Aaron Bradley, University of Cincinnati
Tell us about your role and some of the initiatives you are working on at UC.
I am an Associate Professor at the University of Cincinnati where I focus on innovation and industry partnered experiential learning. I teach classes and lead programs on design thinking, innovation, and digital storytelling. Most of the classes and programs I am involved with are collaborations with an industry or community partner that wants to work with our students to explore creative solutions for real challenges they are facing or trends that exist in the world. I am also the faculty lead for a new multi-disciplinary innovation scholars’ program that we are building and launching at UC this coming year. Innovation and future-focused work like this is iterative, so it is exciting to be able to create new models and continuously be testing out ideas for what is next on the horizon.
What is your background and how did you end up at UC teaching these experiential learning and innovation courses?
My life and career path has been non-linear, which I think has helped me empathize and identify with some of the specific challenges and opportunities emerging in the future of work. My undergraduate degree is in marketing and I worked in some general marketing, event, and program management roles early in my career. After graduate school I taught business management and marketing at a career-technical institute for several years, which also included developing curriculum and creating experiential learning opportunities for a new internship program. Things were going great for me, but I was also pursuing an amateur music career as a side job, so I was writing songs and playing shows with my band. There were some doors that opened in the music industry that gave me an opportunity to take my music career this to the next level. This meant I would have to take a big risk and step away from the steady path of my teaching career. My wife and I decided that if I did not take the opportunity, we would always wonder what might have happened. I made the very logical decision to quit my steady teaching job and moved to Nashville, Tennessee so I could play in a rock band and pursue a career in the music industry. There are many great stories and life lessons from that journey, but one that really became critical to my career at UC was understanding the idea of “commercializing creativity”. This really came to life when I ended up running a music venue that had a lot of programming for teenagers and young bands trying to get their start. I took the lessons I had learned from a combination of marketing, teaching, and “living the dream” in Nashville (experiential learning) and started working with some of these young bands to develop their craft and understand the transition from being passionate about music to the work of commercializing their creativity. I didn’t realize it at that time, but those skills would be transferrable to creative work outside of music. The networking that came from that experience is also what ultimately led me to UC. I was hiring interns from several local colleges, which led to me being invited to speak in some of their classes. While visiting these classes, I was able to meet many professors and build a professional network in academia. Eventually it was obvious that my time in the music industry had run its course and I was ready to make a change. I explored several options, but ultimately getting back into education was what I always wanted. Like so many stories of networking, I reached out to some of the contacts I had made at UC just to ask about the overall landscape. In one of those initial conversations, I found out that a new position had been created and posted literally a few days earlier. That position was focused on developing experiential learning partnerships in the creative industry. After a long interview process, I landed the role and had the opportunity to start applying this unique combination of past experiences and skills to a completely new landscape. I eventually transitioned into a faculty role where I saw the unique opportunity to start engaging our experiential partners in new ways. This led to creating courses that could offer experiential learning and training in the classroom on campus, instead of having students on site at another organization such as with a traditional internship or co-op. That is what I have been doing for the last six years now – creating new courses and educational programming that blurs the lines between university and industry.
How does your background and life experience help you when teaching experiential learning and innovation courses?
I mentioned this earlier, but I think one of the biggest contributors is having experienced such a non-linear career path and having to kind of “re-invent” myself professionally a few times. Every job I have done throughout my career has involved creating, doing something completely new, or adapting to the challenges and opportunities that the world creates in real time. These experiences in my life symbolize the spirit of both innovation and experiential learning. One of my favorite simple definitions of innovation is “creating new to the world ideas,” which is kind of what I have been doing throughout my career journey. While I value the things that I have learned while earning my college degrees, it is the life experiences that have really shaped my career path and honed the skills I now use every day as a professor and consultant.
What’s the origin story of the Future of Work research that you’re doing?
My first connection to this work came through an innovation class that I co-taught back in 2016 with a UC alum who is a partner at a local architecture firm. Their firm, BHDP Architecture, was interested in exploring what societal shifts and technology advancement might mean for their clients and workplace designs. BHDP had been doing some internal research on these trends but thought it would be interesting to involve undergraduate students – the people who will graduate into the field and become the “future of work” – in the research. BHDP sponsored an architecture studio in the college of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) on this future of work topic. As an interesting side note, the earliest version of this project was unofficially called “Workplace 2020” and now here we are in 2021 living out an unexpected “future” where there is still much uncertainty about the future of work. Eventually BHDP realized that having primarily architects and interior designers doing the research kept revolving back to the design of physical spaces or the future workplace instead of the future of work. The real excitement and opportunity for innovation was in the larger questions of workforce culture and mindsets, the changing ways productivity is measured and valued, and what unites an economy that is rapidly changing and increasingly reliant on knowledge-based work instead of manual labor. That is where the class I was involved in started to evolve. The first major shift was making the class transdisciplinary instead of only DAAP students. We still had design students in the class, but they were teamed up with students from business and entrepreneurship, engineering, humanities, medical sciences, and even fine arts. We used a variety of design thinking, design research methods, and other tools to really put the focus on the human experience and the societal macro-trends. This helped pull the project away from focusing on workplace design and more toward those larger questions of culture and human behavior. I continued to teach that class in collaboration with BHDP for three years until we reached the point where we felt like it was time for the “next evolution” of this Future of Work research.
What was that “next evolution” of the Future of Work project?
The plan going into Summer 2020 was to hire a six-person, cross-disciplinary team of co-op students to take all our research from the last three years and turn it into “activation guides” and speculative trend reports for industry. Right as we were making job offers, the COVID-19 pandemic caused massive economic and public health uncertainty in the United States, so we had to adjust from our initial plan. I still had funding to hire one student as a research assistant, so we pivoted from a cross-disciplinary team of six to hiring a first-year industrial design student from UC’s honors program as a research assistant for the summer. Everyone was suddenly working remote or virtual, which included our “team” of two people with her working from home in Detroit and with me working here in Cincinnati. We also decided to shift the focus away from reporting on past projects and instead leaned into the uncertainty of the moment with COVID and the disruption to traditional working environments. It was messy because the world was changing so quickly and everyone was in a state of chaos, but it would have been a total miss for us to not embrace the ambiguity of the moment when we were all literally seeing the future of work being disrupted right in front of us.
How did you adapt the collaboration into a virtual environment?
We used a combination of Google docs, Microsoft Teams chat, and an online whiteboard/collaboration tool called MURAL to share resources, have ongoing “conversations” digitally, and collaborate asynchronously. It was obviously an adjustment for both of us to learn how to do all of this through a computer while she was in Detroit and I was in Cincinnati, but I think it made the project stronger because we were experiencing it in real time just like everyone else that was trying to figure out what the future of work would look like. Building empathy with your stakeholders is one of the most important things that sets design research and human centric design up for success! I think the two of us having to work in different cities and being able to effectively collaborate on this project remotely definitely helped with empathy building.
What did the research project turn into with the new focus and team?
We essentially structured our work as a design research project, with the premise that we would let our exploration of the current moment inform our focus for the rest of the project. An important part of the innovation projects that I lead is starting by “falling in love with the problem, not the solution.” To do that, we started with a few weeks of what I call “landscape research,” where we essentially read and viewed everything possible (from credible sources) that was coming out about remote work, market disruption, consumer confidence, unemployment stats by sector, etc., etc. There was no shortage of trend reports, data dashboards, message boards, influencer editorials, and free virtual events to consume. We also had a data set of more than 400 responses to an employer survey that my future of work class conducted in April 2020, right as the world had been thrust into an unplanned “new normal”. We had responses from professionals across the country (and even a few from other countries) who worked in a variety of industries and jobs. They ranged from people in their early 20’s in their first full-time job after university to people in their 60’s evaluating whether this meant the end of their career as they once knew it. My student research assistant and I dove deep into all of these sources and started documenting themes, noteworthy stats and quotes, and potential patterns or connections in seemingly unrelated areas. Much like back in the earliest origins of this project, we felt that we could add a unique voice to the larger conversation by bringing in the perspective of current university students. These current students were watching the economy become unstable and the jobs that they thought they would graduate into get completely disrupted. We set up a series of more than 40 in-depth interviews with undergraduate students from multiple discipline backgrounds and universities across the country. Our survey asked the students about how the disruption caused by COVID was affecting their confidence in the school and the major they had chosen, their future job prospects, and even what they hoped for from the rest of their university career. Doing these interviews exclusively through video calls was also an adjustment, but it had some unexpected benefits like making it easy to record them for future review and being able to easily connect with students across the country without the barrier of travel.
What are some of the things you found from these student interviews?
As with the landscape research, we uncovered a few themes. One of the most thought-provoking things we kept hearing was a note of cautious optimism about the future of work, despite the current challenges. Not every student expressed this optimism, but we saw a pattern of students who had chosen their major and set future career goals based on immersive or memorable experiences at formative times in their lives. Those students were now seeing the current disruptions happening all around them in much the same way – as simply life experiences that would shape the next step in their life. They were far less concerned about a certain job or a specific career being impacted than either of us expected. They spoke more about how they were adapting to the changes and what they planned to do differently in the coming months. Their insights and perspectives were all tempered with resilience and acceptance of the inevitable changes to come. We dug deeper into these responses and started to cross reference some of these ideas with existing literature on the importance of experiential learning and fostering adaptability as a priority for future career success. We hadn’t set out to prove anything about experiential learning, but we ended up finding a distinct pattern: Students who had made their educational and career decisions based on experiential learning were much more confident about what the future of work would look like for them now, even in the midst of massive workforce disruption and an uncertain future. They seemed less focused on how a certain job might not exist anymore, but instead were cautiously optimistic about how this disruption might be a chance for them to help create a new future of work that they would get to participate in building. We also discovered interesting evidence that many students have been inspired by the power of challenging dated systems and mindsets, both for the workforce and for social systems. One of the most powerful examples of this came from an interview with a high-performing graduating senior who had multiple job offers. That student told us, “I’m stepping back from thinking about how my career will help me make money, and asking – what kind of person am I going to be, and what’s the work to be done in this broken world?”
Do you think this has any implications for colleges and universities?
One of my biggest take-aways from this research is as much about the future of education as it is the future of work. It has reinforced the absolute necessity of creating flexible and adaptable educational experiences that can adjust with the world outside of higher education. Anyone who works at a college or university knows how long it takes to implement significant curricular changes or modify degree programs. As the pace of change in the world accelerates, I think our educational delivery methods must be set up in a way that allows them to keep up with, or ideally even anticipate and pre-emptively prepare for, the changes happening in the world outside of academia. I have been teaching industry partnered classes for several years now and I feel that experience has really helped with this because the students are not working on something theoretical; they are solving for ways to adapt to real problems and challenges that an industry partner has at that time. There is not one “right” answer to the challenge, just like there is not one “right” answer to what the future of work will be after this pandemic. I also think that institutions can and should make a priority of weaving social awareness, activism, and inclusive excellence into multiple touchpoints of the educational experience. This goes beyond taking one class about diversity or cultural differences. The experience needs to be embedded into the entire university experience in a way that every student will graduate with a greater sense of responsibility for creating a more inclusive and equitable world, along with having a set of skills and tools to be a part of positive change.
Did the research also produce anything specifically relevant to industry partners?
Yes, definitely! In addition to interviewing students, we also collected data from professionals in various roles and industries across the country. Some of these were from a nationwide survey we conducted. The others were from interviews we did with professionals to unpack more of their responses and experiences. Not surprisingly, a lot of what we heard was focused on the unexpected shift to primarily remote or distributed work. As with the students we interviewed, there were varying levels of acceptance and adaptation held by various professionals. In most cases, each person’s willingness to adapt to the new remote-work reality seemed to correlate with the role that work played in their social and relational life or how much their position at work influenced their own personal identity. Not surprisingly, people that relied on or enjoyed the social and relational elements of going to an office, were more apprehensive about the shift to working remotely. Those people who viewed their professional role as a major part of their personal identity were also less excited about the reality that their work could effectively be done without going into a physical office and interacting face to face with colleagues, which in most cases was pretty much being proven right in front of them. The other group of people that were reluctant to adapt were people who seemed to psychologically or emotionally associate professional accomplishment and success with seeing their team physically in an office. These people were primarily in management or leadership positions and frequently emphasized the priority of getting back to the office as soon as possible. I categorized these as the “rush to return” group. The danger is that this messaging can communicate distrust and a lack of empathy or care for employees who may not be on the same page. It also could potentially cause issues for those employees who have family, health, or home situations that make working remotely extremely helpful or essential. Over time this subtle (or overt) messaging can erode culture, which ultimately can lead to employee turnover. The majority of the people fell into a category I call the “hybrid converts”. These are professionals in knowledge-based jobs who are experiencing remote or distributed work for the first time due to the pandemic. They may not have been prepared to be a 100% remote employee, but they are finding they like a lot of the flexibility that it brings. They don’t necessarily want to stay completely remote forever, but they also prefer a future where they will not return to an office every day for 40+ hours a week. They expressed feeling validated or awakened to the possibilities that forced disruption caused. People said things like “prove to me that we need to be in person all the time”. Aside from the remote-working aspects, we also had some really inspiring interviews with professionals expressing a hopeful, almost post-WWII era kind of optimism of what this forced adaption might spur in terms of innovation and future potential. They talked about the potential of a global collective voice saying “Can you believe we made it through that? Just think what’s possible now!” If I look at it from the glass-half-full perspective, we could be on the precipice of a major change for the good when it comes to the future of work; change that will be led by people who are new believers in what is possible and have adopted the mindset of creating the future they want to experience.
Are there any general recommendations about the future of work that you have for companies or organizations based on this research?
A lot of the responses from interviews suggest that disruptions to the economy and work norms due to COVID-19 created a period of reflective re-evaluation of priorities, habits, and future career paths at the individual worker level. I think the forced disruption of routine, job loss, changing expectations within jobs, and reduced social outlets created somewhat of a “hard reset” for people who were previously just staying in step with perceived expectations and norms. I would challenge us all to shift our mindset and energy away from “getting back to normal.” I have also heard terms like “new normal” or even “the next normal,” which feel like is a better way to frame it. In terms of the lessons from this research and the future of work, I would frame the next normal as more of a “reboot and revolution”. I think the ground of what “normal” is has been shaken hard enough that we cannot just go back to previous habits, structures, and norms. Hundreds of thousands of people across the world have discovered, or have been able to validate, that they can effectively do their jobs without physically going to an office every day. Drastic increases in demand have accelerated technological advancements for remote collaboration and communication tools. Entire market segments for products and services have been created and decimated. There are also massive changes in people’s lifestyles that are not directly related to work itself but that will have a halo effect on things like where people choose to live geographically, the size and characteristics of a home, what delivery services exist in their neighborhood, whether they need a car, etc. I think companies will ultimately have to adapt and allow at least a percentage of their employees work remotely in perpetuity. This changes where and how organizations will need to recruit, along with the characteristics they will need to base their recruiting on. Organizations that build structures and workflows that allow for more individual and small-team autonomy will be better positioned to flex with increasingly distributed teams. Matthew Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress + Automattic, has some great material on this topic that I found extremely relevant and insightful while working on this project. I also think that organizations will need to put some effort into thinking about how to create and maintain organizational culture as their distributed workforce likely increases over time. As offices are re-populated at any level, there needs to be purposeful language, policies, and team norms that mitigate isolation and exclusion of distributed employees. Employees need psychological safety to perform their best and feel connected to the work they are doing. In the middle of a pandemic, some of that safety comes just from knowing they will be physically safe, but it also comes from knowing they are valued, trusted, and that their job is secure even if the way they are doing their work looks different now. Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups is one of my favorite books on building organizational cultures that thrive against the odds. It was not written from the perspective of distributed work teams, but I think the lessons are relatable and adaptable to the future of work in this context.
Researching the future of work seems very timely in a year like 2020. How much of your recent work was uniquely influenced by the chaos of this last year?
I think that without the disruption caused by the pandemic, a lot of the things we uncovered would still be true and would have come to pass eventually. However, it would have been more of a gradual road of subtle shifts in culture and practice over the course of several years or possibly even decades. As technology advanced and societal norms changed, early adopters (both companies and individuals) would eventually spread new ideas, mindsets, and ways of working into majority culture the same way the diffusion of innovation theory shows how new product innovations progress toward use by the masses. In the summer of 2020, we experienced a global pandemic layered on significant technological, cultural, societal, political, and generational shifts that had been there for years but were able to stay somewhat beneath the surface. These were macro-trends already in motion, but they were moving more like the underwater currents and tides that create waves, rather than the breaking waves that you see, hear, and can get knocked down by when you go to the beach. The convergence of such extreme circumstances accelerated the process of these tides and currents turning into crashing waves that we had no choice but to grapple with and respond to.
Based on your research and knowledge, how do you predict employers will handle their policies related to the future of work with the changing expectations from their employees related to the future of work? Do you anticipate differences in the private sector compared to the public sector?
I think we are right at the beginning of what will ultimately be a radical change in the way knowledge-based work is performed in the future. We have all been part of an unexpected, wide-spread experiment that in many cases has proven that most people’s jobs can be done remotely. We have also learned that there are lots of different workflows and tools that make collaboration and efficiency possible even if someone is not in a physical office or sitting across the table from a colleague. I predict the biggest policy changes across the board will be things that allow for more flexibility in work locations and schedules. It is going to be difficult for companies to suddenly expect all their employees to completely revert to the “old” (pre-pandemic) ways of working when many people have found both personal and professional benefits to the new ways of working that have been discovered during the pandemic. I predict a lot of jobs that were previously assumed to be “in person” positions will start to have a lot more flexibility to include a mix of in-person and remote work. Similarly, I think decisions about work schedules and locations will start being made at more of a team or department-based level, rather than companywide. Smaller teams will need to define their own protocols for what gets sent as an email versus what can be done with a chat thread in something like Teams or Slack. There will need to be expectations (written or unwritten) about turning cameras on or off during a video call. Some of these things will not necessarily be official company policies, but they will be critical to the DNA of how a company or team functions. Each organization needs to make sure that all employees are on the same page and it will be essential for new employees to learn these cultural expectations during on-boarding process. In terms of private and public sectors, I think much of what is happening has already affected both sectors and will continue to impact both sectors in the future. It stands to reason that organizations in both sectors will have to adapt and adjust as things in the world continue to change. In my experience, the public sector tends to move a little slower than the private sector when adapting to change, but in this case, we have all experienced such a radical upheaval that I think both sectors have largely kept pace with one another.
Do you plan to continue and expand this research project? Do you anticipate any additional related research projects that you might pursue based on what you have learned from this project?
This topic is so dynamic, timely, and ever-changing that I think it will always be something I will work on in various forms. I plan on teaching another honors seminar on the future of work in Spring 2022 semester and I am sure this whole topic will have taken on new life by then.
What are some other projects you have in the pipeline for 2021 and beyond?
Based on this research and some of my experiences with teaching industry-partnered classes, I’m becoming more and more interested in the idea of creating experiential education programs and models that provide the structural framework for industry collaboration on short notice. For example, this summer I created something called the Virtual Innovation Studio for students at UC. The Virtual Innovation Studio (VIS) is a model that allows us to work with multiple industry partners in any given semester and we can create a new project with as little as five weeks of lead time. Students in VIS participate in a series of 5-week “innovation sprints” where we use design thinking, design research, and human-centric design tools to complete a real project for an industry partner. The weekly workflow and all of the structure for engagement is relatively the same for every project, but we can add new projects on short notice and even tackle multiple projects from the same partner over the span of multiple 5-week sprints. This gives us the freedom to adapt the experience to challenges that industry partners are having in pretty close to real time. The learning objectives for the experience can stay the same because they are associated with things like how to work on a distributed team, how to effectively communicate abstract ideas visually, client interaction and presentation skills, and applying design thinking and research to a project – things that can be applied to a variety of project types and scopes. The partner’s specific project just becomes the vehicle for those learning objectives to be applied. I have also been recording a podcast series called Undisciplined by Design that focuses on the power of cross disciplinary collaboration in innovation. We had recorded several episodes before the pandemic started, but we had not yet released them. When COVID hit, a local cable provider presented us with an opportunity for sponsorship and a new platform, so we adapted the podcast to a TV/Web series called Distanced by Design where we are now talking to creative leaders about leveraging innovation during the pandemic and its role in creating our post-pandemic future. The podcast is available on Anchor, Spotify, and all the standard platforms. The TV/Web series is on local cable here in Cincinnati and on YouTube. I’m also leading the development and launch of a new multi-disciplinary innovation immersion program at the University of Cincinnati in 2021 called the NEXT Innovation Scholars program. This program will be highly experiential and connect students with the local, national, and global innovation ecosystem. I am super excited to develop this program while working with a diverse and academically strong group of student leaders who can embrace ambiguity and help to reimagine the future of work.
About Aaron Bradley
Aaron Bradley is an Associate Professor and Faculty Lead of the NEXT Innovation Scholars program – a signature cross-disciplinary innovation initiative at the University of Cincinnati. He teaches courses on design thinking, innovation, and digital storytelling, and regularly leads a variety of industry-sponsored design sprints and ideation sessions with students from multiple colleges, academic years, and areas of study. His expertise with experiential learning and the development of university/industry partnerships has led to the creation of multiple new courses and programs, including the development of the nation’s first and only cooperative education program for fine arts students, and the creation of the “Virtual Innovation Studio”, a cross-disciplinary student consultancy that completes innovation and design research projects for industry clients while working 100% remotely. Professor Bradley’s research and scholarly expertise includes the future of work, the future of education, and the evolving role of creativity as a professional skill.