Mobilization of work. Zooming and the advent of hybrid working models are challenging all employers to find this balance. What is best done over Zoom and what should be done in person? How do we communicate/negotiate the new expectations, and will employees balk at in-person requirements? The world has changed, now how do we attract employees back into the “office” to gain the benefits that are frankly needed for companies to thrive and grow.
There have been major disruptions in recent years that promise to change the very nature of work. From the ongoing shifts caused by the COVID19 pandemic, the impacts caused by automation, and other possible disruptions to the status quo, many wonder what the future holds in terms of employment. For example, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute that estimated automation will eliminate 73 million jobs by 2030.
To address this open question, we reached out to successful leaders in business, government, and labor, as well as thought leaders about the future of work to glean their insights and predictions on the future of work and the workplace.
As a part of this interview series called “Preparing For The Future Of Work”, we had the pleasure to interview Dan Diehl, Aircuity CEO and President.
Dan has over twenty-five years of industry expertise across a wide variety of vertical markets and disciplines in commercial and light industrial building markets. Prior to Aircuity, Dan led business development at Lutron Electronics, was a partner for six years with Synergy, and spent 11 years at Johnson Controls, Inc. Mr. Diehl earned a BS degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Maryland and has an MBA from Villanova University.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?
I was born and raised just outside of Philadelphia, PA and a proud alumnus of LaSalle College High School. My core values and purpose-driven mindset were certainly formed there. I then attended the University of Maryland for Mechanical Engineering before starting a career with Johnson Controls. While working at JCI, I attended Villanova University for an MBA. In 2001, I left JCI to be an entrepreneur which was followed by a shorter term engagement with Lutron Electronics. In 2008 I joined Aircuity in its infancy, and for the last 14 years this has been my passion. So, as you can see, my whole career has been working in the “built environment,” most of it introducing technological advancements from controls, to lighting and now air quality, all aimed at providing improved efficiency and improved mission / business outcomes.
I believe some of my passion for the built environment comes innately, as my mother is a Rittenhouse, and her family tree includes a long line of inventors, engineers, architects and builders who helped shaped the Philadelphia area.
In addition to my engineering education and innate interests, I have always really enjoyed the tangible aspect of this field: envisioning, then developing a project, seeing it through to completion, measuring the quantifiable results, and working with various stakeholders to help all of them achieve their objectives. This has always been a rewarding and worthwhile profession for me.
What do you expect to be the major disruptions for employers in the next 10–15 years? How should employers pivot to adapt to these disruptions?
Through my industry lens, these are pretty clear and although each of these topics was being discussed and gaining traction prior to the pandemic, they are now seen by senior leadership as high-priority, core business imperatives, and most are being adopted aggressively: a) hybrid working environments; b) the quality of all indoor spaces specifically relating to health and productivity; c) The ESG movement and sustainable solutions; d) Automation and AI; and e) evolving delivery models to address the above in what has historically been a slower paced and oligopoly driven market.
I believe that a pivot is already occurring. Thankfully and finally, it’s mostly driven by ESG pressures — both top down and very much bottom up. The goal and requirements are now much clearer: we need to get to Net Zero Carbon and we need to provide safer, smarter, and more efficient working and learning environments. These goals have now been defined by independent organizations like the WELL Building Institute and the World Health Organization, which provides additional credibility and oversight mechanisms.
Investments in these priorities will yield greater total long term returns while helping to attract and retain the top talent that employers will need to stay competitive and deliver on their core missions. Now we are seeing these priorities embraced most quickly in Life Sciences, Owner Occupied real estate and in the learning environments of K-12 and Higher Education, and we shouldn’t forget that these institutions are employers too!
Purpose driven organizations will win. Understanding that the environments they provide are strategic assets and not cost centers will deliver competitive advantages, while Net Zero with highly adaptive and safer, more productive environments will be a must vs. a nice to have. Sadly, we only need to look at the severity and frequency of wildfires worldwide to see the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions while providing safe havens of healthy indoor spaces. Simultaneously, there is an increasing global awareness, supported by research, that poor air quality not only impacts our productivity, but directly effects our health and life expectancy. This underscores the critical importance of measuring and managing IAQ in the built environment.
The choice as to whether or not a young person should pursue a college degree was once a “no-brainer”. But with the existence of many high-profile millionaires (and billionaires) who did not earn degrees, as well as the fact that many graduates are saddled with crushing student loan debt and unable to find jobs it has become a much more complex question. What advice would you give to young adults considering whether or not to go to college?
OK, I have three kids in, or soon to be in, college and wife who is a college counselor at a high school. I believe it’s a huge mistake to look at a very few multi-millionaire entrepreneurs and advise that is the way to go. The odds just aren’t there. Yes, it can be done, and I have a huge admiration for any successful entrepreneur, but the much larger percentage of youth are going to need jobs to pay the mortgage and feed their families and many will benefit greatly from the network, education, and interpersonal skills they learn in a higher educational institution.
This is not to say that college is for everyone. I strongly believe that more kids should receive the proper guidance to select their best track, and some may determine that the trades and other careers that don’t require college are a better fit for them.
K-12, Community Colleges, Trade schools and Higher Education will continue to evolve, and I personally believe it needs to, especially in the cost area that you highlight. The cost is not sustainable and a major roadblock to building the future workforce. I was able to work three jobs during the summer and graduate with no student debt and that is now sadly impossible for most.
Lastly, although I am an engineer by degree, I believe the critical skills that are likely to serve individuals well over a lifetime, regardless of changes in the structure of work, include the ability to learn, to continually upgrade your own human capital, creativity, emotional intelligence, analytical thinking skills and the ability to see patterns and put seemingly novel issues into their broader context. All these skills are enhanced by a truly broad educational foundation that includes history, politics, literature, the arts, along with a solid understanding of science, economics and technology.
Whether this foundation requires a 4-year campus experience is debatable, but I do believe that that does provide many people meaningful growth, validation and learning experiences that can’t be replaced virtually or in any single-track type of career training.
Despite the doom and gloom predictions, there are, and likely still will be, jobs available. How do you see job seekers having to change their approaches to finding not only employment, but employment that fits their talents and interests?
As amplified above, I think guidance and diversity of learning is important initially. I chose engineering to eventually be a patent lawyer but upon spending more time in that profession, I found that it didn’t match my personality profile. It is so important to find a meaningful and rewarding career, NOT just a job. Thankfully, I eventually found the engineering and business combination that provided me with a base to work in many roles and a few different disciplines. I really believe that many times it takes outside guidance, guard rails, trial and error and mentorship.
The statistics of artificial intelligence and automation eliminating millions of jobs, appears frightening to some. For example, Walmart aims to eliminate cashiers altogether and Dominos is instituting pizza delivery via driverless vehicles. How should people plan their careers such that they can hedge their bets against being replaced by automation or robots?
This is scary for those jobs you highlighted but that wave is already breaking. While this is true, there are major shortages in technicians and tradespeople in many other sectors and so it’s a continuation from the above question as to the need to more quickly adapt and train in higher value, higher need areas of the economy. There are also the obvious roles of programming, customer support, technicians, etc., that come with automation. Also, AI has a long way to go in many fields. We also will likely continue to have increasing needs in medicine, law, education, government, some directly related to this new world. I am not doom and gloom on this front — there are and will be opportunities out there — so from a planning perspective, it’s all about getting guidance and direction to choose areas that fit the intersection between your passion and abilities.
Technological advances and pandemic restrictions hastened the move to working from home. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?
I see the future as a hybrid, there is no way one size fits all. Some work from home will be warranted and, in some cases, provide even greater focus and productivity. However, there is undeniable benefit from high quality human interaction and collaboration along with the need to introduce new workers into a company or institution’s culture. The hybrid model means that many organizations will need less space per employee, but it will be much higher quality space, tailored to support the mission of the organization and the health and safety of all occupants. It will also be critical that organizations communicate mission-driven, building performance metrics, such as air quality, to all stakeholders, providing transparent access to the underlying, verifiable data.
What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support the fundamental changes to work?
Let’s start with the continuation of diversity and inclusion, especially for the under privileged. Although progress is happening and there are tremendous success stories, it needs to speed up and I would focus mainly on providing much earlier educational, mentorship and guidance support for this community. Having been personally involved in an inner city, mission-driven school for grades 3–8, it’s undeniable, to me anyway, that the need is to reach youth before it’s too late. By too late, I mean after the point at which their vision of their futures and of what is possible has been shaped. To me, this is the single biggest leverage point that can and must be addressed. The evidence shows that this can have a huge impact, yet societally, we haven’t addressed this holistically or at scale, and so too few lucky ones benefit from these unique schooling and guidance opportunities. Obviously, this is a complex challenge and there is much more to do, but for my money, supporting our youth as early as possible has more benefit than any other policy. The odds just go way down when you are trying to course correct later in life and though it can be done for sure, it is far less likely and comes at a much higher cost, to the individual and the society. This investment of money and time is well spent and will yield an unmatched societal ROI.
What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employers to accept? What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employees to accept?
Spending profits towards longer-term, purpose-driven benefits. We are seeing this happen in the ESG movement but ingraining a long-term vision into corporate culture won’t happen overnight. It is great to see many companies begin walking the talk, though, so I am optimistic on this front.
Next, letting go of some degree of control to attract and energize a workforce that can thrive on autonomy.
Lastly, investment in the continuous evolution and improvement of the hybrid working world. Not only by providing working environments that can foster innovation and collaboration but to make this a focus of the organizational mission with ESG + Human Capital as a C-suite concern.
Taking more responsibility for defining their roles and achieving agreed upon outcomes in a more self-directed manner. Working harder to connect professionally, invest in relationships, culture and the larger communities; both at work and in their personal lives.
The COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight the inadequate social safety net that many workers at all pay levels have. Is this something that you think should be addressed? In your opinion how should this be addressed?
This is a critical part of the society delivering greater value for employees (including those who are not currently working) as stakeholders. The simplistic assumptions of the 1980’s shift to shareholder value as the exclusive focus of for-profit companies, along with globalization and technology change have led to increases in income inequality and social instability.
We need to address these problems in innovative ways, not simply by increasing the income safety net that provides a base level of security, but by focusing on an asset building strategy that grows individual’s human capital, that creates more equality of opportunity, that dramatically improves the human-health balance sheet, especially with respect to the preventable diseases that drive the cost of a healthcare system that ends up focused on rework.
As one important example, a structural and cultural innovation that should be considered is changing the way K-12 schools are funded. The current system in many locations is to fund schools at the city or town level via property taxes. That focuses the greatest resources on the students who need them least, leading to a decrease in social mobility.
Ultimately, funding must move to an all-inclusive combination of multi-tiered investment from government, public private partnerships, and more investment of corporate profits in local communities. Community college and technical training programs need to be more accessible and likely funded to some degree by the corporations that will benefit. Again, all of this is being done in pockets with great success, so the challenge is how do we do this at scale?
Despite all that we have said earlier, what is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
The values that younger employees are bringing to the workplace, especially their desire for work that serves a worthwhile purpose, their hyper awareness regarding issues that my generation did not put at the forefront of our work agendas: sustainability, health and wellness, inclusion and diversity. The new workforce is very bright, passionate and they have learned to quickly self-educate via the internet — in most cases more rapidly solving complex problems.
Historically, major disruptions to the status quo in employment, particularly disruptions that result in fewer jobs, are temporary with new jobs replacing the jobs lost. Unfortunately, there has often been a gap between the job losses and the growth of new jobs. What do you think we can do to reduce the length of this gap?
Shift the social model from focusing on financial support to people impacted by the disruptions [as though the disruptions are akin to rare natural disasters] to an ongoing public/private partnership that recognizes economic disruption as a feature of dynamic capitalism and seeks to help individuals and companies constantly upgrade their human capital to take advantage of emerging opportunities, while providing portable, flexible benefits and a safety net that enables worker mobility. There is so much great learning now online (assuming access) that government and large corporations can fund basic training for those sectors of the emerging economy. The goal is to make the systems more resilient, ideally, anti-fragile, so that we don’t have to choose between rapid innovation and productivity growth versus unemployment and social instability. Part of this must be a willingness and social contract between both parties — more and easier access to continuous learning and more reward for those that capitalize on this.
Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Watch In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
The top trends
- Mobilization of work. Zooming and the advent of hybrid working models are challenging all employers to find this balance. What is best done over Zoom and what should be done in person? How do we communicate/negotiate the new expectations, and will employees balk at in-person requirements? The world has changed, now how do we attract employees back into the “office” to gain the benefits that are frankly needed for companies to thrive and grow.
- Quality expectations of the work environment. Is it safe for me to go back to the office? What should I as an employee be asking of my employer and what do I as an employer need to provide to demonstrate a safe and productive working environment? Transparency and trusted data will become critically important for both sides to achieve and maintain the needed social contract. The option to be an ostrich is gone and new regulations will continue to evolve for air quality and sustainability, both self-imposed and via local and federal governments.
- Impact of Digitization and AI. Following the above theme, having reliable data and utilizing it to validate and continuously improve the built environment is a key trend. We are seeing Environmental Health and Safety, Infectious Control and Sustainability professionals seeking access to data that was once either not accessible or not even being measured. The likelihood of AI transforming our field is very high as buildings need to become smarter and more adaptive and resilient. We continue to invest heavily in the communication of ‘intelligent insight’ to this wider and more diverse constituent base. The world doesn’t need more data…it needs actionable information that can be applied quickly to high priority problems.
- ESG becoming “C suite” driver. This may be the most exciting recent development. The carrots and sticks have increased significantly as have the pressures from leadership and the workforce. Moving towards a decarbonized world is now, finally, a must. As with the electrification of cars, the built environment will see a rapid evolution towards this true north. The operation of buildings accounts for almost 30% of carbon emissions, making it a must-fix problem.
- Transformation of the Built Environment in response to above 4 trends. The industry we operate in has historically been slow to embrace innovation. To some degree that is due to the fundamental nature of buildings: they have very long lifecycles (50 or more years), and are expensive to build, operate and renovate. This makes building owners, architects and engineers risk-averse, reluctant to implement new technologies and products that don’t have a proven track record. Another drag on innovation, especially digital transformation, is the competitive structure of the industry. Much of the building controls and HVAC equipment sector is controlled by a small number of very large organizations — think Johnson Controls, Honeywell, Siemens, Trane. Each of these companies develops proprietary products that tend to “lock-in” customers. It is possible to get the various companies’ products to work together (using open protocols like BACnet), but the companies’ strategies are often built on making such interoperability more difficult. This may be good for these large vendors, at least in the short term, but it has limited the value they deliver for customers. It has also stifled industry-wide innovation that would have created much more opportunity over the long term for the vendors themselves. These dynamics are no longer viable.
The urgent imperatives that the industry must address, achieving net-zero carbon while improving the health and safety of all building occupants, demand new capabilities and a new culture. The industry must embrace a much faster innovation cycle, based on true open standards, and focused on maximizing benefits for all stakeholders as the best path to sustainable profitability. The large vendors must adopt a more holistic view of the built environment, one that moves beyond controls and HVAC to include the energy supply side, including solar and microgrids.
More focus is needed on improving existing facilities and newer, easier and more flexible procurement models are required to drive adoption, along with greater support from utilities and government organizations. All of this is to say that new, truly open technologies and procurement models are critical if we are to develop solutions that can meet the current challenges.
Here is one small example of the innovative approaches required. We have recently partnered with an entrepreneurial construction organization to offer our clients a fast track retrofit program to quickly reduce carbon emissions. Part of the program is a creative funding mechanism in which we assume the risk for utility rebates, in effect providing bridge funding that allows the customer to accelerate its retrofit program without tying up additional capital. This innovation was based on a customer-centric view of our business, and we were able to act on it quickly as a small, nimble organization. We believe that the winners in the built environment industry will be those that adopt innovation on all fronts, eliminating adoption friction to ultimately achieve the goals required to address what is now a global crisis affecting us all.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how this quote has shaped your perspective?
“You can’t control and improve what you don’t accurately measure” and “Inspect what you expect, then implement improvement.”
I have found the first saying to be equally true in my personal and professional lives. You must establish an accurate baseline of the current situation, and measure improvement and progress from there. Reaching your goals for weight loss, speed, test scores or air quality all require knowing where you are today. And bad data is useless. We wouldn’t time ourselves for a race with a stopwatch that is only accurate plus or minus 25%.
The second saying is about follow through and how to drive results. Systems, process and follow through is a requirement for improvement. Facing reality is step 1, taking systematic, disciplined action is then required for learning and improvement to occur. Sounds super simple I know, but both can be challenging in practice.
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 or she might just see this if we tag them.
Wow, that is tough as there are so many very interesting and accomplished people who would be incredible to spend time with.
Marc Benioff, Ray Dalio, Elon Musk, Mark Cuban to name a few business folks. I know some of these individuals can be deemed controversial and aren’t perfect, none of us are but unique, independent thinkers for me are the most interesting.
From a sports perspective it would be Kelly Slater, Steve Kerr, Rory McIlroy. I am a huge surf, basketball (playing and coaching) and golf fan, and I highly respect all of them — each for different reasons but all for their high character, sustained excellence and “off the field” contributions, as much as their athletic accomplishments.
Our readers often like to follow our interview subjects’ careers. How can they further follow your work online?
Dan’s Profile — …I try to write and publish regularly, and this goes out to a wider audience. linkedin.com/in/dan-diehl-2a97114
Website aircuity.com (Company Website)
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.