DIVERSITY & INCLUSION. The narrative around DEI has thankfully shifted in a significant way in recent years, in large part because of the committed and vocal individuals within organizations who have pushed for change. High-level DEI commitments are now commonplace, and more organizations are hiring DEI-specific roles and engaging in inclusive hiring practices. At my own organization, I’m proud to say that team members identifying as people of color went from 8% four years ago to 40% today, thanks to intentional recruiting and hiring practices.

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 Leila Saad of Common Impact.

Leila Saad is a social impact professional who is passionate about the potential for cross-sector collaborations to act as a force for good in the world. She is the CEO of Common Impact, a national nonprofit leader in skills-based volunteering, helping to bring companies and social change organizations together to create transformational change. She is a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, where she studied international political economy and the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she studied art history.

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 as a Palestinian-American in a predominantly white, affluent town in Massachusetts and it was an identity-busting experience. My parents were an unlikely couple. In her 20s, my mother, a typical white woman from Middle America, decided to move to the Middle East to learn Arabic in the 1960s. Her adventurousness reflected the times, but my mom also had a uniquely rebellious spirit. Before she departed, an Arabic professor at a summer course at Princeton University declared in front of the whole class that my mom would the one student who would never succeed at learning the language. That only fueled her fire. She moved to Lebanon, immersed herself in the culture, and speaks Arabic expertly to this day.

In Lebanon, my mother met my father, a Palestinian refugee whose family fled their home in 1948 when the state of Israel was created. He was fortunate enough to live a relatively privileged life in Lebanon, but it was not one without hardship. His family struggled to rebuild a life after being uprooted, and later their lives were wracked by the Civil War in Lebanon.

My otherwise pleasant childhood in the Boston suburbs was therefore marked by an atypical worldliness and an undercurrent of worry, both of which I mostly kept private. Ours was a safe and supportive community with great public schools, strong extracurricular programs, and lots of opportunities, and I benefitted from it all. Yet at home, a pit in my stomach persisted, especially during the crisis years in Lebanon, when late-night phone calls brought concerning news. One of my uncles was tragically killed in the war, devasting our family. My cousins in Beirut recall terrifying bombings and violent shootings in their neighborhood. Those memories remain with them, as they now raise families of their own in a country that continues to struggle to thrive.

Like many people who grew up with a starkly divided background — such as children of immigrants or with multi-ethnic or bi-racial parents — I have also always felt both a strong sense of pride in my background and identity as well as a complicated relationship with it. When asked about my identity, a simple answer does not suffice. I ask myself, Am I Arab? American? Am I a woman of color? Since I am perceived as white in many circumstances, with all the privileges that attend to that, is that right or fair? What about the advantages I got from the wealthy community in which I grew up? That complicated conversation is currently playing out on the national scene. When I filled out the 2020 census, I was instructed to mark “White,” which the U.S. government defines as including those of Middle Eastern descent. Now, there is a lawsuit pending to create a Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) category in the census.

At different points in my life, I have clung tightly to one or the other of my identities, but for many years now, I have been comfortable with the idea of living in two worlds at once and the understanding that a complicated identity can bestow a unique perspective. Today, I relish the not-knowing. It takes me back to my childhood when I either felt fully American in my town or fully Middle Eastern in my home. Now I feel both of those things at the same time and no matter where I am. I am not just okay with that; I embrace it.

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?

I believe it typically takes at least 10–15 years for any cultural shift of significance to occur. Because of the pandemic, however, in just two years, the nature of the workforce and workplace changed as much as it might have otherwise done over a 10–15 year period. In areas like remote working arrangements and hybrid environments, we took a huge leap forward on something that was likely to happen anyway but at a much slower pace. Because of that, things won’t look much different in 10–15 years than they do today, at least knowledge workers and the organizations that employ them. In that sense, we are already seeing the “future of work” and it is now.

By contrast, because technology will continue to transform at a rapid pace, other things will look very different in 10–15 years. Two areas to watch are continued automation and artificial intelligence. I’m not capable of predicting what those change will look like, particularly when it comes to AI, but experts are saying it will be transformational. Even with my rather limited knowledge, I know that when we start to see AI-generated art winning prizes over creations made by human artists, significant cultural and workplace shifts are in store.

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

Listen and observe. Trends will come and go, but close observation will help you to discern what is likely to have staying power. There is a lot of noise right now, but key ideas are rising to the top. I personally focus my listening on young people. Every generation tends to dismiss young people because of their immaturity or lack of experience. Yet in every era, trends solidify into history when emerging new ideas coming from the next generation stick.

Young people today are charting a new course for the future of work, as well as the future of relationships, families, society, and more. Faced with some of the greatest global challenges in generations, they see the world in a whole new way, and piece by piece they are re-imagining it differently too.

My advice is to follow their lead. No organization will be able to meet every request, but respecting every request is the first step. Then to every extent possible, provide what you can. If flexibility won’t compromise your ability to deliver, provide it. If equity in the workplace is the demand, figure out where your blind spots are and address them. If transparency and fair pay are at issue, appreciate the request and do your best to meet it. I know resources are not endless. I am familiar with the hard decisions that have to be made to narrowly balance a tight budget, make a profit, or in a nonprofit’s case, build a necessary reserve. That will be part of your calculation, and not everything will cost you financially, but if you do not get ahead of this curve, history will pass you by.

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?

Being a good employer is now an imperative. During the pandemic, that battle was fought and won (or lost, depending on how you see it). The shift had been in the works for a lot longer than that, but it’s now clear where we are going. Salaries and benefits will continue to be a key factor in attracting and retaining talent. But that won’t be the only factor. More than ever, rewarding work and a healthy and positive culture are just as, and sometimes even more, important. And they can cost little or nothing.

At my organization, Common Impact, our mission is to align business and social purpose. Our key strategy for doing that is engaging employees in volunteer work where they can use their professional skills (“skills-based volunteering”) to support nonprofits and their communities. Our programs offer exponential benefits for employers seeking non-compensationrelated ways to provide meaningful work experiences to employees. Our programs offer employees a chance to spend a portion of their time volunteering their professional skills to support nonprofits with whom they partner. They also get to meet new people and try out new skills, connect with their teams or meet new colleagues, and develop professional skills crucial to their careers. The feedback we get from our volunteers demonstrates that programs like ours offer a comprehensive, low-cost way to benefit employees. In addition, the fact that interest in our programs is growing significantly suggests that programs like ours are a valuable tool for companies seeking to meet employees’ shifting expectations.

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

Before I joined Common Impact, I ran a global non-governmental organization with offices in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Because of our global nature, we were already set up to work 100% virtually, and our programs went essentially unscathed during the pandemic. For years, we had been virtually delivering programs, maintaining partnerships, and connecting as a team around the clock — quite literally, thanks to varied time zones. We experienced several benefits from our cross-border work, like the ability to scale our impact across continents, to draw on local expertise wherever it existed, to engage with and learn from people and cultures much different from ours — in sum, to think globally but act locally.

During the pandemic, everyone else quickly caught up with global organizations like ours, and they are now reaping the rewards that we had experienced for years. Key among those is the potential to connect across great distances in real-time. That has a huge multiplier promise for all industries, not to mention a positive impact on carbon emissions.

Predictions have us back to pre-pandemic levels of travel in a few years, but our approach will be to follow the mantra to “be together when it matters.” Common Impact is going fully virtual and that will be our guiding approach. We will not be in offices all the time; however, when onboarding, for strategy sessions, or to reconnect and have fun, we will expend the necessary resources to be in person together. I believe it is a philosophy that benefits business, society, and the climate.

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?

The accelerated workforce changes that occurred during the pandemic gave us all a chance to experiment, invent, iterate, and ultimately produce an entirely new work environment. As working parents, my husband and I are grateful for the flexibility that was created in that timeframe.

At the same time, we saw many women leave the labor force during the pandemic, propelled primarily by the lack of child care. McKinsey and Lean-In reported a mass exodus of women from the workforce, but on closer inspection, it looks like the differences in impact among women of different backgrounds was a more striking figure than the differences between women and men. According to a paper published by Harvard economist Claudia Golden, women without a college degree left their jobs at almost twice the rate of women with a college degree. Women with higher education were more likely to be in jobs that supported flexibility, allowing them to maintain their positions while caring for children or elderly parents in their homes during the lockdown. That compared to women with no higher education, who were more likely to be in jobs that offered no flexibility during the lockdown, and so they were forced to leave those positions.

Lockdown was still extremely trying for women of the laptop class, especially those with children or elder care duties, but the economic impact experienced by women in service roles like childcare, education, and retail was severe.

Insulating those women by providing accessible, affordable daycare is the best thing that we as a society can do to benefit women, children, and families, as well as the health of our economy. We’re doing poorly on this metric as compared to other wealthy countries. Even Japan, another outlier, is catching up. Before he was tragically assassinated, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo of Japan introduced legislation to offer universal preschool. Faced with an aging population, he was motivated by the economic objective of getting more women into the workplace. His plan to provide free preschool for ages 3+ and free daycare for ages 0–2 to low-income families was widely recognized as both fair for women and an effective approach to boosting the economy, and it passed it in 2019. Child care support was unfortunately reduced in the Inflation Reduction Act, but I believe change on this front may still be on the horizon.

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

In my sector, where virtual working arrangements are here to stay, I am hopeful about the benefits that flexible work offers for individuals and their families. However, since virtual or hybrid working environments create the potential for disconnection and isolation, I believe we must also focus on mitigating negative outcomes. In doing so, I actually see a great opportunity for creating even greater connectivity, and therefore it is one source of optimism for me. I believe the very act of intentionally crafting approaches that build connection can motivate us to develop deep and more meaningful engagement — possibly even more so than if we were continuing with business as usual before the rapid shift to flexible working arrangements.

At my organization, we undertook a deliberate design process to build a series of approaches and programs to foster connectivity and engagement in a virtual environment. The key to developing a truly engaging yet achievable plan was to intentionally involve our team to understand their needs. For example, my leadership team and I went into the process assuming that employees at our organization would most value a completely remote work environment because of the flexibility it offered. Through surveys and most importantly, open conversations with our team, we learned that connection and in-person time were just as highly desired.

That lead us to create a slew of programs that provide flexibility as well as connection. They include things like monthly virtual teambuilding events and structured in-person working retreats as well as fun and relaxed teambuilding retreats. We will also offer flexible working spaces when our team need to connect of just get out of their homes.

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?

Given the strains of modern life, work and school stressors, and the global crises affecting our future, it is no surprise that we have a mental health crisis on our hands. Yet, our response has been too reactive. Preventive medicine as a health-forward and money-saving approach to physical health outcomes has rightly become an accepted practice. I believe the same approach should be applied to mental health.

To give just one example, before the pandemic, rates of teenagers on prescription antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicine were rising dramatically. That would have been the right time to start seriously investing in solutions. Then the pandemic hit, and mental health indicators among teenagers soared — one of the most shocking being the 51% increase in ER visits for teen girls for attempted suicide as compared to before the pandemic, according to the CDC. This is the next generation who will be entering our workforce.

That is why it is so important for employers to cover the basics, like health plans that include mental health services. Other innovative strategies to create better work-life balance that emerged during the pandemic, like flexible work arrangements and more intentional programs to build connectivity and reduction isolation, should be continued. Finally, I believe leading and acting with empathy is the key ingredient to create healthy workplaces that promote wellbeing. The good thing is that we are all already capable of that. We are experts at exhibiting empathy with our families and loved ones. Now we need to extend it to the workplace, and leaders should take the first step.

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?

The fact that SHRM’s All Things Work is one of my top played podcast as a CEO says a lot about the importance of, well, all things work to leadership today. Recent episodes touch on, for example, pay transparency, flexibility, Gen Z in the workplace, CSR, AI — in other words, many of the things that have come up in this interview.

As someone who has worked in the nonprofit sector for nearly 20 years, I’m proud to say that some of the values and the culture that were present in almost every nonprofit workplace I’ve been in are now showing up across sectors. The nonprofit sector, with its emphasis on purpose, equity, transparency, and trust, now appears visionary and we can all look to their long-held values and practices for inspiration.

The private sector is now beginning to adopt those values and is increasingly communicating the importance of purpose, DEI and racial equity, and equitable and transparent pay. The key thing they will need to do to evolve their cultures will be to take the next crucial step to match their practices to their rhetoric.

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

1 . SOCIAL PURPOSE. For many years, I worked in the human rights and the international rule of law space. Historically, the contest for rights, equality, and enfranchisement played out between people and government. With some multinational companies more powerful than some countries, however, there is now an outsized role for corporations to influence policy, politics, and people. It also means that all their stakeholders — from investors, to customers, to employees — care about and attend to their business and to their behaviors.

At my organization, Common Impact, we have seen the direct result of this shift. For us, it means a steady increase in companies’ interest in social impact and the refreshingly diverse variety of ways in which they are doing that — from funding commitments to prioritizing ESG to engaging employees traditional volunteering to participating in programs that offer skills-based volunteering opportunities like ours. If interest in my organizations’ programs is one measure, then the trend will only grow.

A concern, however, is that companies will cut social purpose investments in a recession. Given the state of the late-stage pandemic economy, leaders looking for savings may put social impact on the chopping block. I believe that would be short-sighted since corporate social purpose is no longer only a short-term trend but rather a long-term imperative. My hope is that companies will recognize that investing in social purpose will also allow them to accrue the social capital necessary for their own health and growth.

2. CONNECTIVITY. A defining paradox of our time is that so many of us can feel simultaneously hyper-connected to the world through our phones, laptops, and social media and also disconnected and isolated in our work, social, or family lives. The pandemic rapidly accelerated this cultural change in a space of just two years. The trend to watch here is the continued technological advances that improve connectivity as well as how we as a society will respond.

I predict that once the pandemic becomes more of a distant memory, there will be a course correction, and family, social, and work connections will take on greater importance again, even despite technological innovations offering more and better options to connect.

3. DIVERSITY & INCLUSION. The narrative around DEI has thankfully shifted in a significant way in recent years, in large part because of the committed and vocal individuals within organizations who have pushed for change. High-level DEI commitments are now commonplace, and more organizations are hiring DEI-specific roles and engaging in inclusive hiring practices. At my own organization, I’m proud to say that team members identifying as people of color went from 8% four years ago to 40% today, thanks to intentional recruiting and hiring practices.

The next important stage for DEI, including at organizations like mine, will require integration. Embedding DEI across an organization involves treating it like any other strategic priority for an organization, including policies that advance specific goals, committed resources where necessary, data to measure progress, and leadership accountability.

4. TRANSPARENCY. In the workforce of the future, trust will be crucial. That will be important in the workplace, and especially among employees and between employees and leadership. One way to ensure that trust deepens across society is through its twin trait of transparency. The fact that major U.S. cities like New York are passing pay transparency laws and that U.S. corporations are quickly getting up to speed signals this trend is just gaining momentum. This is a great step forward but can go beyond pay transparency. Leaders should continue to give more insight and information to their teams, especially about the decisions to that affect everyone.

5. HUMILITY and AGILITY. None of us can predict exactly what is to come, especially in an environment where major unexpected developments like a global pandemic or war in Europe throw everything up into the air. Combine uncertainty with the pace of technological advances, and it is anybody’s guess where we will end up. Having the humility to recognize our own predictive limitations will be necessary for leaders in the coming years. Armed with the understanding that we don’t know what we don’t know will also mean that the most agile organizations will fare the best. Setting yourself up to make quick decisions, being open to new paths and ideas, and preparing to shift directions as swiftly as possible will be criteria for success.

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 was a big fan of Anthony Bourdain and was deeply saddened by his death by suicide. His approach to life, learning, food, and travel was an inspiration. Bourdain also created a platform for telling the stories of marginalized people around the world, though he didn’t consider himself to be a political person or an advocate.

He once said, “If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.” I am a big reader and love to read about politics, history, and society. But I agree with Bourdain, and in my experience, there is no activity that will open your mind more quickly than travel. You can spend a lifetime learning facts and figures, but your learning will take great leaps forward when you travel, meet new people, learn new cultures, and yes, try different kinds of food. The pandemic halted all travel, and we are only back up to about 70% of pre-pandemic travel levels, which may be a good thing for our carbon footprint, but I believe even restricted travel (or just “across a river”) can change and shape you forever.

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 loved sports as a child and played t-ball, basketball, and soccer from a young age. When I was 8 years old, t-ball switched to baseball in my town, and I excitedly signed up. When I showed up at the first practice, I was the only girl. There was no softball as an option, and I missed my friends and felt out of place, so I dropped out. I continued soccer and ran track through high school but always regretted that decision.

I greatly admire the many women athletes who stayed with sports despite facing many greater odds than I experienced, and none exemplifies that more than Venus and Serena Williams. I am inspired by their perseverance, drive, confidence, activism, and their remarkable accomplishments as women of color in a (formerly) white-dominated sport. They broke the sport wide open, dominated it, and then went on to become advocates, such as Venus’s work for equal pay for women in tennis. It would be an honor to spend lunch with them.

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?

As the new CEO of Common Impact, I am thrilled to connect with people interested in learning more about social impact, our skills-based volunteering programs, and cross-sector partnerships to create more equitable and sustainable societies. Please reach out via our website (www.CommonImpact.org) and follow us on social media:

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