By now, the pandemic has shaken most of our core assumptions about work. When and where we work have been hotly debated for the past couple of years. Now, as evidenced by the Great Resignation, many professionals are even questioning what work is and why we do it.
If anybody tells you they know where all of this questioning is headed, they’re lying to you. We’re going to be unpacking these questions for decades. Right now, we are still very much at the beginning of this conversation.
And, despite the intense changes happening around us, we still have to make plans for our careers and our companies. When participants in my workshops and speeches ask for advice on how to make decisions and take action in a time of intense uncertainty, my answer is that the best way forward is to take a series of small steps and continually recalculate.
In that spirit, here are five of the most significant issues on the table right now and how to prepare for this still-evolving future of work by starting with small steps.
EMBRACE AN INTERGENERATIONAL WORKFORCE
We have the greatest range of ages in the workforce than ever before, and economic circumstances are influencing generational trends: Gen Z is entering the workforce, people are working later in their lives, and many are even unretiring.
As an individual, you have to think about the longevity of your career. Consider the expected duration and direction of your career. How might evolving career expectations impact your ability to reach your goals? What recalculations might you need to make at different ages and stages?
Organizations need to commit to being inclusive of a variety of ages. Lately, I’ve seen a lot of ageism and missed opportunities to hire mid-life and older workers in particular. An age diverse workforce is critical for serving an age-diverse customer base and ensuring a diversity of thought and experiences internally. Now is the time to set goals for hiring and retaining more age-diverse employees.
LAY THE GROUNDWORK FOR HYBRID WORK
Hybrid work is complicated—much more complicated than entirely in-office or entirely remote work. We are entering a period of experimentation when it comes to work location and flexibility, and I encourage you to embrace it.
First and foremost, have grace for the confusion of this unique moment. We’ve been bombarded with so much change in so little time that you can’t expect employees to jump on board with new changes immediately. Do some piloting and see what’s feasible for your workforce. Employee surveys, benchmarking against industry peers and focusing on your desired business outcomes can all help you find the right return to office (or not) approach to take.
Be explicit with your employees about what your expectations are. If you think people won’t expect some level of flexibility, you’ve severely misjudged the last few years. Take small steps to work toward greater workplace flexibility.
Finally, don’t write off the successes of the past two years. Many companies have thrived in remote and hybrid work environments. Study what worked well and what didn’t. To get buy-in from employees, you’re going to have to have a clear, compelling reason to bring everyone back to the office full-time if that’s the choice you ultimately make.
Diversity, equity and inclusion should remain top of mind, but we need to let these programs evolve into new directions. The “B” in DEIB that stands for “belonging” is frequently overlooked, but it’s a vital component we must nail down. Even if you can attract and hire diverse employees, they aren’t going to stay long in an environment where they don’t feel welcome.
Here are some small steps you can take to create true belonging in your workplace:
- Track your metrics. What are your demographics? How are you benchmarking against other companies? Are you making real progress or not?
- Invest company resources into employee resource groups to give underrepresented groups a greater voice in your organization.
- Be very cautious not to put undue, unpaid emotional labor on employees from underrepresented groups. Many have been overburdened with educating their colleagues, and it’s not their job to do that.
- Read a book, listen to a podcast or subscribe to a blog from a perspective you aren’t familiar with. Expose yourself with voices you don’t usually hear.
Small steps add up. If everyone commits to change, we can achieve big goals.
TALK OPENLY ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH AND WELLBEING
The employees you’re getting back aren’t the same people as those who left the office two years ago.
According to Mental Health America, nearly 50 million adults in the U.S. report experiencing a mental illness, and the number of youth experiencing at least one major depressive episode has increased by 306,000 since 2021.
A college administrator I know recently informed me that high school guidance counselors have been calling him to help his university prepare for the many mental health challenges–including anxiety, depression, loneliness and burnout, that are increasingly common among young people entering higher education. And as those young people graduate and start working, they’ll be looking to you for resources to help them cope with mental health challenges.
Be aware that the mental and emotional challenges caused by the pandemic manifest differently for people in different life stages and situations. For some, it’s isolation, while for others, it’s being overwhelmed. For still others, it’s been grief and loss.
Make sure everyone in your organization knows the resources available to employees experiencing mental health challenges, especially managers on the frontlines. Pose a hypothetical situation to your leaders, and make sure they know where to point employees to find the help they need. Even baby steps lead you closer to your goal—a workplace where your employees feel safe physically and emotionally.
KEEP UP WITH THE CONTINUAL EVOLUTION OF TECHNOLOGY
Everything we thought we knew about work is changing, especially when it comes to new technology. Business leaders are integrating AI, VR and collaborative tools faster than ever before. Prepare for working alongside this tech because it isn’t going away. If you’re feeling resistant, give VR a try, and spend some time learning what crypto, NFTs and Web 3.0 are. Even reading just one article or listening to one podcast episode will make a difference to your comfort level.
You have to know what’s coming and pay attention to what’s next—and how it influences your industry and your own career.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Adapting to change is hard, so as a starting point, I challenge you to adapt 5%. What is the smallest change you can make to achieve your career and organizational goals and prepare for the future of work?