Policies are not enough — the future of work requires mindset changes as well.

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 Sara Ross.

Sara Ross is an international keynote speaker, founder, and chief vitality officer at the leadership research firm BrainAMPED. Sara’s mission is to transform the future of work by using the power of brain science to amplify organizational vitality, helping people work, lead, and succeed in healthy, high-performing, human-centric ways. She is the author of Dear Work: Something Has to Change.

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.

The power of questions never ceases to amaze me. This isn’t a story I have shared before but, looking back, it has dramatically shaped my values and thinking when it comes to how we create healthy workplaces and how we work in meaningful, energizing ways.

This conversation resulted from getting kicked out of a high school basketball game after I fought for a jump ball a little too aggressively, resulting in my opponent being launched off her feet and tossed across the court. Though my parents weren’t at the game, I grew up in a small town so I knew they would hear about it. I knew it would be better if it came from me.

Needless to say, they were not pleased and agreed with me being ejected from the game. While I was initially frustrated, I was also embarrassed. I then shared that the assistant coach had told me I was just too competitive and needed to learn to be less so. I was fully expecting my parents to agree, but my dad immediately responded in a way that I’ve never forgotten.

He said, “Being competitive isn’t wrong — it’s part of what makes you you — but was that the best you today?”

“No,” I replied.

“Did it help your team?” he asked.

“No,” I replied again.

“So, instead of trying to be less competitive, what do you need to do more of in the next game?”

Essentially, he was saying it’s okay to want to win the game, but how you play the game also matters. The question wasn’t contingent on me being less of myself; instead, it challenged me to focus on becoming a fuller version of myself.

A few years ago, when I found myself consumed by my work and on the road to burnout, a well-intentioned friend told me I was too invested in my career. I felt the familiar twang of both frustration and embarrassment. At that moment, I reflected on the questions my parents asked me: “Is the way I am working allowing me to bring my best, and is it serving the bigger goal?” The answer on both fronts was no. However, the solution wasn’t to be less committed and invested but to realize that being committed to my work differs from being consumed by it. We don’t feel less burned out by dimming down what drives and inspires us. Instead, we need to focus on leveling up the areas that help those elements shine.

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’m not sure anyone can predict the future of work — especially a decade or more out. However, I believe we can safely assume that the pace of change and level of uncertainty will not decrease. There is also little doubt that technology will significantly impact the future work, including expanding (or entirely removing) the boundaries around how and where we work.

My area of interest is in human behavior, and from that perspective, what I am confident will continue to be true of people is that human connection and meaningful work will be essential contributors to our health, happiness, and sense of life fulfillment. As we look to the future, we must continue exploring and experimenting with utilizing smart technology to match our human needs with organizational needs. In particular, we must consider how technology can lend itself to organizations taking a more holistic approach to creating healthier, human-centric workplaces — even when a brick-and-mortar building no longer defines a workplace.

What I hope we will have learned in the future is that the best way to drive business outcomes is to invest in a culture that supports the mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health of its employees, not one that drives business outcomes at the cost of individual well-being and a healthy organizational culture.

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

I would start by suggesting organizations shift from thinking about “future-proofing” themselves to “future-readying” themselves. The words we use matter, as they become the mental filter through which we make decisions and perceive the world. As such, the idea of future-proofing ourselves can result in a defensive — even combative — frame of mind, which leads people to hold onto approaches that have worked in the past. For example, strategies for engagement and aligned workflow in 2019 are very different from how we will successfully do that in 2023 and beyond.

The future, and the change it will inevitably bring, is not the enemy. What we can do is ready ourselves to work best in the future, to take on the changes, and to build solutions that allow organizations and their people to thrive. From this perspective, building a healthy culture is the best way to future-ready an organization. A healthy culture is one in which it is safe for people to test and stretch ideas and themselves, and accountability and transparency are the expectations, empathy is the currency of connection, and trust is the benchmark of success. These are robust future-readying approaches.

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?

As I’m writing this, the return-to-office movement is a hotly debated topic. A simple synopsis of the situation is that executives generally want employees back in the office more, and employees want to work from home more. Both sides have convincing data and reasons backing their desires. But when it comes to closing the gap between what an organization wants and what the employees want, both sides seem to have fallen into the very natural trap of confusing their preferences for their principles — by that, I mean confusing what they want for what they need to be successful.

Differentiating preferences from principles requires three things:

1) Curiosity — Understanding the gap requires an empathetic open mind. Start by recognizing where you are jumping to conclusions and judgments and replace those with questions about the other side’s perspectives, concerns, and beliefs.

2) Consideration — Bridging the gap means listening to all answers and considering all available information. You don’t need to agree, but you do need to attempt to understand the data and perspectives presented to you even when they’re uncomfortable, or perhaps especially when they’re uncomfortable.

3) Conversations — Closing the gap requires two-way dialogue, which is how you put curiosity and consideration into action. Even if an agreement isn’t reached during the conversation, when people have a voice, feel understood, and feel valued, they are more willing to contribute to finding a solution together regardless of which side of the gap they stand on

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

To start, while working from home can be more comfortable and result in higher productivity for many people (provided people have a quiet, dedicated, energizing space to work from), it can strain the sense of connection between people. As such, leaders must redefine their role as orchestrators tasked with creating alignment and optimizing connections between people, particularly when they’re together in person. They will need to be more strategic about ensuring that in-person time is used for things best done face-to-face, such as collaborative and creative teamwork and celebration.

Secondly, we are learning that when it comes to creating a healthy culture, we must accept that behaviors, conversations, and work conditions form cultures. Simply put, culture lives in the hearts of people, not in the walls of where they work.

Finally, the pandemic has forced organizations to reconsider how they evaluate, facilitate, and optimize work. With technological advances, the boundaries between work and life are becoming non-existent. Thriving in such environments will require letting go of old beliefs and practices (such as expecting people to be available 24/7) and taking on new mindsets and approaches (supporting people to live a full life outside of work as well). This does not just apply to organizations; self-leadership has never been as important or necessary as it is now.

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?

There are so many societal changes that we need to address, including the lack of mental health resources, the pressure our young people are feeling to succeed academically, the influence of technology blurring the lines between work and life, the instability of millions of peoples’ work schedules and security, the need for paid sick leave and wage equities — and the list goes on.

While these are daunting challenges that require major societal shifts, we need to accept on an individual level that change is uncomfortable, hard, long work, and that it’s usually scary and almost always inconvenient. Despite all these things, we need to move towards change anyway.

Second, we must accept that empathy, or lack thereof, is one of the biggest impediments to change. Empathy, or the willingness to withhold judgment and seek understanding, does not require agreement but does require asking more questions and truly listening to all the answers. Empathy will help us understand and prioritize the need of others as well as establish policies and practices that serve the health, well-being, and financial security of our society at large.

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

First, I am optimistic that workplaces realize there is more than one way to get work done. Including flexible working models will allow for more inclusive environments and a diversity of talent, not to mention reducing things like carbon emissions.

Second, I am optimistic about organizations recognizing that healthier, happier people create healthier, happier workplaces. As opposed to simply focusing on productive output, more workplaces are prioritizing the creation of connection-focused cultures where people feel they can bring their whole selves to work, and where their well-being matters as much as their work. These efforts will undoubtedly have a ripple effect on employees’ families and our society at large.

Third, I am optimistic that the tides are shifting towards more emotionally intelligent workplaces. Instead of simply rewarding individual high performance, especially when it comes at a cost to others, organizations are redefining high performance to include rewarding people who raise the collective potential of those around them to achieve goals together.

Finally, I am optimistic that we are slowly reconciling discriminatory practices and biased systems. While we have a very long way to go, the needle is moving in the right direction

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?

A list of impactful yet reproducible strategies include:

  • Investing in ergonomic home office set-ups and equipment for employees.
  • Making healthier and more diverse food selections available in the workplace.
  • Providing access to online therapists and coaches.
  • Establishing company-wide meeting-free times to allow people to address work without distractions or perception concerns.
  • Proactively offering additional time off following large projects that require intense, long hours — independent of allotted vacation time.
  • Outsourcing resources and cross-training to support employees who are on vacation without increasing the workload of their team members.
  • Including volunteer opportunities that align with the organization’s purpose and mission.
  • Offering comprehensive childcare and compassionate care leaves.
  • Rearranging office space to maximize access to natural light, especially in meeting and collaboration spaces.
  • Establishing functions specifically designed to manage and support the well-being of the organization’s people.

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?

It is undeniable that the pandemic has caused people to re-evaluate their relationship with work — not just the work they do but how that work is done, and what they do outside of work for fulfillment as well.

Well before the pandemic, and certainly during it, many people felt stuck in the perpetual cycle of overworking and under-living, sacrificing their health, well-being, and relationships while allowing work to consume their entire identity.

In the era of work-life blur, organizations will be more successful if they support their employees to work in a healthy way versus a way that is predicated on sacrifice-based trade-offs. They will benefit from supporting their employees to establish a multidimensional identity based on interests and hobbies outside of work versus a work-centric one. And finally, to create work systems that allow their employees to live a full life outside of work, which they can support by motivating employees to take their PTO, establishing after-work communication policies, and applauding people for their stellar boundaries, not just their tireless work.

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

1) Redefining the role of a leader and the expectations we have of overburdened middle management.

“I feel like I’m constantly in a pressure cooker.” This is how one person responded to my organization’s 2022 survey assessing the ripple effect of the pandemic on people in middle management roles. Everyone has been impacted by the past few years of uncertainty, stress, and fear, and yet, the burden on middle management has been exceptionally heavy. They are the ones tasked with implementing and managing return-to-work and/or flexible work policies. Add to this the rising expectations for well-being support from their direct reports and the increasing demands of their role from senior executives, middle management is feeling the pressure from above and below — which is leaving them overtaxed, under-resourced, out of their depth, and exhausted.

Executive leaders must rethink their expectations of managers and reskill them to meet those expectations successfully. While there is a lot of talk of employee disengagement, most managers I work with are committed to their work and want to make a positive contribution but are asking for help, and executive leaders need to answer that call. If not, we will continue to see passionate, dedicated leaders who care about their teams and are invested in their industries feeling like the only way to get a reprieve from the pressure is to leave altogether.

2) Addressing workload/well-being balance.

The good news is that well-being issues have become a part of our global dialogue. And while initiatives such as stress management training to address health and well-being in the workplace are essential, more than individual strategies are needed to address these challenges on a cultural level.

For example, suppose an organization offers employees productivity training, including instructions on how to time-block their calendars to ensure that both high-value work and breaks are prioritized. On the surface, this seems helpful. However, suppose that same organization fails to address its culture of excessive meetings, making this at best a redundant skill and at worst sending the message that employees should be blocking out personal time to get work done.

In truth, individual initiatives are easier to implement and measure. Collective change is much more difficult, which is why organizations need to honestly ask themselves if they want to be able to check a box or if they are committed to reshaping their culture with organizational changes.

3) Policies are not enough — the future of work requires mindset changes as well.

“Chalk it up to a career-limiting move.” This is how a client of mine described telling his boss that he would not be able to participate in a newly proposed 7:00 AM Tuesday call with a Paris-based vendor because he had shared custody of his kids that day. His boss responded, “Can’t you just shift days with your ex-wife?”

Whether caring for children or caring for a loved one due to illness, injury, or aging, employed people in caregiving roles are steadily growing. And yet a disproportionate amount of the work is still being done by women. An article by the Government of Canada puts it best: caregiving is essential for human well-being and sustainable economic growth but is often highly gendered, overlooked, and undervalued. Around the world, 42% of women can’t secure jobs because they are responsible for caregiving. During the pandemic, women quit their jobs at higher rates than men, largely due to burnout because of caregiving/domestic labor. There is no shortage of compelling statistics proving that change is needed. The future of work will need to include better family support policies, from childcare and paternity leave to employee benefits. However, it’s not only policies that need to change; we are long past a time when one spouse worked and the other took care of all the domestic needs. As demonstrated in the opening story, we must also address the underlying cultural issues and mindsets around caregiving.

4) Emphasizing in-connection time rather than in-person time.

As a professional speaker who has the honor to work with organizations on events such as annual conferences, I experience firsthand the value of in-person time and connection. However, an important distinction is needed: this connection is not a result of attending an event in person, but of the experiences created while attending the event. Some of the most connection-filled events I have been involved with occurred virtually in 2020 and 2021, demonstrating that you don’t need to be in person to create the experience of connection.

As we move into a hybrid future of work, we need to stop focusing on being in person and get more creative, strategic, and skillful at fostering relationships that allow us to work in connection with others, whether virtually or together in person.

5) Shifting the conversation from “future of work” to “quality of life.”

There’s no question that work is changing; however, to truly meet employees where they are and engage them in the process of organizational change, leaders need to expand how they speak about the future of work.

I recently bumped into an old friend at the airport. Immediately, we acknowledged that we both still travel a lot for work — but when I asked her how things were going, her response was “Life is much better.” She shared how she’d moved closer to her family, as well as to the water. She had met her partner a decade earlier while ice fishing, and now because of their childcare support and proximity to the lake, they were able to take that shared hobby back up again.

To be clear, she works for one of the biggest athletic gear companies in the world and continues to ambitiously grow her career. The difference is that now it isn’t at the cost of her quality of life. As organizations think about talent management, including recruitment and retention, it is essential to realize that when people are making choices about their future, they aren’t thinking about the “future of work” — they are focused on the future of life, or more specifically, how workplace policy shifts influence their quality of life.

I followed up with my old friend a few weeks later and received my favorite out-of-office message to date: “While wi-fi might work out on the ice, I don’t. I’ll gladly respond to your message on Monday when I’m back in the office.”

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?

I will cheat a little because one that influences me regularly is actually the title of a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Wherever you go, there you are.” This quote shaped the concept of my new book, Dear Work: Something Has to Change, because the truth is, work doesn’t change, we change — and then together, we change work.

While we can change our circumstances, distract ourselves, and wait for others to address our needs, at the end of the day we need to do our own personal work. This personal work includes learning to understand ourselves, our emotions, our beliefs, and our responses. The fact is, we can’t get away from ourselves. The person you are most accountable for is yourself and, luckily enough, you have the greatest amount of influence over yourself.

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’d say no one person but, more broadly, the people involved in the World Economic Forum, as their goal is to bring businesses and key decision-makers from across society together to address the world’s most pressing issues. Sitting at breakfast with people whose actions (or inactions) have a profound ripple effect on the future of work is a breakfast I wouldn’t miss!

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?

You can check out my released book, Dear Work: Something Has to Change. You can also find me at saraross.com and stay updated through my Dear Work (news)Letter, as well as on the following social platforms:

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/sarajeanross

Instagram: @Sara_J_Ross

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