Putting employees first as a competitive advantage. I fear I may start to sound like a broken record, and it is the most important lesson that has come from the pandemic. Your people will be the reason your company succeeds or fails. If you want to attract great talent, your organization and executives must put employees first.

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 Marie Unger.

As Chief Executive Officer, Marie Unger leads Emergenetics® International, which partners with leaders and organizations around the world to apply Emergenetics theories and cognitive diversity to build positive, productive workplace cultures. An expert in the ways people prefer to think and behave, Marie empowers others to navigate the future of work through optimized communication, enhanced team dynamics, increased inclusion and improved employee retention. Marie is a classically trained pianist and avid sports fan who enjoys spending time with her family including her husband, daughters and grand dog.

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.

Thank you for having me as part of the series! I’m happy to be included.

One moment that stands out was the day there was a gas leak nearby the school where I was the newly named principal. I imagine that a lot of executives can relate to the role that different crisis moments play in shaping who you are as a leader and a person, and this one certainly impacted me.

At the time, we had to evacuate hundreds of students and faculty out of the building, communicate with parents and get everyone home safely. And this all happened within the first three days of school! I was new to the role, our teachers were new to their students, and we needed to rally together quickly.

I remember being extremely calm at the time and focused on staying positive and confident in our team. I knew we had capable people who would respond appropriately, and my role was to make sure everyone felt secure in our processes and our people, so we could overcome the challenge together. I am happy to share that everything went as smoothly and safely as it could have gone.

What the experience helped me realize is that in times of challenge, while I thrive on problem solving, I equally want to be a source of positivity and encouragement to whomever I’m with. I think that attitude of optimism has shaped me into a resilient person and helps me see the opportunities and possibilities that can come from adversity. I’d like to think it’s also had the added benefit of helping my teams feel more certain during challenging times as well.

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?

When I think about the countless transitions we’ve had to make in less than two years, it almost seems outrageous to say that anything will be the same! That said, I do think there are some themes that will remain.

The pace of change will continue to be incredibly fast. Leaders are at a tipping point where stability is a thing of the past. We can’t just navigate change anymore. We need to embrace transformation and commit to shifting our mindsets from a reactive space to a proactive one. The past months have taught us that we must be better at anticipating what’s around the corner and that sentiment is likely here to stay.

I predict that having a purpose in work will continue to be important. People want to contribute to the world in ways that align with their values, and they expect that employers will commit to doing good. I think the alignment between values, purpose and the workplace will stand the test of time.

In terms of differences, it’s the evolving technological landscape that will inspire the most change. Automation, artificial intelligence and virtual and augmented reality are becoming commonplace in conversation already. I anticipate that they will inspire change in the next decade. Just imagine how the workplace might look with virtual and augmented realities as the norm!

I also expect the relationship between employees and organizations will shift for the better. It’s already happening with the move from work-life balance to work-life integration. I imagine that as generations move through the workforce the relationship between employee and employer could be considered a partnership, as opposed to one having more influence, or power, than the other.

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

Without knowing exactly what’s ahead, I think employers should consider the lessons they’ve learned from the past. Our recent past tells us that prioritizing inclusion, supporting employees and being willing, and in a position, to change are good for business.

It all starts when you have an environment where every person is truly appreciated for being exactly who they are. In my company’s work, we encourage inclusion by shining a light on the value of cognitive diversity and viewing differences as assets. When your team members are self-aware, understand what they offer to the world and appreciate their colleagues who think and behave differently, you can create a culture that promotes engagement and motivates each person to contribute.

To achieve this level of understanding of self and others, it does take work, as many people need to build skills to be a part of an inclusive community. Those who are successful in their diversity and equity efforts will have invested in their employees through holistic learning and development programs and will have made inclusion an innate part of their culture.

In addition to helping staff be seen and valued as their authentic selves, it’s important to support your employees through advancement. When you empower individuals to develop new skills and progress in their careers, your personnel will be much better positioned to achieve the near- and long-term goals of the organization.

By creating opportunities for staff to learn, you should anticipate an increase in creativity. Imagination can inspire change, so it’s inherent that companies put themselves in a position to be nimble. Whether it’s a new method of delivery, an overhaul to your client service model, a name change or anything else really, the leaders that are open to disruption can and will seize more opportunities than those who try to keep things the same.

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?

Perhaps the biggest gap that employers and employees will face is a one-size-fits-all approach to the employee experience. In an effort to be equitable, I can see businesses providing a uniform set of benefits, perks and offerings because it seems most “fair.” However, every person is different, so what employees value and need will vary.

To reconcile the gaps, I recommend that leaders listen. Survey your staff and host stay interviews to understand what it is that people appreciate about you as an employer and what they’d like to see from you in the future. Don’t make assumptions about what your workforce needs, instead ask them directly. Each individual employee is in the best position to tell you what would improve your working relationship.

With their feedback, you can identify the options you can offer, so individuals can tailor their employee experience in a way that suits them while still remaining equitable. As an example, consider flexible benefits like a wellness stipend for every person. And then empower your staff to choose what they want to use the funds for whether that’s a gym membership, home equipment, a therapy appointment or anything else that supports their physical or mental health.

By making a concerted effort to prioritize employee voice and provide choice, you can demonstrate that your organization cares about its people, and that alone can buy some goodwill as you continue to improve the employee experience.

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

There are several lessons to take away from the “work from home” experiment. For one, the time away from the workplace revealed the importance of flexibility. So many functions can be capably completed from outside the office, and many people value working remotely. Going forward, businesses will need to be mindful of how they can give individuals more control over their work environments.

Another takeaway is that truly knowing who your team members are is a real advantage to working remotely. When you have insights into how your coworkers prefer to communicate, collaborate and interact, it is so much easier to work productively together despite the distance. We are lucky at Emergenetics because we literally have an assessment and resources that reveal how you can adapt your work based on your team members’ preferences.

While assessments can make the process faster and easier, you can reach a similar understanding by taking time to get to know your people, their personalities and their strengths. And, in the future, I think businesses would be wise to do so. That way, even at a distance, managers can create an environment that promotes individual and collective productivity and engagement.

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?

As a society, we need to focus on emotional intelligence (EQ) to create a future of work that supports everyone.

Traditionally, executives have been praised for getting the most out of their people, and that has typically been measured in the form of productivity and output. And, more and more, individuals are no longer willing to compartmentalize their days in a way that work is just a place to work. They want to feel a sense of belonging, they want to feel valued, and they want more freedom to define the employee experience that best supports them.

With this mindset shift, it means that companies need to embrace the human side of work. We need to celebrate the fact that people are different, show them that we care and find ways to support their success. That requires emotional intelligence because everyone is going to have personal needs and interests.

What I love about leading Emergenetics is that we help people understand the ways they and their colleagues prefer to think and behave. With that knowledge, they can approach one another with curiosity and empathy because they see the value in different perspectives. The ability to be authentic and appreciate others for being true to themselves is foundational to a culture of EQ. When we value social awareness and relationship building as core performance measures, we are taking important steps to create a future where inclusion is the norm — and that is a future we can all appreciate.

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

It always has been and always will be people. The experience of living through a global pandemic has given many individuals reason to pause. They are reflecting on what they have, what they want and what they want to change.

Many people are asking how they can have a positive impact on the world. For some, they want to find an inspiring vision they can connect to and support. Others are looking to weave the threads of their life, work and communities together.

All of the positive energy that is being generated by this conscious meditation is going to contribute to a better world. And work will be one of the benefactors of this renewal of the human spirit.

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?

Traditionally, employer-sponsored programs to support wellbeing might include mindfulness, yoga or relaxation techniques. I think we are finding ourselves in a time when companies will have to get creative. It will be imperative as we move forward to consider all the elements that contribute to a person’s mental health, such as social and emotional wellbeing.

Social wellbeing is tied to having quality relationships with others. As we have gone through this life-changing pandemic together as co-workers, many people view and value their workplace relationships differently than in the past. We can build on this, as a positive outcome of the pandemic to nurture our workplace communities.

If you can create opportunities for your employees to connect and engage with their teammates in ways that resonate for them, you can improve their engagement as well as relational trust. For some, they will want to connect around a virtual water cooler, others will be inspired to volunteer or donate to a charity, or it might be a workplace book club. If you build multiple avenues for connection, your employees can choose what engages them most and enhance their social and mental wellness. It’s important to build community across departments, time zones and geographies, so employees know that they are a part of something bigger and feel united by a common culture.

Emotional wellbeing is the cornerstone of resiliency. As businesses will continue to make dramatic shifts in their operations to thrive in the future, employees must also have the ability to adapt when confronted with change or stress. Emotional wellbeing can drive that resiliency because it allows individuals to produce positive, productive thoughts and feelings even in adversity.

To build grit, companies can invest in programs that help staff increase their self-awareness so they can recognize when they are in times of distress. Help your people build a positive self-image and encourage them with constructive feedback. You can also offer stress management courses or techniques. And investing in your team members’ professional development can help promote resiliency because it offers them an opportunity to learn, change and grow in a safe environment.

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?

I hope everyone recognizes these headlines are offering a wakeup call to organizations to put employees first. While the idea of an employee-centric culture isn’t new, many companies still prioritize other stakeholders.

When businesses give credence to the impact staff, at every level, have on their brand, their customers and ultimately, their bottom line, they can start to positively reshape the dynamic between employer and employee. The relationship between the two must be mutually beneficial.

To support both parties, company culture must be a priority. It’s an intangible asset that can pay dividends if it’s attended to. Whether its affirming or realigning your core values, prioritizing culture-centric initiatives or asking employees to volunteer to be your ambassadors with their peers, there are many ways to reinvigorate your employee base.

And as they say, people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. Engage your learning and development teams to assess the skills and development needs of those people you’ve tasked with employee supervision. Find out what is working, what isn’t working and what ways training can bridge the gaps, so your supervisors can meaningfully engage and motivate staff.

At a minimum, leaders need to consider if they’ve created a workplace that is safe — both physically and psychologically — for their employees. To evolve your culture, I believe revisiting Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs provides a brilliant foundation.

Make sure you’re providing basic needs, such as a livable wage, to help people feel stable. Moving onto security needs, assess both physical safety measures and mental safety like creating an affirming environment. The next level focuses on social needs, including promoting positive team dynamics and work-life integration. At the next stage, you can attend to self-esteem needs like recognition programs, coaching or opportunities for staff to host their own master class. The highest layer is self-actualization. This is when you are helping people achieve their full potential.

By systematically evaluating and refining each level of the hierarchy, you can create a company where people are engaged, celebrated and committed to your business.

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. Putting employees first as a competitive advantage.

I fear I may start to sound like a broken record, and it is the most important lesson that has come from the pandemic. Your people will be the reason your company succeeds or fails. If you want to attract great talent, your organization and executives must put employees first.

We are a customer of HubSpot, and they are a positive example of an employer who considers their staff as whole people. They offer benefits like flexible work arrangements, tuition reimbursement, regional rest days, parental leave, employee chat channels to share workplace tips and pain points and so much more! They really embrace the mindset of taking care of not just work needs but also looking after their people’s physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Their approach has helped them grow and become a very successful business.

Most companies do not have HubSpot’s budget, and you don’t have to in order to attract and retain high-performing employees. Simply start with adopting a similar mindset and make incremental changes to demonstrate that you care about your staff. By creating an environment grounded in employee appreciation, your people and your organization will thrive.

2. Building learning cultures.

Change is going to come and keep coming. To make sure employees can take an agile and resilient approach, employers must invest in and encourage staff development in formal and informal ways.

Let’s consider one of the most innovative companies in the U.S. — W.L. Gore & Associates, the makers of Gore-Tex. Their culture prioritizes learning in that employers are encouraged to improve on the status quo, even when it’s working, freely pursue new ideas and join task forces and teams — rather than having standard job roles.

While Gore may be an extreme example of constant on-the-job learning, it illustrates the point that when you give people opportunities to learn from others, experiment and grow new capacities, amazing things can happen for your organization. And you can boost the motivation and engagement of your people. I encourage organizations to prioritize learning through formal trainings, mentorship and coaching programs as well as on-the-job learning. Finally, celebrate development so that it becomes part of your culture. When every person is committed to growing, your business will too.

3. Creating communities — not just companies.

Businesses are being asked to stand for so much more than just churning profits. Employees and customers alike are interested in understanding their principles, their ethos and their impact on the world. With this shift, prosperous companies will be the ones who think about their organization more as a community of individuals aligned toward a common purpose, rather than simply a corporation.

A great example is Apple. Their products and brand evoke words like innovation and creativity. Many people quickly identify as being part of the Apple community, or not. By creating a sense of connection and standing for more than just computer products, Apple has its pick of incredible talent and a large population of loyal customers. While its products certainly matter, it’s also the sense of community and affinity that Apple has created that appeals so broadly.

In the future of work, businesses that can create a shared identity with their staff and customers will be in the best position to succeed. That starts by clearly identifying what you stand for as a company, your employee value proposition and how you support your clients.

4. Seeing differences as assets.

One of the biggest dangers to long-term success is groupthink. While it may feel “easy” to work with the same types of people, it’s unlikely to lead to new ideas, better performance — or I think, fun. Instead, you will just get the same, uninspired results. To innovate and improve work, you need employees who have different backgrounds, cultures, experiences and perspectives.

Research has shown that cognitive diversity leads to more creativity and better decision making. Moreover, companies like L’Oreal have publicly stated that traditional diversity and diversity of thought have been key to their innovation. Cognitive diversity has also been an essential part of my company’s success. Whenever we launch an initiative or build a project team, we make sure we have cognitively diverse team members, which has helped us to be more effective and responsive. For example, we were able to roll out new virtual trainings to support our clients just weeks into the pandemic. I believe our speed and success came from having team members who could use their diversity of thought to understand our clients’ needs from all angles and identify comprehensive solutions.

To thrive in the future of work, it won’t be enough to simply hire people who are different. Companies will also need to create an atmosphere where every employee values those differences as gifts. By utilizing assessments, like Emergenetics, you can help people recognize their distinct approach to work and craft a culture where each person has the assurance that they should bring their whole self to work.

5. Leading transformation — not managing change.

A lot of companies talk about navigating the changes that have come out of the pandemic. However, small iterations are not going to be enough to thrive in the future. Technological advancements as well as the ongoing globalization of business will continue to push transformation.

Corporations need to be ready and willing to change. In the best-case scenarios, those iterations will be driven internally as organizations see the shifts they must make and plan accordingly. In other instances, firms will be a bit behind the curve, yet if they are resilient, they can still adjust.

Organizations that only try to mitigate the risks that come from change, or worse yet ignore it, are going to struggle. We’ve seen these sorts of transformations all over the world — just think about the unwillingness of taxi companies to adapt their business practices in the face of Uber or Lyft. To succeed, leaders need to be nimble and proactively address changes looming on the horizon.

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?

We’ve all learned a lot during the pandemic. And one quote that was shared with me by a colleague that really resonated is: “Just because we never reach the horizon doesn’t mean we can’t stop to enjoy the view.”

As my organization’s leader, my focus is always on where the company is going and what’s next. The quote reminded me to strike a balance between pushing our team toward an inspiring vision and taking time to stop and celebrate the successes we’ve had. It’s important to recognize how far we’ve come and what we’ve learned, because those reflections allow us to be better prepared to navigate whatever lies ahead.

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 just finished reading The Infinite Game with some of the global leaders at my company, so right now, Simon Sinek is high on my list. His concept of a Just Cause struck a deep chord, and I would love to talk to him more about the stories he uncovered during his research. I’m sure there is so much that he couldn’t cover in the book!

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?

If you’d like to see what my team and I are working on as we help companies build positive workplace cultures around the globe, visit our website www.emergenetics.com. Our social media channels on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter can also be a great source for our latest news and resources!

If you’d like to follow me directly, you can find me on LinkedIn.

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