The Future Workplace Experience: A Q&A with Jeanne Meister and Kevin Mulcahy

How HR can stay on the leading edge of workplace evolution.

By Adam Van Brimmer October 28, 2016

Jeanne C. MeisterToday’s global economy evolves at breakneck speed, with technology, consumer trends and generational shifts constantly reshaping the business landscape. The labor force is changing, too. In fact, it has reached a tipping point in terms of what employees expect from work, according to HR experts Jeanne C. Meister, founding partner of the consulting firm Future Workplace LLC in New York City, and Kevin J. Mulcahy, a business professor at Babson College in Babson Park, Mass.

Their new book, The Future Workplace Experience: 10 Rules for Mastering Disruption in Recruiting and Engaging Employees (McGraw Hill Professional, 2016), examines research compiled from 2,100 HR leaders and managers suggesting that the conventional wisdom about work and the role of HR departments is obsolete. They outline a way forward for employers willing to commit to building the future workplace.

You state that future work will be more personalized. What does that mean?

Meister: The personalized experience takes into account each person’s career goals, physical workspace, and learning and development needs. That’s a big shift from the old HR model of standardization to make processes more efficient. It’s about understanding the expectations of workers and designing their experience around those needs.

How do you create that environment, particularly at a business with a large labor force?

Meister: You can start by recognizing the unique needs people have for their workspace. We’ve seen the benefits of open spaces. Go a step further, though, and recognize the value in the power of choice—in other words, allowing employees to decide where they want to work in the office each day, be it a collaborative space or a focused, quiet place. Research shows that choice positively correlates with engagement.

 Kevin J. MulcahyIn much the same way, learning is moving away from a one-size-fits-all curriculum to more of an Apple Store layout where workers can access what they want in the format they want.

The future workplace is also open to more career mobility within an organization—allowing people to work on company projects not associated with their daily roles or beyond their job descriptions. Perhaps they even spend a set number of hours each week in another department to develop and hone new skills.

Your book refers to two other things necessary to foster a personalized workplace: communicating a shared purpose and practicing transparency. Why are those vital?

Meister: For many, work is more than a job; it’s a higher calling. So it is important that the company communicate a common purpose, be it through corporate philanthropy or service to the community.

As for transparency, we all live our personal lives today with the help of ratings sites. TripAdvisor for travel. Yelp for the best places to eat. Now resources like Glassdoor and are becoming the first place job seekers go to research the employer brand and decide if they even want to apply for a job. [Such sites] provide information on the culture and values of an employer [and] senior management, interview questions, and salaries. That’s a big shift in power toward the employee in the job search process. HR leaders need to integrate these employer ratings into their recruitment efforts.

What—or who—is driving the changing work environment? Is it generational?

Meister: The desire for change is not just coming from the Millennials, although they are the ones giving voice to it. As employees, we all want the same experience at work that we enjoy in our personal lives. That’s a cross-generational expectation. Take connectivity, for example. A recent research study of job seekers showed that a majority identified the connectivity of a workplace as a part of their criteria for accepting a job, and the sample spanned ages 22 to 57. That’s why forward-thinking companies are putting the consumer lens on work to create a better personal experience.

Why has it taken this long to gain momentum?

Mulcahy: Simply because more-established employees never paused to ask for or demand better because they are more accepting of the way things are now. Younger workers see the same disruptions at work that older generations see, such as trade expansion, the digital revolution, wild economic swings—and the uncertainty is real. But they are asking employers “Why?” They want a quality work experience. And companies are responding. Graduates who exit college in the next three years will enjoy a completely different career experience than any generation before.

Creating the environment you describe seems to go beyond the normal reach of HR. Where should HR leaders start?

Meister: By accepting that this is not an initiative done in a silo. Done right, it’s a partnership between HR, marketing, IT, communications and beyond. Ask marketing to use tools such as sentiment analysis and hackathons to help uncover unmet employee needs. Talk to IT about improving technology. Learn how to communicate better using tips and tricks from your editorial or communications teams. Tap the building services group about how best to use space. HR leaders are accustomed to carving out initiatives and running with them. Instead, they need to build a cross-organizational alliance and create a shared vision.

Will HR departments change to incorporate some of those marketing, IT and other skills in-house?

Mulcahy: Absolutely. With each job opening in HR, leaders will need to consider whether the next person in that role should have years of HR experience or a background in another function that brings value, like marketing or data analysis or IT. HR needs to become much more multifunctional and, by extension, a visible agent for change. Bring in employees with different skill sets. Try new processes and kill off unpopular practices. Engage people in prototyping what the new HR should be. Let them experiment and see what works. The days of HR developing policies and telling the labor force “You’ll see it when we put it out” are ending.

What big tech changes are out there, and how do HR professionals stay on the leading edge?

Mulcahy: The biggest one right now is the “app-ification” of work, as more and more companies incorporate digital tools into their daily operations. The next big thing will be artificial intelligence (AI), which will play a role in helping workers anticipate and automate tasks, along with the introduction of augmented reality. AI is already a part of our everyday lives, with voice technology tools such as Siri and Google Assistant helping us to book meetings, arrange travel, send texts and e-mails, and more. As for augmented reality, as more everyday objects start to transmit data, the potential for on-the-job learning and productivity improvements is massive—from finding one’s way around campus to deciphering company jargon. All these things will come into the workplace at a pace that will shock people.

What unintended consequences of these changes will companies and HR need to guard against

Mulcahy: You don’t want to make the environment so comfortable that people don’t want to go home! The balance between work and life remains vital. How about the take-your-pet-to-work idea? Sounds great, but what about co-workers with allergies? Or those who simply don’t like dogs or cats and find them a distraction? For HR, it’s not black and white. The most important takeaway for HR leaders is to understand that you don’t know all the answers and to be willing to look at all sides. Be prepared for unexpected outcomes and address them.

[SHRM members-only resource: Discuss this article on SHRM Connect]

Adam Van Brimmer is a journalist and a freelance writer based in Georgia.

Photograph of Meister courtesy of Jeanne C. Meister

Photograph of Mulcahy by Sharona Jacobs for HR Magazine.

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