Alternative hiring will become the norm. Between the talent drought and increasing cultural disillusionment with the value of a four-year undergraduate degree, it will be very important for companies to adopt alternative hiring methods. Whether that’s targeting women re-entering the workforce after having a family, or hiring people out of trade schools, or even high school, and training them on the job, we will have to look at alternative sources of talent in order to meet workforce needs.

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 John Flanigan, Vice President of Strategic Operations at Actalent.

John leads key strategic operations and talent initiatives for Actalent, a global leader in engineering and sciences services and talent solutions, an operating company of Allegis Group. John’s career has spanned more than 26 years, starting in 1995 as a technical recruiter and holding several operational leadership roles over his tenure. An expert in people strategies and best practices, John is dedicated to enhancing the workplace experience with a focus on individualized care and engagement.

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 have twin 13-year-old daughters, and I bake with them occasionally. Whenever I do, I’m reminded of an important lesson the Betty Crocker company uncovered in the early 1950s when they investigated why sales were flat for their instant cake mix. All their consumer had to do was add water — it couldn’t be simpler — yet boxes were not flying off shelves. When the company gathered a focus group of women to dig deeper, they learned that the cake mix was so easy to use that they were making users feel guilty. These home bakers felt they weren’t serving their loved ones a true homemade cake. They felt disconnected from the act of baking (“the work”), which impacted their identity as a parent and spouse.

The Betty Crocker team went back to the test kitchen and revised the recipe. They removed powdered egg from the mix so that the consumer would need to add an egg to the batter. Creating this extra step made the home bakers feel like they had expended effort to create the cake, alleviated their guilt, and sales skyrocketed. I think about this story when I bake with my girls because it reminds me that how we feel about our work and how it connects to our identity is incredibly important. It’s a philosophy that has been core to my career. Humans naturally seek out meaning in life and ultimately want some sense of purpose in their work. A small thing like breaking an egg can mean the difference in feeling a sense of purpose, ownership, and identity — or not. It’s a reminder that leaders need to actively help people connect meaning to their work.

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?

To go back to Betty Crocker, what won’t change in 10–15 years is that people will continue to seek a connection with their work. This has become even more important as work has gone remote because it’s more difficult to achieve the same sense of connectivity with a leader, a team, and a company vision when you aren’t physically surrounded by them every day. Employees will want to feel like they’re part of something special, and that what they’re working on matters. It’s going to be an ongoing challenge.

Our current deficit of workers is another reality that is not going to change. Our global birth rate has declined. We’ve had a shortage of skilled talent for decades, especially in STEM fields. Now, more people are electing to stay home to support their families while continuing to work, leading to an increase in people choosing multiple part-time assignments rather than one full-time job. The pandemic has exacerbated these issues, but even if they were solved tomorrow there would be a long tail before we would stop feeling the negative impacts.

Layered on top of this is the continued acceleration of technology. Futurist Ray Kurtzweil believes that within the next 100 years, people will experience the equivalent of 20,000 years of human evolution thanks to technology. That’s exciting and scary to think about, and it makes people feel uncertain about their future. This uncertainty breeds the need for stability, but people are not going about getting it in the same way we did 50 years ago. Author Steve Cadigan of “Workquake” said — paraphrasing — my Dad had one job in his lifetime, I had eight jobs, and my kids will have eight jobs at once. Employer and employee loyalty is, in large part, conditional. We’ve already seen the proliferation of gig economy platforms where you can monetize your time and expertise. People are choosing to work multiple assignments at once, whether as a full-time consultant or part-time side-hustle, not only for the income, but to gain a wide spectrum of knowledge and skills. In our knowledge-based economy I foresee this evolving into a rise of the corporation of one, meaning an increase in people’s ability to create a living for themselves by being a free agent.

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

The more knowledge, skills, and experiences people have, the more employable they are, which in today’s marketplace is the new security. Because of the rate of change in technology and business, companies can’t guarantee employees a lifetime of employment anymore. Instead, what they can say is, I can invest in your knowledge and career and make you as employable as possible during our time together. That is what engenders employee loyalty today. It’s a philosophy that has driven Actalent’s strategy as we work to give our consultants the security and care people need from a single employer, while driving towards the next evolution of the freelance economy where highly skilled consultants can move from project to project, picking up new skills and experiences as they evolve their career. In the end, a career is a journey, not a destination.

Empowering frontline leaders will also help organizations future-proof themselves. Managers are under more pressure than ever before with the talent deficit and challenges of remote work. Preventing manager meltdown is critical to get to the next level and ensure their people are satisfied and engaged. Judith Bardwick wrote about creating danger in the comfort zone to battle workplace entitlement. Now we need to create safety in the danger zone — or a sense of security and stability for those who feel the anxiety and stress of demanding roles, like frontline managers. Organizations that learn how to do this by investing in and engaging these team members will future-proof themselves by retaining and getting the most out of their people.

An additional measure of futureproofing will come from leaders who are able to bridge their mission with the needs of their people — not just customers, but colleagues too. Companies don’t do a great job of listening to their people due to status quo bias; often it’s just validating what they think they already know, so they will need to design true feedback mechanisms.

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?

Rising expectations for attention and customization are going to create the biggest gap between employee needs and reality. JD Power & Associates has tracked customer satisfaction scores for the past 50 years. The scores have overall remained the same year after year, even though vehicles today are way more reliable. Why? Because as you improve a product or service, consumer expectations increase at an equal rate; it’s the price of progress. What Actalent has found through in-depth research is that employers need to understand employees’ unique wants and needs and add value to the partnership at every touchpoint in a way that’s authentic and meaningful. The key is to understand the goals of the individual, dig into the “why” behind them, and help people achieve what’s most important to them. To close this gap, companies will have to entrust leadership to do the right things for their people when it’s called for. A lack of authenticity and poor follow-through on promises to employees will erode trust and expand this gap more than anything else.

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

Remote work is here to stay in different capacities and will remain the norm for many organizations. What every company needs to do in order to make that sustainable is be very intentional about building their culture through relationships. In a virtual environment, that’s three times more important. People want to feel like they’re growing and that they’re part of something bigger than themselves. That’s more difficult in a virtual environment and requires even more precision and effort, but managers often aren’t trained on how to do this effectively. What they miss out on are the shared experiences people would normally have in the office. Companies need to think about how they create regular opportunities to connect virtually to make up for the lack of physical proximity, build culture, and strengthen people’s interpersonal connections.

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 going to have to re-examine some of our fundamental beliefs regarding how work gets done, including a need to get comfortable leading through outcomes and less on the hours worked. This is easier to do at the individual level, when we think about what one person wants and needs, than it is to do at an organizational level. Leaders can be scared to give a few thousand people the same flexibility and autonomy that they value themselves. But why not? Every individual is re-evaluating how they want to make a living right now and allocate their most valuable resource — time.

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

That there are amazing opportunities for the companies that get this right. And for the ones that change first and fastest, there will be an advantage, because those are the companies that will build trust and loyalty with people. Even if companies start with a few small changes, earning that goodwill matters. You don’t have to be perfect, but you have to show care and put your people first. The pace of change is only accelerating, so get ahead of it.

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 well-being?

Some say the most powerful four-letter word is “free,” but I believe it’s “time.” Time is our most precious asset on this earth, and giving it back to people is a key tool to promote mental health and well-being, prevent burnout, and create an engaged workforce. Actalent’s talent experience team has conducted extensive research that’s shown us how much people value their time, so we are building this into the experiences we give our people because it’s a critical way to show that we care.

We must also make the way we give people what they need personal and customized, and the ability to do that relies on building a level of intimacy in the work relationship. Getting to know people’s needs and goals is the only way to effectively meet them, but what engages one person won’t necessarily work for another; wellness is very personal and means many different things to people. One person may need support for their mental health, but another is working on the physical or emotional aspect. The key is to be consistent in what you give and make it a part of the actual work week. A dad who coaches his daughter’s basketball team is going to appreciate the flexibility to leave early on Tuesday to make games on time more than anything else.

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?

Looking past the headlines, what I see is not The Great Resignation, but The Great Equalization. The work ecosystem is out of balance and has been for many years. This is the start of a re-balancing of power between corporations and workers, who are now highly sought after and have many options for employment. In the past, when there was a surplus of talent, companies took a transactional approach and didn’t have to consider anything outside of their employees’ professional needs. Now it’s more complex. A more holistic experience that addresses personal as well as professional needs and goals is required to get someone to stay at a job long term. What I see behind every headline about people leaving the workforce is people whose needs aren’t being met.

In terms of culture, every company can evolve to build in more trust and stronger relationships. Leadership at every level must have the leeway to take care of themselves and their teams however it’s necessary. There is risk to that, but the key is to calculate — what are the risks if you don’t? In business there are no risk-free transactions. Isn’t it a better way to trust in your people than not to trust? Companies also need to develop their leaders to be empathetic, because it doesn’t matter how many programs you have if the employee feels like their manager doesn’t care. Then they’re gone.

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

  1. An intentionally designed employee experience will be a top priority. The talent drought is, in part, being driven by workforce participation rates. The best way for companies to staunch the flood of people leaving the workforce — and maybe bring some people back — is to look at their employee experience with an honest and critical eye. Then they need to prioritize and invest in making it better, whether that’s developing new strategies and programs for onboarding and performance management, empowering managers to do more to care for their people — their partners — or building a culture of trust.
  2. Leaders must model self-care. For too long, Americans have idolized a culture of overworking wrapped in the shiny language of “hacking the workday” — bragging about how many hours we’ve worked and how little sleep we can get away with. We’re seeing a shift away from that and towards valuing people’s time and the life they want to build outside of work. Burnout during the pandemic was and is real. Prioritizing mental health and wellness in general is becoming more and more widespread, and leaders will need to lead the pack, because if they aren’t healthy, it will impact the people around them. Everyone needs to take their own personal inventory before they can care for their teams and people.
  3. Alternative hiring will become the norm. Between the talent drought and increasing cultural disillusionment with the value of a four-year undergraduate degree, it will be very important for companies to adopt alternative hiring methods. Whether that’s targeting women re-entering the workforce after having a family, or hiring people out of trade schools, or even high school, and training them on the job, we will have to look at alternative sources of talent in order to meet workforce needs.
  4. People are taking back their time. The pandemic has taught us to live more in the moment, to need less, and to value our time over anything else. People say they want more money, but what they really want is freedom — freedom from worry, freedom to choose. People are realizing there are other ways to get that freedom beyond seeking out the biggest paycheck, and companies will need to adapt to this new mindset.
  5. The employer-employee relationship is transforming. Employers used to have all the power, but this relationship is shifting. Companies have to understand that the job they’re offering isn’t as important as it used to be. People will continue to have more options. Their life is more important than their employment. They don’t need you as much as you need them. People aren’t looking for a job anymore, ; they’re looking for the next opportunity to be led, developed, challenged, valued, and compensated equitably. It’s counterintuitive, but what we have to do to retain people is provide them with the opportunity to learn and grow a broad set of skills, because that’s what workers want to make them more employable, so they feel secure. Security in this accelerated future is determined by employability.

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?

“Doing things you don’t want to do is what builds your character.”

It may be more of a motto than a quote, but it’s one I think about often. Whether I’m getting ready to have a tough conversation with my team or even simply dragging myself to the gym after work, it’s a reminder to honor my commitments to myself and the people around me — not just because they’re things I need to do, but because they help me be the best version of myself.

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.

It would be incredible to share a meal with Bill Gates because he’s so talented, well-read, and influential in creating this new world order we live in that will shape our future.

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?

The best way to connect with me is on LinkedIn, and you can stay up to date on my team’s workforce research and the experience programs we’re rolling out to our employees and consultants by following the Actalent LinkedIn page.

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