Employees who moved during the pandemic will stay in their new locations. Although my company headquarters is in Boston, I made the decision to relocate to Vermont full-time during the pandemic. While I am still able to commute into the city as needed, I am grateful for the opportunity to have a flexible work environment where I can live and work from a location that is ideal for me.

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 Walker.

Lisa Walker is VP of Brand and Corporate Marketing, and resident workforce futurist at Fuze, overseeing brand strategy, communications, customer advocacy, content, and creative. She chairs the Fuze Women’s Network, a community of women within the organization focused on opportunities for development of women in technology. Prior to Fuze, Lisa ran brand and product marketing for Forrester Research (NASDAQ: FORR), where she oversaw the launch of successful new products including the CX Index and Executive Programs, and led the company through a successful rebrand in 2015.

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.

A recent experience that has had a profound impact on me is the move we made with our two boys from Cambridge, MA to Manchester, VT at the beginning of the pandemic. My husband and I had talked about retiring to Vermont someday but never thought we could work from there in our tech jobs. When we suddenly found ourselves working 100% remotely, we decided to take a chance and put the concept of remote work to the ultimate test, actually going somewhere remote. There have been a ton of ups and downs as a family and we miss tons of things about being in a city, but it has also been an incredible adventure. Looking back, I was talking about the future of flexible work for a long time, and yet I was commuting and sitting in an office five days a week just because I always had. Today, I truly feel part of the flexible work movement on a personal level.

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?

Truthfully, not much had changed about workplace culture in the past 10–15 years until the pandemic forced us to adapt to a new way of working, collaborating, and communicating. People commuted to work, did their jobs, and went home. Individuals had one-off flexible work arrangements with their bosses that were kept quiet and not made available to other members of the team or incorporated into the overall company culture. Now that the workforce has experienced flexibility, there is no going back. People are going to demand long-term flexibility in terms of the how, where, and when they work and will leave for companies that offer it. The other prediction is the impact the collective mental health crisis we’ve all experienced will have long term. We heard time and again from our people during the pandemic, “I am done” and “I am not okay” and when everyone was struggling at the same time, we were forced to talk about it more openly and help make resources available. Just as employees are more willing to leave for more flexibility, they will also be looking for companies that care about them as a whole person and that have a culture that prioritizes mental health and wellness versus the old-rise-and-grind mentality. One caution I have for employers as they look ahead is to not forget about the importance of in-person connections. Should they keep every office open? No. But they need to budget for in-person experiences for individuals and teams to get together on a regular basis to foster culture and connections across the organization.

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

Shift your leadership mindset away from solely meeting targets and develop a culture that authentically cares about the employee as a whole person. Culture can no longer be considered HR’s problem; it belongs to the entire C-suite, and they need to walk the walk in creating a culture that supports mental health and wellness as key drivers of productivity. Companies that win will also view flexible work as a competitive advantage and will prioritize technologies that create better ways for employees to communicate, collaborate, and build connections with each other long term.

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 today expect their employers to be cognizant of their needs as individuals with lives outside of work, which includes allowing them to remain flexible; working from home or in the office as frequently or infrequently as they choose. Employees are not as tied to their jobs as they once were, realizing that “working to live” versus “living to work” allows for greater overall flexibility and, ultimately, increased happiness. Given this shift in culture and expectations, business leaders have to be prepared for this new mindset and make the necessary changes to their organizations to align with the expectations of new-age employees.

I have been really surprised by how many companies that could embrace true long-term flexibility as a differentiator are actually approaching the issue with rigid guidelines around what flexibility they are willing to offer. Forcing employees back into the office on certain days will backfire. Employees will leave for companies that offer true flexibility in terms of where AND when employees work to allow them to be productive and lead fuller lives long term. Employers need to be ready for this and accept the reality that they have to evolve to embrace true flexibility and innovate or get left behind and lose great talent.

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

After rapidly adjusting to fully-remote work operations, the world recognized that employees can do great work from anywhere; they don’t need to be physically present to remain productive, engaged, and responsive. This once-novel perspective on what should be required to have an optimally functioning workplace is now the standard. Employees are acknowledging their needs for flexible work conditions and empathetic employers, and business leaders are finding unique ways to engage their teams in a remote or hybrid work environment. The pandemic experience has permanently transformed workplace expectations and the way work gets done worldwide. I am confident that the future of work is hybrid and that we will all be better employees for it.

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?

Interpersonally, many employers and business leaders must become more understanding of the needs of their employees both professionally and holistically as society evolves to accommodate for the new age of work. Societal requirements for the employers of the future include creating a forced separation between work and personal time and explicitly setting workplace expectations up front.

Logistically, companies looking to go hybrid for the long term are reinventing office space to become networking and collaboration hubs and minimizing dedicated individual space. As a result, organizations will require a smaller footprint day to day and will invest in unique experiences that bring individuals, teams, and the organization together for collaboration, connection, and culture building.

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

The future of work in the digital age has introduced a new era of technology and innovation in every market, and it is incredibly exciting to see organizations working with technology to create an optimized work environment. In tandem with increased innovation and technology use, the critically important conversation around best practices for supporting, valuing, and engaging employees from anywhere in the world has also begun. I’ve noticed workplaces placing a greater emphasis on appreciation for one another as more than just colleagues and collaborators but also as people. After dropping into each other’s homes and lives over video for the past two years, during a global pandemic, leaders in every industry seem to be recognizing that team members have lives outside of work that can put pressure on their professional obligations and are acknowledging that working during such a mentally-taxing era takes a toll on employees’ overall well-being AND productivity. All of these changes — which have happened in such a short time–make me hopeful for what’s to come.

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?

Business leaders must be aware that the time we’ve spent recalibrating workplace norms during the pandemic has had a unique impact on the burnout and mental health concerns we are seeing across almost every industry worldwide.

Over the past year, we’ve used video meetings as the priority method of “staying connected” throughout the workday, which is mentally exhausting. 59% of the global workforce said they’d like to spend less than two hours a day in video meetings and less than 10% of workers feel that seeing someone’s face is the most critical or effective element of a successful meeting. Moving into the era of permanent flexible/hybrid work arrangements, we need to tackle video fatigue as a root cause of burnout. Leaders should set clear expectations with teams about which meetings should be video meetings, such as 1:1 check-ins and team meetings, and establish “no meeting days” to encourage a more balanced schedule and let employees spend less time on video. Moving away from a video-first approach gives workers some breathing room, and should not pose an issue for productivity as long as employees remain engaged.

In addition to employers playing an active role in reducing mental health concerns and burnout in their offices, it is also important that employees are setting aside time and resources to protect their own wellbeing by taking actions such as:

  • Scheduling breaks. If possible, employees should block off time in their calendars every day for intentional breaks to get away from the computer screen to mirror the breaks that naturally occur in office environments when employees hit the snack wall or run out for lunch or errands. Being home does not mean employees shouldn’t be taking time to get up from their desks, move around, recharge, and even socialize.
  • Creating a unique space. Workplace setting can have a major impact on workday attitude. Carving out a physical space to work quietly without distractions from others will not only help reduce stress, but will also improve productivity.

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?

Each of these terms is representative of the new workplace culture we have become accustomed to over the past two years. Titles such as ‘The Great Resignation,’ ‘The Great Reconfiguration,’ and ‘The Great Reevaluation’ reflect this period of time that has granted workers the space to reevaluate their careers, expect more from their employers, and make bold decisions regarding their professional futures. Many workers have decided that they will be better off leaving the jobs that once took too much of their time and energy for baseline returns.

Companies that truly embrace a flexible, hybrid work model and allow employees to build out customized work experiences that can be adapted as their circumstances and preferences change, will be the ones that retain the most employees and win the war for talent.

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. Companies will adopt applications and technology to keep their workforce connected virtually.
  • As many companies elect to make their hybrid work models permanent — where employees will remain distributed for the long term — they will have to adopt new tools for culture building. They will need to stop trying to solve all of their culture and wellness challenges over the company video meeting platform, and instead turn to tools like Weve for team building and Thrive Global for employee wellness. As the innovators coming out of COVID-19 make their way into the workforce, there will be even more change to come.

2. The Future of Work will remain flexible.

  • Many employees have been relocating out-of-state or further away from their company’s headquarters or office locations throughout the pandemic, and many of these employees have fallen in love with working remotely with little to no plans of visiting their offices. Companies that embrace flexible work models and allow their employees to remain remote will empower their workforce to create customized flexible work experiences that can be adjusted on an individual, as-needed, basis throughout their time at the company.

3. Employees who moved during the pandemic will stay in their new locations.

  • Although my company headquarters is in Boston, I made the decision to relocate to Vermont full-time during the pandemic. While I am still able to commute into the city as needed, I am grateful for the opportunity to have a flexible work environment where I can live and work from a location that is ideal for me.

4. Retaining talent will mean prioritizing employee mental health and work-life balance.

  • Full-time remote work — or a hybrid work schedule — provides employees with more flexibility with their schedules, however, many employees still report that the lines have been blurred between their work and personal lives and wish their employers were more empathetic to their needs. In order to remain successful and retain talent in 2022 and beyond, it is important that business leaders recognize the factors contributing to employee burnout and other mental health concerns and do their best to mitigate them.
  • It is also critical for organizations to develop a reasonable work-from-home schedule with remote employees — building in blocks of time for breaks and a culture that expects employees to silence their communication and collaboration tools when they are off-hours.

5. Be prepared for structural changes to cities.

  • Companies looking to go hybrid for the long term are reinventing offices to become networking and collaboration hubs and minimizing dedicated individual space, greatly reducing the amount of overall office space they require. There is also an open question about what will become of all of the excess square footage once we see hybrid models in action. There is also an open question about what will become of the local businesses that survived the pandemic but are awaiting the return of employees to those spaces. With excess office space joining an already excess inventory of retail space in several tier-one cities, it will be up to the innovative urban planners and developers to imagine how we move forward and tackle the objection of landlords to lowering the traditionally high retail and office rents for new uses in the future.

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?

About 10 years ago, I heard a quote at a Forrester marketing forum that changed how I approach business. A CMO told the room “Just say it’s a pilot. No one ever got fired for a pilot.” She then went on to talk about all of the innovation she achieved in her career as a result of getting an exploratory budget to try things on a small scale first. I have taken that quote to heart and tried a lot of new ideas as “pilots” without fear of failure.

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 really passionate about the mental health awakening that’s happening in the workplace right now and would love to sit down with Simone Biles to talk about the connection between mental health and productivity.

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 find me on Linkedin: Lisa Hurd-Walker

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