Young people and their willingness to stand up, speak out and walk out. These incoming generations have the tools, and the success stories, to hold companies accountable, whether as employees or customers. It’s actually really fun to watch.

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 Susan Hunt Stevens.

Susan Hunt Stevens is the Founder & CEO of WeSpire, an award-winning employee experience technology that drives environmental, social, and governance (ESG) outcomes by engaging people in activities that align with their passion and purpose. Susan has an MBA from The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, where she was named a Tuck Scholar, and graduated with high honors from Wesleyan University, in addition to being named an EY Entrepreneur of the Year for New England, a Woman of Influence by the Boston Business Journal, and to the Environmental Leader 100 list.

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.

When I was 7 years old, my younger brother was adopted from Korea. He was 4 years old and had been a street child before being turned in at a police station by some nuns who were worried about his health and safety. I grew up in Eastern Washington state, not far from where white supremacist groups were headquartered in Idaho. Growing up in a mixed-race family certainly opened my eyes to the ways that both children and adults could be downright cruel based on the color of your skin, and the concept of white privilege (even if those weren’t the words we used at the time). My daughter is also adopted from Asia and while the community we live in is much more diverse and yes, people are much more aware now of racism and bias, I’m still shocked sometimes by things that are said to her. Many people are unaware of the particular challenges that the AAPI community faces, particularly now. These experiences have certainly motivated me to be passionate about building more inclusive, equitable cultures.

The other experience that has influenced my life and career is when my 2-year-old son (at the time, he’s now 18!) ate a cashew and experienced anaphylactic shock. It was terrifying and reading food labels was my on-ramp to being more aware of ingredients, where food comes from, and other aspects of environmental sustainability. The changes we were making to our food, our home, our cars, and our habits to be healthier and more sustainable were very much the original catalyst for WeSpire.

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?

10–15 years. If I could predict, well, that far out, I’d have a future in financial forecasting on Wall Street! More seriously, I think there are three megatrends that will influence the workplace in ways we can’t even begin to truly understand. The first is digital transformation and the rate of innovation that drives companies and industries. Many estimate that the pandemic accelerated these trends by 3–5 years. I expect that there will be a lot more disruption, and opportunity, related to virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and the decentralization of finance. Much of it will be positive but like every major innovation and change, there are winners and losers. I think people who are designers, builders and strong influencers/salespeople will thrive. I think we will have a lot fewer people driving trucks and cars, checking people out of stores or into hotels and restaurants, and a lot more robots doing manual, repetitive work.

The second is the very challenging reality that we are not doing enough, today, to maintain 1.5 degrees centigrade of warming. What happens as we approach 2 and 3 degrees is really bad. We are already seeing the impact that 1 degree is having on business and society with the disruption of floods, droughts, hurricanes, and fires increasing all over the world. Can you imagine it exponentially worse?

The third is who, generationally, is working and where they are. First, the boomer generation is retiring. The talent shortage is driven, in part, by the acceleration of retirement in that cohort. Second, women dropped out of the workforce in extraordinary numbers during the pandemic and that exposed just how poorly matched our care systems — elder and child — are for working people, particularly mothers. Third, knowledge workers are now able to work almost anywhere in the US or even the world remotely, but our systems — from immigration to taxes — are not aligned to this workforce dynamics. But companies can much more easily source globally for talent. What happens when instead of immigrating, an engineer in Nigeria can make a highly competitive wage working for a global company while staying in his or her hometown. Those funds would previously have supported the local economy where he or she moved. Now they go abroad. What are the societal implications of those fund flows, both in and out, at scale?

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

You can’t “future proof” an organization. What you can do is build a highly resilient, adaptable, innovative culture that sees change before others and has rapid processes for changing to take advantage of the opportunities and manage the risks that emerge. I think that is one of the reasons why companies with strong ESG programs outperform those that do not. ESG, when done well, is a very systemic way to look at the risks and opportunities across important factors like environment, diversity, community impact, and governance structures.

I also think leaders need to realize that culture and engagement is the last area for truly significant financial improvement. We would never let websites be down 70% of the time or hotel rooms be 70% unoccupied. But we accept as unchangeable a 30% engagement rate? That’s completely fixable. Hard, but fixable. And when you do fix it, it will give you an extraordinary advantage.

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?

Employees want inclusive, equitable, impactful workplaces and employers don’t always know the best path to get there. Well-managed, purpose-driven companies on the culture front will win, but it’s easy to say that and much harder to walk the walk. Of course, financial rewards and being part of something successful will always motivate, but ultimately, people want to be part of something bigger and have meaning and purpose tied to their workplace. Those companies who manage just for financial outcomes will lose out to those who combine financial success with impact. And when done well, impact can be that driver of financial success.

What I see is just that managing and leading people is hard and most of us aren’t taught how to do it very well. We learn by watching others, attend some courses or seminars and try our best. It takes a commitment to a life of learning, feedback, and improvement for leaders to become great leaders. We put too many people in roles without that feedback and training and cycle of improvement and then wonder what went wrong.

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

The remote workplace is not going away. The data shows only 6% of employees want to go back every day. Meet your employees where they are. It’s not a one size fits all for all employees, so employers that embrace this concept will thrive.

Also, have trust in your employees! The most critical skill for leaders to embrace is to lead by setting and monitoring progress towards objectives and results, not managing “showing up”. It requires balancing trust and empowerment with outcomes and accountability.

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?

I think we need to decouple a few fundamentals, especially here in the US, from being so tied to an employer to enable more flexibility and frankly more security for people. Number one on my list is actually health care. I think we need to ask hard questions about why health care and employment is so tightly coupled. It creates such bizarre behavioral impacts, the system is unfair to small businesses and their employees, and has profound privacy implications, as the overturn of Roe v. Wade has highlighted so dramatically. On the employer side, you are competing globally against companies who do not have to fund healthcare which creates a material economic disadvantage for having employees, which is one reason companies rely on large quantities of contractors. That in turn makes employment less secure and more expensive for the individual because they have to cover the employer portion of taxes. It makes entrepreneurship more challenging.

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

Young people and their willingness to stand up, speak out and walk out. These incoming generations have the tools, and the success stories, to hold companies accountable, whether as employees or customers. It’s actually really fun to watch.

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?

Leaders are increasingly recognizing the need for employees to feel psychologically safe within the workplace, but more companies need to prioritize it. When employees don’t feel safe, they tend to leave for a place where they will. As leaders drive more psychological safety in the workplace, they’re in turn helping to drive more inclusivity and gender equity across their organization. And there’s also a strong business case — research shows that the teams with the highest levels of psychological safety are the highest performing teams. As employers today develop their workplace mental health strategy, it must include ensuring that their employees can show and employ themselves without fear of negative consequences.

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?

Today’s leaders need to take meaningful steps to activate purpose in the workplace as they reflect on the latest trends and headlines. That can take many different shapes and needs to align with a company’s mission and values, but organizations of any size can implement engaging, purpose-driven ESG programs — mobilizing employees around carbon emission reductions, offering paid time off for volunteering or on-the-job learning and training opportunities, to name just a few. Workplace activation drives engagement, retention, and impact, as long as it is consistent and authentic.

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.