When the needs of businesses and employees change, good leaders adapt to change with them. The six priorities below all stem from trends that are quickly reshaping how we work, and they explore what we believe forward-thinking, people-focused leaders will do to navigate through the change.

1. Reworking the employee value proposition for tomorrow’s top talent 

Legacy organizations are struggling to attract young top talent. Newer, more digitally focused businesses — ranging from conglomerates like Google and Meta to smaller tech startups — see consistent funnels of talent as vital to their own survival as technology continues to change. In the past decade, they’ve radically expanded their employee value proposition (EVP) as a result. As more and more of Generation Z enters the workforce, leaders at legacy organizations will need to follow suit by expanding their EVPs to grow and keep up with their expectations. 

Ten years ago, if you asked a company about its EVP, you would likely have heard about salary benchmarks, 401K matches and maybe even discounts or gift cards. By and large, leaders saw EVPs as compensation and benefits packages. Today, those details are no longer the sum of an EVP; they’re just one part of it.

The value employees expect has expanded radically, and it will continue to expand amid this talent war. Today’s top talent demands, among other things, autonomy, the ability to do important work, growth opportunities and, often, an avenue for social impact.

Smart companies have focused on developing these offerings. They offer opportunities to do more significant work earlier in one’s career. And there is far less concern with years put in or on-paper experience, and far more focus on demonstrated skills. They trust young employees, and pay them significant salaries, to lead projects. This starts with their summer internships and extends to the promotion opportunities they get when they’re there. As Candace Steele Flippin discussed on our Let Go & Lead podcast this year, younger top talent is from the era of video games and digital, self-paced learning that provides constant feedback. Therefore, they are not used to waiting for recognition. Once they demonstrate understanding of a topic, they expect to move forward, and at legacy organizations, we expect to see leaders re-evaluate many traditional administrative barriers — from hiring to compensation to internal growth — so that this talent can be recognized more quickly and more often.

We also know, of course, that younger generations are far more interested in social impact than previous ones. Business schools are seeing an explosion of interest in ESG-related topics, and millennials and Generation Z, understandably, have a particular passion for climate change-related matters. As we covered in last year’s end-of-year piece, today’s young people want to work for companies whose values align with their own. This will be the other EVP frontier that leaders will confront with even more creativity next year.  

2. Turning to nature as a remedy for burnout 

The Great Exhaustion is only accelerating, and we believe that in 2022, nature is going to become a much more prominent solution that organizations roll out to curb it.  

Google, whose Chicago office has long been a shining example of “biophilic” design, recently announced a $2.1 billion plan for its New York City campus that will feature acres of gardens, as well as a large variety of bugs and wildlife that the gardens will be designed to attract. For as much as this reflects a societal push toward more sustainable, environmentally friendly design, it’s a move that is clearly done with more business benefits in mind. Nature has been proven, time and again, to help with mood, cognition, creativity and nearly every other positive human outcome in business. Incorporating nature into the workplace — especially the hybrid workplace, with all the new changes and stressors it has introduced — helps make the office a more attractive, productive, pleasant place to work. In 2022, we expect to see investments in biophilic design emerge as a far more prominent strategy for leaders trying to attract, retain and get the most out of their talent.  

We don’t think it will stop with in-person offices, either. We expect to see “green time” rise as a powerful tactic for engaging remote workforces, through retreats or even just afternoons. In green settings, truths can be communicated and digested in newer, more resonant ways. Whether it’s something as simple as hiking for team-building or participating in Gagen’s Equine Leadership Program, there are numerous ways that nature can and will be utilized to promote wellbeing and learning. 

3. Moving away from remote, return and hybrid debates — and toward the “meta” in-between 

In the past year, so much conversation has centered around whether we should accept remote work or plan for a gradual return to the workplace. Next year, we believe the discussion will permanently shift away from this lens, with ever-growing acceptance of a middle ground that is, for many businesses, inevitable. Thinking beyond hybrid models, we believe businesses will begin to re-conceptualize their sense of place, building it to exist somewhere between the physical and digital world.  

This “meta” space will be looked to as a way to replace lost norms. By and large, opportunities for chatting in the café, spontaneous “elevator pitches” to the CEO and other bonding experiences with coworkers and leaders have hardly re-emerged. As strange as it is to imagine, new experiences in the metaverse offer enormous potential to fill some of these gaps. For employees who yearn for more human connection in their work, a virtual reality (VR) café could resuscitate non-work conversations that have largely been lost over video chats. Gamified tasks and challenges could bring healthy fun and bonding to workplace trainings that have so far involved watching videos alone. And experiences of entertainment — be they concerts, movies or even happy hour trivia — will start to happen more and more in VR spaces. 

We’re not saying the metaverse will become a tangible reality for businesses in 2022 — in actuality, we are still a few years away from VR headsets and avatars. But if there’s anything we know about societally disruptive technologies, it’s that once they gain steam — as the metaverse is no doubt starting to — they scale toward ubiquity at a surprising pace. Next year is the year to begin cultivating the “meta” mindset in your organization by fostering digital fluency in your culture, building open-mindedness among leaders and exploring the innovations that will be arriving sooner than we know.  

4. Streamlining and simplifying the digital space 

In 2020, we wrote about the continually blurring line between HR and IT. That line is set to further blur going forward. Ever increasingly, the employee experience cannot be separated from the digital experience. An extension of this idea is that the workplace, for many companies, can no longer be thought of as simply a physical office. The same focus on intentionality, organization and productivity that has long driven how we design our physical workplaces must now be applied to the digital space. When work was limited to offices and storefronts, employees and customers knew where to go with their questions and needs. The more our “meta” offices can recreate this sense of clarity, the more our cultures, our employee experiences and our bottom lines will benefit. 

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses have rapidly — and often, somewhat haphazardly — invested in digital tools and platforms as they have tried to navigate the uncharted waters of remote work. This is understandable, of course: the speed at which we were forced to adapt in April 2020 did not afford time to deeply vet every digital investment, or to think critically about how each investment cohered with others. Over time, however, this rapid, indiscriminate approach has resulted in slates of digital tools that, for many organizations, now look like Cheesecake Factory menus. Multiple databases, project management systems, messaging platforms and file locations compete with each other for usage across workstreams. Amid the smorgasbord of options, it’s very difficult to normalize use of any one. Forward-thinking businesses will streamline these suites of tools in 2022. They’ll strip down the options and codify use cases, norms of governance and privacy commitments. It will not be easy, and the efforts that work will be the ones that senior leaders see through to execution. The better we help people understand the ins and outs of where they’re working, the more likely we are to get them at their best selves.   

5. Investing in continuous learning as employees fear technology-related job loss  

 As businesses struggle to fill open positions and face serious pressure to pay employees more, the coming years are set to be significant in our society’s transition to automated technologies. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2025, automation will displace 85 million jobs across the globe. That’s only three years away. As businesses ramp up their explorations of automation technologies next year, employees are bound to become more concerned about their future. Across sectors, workers will increasingly want to know what they can expect.  When we use automation in this piece, we mean it as an umbrella term for the different branches of robotics, machine learning and AI. Most leaders are in the very early stages of exploring these technologies, and it would be foolish to make guarantees about adoption plans — how jobs will change or not change — before you know. Still, even with technology roadmaps forming, the time is now for talent plans that get ahead of them. An investment in AI does not have to be a divestment in people, and the businesses that prove this next year with new, bold paths for employees’ continued growth will be the ones that experience the most seamless transitions into the future of work.   For good reason, education and skill-building opportunities have already surged as a strategy for winning and keeping talent. After just 120 days of employment at Chipotle, for example, employees can now begin pursuing free degrees in other fields important to the company, including culinary, hospitality, supply chain and agriculture. According to Chipotle, the employees who pursue these opportunities are 3.5 times more likely to stay with the company, and 7.5 times more likely to move into management roles. These sorts of education opportunities — ones which find the balance between filling skill gaps within the specific business while still making people more employable at large — have real potential to benefit both employer and employee. Programs like this will be at the core of successful talent retention plans going forward. Executing a successful one will take foresight around your company’s future needs, strong insight into the competencies your people want to build and thoughtful strategies to incentivize the sweet spot.  

6. Expanding DE&I efforts into a sociological, connectivity-focused lens 

Over the past year and a half, many organizations have made a push to hire more diverse talent, and to build more awareness of DE&I issues into their cultures. Hiring statistics around diverse candidates, employee resource groups and book club participation numbers can paint an optimistic portrait of how these efforts are going. However, the full picture doesn’t arrive without a deeper look at the employee experience. The hard truth is that DE&I initiatives have not been very effective at enacting meaningful, fortified changes in behavior, or improving diverse candidates’ experiences. Many organizations today are struggling to tap into the numerous benefits to creativity and collaboration that inclusive, diverse cultures deliver, and they’re struggling to convince diverse talent to stay.  

Research shows that initiatives around DE&I work a lot better when they are truly leader-led priorities. If DE&I efforts are confined to ERGs, targeted trainings or appreciation on specific holidays,  many employees tend to compartmentalize their awareness and effort into these moments, and decline to apply the learnings in the more daily moments of their jobs. To counter this and make meaningful progress toward equity, diversity and true inclusion in the employee experience, leaders need to take on a lens that is more sociological and holistic than the one we have used so far. In this new paradigm, broader questions around belonging, wellbeing, authenticity and, perhaps most crucially, social connectivity — the extent to which all employees feel connected to their co-workers — will become key factors in understanding and improving DE&I issues. 

We expect that a lot more focus will be placed on work relationships, and the networks surrounding diverse talent. Beyond working to change employees’ beliefs about DE&I concepts head-on, leaders will think much harder about cultural norms, social constructs, onboarding processes, feedback structures and other broader aspects of the interpersonal employee experience that may be leading to indirect exclusion, unconscious bias or the feeling for employees that they cannot be themselves. Leaders will have to think even harder about which working norms are truly needed for positive business outcomes and which are inadvertently driving disconnection. 

Another aspect of this expansion into a more sociological, connectivity-focused DE&I approach will involve more rigorous, wide-reaching measurement around employee engagement. We expect to see inclusivity and belonging indices proliferate within companies. To be effective, these measurement mechanisms will need to go further than just asking diverse individuals about their feelings toward their companies. As MIT’s Sloan School of Management points out, pulse surveys too often narrow the employee experience down to employees’ feelings toward their companies. We believe businesses will increasingly look to understand how easily employees — especially employees of diverse backgrounds — have been able to collaborate, ask questions, voice concerns or just chat with others in their organization. These results will not just be viewed as indicators of productivity or engagement issues. They’ll be taken as measurements of how well DE&I efforts are working, and windows into ways that more progress can be made.