Working fewer hours while maintaining solid incomes, benefits, and productivity. The status-quo 40-hour work week has been disrupted by the pandemic. For people juggling work and life commitments, reduced base hours have made a difference, and some people don’t want to go back to 40-hour work weeks. In our efforts to support diverse workers, we’ve made a commitment to offering benefits, including healthcare, for employees down to 20 hours per week. The principle is working fewer, but higher-quality, hours — and boosting staff engagement and retention.

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 Dan Giedd.

Dan Giedd is the vice president and chief human resources officer at Barr Engineering Company. With more than 20 years of broad human resources leadership experience in the engineering/manufacturing industries, Giedd has handled employee/labor relations, talent acquisition, learning and development, employee engagement, compensation, and benefits. Prior to joining Barr, Giedd was the human resources director at SunOpta and Danfoss Power Solutions. Giedd earned his bachelor’s degree in management from Illinois State University and a Master of Business Administration from the University of St. Thomas.

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 grew up in a small town in northern Illinois to a mom who is an accountant and a dad who was a salesperson. I think I picked up enough numbers and analysis skills from my mom and enough relationship-building competence from my dad to be an effective, contemporary HR practitioner and leader. Also, about ten years ago, I had a six-month work assignment in China, which opened my mind to what it feels like to be in a minority position in the world. I think I grew my empathy capabilities through this experience in China.

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 times we’ve been living through have demonstrated the unpredictable nature of life and work. It’s challenging to try to guess what the next few weeks and months will bring — let alone the next year, decade, or more. That said, society and employers have been learning lessons we can apply to help us plan for the future. This is certainly true for Barr Engineering Co. (Barr), and for me as our Chief Human Resources Officer.

As I contemplate what will be likely remain the same 10 to 15 years from now, I think first and foremost about our fundamental, unalterable humanity. Even as our circumstances shift and technology drives ongoing, disruptive change, we all will continue to be human beings, not algorithm-based technology. Workers in the future, as in today, will seek employment and occupations that are challenging, rewarding and meaningful. People will want to make a difference through our work, as well as keep learning and developing professionally. We will continue to benefit from working collaboratively in teams who come together to innovate and solve tough challenges. We’ll still have lives outside of work, too! It will continue to be necessary to put work aside so we can be present for our personal commitments, and the people and activities we love.

That said, I have no doubt that the particulars will be very different 10–15 years from now. Technology will enable problem-solving and productivity in ways we can’t begin to fathom today. The long, daily commutes to physical offices that consumed so much time (and fuel!) will become optional and more occasional as companies recognize just how much we can accomplish virtually — and both embrace and operationalize this shift. Our workplaces will become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive as we keep realizing the business benefits of DEI and improve practices to achieve these important outcomes.

We’ll still need some in-person meetings and collaboration — but we’ll be much more intentional about why we’re meeting in-person: for networking, relationship-building, tough conversations, and innovation. This shift will transform our workspaces: We’ll need more collaboration space, and free-form areas for brainstorming and problem-solving. We many not need less space, but we’ll likely need to design workspaces that support a range of different uses.

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

Here at Barr, we think it’s essential to listen and respond to staff, and to evolve workplace norms and expectations based on what we’re hearing. Barr is employee-owned, and our staff members are deeply invested in our collective present and future. When we ask them what they need to be productive and engaged, they tell us.

During the pandemic, our staff told us they needed a great deal of flexibility (in terms of where they work and when they work) in order to keep serving clients effectively as they managed the personal stressors and demands of life under COVID. As we’ve contemplated the longer-term future for our company, our employees have told us they’ll continue to place a premium on flexibility. We’ve moved decisively in this direction by introducing a hybrid workplace model; we want to be a leader and an employer of choice in this regard.

Second, I think employers in the future will benefit from building and supporting a distributed workforce. In many occupations, technology makes it possible to find the best people for the work at hand, wherever they are. Companies that embrace this opportunity will be advantaged. For Barr, this means hiring more workers who are fully remote than what we have been comfortable doing in the past.

One additional concept I’d like to introduce is that of greater flexibility with base working hours (a.k.a. part-time work), compared to the typical 40-hour (or greater) work week. In early 2020, all Barr employees dropped down to a 32-hour work week as we sought to prepare for unknown business impacts due to the pandemic. Demand for our services remained strong, and after only a few months, we resumed offering a 40-hour base, but many staff members have chosen to stay below a 40-hour base. We think that, at least for some proportion of our workforce, this shift will remain in place for the long-term. I think employers that successfully adapt to this emerging reality will benefit from stronger staff engagement and retention.

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?

For Barr, we don’t anticipate any major gaps between employee expectations and employer offerings; we shape our strategies and priorities together. That said, we do expect we’ll need to keep watching and assessing a few areas, and I think this is likely true for many organizations right now:

  • Balancing what’s best for each of us individually with the collective needs of organizations overall. For instance, while it’s important to support flexibility with work hours and locations, employees still need to be reliably available to others. This is essential to support collaboration on projects, as well as mentoring and development of early-career team members.
  • Revisiting what we mean by success. Employees increasingly look to employers for so much more than pay. Companies today answer to employees and other stakeholders on topics that cover the full spectrum of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Even for publicly traded companies, stakeholders increasingly want to see profits achieved in balance with additional priorities — including healthy local economies and natural environments, and as well as diverse, inclusive, and engaged workforces.
  • Adjusting to shifting expectations based on generational norms and priorities. As experienced leaders retire, new generations are taking the reins — and they likely value or need different things from their employers. I think it’s important for senior leaders to seek out insights from rising leaders, empower them, and be willing to act on what they learn. One area of particular interest to me is the early indication that Gen Z expects more frequent, nearly constant, feedback from their leaders and colleagues. Barr offers different training and has introduced new processes to inspire more frequent and more effective feedback, but our modest improvements to date may not be enough to meet the needs of the incoming generation to our workforce.
  • Identifying creative ways to recognize and reward employees. At times, people want opportunities faster than what employers can offer. One avenue to address this is through a ‘career lattice’ model rather than traditional career ladders. A career lattice can provide tangible opportunities to learn, grow, and take on stimulating new assignments, without being constrained by the quantity of formal leadership roles available. At the center of our work at Barr are two organizational elements that I believe bode well for our future: an inherently flat organization structure and something we call the free-market system. The flat structure, by definition, lacks the trappings of a traditional hierarchical org design. The free-market system works best when our people have the choice to accept (or reject) the offer to work on a client project.

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

I think the pandemic pushed the workplace faster and farther into an inevitable future in which our relationships with technology and our physical environments, as well as our interactions with colleagues, have fundamentally shifted.

At Barr, we’ve learned that formalizing flexibility, taking a leap beyond where we’ve been, has been really important to us. We’re not pursuing the ‘get back to the office’ philosophy that some companies are focused on — because we’ve learned that we can still be successful and productive even as we work differently than we have in the past.

While the pandemic has been terrible, I think the experience demonstrated that people are much more agile and adaptable than we might have imagined. This insight could help us think differently about what’s possible in many ways. We have an opportunity to retain the adaptability, and keep behaving as a learning organization, rather than “go back” to a brick-and-mortar office and the way we have “always” done things.

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?

The pandemic laid bare so many inequities in our society. I can think of numerous essential workers in fields such as healthcare, education, and the service industry, who need the system to work better for them. Additionally, for so many working parents — women in particular — the situation became untenable as schools and daycares closed, and it wasn’t possible to keep all the plates spinning. Employers, employees, and society at large are still coming to terms with this difficult reality, and I think employers will need to identify creative, effective ways to better support working parents. At Barr, we recognize that there are no simple solutions, but we can start by supporting and caring for one another. We’ve worked hard throughout the pandemic to encourage open communication about what each of us needs, and what each of us can give. I think this is a lesson we need to keep on learning.

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

I’m excited about the impacts of our investments in diversity, equity, and inclusion, which will more fully come to fruition in the years and decades ahead. For an engineering and environmental consulting company like ours, we have a compelling employment value proposition for people interested in pursuing careers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). In addition to actively seeking out diverse candidates for position openings, we provide financial and volunteer support to nonprofit organizations that develop future professionals for our fields within groups and populations that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM. We know that a diverse and inclusive workforce performs better and contributes to even stronger communities and client outcomes, and I can’t wait to see even more of these positive outcomes over time.

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 employees mental health and wellbeing?

Mental health and wellbeing are especially important for Barr’s workforce, which is composed of many forms of knowledge workers, such as scientists, engineers, and a variety of employees in our corporate functions. Virtual options for mental health support, which we introduced at Barr in 2021, make access to care more available, affordable, and convenient for more people. At a time when needs and demand for therapy have skyrocketed, it’s helpful and important for employers to offer this option. About a year ago, we introduced a new service based on cognitive behavioral therapy which covers a wide array of support (e.g. diet, exercise, sleep, stress management,) and contributes to better work products too (true for knowledge workers).

In addition, I think we’re reaching a pivot point at which people are more likely to view mental illness as just that — an illness, and there’s an openness to sharing stories and supporting one another that hasn’t always been there. By sharing information and resources about mental health, employers can help normalize topics surrounding mental health that once might have been stigmatized, and that’s incredibly important. People experiencing mental health crises or challenges, whether their own or their loved ones’, need support and compassion, just like people dealing with physical illnesses.

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?

It’s a talent-seller’s market right now; there’s no question about that. As employers struggle to fill open positions and meet demand for their products and services, I think we’ve seen the pendulum swing back to the current situation, in which employees and recruits hold more power. As employers fret over attracting and retaining talent in this moment, I think it’s important to take a big step back and reflect on an organization’s longstanding values, culture, and purpose. These elements of a healthy workplace and organization should continuously drive the decisions employers make — and the experiences of employees working in these organizations — even when the pendulum has swung back to favor employers. Creating and sustaining a thriving, vibrant company culture is a long-term proposition.

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

  1. Technology fostering meaningful connections. We’re moving beyond an ‘either-or’ scenario in which we’re forced to choose between meaningful, in-person interactions and use of technology as a lesser stand-in. We’ll start to use both technology and face-to-time more seamlessly, and often in parallel, to advance our goals. For example, at Barr, we have an inclusive, multi-phase approach to annual planning. Everyone in the company is encouraged to participate. We’re using collaboration technology as a vehicle to enable participation, and unfettered sharing and vetting of ideas and priorities. This happens alongside meetings within teams, in which people can participate remotely or in-person.
  2. Working fewer hours while maintaining solid incomes, benefits, and productivity. The status-quo 40-hour work week has been disrupted by the pandemic. For people juggling work and life commitments, reduced base hours have made a difference, and some people don’t want to go back to 40-hour work weeks. In our efforts to support diverse workers, we’ve made a commitment to offering benefits, including healthcare, for employees down to 20 hours per week. The principle is working fewer, but higher-quality, hours — and boosting staff engagement and retention.
  3. Accelerating progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). As the benefits and rewards for individuals, employers, and communities become increasingly obvious, we’ll see accelerated progress toward establishing more inclusive, diverse, and equitable workplaces. At Barr, our workforce currently includes a higher-than-average proportion of women engineers and scientists. While we celebrate this, we’re also working to speed progress in all dimensions of diversity. The journey is ongoing.
  4. Long-term impacts of hybrid work on organizational culture. A company’s culture can be challenging to define and shape. Throw in disruptive change brought about by a pandemic and a shift to hybrid work as a new norm, and it gets even more slippery. At Barr, we’re giving serious thought to how we sustain our special culture in this new reality, and I know we’re in good company as we ask these questions and seek new and different approaches to stay connected and in tune with one another. I think this trend is a “stay tuned” situation.
  5. Impacts of mergers and acquisitions. There is a lot of cash flowing for mergers and acquisitions at this time, but an acquisition may or may not result in strong a return-on-investment for the involved parties. I think this is a trend to watch — and another area where we’ll see an intense focus on company culture. In our experience at Barr, cultural fit is a central factor in our decision-making process for acquisitions.

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?

“We have two ears and one mouth, so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” — Epictetus, a Greek philosopher

I don’t know that this counts as a life lesson rather than a strong (daily?) reminder of how the best leaders approach their roles. If I find myself talking too much, it likely means I’m stressed and likely killing creativity and motivation of my colleagues.

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.

Adam Grant would be fun to talk to. I find his social media posts very human and thought- and behavior-provoking.

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?

Please look me up on LinkedIn.

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