Where work is going: challenging the status quo

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
September 13, 2023
An image of a group of people outdoors holding up signs with slogans on them, including 'Can the status quo just go away already?'
Where work is going: challenging the status quo
Written by 
Jim Kalbach
September 13, 2023

As we’re collectively figuring out, post-pandemic workplace change isn't only inevitable — it’s something we should all embrace.

One thing is clear: People are challenging the status quo. It’s a good thing — but also, they have to. There’s no going back. Change is so rapid and so profound, the methods and tools we used to get to this point won’t take us to the future. 

Here are the top five themes that stood out from our conversations this week at Forrester’s Technology & Innovation North America conference.

1. Generative AI dominates the conversation 

We’ve already seen examples of disruptive uses of generative AI across industries — from lawyers writing legal briefs, to developers generating software code, to students using AI assistants to write papers. 

And things are just getting started. 

Rather than a separate feature teams can tap into, generative AI is a capability that underlies all types of work, all the time. It flows through work knowingly or unknowingly, like electricity flowing through a city’s power grid. 

The ingredients of technological innovation are all around us, with precursors and roots of new capabilities going back decades. So, why's GenAI suddenly such a hot topic? 

Not surprisingly, the answer comes back to human-centered qualities. Namely, the ease of the ChatGPT interface and the experience around it (the UI and UX) are what unleashed to processing power of large language models (LLMs).

The thunderstorm we’re seeing now is the result of a build-up of activity in the cloud (a metaphor, yes, but also in the SaaS sense) suddenly released in a proliferation of applications thanks to that accessible interface, as well as integrations into existing workflows. 

In fact, that proliferation of generative AI has been so rapid that if you’re acting now, you may already be behind. In his opening talk, George F. Colony, CEO of Forrester, said ‌GenAI is the biggest tech change in his lifetime — bigger even than the Internet. 

Colony stressed the urgency of bringing GenAI into the workplace. It’s not something for next quarter, or next month, or even next week. GenAI must happen in your organization now. Period. 

Related: Introducing Mural’s New AI-Powered Teamwork Features

2. Technology drives customer obsession

The purpose of technology is to advance human causes, and in commercial settings that’s all about the customer experience. Tech for tech’s sake doesn’t differentiate. Instead, successful companies use technology to anticipate customers’ needs.

Technology powers the customer-driven growth engine at scale. It provides the foundation for all functions to focus on the customer experience from their own perspectives. Even for companies that provide foundational capabilities around data storage and processing, or enterprise architecture solutions, playing a game of the ‘5 Whys’ usually ends up with a customer focus. 

  • Why does having a modern enterprise architecture matter? Because it enables digital transformation. 
  • Why does digital transformation matter? Because it helps coordinate cross-functional business processes.
  • Why does cross-functional coordination matter? Because it enables employees to deliver exceptional customer experience. 
  • Why do customer experiences matter? Because that impacts the bottom line. 

Customer obsession isn’t about whether frontline employees answer the phone with a friendly greeting. It’s about how the entire organization is aligned, from the inside out, to the customer experience. 

3. Culture change demands radical empathy 

Employees are your greatest advantage. But it’s no longer just about productivity. These days teams have to be effective from wherever they are, whenever they work. 

Research has shown that when workers report high levels of cultural alignment, belonging, and well-being, they're more engaged and produce better business outcomes. 

Changes to the underlying technology that powers the business means a change to the employee experience. Employee experience ultimately drives exceptional customer outcomes: Engaged teams lead to better customer experiences. A focus on culture through the employee experience, then, becomes a strategic business imperative touching all parts of the organization, including tech leaders and tech teams. 

Now more than ever, technology teams and leaders need to be empathic about the employee experience. Business resilience, creativity, and innovation within the organization all start and end with the needs and attitudes of employees. 

You don’t have to look further than the current talent crunches for evidence. People are choosing companies to work for based on a range of factors previously considered to be “nice-to-have” aspects. Well-being and mental health matter too. So do workplace flexibility, and the ability to unplug. 

In the end, business resilience requires not only great technology, but, more importantly, a collaborative mindset. After all, teamwork is one of the biggest parts of the employee experience. 

From that perspective, teamwork drives resilience.

4. What leadership means is evolving

With the demands of improving both customer and employee experience, leaders need to shift their thinking, attitudes, and management styles. These days, leaders must put human excellence at the center of the team and organizational culture. 

Leaders need to be intentional about creating a human-centered experience that allows people to collaborate more effectively, and do their best work. If the emphasis is on empowering your talent to perform and collectively drive outcomes, the results will take care of themselves. 

Leaders need to:

  • Understand what happens at the intersection of culture energy, employee well-being, and belonging.
  • Situate workforce actualization (i.e., a sense of mission and purpose) in the context of business success to enhance both.
  • Use imagination and creativity to explore bold new solutions.
  • Adopt an experimentation mindset to build, iterate, measure, and learn. Exploratory practices drive innovation. 

The big unlock is cross-functional collaboration between leaders, marketing, digital, sales, product, and customer experience colleagues. Great collaboration comes from great leadership. While grassroots efforts can help start this process, top-down support is needed to affect real change. 

In a post-pandemic world of flexible distributed workstyles, middle managers gain ‌renewed importance. Once thought of as the “dispensable middle” readily subject to cuts and layoffs, teams leaders and managers are now a driving force for change in the organization. 

Why? Managers are the key to winning the war for talent. It’s their people skills ‌that'll attract and keep the best talent. They also have to inspire and motivate teams through times of change. This adds expectations around coaching and mentoring to their roles — part of a suite of collaboration skills that every modern leader needs to develop. 

5. Human-centered innovation is the key to technology change

We shouldn’t implement technology for technology’s sake. Chasing trends based on herd mentality just creates noise that makes it harder to get work done. 

Instead, tech implementations increasingly need to be purposeful and intentional. To increase the chance of adoption, a human-centered approach begins with understanding the needs of technology users — employees and customers alike — and makes that the starting point for innovation. 

For instance, teams at SAP’s AppHaus have been practicing human-centered innovation for over a decade. They’ve successfully delivered over 1,000 customer projects. Andreas Hauser told us: “innovation only works if you include everyone involved in co-creating tech solutions, from the beginning to end including end-users.” 

To do this, they’ve developed a rich set of methods and practices for all parts of their innovation process. These cover design thinking, architecture, strategic concerns, and even workplace practices and workplace design.

Ultimately, it's about end-user adoption. Humans aren’t just part of the equation; they drive why we use technology and how. 

The road to tech, much like the road to that other place, is paved with good intentions. Before you start down that road, you need to look at what exactly you want to accomplish, and all the ways to drive that change. 

Never has human-centered thinking been more necessary to guide where technology should go. 

Techniques like human-centered design and design thinking allow teams to identify unmet needs so that technology implementations make sense. Don’t invest in technology for technology’s sake. Instead, start with the job to be done and the desired experience, and work back toward the solution — not the other way around. 

By that same token, we need to flip the script on the conversation about how GenAI is coming for our jobs. 

AI is, effectively, ‌productivity software. GenAI will help us steal back our jobs. It's a scaling tool that complements the human actor. Yes, it may replace repetitive automatable work — but even then, there's a need for human knowledge alongside the technology. 

Indeed, GenAI and other modern workplace technologies can only be effective if we bring human needs into the equation. As the impacts of technology increase, so too does the demand for those technologies to be aligned with human needs and goals. 

Specifically, these three aspects are more critical than ever for the adoption of modern technology solutions:


Profound technological changes like those we’ve been seeing only increase the need for trust. Trust becomes an imperative. Without it, the technology becomes useless — or, worse than that, actively destructive. To build that trust, you need human connection — people need to be in the equation, more so than ever.


There are several ways to think of alignment. First, any technology your team is using has to be aligned with business needs, which brings it back to customers and employees. Second, departments and functions must be aligned with each other to be able to move forward, particularly with organization-wide solutions like AI and others. 

Human connection

Even with increased process automation and AI capabilities, people are at the core. We see new technologies as complementary to people trying to get work done. Customers will expect greater intimacy with organizations and not simply interactions with faceless machines. And to execute on technology changes as they happen, teams need to be connected to each other and to a higher purpose. 

To bring it all together — the best advantages of technology will be enjoyed by those who center the human experience, both within their organizations, as well as their products. 

As man and machine come closer together, we have to focus our energy on understanding the balance that elevates both sides of the equation. 

See how Mural is integrating AI into your workflows to streamline ideation and brainstorming, and facilitate innovation. 

Note: Mural sponsored Forrester’s Technology & Innovation North America conference, “Power Change,” this year. With over 1,000 technology leaders all in one place, it’s a perfect opportunity to get a sense of technology trends related to work and the workplace. 

About the authors

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in innovation, design, and the future of work. He is currently Chief Evangelist at Mural, the leading visual work platform.