Deep Dive: How companies and their employees are facing the future of work

Work has been reshaped in dramatic ways for everyone this year.

Employers have had to accommodate the extreme pressures COVID-19 has put on employees juggling personal and professional life, while amid nationwide protests against racial and social inequality, employees have highlighted diversity and inclusion issues in the workplace and demanded urgent change.

And yet, it’s false to say COVID-19 or the killing of George Floyd “changed everything.” If the work landscape feels very different this year, some of those changes reflect broader, long-term shifts in society, the way we do business and the way we think about what work is — and what we want it to be. In some cases, changes in the workplace — such as the many ways companies are allowing greater flexibility for employees — represent a long overdue acknowledgment of reality. Leaders are responding with commitments to do better, but what does this look like?

Digiday’s Deep Dive: The Future of Work is a collection of videos and key takeaways from our event that will provide valuable tips and insights to help your company enact strategies to better support their employees, create a more inclusive work environment, and transition smoothly back to the office. Below you’ll find key takeaways, quotes and stats, as well as videos from our recent Future of Work event, presenter slides from DailyPay and more.

01
The workplace reworked

In a few short months, the workplace has changed forever.

Entire office buildings sit empty as work has transitioned from cubicles and shared desks to kitchen tables and spare bedrooms. Nine-to-five workdays are punctuated with homeschooling and household chores. Zoom meetings are the new water cooler catch-ups and conference calls. And though some companies have reopened with social distancing guidelines in place, others are grappling with a workforce who don’t see themselves ever returning to their pre-Covid routines — DailyPay’s survey identified that a quarter of their respondents expect to be working from home for the foreseeable future. All of this, with no end to the pandemic in sight.

As businesses have settled into this new normal, they’ve also been looking inward. The Black Lives Matter protests that swept the country following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police had a ripple effect in workplaces, with employees demanding businesses take responsibility for addressing injustice in their organizations. Current and former employees alike have used this moment in history to take their concerns and outrage to social media, calling out businesses who have promised to be more diverse and inclusive, only to fall short.

In all of this, a new set of priorities has rapidly come to the foreground. “The future of work is here, and the future of work hasn’t become robots taking our jobs, it’s become personal choices around what makes you the most effective employee,” said Jeanniey Walden, chief innovation and marketing officer at DailyPay. “And it’s a tremendous opportunity for everybody … to really look at how they can improve employee culture and employee morale to take this opportunity of creating a new future of work in a very positive manner.”

The next-gen employer is showing up for their employees beyond the 401K and paid vacation days. Mental health has become the new priority — company leaders can’t afford wellness and work-life balance practices to be an extracurricular. These have to be woven into the fabric of the employee experience. Bosses are fostering an environment where their staff can bring their full selves to work, and not just their taste for home décor or pet Labrador that interrupts video calls, but the mosaic of interests and passions that makes them unique, from self expression to personal hobbies. Creating that support system is one step towards creating an environment of inclusion.

But when it comes to inclusion, there is more work to be done. “Black Lives Matter has given us the opportunity to really dig in and start to ‘walk the talk’,” said Will Lee, svp, Digital Entertainment Group at Meredith. This is the time for businesses to begin taking stock of their diversity and equity goals and acknowledge their imperfections, map their progress, and empower their staff to make positive changes, whether it’s through making better use of a resource group, starting a mentorship program, or cultivating a platform for BIPOC voices.

Today’s circumstances have, as Kara Sax and Tamara Keller of The Sax Agency put it, become “the great equalizer,” impacting every company big or small. “We’re all on the starting block of a race track together,” Sax said. And it’s time to hit the ground running.

Here’s what you need to know.

02
Companies continue to fall short on diversity, equity and inclusion — and they need to do the work to fix it.

On May 25, the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers set off tidal waves throughout the country, igniting not only demands for justice over policing, but a movement calling for diversity, equity and inclusion in all areas of society. Now more than ever, the voices are loud and clear: companies need to reflect the communities they serve, from the warehouse to the boardroom; workplaces must be welcoming and safe for all; and equal treatment must be the rule, not the exception.

Many companies already have the foundations in place, but the follow-through has often been lacking and diversity and inclusion initiatives have been accused of appearing tokenistic or insincere. So how can organizations do better? Especially at the upper tiers of management, many companies are still dominated by straight white men. For women, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ colleagues, these workplaces can be lonely, alienating, draining and intimidating places where unequal treatment is the norm, from power to pay and benefits.

“All the cultural elements of diversity and inclusion have to be a part of every day and every hour that we work going forward,” said Lee of Meredith.

  • Companies can empower their employees to take charge of these initiatives by forming employee resource groups. In these groups, employees can play a leading role in making sure that voices are heard, needs are identified and resources organized to address issues.

Verizon Media has a neurodiversity resource group, launched in 2017. CEO Guru Gowrappan said the group is partnering with organizations to conduct training on removing ignorance and how to be supportive, empathetic and inclusive. There are two core principles around the training: removing ignorance and educating. “It’s not just about individual development, but it’s also moving the company forward,” Gowrappan said. “We do measure and we make sure there is an output out of that.”

Jeanniey Walden says DailyPay’s employee resource groups — for women, a range of lifestyles, or different age groups — have been a part of the company’s life since its early days. Each group is sponsored by a member of the executive team, and groups can work together to achieve common goals. “Those groups are truly empowered,” Walden said. “They’re given an opportunity to create a budget and agenda for the year and they can identify what that means.”

It’s vital for companies to make sure ERGs are not just talking shops: they must have the agency to truly lead and steer conversations. Will Lee said that Black Print — Meredith’s ERG for black team members — “has done a really good job of not only informing us and creating content around these issues, but really leading difficult conversations.” One project detailed the history of racism against black people in America, and Lee said the ERG’s work has made an impression on colleagues of all races across the organization. Organizational leaders have a key role to play in facilitating these developments. “Our CEO has been very vocal and involved in making sure they have the right profile and the most expansive profile possible within the team,” Lee said.

  • Content and social channels need to express diversity and inclusion. Companies should use these spaces to highlight talent, as well as addressing relevant topics for black, Latino, Asian and other BIPOC audiences.

In order to produce diverse content, Lee said organizations need diverse voices on staff. Even then, they need to earn the audience’s attention and trust. “Unless you make an effort to cover these topics, the audience won’t give you the benefit of the doubt.” At Meredith’s Entertainment Weekly, Lee and others worked on an Asian-American entertainment power list. “When was the last time you saw one of those in a major magazine?” Lee said. “But we did it because we cared about it.” Set KPIs — hard targets — to measure performance in this area, and follow through.

Using your platform for good means more than demonstrating that the organization is putting out the right messages and supporting causes. It’s also important to turn your platform over to communities and individuals whose voices need to be heard. In the early days of the pandemic, ThirdLove adjusted by testing various styles of content — humor, informative content and so on. Serena Ziskroit, vp of People at the company, said that in the end, what resonated most were stories from real people — profiles of frontline workers, for example. When protests broke out over the summer, ThirdLove adapted again. “We found ourselves pivoting again to reflect the needs of the communities we serve, and to really use our platform and amplify black voices,” Ziskroit said.

  • Sax encourages companies and their clients seeking to weigh in on social justice issues or improve inclusivity in the workplace to seek out educational resources for learning about topics like racism and diversity. “For us, as black women and as people who have dealt with the microagressions, our first piece is always educating yourself,” Sax said. “There are many different books that people can read at this moment in time to exercise what this means and how severe of an issue this is.”
BOTTOM LINE

This is a time in history where companies cannot rest on their laurels or make empty promises when it comes to embracing and cultivating a diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace. Organizations and leaders need to engage their teams to find out how the company is doing and how it needs to improve. After that, it’s time to make a plan, set specific measures of progress and start following through, checking in regularly to ensure the work is getting done.

03
Businesses leaders need to hold themselves accountable, or their employees will.

Just as Twitter and Instagram have become sounding boards for companies who have pledged to support a diverse and inclusive future, social media has also become a forum for employees and ex-employees to broadcast the holes in these pledges both internally and externally, whether on pay inequalities, weaknesses in company culture or a shortsighted recruitment strategy. Whether it’s the CEO, HR staff, or hiring manager, businesses are being called on to hold themselves accountable for delivering on their promises — and producing quantifiable results. Hiring a diversity coordinator for a one-off bias training workshop never cut it before and definitely won’t cut it now.

“People want to know that you are who you say you are, and that you can do what you say you can do,” said Sax. One way to stay on track is to quantify progress where possible. Lee at Meredith said diversity and inclusion can be a measurable KPI just like a marketing team might measure and track audience engagement.

  • Leaders need to review their practices top to bottom and make plans for addressing the issues. ThirdLove’s Ziskroit at recommends regular employee engagement surveys to establish a baseline, flag issues of concern, and measure progress. “There’s a number of different factors you can measure quarter to quarter … to at least have an awareness of how teammates are doing,” Ziskroit said. In terms of diversity, she said that even if companies are in the midst of a hiring freeze, they can take action to make sure their hiring processes are set up to be as equitable as possible. “Put foundational KPIs in place to make sure every single interview has the same questions as another interview for a position,” Ziskroit said. “When hiring increases, think about larger goals, but definitely start with those foundational pieces.”
  • As companies keep track of these KPIs, it’s important for them to be transparent about their progress as well as their shortcomings. Meredith does town halls where they address levels of diversity within the company. “It comes down to constant reporting and constant information sharing,” Lee said. “One of the things we are pledging to do is to share not just our progress but also where we’ve fallen short as often as we can … This is being shared on a corporate level on a yearly basis, on a brand level this is happening much more frequently now. Our intention is to make it almost very fluid because there’s no reason not to share this information. That is not something that can be protected because as we’ve seen in other instances, the team will just go share that within a Google Doc anyway and they will talk about it together and surface that information. So if we don’t do it, someone else will.”
  • Lee draws the line between creating a “culture of accountability” versus a “cancel culture.” “We have to build a culture where we’re not canceling each other, and we’re not punishing each other, but we’re challenging each other,” he said. “We have started to really work on that with some really emotional and some really difficult conversations, but that’s an important part of it.”
BOTTOM LINE

Few, if any, businesses can claim a perfect record when it comes to achieving diversity, inclusion and equity throughout all facets of the company, but living up to their ideals starts with being introspective and holding themselves accountable both for their employees inside the company — and their clients and audiences outside.

04
Mental health comes first

When we talk about mental health in the workplace, it’s no longer enough to have HR put up a few posters and host occasional awareness-raising events — and this is especially so given the current pandemic. Mental health is a serious issue, but it’s also a deeply complex one and there’s growing acceptance among leaders that it’s time businesses made mental health a priority. That means learning how to talk about it — and knowing when to listen. It means fostering support networks internally, and creating space for employees to take care of their own mental health needs.

“It’s about giving flexibility in their lives, in how they manage their day-to-day workloads, how they manage their personal life,” said Verizon Media’s Gowrappan. “We know everything is blended in.”

  • Companies are increasingly seeing the need to center mental health. Leaders are building support systems to address mental health needs and provide resources. And that’s not just because companies want to be conscientious employers — and of course, they do — but because there’s growing agreement that mental health is foundational to the success of organizations.

“This is not just about doing the right thing as humanity, but actually this is the right business decision,” said Gowrappan. Even in a year that has included the unprecedented (in our lifetimes, at least) crisis of a global pandemic, internal surveys at Verizon have shown year-on-year improvements in employee engagement. Gowrappan says that correlates closely to mental health, and he attributes the positive results to the company’s variety of initiatives aimed at giving employees space to look after their own mental health needs, from personal days to employee resource groups to flexible working arrangements. “It should be a core pillar because you will see results within months, if not within quarters, in terms of employees and retention. You will see attrition rates go down.”

  • Find the habits, routines and rituals that keep your team grounded. Great leaders are able to support their teams and their clients, and one aspect of this can be to identify and set certain practices that bring people together and/or provide a moment of respite from the heat of the day-to-day. 

At The Sax Agency, every day starts and ends with a prayer. “We’re a very spiritual group here,” said agency partner Keller.

Other companies may take a different approach to this — that could be a regular team meal, some kind of meditation or something else entirely — but the point is the same. It’s about establishing a space within everyone’s packed schedules to allow team members to step out of work mode and unite around a shared ritual. “I think every organization has to find their fiber of what keeps them grounded as a team,” Sax said.

Gowrappan emphasizes the importance of creating opportunities for employees to pause and reflect. At Verizon, he tries to foster healthy habits among his teams. “I talk about the ‘three E’s,’ which is exposure to sunlight, emotional wellbeing and exercise,” he said. “If you do this as an input, you’ll see better output.”

ThirdLove has been running a monthly wellness day during the pandemic, where the team has a day off to recharge and rest. A “mindful Monday” session has also been a monthly feature, engaging team members in activities such as meditation, yoga or stretching. Since it’s not possible to have informal catch-ups in person right now, they’ve been conducting surveys to check the team’s temperature. The surveys are not mandatory, so employees can opt out if they choose. Ziskroit said the company has been emphasizing “acknowledging that there are really difficult things going on in everyone’s lives and starting at that point, and not just sugarcoating everything.”

  • With employees working remotely and having little else to do during lockdown, some companies have seen increases in productivity during the pandemic. Leaders say it’s worth sacrificing that surplus productivity in order to maintain a healthier work environment.

Simulmedia founder and CEO Dave Morgan said his team’s productivity soared during lockdown, but that he has been concerned about fatigue and stressed the importance of getting out and exercising. “I’m sure some people could look at that and say ‘hey this is great, let’s just reap the benefits of this long term.’ I don’t think it’s sustainable,” Morgan said.

As the team has started to return to working together, Morgan said productivity has slowed somewhat — and he’s fine with that. “It’s great to see the happiness and the joy and the energy when people get to see their peers and their friends in socially distanced ways and with masks,” he said. “But it’s really been rewarding these last couple of months as we’ve been doing our partial reopening.”

BOTTOM LINE

It’s more important now than ever before to have structure in place to support the mental health of employees, and doing so helps in more ways than one. “Demonstrating empathy and flexibility and prioritizing workers’ mental health and creating that psychological safety can have a meaningful impact not only on employee experience, but also how an employer is seen going forward,” said Gowrappan.

05
Recruitment calls for a new approach

Fostering an inclusive team starts with hiring them — at all levels of the company. Even if businesses aren’t in a position to bring on new employees, there are nonetheless steps they can be taking now, and doing so sooner rather than later will be worth it. Creating a more diverse workforce improves employee retention and overall motivation; staff will see their value and future in the company if they see themselves reflected in who is at the top of the organizational chart. Plus, bringing in diversified voices, whether it’s in product development, marketing or outreach helps eliminate blindspots when it comes to building inclusive business relationships with clients and customers.

All of this calls for a rethink of the hiring practices employers relied on in the past. Companies need to adjust their approach at every angle, from recruitment tactics, to interview questions, right down to the job description. “That notion of who the right person is—the archetype for a certain role—we have to bust through that,” said Meredith’s Lee.  “The preconceived notions and unintentional biases we have, they’ll inform that ‘perfect fit’ … We’re recasting some of our roles so that there’s not just one kind of person who would fit these descriptions.”

  • Growing a diverse team takes diverse applicants, and attracting those aspiring employees takes work. Coltrane Curtis and his team at Team Epiphany start at the baseline: education. “We needed to disrupt that system to really be able to identify creative talent,” he said. They created a scholarship at Morehouse College that provided recipients an internship at the agency, a New York apartment, and spending money to help students recognize their potential before they picked their career path.

Lee also suggests companies should “re-energize” the part of recruitment that has head hunters going to conventions and events designed for minority groups. In the financially strained publishing industry, Meredith cut back on funding to send people to career development groups like the National Association of Black Journalists. “When you’re not going to those conventions, when you’re not going to those meetings … that’s going to affect your talent pool.”

  • Mentorship is a great strategy to keep diverse recruitment top of mind at all levels of the company. “Even if there aren’t a plethora of people of color in executive branch does not mean that white male executives who are SVPs and EVPs can’t work on cultivating talent of color,” Lee said. “Unfortunately because of where we’re at, that is going to be a necessity.” Lee motivates his team leaders to cultivate this diversity within their teams by tying KPIs to their annual bonuses.
  • Be data informed, but not data controlled when it comes to not only hiring, but measuring success. “When you look at data for various races, that is simply a baseline,” Lee said. “We have to strive to do much better than that … You don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you are simply using quotas to guide you.
BOTTOM LINE

Building a diverse team isn’t about checking off boxes, but about cultivating unique skillsets and talents at every level of the company that will benefit the business as a whole. To do that, employers and hiring managers need to look at who is in their networks — if everyone looks like or acts like them, they need to take proactive steps to expand their reach.

06
Employees want to bring their full selves to their jobs

For many employees before life under lockdown, it would have rarely been appropriate or necessary to invite their boss or colleagues inside their home. Now, their supervisors are virtually in their living rooms, meeting spouses, babies and pets. Happy hours have moved from the local pub to the couch on Hangouts, and porch dropoffs of wine and drive-by birthday celebrations are the new break room. Remote work has blended personal life with the job — and employees expect their managers and teammates to be supportive of this new reality.

The past few months have also seen countless brands and businesses recognizing the diversity of experiences that informs their communities, both internally and externally. One consequence is that companies have been making space to uplift and support the views and values of BIPOC communities. Leaders are pausing to listen and understand diverse sets of views and opinions, and Curtis says supporting an environment of self-expression in the workplace is a strategy for success and better output for brands and agencies. “Diverse thought has to be active,” he said. “You have to give people the opportunity to weigh in on challenges and work and I think the diverse POVs that are looking at one particular object really creates sharper work.”

  • Understanding and cultivating a culture of self expression starts with the interview process, says Curtis. “The things that I generally ask are, ‘What are you listening to? What are you doing when you’re not working? What are your friends doing?’ And it’s really interesting the support mechanism people have and the communities that they belong to,” he said. “And so when you get people to do that, you really understand where they’re hanging out, what they’re cliques look like — and when we’re creating experiences it might be cool for them to invite their community of people.” This approach strengthens not only the individual, but the whole team, he said. “I really want people to be connected and the only way you can do that is really deeply understanding who every single individual is.”
  • Allowing for self-expression doesn’t have to be unprofessional or inappropriate —i t should not be without mutual respect. But whether it is communicated through fashion or through sharing opinions, “I think you have to figure out the right place and right time for that self expression,” Curtis said. “Sometimes we have to teach some of our teammates what the right look is for the right room.”

“I think we all have to be aware of how we position and frame our arguments or how we position and frame how we feel,” said Sax of The Sax Agency. “Yes, you want to be vocal and stand up for the things you believe in, but there is a limit we believe in this whole self mentality that people say you want to bring to the table.”

  • Maintaining an environment of inclusivity in company culture, camaraderie and decision making can be more challenging when people aren’t all physically in the same room. Some companies are finding themselves needing to strike a balance in communication between employees who choose to stay home versus those who return to the office. Simulmedia’s Morgan said that in his case, there are inevitably going to be some trade offs. “I think we have a lot more empathy than we did before and everyone’s much more careful about giving pauses so others can speak,” he said. “[But] I’m not going to lose the serendipity of a great whiteboard session that happens in a meeting. We’ll try to capture that on video, but we’re not going to stop some of the real energy that happens human to human.” He said his team is implementing new tools to record conferences so that they can be reviewed later, but “we’re not going to undermine the core of what’s great just to make sure it works perfectly in a virtual world.”
BOTTOM LINE

Creating an environment where your team members can be themselves not only benefits multiple aspects of the company, it’s part of the very fabric of what it means to be an inclusive workplace. “Being a black guy, having other jobs, sometimes what you have to do is assimilate — you have to try hard to fit in,” Curtis said. “And it makes your job twice as hard … Self-expression is key for feeling comfortable.”

07
Overheard

“We have 11,000 headquarters right now, not one anymore.”

Guru Gowrappan, CEO, Verizon Media

Gowrappan said Verizon has found that mental health is not just good for the health of employees — it’s better for business and employee retention. A Q3 survey of Verizon employees revealed staff are 12 percent more engaged year-on-year, doubly impressive since that included two quarters spent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gowrappan said that flexibility is one key component or input of a solid mental health strategy, including trusting employees to manage their own workloads and their personal lives. Giving employees the option to work remotely can be one aspect of a mental health strategy. However, Gowrappan said that dispersed teams have their own unique mental health needs, and with many companies currently working remote, the need for proactive, holistic support is greater than ever.

“You’ll never hear me use the term ‘employee.’ It’s loaded.”

Coltrane Curtis, Founder,  Team Epiphany

Curtis said senior leaders need to cultivate an atmosphere of mutual care in the workplace, rather than treating team members as disposable units of productivity. He argued that team members know they need to get the work done, and that leaders should treat their team the way they would want to be treated themselves. Use empathy, humility and thoughtfulness as the foundational building blocks of healthy team dynamics. Curtis put this into practice during lockdown, buying groceries, dropping off spirits and mixers so that members of his team could enjoy happy hours, and even delivering a table and chair to a colleague who had access to a New York City rooftop, but no furniture.

“You have to figure out a way to have a candid conversation and a dialogue at a moment in time where we’re taught to have an etiquette that is a little abnormal than what we’re used to.”

Kara Sax, CEO, The Sax Agency
08
WTF + Explainers

The circumstances surrounding the pandemic and remote work have disrupted normal lines of office and board room communication, in many cases siloing meetings to Zoom calls where there is an entirely new framework for expression. Leaders have responsibility for finding ways to compensate for these differences to continue creating healthy dialogue within their teams. “We’ve had to have one-on-ones with our employees, we’ve had to have deeper conversations—to pick up the phone, not just email, not just text message conversations,” Sax said. “We’ve had to do check-ins in a different way because we want to make sure we’re having a dialogue, not a monologue culture.” Sax adds that this approach should also apply externally to consumers. “We don’t want to speak at people,” she said. “We really want to hear and have this dialogue because this is new to everyone.”

WTF is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is the idea that the human brain comes in variations that create differences in learning and attention. ADHD, the autism spectrum, dyslexia and more fall under the scope of neurodiversity, and many companies are incorporating bias training around neurodiversity to be more accommodating to employees with these differences. Gowrappan has a resource group at Verizon Media dedicated to neurodiversity to “learn the needs of employees, create a community of support, provide resources, and increase the cultural competency of managers so that they can effectively manage their teams.” The goal is to create a more inclusive environment that acknowledges and brings out the strengths and unique skill sets of neurodiverse employees, by removing ignorance and educating both team leaders and colleagues. 

WTF is DnI optimization?

DnI, or “diversity and inclusion” is something that companies can optimize, or measure and tweak with the goal of perfecting or making progress, just like they would SEO or their social media output. Lee at Meredith said DnI optimization is part of their KPI set when it comes to producing digital media content on diverse talents and subjects, with the goal to always improve, never quit or cut back just because something didn’t work. They set targets for how much content on a diverse subject they want to do, how much readership they want to drive “and really work at it,” he said.

The important thing is to recognize that, in this case, if a story isn’t getting the traction editors and publishers hoped for, but it nonetheless amplifies marginalized voices, it could be a signal that there’s simply more work to do to obtain that traction and win over readers. “We’re not just going to fall back on ‘well, the audience didn’t like it,’” Lee said. “We haven’t earned the audience yet.”

WTF is equity?

‘Equity’ and ‘equality’ are often confused terms. Equality means everyone is given the same opportunity, but equity allows for nuances in how a person is able to access that opportunity. Equity accounts for differences in employees’ ability to reach their full potential by tailoring support systems to their unique needs. This can mean creating a mentorship program for POC at the workplace to create better opportunities for hiring and promotions, or it can mean developing a resource group to provide support for those with ADHD (see above).

When it comes to establishing equity within the scope of compensation, Walden at Daily

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Pay said employers should really be continuously reviewing their process every three to six months—if that’s not possible, at least once a year—to ensure their staff is being treated fairly. “We’re constantly looking at market data to see what’s the appropriate salaries, we’re doing salary adjustments throughout the year, not necessarily just at the time of increases,” she said. “We always make sure that [we’re] fairly accommodating what the employees’ needs are.”

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Video: Day 1
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Video: Day 2
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