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Jul 12, 2022
Upwork CEO Talks Future of Work, Back-to-Office Debate, and Championing Working Moms

Upwork’s CEO Hayden Brown was a recent guest on Fortune’s Leadership Next podcast where she spoke about Upwork’s mission and the future of work, the remote vs. back-to-the-office debate, and how Upwork is championing women who were displaced from the workforce during the pandemic.

Upwork’s Mission and the Future of Work

When host Ellen McGirt asked Brown about Upwork’s greater purpose, Brown turned to Upwork’s mission statement, saying, “Our mission at Upwork is to create economic opportunities so people have better lives. That is really our guiding light. And the whole reason our platform exists is this idea that great work can be done from anywhere and that people shouldn't have to lose their homes or families or cross borders, move to the big city, whatever it may be, to do great work.”


Brown went on to explain how this mission applies as the world continues to evolve since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying, “...we've always believed that we can build this very meritocratic work platform where people from anywhere can compete for great work. Clearly over the last couple years of the pandemic many more people have woken up to the fact that great work can be done from anywhere and I think this is really just the beginning of a tectonic shift that we are starting to see in how people think about work, what it means and what's possible.”


Brown also shared how the experience of workers during the pandemic will shape the future of work. “So many workers woke up to the fact that they didn't have to have a horrible commute,” she said. “They didn't have to trade off time with their family. They didn't have to schlep into an office to do things that they loved. And that now gets to be center stage as they recreate new work lives.” She believes this shift will be beneficial for all involved parties: “Rewriting those rules of work, I think, is what's going to be frankly a win for talent. And what I see every day on my platform is this is a huge win for businesses too… In this case, I think both sides benefit.”

Remote vs. Back to the Office vs. Hybrid

When asked how leaders should approach the return to the office, Brown said, “it's definitely not one size fits all, but I think there’s two things that can really help people who are wrestling with this.” She said the first is to experiment. “Take this on like you would other business challenges and test models that you think might work for you.” She pointed out that everyone is still learning. “Don't feel like you got to make one big proclamation and commit and then call it a day.” 


Brown’s second suggestion is to “pick your poison and be really clear about that with your team.” She believes it’s better to be clear about your expectations than run the risk of causing confusion by creating a complicated policy. “I think to be honest, the easiest place to be is kind of one end of the spectrum or the other,” she said. She also pointed out that even if a company is remote-first, that doesn’t mean team members never see each other. She concluded, “Regardless of where you are, pick a spot and be really clear about what your spot is and why. And then I would say experiment to learn if it's not working. You can change and try the next iteration of treatment.”

Women Displaced from the Workforce

McGirt shared that during the pandemic “some 12 million women were pushed out of the workforce” and asked how Upwork has responded. Brown added that in the U.S. more than 1 million moms were forced to leave their jobs and spoke about Upwork’s Motherhood Works campaign. “I'm really calling on corporate America to bring these people back into the workforce, make space for them, seek them out intentionally, and really recruit for them,” she said. “We have a whole campaign on that, a page where you go and actually surface this talent through our website. This was really important to us because again, these women have the skills and the employers have the needs in the works, seeing the openings at all-time highs.”


Brown also discussed the impact of her time living in Nepal and the challenges she has faced since becoming CEO of Upwork. If you’d like to learn more, listen to the podcast or read the complete transcript on Fortune


How do you think companies will evolve following changes in worker expectations spurred by the pandemic?

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