Family Benefits: The pandemic revealed that a huge hurdle for many working Americans is finding adequate, affordable family care that fits with their work schedule. While this benefit is costly, it could be the key to retaining top talent, especially working mothers. In the future, it will be important for organizations to understand the systems and infrastructure around family care and how they can better support employees and their families.

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 Linda Nedelcoff.

Linda Nedelcoff is chief strategy and human resources officer for CUNA Mutual Group. In this role, she leads the employee experience, corporate strategy, marketing and communications, innovation center and business development teams, which includes all aspects of human resources, internal and external communications, corporate security, business resiliency, corporate strategy, marketplace intelligence, next generation innovation and mergers, acquisitions and partnerships. Nedelcoff joined CUNA Mutual Group in 2011 as a senior human resources partner.

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 think about the experiences we share in our lives as a collection of key moments. Some of them have a greater influence on our direction or perspectives than others but, together, they influence who we become. On reflection, there are two key moments that really emphasize who I am professionally.

First, I started my career after earning my degree in public accounting — incidentally, right in, the middle of what is known as “busy season.” Within one month, I was immersed in some challenging assignments and opportunities, including being on assignment with an organization going through an IPO, conducting an audit for a client preparing to sell their business, and participating in a peer review process. I learned early on that the knowledge I acquired in the academic world provided a foundation for practical experience but represents just one piece of what I needed to know to succeed. I learned a great deal from others, by being curious and by being willing to explore topics and assignments I didn’t have expertise or knowledge in. When I am asked what has prepared me to be in this role as an executive, leading areas I didn’t “grow up in” I reflect upon that first experience in my career.

The second key moment is my transition from the accounting profession. My first transition was into human resources. This wasn’t part of my “career plan,” but I was less focused on the role and more on the work. Identifying opportunities to leverage my experience and strengths and make an impact were all major motivators as I have moved through my career. I also had great mentors. Individuals who saw something in me and reinforced my aspirations by pushing me to consider alternative and new options. To this day, I am interested in the work to be done, rather than the structure of the role. I also view the future of work to be reflective of a less rigid, historical job description environment, rather a broader gathering of jobs to be done by our customers and our organizations and the talent willing to achieve them.

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?

Organizations are thinking about the future of our work and workforces. We understand the need to change and, in the same way, as we look back at the last decade, some of the change will be a continuation of paths we are already on, others will involve charting completely new pathways. How our organization responds to change will be consistent with our values, our mission and our DNA. This is the right time to challenge our assumptions about how we attract and retain talent. We shouldn’t simply tweak our existing systems — rather, we should apply what we’ve learned in the past few years to a new, innovative way of approaching how we think of work. Rather than asking ourselves, “how do we retain talent?” we need to instead ask, “how do we create a work environment that people want to be a part of and feel they belong to?” Our work environment should be a synergistic ecosystem — one that benefits our employees, our communities and our organization, and I believe now more than ever we can make that happen. If we focus on co-creation, we won’t be building something for employees, we’ll be building something with employees.

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

See change not as an obstacle but as a catalyst. The fact is: none of us can predict the future, but we can build change resilient organizations. Change shouldn’t be seen as disruptive but rather responsive to our environment. I only see the pace of change and innovation increasing — and it may be detrimental to rely on historical cycles of change. Adaptability, change resiliency and change readiness are core competencies that can help organizations not only survive through change, but thrive. We can still plan and forecast for our futures, but we may need to adjust how we measure progress — and more importantly, build our ability to pivot quickly when needed. One of the first places an organization can start is by taking inventory of the structures and systems within their ecosystem. This includes communications, performance systems, metrics and governance, compensation, reward systems, career and professional development, to name a few. Ensuring leaders are strong change-readiness ambassadors is also key — and something I’m focused on at CUNA Mutual Group. I believe successful cultures will find a balance that embraces planning around change and for change.

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?

I think it’s clear there’s no going back to “how we’ve always done things.” It is imperative that we embrace what we have learned but recognize we can’t apply these learning to old systems. Employees expect a mutually beneficial relationship with their employer, rather than a top-down or one-sided approach. While many employers have adopted greater flexibility in reaction to the pandemic, a new way of thinking needs to extend into the long-term. Companies must push themselves to be innovative and take risks — and do so in a way that honors their values. And, just as employees have their own expectations and needs, organizations have their own unique culture and environment. Identifying and understanding your organization’s values and making sure these align with the value you provide to your workforce, customers and communities is critical to finding this path forward. There is no “one way” that is better than another and I believe organizations will find their own genuine and authentic approach to meeting these expectations.

Similarly, companies will do well to lean more intentionally into their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. We find that employees want to work for companies that are making good on their commitment to DEI and creating a workplace that fosters belonging. Employees and recruits are savvy enough to figure out if there’s action behind the talk and want to work for employers who share their values. Companies that want to succeed will be hyper focused on employee experience and creating a working environment that balances individual needs with institutional needs. One size doesn’t fit all–so how can we help every employee find their fit?

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

It has already influenced it tremendously and the experiences of our workforce are driving real — and necessary — change. We’ve learned that every employee is different and has their own preferences about how and where they work. Many love working from home, while others still prefer to work from the office or the hybrid model. Going forward, I expect more employers will give options for employees to customize their work experiences, rather than expecting everyone to adhere to the same schedule. Building this flexibility and choice into the workplace requires a mutual trust — trust in employees to choose how they do their best work, and trust in the employer that it will be a positive experience no matter where the employee choses to be. I think the key will be to focus on helping employees identify the environment they work best in. There may be times when employees will need to be in the same location as each other and others when individual work provides the flexibility needed for someone to work efficiently. It is about intentionality and requires leaders to understand objectives of the work required, provide clear communication and be supportive of creative and personal solutions.

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?

Taking a step back to see and understand the whole employee experience became very relevant during the pandemic, especially for workers who are parents or caregivers. We witnessed that organizations focused on more than a transactional relationship with their workforce, were able to lean on their sense of community. I expect things such as remote workspaces that are separate from the home, flexible work hours and accommodations for childcare will all become more widespread. I also think that many of the structures that have been tested prior to the pandemic will continue to be pushed. “Normal” working hours, meeting structures and career development are some examples. Prioritizing the mental, social and physical well-being of employees should be a focus for all companies; I think the pandemic made this clearer than ever. We also have an obligation to look at the infrastructure (or the cracks in the infrastructure) and make repairs or enhancements where needed. For example, we quickly saw the economy struggle when childcare was no longer available. This experience has given us greater knowledge of how job satisfaction, happiness, productivity and mental health all interrelate and impact each other — and has reminded us of the importance of compassionate leadership.

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

I have watched our organization demonstrate incredible humanity during the last two years. Our company was founded on the principle of ‘people helping people’ and more than ever that included our employees as well as our customers. We have also demonstrated we can do this while also exceeding our business objectives and goals. In the past, these concepts were seen as mutually exclusive driving forces for an organization. The pandemic forced many corporations to rethink what it means to be a good place to work and how to retain talent. Access to remote work has also unlocked a much larger job market for many, making it significantly more competitive to hire. Employees are rethinking what is important to them and providing their voice, which is altering the corporate world and job prospects. In fact, as I’ve read recently, the Great Resignation, may turn into a focus on the Great Retention. We work hard to bring in the best talent. We need to work equally hard to make sure we keep our talent. I look forward to seeing how the progress we have made on our collective understanding of ‘what is possible’ impacts society.

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?

As employers continue to acknowledge that mental health and wellbeing plays a significant role in work productivity, I predict that offering benefits like gym discounts, subscriptions to meditation and mindfulness apps, flexible remote work, time off and better access to mental health services within healthcare plans will become even more widespread. The future will include using predictive and data-oriented insights to provide these resources when and how they are needed and being intentional about bringing in services to meet the needs of the workforce.

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?

Leaders should take away the message that most professionals are looking for more meaningful roles in organizations that share their values, offer a clear path for growth and understand their needs and demands. We have learned an incredible amount over the past two years and cannot simply go “back to normal.” Doing so would miss an incredible opportunity to change the norm that — we now understand fully — did not serve all our employees well. Let’s not miss this moment.

Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Worker Wellbeing: The pandemic really pushed companies to think about how to support workers through an emotionally socially and physically taxing experience in new ways. Companies saw that supporting workers is a worthwhile investment as cared for employees result in better outcomes across the board. The focus on the wellbeing of employees inside and outside of the workplace represents a shift in corporate culture that is likely here to stay. I’m excited to watch how this trend evolves as workers slowly begin to return to an updated version of in-person work. Our employee survey results reflect the importance of focusing on overall employee well-being.
  2. Remote Flexibility: The shift to remote work has forever altered corporate culture, but will it stick? It has proven to be a major benefit for many employees, yet some corporations are already requiring people to return to the office full-time because they feel that it is a valuable part of their work culture. I am curious to see if in-office requirements will drive employees away, or if it’ll become the norm again. This evolution is challenging organizations to analyze the entire system around remote work. It goes well beyond the technology and the buildings. Strategic planning, brainstorming, collaboration and career development all need to be evaluated when traditional in-office solutions are in place.
  3. Family Benefits: The pandemic revealed that a huge hurdle for many working Americans is finding adequate, affordable family care that fits with their work schedule. While this benefit is costly, it could be the key to retaining top talent, especially working mothers. In the future, it will be important for organizations to understand the systems and infrastructure around family care and how they can better support employees and their families.
  4. Employee Voice: Organizations will continue to have diverse needs from their workforce, how employee voices are heard and changes are adopted will be important. Valuing these voices doesn’t mean adopting all ideas; employee insights can serve as important inputs that help to identify gaps and evaluate decisions. This goes beyond annual surveys and pulse surveys. Organizations that treat the voice of the workforce in their organizational plans like they approach their customer voice will drive the most effective changes moving forward.
  5. Cybersecurity: Not only are organizations planning for the future, but there is also a growing focus from outside forces on new vulnerabilities created by remote work. Employees working remotely are often using unsecured networks that leave their information, as well as their company’s data, vulnerable to attacks from cybercriminals. As a result, education around cybersecurity has become even more important. Additionally, companies are investing in software and other products to fortify their networks and cloud data against cyberattacks.

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 quote I have that I keep with every new summary of strategic priorities is a simple one: “Who do you do this for?” It has served as a beacon for me often when faced with personal and professional decisions. It is also a great reminder to clear my mind or vision of the noise that exists in any organization. It reminds me of our values and to stay grounded.

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 quite influential to have the opportunity to spend time with Condoleezza Rice. Her honor to her core and values is remarkable and seeing how what has shaped her career shows she is an admirable character. She has served our country while maintaining her whole self in every stage of her life. She has demonstrated confidence in her pursuit of her success while not limiting her capabilities by a defined system or historical constraints. I sense that she has not only demonstrated her own growth but has influenced the growth of others in her work. A true selfless leader, that is driven for success in the aid of a greater good. I envision time spent in her presence would bring even further inspiration. I also value her sense of humor and wit–she embodies the appreciation that our work is part of a greater sense of life.

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?

Via my 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.