More remote and hybrid work: This continues to be a big topic, and it’s coming back stronger as economic constraints drive companies to make new mandates. The companies that will win with employees will allow a bit of both and create strong, clear hybrid work policies. Companies must designate which days all team members will be in the office so everyone can get the most out of the experience. This has been one area where employers need to improve at setting clear expectations.

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 Nesa K. Johnson.

Nesa K. Johnson, SPHR, is the Chief Global People Officer for GCI Group, a family of specialty healthcare communication agencies. In her role, Nesa drives the agency’s global growth by attracting, retaining and empowering top talent and building inclusive teams. Widely viewed as an industry innovator, Nesa has authored groundbreaking people-first programs that address the whole person, embracing professional, physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

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?

I grew up working for my family’s restaurants and was exposed to many life/work lessons at an early age — entrepreneurship, ownership and creativity. I learned that if you see a problem, fix it. If you see something is missing, create it. I was also the oldest grandchild (of 25!) on my mother’s side. If being a firstborn wasn’t pressure enough, I had the added responsibility of being a good example for all of my cousins, who saw me as a big sister.

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 believe that 10–15 years from now, we’ll still be experiencing the talent shortages that are currently driving companies to focus on and prioritize an exceptional employee experience. Also, we’ve come too far in experiencing the benefits of remote work to completely lose that option, especially when it can complement the positive experiences we get from in-person engagement. We will also see an increase in work distributed across local and global teams and asynchronous work — where employees work at their own pace at times that are best for them. The combination of these trends will be a good thing for the workforce — it will help it expand by making it possible for many different types of employees to join in and thrive. As the workforce expands and becomes more inclusive, the ability to communicate across cultures and differences will be a highly valued skill.

As far as what will change, I predict more automation will (gladly) take away administrative tasks for managers, leaving more time for engaging with staff in meaningful ways. In addition, the heightened awareness and increased focus on diversity, equity and inclusion will lead to more organizational orientation toward equitable practices to ensure that fairness and transparency are core to what we do.

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

  1. Build your talent internally: Focus on defining the core skills needed to make your business successful today and in the future. Build everything talent related around those skills (hiring, promoting, rewarding, developing) to ensure you are creating and nurturing your own talent pool. Organizations cannot wait for the candidate marketplace to catch up to their needs and demands.
  2. Create unique employee experiences: In the war for talent, unique employee experiences will differentiate organizations from their competitors in the marketplace. It’s not enough to have a standard benefits package. Instead, organizations need to understand their candidate pool, identify their biggest drivers and respond by bringing benefits to the table that align to their needs.
  3. Invest in leaders: As organizations grow, the expectations for leaders change. Investments in leadership development will scale the business faster and smarter while improving retention and engagement. It’s true what they say, it all starts at the top!

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?

At the highest level, the biggest gaps will be in areas where employers are reticent to give up control, and employees want more control. For example, remote and hybrid working lets employees choose where they work best. Employers are grappling with this because they have lost the in-office contact that fuels collaboration, which brings richness and depth to both the experience of working and the work product.

Where we are going to be able to bridge the gap is through trust. Both sides are seeking more certainty during these unsettling times. Employers need the assurance that people are productive and engaged. Employees need to know their work is valued and measured in ways beyond in-person face time. When we’re not together daily, we must find other ways to communicate and check in. The more employers can signal to employees that they are trusted, the more employees will rise to the occasion.

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

We are likely not returning to the pre-pandemic world, where we worked from the office 100% of the time. This experience has changed how we think of work/life balance — or is it life/work balance now? It’s always been less of a balance and more of an integration; however, this experience has accelerated that mindset shift around how work and life come together, and the values we hold around this area have shifted for many.

Working from home has been an absolute game changer for increasing diversity in the workforce, specifically for people with disabilities. The percentage of disabled people who were employed rose to 21.3% in 2022, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When location and commuting are not factors, we can focus on hiring from more diverse pools of people.

This global experiment has also helped us define what type of work is best done in-person versus remotely. We learned how collaboration and brainstorming, onboarding new team members and building relationships are accelerated with in-person interaction, while other tasks are better for remote work. We will benefit from balancing our time through a combination of both to best serve our clients, partners and teams.

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?

So many! First is the role of caregiving and parenting. We need more societal changes to support people who are caring for others while managing a career. More and more people are caring for older adults in their homes, and many more are caring for children simultaneously. Equitable approaches to work and programs that support these employees will level the playing field so caregivers have a chance to fulfill their goals both inside and outside of work. Second, our world will continue to become more diverse. As a result, I predict the top skill for the future of work is being able to communicate across differences. People who can respect, navigate and celebrate diversity will be the leader others follow. Lastly, social media has made getting information instantaneous and more transparent. The same will apply to the workplace. Salary transparency laws across states in the U.S. are a perfect example. We’ll have more of a push for real-time, authentic communication from our leaders.

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

We get to create the future of work ourselves! It feels like we are at a pivotal time in the history of modern work, where everything we do can be creative, and we can shape the future. I am so inspired by companies coming up with creative ways to meet the current challenges of the day — like retail companies that have implemented creative part-time work schedules to attract parents or students.

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?

The most innovative strategies start with rethinking what wellness at work means. It has evolved from obvious things like yoga and healthy snacks to trying to gain a deeper understanding of how work is designed and what the employee experience is, overall. Companies can best address well-being by understanding the current pain points, frustrations and barriers for their teams to do their best work, log off at a decent hour and feel psychologically safe. Once you understand that, you can mitigate and reduce these pain points. For example, we implemented a policy at GCI Health in the U.S. to limit internal meetings on Friday afternoons. Many of us block our calendars to avoid getting swept into meetings. This small step allows us to end the week on a productive note and enter the following week smoother, which is a great step toward better wellness at work.

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?

A few things. First, these trends have always been here, and now we just have marketing terms for them to start a global conversation, which they are doing! Second, we should have been talking about these things more openly years ago, and now it’s more acceptable and expected that we pay closer attention to why and how we work. Third, there is no right way to be when it comes to our relationship with work. It’s like telling a group of people there is one right way to be in a marriage. It doesn’t make sense. As leaders, the best thing to do is stay curious and be open to different ways of working — you may even benefit from what you learn!

Companies put their foot on the gas during the pandemic on evolving DE&I and improving the employee experience. There is a concerning belief that with the economic downshift, there will be less focus on these areas. I believe the organizations that continue to center DE&I and their people will reap the rewards in the form of retention, engagement, innovation and business results.

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

  1. Soft skills will differentiate leaders and organizations: It’s well documented that employee engagement is declining, and many companies are wrestling with the question, “How can I keep my people motivated?” Soft skills, like creating a culture of empathy, are critical skills leaders will need to cultivate to reinvigorate employee engagement. This means more than just hearing and reflecting back what an employee is saying. Instead, it’s deep listening with the intent that the person speaking to you has the right answer. It’s a way of reframing listening — to listen with the pure intention that you value what has been said.
  2. More remote and hybrid work: This continues to be a big topic, and it’s coming back stronger as economic constraints drive companies to make new mandates. The companies that will win with employees will allow a bit of both and create strong, clear hybrid work policies. Companies must designate which days all team members will be in the office so everyone can get the most out of the experience. This has been one area where employers need to improve at setting clear expectations.
  3. DE&I competency: The murder of George Floyd was an inflection point for our nation and a catalyst for significant investments in DE&I by corporations. There have been rumblings that these departments will be hit first as budgets get cut. That’s disheartening, and it’s also bad business. Companies prioritizing DE&I will have a competitive edge because communicating across differences will be a critical leadership skill. We’ve made so many strides, and maintaining momentum is important now. When DE&I is embedded into corporate culture, it doesn’t just help one person or group. It benefits everyone and sends a message that all employees are valued and celebrated. A DE&I focus doesn’t take away from business results. It creates less turnover and motivates teams. It’s a slow burn and doesn’t happen overnight, but these investments pay off over time.
  4. Technology/AI: Technology and AI will help remove the administrative burden of daily work and free us up to do more impactful things. Managers will need to be prepared to lean out of operational things and into the things we’re uniquely able to do as humans. These things will help us get the work off our plate that’s not a value add. Despite the upside, some employers will be reluctant to trust the technology or unwilling to lean more deeply into human activities like getting employee feedback or talking with employees about career growth. This is an exciting trend because it’s taking over elements of our jobs that aren’t helping us grow or experience our full potential or creativity.
  5. Prioritizing skills over experience: We’re entering this environment where we’ll be less focused on an employee’s experience and will be more focused on their skills. I’m fascinated by companies that are future-proofing their organizations now by giving their employees the opportunities to learn skills that will be needed to drive their business forward. Rather than laying off your people and looking for new people with those skills, it’s better to invest in your people through training to create an embedded workforce that will drive the future of your business.

What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective?

I’m so lucky to have had mentors along my career journey. One mentor gave me a quote that ended up in one of my favorite TV shows, Mad Men: “Do the work.” I was at a point where I wanted a promotion that wasn’t available, and I was frustrated. My mentor told me to “do the work” for myself — not for a promotion or the company. Do the work as an investment in myself. She said, “No one can ever take away your experience.” This advice has changed how I view work — as I gain new experiences, I can take them with me everywhere I go.

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.

Bozoma Saint John. I recently read her book, The Urgent Life, and I loved reading her story, the ways she has navigated her life and the lessons learned along the way. It would be fantastic to have a meal with Bozoma and discuss career lessons and fashion (because we also need to have some fun!).

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’m on LinkedIn, posting what I read and learn. I welcome a good conversation on important topics like what we delved into today, and I also enjoy discussions on music, TV, movies and pop culture.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!