. What is transforming industries that look like yours, your competitors or peers, or similar industries in different parts of the world?
  3. See where these big trends intersect with the pressures you’re facing. You’ll find five, 10 or 25 things.
  4. Put them in an order of scale. How big is the impact going to be? How much better or worse is it going to get?
  5. Pick the top five and deal with them over the next six months.
  6. Repeat the process.

Carl: Tom, thanks for your time today. I look forward to following you as you go forward into the future.

Tom: My absolute pleasure.

You can watch our 30-minute discussion here and download Poly’s Hybrid Working Report here.