… Racial Reckoning: More people of color are growing angry that companies focus their diversity strategies on gender, and exclude racial diversity and equity measures. This has been going on for some time, and any DEI practitioner worth their salt knows exactly why. That time is up.

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 Xavier Ramey.

Xavier Ramey is a socio-civic leader and the CEO of Justice Informed, a social impact consulting firm based in Chicago, IL. Xavier is passionate about bridging the gap between what we as a society say we value and what we as a society do to materialize those values by working with corporations, non-profits, and individuals to address their discomforts around identities, race relations, and culture.

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 experience that shaped my leadership had to be when I took a personality test as a part of a fellowship program some years ago. The test stated that “this person lacks ambition.” At the time, I was a multi-award-winning speaker, social strategist, community developer, and globetrotting lover of life. My colleagues in the fellowship thought the result was ridiculous and told me to take it with a grain of salt. I’ve never avoided the mirror of challenging feedback. I took a few months to really interrogate that claim and at the end agreed that I lacked much ambition. I looked up the definition, read up on people I felt were ambitious, and journaled where I saw my ambition coming from and leading to. It was clear that ambition is something I lacked because ambition is about what YOU decide you will do and what MUST happen. I was never one to declare anything, despite my success. Nearly every job I’d had was because I was recruited by someone else who had ambition. Nearly every project and Board of Directors I was on was because someone else who had a vision saw my capacity and competency and asked me to join them. I had been a follower of excellent leaders who made me a better person, but I was not that leader. After much thought, and some years later, I took matters into my own hands and found my output for ambition: to launch Justice Informed to change the face of expertise and redefine the meaning of a business.

The greatest experience that shaped who I am socially and civically was definitely a trip I made to Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. When Mike Brown was killed by police officers that summer in August, I was transitioning from a role at the United Way of Metro Chicago as a program officer leading and distributing a $4m philanthropic portfolio to a job at the University of Chicago leading their Social Innovation and Philanthropy work. In no way did I see myself as an activist. Nor did I truly understand what it meant to use your very body to interrupt systems of harm and oppression in service of a community. I’d been volunteering and “giving back,” because that’s what I had been told was how you improve the world. But marching against police violence, and seeing hundreds of armored police cars and guns lined up on Florrisant and Canfield Avenue, all organized to stop us from saying and MEANING “Black Lives Matter”…well that taught me a quick lesson in what giving back and volunteering can never truly address: systemic injustice that is maintained by an interconnected network of economic injustice, residential segregation, and laws that “don’t see color” while disproportionately negatively impacting Black and Brown lives. I spent the next three years infusing organizing and direct action campaign work into my background in economics and massive professional network in Chicago. Eventually, it shaped the edge, brand, and tactics that I use today to influence and change how corporate, philanthropic, and nonprofit institutions engage in social change. That experience, whittled by others, has created the urgent definition and invitation that our consulting models at Justice Informed utilize to advance DEI and other types of organizational cultural change management practices.

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?

What will be the same? People will have a hard time engaging the complexity of how identity matters and shapes the work experience — not just the work product. For too long, personal identity and experience has been decoupled from personal production. It’d be nice to assume that the economists were right — that people are just labor units and we can accurately predict their actions as either producers or consumers of goods and services. But those economists and business theorists never factored in a global population of women, LGBTQIA+ persons, people of color, disabled persons and more that has the will and collective agency to resist AND redefine the norms that allowed for those theorists’ assumptions. What we are seeing today is the reshaping of the world of work and business. We are just seeing a slight gain in workplace inclusion and belonging today after nearly 50 years passing since the time the economist and master capitalist Milton Friedman coined the term “shareholder capitalism” (which then led to the incredible over-weighting of power for shareholders that we see now see and which has thus set the pace for DEI and belonging in workplaces to the stopwatch of people who only seek financial return for social progress). Now, nearly half a century later, an Earth nearly wrecked from a focus on work rather than place, and Black and Brown workers insisting that workplaces understand their five-to-nine impacts their nine-to-five…we see over a hundred massive companies push for “stakeholder capitalism.” Now we have “conscious capitalism” and “B-Corps” and “ESG” and more. What does this all say? It says that the price of SOCIAL costs are now being required upfront from businesses that have historically only focused on FINANCIAL costs. The positive impacts on communities, the workplace, and the workforce will be incredible if this continues to gain traction. You want to pay your workers a non-living wage and push those costs onto the government. Not for much longer. You want to keep a C-suite that has hardly any women or people of color. Wait until your diversity score comes out. Want to avoid conversations about employers’ responsibilities to protect LGBTQIA+ persons? Nope, your HREC number is going to get hit and your shareholders won’t like that. 10–15 years from now, we’re going to see a workplace and workforce that is far more rigorous, savvy, and expectant of demonstrated values, not just communicated values, for how identity can empower, transform, and complicate the work experience.

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

Start seeing the business as ALWAYS being in relationship with the natural environment, communities of people, and the history of the founding team. Future businesses must be accountable to more people than just owners and the strategy. Future businesses are accountable for being socially AND financially sustainable contributors to the world and its people.

Invest more in professional development. There is no way you’re going to get a manager who is excellent at their job serving clients and terrible at managing interpersonal conflicts within their team to improve with a 2 month performance plan and a set of $50 pre-recorded training on managing conflict. Increase your budgets.

Be ok with being flexible. I spoke with a Fortune 500 CEO just a few weeks ago (I am their executive advisor for DEI) and they said to me “Xavier, I’ve been in business for over 30 years and I have NEVER had this many things in flux before. Nothing can be predicted for more than 30 days out.” Nobody has a “best practice” for what every leader is facing. I remind our clients all the time to stop trying to only focus on “next steps.” What you need to consider is “what are the new steps?”

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?

I think this comes down to compensation, recognition, and contribution to culture. So many employees right now are demanding huge amounts of cash to come to work. Right now, unemployment is at historic lows and so labor supply is very tight, driving the cost of labor higher. But at the same time, inflation is skyrocketing to multi-decade highs, driving the value of those wages and goods/services sold down. Both sides are getting pinched in similar ways. In the coming years, I think we will start to see a change in how compensation is understood both for cash and non-cash payments. Additionally, benefits are going to go through a massive restructuring. One of the biggest questions I get asked by CHROs is how to shape their benefits programs to reflect the fact that every employee doesn’t need the same thing. Women often need different benefits than men. Trans persons need their employers to identify medical plans that specifically cover certain services they need that others may not. Black persons may need more mental health days than White employees due to the impacts of systemic racism and the inequitable burden they carry due to paying a premium for their mortgages and other products/services where loan capital is needed. In short, we need to right-size the world of compensation and benefits to be aware of what social equity requires: a specific solution for specific problems, in a world where many are speaking up to leadership but leadership is getting little guidance from the government, and their most expert leaders in HR don’t have a roadmap for these types of issues.

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

I think it is here to stay. Every company needs to have a vision, plan, and communication strategy for a permanent work experience that is onsite for some employees, virtual for others, and hybrid for some. I doubt we will ever return back to the “Everyone come to the office” era.

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?

Every company that has laptop or computer-managed jobs has to have a serious plan for a permanently hybrid workforce. For those who have jobs that require face-to-face (such as plant workers, delivery agents, medical practitioners, etc.) these companies have to have a plan for how to create similar opportunities for these employees that working from a remote location provides to remote employees’ quality of life (such as reduced time in transit, more time with family, more ability to travel, etc.).

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

I’m most optimistic about the future of work because I see more and more intergenerational conversations happening today in workplaces between Millennials and Gen X about workplace culture and business practices. These two generations are the primary ages in management and executive positions, and there is much that they can change about how business was done, to make it more aligned to what we are hearing from Gen Z.

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?

I think telehealth is really helping for mental health and wellbeing. Also, as people get more comfortable and desirous of using virtual meetings for more sensitive things, such as conversations about health, loss, performance, etc. it will allow for quicker responses from management and employers to their employee’s needs.

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?

People have the power right now. Every leader can see that. But bosses can’t. Leaders take the first lesson learned, bosses take the first payout. Companies have to start to tell the difference. There’s an old adage that goes “people don’t leave bad companies, they leave bad bosses” and I think that’s spot on. With so many people retiring, resigning, and reshuffling their relationship to work…how and when will your company see that its culture is a reflection of how its bosses refuse to lead?

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

  1. Hybrid, Remote, and On-site work strategies for 100% of employees: all employers will need to have a plan for all three in the coming years.
  2. Contractors Everywhere: as more people leave the workplace to launch businesses as single-owner-operator companies (to better control their time, wages, and family dynamics), they will be removing the in-house expertise for their field while also not returning to the general labor force. Over time, contractor budgets will have to increase significantly.
  3. ESG, CSR, DEI: these will increasingly become a conversation not only for large companies but small ones as well. To date, the scrutiny over social impact has largely only been for mega-companies. Less than 10% of companies under 125 employees (the US Small Business Association definition for a “small business” have a plan for social impact or DEI, yet these sized businesses employ over half of America.
  4. Racial Reckoning: More people of color are growing angry that companies focus their diversity strategies on gender, and exclude racial diversity and equity measures. This has been going on for some time, and any DEI practitioner worth their salt knows exactly why. That time is up.
  5. Virtual, Digital, and Remote: More businesses will be using technology to drive their businesses, and utilizing a global workforce to get it done.

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

“Lessons are learned when you didn’t listen to the principles, and they always cost more. Live by principles, not lessons.” I learned that from the first Black male billionaire I ever met, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Spiritually, its a call to wisdom — the type of intelligence that is always true. I lead my personal and professional life always asking myself if I am resisting something that is “situational or eternal.” Where it is eternal (meaning no person can change this issue, this is an issue of life itself…like gravity, or generational changes in business environments), I change my strategy to accept what I cannot change or leverage what is always an opportunity. Where it is situational, I assess whether I can and want to push through given the price of change.

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 love to sit down and talk life with Denzel Washington. You don’t get to that level of professional longevity, global respect, and mastery of craft without having a lot to share.

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