Upskilling — The digitalization of organizations requires an investment in ensuring employees have the skills and training needed to succeed in a digital world.

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 Stelter.

Susan Stelter is chief people officer at West Monroe, a digital consulting firm. Susan lives and breathes the award-winning, people-first culture. She spends her days leading the teams that attract, engage, and retain the best and brightest people so employees can create undeniable results for clients. She also oversees the firm’s inclusion and diversity initiatives. A member of the founding group of West Monroe, Susan has contributed to developing virtually every aspect of the firm’s operations. Under her leadership, the firm has been named one of the Best Workplaces for Millennials by Fortune and Great Place to Work® for four years in a row.

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 in Chicago, but my parents and my entire extended family are from Europe. Growing up, my parents were not afforded the same opportunities I had and were passionate about the importance and value of education, having a strong work ethic, and as they said, “making the most of every opportunity.”

My college experience was different than most. I worked full time while going to school full time. I had to make the most of every minute. As I approached graduation, I was about to accept an offer from an insurance company when I was invited to interview for a position with a consulting firm. To be honest, I really did not know much about the consulting industry. But in the spirit of making the most of every opportunity, I took the interview. As I went through the process, my desire for consulting grew. The opportunity to work on many different projects for a variety of companies was exciting. I ended up joining that consulting firm, Arthur Andersen, and spent almost 10 year there.

My decision to join that firm was pivotal. It’s where I learned about consulting, the impact culture and leadership can have in the success of a project or transformation, and it is where I met the people with whom I later started West Monroe. That was nearly 20 years ago, and we have grown from four to 2000+ people. So quite literally, making the most of every opportunity by saying yes to that interview and that job changed the course of my career and were the best decisions I’ve ever made.

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 always say I wish my crystal ball was so good I could see that far into the future. My prediction is that the pace of change will continue to accelerate, and that technology will continue to play an increasingly significant role. Just look at the past few years and how technology and consumers’ willingness to embrace it has changed. It has sped up the need for all of us to be more digital. That will be true for our future workforce as well. I also anticipate that companies will need to play a greater role in the development and upskilling of our workforce to ensure the workforce adapts as the business adapts.

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

It is an increasingly competitive talent market and one in which jobseekers have choices. When I look back on my own career, things are different today. When I was graduating, you looked for a role in which you could see yourself for five years. Today, people don’t just want a job, they want to join a place that aligns with their values, where they can have different experiences, and continue to learn and grow. They want to be fulfilled, not just engaged.

Within our firm, we start by focusing on the opportunity or value proposition we offer and how that connects with individuals in terms of experiences, how we invest in their development and even the environment. When employees join our firm, we ask them to write their “three-year letter” and share it with us. In that letter, they imagine themselves in the future — both personally and professionally — and articulate what it will take to get there and how those aspirations align to West Monroe’s as well. When you can combine those two things, that’s when people make a choice to stay and build a career.

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?

Most employers offer just jobs or roles, but people don’t want just a job. They want an environment where they can gain experiences and skills that also align with their values. During the job search, jobseekers typically read the job description posted online to get a sense of the role and company. But what they really want to know is the experiences they will gain, what the culture feels like and how much latitude they’ll have to grow.

This next generation wants to feel fulfilled at their place of work, so they need to see the connection between an organization’s mission and their own individual goals and mission. Companies want longevity. It behooves us all to have people stay in roles longer. They get better at those roles. Work becomes more efficient. Ensuring employees feel fulfilled with enriching experiences will increase longevity.

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

We know from our own polling of C-Suite executives that the future of work is a hybrid model. It’s harder to differentiate company culture when that culture is remote. Companies must elevate the employee experience by thinking about how to bring people together so when they do, it’s meaningful and not wasteful. We’ve gotten to the point where we prefer to not commute unless there is real value and so the concept of having in-person meetings needs to feel different and worthwhile.

I also think some business travel will continue to be evaluated. There are times when a live meeting can allow you to be more productive and grant you time to really listen to different perspectives, and even provide an opportunity to connect on a personal level — in those moments, it is enriching. But I also remember exhausting day trips and missing important family and personal life events. I hope one of the lasting impacts of this hybrid world is that it allows us to elevate the experience when we get together and provide options so that we can spend those important days at home when we need to.

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?

This new “future of work” doesn’t work for everyone. We often make it sound as though everyone has the benefit to work from home, but many professions don’t have that luxury. In fact, there’s a huge inequity and those working on the frontlines and other professions have a very different experience than the rest of us.

For those able to work either hybrid or remote, it is critical that everyone has access to the technology needed for their roles and future roles. Companies are being forced to move at a rapid pace to become more digital. Tools like Zoom have allowed us to continue working — but they aren’t without their challenges. Meeting fatigue is real, and the technology isn’t quite there. To truly become digital, organizations will have to invest in the latest and greatest technology to make working from home easier and more efficient.

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

There’s a lot to be optimistic about! It’s ironic because if you asked every leader before the pandemic if remote work could work, everyone would have said, “no and it will take forever to adopt this model.” The pandemic really expedited the rate of change and people’s willingness to accept and thrive in the work-from-home model.

We also have come to the collective realization that work as we know it will never go back to the way it once was, so we’ve all had to evolve as people and organizations. We’ve seen so many examples of leadership teams demonstrating more empathy, flexibility, and intention. And as work and life became intertwined like never before, we saw the importance of finding meaning in our work and organizational cultures.

That’s why the concept of embracing digital and elevating the employee experience is so important. I am excited to see how this continues to play out in the future of work.

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 employees’ mental health and wellbeing?

During the pandemic, everyone acknowledged that burnout is very real. We can see it in one another, and how it affects productivity as well as our own families. We need to ensure that people are taking the time and the space that they need. But working from home doesn’t necessarily make it easier. We must be much more intentional about protecting our time and respecting other people’s time as well.

One of the positive outcomes from the pandemic is the focus on mental health within organizations and the acknowledgement that mental health is everyone’s issue. We all faced tough times during the pandemic, which acted as a catalyst for companies to consider mental health as part of their full wellness program, which is great.

But mental health is complex and personal — the most innovative approaches don’t assume there’s a “one size fits all” solution or strategy that works for everyone. My organization surveyed 150 business executives late last year to better understand their thoughts on mental health in the workplace. When we asked what solutions or strategies would be most beneficial, the top responses were different for each job level. “The designated no meetings day” or time for workouts during the day that one person might find most useful isn’t even on another person’s radar.

At West Monroe, we expedited our focus by providing safe spaces to talk about mental health, ensuring our HR partners had the right training to help our people recognize the signs of mental health issues and provide the needed resources. We also invested in outside speakers, tools like Headspace and created an employee-led wellness committee. However, we know we, like other organizations, have much more to do!

Companies are well-intended in their desire to support employees’ mental health. And it’s not necessarily about what’s most innovative — but are companies listening to what their employees say they really need?

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?

The most important message is that right now, it isn’t about people quitting their job and opting out of work — they’re choosing alternatives that bring them more purpose from their work, better personal and career growth opportunities, and what fits their idea for work/life balance. Millennial (and Gen Z) talent are the future of our workforce and retaining this generation’s top talent will be a key competitive advantage for every business. Now is the time for employers to really listen to their workforce, establish genuine connections with them, and find new ways to help them feel fulfilled and achieve their goals.

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

  • Fulfillment as the great motivator — Employees will continue to want it all from their work — career advancement, meaningful work and flexibility. And attracting and retaining talent will require creating an experience where individuals can achieve personal and professional fulfillment. At West Monroe, one tactic we’ve long employed is helping our people create their own Career Board of Directors, an idea we borrowed from Jan Torrisi-Mokwa’s Building Career Equity. Just as a company looks to its board for guidance, we encourage our people to become CEO of their own careers and create their own Board — a diverse group of people of their choosing who can advise them on their career choices, personal goals, opportunities, and trajectory. We’ve also embraced the practice of allowing people to shift departments and functions to get the experiences they crave. For example, one employee started in our marketing department, then moved to our customer solutions practice as a consultant and later moved to our M&A practice as a director. Why let great people leave when you can help them find fulfillment within your company?
  • Digital, digital, digital –The pandemic undoubtedly accelerated digital transformation initiatives that were already underway making it not just a “nice to have” but a “must have.” Companies that will succeed in the world ahead will be those that truly become digital.
  • Deep listening becomes operationalized — The past two years moved corporate leaders to listen to employees in newly intimate ways. Through our shared experiences — the pandemic, civil unrest, political upheaval, to name a few — we found greater empathy for one another. As we plan for the reality of a new hybrid workplace, we can’t let that deep listening go by the wayside. Organizations will need to operationalize ways to regularly receive employee feedback. My company asks our employees 20 questions twice a year to gauge their sentiment about growth opportunities, their confidence in leadership, and other factors to build an overall sense of their fulfillment. But the conversation can’t stop there. Once you listen, you have to act, and communicate your efforts transparently to employees.
  • More investment in employee mental well-being — We will never again talk about employee well-being without an emphasis on mental health. Organizations have more work to do to ensure they’re offering programs that meet the individual needs of employees. And managers will need to be better skilled in understanding the signs of burn out and stress.
  • Upskilling — The digitalization of organizations requires an investment in ensuring employees have the skills and training needed to succeed in a digital world.

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?

“Leadership is all about people. It is not about organizations. It is not about plans. It is not about strategies. It is all about people-motivating people to get the job done. You have to be people-centered.” — Colin Powell

Today, every single company is a people company and a digital company. But you must motivate your people to get the results that you want, and technology helps advance that.

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 wish it could have been Colin Powell! He was one of the greatest leaders of my time and handled some of the most challenging situations. Being a leader is a tremendous responsibility and our greatest opportunity is to inspire people and connect them to what we’re doing. There are few people who did that better than him.

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?

Connect with me on LinkedIn. And if you want to read more about our thoughts on the future of work, please check out West Monroe’s Future of Work hub.

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