How to Build the Workplace of the Future

We need to be prepared to fail

By Greg Ricciardi

If you're a company executive and you're thinking about your team and workplace the same way you did two years ago, there's a good chance you're looking to fill a lot of vacancies — and will be doing so for the foreseeable future.

That's because today's business leaders are in a forced evolution moment. I feel it strongly as a brand consultancy leader, but I know the pressures extend far beyond the realm of marketing and advertising.

I know we're all sick of hearing it, but everything has changed.

It's not just that people are looking for higher pay or remote work flexibility. (They are.) It's more than that. They're asking themselves — and their current or prospective employers — fundamentally different questions than they have in the past, and the implications of those questions are upending the very fabric of how people think about work, particularly in tech and creative industries.

This isn't a blip. It's a sea change. So, let's talk about what really needs to happen from a leadership perspective.

From Perks to Personal Reflection

There was a time when catered lunches, in-office gyms, and quirky, open floor plans were the markers of the most highly coveted workplaces — particularly among fast-growing digitally driven organizations.

In the brand consultancy world, looking back on those years can be mildly cringe-inducing — like thinking back to how you decorated your first college apartment. It's not that the neon Budweiser sign and four-foot "conversation piece" bong on the coffee table weren't cool. They were just a little immature.

Employees today have seen not just behind but through the curtain, and they now recognize those kinds of "perks" for what they really are — ways to keep employees in the building longer. Their cost is justified by management because a direct line can be drawn between things like free dry cleaning and in-office cocktail hours and the amount of time people spend at their desks. Those perks aren't about the people at all. They're about the business.

What happens when we make it about the people? I mean, to really make it about the people — as they exist not just in the office but in the world at large? What if we start to care for people's mental health and overall wellbeing in the same way we care for our bottom lines?

It's a nice idea on paper, isn't it? Sounds simple and maybe even obvious. But let me tell you: The pivot required from the leadership level isn't an easy one, and there's no roadmap. If you're going to truly commit to becoming a workplace that fosters the personal health and ambitions of your employees, you're going to have to break a lot of conventions, try a lot of seemingly lunatic ideas, and come to terms with investing in areas where the path to ROI is unclear, if it exists at all.

A New Kind of Optimization

What we're talking about here isn't a business optimization. It's a human optimization. We're talking about turning our focus away from what's good for business to what's good for people — and doing so with no assurance that it's going to net out in the company's favor.

Whether leadership gets on board with this concept is somewhat beside the point. Employees are already advocating for themselves in this way. Yes, they still need to make money. But that's not the primary reason they choose the opportunities they choose.

What they really want is to feel connected to organizations that do good and respect their people — and to know that the contribution they're making to a company will benefit not just themselves, but the community and world at large. We're talking about optimization of self.

If you're recruiting candidates right now, you're probably seeing evidence of the shift right in front of your own eyes. I recently sat in on a wonderful set of interviews with candidates for new roles, and it's the first time in my career that I felt as though I was the one being interviewed. The interviews flowed naturally enough, but in the end, the real conversation was about what my company could do for the prospective employee, not just the other way around.

Good. It's as it should be. And if leaders want their organizations to succeed, they need to get on board with this new power dynamic and put their money where their mouths are when it comes to ensuring their employees' goals and wellbeing are just as important as the company's.

That means thinking seriously about mental health and burnout and investing in programs to strengthen the latter while preventing the former. It means not just allowing but encouraging people to put their families before their professional obligations.

Most importantly, it means choosing, on a day-to-day basis, what's right for your team versus what's right for the business — and taking it on faith that the two will align somewhere down the line. Because that's the kicker: No one's written the definitive thesis for the post-pandemic workplace that says selflessly investing in an employee's health, mindfulness, and personal goals will pay dividends for the company.

But that's what we need to do right now. As humans and leaders, it's the path that's been laid before us. Past experience tells us that when employees feel valued, respected, and that their companies truly care about them, they will in turn care about the success of the business along with their own wellbeing.

I, for one, expect to stumble spectacularly as I move forward. I will invest in programs that ultimately get scrapped — not because they're not working for the business, but because they're not working for our people. I will be told I'm wrong. That I don't understand. That I'm not listening closely enough. And then I will continue to try harder.

Reconstructing the employer-employee relationship in a way that validates and supports the identity and needs of every employee won't be easy. But the work is necessary. And more importantly, it's right. Down the line, I hope we as leaders will discover that what's right for people is also what's right for our businesses and our communities — no matter the cost.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

Greg Ricciardi is the president, CEO, and founder of 20nine.