Productivity will increase as employees are treated as humans first, workers second.

Accommodating employees’ personal lives and building work around their unique life circumstances will increase employee engagement and retention. Both of these drive productivity and business success. Employees will be more likely to stay, as they may not be able to get the agreed-upon arrangements with another company. They’ll also be more engaged at work and more likely to recommend the organization to others — a bonus for recruitment too.

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 Leah Phifer.

Leah Phifer is the founder of WhyWork, a consulting organization focused on improving retention through personalized employee engagement plans. A passionate leader, she’s spent 15 years working for the federal government in positions spanning crisis communication, national security, and human resources. She launched WhyWork to address failed attempts to reengage the workforce following the collective crisis response known as the “Great Resignation.”

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.

Thank you for the invitation to contribute to this important topic! One of the most formative experiences in recent memory was my bid to represent Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District in 2018. I left a very fulfilling career with the FBI to address pressing needs in my home district that outweighed even the counter-terrorism cases I worked daily. I launched a grassroots campaign as a “political outsider” and largely defied advice from more seasoned politicos, running against an incumbent of my own party.

Six months later, I was on the cover of Time magazine and earned 54% of the vote at my party’s endorsing convention. Even though I didn’t make it to the halls of Congress, the campaign taught me to trust my instincts and surround myself with people who share my values and drive. These lessons served me well in launching my own business.

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?

People have always sought meaning in their work and that will continue. There’s been a lot of speculation lately that American ambition is on the decline, indicating more people are viewing work as just a paycheck. That level of disengagement is a natural response to crisis and trauma, but it’s not sustainable in the long run. Humans are inherently “goal-seeking animals,” Aristotle once pointed out. As long as we need to work to survive, we’ll seek meaning and purpose in our work. What’s changed is that work is no longer the sole source of our purpose.

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

If organizations want to be successful moving forward, they need to acknowledge the unique circumstances and desires of their work force. They’ll need to rely less on aggregate data gathered infrequently. The desires and needs of the labor force are changing at a rate we haven’t seen in decades. To retain talented and engaged employees, leaders will need to check in with them often and be receptive to making the changes they need.

Successful leaders will treat employees as individuals. They’ll build personalized plans that lean into their employees’ strengths and unique needs. They’ll find creative ways to have meaningful discussions with their team members about their needs, not just seek feedback through annual email surveys. Empowering people to craft how, when, and where they work will not only result in happier employees — it boosts retention and productivity.

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 best strategy for approaching all changes moving forward is to adopt a human-centric perspective that encompasses both employers and employees. Everyone is human. Full stop. Their role does not define the degree of their humanity. We all value time with our families, autonomy, and the flexibility to address the curveballs life throws at us. Once we lay that out in the open, we’ll find it’s much easier to reach consensus on changes that are long overdue.

That being said, one of the most fascinating struggles to come is the movement toward the four-day work week. The current structure of our work week has existed for well over 100 years. It’s ingrained in our society, and cultural inertia is difficult to overcome. Even so, more and more companies are adopting this model with very few reporting a decrease in productivity. It may soon be one of the most in-demand aspects of jobs for many workers.

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

Engaging employees who prefer different work environments (remote, hybrid, in-office) will be one of the biggest challenges for organizational leadership moving forward. Many of my clients want to get their team on the same page about where to work from and how often. Since WhyWork specializes in personalized engagement strategies, the foundation of our process is acknowledging that one size doesn’t fit all. Instead, I dig deep into the reasons why each employee favors a certain work environment and craft their personalized engagement plan around that.

Let’s say John doesn’t want to work in the office because his grandma has been falling recently and he needs the flexibility to check on her mid-day. By building that flexibility into his personal engagement plan, John finds his employer much more receptive to him leaving the office than he could have imagined. His anxiety about it is greatly eased. Julia became a mid-level manager shortly before the pandemic hit and never became comfortable managing a remote workforce. By understanding why she prefers an in-office environment, we can build into her engagement plan an increased focus on developing the skills needed to manage a remote or hybrid workforce.

What I’ve found through my work conducting one-on-one engagement interviews is that both employees and employers are operating from antiquated notions of what the other wants and why. Often this lack of communication is so entrenched that it takes a third-party to shake it loose and get everyone to a place where they can thrive as individuals. Too often leadership has been in crisis mode the past two years and hasn’t had the time to have these meaningful and critical conversations. The WhyWork process isn’t designed to replace that employer-employee connection, but to jump start it and provide the tools for future engagement conversations.

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?

Leaders will need to decrease reliance on macro-level data to guide decisions. It’s easy to glance at feedback analysis that says “65 percent of your employees want a raise” — well what about the other 35 percent? What do they want? Surveys don’t capture the nuance of employees’ changing needs.

We need to open up the lines of communication that’ve been closed off since the advent of post-Industrial work. It won’t be easy, as the social norms dictating employer-employee relationships did not change overnight. It isn’t always easy for employees to speak up or even identify what they need to be engaged and thriving at work. We see this with the increase in employee (not candidate) ghosting. Too many employees are saying “I was too anxious to tell you what I needed, so it was easier to just find another job instead.”

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

The past two years have forced us to reevaluate our relationship to work. People are gaining a great understanding of what they want from life and how work fits into that. The next couple of years will be messy; the “Great Reshuffle” will continue as employees seek work environments that better suit their unique wants and needs. Hopefully, more will learn they can get what they need right where they are, by engaging in better discussions with their leadership.

Once more employers realize that customizing work arrangements for their talent won’t negatively affect their business (on the contrary, it will enhance it), only then will the shuffle slow. Employees will see they can grow and adapt in their current organization by asking for what they need. Employers will grow more comfortable adopting a “one-size doesn’t fit all approach” as they see their employees — and business — thrive.

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?

The increased attention on sabbaticals is a very welcome addition to conversation about work. Sabbaticals can yield a high return on investment. It’s shown to increase productivity, alleviate burnout, and aid in retention. It’s not just for professors or even white-collar workers anymore. A town in my state of Minnesota recently announced a sabbatical program for police officers with the aim of reducing burnout and turnover among officers in rural areas. I hope more organizations — in the public and private sector — will consider adopting a sabbatical offering to all their employees.

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?

My personal favorite is the “Great Reassessment” because it speaks to the amount of soul-searching the American workforce has undertaken the past year. By and large, the biggest change companies need to make is the way they listen to their employees. That change needs to come from the highest level of leadership, because there’s an increasing amount of data pointing to higher levels of burnout among middle management, even more than their direct reports.

Managers have a massive impact on their employees’ engagement and willingness to stay. If those in the C-suite issue a mandate that all managers begin conducting regular check-ins (often called “stay interviews”) without providing them the proper resources, it could backfire. These are sensitive conversations, especially if they haven’t happened routinely in the past. A minor misstep could cause an employee already eyeing the door to finally walk through it. Further, adding more to a manger’s plate without taking other things off of it will only fuel more burnout among the crucial middle management layers. If your business is unaccustomed to conducting these kinds of discussion, consider bringing in a consultant who specializes in employee engagement. There’s no shame in that — we’re all in an unchartered area in the world of work.

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

  1. Hyper-personalization of employee engagement plans.

I will build on Debbie Goodman’s interview with Authority Magazine on this point. There is no single environment, work plan, schedule or benefits package that fits everyone’s needs. The Wall Street Journal advises building specialized arrangements for employees who request it (they call them “i-deals”). While I don’t disagree with the intent, I caution against only offering these arrangements to employees who seek them out. It can leave less assertive employees at a disadvantage and fuel resentment.

At WhyWork, we sit down with the entire team, conducting one-on-one interviews over a 2–3 week span. We ask questions like, “What’s your favorite aspect of your job? What growth opportunities are you seeking?”. Then we follow it up with an actionable report to management illustrating the steps that can be taken to improve individual employee engagement. It’s up to organizational leadership to follow up these interviews by discussing with each employee what is immediately feasible (such as a schedule change) and what may need to be revisited later (like a promotion). I encourage management to be as transparent as possible and we provide them with the tools to navigate these follow up discussions.

2. Good leaders will admit they don’t have all the answers.

For businesses to thrive moving forward, it’ll be increasingly important for leaders to admit they don’t know their workforce as well as they thought. I can’t tell you how many managers and owners I speak with who are taken aback when an employee resigns. They insist they had really open lines of communication and sincerely believed their employees would come to them with any desired changes.

It’s not that easy — there are plenty of reasons employees withhold information from the people who sign their paychecks. It’s not always an indictment on the culture or leadership; employees carry baggage from prior workplaces or have stressors in other areas of their life. The last thing they have energy for is to come up with a way to eloquently persuade their leadership they need to make a change. They find it easier to get another job instead. Leaders who don’t want to fall prey to high attrition levels will need to start fresh and realize their individual employees have changed in ways that aren’t immediately apparent.

3. Employees will again find purpose in their work, but they won’t let employers exploit it.

This is a really important trend that I’m personally invested in observing. As a lifelong public servant, I know what it’s like to believe in the mission of your job. I’m fortunate because the federal government tightly controls overtime, so there are only a few times in my career when I’ve needed to work 50–60 hour weeks (typically in response to a crisis).

However, many employers have exploited people’s passion for too long by expecting excessive work hours or unreasonably low pay. As widespread burnout subsides, employers must get creative in redesigning these jobs that ask people to sacrifice their well-being in pursuit of their purpose. Work will again become meaningful for people, but it will no longer be the sole area in American’s life that provide purpose.

4. Productivity will increase as employees are treated as humans first, workers second.

Accommodating employees’ personal lives and building work around their unique life circumstances will increase employee engagement and retention. Both of these drive productivity and business success. Employees will be more likely to stay, as they may not be able to get the agreed-upon arrangements with another company. They’ll also be more engaged at work and more likely to recommend the organization to others — a bonus for recruitment too.

5. Workers will continue to have increased empathy for one another — and increased solidarity.

Who among us didn’t tip a bit more generously these last couple years? Who hasn’t had to adjust their expectations when entering a retail establishment lately, since workers are scarce and mostly new? Having our lives disrupted over the past two years has exposed our vulnerability and humanity. It’s not about clapping for healthcare workers or teachers any more, it’s about banding together to support them when they ask for what they need. We’ll continue to see increased support for unionization as workers seek to formalize the gains they’ve made the past year.

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’ve been ruminating a lot on Brenė Brown’s advice that “it’s not an issue of giving voice to the voiceless, but ears to the earless.” I’ve done a lot of advocacy work in the past 20 years and that perspective resonates with me. We need to shift our focus from “teaching” people how to advocate for themselves to educating those in power how to listen. Employees know what they want, now it’s time to give employers the tools to truly listen and take action.

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 am a huge fan of Adam Grant’s work. I made the shift to organizational management after 15 years of national security and human resources work. So my approach stems from the experience of supporting organizations that help humans in a crisis, or prevent a crisis. His approach to organizational psychology is so cerebral, yet accessible. When I listen to his podcast and reflect on my past work, I think “that’s exactly why we approached the situation that way” and it provides excellent lessons.

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