From Empathy to Chief Purpose Officers: 5 Workplace Trends Here to Stay

Steelcase’s Dr. Tracy Brower and Upflex’s Ginger Dhaliwal discuss the most impactful workplace trends that arose during pandemic that are here to stay.

In a recent keynote talk on the future workplace at the kick-off of this year’s Design Museum week, Upflex Chief Product Officer Ginger Dhaliwal and Steelcase VP of Workplace Experience Dr. Tracy Brower tackled the question: What are things about the old way of working we’re starting to see reemerge, and what are the new trends that are changing the way we work moving forward? Here are the workplace-transforming factors they say company leaders should keep an eye out for.

1. Empathy

When it comes to wellbeing — both physical and psychological — in the workplace, the pandemic has brought new challenges. But it’s also brought new awareness, and a new perspective on the role of the employer in employee wellbeing. And according to Tracy Bower, PhD, VP of Workplace Experience at Steelcase, this has spurred a change in the presence and treatment of empathy in the workplace.

“Some research suggests that there are new levels of empathy, from leaders to colleagues, from colleagues to colleagues, and from colleagues to leaders, and I think that’s going to stick around,” Brower said in a recent keynote kicking off Design Museum Week.

“The consequence [of the pandemic] is that we’re talking more openly about what we need, about what’s working, about what’s not working, about how we can get better in terms of designing work experiences,” she says. “I think this idea of empathy and this focus on wellbeing in the workplace are things that have arisen through the pandemic and that are here to stay.”

2. Flexibility

“Obviously, flexibility is a really big deal, but I think it goes beyond flexibility,” Brower says. “I think it’s about understanding people’s fundamental human needs — understanding that we want a level of autonomy; we want a level of predictability; we want to reduce friction, and we want to have a sense of what’s happening for us next, but we also need a level of learning and stimulation and variety in our lives.”

Brower added that rather than the false contradiction between “remote” and “office,” we should be thinking about a “both” and “and” in the workplace, where leadership gives more choice and more control to employees.

3. Connections and Community

Connections and community in the workplace have always been important, but Brower sees a fundamental shift in just how people are connecting in the workplace, how much they connect, and whether they are feeling fulfilled in their connections. This aspect of the workplace, she says, will be something that companies need to reinvent going forward.

“I really believe that we will need to get better at connecting from a distance,” she says. “We will be more intentional about how we connect in our communities, in our superficial interactions — which are also valuable — and in the way that we decide to be in place together. Those intentionalities will be really important.”

4. A Corporate Sense of Purpose

The past two years at work, teams navigated more than just the challenges of COVID-19: 2020 was the start of a massive political transformation, too. Upflex Chief Product Officer Ginger Dhaliwal observes that this has given employers more to consider — and more to communicate — when it comes to their place in the world — and their central purpose. In some companies, Dhaliwal says, that mentality shift is being reflected all the way up in the structure of the C-suite.

“I think this concept of the Chief Purpose Officer, where companies are now realizing that they have to stand up and also vocalize their stance on social justice issues is becoming more and more relevant,” Dhaliwal says. “Today, you’re seeing that employees are expecting their companies to take a stand on social and even some political issues, and I think that those are fundamental changes that are good, and that are going to stay with us moving forward.”

5. A Corporate Commitment Not to What’s Easy, But to What’s Right

Some 30% of companies are still thinking about having their people come back into the office, Dhaliwal notes, and that is considered one of the major contributors to people leaving their jobs, seeking new jobs, or leaving the workforce altogether — a trend so impactful, it’s been deemed the Great Resignation. When it comes to workplace strategies and plans moving forward, Dhaliwal says, where companies come out in this period of flux is make-or-break as to whether they’ll be able to retain and attract new talent.

“I think the majority of the companies are going to land on hybrid, but hybrid is really complicated,” she says. “Companies don’t know quite how to move forward with a functional policy that works for their teams, not just now but in the long term. A lot of companies are going to default back to what is easy, as opposed to doing what is necessary.”

Being agile, she says, means experimentation — and iteration. But success requires sticking to the iterations that work and building on them, not just going back to the comfort of old ways.

“For the future growth of their organization, and in so many ways that’s one of my fears,” she adds: “That companies will revert back to the ‘traditional office’ because it’s easier, as opposed to really thinking about what’s best for the work itself and in that, for the people who do that work.”

“It’s taken some companies two years to make a stance on whether they’re going back to the office or not, or on what hybrid really looks like for them, and I think those challenges will continue in the future,” she says. “The hope is that companies will invest in the the technology, the people, the processes, they need to support hybrid moving forward, because it is in the best interest of everyone.”

Watch the full talk and Q&A from Design Museum Everywhere here.