Choice and variety: There is an opportunity to rethink the physical workplace to create spaces where employees not only want to be, but can do their individual and collective best work. Employees’ variety of work settings must now also include the home and third workplace. Workers will now expect the ability to work remotely, and the autonomy to match their work to the right setting even beyond the pandemic.

When it comes to designing the future of work, one size fits none. Discovering success isn’t about a hybrid model or offering remote work options. Individuals and organizations are looking for more freedom. The freedom to choose the work model that makes the most sense. The freedom to choose their own values. And the freedom to pursue what matters most. We reached out to successful leaders and thought leaders across all industries to glean their insights and predictions about how to create a future that works.

As a part of our interview series called “How Employers and Employees are Reworking Work Together,” we had the pleasure to interview Alejandra Albarran.

Alejandra is an interior designer by trade and the primary architect behind ROOM’s suite of modular products including the brand’s Phone Booth, recognized as one of TIME Magazine’s ‘Best Inventions’. At ROOM, she blends her entrepreneurial experience with her design background to build smart, modular solutions that create better work experiences. Alejandra also leads ROOM’s in-house design collective, STUDIO by ROOM, which offers clients a full suite of design services to help them create and achieve a better way of working.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today.

I became a mom at just 21 years of age and since becoming a mother so young, I have always been a mother, first and foremost. I continued to study and started my own fashion business after the birth of my first daughter, and later transitioned to Interior Design and created my own studio which quickly became successful working on residential and commercial projects all over Mexico.

Being a young mom showed me how to navigate a young life and still try to stay relevant with the peers of my generation, while at the same time care for a little one that needed me. As all parents know, your first child teaches you many lessons but one of the most important to me was how to put another human being first, before our every need. It was not easy. Learning this at 21 helped me achieve a good balance in terms of work, success, social life and most importantly being a good mom. Being a young mom was an advantage because I was able to mold myself to fit my new reality easier than I would have later in life. I started my professional life already as a mother.

This made me very aware of the challenges young mothers have in a world where work comes first and where not having a good support system is a normal thing. I was lucky to still live in Mexico and have grandparents around who supported me constantly. When I think of all the mothers that don’t have any support, who are single and still need to make a living to support their child, my heart aches. The working world today does not treat mothers kindly.

I believe that because I have been a working mom since I was 21 I have a deeper understanding of the challenges moms face at work. Now, as a workspace designer I constantly think of the moms, the fathers, but I also think of the introverts, people with disabilities, or mental health issues, or people who care for an elderly member. Very much like any mom, I care and I understand that we are all different and we all need to be represented and included in the workplace. I think there is still much work to be done to get to a place where coming to work feels equal for everyone.

Let’s zoom out. What do you predict will be the same about work, the workforce and the workplace 10–15 years from now? What do you predict will be different?

“The objective is not to predict the future (which is a futile quest), but rather to be ready for many different possible futures that could unfold” This phrase by April Rhine resonates with me when I envision the future of work.

There are certain realities on the rise that will continue to be: remote work and virtual interactions, e-commerce and digital transactions, and automation and AI.

Our impact on the environment will also be a determining factor for how we think about work and things like carbon taxes will most probably be placed on businesses for employee commutes which will drive a rapid shift towards more remote workers. Flexible work will no longer be a benefit but an expectation. Flexibility is altering the way we think about work. Companies will have to reimagine how and where work is done.

What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?

The best way to future-proof your workplace is by embracing change and being prepared for many possible futures. Modular architecture is the best way to make sure your workspace can adapt to your company and its people’s ever-changing needs. It is also the most sustainable alternative to traditional construction.

By leveraging adaptive modular architecture solutions, thoughtful space planning, well-designed, purpose-built furniture — and most importantly, perspective on how our needs will continue to change — companies can ensure that their workplaces evolve with their people.

What do you predict will be the biggest gaps between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect as we move forward? And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?

In the short term, there is a growing disconnect between employers and employees in terms of how they view flexibility. While employers would like people back in the office, employees would like to maintain the flexibility of choosing where and when they work.

This is already having an impact on employee attraction and retention.

I would strongly recommend that companies adapt to this new reality and embrace a hybrid model where remote work is accepted as part of their overall strategy. Giving employees autonomy and freedom to choose how to do their best work.

We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?

Companies will need more than a return to office policy. They will need a holistic workspace strategy that includes the ecosystem of spaces that expands beyond the walls of an office. The workplace of tomorrow is changing and has new boundaries. We all agree that we can work from anywhere: Home, the office or a third workplace.

Workers already struggled to find privacy in the workplace — now they expect to maintain the privacy they have become accustomed to at home. The new workspace will borrow characteristics from all the different types of satellite spaces that have been proven to work for people, not just the home. By implementing multiple space types into one work environment, we give choice back to the people inhabiting that space — supporting each individual’s needs, work style and personality.

We’ve all read the headlines about how the pandemic reshaped the workforce. What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support a future of work that works for everyone?

As business leaders, managers, designers, etc. we have a responsibility to create inclusive and comfortable spaces that enable people to feel safe and be their full unique selves. We must design for diversity in age, gender, culture, disabilities, parental duties and more. Giving everyone an opportunity for representation. This includes having a workplace strategy that supports hybrid work models but also thoughtful design finding ways to give people control of their environment.

Our workspaces should offer enough variety in one space so that employees can find or create the right conditions to thrive at their job. It is equally important to normalize and support mental health and incentivize people to feel comfortable taking breaks, as well as to promote an inclusive culture.

What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

There is now more than ever a heavy emphasis on inclusion and diversity, human rights and the non-financial impacts of business on the planet and people’s lives, which will only become stronger as we head into the future.

Specifically in terms of work, we are striving to achieve a better work life balance and employers have now truly started to focus on offering better work experiences designed to benefit their people. A great workplace supports more than just work — now people expect health and wellness to be built into a company’s work strategy.

Our collective mental health and wellbeing are now considered collateral as we consider the future of work. What innovative strategies do you see employers offering to help improve and optimize their employee’s mental health and wellbeing?

  1. Being Flexible.

Employee benefits can be life-changing for their workforce, especially those centered around mental health, self-care and flexibility.

2. Build a culture of connection.

Maintaining a cohesive culture and developing practices and programs to keep employees connected and on a career path even if they are remote will be crucial.

3. Encourage Work-Life Balance.

To remain competitive, companies will need to be open-minded and offer innovative ways to improve the quality of their employees’ lives.

4. Onboarding and training of new employees.

Companies can remove unnecessary stress where possible by setting realistic expectations about workloads. Making sure to have open communication and keep their teams informed about any organizational changes, challenges and updates.

5. Model Healthy Behaviors.

Because it is not enough to say it, leaders have to show how they take care of their mental health. Team members need to see how it is accepted and encouraged to prioritize self-care and set boundaries.

6. Offer Help

Make your team aware of available mental health resources and encourage them to use them. Platforms like Calm or Headspace are great for meditation and mindfulness and they both have enterprise access.

It seems like there’s a new headline every day. ‘The Great Resignation’. ‘The Great Reconfiguration’. And now the ‘Great Reevaluation’. What are the most important messages leaders need to hear from these headlines? How do company cultures need to evolve?

When we hear about the great resignation or reevaluation it’s important to note that it is not just about employees leaving for a new job or quitting the workforce. Resigning is a big decision. It is about taking control of their work and personal life. It is a moment of empowerment for the workers, one that will continue well into the future.

Even before the pandemic the top request workers had was a flexible work schedule. The reason why people are quitting their jobs is not just the salary. Today, companies have a unique opportunity to build a culture that improves lives. Employers need to become more mindful that work and personal life are blending. If companies want to retain great talent they need to support the worker as a whole. Not just the worker.

Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”

  1. Choice and variety

There is an opportunity to rethink the physical workplace to create spaces where employees not only want to be, but can do their individual and collective best work. Employees’ variety of work settings must now also include the home and third workplace. Workers will now expect the ability to work remotely, and the autonomy to match their work to the right setting even beyond the pandemic.

2. Flexibility

Knowledge creation has become footloose and is no longer bound to the physical workplace. This means that knowledge workers have more choice than ever on where to live, and where to work. We continue to see demand for flexible office space accelerate, with JLL predicting that 30 percent of the office market will be flexible by 2030. Redesigning the way we work can streamline processes, increase efficiency, and enhance operational flexibility and agility.

3. Technology

The hybrid office will be the new normal, which means that privacy and dedicated space for video conferencing will be in high demand. Sensors will provide data and insights about space utilization that will then lead to smart, actionable recommendations for how to optimize existing real estate and products. AI will gain more traction, and many jobs will be replaced by it, but new jobs will also be created.

4. Environmental Impact

Companies continue to look for more sustainable solutions to go about their business. There is a growing expectation for companies to become more environmentally responsible. When it comes to the built environment, fixed construction is one of the biggest culprits of carbon emissions. This is why prefabricated modular architecture is the best alternative for companies to create flexible, more sustainable workplaces.

5. A shift to more meaningful work

Work and life are not independent entities fighting for 50/50 equilibrium. They’re interconnected, and one affects the other. Things like a four day work week will probably be in our future with the intention to achieve a better work life balance. People will choose to work for companies whose mission and culture resonate with their own values. Work will not just be about making a living, but about being part of a greater mission that fulfills our expectations on a personal level.

I keep quotes on my desk and on scraps of paper to stay inspired. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective?

How long is forever? Sometimes just a second.

This phrase from Alice in Wonderland reminds me that happiness is elusive and the little moments that sometimes seem irrelevant are the ones that I wish I could keep forever. A chaotic and loud Tuesday dinner at home with all the children. A summer lunch with friends laughing until we cried. One day, it will be the last of each of these moments and that day I will wish I could keep them in my heart and mind forever.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she, or they might just see this if we tag them.

That would be Dr. Neri Oxman. I believe her work is the future of design and architecture. One that will ensure that there IS a future for this planet. We need to turn back to nature for the creation process. She labels her work as Material Ecology, which is bio-based materials that can integrate with buildings and objects, using natural processes to perform functions like energy production and waste recycling. She uses materials like mycelium, algae and bacteria and substances like melatonin and chitin which comes from the shells of shellfish.

Her work is truly inspiring and I would love to have lunch with her one day to learn more about the solutions that could be found to make sure our industry has a positive impact on the environment. It is not enough to be sustainable, we need to be regenerative.

Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?

I have taken the life decision to quit social media and it has been liberating. The only account I keep and use for work is my Linkedin where I post work related articles and thoughts. LinkedIn: Alejandra Albarran

Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.