OpenWork Conversations: Anne Loehr on the Evolving Workplace

Anne Loehr is a speaker, writer and consultant focused on the trends shaping future leadership and workplaces. OpenWork spoke with Anne about how companies and employees can face the future of work now.


OpenWork: How did you become interested in the future of the workplace?

      Anne Loehr in Africa

Anne Loehr: It has been an evolution from continent to continent and career to career. After graduating from Cornell University, I moved to East Africa with my husband, at age 25. We were in the hospitality business and only supposed to stay for three years; we ended up staying 12. We started off with one tiny hotel, added another hotel and a safari camp, and then added an eco-friendly safari company. That time in Africa really opened my eyes. I’m an entrepreneur in residence at Cornell, and I jokingly say, “They don’t teach you this stuff at Cornell.” They don’t teach you what it’s like to work with 42 tribes, and they don’t teach you what it’s like to be an entrepreneur overseas.

Ten years ago, I moved back to the States and started my leadership development firm. I started looking at what’s working and what’s not working. Everything is changing so fast, and I try to tell leaders, “We have four demographic shifts that are all going to hit in the next four to 10 years; it’s your job as a current leader to prepare the next group of leaders for what’s happening.”

OW: At OpenWork, we talk a lot about generational demographics: retiring boomers, rise of the millennials and Gen Xers as a sandwich generation. What are the other demographic shifts?

AL: One is freelancers. Twenty percent of our workforce is freelancers, and by 2020, it’s going to be 40 percent. That has huge implications for organizations on the logistical side such as employee classification, taxes and headcount. That’s a whole new bailiwick for HR, but the other side, which is where I really focus, is culture — organizational culture and what does this trend mean to organizational culture.

The second trend is that corporate women are leaving their jobs. Gen X women, in general, are leaving for a number of different reasons. Part of it is that they are the sandwich generation. Part of it is that only 19 percent are in the C-suite, and they’re thinking, “We can do a lot better on our own.” Women-owned small businesses are the fastest growing small business segment. There’s a lot of angel investing by women for women.

And then the last trend is diversity and continuing disparity in educational attainment, with fewer people of color graduating from four-year colleges in comparison to Caucasians.

So, imagine being a leader looking into the crystal ball, what do you see? You see a workforce that is very different. One that is probably going to be younger, more diverse, who wants to work for themselves. So, what do you do as a leader to fit all that together?

OW: In light of these shifts, what should companies do to create productive, engaged workplaces of the future?

Organizations need to get crystal clear on their purpose and values, and how those values align with behaviors and mindsets. The more that people are clear about “This what this organization is about. This is our personality and culture,” the more they can figure out how to align those values into every single organizational process. I’m talking marketing, IT, legal, etc. For example, do companies mention their values in your job description? Do they align their benefits with their values? Do they align compensation with their values? People think values are just words on a wall, but they’re not. They’re so much more.

OW: How do values and culture affect workplaces moving forward?

AL: People say all the time, “There’s a bad culture.” There’s no such thing as a bad culture. For example, some people might say, “Who wants to work for the IRS?” Well, you know what? A lot of people might want to work for the IRS: people who value consistency, accuracy, predictability. That’s a really good fit for them, but if you don’t value those things and if you don’t know that’s what you’re walking into, then the tension starts. It doesn’t mean they have a bad culture or are a bad organization; it just means you have different values.

Not all companies can be as clear as Buffer is and say right up front, “Here are our 10 values; do you match them?” Often people don’t find out it’s a bad fit until six or nine months after they’ve gotten in the door. Losing someone costs a company two-and-a-half to four times their salary. That’s a steep price to pay!

OW: What role do you think trust plays in employee-employer relations?

AL: It’s everything, because if you don’t trust that someone can get something done when they’re working remotely, you’re not going to be successful. If we actually start to put trust into behaviors that align with values and build culture, then it’s inherently built into the DNA of your organization.

OW: What do companies find most difficult to change?

AL: Most organizations are short-term focused. They’re so focused on the next quarterly results that they are not willing to invest in long-term solutions. They also don’t focus enough on their talent — whether they’re freelancers, part-time or full-time — and developing them by having conversations like “Where do you want to go next?” and “How can we help you get there?”

OW: How can employees best promote change within their organizations?

AL: The only way change is going to happen is if people keep pushing for it. To do this, be sure to show the research behind your reason for change. I was teaching yesterday, and someone came up to me and asked, “I get what you’re saying, but how am I actually going to make this happen? I’m 27 years old. They don’t listen to me.” And I said, “Look, in business, you’ve got to show them the numbers. Do some data analytics. Show them how much it’s costing them in attrition. Show them how much more they could get in terms of engagement.” In other words, build the business case.

I’m doing some work right now with an organization, where we were able to crunch the numbers and say, “You’re losing multi-millions a year, because your employees are not engaged in the culture, plus a number of other reasons, such as trust. Are you willing to listen now?”

OW: Speaking of 27-year-olds, how are millennials driving workplace change?

AL: Their need for purpose, constant questioning of how they fit into the big picture, and ability to pull up best practices and cases from around the world drives innovation. They’re demanding workplace change, they have a right to demand it, and thank God they’re demanding it.

Anne Loehr is a frequent contributor to the HuffPost Business blog and Fast Company. Find out more on her website and follow her on Twitter @anneloehr