Remote and hybrid work is here to stay. As the pandemic forced us to reimagine what we call the “office,” it resulted in empowering the employee with a choice on where they want to work. Broadening these decisions and considering employee input on how and where they contribute will stay in place as the workplace moves forward.
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 Julia Kean.
Julia Kean is principal and head of workplace innovation at Xyster Consulting, a management consulting firm that advises and delivers on workplace strategy and technology enablement initiatives. Over the last eight years with Xyster, Julia has held various positions at the firm driving organizational changes for companies of all sizes. Her latest work focuses on taking a human-centric approach to reimagining the concept of the workplace while leveraging data and technology to provide more equitable experiences and meaningful connections across physical and digital environments. Prior to Xyster, Julia held positions at Hill Holiday and New Balance.
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 the life experiences that most shaped who you are today.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to see George Aye of Greater Good Studio share the principles of his work in non-profit service design. His team looks beyond form and function to consider what is good, and how design can challenge the status quo to address inequity. I like to think about this in the context of the work we do in commercial real estate — the built environment has responsibility to people and communities, as well as to the climate. From conception to the design, occupancy and through repurposing/deconstruction, that responsibility must be considered and addressed. There are many exciting examples of projects putting sustainability, for example, at the forefront of every design decision. Many challenges, however, still stand in the way of sustainable design taking flight on a large scale in corporate projects: inconsistent regulatory landscapes, expensive legal hurdles, and rubber stamp certifications that fail to motivate true innovation. In the strategies and solutions we deliver to our clients, I continue to strive towards incorporating better ways of addressing equity, inclusion, connectedness, sustainability and climate action. I hope to spend the rest of my career pursuing this mission.
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 concept of the workplace will continue to be fundamentally challenged. Employees are seeking a new way of working that emphasizes flexibility in where, how and when they work. When they choose to be in the office, which will likely remain a choice at most organizations, most employees will look for connection time, co-creation opportunities and the in-person mentorship they’ve missed out on the last couple of years. The inherent value of the physical workplace will weather worker choice in organizations providing employees with what they need and want. These priorities should be determined through human-centric design processes overarching space and technology conversations. Themes that will continue to remain include:
- A Variety of Spaces to Match What People Do In the Office.
Rather than placing an abundance of individual desks in an office space, we see more unassigned desks and floor concepts with a range of types of work areas for activity-based work. As organizations determine their space utilization needs going forward based on how and when people choose to use the office, this will impact how real estate developers offer their spaces. Offerings may include providing more functional amenities areas (lobbies and rooftops where people can work and socialize) and more managed services (shared bookable event and conference spaces, for example).
- High-quality tech integration in workspaces.
Accelerated by the pandemic, companies realized the need for investment in forward-trending technologies in the workplace. Tools such as biometric authentication, mobile apps and enhanced workflow systems transform how we work and connect. Similarly, building on the successes of existing collaboration tools is essential to provide inclusive experiences for people working together across locations. This will involve some creativity and experimentation but will be important to get right given that a higher percentage of workers will be in the office less frequently.
This is a trend I see continuing to evolve as new automated tools such as augmented and virtual reality solidify themselves in the market. According to reports from IBM, companies using AR report average productivity improvements of 32%. This supports the use of immersive experiences in driving efficiency in areas such as training, collaboration, workflows and employee engagement, which will absolutely transform industries across the board in the next 5–10 years.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
First and foremost — an organization must determine its vision for the type of environment and strategy it wants to foster. Future-proofing starts at the ground level of developing your plan. If this includes renovating your space or attaining a new one — you’ll want to ensure the space, strategy, etc. are equipped for the new workplace paradigm encompassing more collaboration in and out of the office as well as leaps in technological advancement. Designing for change and evolution is more possible with X-as-a-Service models continuing to take hold throughout the workplace with subscription-based furniture and technology offerings, as well as more flexible shorter-term lease structures.
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?
Employees are more empowered than ever before. With the shift of focus on wellness and bringing one’s whole self to the workplace, employees are not only expecting, but demanding their companies provide more flexibility and understanding. If companies fail to do this effectively, their top talent will leave them for organizations whose values align with their own.
The biggest gap in meeting these needs is implementing organizational change in a way that engages employees and basing changes on what employees find important and what drives value for the organization. To remain competitive in the current and future labor market, companies must:
- Invest in understanding what employees want. High performers, people who report high satisfaction, and people who report the opposite, are a good place to start.
- Offer flexible work arrangements and experiment with providing various tools and programs for people to pilot.
- Offer higher value compensation packages with mental health days, ample PTO and attractive medical and insurance plans.
- Provide more opportunities for career advancement/upskilling and mentorship programs.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
Working from home ushered in acceptance around working from anywhere. One of the most notable effects this phenomenon caused is how companies attract and attain top talent beyond their local areas. There are four key areas in which WFH is propelling the future of work which include commercial real estate, productivity, company culture and digital security.
Commercial Real Estate
From a commercial real estate perspective, landlords have become creative in their approach to leasing space as many companies cut back on in-person attendance. This tactic is also a means for tenants to save on expenses but leaves landlords in the weeds. To curb this effect, landlords are turning to utilize empty space for co-working and other collaboration uses.
While remote work has its benefits of flexibility to work from anywhere, the potential downside results in an increase in asynchronous collaboration and the undermining of informal relationships amongst staff. This leaves employers with a balancing act of ensuring employee autonomy and the efficiency of organizational productivity. A company implementing hybrid or flexible workforces can balance the needs of the employee and the company, increasing productivity, engagement, belonging, and ultimately commitment.
As mentioned before, hybrid and remote work leave little room for informal interaction amongst employees. Over time, these informal interactions build and foster company culture and remote work makes the natural occurrence of this much harder. That said, companies embracing advances in communication and collaboration tools have a higher chance of creating a supportive environment not only benefiting the company but helping it thrive.
Remote work places a higher risk on an organization’s digital security with greater potential for data breaches, identity theft and exposure to a range of other issues. To combat this issue, many organizations amped up their IT infrastructure and security strategies to further advance technological security for the future of work. Information security is the backbone of all hybrid and remote workspaces. Companies will continue to invest to ensure personal devices connect securely, protecting data on the device itself and as it is transmitted and received to company servers.
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’ve all seen the ongoing conversation around “reimagining” the workplace centered on flexibility and collaboration to drive organizational effectiveness, but for this to be successful, equity is vital. Exacerbated by the pandemic, societal inequities have been exposed and it is important now more than ever for enterprises to provide equitable collaboration experiences for all employees.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
The last couple of years accelerated the need to address a new way of working that promotes equity, inclusivity and flexibility. The paradigm of the workplace has shifted and we are in an age of worker choice, which now includes how, when, and where people do their jobs. This means workers can find jobs at organizations promoting values and norms important to them. This will force organizations to leave behind archaic ideas about presenteeism, disproven beliefs about how productivity happens, and focus on what the purpose of their workplace is (digital and physical), and how it can support their diverse workforces.
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 mental health and personal wellbeing taking center stage, organizations must set up programs and systems to prioritize employee needs in and out of the office. While many enjoy the accommodations of remote work, the lack of day-to-day interactions takes a toll on others. I’d recommend companies ensure mental health services are covered under insurance plans, create a culture of open and proactive communication between junior and senior team members as a means of avoiding burnout, and implement wellness assessments across the organization to further support employees’ needs.
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?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industries most impacted by the great resignation include leisure and hospitality, retail and others. The biggest takeaway for decision-makers and leaders is that the tide is turning and employees across the nation no longer settle for the status quo.
To help boost retention and employee morale, companies need to improve everything spanning from enterprise technology and company culture to benefits and compensation. The use of people analytics helps demystify why people leave organizations and who is most likely to leave. While no one organization is like the other, leveraging this data leads to insightful and actionable feedback to help companies retain and gain top talent.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
- Collaboration and flexibility will remain a part of workplace strategy.
A Gartner poll reported 48% of employees will work remotely at some point after the pandemic compared to 30% before the pandemic. The trend of increased demand for flexible hours and where we work was existent before COVID-19 and will only continue accelerating.
2. Digital transformation will continue to shape the workplace.
Tech, such as AI and VR, has already been deployed in industries such as manufacturing. The integration of automation will continue to increase and companies will create spaces outfitted with technology like smart boards or even AR/VR devices, especially in industries where work from home isn’t an option.
3. Remote and hybrid work is here to stay.
As the pandemic forced us to reimagine what we call the “office,” it resulted in empowering the employee with a choice on where they want to work. Broadening these decisions and considering employee input on how and where they contribute will stay in place as the workplace moves forward.
4. The use of commercial real estate will continue to evolve.
To meet changing year-over-year space, technology, and functional demand from tenants, corporate real estate landlords and developers need to offer more flexibility in how they offer their spaces and services to remain competitive.
5. More emphasis on workplace culture and social responsibility.
Employees have made it crystal clear they want to see diversity, flexibility, and balance reflected in the workplace. Social responsibility has also become a huge predicator of companies attracting and retaining top talent. Forward trending organizations will continue developing strategies to treat their staff well while responding empathically to social occurrences.
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?
I don’t know if it’s a life lesson per se, but one of my favorite urban designers, Jan Gehl, said of cities, “A good city is like a good party — people stay longer than really necessary because they are enjoying themselves.” I love this because it’s so simple and true. I also think it applies to this conversation around the workplace. If we can be kind in how we design our workplaces, both digital and physical, and give people what they need, they’ll choose to remain a part of it, even if presented with the option to work elsewhere.
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.
I would love the opportunity to speak with Christopher James. Chris founded Engine №1 based on his vision that capitalism can be harnessed for positive change and companies that align the interests of their shareholders and stakeholders are better, stronger companies as a result. His team developed a Total Value Framework, leveraging relevant ESG data to drive long-term economic value for major companies and implement those changes by taking over board positions. I admire that they’re leveraging an old, mainstream approach in a new way to introduce a better and more holistic set of principles, which so far has been impressively effective.
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?
Readers can keep up with me via LinkedIn, at https://www.linkedin.com/in/julia-kean
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.