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Let’s Break it Down: The Future of Work Shouldn’t Re-create the Past

Evelyn Carter, PhD
| President
Evelyn is a social psychologist and DEI expert focused on evolving and advancing the practice of diversity, equity, and inclusion.


When you think of the phrase “future of work,” what comes to mind? For Delian Asparouhov, Partner at Founders Fund, the future of work sounds a lot like the past: working in an office, hiring based on merit, and limiting employees to their “work self” not their “whole self,” among other things. At least, companies that believe in that vision are the ones his firm will be investing in (in all fairness, Asparouhov did call out that the purpose of these principles “is to allow for self-selection by founders.”)

While these things might not sound controversial at first (and the first two at face value seem reasonable) it raised the eyebrows of many folks focused on inclusion. Then, Asparouhov’s colleague, Keith Rabois, took the dog whistle out of it when he chimed in, “no DEI office nor DEI Board members either.”

While it might seem dated, Asparouhov’s declaration is reminiscent of a theme I often hear when working with some leaders. Recently, I was talking to one who shared that they are used to more of a “legacy philosophy” of business: companies should stick to solving “business issues,” employees should leave their personal lives and values at the door, and the “old” way of hiring and managing employees was working just fine.

The truth is, it wasn’t working just fine. In fact, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as a practice exists because the “old way” of doing business didn’t work for everyone. Consistently, the folks left out and left behind were those who are marginalized or underrepresented in society. If we’re going to create a future of work that champions progress, inclusivity, and innovation, we can’t be enticed by ideas like the ones the Founders Fund are endorsing. Instead, when I hear a leader bemoaning the days gone by, I see it as an opportunity to help them navigate both the present and future of work. Here’s what that looks like.

Understand the true impact of the “legacy philosophy” of business.

When I facilitate workshops, I always begin with the moral case for DEI (most, though not all, of my clients are already familiar with the business case). I emphasize that caring about DEI is a moral mandate; otherwise, you are complicit in allowing an environment that is toxic to a certain subset of people to persist. And, indeed, the old way of doing business was toxic — typically those from marginalized or underrepresented groups, like pregnant women, neurodivergent people, and folks of color to name a few. The reality is that employees are whole, complex humans, with a variety of experiences and needs. While the modern workplace need not cater to each and every need, trying to pretend that those complexities don’t exist will only create a homogeneous cookie-cutter workforce that will fail at innovation. Aside from being a bad business decision, consider the inherent privilege of presuming that everyone can separate their “work self” from their identities, needs, and experiences. For many of us, that just isn’t possible.

Listen to what (most) employees and candidates want: more conversation about inclusion and justice.

One of the most confounding things about the “keep business about business” crowd is that it’s a stance that flies in the face of the direction our world is moving. More and more employees are expecting their companies to center inclusion in their work. In Paradigm’s Racial Justice in the Workplace report, we found that 68% of people believe they should be able to talk about racial justice at work, and this was especially true for employees aged 35-44. Other research highlights the importance of DEI for millennial and GenZ job seekers: 37% of respondents to a Glassdoor survey said they would not apply to a company with negative reviews from people of color, and 76% said a diverse workforce was important when evaluating job offers. 47% of millennials say diversity and inclusion are important factors in their job search. To be sure, that means there are plenty of prospective employees who may be enticed by declarations against DEI, but cutting out half of your potential workforce isn’t exactly a winning business strategy.

Be clear about the tools needed to navigate a new, more inclusive, normal at work.

I find that leaders initially think that creating a company where inclusion matters is akin to the wild west — uncharted, lawless, and a bit dangerous. By contrast, inclusive workplaces should be meticulously and intentionally designed. One of the keys to success is establishing norms and equipping employees with tools they need. This is especially critical for managers. For example, perhaps an employee is having a bad mental health day. In a “work self only” scenario, when a manager asked an employee how they were doing, the default answer might have been “good!” Then, that employee’s brain fog might translate to struggling to pay attention in meetings, and the manager assuming they’re disengaged or unprepared. If a company instead normalizes the idea that employees are whole people, that employee might answer their manager’s question differently — e.g., “I’m struggling right now with some non-work related things.” The manager doesn’t need to provide an ad hoc therapy session, but instead have tools to provide appropriate support: give the employee a little grace, encourage them to take some time to recharge, or, if appropriate, share information on mental health benefits the company offers. Make it clear what is, and is not, under a manager’s purview. By being clear about those expectations, you can help everyone succeed.

I understand that figuring out a new future is hard and will be a bit messy as we try things, learn, and adjust accordingly. But going back to an approach that we know definitely did not work isn’t the answer. Our world is becoming more diverse, and we need to lean into inclusion and equity to ensure that we make our more diverse world a better place for all. The best companies are going to lead the charge in writing a new playbook for what a modern, inclusive, future of work can look like.

June 23, 2022

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