Diversity and Inclusion. Diversity and inclusion can no longer serve as nice buzzwords. Every company and organization should have DEI programs in place and should consider what programs work well in a remote setting. You can’t simply take what you were doing in the office and shoehorn it into a completely digital setting. The opportunity that remote work affords is the ability to open roles and hire anywhere in the world. This lends itself to a cultural diversity that is invaluable to how we work today.
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 Michelle Labbe.
As Toptal’s Chief People Officer, Michelle is accountable for the People and Recruiting teams, creating and maintaining a world-class experience for all Toptal team members through hiring, developing, and retaining the company’s top talent. Her 20+ year career has included senior Talent leadership roles across both the startup and agency world, spanning multiple industries. Michelle has a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Arizona.
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.
People had often asked me how I got into the HR field and it really didn’t hit me until a few years ago: I had gone to school with a political science major, yet started my early career in marketing before I accidentally fell into HR. My first job out of college was in marketing for a well-known publishing company. The company had relocated out of state and I took on a temp role supporting one of the early female partners at Deloitte. Once I started working in HR, I immediately fell in love with it. I had always been a people person, and the mediator and psychiatrist to all of my friends. Growing up my father worked for IBM — aka “I’ve Been Moved” — and I had lived in six states before graduating from high school. I had to make new friends quickly, find a way to fit in, and be very flexible and adaptable. All of these skills I now see contributed to my success as an HR professional.
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?
Specific to work, I believe we will see a bifurcation of companies willing to and enabling their employees to work 100% remotely, and some holdouts that will continue to use a physical office. We’re seeing a bit of the latter today with news of many Wall Street banks, and even Apple and Google, requiring workers to return to the office. My bet is that a large portion of their workforces will quit to find jobs that allow for remote and flexible work. Studies have shown that most workers are just as productive — if not more productive — in a remote work environment, so the data is there to say “We don’t need to work in an office five days a week.”
The workforce will be mostly made up of Gen Z and Millennials in 10–15 years. Based on current findings, when it comes to these generations, the workforce will be very focused on how work fits into their lifestyle. For Gen Z, they are uncompromising about work/life balance and have an admirable boldness when it comes to what they want from their careers. Millennials have been working since the recession of 2008, and are the poster children for corporate burnout. I believe they will, if they haven’t already, come to a realization that they can achieve great things in their careers without having to sacrifice their personal lives entirely.
When it comes to the workplace, we’ll likely continue to see many of the trends we’re starting to see today. Companies are and will continue to revamp offices to allow for more collaboration versus siloed and independent work. Employees will come to an office one or two times a week to hold important meetings and brainstorms with colleagues but otherwise be content to work remotely.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
Be open to change and listen to your workforce. Companies don’t have to do the same thing or operate the same way just because that’s what we’ve always done. Evidence shows, as mentioned earlier, that workers can still be productive despite new and unique working conditions.
The younger generation of workers is quite vocal about what they want from their employers and careers. I see that as a gift. Survey your employees and listen to their feedback. While this doesn’t mean every demand must be met or that corporate leaders need to bend to every whim, it does mean that we have a gold mine of fresh ideas and ways of doing things from tomorrow’s leaders today.
The companies I’ve seen that have done particularly well during the last few years have been nimble, adaptable, and open to change.
What do you predict will be the biggest gaps between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect as we move forward? And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?
Aside from flexibility, compensation will be a particularly interesting area to watch in the coming years. We’ve seen significant salary increases across a variety of industries thanks to the current “war for talent” and Great Resignation. I can’t say for sure if or when a rise in salaries will stagnate, but this level and speed of increase will likely be unsustainable for a lot of companies. The trade-off will be in the remote work flexibility: For a fully remote job, people will take less salary. Employees have an increased focus on personal wellness, so companies that have made an investment in those offerings will be seen as more favorable.
Today’s workforce also cares tremendously about titles and career paths and how quickly they can get promoted. Companies will need to have training available for all levels of employees. Train up. Offer opportunities for internal movement so employees can grow their career inside without having to gain additional skills outside.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
There was a great New York Times article on this not too long ago titled “A Two-Year, 50-Million-Person Experiment in Changing How We Work.” A big takeaway was that work and the workforce has been changed forever. And for many, remote work is just better for them for so many reasons.
The future of work, to me, is remote work. We’ve embodied that here at Toptal for more than 11 years and have been successful doing so. The last few years have proven, well beyond Toptal, that remote work works.
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?
A lot of news coverage has touched upon how exclusive the traditional office space can be. With remote work, the common office traditions, such as watercooler talk, networking events, and cube-to-cube gossip, don’t happen or are minimized. Remote work removes the many challenging bureaucratic and political roadblocks that so many people dislike about working in an office. Not to make light of it but think of shows like “The Office” — my personal favorite — that poke fun at how awkward, and sometimes painful, working in that setting can be.
So many of the distractions and “bad habits” of work as we once knew it are removed with remote work. Remote work allows for true meritocracy and inclusion. Remote workers can be appropriately recognized and rewarded for their accomplishments — and there are no office games to play.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
That more companies are embracing remote permanently and therefore allowing opportunities for the most qualified and most skilled people to get their dream job. When you remove the need to be in a physical location, you are able to hire a diverse group of people and that combination of talent is priceless.
Our collective mental health and well-being 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 well-being?
There are a number of factors that play into this. The first are the intangibles, things like trust, transparency, and collaboration. All of these things allow business leaders to improve and optimize employee mental health, well-being, and performance. Further, all of these things enable good management. It is widely known that people join great companies, but they leave because of bad managers. The aforementioned intangibles have to permeate throughout your entire organization.
The more tangible things include perks like access to tools that contribute to overall well-being. All Toptal employees have free access to the Calm meditation app, for example. We have also recently rolled out a mental health benefit that allows all of our team members to have access to counseling and therapy sessions worldwide and in a variety of languages.
One thing that the pandemic has shown us is that being trapped at home can often be isolating. Companies need to ensure that their employees have outlets to bond, collaborate, and support each other. Whatever can be done to bring people with like interests together — whether it be book clubs, cooking classes, or fitness challenges — the more people can support one another, the more employees will feel connected to their teammates and the company.
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 think the last few years have really caused people to reevaluate their lives and what’s most important to them. The seriousness of the pandemic, the introspection, and the realization of how much time we invest just commuting really opened our eyes to the fact that we’ve been on a bit of a hamster wheel. All at once, we were forced to take stock of our responsibilities both at work and at home, and where our time was being spent. All that to say that company leaders need to come to the realization that work is no longer how the majority of people determine their self-worth nor are they willing to continue sacrificing time or mental and physical health for a job. This shouldn’t be confused with laziness; rather, people are prioritizing things differently.
Company cultures need to evolve to take this reevaluation into account. Employees are going to work on their terms and demand flexibility. The way to allow for this and still be a really successful company is to establish trust with your people, as well as keep them happy, engaged, and fulfilled. If your employees are passionate about the work they are doing and achieving set goals, does it really matter where and when they do that work?
Let’s get more specific. What are your Top 5 Trends to Track on the Future of Work?
- Remote/Digital Nomad
It’s no surprise that with the big push to remote work at the start of the pandemic, and growing technology advancements and adoption, the number of people looking to live life wherever they please while working has become more prevalent.
MBO Partners found in a 2018 report that “4.8 million independent workers currently describe themselves as digital nomads, and many more, 17 million, aspire to someday become nomadic.” Some estimates today say there are now 35 million digital nomads around the globe.
Toptal has more than 1,000 core team members in more than 90 countries, so our company is a good example of how people can choose where to live and travel while working effectively. We were very early adopters of the digital nomad lifestyle, a term that I was not familiar with until I joined Toptal and saw our team members traveling every month, working from different countries, and enjoying the best of both worlds.
2. Diversity and Inclusion
Diversity and inclusion can no longer serve as nice buzzwords. Every company and organization should have DEI programs in place and should consider what programs work well in a remote setting. You can’t simply take what you were doing in the office and shoehorn it into a completely digital setting. The opportunity that remote work affords is the ability to open roles and hire anywhere in the world. This lends itself to a cultural diversity that is invaluable to how we work today.
Remote work offers an interesting glance at this facet of business. Recent news headlines have touted the lack of pain points women and BIPOC face working remotely without the old-school office politics. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for companies to self-evaluate their DEI efforts and especially question if they’re working well (or even better) for a remote workforce.
3. Sustainability — Going Green
Sustainability is fast becoming a top priority in the corporate world, rightfully so. Remote work lends itself to more sustainable lifestyles given the lack of commute and energy required to run a large physical office. Whether your business is remote, hybrid, or 100% office, you will need to take steps to contribute to sustainability. Today’s consumers (and workers) hold it in high regard and may even make job decisions based on companies that commit to planetary health. Even companies looking to IPO are being encouraged to implement robust ESG efforts.
4. Consultancy and Freelance
The contingent workforce is growing. According to Gartner data published in 2021, 32% of companies replaced salaried employees with contingent workers “to cut down on costs, and many others did so as a means to fill important skills gaps.” Other estimates predict that 50% of the US workforce will be made up of freelance or contingent workers by 2050.
There are numerous benefits and reasons for this uptick. Workers can choose work they are passionate about, and they can determine and take more control of their earning potential. Companies can access talent on demand for project work and scale quickly, often at lower costs.
5. End of the Great Resignation
I believe that the Great Resignation will come to an end as workers either commit to a company/organization or decide to become their own bosses as freelancers. There has and will always be a delicate balance when it comes to who holds the power in the employee/employer relationship, and in a few years we will likely see an evening out of what is currently a huge shift in favor of employees. This doesn’t necessarily mean we will return to work as we knew it before the pandemic. If anything, I hope we find a happy medium that balances the business needs of companies and the personal needs of the workforce.
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?
“Let it go” and “Pick your battles” are quotes that I often share with my team and co-workers. As I have gotten older, I have realized that it just takes too much energy to hold on to things and not everything is worth going to the mat for. You can’t control everything or anyone, so the sooner you understand and come to terms with that, the easier everything will be.
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.
Michael Jordan. I have been a huge MJ fan since I was in college. I went to the University of Arizona, where we were always part of March Madness, so I had basketball around me all the time. At the same time, the Bulls were in the top of the rankings. I was always in awe of MJ. His documentary, “The Last Dance,” I have seen a number of times and was more inspired every time. His work ethic, dedication, love of the game, and will to win was like no one I have ever seen before.
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Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.