Commit to pay equity and transparency around pay: We’re huge fans of Syndio — an external pay equity saas solution that measures and validates your pay equity efforts. Your employees, particularly your Millennial employees, are already breaking long-held taboos on discussing pay. They share salaries and advocate for each other. If you don’t offer fair pay, they’ll find out and fast.

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 Lisen Stromberg.

Lisen Stromberg is a leadership and culture strategist, author, and widely regarded speaker. As CEO of PrismWork, she and her team work with companies on workforce innovation to create highly inclusive, high-performing cultures.

Lisen is also a thought-leader on the future of work and teaches a course on leading in the new world of work at Stanford University. She is an award-winning independent journalist whose writing can be found in The New York Times, Fortune, Newsweek, and other high-profile media outlets. Her book, Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career, reveals how trailblazing women have disrupted the traditional career paradigm to achieve their personal and professional goals and how forward-thinking companies are creating workplaces that support all of their employees to thrive.

An in-demand speaker, Lisen has been on stage at numerous high-profile conferences, including SXSW, CANNES, the Be Conference, and others. She regularly speaks and conducts workshops for companies ranging from global Fortune 500s to tech start-ups. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @lisenstromberg or her website

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?

My mother was an immigrant from Norway. She married my American father at the age of 19 and had me when she was 20. She never went to college, but she was determined to make sure I got an incredible education and had everything I needed to have a successful career. What she and I didn’t plan for was a patriarchal workplace built on the ideal worker — a person, typically a man, who can work 24–7, is work devoted, and has a partner at home taking care of the kids.

When my first child was born six weeks prematurely, my boss and his boss could not believe I didn’t wasn’t going to quit my job to stay home and care for him. Their wives were staying at home caring for their children. Why didn’t I? Wasn’t I a good mother? Within a year after my son was born, I left that job and found a new job making more money, more responsibility, and a more significant title working at an advertising agency. Even though there were very few women in leadership and no mothers to speak of, I loved the work and was killing it — bringing in new clients, building a growing team, and together delivering great service to our clients. Then I was put on bed rest for four months during the pregnancy of my second child. After she was born — healthy and full-term — I wanted to settle her and our family into our new life for a few months of working part-time. My company said no — either be in full-time or be out.

The message I was getting from the world at large and at work was that I needed to stay home to be a great mom, but to be a great worker I needed to be all in. It was a no-win situation.

I took my human capital and started on a non-linear career path — one that challenged the very notion of what a career looks like. Still, I learned many, many, many highly successful women were taking and continue to take today. Not because they necessarily want to, but because our workplace and governmental policies don’t value and support caregiving. If we can’t be ideal workers, companies don’t want us. If we can’t work all of the time, our government doesn’t want to support us.

My frustration with our failed systems and my awareness that many trailblazing women had non-linear careers like mine led me to write, Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career. I interviewed 186 women and surveyed 1500 more to understand how college-educated, high potential women were navigating work and family. I learned that non-linear is the new normal, but most employers refuse to recognize it.

That book was and is the antidote to the Great Resignation, or as I prefer to call it, the Great Awakening. It gives women and men the insight and tools they need to navigate our 20th-century workplaces in this 21st-century world. And, it provides employers an understanding that the old model of careers — careers with no breaks — were so last century.

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 have great hope for the future of work. Covid has fast-tracked so many of the necessary changes. The Great Awakening is driving talent to demand more of their employers and workplaces. They want time mastery — the ability to work hard in ways that work for them and their families. They want location mastery — the ability to work where they are most productive. They want fair pay. Full stop. They want diversity, inclusion, belonging at work and in the world at large. They want to care for this great planet and align their purpose with their work.

These might not seem revolutionary ideas, but they haven’t been the lived experience of employees. In 10 years, they will be — and if they aren’t, it is because of failed leadership.

Leaders who miss or, worse dismiss these truths will fail their businesses, their employees and themselves. Because leaders will always be the ones we look to as champions of workplace culture — they set policies and reinforce practices — they must adapt to the realities of the new world of work. Leaders can no longer rely on old models of leadership that kept authority and decision making centralized. Core competencies for today’s leaders include humility, empathy, and a true commitment to inclusivity.

Additionally, stakeholders are seeking accountability on all levels. Companies will have to answer for their commitments to DEI, social justice, and environmental impact. Transparency will no longer be optional. It will be foundational for how we assess the success of a company as potential employees, investors, and customers. ESG is not going away — it’s only going to get stronger and more critical to business success.

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

  1. Commit to developing your leaders: We are in a seismic shift when it comes to leadership. The old school, command-and-control model doesn’t work for this new world of work. Unless you uplevel your leaders and help them build 21st century skills and abilities, you — and they — will be trapped in doing things that no longer work for today’s top talent. Our company, PrismWork, has developed a tool called the HEARTI Quotient that assesses leaders on where they stand on the continuum of 21st century leadership and provides them with insight on the core competencies they need to succeed in today’s work environment.
  2. Assess your workplace and uplevel your governance: Start by getting the internal data — what is the truth of your hiring and retention data? Do you see a revolving door in certain departments, under certain leaders, and/or by certain diverse groups? Find out what’s going on. Then look at what your competitors are doing? Are their governance programs, policies, and practices more modern than yours? If yes, you’ll lose talent to them. We work with companies using our Workplace 360° to assess where they stand and provide them with an inclusive culture roadmap to get them where they need to be.
  3. Stop with performative DE&I and start embedding real DE&I into every aspect of your business: From your governance to your culture to your leadership, diversity, equity and inclusion can no longer be a check-the-box tool. Investors, employees, customers, clients, and the world at large understand that businesses succeed with diverse talent and inclusive cultures.
  4. Commit to pay equity and transparency around pay: We’re huge fans of Syndio — an external pay equity saas solution that measures and validates your pay equity efforts. Your employees, particularly your Millennial employees, are already breaking long-held taboos on discussing pay. They share salaries and advocate for each other. If you don’t offer fair pay, they’ll find out and fast.
  5. Align purpose with profits: In the midst of the Great Awakening, talent has decided it is not going to commit its human capital to companies that aren’t mission-aligned. “Doing well by doing good” is the mantra for talent today. How does your company make the world a better place? Figure it out and then ensure your messaging and culture is aligned. In this competitive talent market, aligning your internal culture with the external purpose and mission is essential for attracting the best and brightest. Savvy companies understand this is more than employer branding, this is table stakes for success.

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?

We were recently commissioned to spearhead research on behalf of nFormation and the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative called PowHER Redefined. It explores this very topic. We spoke to more than 1,500 women, with our research focusing on the responses of the more than 1,100 women of color in that group who were surveyed. By and large, we heard that employees are expecting to be treated as fully formed human beings who have needs and lives outside of the workplace. This differs from more traditional work models that expect employees to be wholly focused on their jobs at all times.

This all-in-all of the time expectation by employers versus the desire by employees to be able to authentically integrate work and life is the biggest gap we see in our work with companies and leaders. This gap can be closed when employers begin examining the kinds of workplaces they’re creating. Is yours an environment of excursion or belonging? How are your programs, policies, and practices lining up relative to your values and purpose? Are you a leader in your industry or one that is lagging behind?

See above for how to future-proof your organization.

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

First, let’s be clear — there is no future of work — that’s an excuse by companies who refuse to implement what employees want right now. As I shared above, employees are eager to contribute and to do great work. In order to do that, they need time master and location mastery — the ability to work when and where they are most productive. The forced “working from home” great experiment we’ve all been put through has proven that employees can deliver with excellence no matter where they are working and do so in a way that delivers on business goals. So, employees have proven they can deliver. Now It’s time for employers to step up and trust their employees to continue to deliver by codifying time and location mastery. It starts with trust. Leaders need to say, “I trust our employees to do great work and so we are going to continue to empower them with time and location mastery.”

For some, that means returning to the office. For others, that means working from anywhere At PrismWork, we counsel clients on equitable return to office strategies. We ask employers to consider why they prefer to have employees work from the office, and if that fosters or oppresses diverse environments. Immersive trainings, high-stakes team moments and celebrations, transformational assemblies, and ensuring certain office cultural rituals live on are important and may require in-office gatherings. But if they’re not happening daily, why do you need an in-office workforce daily?

A large company recently made headlines after firing more than 900 employees over Zoom. The human touch still matters and virtual is not always best. In that particular instance, it would have been better to call people back into the office, to treat them like human beings, and to give them time to process the information being presented to them. All in all, it’s best for companies to be intentional about why they’re meeting in person and to always try to consider employees’ lives outside of work.

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?

We need a highly educated workforce to deliver on the promise of the modern era. To do that, we need to significantly reduce student debt and make college affordable. And, we need to expand access to college across underrepresented groups.

I sit on the board of a fast-growing social enterprise called The Prosp(a)rity Project. This non-profit is dedicated to narrowing the wealth gap by providing support to high-potential Black women with retroactive scholarships to help reduce their student debt load and offering financial literacy training designed by Black women for Black women.

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

Going out on a limb here…I am most optimistic about the role men can play in being part of the solution rather than continuing to be part of the problem. The reality is that the ratio at the top is changing, but not nearly fast enough. Given this truth, at PrismWork, we asked ourselves, “How can we capitalize on the reality that men are still in charge and are likely to stay that way for a long, long time?”

We partnered with professors David Smith and Brad Johnson, co-authors of Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the workplace, and piloted a 21st Century Leadership Lab for Men in the fall of 2021. We brought together 30 men in senior leadership positions from tech, financial services, big pharma, media, and more. We gave them insight, strategy, and tools on how they can be the kinds of leaders we ALL need. The lab graduates are making significant changes in their own approach to leadership and in their companies overall. The response to the program was outstanding. Over 90% of respondents said they would highly recommend this program to other male leaders. We’ll be delivering more labs like this one in the near future.

Closer to home — and I hope this doesn’t sound too arrogant — but our very existence as a PrismWork team gives me hope for the future of work. However educated we both are, the collaboration and cofounding of a company by a Black man and a white woman is atypical in the United States. But Corey and I have been successful in getting the attention of leaders from some of the country’s biggest corporations, and they’re willing to evolve from the antiquated systems they inherited. I think there’s no greater source of optimism than that.

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?

We shouldn’t concern ourselves with diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging simply to check boxes. We should want to create environments that are psychologically safe for all with whom we interact. People need to feel valued, respected, and supported — and they deserve to have those needs met.

Our power Redefined research revealed that companies are trying to offer mental health support (that’s the good news) but missing the mark by not creating programs uniquely designed for the individual needs of their employees. For example, offering a mass mental health counseling solution that doesn’t include diverse counselors fails diverse talent because their issues and concerns are likely not to be understood or effectively addressed.

Another key area that we see is the failure to address burnout. The American myth that more work means more productivity and more profits is proving itself to be a failure when your output depends on people, not machines. Savvy companies are providing strategies like “Focus Fridays,” where all meetings are cancelled and employees can dig in to help reduce their workload over the weekend. Airtable recently announced quarterly “recharge days” where the entire company has the same paid day off. Other companies like Patagonia are insisting on mandatory office and store shut-downs during core weeks like the 4th of July and the last week of the year. These efforts to reduce burnout coupled with strategic solutions like giving employees mastery of when and how they work are some of the many creative ways companies are meeting their employees where they are so they can continue to deliver with excellence.

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?

Company leaders need to have their own “Great Awakening” and realize that it is no longer the company that is central to the world, but the employee. Even the term “The Great Resignation” focuses on the challenges faced by the employer. Employees are awakening to the value of their human capital and realizing they have choices for how to live their one wild and precious life. And while not every employee can just quit, many are voting by challenging their leadership and challenging the company’s policies and practices. These employees aren’t entitled, they are asking for a work environment that allows them to thrive so they can be highly productive. Companies need to adapt not because they are bending to the will of these employees, but because it is the right thing for the business and will deliver better business results.

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. A True Focus on Workplace Culture as a Driver for Business Success: Stakeholders such as Investors, customers, and employees will finally connect the importance of culture to the bottom line and will insist that the companies with which they are affiliated have inclusive cultures. We’ve seen this already with multiple clients who have hired us to conduct our Workplace 360* assessment and provide them with a customized Inclusive Culture Roadmap to uplevel their programs, policies, and practices for the new world of work. As one leader told us, “We are headed for a big IPO and want the best culture possible to attract the best talent to get there.”
  2. A Necessary Focus on Human Capital Development: For decades, budgets to develop talent have been slashed, but employers are finally realizing they must invest in their employees and a key retention tool will be by providing meaningful learning and development — especially for leaders. Our most recent 21st Century Leadership Lab for Men is a perfect example of this. We virtually hosted 30 senior leaders across numerous industries to help them uplevel their skills and abilities to meet the needs of today’s workforce. They learned how to lead with an inclusive mindset and how to inspire by committing to change. We are seeing the impacts of the lab already as they are reviewing and changing workplace policies like pay equity, focusing on diversity hiring, and having the courage and humility to engage in tough conversations around racial justice and workplace sexism.
  3. A Recognition that Career Gaps Shouldn’t Be Career Killers: As the research for my book, Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career revealed, employers will finally realize that career pauses can actually make talent more resilient, more career dedicated, and with a breadth of skills they may not have found by following a singular path to the top. One of the leaders in our recent 21st Century Leadership for Men launched a returnship program to help attract career pausers who might not otherwise make it past the hiring gauntlet which is filled with bias against career pausers.
  4. An Understanding of The Rising Power of ERGs: Once thought of as a nice-to-have, employee resource groups are becoming central to driving and maintaining culture within a company. Savvy employers are using them as powerful learning and development opportunities for employees. Savvy leaders are relying on them to get insight into the lived experience of their employees. Savvy companies are investing in them by providing financial resources and by recognizing that leading an ERG is a critical leadership development skill — one that should be part of an employee’s performance review. At PrismWork, we have been advising clients on how to make the best use of their ERGS and to see them as powerful resources for culture success.
  5. A Meaningful Focus on Workforce Mental Health: Our research, PowHER Redefined, on the lived realities for Women of Color at work revealed that employees of all levels need access to mental health services, but that all employees don’t necessarily have pathways in place to receive these services in ways that work for them. Companies need to recognize that one-size-fits all solutions around mental health don’t work. As many of the women we spoke told us, “we need coaches, mentors, and mental health experts who understand the unique challenges of being a woman and a person of color in a workplace that penalizes us for being both.” Smart companies understand that happy, whole people are more likely to remain loyal to a company that prioritizes their happiness and wholeness and are more likely to attract the talent they want and need in this competitive marketplace.

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