For many of us, the COVID years will be a time of reflection, a time when the disruption of it all provided an impetus to re-examine things we had been doing for so long that we had stopped questioning why we ever started doing them in the first place.

For many of us, that reflection focuses on our work: what we do, where and how we do it, and perhaps most significantly, why we do it.

Our NationSwell Council community members are no exception to this period of reflection. My fellow leaders are at the vanguard of innovation in the modern workplace, meeting the disruption in COVID’s wake with the pragmatic solutions our workforce needs in order to bring about our best future. 

I talked to my fellow Council members about what they’re doing to bring the future of work into our present. Here are the expert insights they’ve shared.

Acknowledge that many of your employees have gone through a personal reset and are re-examining everything, including work.

In many instances, the reset began on an individual level — almost as if we all became aware that this crisis was too important to waste. We started questioning ourselves: parents, forced to homeschool their children, started rethinking how and what their children were learning; people who, pre-pandemic, routinely travelled on business, learned to appreciate family meals on a regular basis; workers who hardly knew their neighbors and rarely saw them now wave at them out windows and across porches. 

For the first time, many people became much more present in their own lives.

“I think it’s an outgrowth of the fact that we had a really profound year,” Brad Kelsheimer, CFO of Lumina Foundation, said. “People have come to a more realistic grip with mortality. And so part of my reset is asking myself, ‘Who is the authentic me?’ And I’ve encouraged my team at Lumina — both my executive colleagues and also my team that reports up into me — to think, similarly, about what we learn about ourselves during this reset.”

From there, leaders can take the insight from their employees’ lived experiences and allow them to choose how they and you will co-create the future of work together.

“This feels like the very first time that all of us have been asked what we really want as workers,” Lexi Paza, Deputy Director of Real Estate and Operations at Tides, shared. “And the buildings, I mean, the physical plants that I manage, they now have to match and meet the person on what they want, and not the other way around.”

“We as people have been asked to bend to what the spaces in which we do our work can provide,” Lexi continued. “And for the very first time, I feel the power structure has reversed. Someone can say, ‘This is my safety. This is how I’ve been working best the last 18 months, because I was able to create an entire world around me. Can my workplace now match that?’”

“There’s now a thoughtfulness to the real estate, to the design, and to the health and wellness aspects of the physical workplace — and that’s all very new,” Arsha Cazazian-Clement, Director of Global Real Estate for Shearman & Sterling, shared. “I don’t think any companies felt forced to actually engage on a one-on-one basis with each employee to figure out how they work best. I think this past year has really shaken everyone, and employers are starting to realize that we are all individuals. And if you want talent, you have to understand that not all talent does the same thing, or thinks the same way, or is cut from the same cloth. If you want to innovate, you have to figure out how to support them.”

Listen to what your employees are telling you about what they need across all aspects of the workplace. 

One of the most significant upheavals has been the reversal of who has a voice in shaping the new world of work. In the past employers dictated where employees worked, what physical environment worked best for them and what role best suited the organization.

“I used this as an opportunity to springboard the conversation about how we actually design around people and what they want,” Arsha said. “It might seem obvious that we should design our offices for the humans who work there, but in most cases, that’s not usually what has happened. The dollars talk first.” 

“To design for humans, we really got entrenched in data; we started to appreciate the value of data,” Arsha continued. “And in order to extract that data, you first have to provide a safe haven for people to share their thoughts and ideas. We charged middle management with helping to obtain that genuine, sincere feedback that we were really hungry for so we could then bake it into our new space search, and bake it into the deployment of a workplace strategy that had been quite traditional over the past two decades.”

Continue making decisions from a place of shared humanity

To build community in the new world of work, be deliberate and intentional about recreating the best of what employees created at home while making sure to give them what they missed by not being in an office.

“We can all leverage this once in a lifetime opportunity to be more intentional about how we gather at work, ensuring it’s more fulfilling than simply cohabiting an office space or transacting on tasks,” Lucie Addison, Learning and Improvement Lead at Einhorn Collaborative, shared. “Our grantee partners have taught us ways to create moments of connection — everything from a two-minute question to kick off a meeting to sharing a moving experience together. Indeed, it will be more important than ever as we all navigate big changes. The challenges of the pandemic will not all melt away when we come back in person. The more connected, compassionate, and human we can be, the better equipped we’ll be to put our energy into the most mission-critical work. During times of uncertainty and change, relationships are what tether us.”

By focusing on the shared humanity of your workforce, you’ll build more cohesive teams — and emerge a better leader in the process.

“I definitely think that the pandemic has helped us be better leaders; it’s really emphasized the need for creating a strong unified purpose on the team and for being really clear,” Ron Martere, Vice President of Steelcase, said. “I think there’s been such a roller coaster with everything, and every industry has been affected. Coming back, there’s a need to build strong teams that are unified in purpose, that have clear expectations, that can deliver results, that understand not only their role but also what role their role plays in the overall organization’s success.”

The pandemic humanized workers and the workplace more than ever. Accept that you will make decisions that need to be changed. However, if you continue to give your employees a genuine voice in how they can thrive, your community will emerge stronger. Create a great work experience for your people, and they’ll want to come because they know they can learn there, they can get their work done better, and they can be more productive. They can feel that shared sense of purpose. You don’t do any of those things to your work environment, you’ll find it difficult to retain employees against the allure of other workplaces who are building for a human-centered future.

In reality, the future of work is now — and we are creating it together. The more voices, ideas and insights we bring to this conversation, the richer the dialogue and the options. Please reach out to us to be a part of this important ongoing conversation.