Despite automation threat, Smartsheet CEO sees ‘the future of work remaining very human’

Smartsheet CEO Mark Mader rings the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange in 2018. (NYSE Photo)

The doomsday headlines about automation and job displacement continue to pile up. Nearly half of all jobs are at risk, one report said. Another found that white-collar jobs once thought safe are in the crosshairs.

Smartsheet CEO Mark Mader doesn’t buy it.

“I fundamentally don’t believe that,” Mader said of automation displacing huge swaths of workers during a recent speech at Seattle University’s Albers School of Business and Economics. “There is so much unstructured work for which you can’t actually program the robot to do that work.”

To be sure, Smartsheet relies on automation plenty. The public “collaboration work management” company’s software includes the ability to “automate repetitive, manual tasks such as approvals, status updates, and reminders.”

This automation, Mader says, is not about replacing jobs, but freeing up people to think critically about the business and how they can best serve customers. Mader sees the “future of work remaining very human.”

These types of arguments tend to ignore the idea that even if automation isn’t directly eliminating jobs, it is meant to increase the number of things someone can do in an hour or day. That means, in theory, a company would need less people.

That’s another argument Mader doesn’t buy into. In his mind, efficiency doesn’t mean cramming in a whole bunch of extra tasks.

“With that time, that surplus, I want you to figure out how you can actually make the thing better.”

Here are a few other key themes from Mader’s talk:

Culture add over culture fit

Smartsheet now has more than 1,500 people spread across offices in the Seattle area, Boston, London, Edinburgh and Sydney. The company wants to keep a few core values intact across the offices — caring about the customer and caring about the team. But, Mader said, “the vibe” is different in every office, and that’s a good thing.

The term “culture fit” is a popular one these days, ideally meaning that people share the same sense of belief in the mission. But it can be misused to screen out people who are different in any way. Mader says Smartsheet tries to think about maintaining culture in the face of global growth a little differently.

Rather than focusing on making sure “the next person fits into what you have,” the company looks at what a person can add to the culture. He noted that growth has to come with change, giving up control and trusting others more.

“I often remind people when they ask about the good old days at Smartsheet: ‘You mean the good old days when we didn’t have capital, had like four customers and your wife was asking you why it took so long, those good old days? Okay, good. We’re on the same page.’”

On the four-day work week

Microsoft got global attention for experimenting with a four-day work week in its Japan office. The tech giant shut down offices every Friday in August to give employees an extra day off each week as part of the “Work Life Choice Challenge.”

As time at work was cut, Microsoft saw productivity — measured by sales per employee — jump by 40 percent compared to the same period from the year before. Employees were not only encouraged to take an extra day off, they were told to keep meetings shorter (no longer than 30 minutes) and spend less time responding to email, communicating via a Microsoft messaging app instead.

Mader said some support functions could benefit from longer days offset by more days off. But don’t expect to see Smartsheet jump on board the four-day work week train any time soon.

“We’re like a utility for 83,000 businesses around the globe,” around the globe. “If the power goes out, there’s an issue. So we don’t have the option to do that.”