Balancing employee independence and accountability — Leaders will continue to be flexible in what individual employees need, while establishing a common measure of accountability in order to establish trust within the team and also externally to various stakeholders, vendors and partners.

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 Ash Beckham.

Ash Beckham is an inclusion activist, inclusive leadership expert, professional trainer, workshop facilitator, motivational speaker, business leader and author of Step Up: How to Live with Courage and Become an Everyday Leader. Known for her unique voice, intrepid, relatable and intrinsically comic style, and powerful guidance, Beckham’s TEDx Talk “Coming Out of Your Closet” became a fast viral sensation. A popular speaker and leadership educator, she frequently addresses topics including embracing a different vision of leadership to create change in our workplaces, schools, places of worship, communities and more. Ash has presented keynotes and workshops for more than 200 corporate, government and collegiate events and conferences including The Boeing Company, Bank of America, Microsoft, the Out and Equal Summit, and more.

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.

It is so difficult to narrow that down to two experiences. I am a firm believer that all experience, the big and the small, shape who we are. Every interaction, every experience is an opportunity to grow and to learn. We are all the product of the things we have seen, done and lived. Eliminate any one of those things and we are a different person. Maybe in minor ways. Maybe in major ways. But different nonetheless.

But if I had to pick, I would see the first would be when my first TED Talk went viral. Nearly overnight, I went from living my life like anyone else to being recognized on mass transit in different cities. It was my launch pad into my life as an inclusion and leadership activist now. Without that, I am probably not doing this interview. Would my story and voice be less important without that talk? I would argue no. But the attention that TED Talk received gave me the credibility to begin this journey that I adore.

I would say the second life experience (chronologically, not in importance) would be becoming a parent. I always have had nieces and nephews and friends’ kids in my life. I feel like a kid myself most of the time. But having my own kids changed my perspective on the world in a way that nothing else has. I am constantly held accountable to the person I claim to be. My boys are my authenticity meters. The words I use, the compassion and empathy I put in practice, the patience I aim (mostly unsuccessfully) to exhibit. All of it is constantly on full display. There is nothing more authentic than a 4-year-old. I strive to be as courageous and kind as mine.

It also allows you to see others with a deeper compassion. If you have kids, you know what it is like to have one who is sick, or scared, or in danger. It doesn’t matter your politics, or your sexuality, or your race. Although the circumstances our kids face because of those differences can vary greatly, parents are wildly protective. When we can see that many decisions people make come from a desire to take care of their children, rather than ignorance or some other stereotype we place on them, we can begin to see their humanity. When we can see that, we can connect with anyone.

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?

I believe that in 10–15 years, the strongest companies will be the ones that create the most inclusive cultures. When people feel work is more than just a job, they are more engaged, more creative, and more resilient through challenging times. Companies that do that today are weathering this current storm better than ones that do not. Employees want to feel that they matter as people, not as a head count. I think in the future companies will continue to learn how to allow individuality to thrive at work. Increased flexibility of where you work and when you work is one way to center the job on the person rather than the other way around. In many ways, our current environment forced that change. It is not something that is easy to take away.

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

I would say that you cannot make that your goal. There is no such thing as “future-proof “so you will inevitably fail trying. We need our organizations to be resilient through whatever changes we encounter. The only constant is change. And contrary to what many leaders think, people don’t fear change. Change is good, we know change happens. Without change we are bored. People fear transition. They are afraid of what happens during and after the change. So the best leaders are the ones who proactively create environments where people feel safe during those transitions. And employees need different things, so the best leaders address the multitude of needs from their people. Some need communication, while others need to be heard and still others need to know the why behind the change. By surrounding yourself as a leader with a trusted team that is diverse, you will gain the perspective on what different employees need.

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

Companies do not like unknowns so many want to get back to “the way it used to be” as quickly as possible. This new normal is unpredictable and that can feel unsafe to organizations. Employees are embracing this new empowerment they have from a more flexible and personalized work environment. There are some incredible efficiencies that come from that. For those of us fortunate enough to have jobs where we can work from home, who has not turned off the video on a call to fold laundry or let the dog out? We can make our work fit our life to a certain extent. At the same time, when your office is in your house, it is much harder to leave at the end of the day. Balancing childcare and additional responsibilities that have come from pandemic (which have disproportionately fallen on women and BIPOC communities), we often find ourselves working long hours, later into the night just to get it all done. The best strategy leaders can implement is to have open communication with their people. Some need more flexibility than others. Some need the personal connection of in-person office time more than others. The future is hybrid in every facet of the workplace. The organizations that have the ability to embrace and thrive in that reality will be able to both recruit and retain the best workforce.

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?

High-speed internet access nationwide. Not only is this critical for access to schools and universities for some of the most marginalized communities, but the future of work is there too. Your location should not limit your access to the global marketplace of ideas and commerce.

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

The pandemic destroyed the workplace as we knew it, so we need to rebuild it. If we need to do that anyway, we have a unique opportunity to rebuild it the way we want it rather than the way it has always been. We have never had the opportunity to do this simultaneously across such a huge part of the economy. When we bring the full scope of our workforce together in that recreation, listening to voices and experiences that were previously unheard, the possibilities are exhilarating.

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?

The first and most critical thing is to talk about it. There still remains a great taboo around discussing mental health, especially in a work context. But if we really want employees to priorities their wellness, we must break the secrecy around the topic. Senior executives must be willing to show that they prioritize this wellness. Making mental health and wellbeing a regular part of one-on-one check-ins is a great way to start. Highlighting resources the company provides at team meetings is another way to make mental health and wellness part of regular conversations. And don’t expect that the first time you address it, that someone is going to engage. We need to build trust around these topics. But as a leader, if you make mental health and wellness an agenda item as routine as budgets, overtime the trust builds. You can’t get to the tenth or twentieth time you discuss that topic when someone may actually begin to open up, if you don’t start with the first conversation.

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?

I think they need to hear that the workplace is changing. And not just hear it but embrace it. Instead of fighting it, how do leaders get ahead of those changes so they are in the best position to take them in stride or even help mold what those changes look like? The best leaders are proactive, not reactive. Leaders need to get very clear on what their workforce wants and incorporate employees into that transition process. A company evolves by assessing the mission and goals of the organization to see if they need to be updated to better reflect the current environment to ensure they are still applicable. Next, they need to recommit to the principles that guide the organization and brainstorm with their employees on new ways to apply those principles to our new world.

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

  1. Integrating varying levels of a hybrid workforce — We will never return to fully in-person. Whether it is due to employee autonomy, reduced office space or continued globalization of the workforce, hybrid is here to stay. Companies that are the most successful are those that can effectively create, maintain, and grow their corporate culture in a partially hybrid environment.
  2. Balancing employee independence and accountability — Leaders will continue to be flexible in what individual employees need, while establishing a common measure of accountability in order to establish trust within the team and also externally to various stakeholders, vendors and partners.
  3. Supporting the “whole” employee — Getting to know our employees as people rather than cogs in a wheel is critical. What happens outside the physical office or standard hours of work drastically affect our staff. What used to be “none of our business” is now understood to be a critical part of how our employees shows up at work. The sense of belonging that comes from that dedication to our team members creates the loyalty and trust that is the foundation for successful and resilient teams.
  4. Establishing reverse mentoring programs — Mentorship is no longer a one-way street where the sage senior executive is bestowing their vast wisdom and experience on the fresh new recruit. As the workforce becomes more and more multigenerational, knowledge must flow both ways. The experiences and perspectives of all employees matter and more importantly they must believe they matter. Reverse mentoring programs allow these relationships to be built and insights to be shared in a more egalitarian way.
  5. Providing Uncommon Professional Development Opportunities — Employees will be more invested in an organization that invests in them. And it is not the leader’s sole ability to direct employees to professional development sources because our view on the is so subjective. “It worked for me so it will obviously work for you” is such a myopic mindset. To fully engage employees, empower them to research professional development opportunities both internally and externally and bring them to their next one-on-one with you and decide together what the best option is. This collaborative approach is a perfect example of pairing what is best for them and what is best for the organization.

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?

This one takes up a few scraps of paper, but it has always been my favorite.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

We often get so caught up in the critics or our potential of failure that we don’t try. But this quote highlights the most basic question for me — at the end of the day who do you want to be? And every single time I answer that I want to be in the arena.

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.

Lin-Manuel Miranda — His ability to share stories of people from underrepresented backgrounds in a way that both highlights our common humanity while also putting the unique individuality of specific peoples on display is genius. That skill is at the heart of inclusive modern leadership.

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?

IG — @theashbeckham

Twitter: @ashbeckham

FB: /ashbeckham

LinkedIn: ash-beckham

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