Flexible workforce: When we ran for our lives, as I like to say, in March 2020, we quickly moved faculty, staff and administrators to remote work. As I mentioned, this was new for us because of the culture of education. We learned that this work method works for a variety of reasons. This trend will continue and will likely remain how we staff positions.

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 Lisa M. Sanchez.

Lisa M. Sanchez is an author, entrepreneur and human resources vice president for ArtCenter College of Design. With more than 26 years in HR, Sanchez leads a team dedicated to enriching the experiences and engagements of faculty and staff by ensuring that diversity, equity, inclusion, access, belonging (DEIAB) and a strong organizational culture are foundational to all programming. Sanchez received a bachelor’s degree in communication studies from California State University, Northridge, a master’s degree in organizational management from the University of Phoenix, and is a certified professional life coach.

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?

The first experience, which is the basis of my book, “Looking for Love in a Garbage Can: A Journey of Healing — How I Survived an Alcoholic Environment,” is that I was raised in a violent and dysfunctional alcoholic environment at the hands of my father. I experienced sexual assault and child molestation, which were perpetrated by strangers and a family member. I also witnessed my father’s horrible physical and verbal abuse toward my mother for decades. There were many times when my father would chase us out of the house in the middle of the night while wielding a gun. What growing up in this environment did for me was create a broken, insecure person who had low self-esteem and self-worth. I was ill-prepared for life and was not able to build my own love and interpersonal relationships. I ended up choosing men who were just like my father — controlling, abusive and often drug- or alcohol-addicted. These lived experiences impacted how I engaged and performed as a student, an employee and overall, as a human being. What I like to focus on is my 12-month, self-healing journey, which has shaped who I am today. In 2008, I took steps to heal from the inside. I forgave my father, my mother and myself for all that happened and for all of the decisions made throughout our lives. At the end of this healing period, I created this quote: “Forgiveness is freedom. Never let ill feelings about people or your circumstances take up residency in your heart.” This quote provided me with freedom and released me from living in blame, shame, anger and resentment. After all, we did the best we could with what we had. I also read self-improvement books, saw a therapist, meditated and read daily affirmations. All of these healing methods have made me a more compassionate leader. I recognize that people have outside issues that they bring to work. And as HR practitioners and leaders, we must be empathetic to these experiences.

The second experience is that while I was living in an alcoholic environment, I became a mother at the age of 19. I hid my pregnancy from my father for six months. When I finally mustered the nerve to tell him, he told me, “You will never be anything in life.” Those words hurt, but I refused to let them define me. What this refusal did was shape me into a strong, goal-driven and results-oriented person. Those words became my fuel and challenged my resolve and perseverance. As a single mother with a child to raise, my career and educational decisions were guided by being responsible for another human being. Statistically, based on my lived experiences, I was not destined for success. Today, I can say I am living the American dream. And my father left this earth in March 2017, very proud of my achievements.

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?

Since I work in higher education, I’ll speak through that lens. ArtCenter, and colleges in general, tend to be highly engaged communities. In that regard, there will still be a need to engage in what we call “campus life.” That is to say, faculty and staff working on campus to ensure student success and meaningful experiences. This includes course curriculum, up to and through a student’s industry engagement, internships and on- and off-campus extracurricular activities, both domestically and internationally.

What certainly will be different 10 to 15 years from now is what the campus life experience will look like. For sure, it will be a hybrid environment and students will have, in this timeframe, a variety of ways to achieve education from specialty certifications to the traditional undergraduate and graduate degrees. This will likely include remaining in their home country the entire time, while receiving a high-quality education from ArtCenter or other higher education institutions. Technology and the ability to instruct classrooms from wherever you are will facilitate this ease of learning while at the same time enabling colleges and universities to tap into talent all over the world.

In 10 to 15 years, how we perform and where we perform work will be different. Manual processes will be significantly reduced or eliminated. Unfortunately, this could mean work being performed through artificial intelligence. Robots might one day perform our work — it’s already happened in several industries — but that’s looking way out into the future.

Going into a physical office location will be less important. Instead, the emphasis will likely be placed on how people get work done from wherever they are. With that said, I predict a greater need to really hone in on organizational cultural experiences and engagements and how employees still feel a sense of connectedness. The question then becomes: How, and under what circumstances, do we come together to connect, collaborate and team build.

We will be more technologically advanced and even further immersed in the digital world, so high-tech savviness will be a highly sought-after skillset for hiring companies and organizations.

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

There are several factors I see to future-proof an organization. I always start with culture. Organizational culture is the foundation. How employees engage, communicate, interact, collaborate and build trust are all rooted in culture. When these values are clearly communicated and practiced, it will have a direct impact on organizational success. I live by the Peter Drucker quote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Pick a meal, I always say. The meal of course doesn’t matter because Drucker is talking about planning without purpose. It’s speaking to wasted effort and ill-informed strategies. The culture has to support these ideals and strategies. Organizations have to be ready, prepared, have trust and shared values, and know how to agree to disagree but in cooperation for the good of the order so that strategies survive.

The second factor is ensuring that diversity, equity, inclusion, access and belonging (or DEIAB) are woven into the fabric of the organization. We often use the terms “DEI” or “D&I.” I’m suggesting here that all of these letters or values must move together, not separately. Policies and practices must be reviewed through the lens of DEIAB to ensure a workplace where people feel safe, and fairness and equity are transparent. I always say, “Policies must breathe life through our actions.” Otherwise, they are merely words on a page or nice wallpaper. Accountability is key.

The third factor is to strengthen the skills of management and leadership teams. Employees are impacted by their experiences with their supervisors. This is what feeds toxic cultures. Supervisors need skills on being empathetic, inclusive and flexible leaders to adapt to a diverse workforce with a variety of needs.

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 pandemic has created a different employee. This is exactly why we have seen The Great Resignation. Reports say that 4.5 million employees have quit their jobs as of November 2021. Employees have had time for pause. They had time to realign their values and consider how they live and how work matters to them. They realized that good health, family and mental health are a priority. They were involved in social injustice movements and have become much more compassionate. With that said, employers may have a gap in thoroughly understanding and adapting to these growing needs. Many employers directed or demanded their employees return to physical work locations, which was met with resistance and resignations. There’s a disconnect with understanding the new employee. Strategies to get ahead of this include being flexible, recognizing that work does not have to be performed in a cubicle or office, trusting the individuals they hired, and being keenly aware of mental health factors that influence employee experiences and engagements.

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

The future of work requires a mindset shift. Employees will expect companies and organizations to fill work-from-home positions. What we found at ArtCenter is that people were still productive and effective. It is a case of carefully balancing the needs of the organization and the needs of the individual. I lean toward flexibility. An employee said last year, “For the first time, I can walk my child to school and pick him up. I couldn’t do that before.” As an HR leader, that warms my heart. Why wouldn’t we want to create space for that, especially when the employee is a productive, high performer and the work performed is a direct match for a remote environment? On the other hand, if someone is a low performer, working from home is probably not the best option. It’s situational and it depends on the work being performed. Some jobs are not a natural fit for “working from home” because it requires tools or resources at the worksite.

At my college, I asked each executive to review their workforce to determine where jobs could fit in one of four categories: onsite, hybrid, remote in-region or remote out-of-region. Out of 341 administrative positions, 105 were onsite; 182 were hybrid; 50 were remote in-region and four were remote out-of-region. When you look at the amount of people who don’t need to come to the physical locations, it creates opportunity to reimagine physical spaces, reimagine how and where people work, and create collaboration spaces and work pods. At the same time, the college can balance work-life integration.

This certainly does come with challenges, however. As humans, we have a need to socialize and to engage, which definitely has an impact on culture. Because you have some people in physical office locations and others working remotely, this requires managers and department heads to focus on both groups and ensure that experiences and engagements are equitable and balanced to the extent possible. In particular, what’s known as FOMO (fear of missing out) or the out-of-sight, out-of-mind syndrome where some people may miss out on on-the-ground activities or potentially miss out on promotions because they are not seen. Management has to be much more engaged with their teams, ensuring that work is distributed fairly, that employees have the ability to participate on task forces, shared governance, and that learning and professional development opportunities are available to all, and so on.

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?

This is a difficult question to answer. I have been in HR for more than 26 years now. What I know is that you cannot please everyone because not all programs and solutions work for everyone. HR is not one size fits all. Certainly, there are policies that are universal such as Standards of Conduct and non-discrimination policies. Since we have been in this global experiment, we saw the pandemic collide with societal issues around pandemic safety compliance and social injustice. This created a new dynamic for HR practitioners. Individuals react to societal issues differently. For example, in greater society, some people cooperate fully with masking while others throw their cookies on the ground in grocery stores because they refuse to mask. In the workplace, some employees refuse to get vaccinated and so you have to be prepared to handle that appropriately with exemptions through an interactive process. This heightened state of anxiety then gets mixed in with social injustice marches, specifically around George Floyd and Stop Asian Hate, where employees engaged in these activities. Suddenly, you have a whole new employee in front of you. Hopefully, HR practitioners and organizations created safe space opportunities for employees to discuss their concerns. One place to do that is through Employee Resource Groups or departmental discussions. I started my HR career in 1995, a time where you couldn’t talk about these issues at the water cooler or in the parking lot. Times have changed and these conversations are necessary and expected.

And, so, to address the collision of pandemic fatigue and societal changes, the future of work is guided by flexibility, empathy, listening, learning and DEIAB. Policies and programs in these spaces must be, what I call, MVP: Meaningful, add Value, and have Purpose. And all of these areas must be grounded in a culture that is supportive.

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

My optimism comes from respecting the journey since March 2020, and where the lessons learned can lead us in the future. The collaboration and partnership at my college from the executive office on down into the workforce has been inspiring. Our lens at ArtCenter is progressive and we are looking at working and learning in a whole new light. We are actively engaged in a hybrid experience, which is new for us.

I’m optimistic about where we can find talent in other states and countries that we probably couldn’t reach before in the “old” way of running HR and the college for that matter. Since my arrival in March 2015, I’ve been supported in moving HR away from a transactional function to a more transformational, if not disruptive, HR. This increases my optimism about the resources we are putting into a culture shift initiative, which I have been working on since spring of 2019. This has involved working with a consultant on a series of “culture shift” conversations around creating and reimagining new shared values that guide our experiences and engagements. This work inspired a name change from HR to The Office of Employee Experience and Engagement. This name speaks to a focus on the lowercase “h” for “human” to enhance work experiences, encourage productive engagements, increase personal and professional development opportunities, build healthy work relationships, listen to how employees feel about the work they perform, how it connects to mission and contributes to the successes of the college. Ultimately, I’m optimistic about positioning the college as “A Place to Work.”

This has also involved an important partnership with our vice president and chief diversity officer, who leads the Center for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), for a program we co-created called the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leadership Track. This track was launched in the Spring term of 2021. We will expand this program throughout the college, which we hope will have a direct impact on culture and our values. And, lastly, I’m optimistic about partnering with the individual we brought on for a new position on my team, the director of organizational development. This is an investment by the college to continue the work of culture shift, while strongly connected to DEI, but adds a nuance of working closely to engage with and hear the voices of our community through our shared governance structure.

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?

What we’ve learned since March 2020 is that mental health is top of mind for our faculty, staff and students. With that said, the future of work must be supported by meaningful programs centered on wellness and wellbeing. We have listened and learned through pulse surveys. As a result, my team has been amazing in this space. The director of Environmental Health and Safety has facilitated and/or coordinated a variety of programming: health and wellness expos; cooking classes; dance lessons; meditation and mindfulness; yoga; and exercise challenges. The associate vice president for HR created virtual office hours to provide access to HR in a remote environment. The floor is open to discuss matters that can help everyone, but confidential matters can still be handled outside of virtual office hours. She has also coordinated self-led, online education and live facilitators on the topics of managing stress, financial fitness, self-care and other wellness program topics. We also partnered with our student affairs and counseling services departments to co-facilitate a program on the Eight Dimensions of Wellness.

As a strategy, wellness and wellbeing should be part of programming and not an add-on. Employers should explore these options with their health care providers.

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?

What is missing is “The Great Reflection,” which covers all of these terms. Individual reflection: Am I part of the problem? Am I leading through a tunnel or seeing the bigger picture? Am I listening and learning from the workforce? Is my leadership style enhancing progress or setting up barriers and obstacles? Do I have biases that impact how I lead?

Institutional reflection: What organizational values are guiding employee behavior? Are these values outdated and stale? Have we completed a deep dive examination of the culture through engagement surveys? Is the organization positively or negatively addressing DEIAB? This reflection should lead to what I call 3Ps and an A: Pause (listen to what is being said), Process (understand the feedback), Prepare (design and develop policies and programs) and then Act (implement and evaluate your efforts or actions).

A quote that I created is this: “Culture is the gift that keeps on giving when leadership does not recognize the precise moment in time in which it needs to pivot the organization on the right side of change.” Here, I’m talking about how an organization responds to world events, the pandemic, social injustice, and anything else driving external issues and events that impact human behavior. Employees are savvy, they know their rights, and they have high expectations about employer responses to these issues — especially younger generations who have no patience for old ideals and ways of thinking. Evolution happens when organizations recognize that culture is fluid and its movement requires change and agility. Especially, issues around DEIAB. Strategies can’t and won’t survive without a strong culture.

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

Trend 1 — Flexible workforce: When we ran for our lives, as I like to say, in March 2020, we quickly moved faculty, staff and administrators to remote work. As I mentioned, this was new for us because of the culture of education. We learned that this work method works for a variety of reasons. This trend will continue and will likely remain how we staff positions.

Trend 2 — Mental health: Mental health is its own pandemic, which often doesn’t get attention. We have invested between $30,000 and $50,000 per year since 2018 in a variety of wellness and wellbeing programs that will continue not as a trend, but as an organic element of organizational and HR operations. From self-led activities to group activities to cooking and dancing, we found that employees really enjoy it and it’s a way for individual mindfulness and group connectedness.

Trend 3 — Employee engagement/experiences: Blow up the box and the old way of running HR. The future of work lies in how employees feel about their work, how they contribute to the mission and how they engage with others. We listen and learn through pulse surveys. We invest in institutional learning and have created the Employee Learning and Professional Development Work Group to identify learning opportunities for faculty and staff, which will have a direct impact on student success. And we recognize that experiences and engagements are directly related to organizational culture, which is why we have invested in the culture shift initiative.

Trend 4 — Technology: Get used to Zoom or a similar platform environment. Like it or not, this will be the way of the future. The amount of time and energy spent driving to a physical location just to sit in a cubicle to work or have meetings will not hold up in the future. There is a positive impact on wellness and the environment when using technology. Drive time is reduced. We improve air quality because we’re not driving. While we initiated meeting and collaborative platforms just before the pandemic, we have invested more since March 2020 to ensure effective and efficient learning and working virtual environments.

Trend 5 — DEIAB (diversity, equity, inclusion, access and belonging): I don’t like to say that this is a trend because this should be how we conduct business. Social injustice issues and events have made this an important value for employees. This truly is the future of work. Employees will have high expectations in this space and demonstrable company examples will be a consideration when considering employment.

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?

Eckhart Tolle: “Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at this moment.”

The perspective it gives me is that we can and should learn from our lived experiences and these experiences evolve us as humans. It speaks to a deep dive exploration of our spirit and our soul. It speaks to how we stretch, expand and grow. It speaks to how we think and dares us to explore and challenge. It speaks to being your best self. All we have is now. Don’t get too far down the road. Live in the moment.

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.

This is a toss-up between Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama, because they both inspire me. These are women who are not only successful, but who also share my skin color. There’s power in representation. Since I have to choose one, I will go with Oprah because I mention her in my book. I was deep in a mentally and physically abusive relationship with someone who lived in my home. He had so many characteristics of my father and I found myself unable to leave because he put the fear of God in me by threatening my life and breaking my already weak self-esteem. Back in the ’90s, when we had VCRs, I recorded The Oprah Winfrey Show religiously. While my partner was at work, I settled in and watched the day’s episode. To my surprise, there was a psychologist on the program who said, “Anyone who stays in an abusive relationship is not a victim, but a volunteer.”

I wrote this in my book: “That simple statement resonated with me. A lightbulb went on. The orchestra started playing. A flock of birds flew south. The church bell rang. It empowered me, armed me with courage. I practically stood up and put my Wonder Woman cape on. It moved me to take action. To this day I say that Oprah saved me.”

I am forever grateful for Oprah’s meaningful programming because this is a story that I talk about to the present day.

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?

I am happy to say that being an author and HR executive inspired my entrepreneurial venture called, The Positive Platform: Lifting and Living with Lisa and Lori. My business partner and I take the lessons learned from our separate books as authors and our HR experiences and fold them into inspiring self-development and leadership programs for the HR community, women and girls. I can be reached at [email protected] or www.thepositiveplatform.net. Or, directly at ArtCenter College of Design [email protected]

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