Learn to recognize the symptoms of burnout (e.g., higher stress, loss of motivation, negative personality change, sense of helplessness) and how to address it.

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 Robin Erickson, PhD.

Robin Erickson, PhD, is Vice President, Human Capital at The Conference Board and leads the development of research insights across all functions of human capital. Prior to joining The Conference Board, she was a research analyst at Bersin and a talent strategies consultant at Deloitte and other consulting firms. She holds a PhD in organizational communication and change from Northwestern University.

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.

After 10 years in various management consulting roles, I decided I needed some formal education to support my career. The Northwestern University Master’s of Science in Communications program started shortly after 9/11 and that event indelibly changed the course of my life. In February 2002, I chose to write a paper about how poorly organizations were treating employees who were not laid off and predicted a resume tsunami after the recession. I found there was very little academic research on survivors of downsizing apart from survivor guilt and decided that I would like to pursue research on the engagement and retention of downsizing survivors. I finished my master’s and obtained my doctorate working with the same professor. Since then, I’ve been able to research and write about how employees were treated during two subsequent crises — the Great Recession and COVID-19.

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?

The same: Most of us will still need to or want to work.

Different: Most of the work that we do will be different than the work we do today given the warp speed of technological evolution. I expect artificially intelligent platforms will allow the automation of even more routine tasks (we already have cupcake ATMs and drones delivering packages). Humans will use more creative and behavioral skills. And I expect the workplace to be anywhere for most knowledge workers.

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

Care about your employees as much (if not more) than you care about your customers and shareholders. Make them feel valued. Hire workers with the potential to learn quickly and continuously teach them new skills. Proactively create organizational systems and processes that are flexible in order to adapt to the constantly changing prevailing winds.

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?

After having their worlds turned upside down with very little notice at the outset of COVID-19, most employees are looking for flexibility in the hours they work and in the places they work. Offering flexibility is difficult for some leaders as it places some of the control they previously held in the hands of employees. But ultimately, you can’t have flexibility without trust — and creating trust (or the lack thereof) can make or break a leader. Employers should allow workers as much flexibility as possible in terms of schedule and work location (note the appeal of ridesharing comes from the fact that drivers choose which hours they want to work by sampling turning on and off an app when they’re available).

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

Hybrid work (part at the workplace, part remotely) is here to stay and will be one of the most significant organizational legacies of COVID-19. For more than two years, The Conference Board has predicted that a lasting repercussion of the pandemic will be remote work. It’s not that remote work is new, but its usage will become widespread and endemic — much like the pandemic. This development is important not only because remote work has proven successful through our survey analysis, but also its prevalence means a fundamental shift in the way work is done, by whom, where, and when. This will lead to adjusted practices as well as shifts in employee-employer relationships.

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

The indomitable spirt of humanity to confront and overcome challenges.

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?

First, learn to recognize the symptoms of burnout (e.g., higher stress, loss of motivation, negative personality change, sense of helplessness) and how to address it.

Second, create both flexibility and boundaries. Just because the technology exists to enable employees to work days, nights, weekends, and vacations (think smart phones), humans cannot continuously work with no rest or relaxation or they burn out. Employees want flexibility but they need to be told that it’s ok not to work on weekends or their vacations.

Third, avoid the tendency to “do more with less” in pursuit of higher profitability as it too will cause burnout. Engaged employees want their organizations to be successful and will apply discretionary effort to lean in when a colleague leaves or the organization’s survival is threatened. However, having leaned in farther and farther, many employees’ workloads become so heavy that their leaders assume they can continue to do the work of multiple people and don’t fill open positions. Often, these talented employees will quit in order to simply survive, only to be replaced by multiple people (because no one person would willingly take on such a load). Managers should regularly monitor their employees’ workload to ensure it is accomplishable.

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?

My favorite name is the “Great Escape” coined by the founder of Fuel 50. I believe that we will look back on the last 2+ years and find that, with less hustle and bustle, many people had the chance to reflect and made personal changes in alignment with what is most important to them, e.g., laid off workers who have gotten an online degree or found a side hustle that provides enough income with the flexibility they need, two working parent households that have learned they are happier with only one working parent, seniors who have finally decided to retire just to avoid the current uncertainty. Right now, we’re seeing employees vote with their feet to choose their desired levels of flexibility.

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?

For work, my favorite quote is “Begin as you mean to go on.” Many workers start a new job and feel like they have to “pay their dues” to prove their value, leading them to heroic levels of productivity that are unsustainable in the long term. I admit that I haven’t always followed this advice but have seen the success of following it.

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 would really love to have a private lunch with Bono. Not only am I a huge fan of U2 (been to every concert!) but, more importantly, I’ve been incredibly impressed with Bono’s desire to tangibly change the world through social activism and philanthropy. Bono’s success as an entertainer and his charismatic personality have garnered him audiences with leaders around the world and the One Campaign and (Red) have saved millions of lives. I also admire Bono’s ability to unabashedly own his religious faith without being pietistic even when many have tried to convince him to secularize. My all time favorite life lesson quote comes from Les Miserables, “to love another person is to see the face of God” and I believe that Bono has embodied that sentiment in his desire to make real change happen for the disadvantaged.

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?

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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.