Predictions For Work And Life In 2021

As we enter another year of working from home due to Covid-19, many innovations ahead will acknowledge the shifting ways in which we now live and work. While many people will return to in-office work at some point, the demand for a new, hybrid work-life model will remain. With that said, here are four predictions for work and life in 2021:

1. Technology will become more natural and better integrated.

Video has emerged as a key tool for working from anywhere, but it still has far to go in order to be truly immersive. Whether in-office, at home or elsewhere, video meetings should mimic the feeling of sitting around a table together, including support for a more natural conversation mode. From a technological standpoint, this is a hard but necessary thing to do as we reinvent what meetings will look like moving forward.

In-home office spaces — and homes, in general — are ripe for evolution. Over the past decade, people increasingly left their homes for work, entertainment and more. Now that activities are restricted, there are opportunities to include modern technology in our everyday lived experiences. Cameras and screens no longer need to be relegated to laptops.

For instance, in my office, a camera and screen are mounted so that groups can participate in video calls. Few of us have replicated that experience at home, but imagine how different a virtual Thanksgiving would look if technology were positioned as a seat at the table. The pandemic has helped us connect better from a distance, and now we must keep those connections by building spaces mindful of such advancements. 

2. Software development will improve education delivery.

While software development facilitating work-home life needs expansion and refinement, software supporting remote learning needs an overhaul, including more artificial intelligence (AI) support. Things like eye contact and engagement, which software features could track, are essential for making sure teachers can impart their lessons, especially for younger students. More creativity in engaging younger kids in remote learning needs to be fostered, including more research on what works (or doesn’t). 

For college students, distance learning can be highly effective and should be ongoing. One positive outcome of the pandemic is the disruption in the cost of higher education. Many campuses no longer need to maintain the massive spaces that were built before technology existed. For colleges that opt to have virtual learning remain beyond its necessity, new avenues will open to students who may not have had an opportunity to pursue higher education before.

For much of rural America, this is a hopeful and far more accessible new world, especially if costs decrease. Lectures will look different when there is no need to rush to class and may even be asynchronous so that students can attend anytime, which facilitates degree attainment for those who must work to pay for school as they go. Software accommodates transcription, which can be tagged and searched so students can focus and participate in class without needing to catch every detail. For all in the education arena, collaboration software will become increasingly important to the flow of work.

3. In-home fitness opportunities will improve our self-care.

Self-care has enjoyed a revolution, too — especially group fitness classes. Companies like Peloton and Mirror disrupted and gamified the world of at-home exercise classes. For an even lower cost, workout programs like Supernatural VR, used on virtual reality devices like Oculus, serve as both fitness and entertainment.

Not only will this save people money on gym memberships, but it also saves time commuting to gyms. And a busy work-home day no longer means health sacrifices due to time constraints. Personally, I enjoy being able to see people in my exercise classes in this new way. The fact that I can work out with friends without leaving home has enabled connection during a time of great disconnect. 

4. Medical costs will begin to reduce across the board.

On the medical front, lower costs of medical visits and prescription drugs are on the horizon. Drug development and testing during the pandemic have shown how these processes can be sped up with assistance from AI and machine learning and used to experiment with modifying drugs for new applications.

Faster, cheaper drug development is needed around the globe. Coupled with the opportunity to visit doctors virtually via telehealth, healthcare costs should decrease due to more intelligent AI-based diagnostics. More affordable medical care and prescription drugs will save more lives. 

Final Thoughts 

It would be remiss not to note some key opportunities for improvement that 2020 exposed, including the deep challenges of working from home and the adverse impact on women. How can companies rethink work-life balance for employees who are being pulled in multiple directions? Before the pandemic, employees didn’t have to be schoolteachers and day care providers atop their work. Covid-19 changed that, and companies must be sensitive to it.

One of my professors in business school used to ask, “What’s the bicycle of the future?” The answer is a custom bicycle. The future of work — and of work-home life — needs to be customizable, too. With mobile, flexible communications and collaboration tools available on any smart device, customized work is possible. We need to be increasingly sensitive to the flexibility aspect for the duration of the pandemic and for those who choose to make a lifestyle of flexible work.

Imagine: If we didn’t have the internet, not only would a lot more people be sick, but we wouldn’t be able to have this conversation about the shifting demands of work and life that were overdue long before necessity brought it to the forefront. Technology saved us this time around, and it can save us again — not only due to medical advances, but also by bringing to the forefront just how essential connection is in all facets of life, even from a distance. 2021 will do much more in that arena, forever changing how we live and work for the better.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.

Innovation: The Path From $100 Million To $1 Billion

Constant innovation is what drives a company to grow from $100 million to $1 billion. To stay viable, a company has to reinvent itself every couple of years, at least, and that reinvention can never stop. There is no such thing as a company reaching its “peak,” although that’s a worthy goal. Many companies plateau instead because they don’t focus on innovation. Those are the companies that will never see their billion-dollar valuation.

Innovation at a large company carries with it an elevated level of intensity. A lot of things are forgiven in a startup that won’t be forgiven in a large company. A smaller company finds its product-market fit as a startup, and, as it evolves, it engages in a perpetual search for that right fit.

In a large company, that product-market fit has already been defined. Now, instead of searching for the right fit, you’re looking to either maximize benefit within the fit you have or to expand that fit. Anything you introduce will immediately have a large impact, so you have to think about eventualities from the get-go, including the impact on your existing customers and their consumers. While all innovation at this stage is incremental, the expectation when you introduce something new in a large company is that it will meet the high bar of your other products.

Sometimes, constant innovation can be a tough sell within a company; some executives don’t want to take what they perceive to be risks of time. Executives like those are focused on immediate success and ROI. For those companies, their path to growth may not be through in-house innovation or even iteration but, rather, through the acquisition of complementary companies. Some large companies, like Amazon and Google, separate their innovation teams into lab environments, which is one way they can have competing groups even within their own companies.

No matter how it happens, the saying is “innovate or stagnate.” You don’t get to a $1 billion valuation by stagnating. One of the best ways to attract new customers and retain old ones as a company of any size is by showing customers that you are focused on their success. Enable them to flourish alongside you on an escalating path toward meeting and exceeding their needs as you scale and grow, considering their ongoing adoption and transformation mindfully. Customer loyalty is built through joint successes. And happy customers are much more likely to continue to expand their product and usage footprint with you.

Until you reach $100 million as a startup, your company is just running. To grow beyond that, you have to think broader and make the right bets in the right sequence — not too early or too late. All the while, you have to bring creative talent aboard while keeping your ear to the ground. You may be well on your way to that eventual $1 billion mark, but you still have to keep your ear to the ground and learn from other startups. Those younger companies are going to teach you trends. You can learn by watching them; they’re a window into where you, too, need to head.

As chief innovation officer for a company that has followed a growth path past that $1 billion mark, I feel confident that our next $10 billion will come from the same path that led us here: ongoing vigilance with regard to learning, growing, innovation and relentless focus on the customer.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.

From Start-up to Scale-up: Think

Oftentimes when I speak, when it comes time for Q&A, people ask how I made my own multiple start-ups successful. While I have no “secret sauce” or recipe for assured success, I have been in high tech for long enough to get a sense for what is needed most. If I could sum it all up in one word, that word would be “think.”

Too many early-stage companies fall into the pitfall of believing that they have the next big idea without yet considering how to build the right founding team, how to bring their idea to market and where, and what will happen next when their idea has “made it.” It’s one thing to see your product in a box on a shelf. It’s another thing to be all the way on the other side of the world and in an unexpected place where you see your product being used in a way that’s mission-critical to someone else’s business success. Maybe your ideas and your product are that big, and maybe they’re not. But coming out of the gate with some Big Think is necessary while you figure that out. In this piece, I’ve sketched a rough outline of four “thinks” that I feel start-ups need to consider.

First, think up a big idea, and, once you have it, think about a big market that needs your big idea right now. Look for that idea and that place with a combination of vision, humbleness, and timing. If you start too early or too late, you miss the mark; either buyers won’t be ready for your solution, or the customers won’t be there yet. Is now the time for your solution — and where?

Second, you have to bring the right thinkers together to compose the founding team very early on, which can feel a bit like getting married without an extensive dating period. On that founding team, each member has to have appropriate roles. Right away in today’s world, that team needs to think about how things are so advanced and so fast that as you build your product, you have to think about UE, design, and security, especially, with so much being totally open and in the cloud. Importantly, your team has to think about the right foundation and architecture for scalability — otherwise, you may have a great product-market fit, but you won’t be able to grow. Strong people are needed to lead product as well as deployment earlier than you may think you need them; for a big idea, those are founding team roles. Things move that fast.

One mistake I’ve seen too many CEOs and founders make is in trying to do everything themselves. This is not a good idea at all. Wearing too many hats means that you’re thinking too broadly in places where detail may be needed, not to mention wearing yourself down — and we all know how hard it is to think creatively when there’s too much on our plate. When you bring together enough smart, thinking people in proper roles on a founding team, you end up moving your idea into being both faster and smarter.

Third, remember: product-market fit matters. Think of how everyone is using videoconferencing during this Covid-19 pandemic. A lot of companies relied on their existing solutions to be seamlessly scaled to accommodate shifting work needs. Others knew what they needed, and they knew how to find it, even if it was a new solution for their company. It may seem like a tall order for your founding team to have to create a leveraged model that is discoverable and will have virality right away, all in a time when all products are supposed to engage the user while having a low cost of customer acquisition. But, think about it: during the early spring, you witnessed the speed at which that happens.

Fourth, now, let’s assume for a moment that your company has gotten there. You have your product. You have your fit, and it’s in a big market. You have some virality building, too. Are you done? (Never!) Now is the time to think about measurement: measure, measure, and measure more, and measure all of the results in all parts of your company. How you scale is by understanding your customer, their adaption, and what your virality factors are. At my company, RingCentral, executives still gather at the beginning of every week to slice and dice customer acquisition reports that came in daily. It’s practically a religion for us in terms of how we measure adoption, churn, cost, use predictive analytics to manage our pipeline, analyze various ratios and so on.

Innovation, in a nutshell, is a Big Think task. It starts with your idea, grows with your team, fits into the market — and then, if you’ve done your job, it goes back to your team to think of measurements and scale. From day one, things will accelerate more and more, and there is no escaping that tornado. If you aren’t feeling like you’re amid a tornado, you’re probably not growing fast enough or even may be stagnating. You can’t just sell more products to get back into the game; you have to drive innovation to stay relevant. And you do that by continuing to think and to measure, never getting complacent, and surely, by keeping up.

This post also appeared on LinkedIn.

On the International Day of the Girl Child, A Hat-Tip to Inventor Hedy Lamarr

Did you know that every single day, we hold a piece of women’s history in our hands? It’s true! Believe it or not, you have iconic film star Hedy Lamarr to thank for today’s modern cellular phones.

In 1942, in-tandem with her work as an actress, Hedy Lamarr, along with her friend and science-experiment partner, composer George Antheil, patented an invention that became part of the foundation for the modern cellular phone: a frequency-hopping device that enabled the constant changing of frequencies for radio signals transmitting from ships or airplanes to torpedos. Such frequency-skipping allowed radio signals to be inviolable and aided greatly in improving the accuracy of torpedos. Born from this was today’s spread-spectrum technology that we enjoy each time we use our mobile devices.

It’s hard to believe that the U.S. Navy, to which Lamarr and Antheil had presented their design, initially refused to use this critical technology; it never saw action in World War II. However, unknown to Lamarr and Antheil, the military classified their patent application as top-secret and began using the technology in the 1950s. The patent expired long before the 1990s, when Lamarr began to receive recognition for her invention — something that is reported to have mattered to her far more than any accolades she received for her acting.

I learned about Lamarr’s role in this critical invention in the novel “The Only Woman in the Room” by Marie Benedict. Based on the incredible true story of Hedy Lamarr, Benedict’s novel highlights Lamarr’s work as a scientist whose groundbreaking invention revolutionized modern communication.

This great novel highlights something else, too, though — the manner in which Lamarr’s contribution to modern science largely was ignored for decades due to the fact that she was a woman. Time and time again, when Lamarr pressed to be heard, she was told outright that she was out of place, solely because of her gender. We know that the accomplishments of other great women were treated and obscured similarly, like NASA’s “Hidden Figures,” Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, the women who performed the calculations enabling America’s first man to launch into space. I’m left to wonder: to how many other women did this happen? What else don’t we know about the foundation on which our world has been built?

As Benedict writes in the author’s note to her book, “unless we begin to view historical women through a broader, more inclusive lens — and rewrite them back into the narrative — we will continue to view the past more restrictively than it likely was, and we risk carrying those perspectives over into the present.” As more and more historical women’s contributions to the modern age are brought to light, I couldn’t agree more.

Like Lamarr, I know what it’s like to be “the only woman in the room.” Today, on the International Day of the Girl Child, that’s far from the case. Now, women aren’t only in the room; we hold seats at the table at every S&P 500 company. And that is something worth celebrating!

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Is Working From Home the Great Equalizer for Women?

As many high-tech companies enter our sixth month of altered work arrangements due to the coronavirus pandemic, some trends have started to emerge with regard to how employees are faring with remote work. With decades of in-office experience under my belt in comparison to just half a year of work from home (WFH), the comparisons that have emerged already surprise me in some ways.

Oftentimes, I speak and write from my position of formerly being a “veteran only woman in the room” in high tech. As such, I feel particularly attuned to the plight of women in a field that continues to be rather male-dominated. I believe it is not only important to hire women but also to mentor them, retain them and promote them to positions of leadership, such that when young women debate whether or not to pursue STEM careers, they can point to women in positions of power in high tech and say, “I want to be that woman someday.”

My belief is that the playing field has become more level but that, in a world where every Fortune 500 now has a woman on its board, we’re still far from equal, as that’s still a far cry from true gender parity at the table.

It’s no secret that where a lot of career trajectories fall apart, disproportionally for women but also for many men, is when there’s too much pull between work and family. Commuting itself takes something away from both work time and family time. As well, depending on the flexibility that a company offers, face-time in-office may mean less face-time for things like kids’ activities like sporting events or arts performances.

Naturally, some have embraced WFH, especially now due to the pandemic, as an optimal solution, in part for its zero-commute time and for the flexibility and mobility it offers us to do what it takes to care for our families during this unprecedented time. My company builds tools that enable business communication and collaboration to take place seamlessly from wherever our clients or our employees work — so whether in-office, at home or beside that soccer field, the tools needed for work are in-hand on any mobile device. We’re seeing that now is the ultimate test of whether or not some companies can work in mobile, flexible ways like this going forward. Some high-tech companies, like Twitter, have declared success and have shared that employees now never need to return to in-office work if they so choose.

Given that a lot of the work we do is fully transportable via our smart devices these days such that some companies are going fully “virtual” like this, one would think that this transition to full-time, in-home work would mean a lot less stress for employees, and also, perhaps, a more level playing field.

However, a recent article from the Harvard Business Review (registration required) suggests that, among other things, when women and men have families, a recurring finding is that a disproportionate share of domestic and child-rearing responsibilities fall on women — and that a company having flexibility and allowing mobile work doesn’t mean that women are faring better.

The article suggests, “historically, company practices that increase flexibility with the aim of facilitating a better work/life balance have not necessarily resulted in increased advancement of women to senior levels. The benefit has simply been better retention of women at lower management levels.”

Whether virtual or in-office, face-time seems to continue to matter to many companies. An article in the Wall Street Journal (paywall) has suggested that women’s careers could take a heavy hit due to working from home during the pandemic.

Whether in-person or in a meeting room, it still feels to me like women have to work harder to make their voices heard and to be forceful — sometimes more forceful than men — to drive an agenda. Valuing a diverse workforce, and making intentional space for a broad array of diverse voices around that table, is critical to a company’s success. Companies have to work hard to fight unconscious biases, whether in hiring or in-office — and now they have to learn to do so in a different space, the virtual office, while somehow accounting for all of the inequity that may be going on behind the scenes to boot.

Numerous studies have shown that not only are women not on a level playing field in the office, they’re also not on a level playing field at home. How does a company account for that in a way that promotes women — equally to men — to positions of greater success, whether they’re working from home or not?

At the end of the day, the “great equalizer” in the workplace still should come down to what it always should come down to: education, skills, the time put in and the effort made, all whether someone works in-office or from home. It’s the work product that matters most.

It’s my belief that where some companies are falling apart when it comes to supporting women in virtual work is in trying to mimic an in-office culture that disproportionately rewards those with the loudest voices and biggest presence without focusing more on their specific work outputs. A culture of inclusion must be fostered.

Now, we don’t know what or who is tugging on our employees during their “normal” workdays during this time that’s about as far from “normal” as we can get. To get to a level playing field, one question needs to be in focus, whether in-office or at home: What is the quality of this employee’s work product?

If our focus remains on that, then I believe women’s careers won’t be impacted as greatly as some suggest by the pandemic’s forced work/life shift — and WFH indeed can be the “great equalizer” that many feel it can be.

This post originally appeared on Forbes.

Building Your Career Curriculum

Commitment to lifelong learning is one of the critical building blocks of a good career. To reach new levels in your working life, it may help to look at your career in the same way as you approached your school career. Our early years are like elementary school, the years in which we leverage the basics. Mid-career is a key time to seek out opportunities for growth, and movement is often both lateral and upward. Our later-career years are when we can look back and know that we have learned and grown a lot and can share our experiences for the benefit of others.

Have you considered how to build your own career curriculum? For my advice on how to achieve your goals in the early years, mid-career, and in the later years, please check out the following three posts on my LinkedIn:

Building Your Career Curriculum: The Early Years

Building Your Career Curriculum: Mid-Career

Building Your Career Curriculum: The Later-Career Years

Celebrating International Women’s Day with Reflections on My Journey into Technology

Today’s workplaces have grown in many positive directions when it comes to women’s places within them — which, of course, ought to be no different than men’s places within them. When I started working, that wasn’t the case. Often, I was the only woman in a meeting full of male executives. Although I was as much of a participant as anyone else around the table, once, some visiting executives pretended that I did not exist until the moment that one of them turned to me and asked me for some coffee. They wrongly assumed that the only woman in the room was an assistant, not a stakeholder.

Fortunately, it’s hard to imagine such a “woman, get me coffee” request being made today. Especially as workplaces are significantly more gender-balanced, it’s important that we shift from thinking in terms of “male employee” or ”female employee” and move toward a gender neutral approach.

“Gender neutral” doesn’t mean that we disregard the importance of diversity. Rather, a gender-neutral approach is a mindset acknowledging how genders complement each other in order to create a sustainable working environment where all can thrive.

Interacting, speaking, and addressing your teams and peers in a neutral way reaps benefits of inclusion. A simple example is when introducing new staff. Consider replacing statements like “we’re thrilled to have a new man on our team” with “we’re thrilled to have a new team member.” That’s a subtle shift toward greater inclusivity.

Hiring plays an important role in diversity as well as in gender-neutral approaches, of course.By recognizing talent first, both in yourself and in others, you focus on something that everyone, regardless of gender, possesses. Whether you’re a seasoned executive or a prospective employee, lead with what you bring to the table, and watch and evaluate how every person operates in your business as neutrally as possible. When you get to know each other at this level first, the focus on skills and talents strengthens. This is especially important for women. We don’t want to be known as “the best female programmer I’ve ever seen.” We want to be known as the best programmer, period. When, collectively, we focus on what we do in the workplace, old stereotypes will die faster. As a child, I remember being told I ice skate pretty fast “for a girl.” I proudly replied, “I skate faster than all of the boys, actually.”

Today, on International Women’s Day, I’m reflective particularly of my journey as a female immigrant who proudly skated faster than boys and played ice hockey when that’s something girls didn’t do. I credit my parents’ gender-neutral child-rearing approach to that choice and to a lot of subsequent choices that I made, like studying computer science in college when that’s something that very few women did. I never thought that I didn’t belong around the table or in the room or that my voice didn’t have a place. If there’s a gift that I could give to women everywhere, it would be that sense of knowing that wherever you are, you belong there, and your talents and your voices matter a great deal. With women at the table of every major corporate board now, and with women in leadership positions steadily on the rise, it’s a different world than when I began my career — and thank goodness for that.

A version of this article first appeared on Information Age.