Rod Brace On How We Need To Adjust To The Future Of Work

Transactional Employment Arrangements. When employees feel they must be available 24/7 and do not have clarity on the limitations of what is expected of them, they will disengage or seek employment elsewhere. In the future, employers must be clear about outcomes and timelines and give the employee the latitude to complete the assigned work and then disconnect from the organization for periods of rest and to spend time with family and other interests. Employees will demand a separation from work and other parts of their life.

When it comes to designing the future of work, one size fits none. Discovering success isn’t about a hybrid model or offering remote work options. Individuals and organizations are looking for more freedom. The freedom to choose the work model that makes the most sense. The freedom to choose their own values. And the freedom to pursue what matters most. We reached out to successful leaders and thought leaders across all industries to glean their insights and predictions about how to create a future that works.

As a part of our interview series called “How Employers and Employees are Reworking Work Together,” we had the pleasure to interview Rod Brace.

Dr. Brace is the co-founder of Relia Healthcare Advisors, author and national speaker on the topics of high-reliability organizational principles, leadership and employee engagement. Prior to founding Relia, Rod retired from serving in various senior executive positions for large health systems for 40 years.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today.

My healthcare journey, using the model of high reliability, began early in my career when a young father and husband died of a drug interaction at a hospital for which I served as the CEO. Through that experience I came to know the family of the deceased and felt the pain they experienced because of the medical error. That set me on a journey to purse the high-reliability principle of “zero harm” for my patients and employees.

Let’s zoom out. What do you predict will be the same about work, the workforce and the workplace 10–15 years from now? What do you predict will be different?

The unchanging element will be people. All people have shared universal needs such as autonomy, competence, and relatedness. They want the freedom to achieve the prescribed outcome on their own terms. They want to feel secure in knowing they are competent yet challenged in their work. They want to have a civil and caring relationship with their supervisor and co-workers. That aspect of work will not change.

What will change is the way we engage with these workers, support their progress, and care for them as a human-being. New technology will redefine how we communicate and monitor progress. The physical boundaries of work will evolve in ways we haven’t considered, and communication and opinions will be far more transparent.

What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?

In my experience, working with large health systems, the success-factor is always the middle management team. We have come to believe that bold strategies designed by the senior executives define success, but while important, no strategy can survive a dismal implementation by middle management. Employee engagement and productivity is directly correlated with the ability of direct supervisors to care for their employees and help them make a difference. To future-proof our organizational success we must carefully select and train middle managers.

What do you predict will be the biggest gaps between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect as we move forward? And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?

The past two years of the pandemic have emboldened employees to demand the fulfillment of some long-desired components of work. In general, employees want to be cared for and make a difference. Historically, employees have lowered their expectations in exchange for some degree of routine compensation. The pandemic forced employees to be reflective about what they desire from their work experience and as a result they are demanding autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Successful leaders are working quickly to fulfill those universal needs for employees.

Specifically, leaders must redefine the work experience as a caring transaction. The transaction is a simple statement of expectations for which, once accomplished, the employee will receive compensation and continued support by the organizational leaders. This is different than guilting the employee into believing they are part of a family for which they must devote 100% of their time, energy, and self. That is an unrealistic and mentally harmful paradigm.

A caring transaction is simple but not easy. This transaction must be based on a very clear description of what is expected of the employee. Most leaders, while they have individualized expectations of every employee, have not taken the time to clearly express those expectations to their employees. As a result, employees feel insecure in the employment arrangement because they do not know if they are meeting expectations. Leaders must be clear in their expectations and then provide frequent feedback. Leaders must also create a culture of transparency in which employees feel comfortable speaking to their leader about what they need to feel safe as well as challenges they are encountering that prevent them from making daily progress to the work they find meaningful.

We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?

The permission to work from home has enlightened employees as to the possibilities. Many options that employees have long desired, such as working remotely, escaping micro-management pressures, being asked what they need, were proven to be possible during the pandemic. Prior to the health crisis, employees where told, and they believed, that these exceptions to tradition were not possible. Now, employees are emboldened to demand work concessions that were once felt to be unachievable.

This enlightened and emboldened paradigm will cause employees to be more prescriptive in their work-related demands as well as unite with fellow employees to secure these concessions for all employees. Social media will continue to provide a platform for employees to share with prospective employees whether these demands are being met by that specific employer. Supervisors will be openly graded on their performance creating high demand for these effective leaders causing organizations to seek and financially reward them to attract and retain them in an organization.

We’ve all read the headlines about how the pandemic reshaped the workforce. What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support a future of work that works for everyone?

In many ways, the pandemic has revealed the underside of civilization. It is unlikely that societal norms will change due to the pandemic experience. It is more likely, that societal members will emerge with a more cautious and calloused approach to interacting with others. Frontline employees have been met with hostility, incivility, and abuse during the pandemic. It is unlikely that human nature will change, so employers must create ways to protect their employees from these abuses. The customer, despite the adage, is not always right. Employers must protect their employees as a valued human asset.

New ways to interact will be developed using technology to minimize the amount of contact between customer/client and the provider of the product of service affording some protection to employees. Artificial intelligence will continue to supplement (not replace) human interactions making transactions less personalized. Given the added efficiency that this depersonalized approach brings, many customers/clients will come to prefer this detached interaction.

What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

The difficult pandemic years have renewed my hope that employees will be valued and frequently consulted for their input. Employees have a desire to be cared for and make a difference. Now that employers have seen how quickly employees can become a scarce resource, I am hopeful employers will seek to understand the science of human engagement and create a work environment in which employees can achieve meaningful work daily.

Our collective mental health and wellbeing are now considered collateral as we consider the future of work. What innovative strategies do you see employers offering to help improve and optimize their employee’s mental health and wellbeing?

The recognition of well-being and mental health as being important responsibilities of the employer has been a significant breakthrough in employee relations. Employees have long been treated as easily replaceable commodities by some employers. The enlightened employers are investing in middle managers to equip them to develop work environments that promote well-being. These organizations are well-versed in the concepts of psychological safety and are selecting managers for their ability to create that safe and transparent environment. Successful employers are limiting the “always on” culture of 24/7 employee availability that results in unrealistic and unhealthy expectations of employees. In the same way large corporations have employed company nurses or physicians, all employers must provide mental health support. The ability to access these services remotely will scale the service such that all employers can make these important services available as a competitive advantage as an employer, but more importantly, as fulfillment of their moral obligation as an employer.

It seems like there’s a new headline every day. ‘The Great Resignation’. ‘The Great Reconfiguration’. And now the ‘Great Reevaluation’. What are the most important messages leaders need to hear from these headlines? How do company cultures need to evolve?

I prefer to call it “The Great Awakening”. Employees have awakened to the fact that they have the power to demand and receive some key universal needs. Employers have awakened to the need to care more deeply about their workforce. Leaders should clearly hear that people will continue to have options for their employment and the pandemic has elevated the desire among employees to seek what is best for them, their families, and their future career. A caring culture must evolve that views employees as valued contributors to not only the work to be performed but the creation of strategy, process improvement, and organizational engagement. Employees desire to be integral to the operations of the organization and if allowed to do so, they will be more highly engaged and loyal to the meaningful work provided by the organization. Company culture must be transparent, caring, and clear about roles and goals.

Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Highly Defined Work Boundaries. Employees will come to expect much greater clarity in what work they are to perform, where they are to perform it, and when it is to be completed. By having this information, they will be in greater control of their performance. I work in healthcare, where predictability, during the pandemic has been difficulty for nurses and physicians. As a result, they are experiencing record levels of burnout and moral injury. Rather than healthcare organizations limiting services to protect their staff, these highly trained professionals are leaving medicine. If these healthcare providers had protective boundaries in place to protect their health and mental well-being, they would not resign in such mass.
  2. Transactional Employment Arrangements. When employees feel they must be available 24/7 and do not have clarity on the limitations of what is expected of them, they will disengage or seek employment elsewhere. In the future, employers must be clear about outcomes and timelines and give the employee the latitude to complete the assigned work and then disconnect from the organization for periods of rest and to spend time with family and other interests. Employees will demand a separation from work and other parts of their life.
  3. Contracting Arrangements. The trend toward self-employment and entrepreneurship will continue to grow leaving traditional employment arrangements subject to redefinition and negotiation. Employers must evolve their organizational design to allow “free agents” to complete the work as self-employed contractors. Driven by a sense of autonomy, employees will seek greater control over their work arrangements. I have seen positions which traditionally required someone to be onsite allowed to be disconnected from a physical place during the pandemic. In healthcare, this even includes the physician visit. Using tele-health technology and remote biomonitoring, a physician can see and treat patients remotely. This ability to disconnect from a physical site allows the “free agent” physician to provide their services to multiple employers as an independent contractor. This trend will continue in unprecedented ways.
  4. Manager Popularity Contests. With the ever-increasing transparency of social media, the proficiency of managers and executives will be reported more openly and formally in the future. These leaders will be transparently graded and critiqued by anonymous employees thereby creating a market for excellent leaders. This visibility into leadership effectiveness, will place these effective leaders in high demand among employers. In a sense, it will be much like a collegiate basketball or football player wanting to play for the coach that will develop them for professional opportunities. These superstar coaches will receive much attention and commensurate financial offers from a wider array of employers. But much like being a college coach, having an “off season” as reported by employees will result in a quick departure from the organizational team.
  5. A Focus on Meaningful Work. Employee engagement will come to be known as the “secret sauce” for organizational success. Presently, as much as 60% of the workforce is not highly engaged in their work. This creates a suboptimization of labor which is quite costly. Future organizations will come to understand the science of engagement, how to hire for intrinsic motivation, the variables of an organization that disengage as well has how all these elements create meaningful work for the employee. In my experience, by hiring someone who finds my work meaningful, and then reminding them of the meaningful work they are accomplishing, they are more engaged, transparent, and loyal to by leadership.

I keep quotes on my desk and on scraps of paper to stay inspired. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective?

“Strive to be an endearing leader.” I learned early on in my career that the use of coercive power or my position on an organizational chart can be effective in getting people to work, but only in the short-term. So, I created the quote and adopted it as my mantra. I want people to follow me because they are endeared to me as their leader. To do so, they must feel like I care for them as a person and that I am working to create an environment in which they can make a difference in their work. The relationship as an endearing leader is for life. I have many past employees who keep in touch with me, seek guidance, and express their continue appreciation for me and what I invested in them. That is far more important than any career success I would have accomplished by using people.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she, or they might just see this if we tag them.

Dr. Amy Edmondson is unique in the world of academics as a scholar whose work is so widely cited and adopted in many organizations. I am fascinated, not only by her work, but how she has stepped into the workplace as a highly influential voice and writer. She is an important clarifying voice of hope for employees and leaders alike.

Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?

They can contact me at or follow my articles on LinkedIn @rodbrace. Additionally they can learn more about employee engagement by picking up a copy of my book Four Conversations.

Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.