New (and Re-Emerging) Trends in the Evolving Workplace

Many employees are resigned to making less and/or doing more, but are drawing the line in other areas.

By Deb Busser, Partner, Essex Partners

Some fundamental shifts are occurring in the workplace.   It appears little has changed, as those employees who have kept their jobs hunker down, try not to get noticed,and wait things out. But, in fact, the workplace continues to evolve.   New trends are emerging,and some old ones are coming back,too.      

Most people will agree that the last few years have been difficult all around.   The recession has impacted many aspects of people’s lives, and, in particular, how most view work and the workplace.   Many employees are resigned to making less and/or doing more, but are drawing the line in other areas.   And new research and changing demographics continue to exert influence on how the workplace is evolving.

So what are the trends of 2011-2012?

  • A broadened definition of what it means to be a “leader”: Expect to see a real movement from “management principles” to“leadership values.”Employees are savvy, and although they have been relatively quiet as they waitfor to the “return to normal”following the recession or almost recession,they’ve been carefully watching.   Employees know when an organization’s walk doesn’t fit the talk, and they are getting impatient with following managers who are less self-aware than they are.   New 360-degreeassessment tools strive to measure “leadership agility” and “learning agility,”which,by definition,require a more conscious, aware,and—dare we say it?—spiritually connected leader.   The leader as an expert with a style of command and control is out.   The leader as a visionary who facilitates creativity, collaboration, true empowerment,and shared purpose is in.   Leaders in the evolving workplace seek to engage not only their employees’ minds but their hearts.
  • Work becomes a conscious form of personal self-expression: As the Baby Boomers work their way up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to self-actualization, many are searching for deeper meaning.   No one wants to feel like a “sell-out”at work, yet in the past,employees have rationalized or tolerated less than optimal work situations because their families needed their income and going along to get alongseemed like the only choice they had.   But underneath,they’ve been yearning for a deeper connection,and they are aware the clock is ticking.   Employees want to know that their time and how they spend it have meaning and purpose, and they are tired of compartmentalizing their work life and their personal life.   Expect individuals to begin to assert their “leadership”by insisting on an ability tolive theirvalues, as well as those of organization, at work.   
  • Resources and energy are expended on developing a sustainable culture: Expect to see a focus on workplace culture as a means to grow the business.   Some of the best organizations (Whole Foods, Panera, SAS,and Google) spend little on marketing, yet put time, energy,and resources into making sure they have a sustainable culture.   When your company is perceived to be an organization that cares about its employees, this can be some of the best PR you can get.   Customers patronize businesses that care about their employees,and they will even pay more (!) if they believe you share their values.   As Ron Shaich, founder andchairman of Panera Bread, remarked at a recent Conscious Capitalism Conference, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
  • A return to a focus on diversity: Remember back in the late ’80s and early ’90s when organizations actually had departments devoted to fostering diversity?   Well, guess what?   Diversity is back.   Thereare new reasons for valuing diversity, and yet again it has to do with the customer—and with shareholders.   From a customer-relations perspective, companies need people inside their organizations who are representative of the customers they are trying toattract.   And though it doesn’t feel like it now, there will be a shortage of skilled talent in the not-too-distant future.   Demographics alone make clear that those companies thatwill compete effectively are those that have created organizations wherethey can harness all of the talent the marketplace has to offer. Diversity may become the new “green”or “sustainable.”
  • Women are more heavily recruited for corporate board roles: You have heard all of the statistics about women opting outonce they reach a certain rung on the ladder.   This is true,and there are myriad reasons for it. However, what is also true is that the greater the representation of women in senior executive roles and at the board level, the more profitable those organizations tend to be.   Recent research from McKinsey and ION show a correlation between having more women on corporate boards of directors and higher company earnings.   And in light of recent legislation mandating greater board diversity in Europe, many American companies are looking to get ahead of the curve.   
  • Where you sit is less important than whoyou know: We are aware of the downside of instant-access technology gadgets that make employees feel on call 24/7.   The upside is that all of that technology,as wellas social media platforms such asLinkedIn and Facebook,make it easier to maintain relationships with both current and past co-workers.   Greater amounts of information and expertise are shared and leveraged, and employees become known for whom they knowand can access, rather than how much time they log in the office.   This will be important as aging Baby Boomers stay in the workforce longer than planned but demand more flexibility in where, when,and how they work.
  • Flatter organizations that value teams more than hierarchies: In a similar vein, instant-access technology means employees are not as dependent on the hierarchies of the past for information.   And corporate downsizings already have winnowed down many layers of management. Employees realize they need their co-workers in order to be successful, but they are less interested in where people’s names are on the org chart than in what they know.   With these developments, a new definition of teamwork emerges.   Rather than everyone on the team “playing their positions,”the effective teams of the future believe everyone chips in and does what is needed.   

Despite the recession, significant shifts in the workplace are underway. Organizations must address these trends to ensure they are well positioned for sustainability and growth. Forward-thinking companies will be proactive in facing these challenges and opportunities head on.

Deborah Busser is a partner at Essex Partners, a consultancy that specializes in senior executive and C-suite career transition. Busser brings more than20 years of corporate leadership experience in talent development and acquisition, employee relations,and marketing to her work with senior executives in financial services, high technology, health care, biotechnology, and higher education.   For more information, visit

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