Diversity, equity & inclusion. This is an incredibly important piece. It is an ongoing and top-of-mind opportunity as well as a challenge for organizations that have not considered or made that top of mind for them in the past. We now see that this is not only a trend, but it’s a mainstay and critical to the overall wellness of organizations.
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 Jess Elmquist.
Jess Elmquist blazed a trail to becoming Phenom’s CHRO & Chief Evangelist by always being an early adopter of cutting-edge technology and having a constant drive for innovation. In a previous executive role at Life Time, the healthy way of life company, he sought a people-centric technology platform that could deliver richer experiences across the talent landscape and chose Phenom. He understands HR leaders’ biggest challenges and has set a goal to support other CHROs in visioning and accomplishing their human capital strategies.
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 come from a family of four brothers — two older than I, and one who is younger. My youngest brother, Jeremy, was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was just a toddler. He and I were very close. We shared a bedroom together.
With such a close relationship with my brother, my formative years were impacted by trauma and illness. I learned how to rally around someone and protect them and support them, and I learned about the power of empathy; that you should be really careful how you treat people because you don’t know what they carry. Everyone has value and can make a contribution to society.
So that life experience is partly what got me in the people business in the first place. My life’s mission is to leave people and the world better than I found them. Which is why I became so invested in the limitless potential of human capital first as a public school teacher and eventually as a CHRO.
Being purpose driven is why I have purposely sought out companies that have a clear-cut mission: like Phenom’s, helping a billion people find the right job. I get to help CHROs leverage technology to enable their organizations to be the best they can be.
Before that I was at Life Time, the healthy way of life company. Certainly from a business standpoint, helping Life Time grow from a startup to a ramp-up to a publicly traded organization, and being able to really help develop with that team while hiring and certifying over 250,000 people over the years, was hugely formative for me as well.
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 world will still be a dynamic market economy with endless opportunities for growth. We’ll still be heavily reliant on human capabilities in manufacturing, in service roles, healthcare and in serving and maintaining the infrastructure of a modern society. There will still be a need for skilled workers in almost every sector, especially those roles that demand creativity, or to build complex and close relationships with clients and customers.
What will be different, though, is the amount of reskilling and upskilling to maintain competitiveness as a human being. So I do think there’s going to be a huge demand for knowledge workers and skilled workers, but that whole framework is going to be shifting and changing based on artificial intelligence and machine learning. People will need to be well versed in change management to maintain and succeed in an environment of continuous change, and when you have a model for change and practice this process, you can feel settled and inspired by a new normal being presented.
Here’s a quick example of what I mean.
My company — Phenom — is helping customers foster their employees’ progress through a fascinating use of technology.
Because our platform identifies skills and preferences at the individual employee level and at the enterprise level, our customers can see what skills gaps exist within their organization, what gaps are being filled, and where their talent needs the most support. This helps significantly with workforce planning, but also with determining what is and isn’t working from an upskilling effort. So as employees grow and evolve, our platform will update to reflect their new skills.
Vocationally, people are going to look at work differently. They will be investing in themselves and in the economy how they give their time to work comparatively to giving to something else — whether that’s something personal like family, altruistic or help in their community. So the question becomes how do we keep people focused, productive and purposeful when work itself is changing?
People are still going to interview for jobs. They will still want and need to work, but the concept of how and where work is done is changing and will be in a continuous state of change for the foreseeable future.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
The first step I would say is start now. Some of the organizations that are winning today are organizations that are authentically working toward building truly human-centered companies, where their people can be human, and bring their full selves to work. These companies are also deciding what they stand for outside of the goal of growing revenue. The workforce of tomorrow wants to see that the work they do is making a difference in ways they can align with.
For example, Southwest Airlines is a customer, and they just hit a huge hiring milestone — 10,000 people hired in the first six months of 2022. That makes it the first major U.S. airline to return to pre-pandemic staffing levels. Personalization means everything to the people who work for them, and the people whom they hire.
They use automated kiosks for passengers who want to tag their own luggage. That frees up employees to handle more meaningful interactions with the travelers who actually need it — the passengers traveling with small children, for example. So by automating that piece of the experience that no longer needs a human touch the airline is providing more space and more resources for the people who do need help so that they get quality help faster.
When you look at hiring, it’s the same thing. How can we automate those administrative and redundant pieces that no longer need a human to fulfill? That opens up that human touch to provide better experiences to candidates faster and increases the satisfaction of the recruiter and talent professionals doing the work.
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?
Think of a tire distribution company. They have approximately 30 locations throughout the country and they sell car tires. If you’re a customer, what do you want from a car tire company? You want the best price and you want really good service. You want to be able to trust them. But what about the people who work for the company? What do they want?
It used to be that they would be happy making a decent hourly wage, good benefits and a couple of weeks of vacation.
That’s not what excites people to not only take a job, but to decide to stay and commit to that company and experience. Organizations must attract people to their employer’s brand. If they know that they’re a part of a community and the organization contributes to a local charity, and are aware of their environmental footprint, and take a stand on being inclusive as an organization, that’s what motivates employees now, for example. You have a purpose and you have a mission and you post them on your website for all to see.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
I talk to CHROs in a variety of industries about this very subject. And as they debate the pros and cons of remote vs. hybrid, I encourage them to keep their line of sight on culture. Double-down on it. Culture is an important aspect of the employment brand. There’s the old adage — “When’s the best time to plant a tree? Answer: Plant that tree 20 years ago or today!” The point is start now if you haven’t started. Talent executives should start building their employment brand on an AI-empowered technology platform that supports and develops the crucial psychological contract between the company, candidates and employees.
It’s a lifestyle pact between employer and talent that excites new people to join and helps keep the employees they already have for the long haul. Job-seekers and existing talent are looking for more than just a paycheck, a 401(k) and health benefits; they want an employer whose values and purpose align with their own.
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?
We’re seeing the first steps of a hybrid work world that’s never going to go back to everybody showing up to work every day unless there’s a need to be present to fulfill the job or there is a mandate to return to the office. Because of that, we’re going to see a shift in the types of accountability tools and the ways that people will work. I’m not sure that video conferencing is the highest form of interaction that is coming to hybrid and virtual work. We are in the first quarter of a work from anywhere game that is only going to get better, more connected and enjoyable.
I’ll also add that I’m a strong believer that when in-person interactions are coordinated, they should be culture-building events. Employers should make sure these are creative sessions, opportunities to do the interactive white board work that can be much better live. Employees should take these moments in a live environment to get to know their colleagues, senior leaders and subject matter experts, to engage in high level work and make commitments to fulfill work once back in a virtual environment. Similarly, in my discussions with HR leaders, the pandemic redefined “normal” and created a value called “flexibility”. It will be tough to take away that value. Organizations are still working to make work, work, and I have confidence we will all get there.
Phenom was a hybrid organization long before the pandemic hit. We have returned to that model — having employees both in the office and working remotely. Members of my team are spread out across the globe. while I’m based out west. The HR team is stationed all over the world in mostly remote or hybrid work status creating perspective, to serve all of the team with excellence. And so, I feel it’s working for Phenom.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
Our best days as a society are ahead of us. I really do have a ton of hope. Part of my optimism comes from the new workforce. My experience with Millennials and GenZ is incredibly positive and optimistic. What I see in them as far as their drive to make a difference in the world, to be aware of something outside themselves in general, fills me with confidence. I’ve got 30 years of experience dealing with people and their motivations, and I’m just impressed with the talent that’s coming into the workforce.
Because of their work, society is going to become more equitable, more inclusive, more aware of the impact they and their company make outside of just profits and growth. This will allow for more both/and thinking, and hopefully look for answers that support everyone.
Millennials and GenZers are the original digital nomads — they’re much more aware of technology and the power it has to connect people across time zones, to share ideas and thoughts in a way that previous generations never had.
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?
With society working hard to normalize and destigmatize mental health, it means were talking about it! That’s great. Now, mental wellness benefits are one of the must-haves that candidates and employees are actively searching for in an employer. That reminds me of something fascinating I heard from a customer about what she’s seeing from talent when it comes to loyalty vs. lifestyle expectations.
New employees at her company were defining innovation differently than they ever have in the past. Where previously they looked for companies that were innovating on a product or on a service — think of large tech companies — now along with that view, candidates are defining innovation as innovation of the employee experience, which is just a complete seachange from a few years ago.
I thought that was a great insight.
Employees are now more empowered than ever before, and the covert has become the overt. They’re now specifically asking and speaking to the things that in the past maybe they felt they didn’t have permission to say.
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?
From my perspective, it wasn’t a resignation, it was the largest employee satisfaction survey of all time, and people voted with their feet, so find out why they voted to leave, do the opposite of that as a company and you’re going to be on the right path.
Smart companies will listen to what empowered candidates’ and employees’ expectations are, and respond accordingly. It’s part of the “Psychological Contract” as I like to put it. Job-seekers and existing talent are looking for more than just a paycheck and health benefits; they want an employer whose values and purpose align with their own.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
The whole premise is that in the new talent economy, our hiring needs are now business needs. We are not fighting the talent war alone. Organizations as a whole are joining with the talent side of the business, supporting hiring and retaining talent with budgets and focus like never before. What are those trends that have a significant impact on the labor market right now?
With almost every CHRO that I’m talking to, I’m hearing the following focus points to be mindful of.
- Diversity, equity & inclusion. This is an incredibly important piece. It is an ongoing and top-of-mind opportunity as well as a challenge for organizations that have not considered or made that top of mind for them in the past. We now see that this is not only a trend, but it’s a mainstay and critical to the overall wellness of organizations.
- Activated talent will hold the power. The Gen Z population is coming en masse into the workforce, and they have different expectations of work. They have new opinions and they are incredibly informed for good or for ill, depending on where HR professionals sit in their world every day. Gen Zers are an activated talent pool that will hold a lot of power, not only because we have headwinds with 10.7 million jobs available and 4 million people to fill them. But they are selecting employers beyond compensation and health benefits; they’re looking at the company’s purpose and ideology and connection to a global marketplace.
- HR goals are business goals. That’s a challenge to our industry. Are we mostly focused on HR issues, or do we also know what’s going on in the broader business community, or within our own organizations? Do we understand how to connect HR metrics with business metrics, and are we championing that at the C-suite level, so CEOs and other C-suite members will value the CHRO’s perspective.
- Good work standards. That’s everything from fairness and equity, hybrid working and productivity standards and measurements and automated managerial tasks. We think about the participation and the partnership of AI and people today in tasks not only on the manufacturing floor, but inside of the talent world and across almost every industry. AI is becoming ubiquitous and a powerful tool that we need to empower our people to feel good and work in successfully.
- Nuke nostalgia. Challenge yourselves in HR not to stay in familiar territory. Instead of thinking “I like doing things the way that I have always done them,” adopt the mentality of “I’m going to be flexible and agile and figure out a new way of doing things.’”
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?
One of my favorite quotes would have to be “the market for something to believe in is infinite.” I’m an optimist by nature, and I believe that we are put here to find meaning in our lives and to help others do the same. This is a reflection of the impact my brother, Jeremy, had on my life. My service-first mindset stems from the fact that I enjoy — truly enjoy — helping others succeed. Take talent. I have worked with countless CHROs over the years to help them see the benefits artificial intelligence brings to what is still largely a cumbersome hiring and talent retention process.
My best days are when I’m bringing solutions to help their workforces run at peak performance. And I do it from the perspective of a people and workplace culture executive who believes in the power of human capital to help organizations thrive.
I don’t know who exactly said the quote — it’s been used in one form or another many times over, but the person I give credit to is a professional doodler named Tom McCallum. As a doodler (people buy his doodles as art work) he’s got really powerful insights.
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’s a tough one, because I don’t exactly have a bucket list of people I’d like to meet. But if I had to choose someone, I’d say Malcolm Gladwell. I’ve long been a follower and admirer of his thought leadership. He looks at the world with an interesting perspective. He brings real candor and clarity to things we thought we understood, to look at issues and people and events in a different way. He’s got a bead on where the business is going and he clearly cares about people.
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’m always open to a conversation with people focused leaders, executives and HR professionals. They should consider me a sounding board and strategic partner to help their organizations run at peak efficiency. I’m on LinkedIn and at [email protected]
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.