…Inclusion: From company culture to workplace design, every aspect of work will shift as we recognize and embrace the organizational benefits of diversity. But without inclusion, diversity benefits will go unrealized. Organizations must focus on reducing barriers, providing resources, and creating equitable opportunities for those who have been and still are systemically underrepresented in the organization.

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 Dionn Schaffner Chief Diversity Officer of Aurea.

Dionn has over 25 years of experience combining technology, people, and processes to deliver impactful results. From her early career as a software developer to her current role as Chief Diversity Officer at Aurea, Dionn has combined critical analysis, data-driven decisions, and purposeful leadership to drive success. Dionn currently focuses on helping individuals and organizations discover and implement ways to remove barriers and enable opportunities for those who have systemically lacked access and resources.

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 an Air Force brat. Every 3–4 years, my family moved to a new place, often a new country. As a kid, that meant a new school, new friends, and a new language or culture. Over the course of these moves, I developed the skills to parachute into a new situation, get myself connected to others, get up to speed quickly and find opportunities to not just fit in but to thrive.

When I left to attend college at Stanford, I’d never been to California or visited the campus. We couldn’t afford it. At age 17, I boarded a flight, alone, with my suitcase, a trunk and a return ticket for the end of the quarter at Christmas. I knew I’d be able to figure the rest out when I got there. Because of these experiences, I love opportunities to change directions, start over, or try new things and continue to seek those out, both personally and professionally.

Being exposed to different cultures at an early age also gives me a world view that embraces and values differences. I carry that forward in all that I do. As I’ve focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion work, I lean heavily into this perspective. It’s fascinating and inspiring to learn from others’ experiences and work together to solve problems, innovate, and discover new ideas in ways we couldn’t do in a homogenous situation.

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?

Organizations will remain hierarchical and senior-level pipelines will continue to be heavily influenced by networks and affiliations. Even with the pressure of social justice, new diversity mandates and laws, and the acknowledgement that more diverse companies outperform their less diverse peers, it will take time before we see all levels of the organization reflect the population they exist within.

The next generations of the workforce, however, will focus on outcomes balanced with embracing humanity. As technology continues to improve, AI comes online, and technology automation improves, I think we will lean into more of the elements of the workforce that are unique to humanity: Innovation, creativity, and problem-solving.

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

Internally and externally, listen, be flexible, be resilient. Listen to your customers, listen to your employees, listen to the market. The rise of support for social justice, the demand for accountability for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the pandemic showed us that flexible and resilient organizations can pivot and not only survive, but thrive.

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?

The employer/employee dynamic is changing. The power lines are shifting and more control is going towards the employees’ side of the ledger. Commonly, those in power have a hard time relinquishing that power, right? So this will be a struggle.

Take the move to virtual work. Organizations are concerned with making sure employees are actually doing their jobs. So we launch technology to monitor work since we don’t have the ability to physically see employees sitting in their offices. What employees really want, though, is autonomy over their work and their work environment. Moving to a virtual environment and then instantiating overreaching monitoring diminishes the gains employees perceive from the flexibility.

But what “work” are we monitoring? This is what we’ve started to unpack in the Great Resignation. What does the company consider work? For knowledge workers, is it time in the office? Time with other employees? How do you quantify efforts towards creativity? Innovation?

If we are focused on results, it shouldn’t matter if an employee solves a problem sitting at a desk or walking through the park. How can we create environments and opportunities where our employees can deliver their best work and their best results? This is what employees want and expect from their employers: the opportunity to do their best work by being supported, empowered, and included.

To achieve that, we need to shift from office-centric to human-centric design in the workplace. We need to reevaluate three things:

1. How/where is work done

2. Who is doing the work

3. What is considered “work”

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

What’s most interesting to me is that working from home isn’t new. What’s new is that EVERYONE had to work from home. The folks who have, for whatever reason, been working from home before the pandemic had already been dealing with the challenges (and benefits) of working from home. This experiment was the opportunity for others to walk a mile in their shoes.

Suddenly, organizations were making accommodations of all kinds, discovering and embracing ways for everyone to be productive. It demonstrated that organizations are capable of change, adaptation, and accommodation…. elements that are critical for honoring diversity and developing inclusion. But it took everyone having that lived experience together to make systemic changes.

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?

What if organizations and leaders could respect others’ lived experiences and challenges? What if they provided tools and resources so people could be successful in their roles? We’re talking about education and empathy, understanding the challenges that different employee groups face and believing their lived experiences. If we can recognize that equity simply means providing the right tools to overcome barriers so that people can be successful, we can create the environments for everyone to thrive.

As we reconcile with an aging workforce, high employee turnover, and digital acceleration, we are reminded that people are the heartbeat of the organization. It’s crucial that everyone plays a role in supporting each other, not just HR. The historically monikered “softer” management skills like creating psychological safety, trust, and engaged relationships must be employed at all levels of the organization to attract, develop, and retain the best employees.

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

Change IS possible. We are seizing the opportunity of disruption to make systemic change across several dimensions. We are blowing up the old notions and systems that weren’t broken — they were working as designed by a particular group for a particular group. With everything in flux, the turbocharge of technology, and the rise of the voice of ANY employee, we can not only create but embrace a workplace intentionally designed for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

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?

First of all, the acceptance that mental health IS physical health. And as such, employers are providing resources specifically for mental health and the factors that contribute to it. That looks like everything from providing access to mental health practitioners, to ERGs/affinity groups focused on mental health, to keeping abreast of new attacks to our mental health. Take Zoom fatigue, for instance. Organizations went from “cameras must be on” to “let’s limit the amount of on screen time we require,” recognizing when it is most beneficial to have face-to-face interaction versus when other forms of communication and collaboration can be just as effective. This goes back to implementing human-centric design in the category of “how we work.”

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?

Employees are stepping into the ownership of their lives and re-evaluating the definition of success for their WHOLE selves. No longer are they willing to trudge on because that’s the way it’s always been done or how their parents did it. This time of self-reflection and empowerment is exciting! Done correctly, companies have the opportunity to leverage this new volume of energy and innovation as the employees who DO select to partner with you in a work environment will be bringing it.

Company culture needs to evolve by doing some self-reflection, understanding what biases and hurdles are laced into the organization. As leaders, this means you have to ask, listen, and learn from all levels, edges, and corners of the organization. Those employee sentiment surveys may sting, but they can provide valuable information to help the organization grow and evolve. Don’t be afraid to ask the questions you might not like the answers to.

Employees and potential employees are lifting the hood and taking a good, hard look to determine whether they want to climb on board with you. They are watching not just what you SAY in public, but what you DO in private. And they are listening through experiences of current or former employees that are being shared throughout their networks.

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

  1. Human-centric work design: a focus on how and where we work, who is doing the work, and how we define the work. In this war for talent and digital acceleration, it’s going to take more than providing flexible work hours or flexible locations to meet employee expectations. Employees want autonomy in their work and in return they will be more engaged, productive, healthy, and inspired to generate more innovation and results for the organization. They want a reshaped culture that supports whomever they are, wherever they are.
  2. Connection: Employees want to feel connected to their work, to their peers, to the organization’s mission and values, and to the culture. A bevy of tools from text to video to virtual reality are swirling with the possibilities and opportunities to support connection. The challenge will be in creating meaningful, supportive connections from the noise of available connections generated through all the various channels (Gchat, Slack, email, zoom, social media, etc.)
  3. Inclusion: From company culture to workplace design, every aspect of work will shift as we recognize and embrace the organizational benefits of diversity. But without inclusion, diversity benefits will go unrealized. Organizations must focus on reducing barriers, providing resources, and creating equitable opportunities for those who have been and still are systemically underrepresented in the organization.
  4. Communication: The advances in diversity and global reach coupled with the proliferation of communication tools have made it easier to reach and communicate across many dimensions. (Have you noticed the live transcription feature in Zoom? I’ve now used it to more effectively communicate with a peer in the Deaf community. How long before we get real-time translation in a Zoom call? I’m imagining it will be like meetings at the UN, where everyone has the interpreter they need no matter who is speaking. How cool is THAT going to be?) All that communication, however, also means a LOT of noise. How do we filter out what’s important? When we get overloaded with available communication and information, we become less productive instead of more. Then we retreat to our established connections, become siloed, and move in the opposite direction of inclusion. Communication proliferation is a double-edged sword.
  5. Psychological safety: This is a key element for inclusion and is driven through culture. As we move to structures like hybrid work and the metaverse, or ask employees to self-identify and share more of who they are so that the organization can support them in better ways, organizations have to be good stewards of this information. Employees want to know and feel that if they are going to be vulnerable with you, you will treat them respectfully.

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?

Favorite? How can I pick just one?! I’ll pick two.

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” ~Arthur Ashe

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” ~ Maya Angelou

These quotes remind me that we can all do our best with whatever tools, knowledge, and experience we have right now. But, we can and should be open to learning more and doing things differently when we have new information, new experiences, and new knowledge to guide our next steps. This idea has helped me take some leaps, personally and professionally, and also guides how I support and encourage others.

Through my volunteer work in Travis County as a Guardian ad Litem for kids in foster care, for instance, we do a lot of training around trauma-informed advocacy. As we care for kids and families in the system, we look beyond the behaviors to the underlying traumas. Instead of focusing on the behavior, we look to understand what happened in their lives that created this type of response.

It’s the same in the workplace. People make decisions and choices based on previous experience and knowledge. So if we can provide new information and new knowledge, people can make different decisions and different choices.

If hiring managers become aware of their affinity bias,for example, they can pay attention to how they are evaluating candidates and make different choices. If managers receive data that the women in their meetings never speak up, they can proactively “pass the mic” and invite them in rather than waiting for them to step in and speak up.

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.

Oprah. She embodies and demonstrates enduring resilience. She challenges herself. She challenges others. She learns. She grows, exploring every dimension of who she is and who she wants to be. She dares to be vulnerable with herself and shares that with others. And throughout her journey, she has given back emotionally and fiscally, truly lifting as she climbs. She is changing lives on a grand scale, but she started from where she was, with what she had, and did what she could.

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?

You can follow me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/dionnschaffner/ and twitter at @dmschaffner!

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