It’s been an interesting start to the year. As knowledge workers emerge bleary-eyed from the way workplaces have been transformed over the past few years, employees and leaders alike still seem to be struggling to find their footing.
What’s increasingly clear is the way work is not working. In the midst of mass tech layoffs, a continued childcare crisis, quiet quitting vs. downsizing fears, and the are-we or are-we-not in a recession dance, it’s challenging to predict what the future of work looks like without getting whiplash.
So how can leaders, from large organizations to small startups, address employees in a moment filled with such uncertainty? How can they continue to future-proof their workforces when the future seems so unpredictable?
In conversations with today’s top leaders, six key themes bubbled to the surface. Flexibility, control and trust will be key to building better relationships between employees and employers as they collaborate to forge new ways of working together.
1 – Acknowledge that employees are human beings with lives – and needs – that go beyond the workplace.
Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Moms First (formerly Marshall Plan for Moms) says, “At a time when the number of women leaving their employers is the highest it’s been in five years, despite the slowing job market, a return to the status quo is not only unconscionable, it’s bad for business. Now is the time for companies to be thinking about moving forward, not back, when it comes to rebuilding workplaces to finally work for moms.”
Saujani is at the forefront of bringing companies together to solve the child care crisis through the National Business Coalition for Child Care, which seeks to elevate child care as an essential business issue.
“There’s been a disturbing trend towards rolling back supports like flexible work and child care extended in the pandemic,” says Saujani. “Employers are looking to make cuts, but there’s one place they will do so at their peril: investing in the employee benefits working moms need most.”
2 – Freelance will be a big part of the future workforce.
78% of companies will rely on freelancing in 2023 to fill gaps in their workforce, rather than add staff.
“Freelancing saw a boom during the pandemic and it is only going to increase. Not all freelancers are full time freelancers, many are still working at their 9 to 5’s and want flexible ways to work a side hustle for an additional revenue stream or to eventually pivot out of their full time gigs all together,” says Brooke Markevicius, founder of small business workplace resource Allobee and Chief Product Officer at The Riveter.
“59% of non-freelancers say it is likely they will freelance in the future, and we must build the structures and systems to support that. With Riveter Work (formerly Allobee), we have already begun building for the future of work in a unique way, with three simple goals. First, be useful to women who care about their work. Second, help women make more money. Finally, create community because it’s been a very long, very isolating pandemic and we need to be around awesome people,” Markevicius says. “This is the time to lean into your network and grow it as you start to build skills that will allow you to create additional revenue streams.”
3 – Flexibility is still top priority for most workers
“In our most recent Rosie Report Research study, we found that 71% of workers would pass on upward mobility at work in order to receive flexibility over when and where they work,” says Stephanie Nadi Olson, founder and executive chair of freelance marketplace We Are Rosie. “Our research also shows that 53% of employees are prioritizing health and personal well-being over work after nearly three years of the pandemic. If leaders ignore these needs, they will not be set up for long term success as businesses.”
“We’ve seen people work while home with their family in the midst of a global pandemic, which hasn’t ended yet,” says Nadi Olson. “What workers need in 2023 is for their employers to figure out the ‘how’ of flexibility. It will look different within every company, every department, and even at the team level. But each and every leader owes it to the people they get to work with to find out what kind of flexibility is ideal for their team and how much of that flexibility is possible within the bounds of ensuring the team performs.”
It’s not as easy as saying your whole team can work anywhere and whenever they would like.
“I wish it was,” Nadi Olson says, “But businesses have to look at their onboarding process, their performance evaluation policies, how meetings are run, how ideas are solicited, how important things are communicated to really build flexibility into the structure of work. On top of the flexibility, there are so many things to consider around culture, communication, career tracks, and beyond.”
4 – But make sure to compensate them for that extra labor
“Workers need their psychological needs met as much as their material needs to feel like they are empowered to be leaders, without contorting themselves into arbitrary and inequitable labels of ‘professionalism,’” says Christina Blacken, Founder + Chief Story Strategist at professional development consultancy The New Quo. “They need to be fairly compensated for their labor, given adequate time for rest and community, and not driven by a grind culture that devalues their humanity.”
“I teach my clients how to use their narrative intelligence to create new stories about their worth and work,” says Blacken. “I also help them clarify and achieve more motivating and equitable goals within their organizations that value and balance the needs of acceptance, belonging, fairness, and autonomy that meet their needs as much as profit.”
5 – Rethink your company’s structures and systems
“Most organizations struggle with what I’ve coined as the Culture of Autopilot,” says Blacken, “Which is a series of subconscious narratives and values that have shaped every modern workplace and organization in ways that lead to distrust, miscommunication, and stalled innovation.”
“They need to transition to a new leadership model I call a Culture of Curiosity and Connection,” she says, “This includes practices that help individuals lend their unique strengths to the projects that express their values and abilities, steers them towards experimentation that doesn’t seek perfection, pushes for collaboration built on trust, and creates a sense of shared stewardship among colleagues around the goals and decisions made within an organization.”
6 – Find ways to rebuild trust.
“Work is dignity,” says Shoshanna Hecht, executive coach and host of the podcast Your New Life Blend. “People want and need to work. How can we trust our workers to show up and produce in a way that fits better into their lives?”
“Workers have had a taste of how different things can be, and they want more,” Hecht says. “More say, more autonomy and agency, more trust, more control over their lives and schedules. We really need to rethink our approach to office spaces and hybrid work. Slowing down return-to-office plans, bringing in consultants when possible, enlisting voices from all parts of an organization to input on new ways to get creative and innovative. Instead we’re just trying to shoehorn back into old ways of thinking and work, which no longer fit.”