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4 Big Takeaways on the Future of Work from HR Transform

One thing's for sure: We're not going back to the way things were.

Contrary to how it may seem sometimes, the future of work won’t be determined by a LinkedIn poll or by Twitter decree from Elon Musk.

Instead, it will be determined by people—first, by the millions of workers who are now unafraid to tell us what they need from work. And second, by the executives and HR leaders who need to figure out how to meet those needs, and envision a post-pandemic future for their companies.

For a preview of this new future, I flew to Las Vegas for HR Transform, the first major HR conference since the pandemic began. The speaker lineup was filled with top CEOs and Chief People Officers from companies like Electronic Arts, TripAdvisor, and Microsoft. They’d provide a fascinating lens into how companies view the future of work: Will it be remote-first? Hybrid? Remote? A mix of full-time and part-time employees? Or in a few years, will we go back to the way things were before COVID rocked our world?

Over three days, that lens gave me a new view of what the future-of-work could look like—in a few big ways:

1. We’re not going back to the way things were

When Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon commanded his employees to go back to the office five days a week in late February, it seemed like an indication that a majority of companies would try to turn back the clock to February 2020.

In session after session at HR Transform, though, people leaders from market-leading companies across industries painted a very different picture.

Beth Grous, Chief People Officer at TripAdvisor, said that while there may be very vocal CEOs advocating for a return to the office, companies need to look at the data and what employees want.

In an internal Tripadvisor survey, 46 percent of employees said they never wanted to return to the office again, while another 42 percent said they wanted to come in one or two days a week.

“That's almost 90% of our workforce saying I'm going to minimize my time in the office,” said Grous. “So part of our shift is thinking about an office not being an obligation, but a destination. And something that entices people where the work is meaningfully better.”

Electronic Arts was 100 percent in-office before the pandemic, and highly values the magic and creativity that comes from in-person collaboration, said Mala Singh, Chief People Officer at EA. But they, too, are leveraging employee feedback to guide their decision-making.

"Part of our shift is thinking about an office not being an obligation, but a destination."

“The talent we need to power our business, their aspiration is to have ultimate flexibility,” said Singh. Feedback from employees has told EA’s leadership that their employees are more and more comfortable working from home—especially the highest-performing cohorts. “We don’t get to—as a company in a scarce talent environment—make a declarative statement that’s counter to what people want.”

For Tony Famous, CEO at Oyster, embracing remote work simply comes down to trust. “Why am I less productive if no one is literally eyeballing me? Why am I less productive if I don’t have to get into a car?” he asked. “It’s about trusting people to do their work autonomously. If you start from a place of trust, you get to a very different result, which is basically the distributed work proposition.”

2. The contract between employees and employers has been forever altered

Raphael Ouzan, co-founder and CEO at A.Team, argued that the relationship between companies and employees was forever altered when companies laid off employees in droves at the start of the pandemic.

“We had this kind of contract where we said: ‘I'm going to do what you tell me to do. What do you want? Where do you want me to be? But in return, you'll give me stability.’ That was shattered. Now people realize they have to rely on themselves. That’s starting the greatest earth-shattering change in terms of how people view themselves and work.”

The Wall Street Journal chronicled this shift of highly-skilled workers leaving corporate jobs for independent, remote work last month. Ouzan is seeing that shift first-hand, as thousands of top product builders sign up for A.Team’s cloud-based team network to work on long-term “product missions” of their choosing for top companies, with flexible work schedules. Tapping into this growing talent pool of talent represents a new opportunity for companies looking to onboard high-performing talent.

Barb Bidan, Chief People Officer at Boom Supersonic, agreed that we’ve seen a fundamental shift in how companies think about their talent strategy.

"Now people realize they have to rely on themselves. That’s starting the greatest earth-shattering change in terms of how people view themselves and work.”

“The assumption is that we're in some place that's way off kilter and we're going to shift back—I don't actually believe that it will,” said Bidan. “I've imagined another recession and the fact is the most in demand talent will still have tons of options.”

The stakes here are huge. Technological change is accelerating rapidly, and the only way to close that gap is by winning the talent war and bringing the best people into your org—regardless of whether they’re a 1099 or a W2.

For that reason, “the people leader role is becoming the most important function in the company,” said Ouzan.

3. The mission reigns supreme

So if employees aren’t all going to be in the same office, and many may not even be full-time, how do you keep everyone united, happy, and productive? If ping pong tables and beer on tap are no longer the way to bring teams together, what comes next? Speaker after speaker pointed to the same key: a strong shared mission.

“It’s about providing context—the why we’re here and what’s the objective, the pain point we’re trying to solve,” said Ellen Silver, President of Oyster, when asked how she maintains a strong culture in a company that’s fully distributed and remote. “We’re driven by that mission and we know that we can make a difference.”

“The people leader role is becoming the most important function in the company.”

Vanessa Larco, a partner at NEA, noted that the mission can’t be a “high-arcing, fuzzy, inspirational thing.” Ouzan, A.Team’s CEO, agreed—arguing that the company of the future should be structured not around traditional departments, but around teams with clear missions.

“What matters most is the mission of the team,” he said. “When you have an objective and can depict the potential outcome, you get a level of dedication and a level of commitment that’s more powerful than any of the other artificial things we’re trying to do.”

4. HR as we know it is dying, and employee experience is on the rise

While the conference was called HR Transform, very few executives in attendance seemed to have HR titles—instead, they were Chief People Officers, or VPs of People.

Uzair Qadeer, Chief People Officer at Carbon Health, went as far as to call for the end of human resources as we know it.

“We have to move on and abandon the idea of human resources, and particularly start focusing on the end-to-end employee experience,” he said.

For Singh, EA’s Chief People officer, that means not viewing employees as a resource, but being a true champion for them. “Chief People Officers need to actually be the people’s officer,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you need to get behind every issue, but you need to know where you stand and have the courage to step into the conversation.”

One big way that manifested at the conference was a huge focus on mental health for employees—once considered a taboo subject in the workplace. Speakers consistently advocated for the importance of mental health for employees, and creating safe spaces for them to speak with managers about issues they may be facing.

“Chief People Officers need to actually be the people’s officer.”

In turn, the expo hall was lined with startups offering mental health benefits. A startup called Puppy Love, which brings rescue puppies to offices and work events, even hosted a playpen full of puppies.

Most striking, though, was a session on “Psychedelic Therapy: Understanding the Next Employee Benefit.” Shane Metcalf, Chief People Officer at 15Five, urged attendees to consider offering benefits like ketamine infusion therapy, which is now legal in all 50 states and shown to deliver significant improvement in treatment of depression and anxiety.

“It's a really simple equation for me: hurt people hurt people, and heal people heal people,” Metcalf explained.

The session ended with a sort of open mic, where attendees came on stage and shared how psychedelics had helped them overcome depression and trauma. It was an inspiring moment, and left little doubt: the world of work is changing for good.

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