3M has a ‘future of work manager’—here’s why her goal is to work herself out of a job

Fortune· Courtesy of 3M
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Successfully executing on a hybrid plan continues to vex many companies, whose tired return-to-office mandates remain difficult to enforce, and whose employees remain difficult to please. Who better to cut through the noise and disillusionment and create something close to a sustainable middle ground than an expert in the next iteration of the workforce?

If such a person exists (even the experts have admitted they’re “building the plane while flying it”), it’s probably someone like Beth Lokken.

A career strategy and marketing professional, Lokken’s current title at 3M—the manufacturing conglomerate at No. 116 on the Fortune 500—is “Future of Work Manager.” The HR team role has only existed since 2021, when 3M’s offices were just beginning to reopen. Initially, Lokken’s title was “workplace strategy manager,” but as future of work experts (and indeed, journalists reporting on their work) began cropping up like mushrooms across the private sector, her title changed and her work deepened.

If she does her job right, Lokken tells Fortune in an interview, one day none of these jobs will exist at all.

Defining the future

At 3M, she and her team see the amorphous definition of “future of work” as encompassing “changes to work, the workforce, the workplace, who does the work, how it gets done, where and when, and so on,” she says. “That’s where my role sits.” In the near term, she’s focused on advancing flexibility for 3M’s sprawling international workforce, alongside weighing in on other HR-related priorities, like people management and AI integration.

Asked how she describes the abstract “future of work manger” role, Lokken quotes another field expert, Lauren DeYoung, “workplace futurist” at Allstate Insurance, who says it’s driven by the question, “how do we make distributed work work?”

3M’s answer: a policy dubbed “Work Your Way,” which—like its popular companions at firms like Spotify and Atlassian—is a trust-based role centered on maximum flexibility.

“We are aiming to deliver both a superlative employee experience and business performance,” Aman Gupta, 3M’s vice president of Enterprise Workplace Strategy, said of the plan in 2021. “It is about getting your work done and delivering results. Not about where you sit and what time you logged on.”

Each employee, together with their manager, considers the plausible requirements of in-person work for both the role and the larger team, Lokken explains. That conversation ends with many 3M employees working remotely; fewer than 20% of desk workers spend most of their time on-site, which is significantly below the national average.

“3M is very much a science-based company; following the evidence and the science is really at the heart of everything we do,” Lokken says. “The evidence so far suggests this model is working.”

Why flex is the way forward

The entire idea of executing a flexible-work plan—much less a return-to-office plan—seemed a bit more tenable in 2021 and 2022, Lokken says, when most people in her shoes had “great support” from the C-suite in pulling those plans off. But since then, as different firms have splintered off in new directions, the initial groundswell has tapered too, making the plans even harder to implement.

“We’ve always been a global company, and our teams will continue growing in a distributed way,” she says. “A third of our managers have a direct report in another country; we need to work in a way that adapts to that new reality, of mainly hybrid, distributed teams.”

Lokken and her team are “trying to refocus away from ‘Work Your Way’ as a policy,” instead focusing on the way work is actually accomplished, she says. “This is a trust base—we trust you to know what we need.”

Then there’s the productivity argument. As it pertains to measurable outcomes faltering, Lokken remains unconvinced that remote work makes even a dent. “We know productive teams are built on trust, and we enable trust with this model.”

But if the system works too effectively, that could cost Lokken her job, at least as it exists today.

“I hope to work myself out of a job,” she adds. “I hope ‘Work Your Way’ becomes the way you work, and no longer needs to be created.” But that doesn’t mean the entire speciality is set to dissolve. “I think there’s always a role for futurists: people thinking about what the world will look like five years from now.” Plus, not every company necessarily needs a designated expert on staff when executing a new hybrid plan, she said, but all HR strategy should center on “what we think the future will look like.”

Lokken, who studied archeology and anthropology in college, steadfastly believes that means of connecting and communicating have always changed and evolved—and will continue to do so. “I used to study stone tools and cave paintings,” she recalls. “That’s something that’s easy to forget about; it’s easy to think this is the way things have always been done.”

Rather than standing athwart to the shifting tides and hoping they recede, Lokken galvanizes leaders to get excited by the coming changes—and avoid grasping the reins of control too tightly. Just for good measure, she emphasizes that “3M, like I said, is a science company.” That means its leadership “follows the science and we've recognized that things might shift and evolve and we’ll need to adapt.” Its bottom line? “We don’t think mandates are the way to adapt.”

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com