Katharine Zaleski and Milena Berry on the Future of Employment

Both Katharine Zaleski and Milena Berry envision the future of employment to be more inclusive for women. They see virtual reality and other technologies playing a significant role in transforming the workforce, facilitating a more flexible environment in which women and other minorities can be more active. Katharine and Milena founded PowerToFly to help women tackle the challenges that come with balancing work life with home life, by offering them access to great remote job opportunities. PowerToFly connects female talent in the digital space with businesses all over the world; the founders maintain that technology will continue to dramatically change the traditional workplace and make it increasingly accessible in the coming years. Imagine a nine-to-five job that can be completed from the comfort of your own home, virtual meetings conducted from your living room, and live presentations done from your home office – this is the kind of future they imagine.

Knowing that you are focused on PowerToFly as well as other projects, what future do you want to create?

The kind of future we want to create is one that is welcoming to remote work. We know that it’s a challenge to build teams with top talent, no matter their gender makeup – especially when you’re focused on sourcing individuals based in a specific location. So, we started PowerToFly to solve these problems and provide a platform that pre-screens candidates from all over the world. For us, women and tech industries go hand in hand. And so, the future we want to create is a future where working remotely is the norm.

Do you imagine that there will be more choice for women moving forward?

It’s interesting that many of the white collar jobs that people seem to be dropping out of are jobs that are particularly fitted for remote work. We often commute to offices only to instant message the people sitting next to us, because everybody uses those technological tools of communication. So we think that the highly paid, highly educated women are the ones who can benefit from this future where remote work is more widely accepted. Jobs in media and software development, for example, are jobs that can be done virtually through digital communication, so those are most likely to become remote.

In the past couple of months, we’ve also seen a lot of jobs that are traditionally hourly waged positions becoming more remote. A great example of this was when we went to San Francisco to rent a car a couple of weeks ago and the people at the kiosk were on a video screen and were sitting in Oklahoma. When we talk about the future of work, we’re imagining work where people are able to do more and more work virtually. In this future, companies will have the opportunity to source talent from different cities around the world – they won’t be restricted by their physical location.

What is the role of automation in the future you imagine and what is its impact on work?

The future is written in code, and everyone is trying to figure out how to simplify the processes and make everything streamlined to create the best user experience. And the best user experience is not having a physical person in front of you, it’s having someone that can work from the comfort of their own home and who will serve you.

The notion of remote work is very productive – that’s how we’ve been able to grow PowerToFly so quickly.

When you look at automation and work, you start seeing crazy images of robots moving around with screens and people’s faces on them. It sounds crazy, but we’ve seen it. People thought it was crazy to have a handheld computers a couple of years ago. If we were told told we’d able to watch videos on our phones, and FaceTime with our children in different cities, and do all our work all from something the size of two credit cards, we wouldn’t have believed it.

Another way to think about it is how we used to travel in the past, and how we travel now. Imagine how you used to check in to your flights a couple of years ago, and what happens today. You go, you interact with a kiosk, and it’s able to handle 95% of all cases, and then, for the 5% that need something more complicated, that’s when you interact in person. That’s how we imagine the future – we’ll incorporate heavy automation but have human intervention available at the moments we need it.

What roles do VR and AR play for those entering or already in the workplace?

AR and VR are going to be tremendous for people who have been cut out of the current workforce. Virtual reality can be used as a tool to map our biases. For example, for the last 40 years, orchestras have been doing blind auditions. They put the auditioning musicians behind a screen, because people were inherently biased and they didn’t want to be able to tell if the person was a man or a woman. Once they started doing this, they actually started hiring more women. So, what if you got resumes and blanked out the names at the top and chose people based on their skills. Then, you could conduct interviews via VR where interviewees would choose an avatar and even their voices would be masked – then you could really do gender blind hiring. If you think of the implications of bringing people into the positions they would otherwise normally get cut out of, it’s tremendous.

Then, we can think about the implications for people who haven’t been brought into the workforce yet, or people who have been undervalued because of physical restrictions. I always think of Stephen Hawking as the extreme example. This is a man who cannot move, and yet he’s been able to power huge scientific discoveries, because he has the technology that allows people to actually focus on his brain, rather than his disability. So, for us, VR is going to allow people to do this across the board; if you’re overweight, if you’re a woman who doesn’t interview well, if you’re a person of colour who consistently experiences bias… technology will mask these biases and that’s why VR is so exciting.

How will the workforce become more mom-friendly by 2030?

This is  precisely where PowerToFly comes in. The women who can’t live in big cities, the women who are all over the world and who have no access to the innovation economy can now be integrated into the workforce. This opportunity is relevant not only to women in the highly developed countries that we currently have membership in, but also women outside the metropolitan center, like the woman who followed her husband to a job somewhere rural, where there isn’t necessarily a lot of startups. With our platform, that woman can now participate in the innovation economy, and that’s a big part of our vision and what we’re building.

What types of changes will have to take place over the next 15 years in order to make this transition possible?

We need to start thinking about the workplace differently, we need to change our mindset around the office strictly looking like a traditional office. For example, a few companies have a child friendly policy after 3 p.m., and have set up play rooms on the premises so parents can bring their kids there after school and they can do homework on-site. Another example is an initiative in the Bay Area where companies are setting up buildings that include a childcare facility on site. That’s another way you can change the ratio and make it more possible for women to stay in the workforce.

Childcare costs so much these days, that moms are often losing money if they go back to work and have to pay for full-time childcare. So for a lot of women, it doesn’t make sense. On the flipside, childcare providers are making money, and often they are educated women who are getting paid – so that’s good. We need to look at everything holistically, because those caretakers aren’t going to continue to get paid if mothers can’t afford to pay them.

How do we make sure that we reward these women instead of making it harder for them?

What about disenfranchised single mothers? How can tech and public policy target this demographic in the future?

We heard an outpour of stories last year of single mothers feeling overwhelmed and falling out of the workforce. We had thousands upon thousands of women writing to us saying, “This is amazing, you can’t believe what I’m going through on a daily basis.” Working remotely is the answer to a lot of obstacles that women face. Hearing those stories was incredibly monumental and motivating moment for us to continue the journey we’re on.  

How do you imagine corporations might change their work policies?

The most innovative companies out there are already starting to embrace flexibility, they’re moving toward new types of work arrangements and work from home policies. I think those businesses are starting to embrace the right tools, such as: adjusting processes to include and enforce the right amount of communication, treating employees like adults and not judging them based on face time but rather on productivity, and just trusting people – as long as corporations set these four pillars in place, they will be prepared for the future.

Looking forward to the future, how do you imagine a day in the life of a working mom?

Here’s a crazy sounding future that we hope will happen:

The working mom wakes up, gets herself and her kids ready, and then puts on her Oculus Rift (or whatever the headset will be called at that time) and, instead of driving 45 minutes into an office or get on a train, she dials into a meeting with her colleagues in Bulgaria and is able to physically see and interact with each of her co-workers. She’ll also have some sort of glove on so she can whiteboard in front of them, and she’ll be able to clearly read her colleague’s eye movements and expressions. Then, her developer from Saudi Arabia joins the room and helps her solve some of the issues she’s working on.

After, she can go have a sales meeting with a major tech company and pitch their team of executives virtually – before she leaves at 11:30 to go take one of her children to an appointment with a pediatrician, without having to sacrifice the entire workday. To push it even further, the woman in this scenario doesn’t even have to look like herself. If there are certain biases that she faces about her appearance, she can pretend to look like someone else.

She can do all of this without spending a huge amount of energy and time leaving the house! That is the future that I can imagine; the possibilities are endless.

the author

Emily Empel

Emily Empel is Head of Futures at Idea Couture.

the author

Erika Streisfield

Erika Streisfield is an editorial intern at Idea Couture.