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Looking Back to Look Ahead

As we leave 2021 behind (while still trying to process 2020!) and welcome 2022, I can’t help but reflect on how far we’ve come over the last century—not just as a society but in the workplace as well. 

In every decade, a revolution (or two) helped us evolve to the next level. So while the daily changes we are living through (and, at times, pulling our hair out from) may feel uncomfortable, it’s helpful to remember that times have always been turbulent and uncertain in one way or another. This is just our time.  

As an elder millennial who grew up with a specific perception of the workplace shaped by television and film of my time (hello, Office Space), I wanted to go back and look at the workplace of the past (and how it was shaped by significant events, books, technology, and media). What I found may offer us all (no matter our generation) some comfort as well as some tips to thrive in the Workplace of the Future.

(R)evolution of the Modern Workplace

The workplace is a setting of constant change. As each decade passes and a new generation enters, it ebbs and flows with the changes of society. Cultural artifactssuch as media, influential books, and innovationsprovide a snapshot of the collective psyche of the time. 

While it’s undeniable that there’s a transformation currently taking place, The Great Reshuffle/Resignation/Reprioritization (however you want to define it) isn’t the first major shift in the workplace. And it won’t be the last. As Arianna Huffington wrote, “The Great Resignation is really a Great Re-evaluation. What people are resigning from is a culture of burnout and a broken definition of success. In quitting their jobs, people are affirming their longing for a different way of working and living.”1

Sometimes to look forward, it helps to reflect on just how far we’ve come. Looking back over the last century, it’s clear that each decade and generation created its own disruptive change. In the early 1900s, the workplace was shaken up by another revolution–one focused on physical safety. The current transformation taking place now is focused on psychological safety

Looking back at the different generations—the silent generation to baby boomers to Gen X to millennials and now Gen Z—it’s easy to spot the patterns. As each generation entered the workplace, they demanded change based on their circumstances: think equality, safety, inclusion, and technology

Companies and industries that followed suit and adapted (hello, Google and Netflix, I’m looking at you!) survived; while others that held onto the ways of the past (sorry, Blockbuster and Kodak) failed and became extinct. 

Looking at historical data and trends helps forecast the future. As the timeline shows, while the details vary decade to decade, the constant is change and adaptation. Take a look and think about the people you know from each decade and how these factors shaped their perspectives.

The Last 100 Years: Change is the Only Constant

As you can see, we’ve come so far as a workforce in the last several generations! The dog-eat-dog leadership style of the ‘50s made way for the rebellious ‘60s. The status/power-obsession of the ‘80s made the angst of the ‘90s the natural yin to its yang. The crashes, burns, and technological advancements of the ‘90s and ‘00s make way for the movement of introspection, authenticity, inclusion, and wellness of the 2010s and 2020s.

Remember, this push and pull between generations—the old and new way of doing things—is cyclical and normal. Disruptive change is constant in the workplace. While the changes of the last few years may seem abnormal (or even apocalyptic), putting it in the context of the last 100 years shows that it’s quite normal. Nothing stays the same. 

When put into context, the extreme societal and workplace changes we’ve experienced over the last few years seem like part of a larger pattern, rather than a one-off anomaly.

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The impact of new generations entering the workplace and shaking things up is also consistent over time. It’s how the workplace adapts to those changes that makes the difference. As we enter our third year dealing with the ramifications of a pandemic, it’s clear that this is our decade’s thing

So, how can we thrive? One thing is for certain: The old way of doing things/thinking will not get us where we want to be.

Looking to 2022 and Beyond: How to Thrive in the Workplace of the Future

The last few years blurred the once standard, definitive lines between personal and professional lives. Today, The Great Resignation is showing us that employees across generations are demanding more for themselves.

The good news is, we can set our workforce and workplaces up for success. Here are a few tips to help you get started.

  1. Check Your Generational Bias 

A human-centered business mindset values all perspectives. Keep in mind the importance of having a multi-generational workforce. There is validity in each perspective. 

  • Don’t dismiss employees or candidates from older generations. Leverage the experience and perspective of your experienced employees. 
  • Don’t forget the newer generations on the block either! Consider their input and perspectives before dismissing them due to perceived inexperience. Ask their opinions and show them that their perspectives are valued. 

While there has been a strong focus on millennials in the workforce, they are no longer the newest kids on the block. Some millennials are nearing middle age, and many are in leadership positions (even CEOs). By 2030, Gen Z will make up 30% of the workplace.5 This newest generation is living through a unique period of transformation. They are coming into the workplace, and they are demanding a psychologically safe, open, and caring environment that is going to help them grow. Gen Z has a lot to say about what they are willing and not willing to tolerate in the workplace. Learn from them and encourage them to learn from other generations.

Have you taken unconscious bias training? Leverage those skills and make sure you are not being biased toward any generation. If you haven’t, look into taking a course.

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  1. (Psychological) Safety First. Take a Look Around. Assess. 

Assess culture: What stage is your company culture in? Not the text on your website but your actual culture. Put yourself in other employees’ shoes. As described in Chapter 1 of our ebook, is your culture at stage 1, 2, or 3 culture? Companies that are in stage 1 and 2 cultures lack psychological safety. The first step in moving to the next stage is recognizing where you are. 

If this feels too overwhelming a task to undergo internally, reach out to our culture and leader transformation specialists who will assess your culture and help you get to stage 3.

Assess communication: What is communication like at your workplace? What tools do you currently offer employees? Are employees scared to speak up about challenges they are facing? Are employees leaving in large numbers?

The soft/power skills should remain a priority because that’s how we deal with our ever-changing thing that determines the outcome for our teams and organizations. 

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  1. Create connections.

Establish a mentorship program where junior and senior employees are paired together. Studies show that both the junior and senior employees in a mentorship benefit–a concept known as reverse mentoring.

  1. Check yourself. 

How each and every one of us shows up makes an impact on our organizations. Remember to check in with yourself often and ask: How am I showing up? 

As Brené Brown says in her latest book, Atlas of the Heart, “So often, when we feel lost, adrift in our lives, our first instinct is to look out into the distance to find the nearest shore. But that shore, that solid ground, is within us. The anchor we are searching for is connection, and it is internal.”6