Designing Workplace of the Future

Organizations must address the workplace of the future as a business imperative rather than a social cause.

Celebration of International Women’s Day 2019 in March highlighted both how far we’ve come in the past year and how far we still have to go. CNN published an article quoting the World Economic Forum's 2018 Global Gender Gap Report as predicting that it will take 108 years to close the gender pay and opportunity gap, and pointing out that companies wanting to create a gender-diverse workforce need to make big changes. Last month, that number was updated to 204 years. The insurance industry might substitute any number of goals/initiatives in the paragraph above, as the slow pace of urgent and necessary change has become a hallmark of the behemoth industry. Innovators are jumping up and down, having convinced enterprise companies of the need for big changes, but not making progress quickly enough. Some even question whether industry giants will survive or die in the next phase of the marketplace, giving birth to a cottage industry of companies selling innovation services. Re-creating the workplace to optimize the value of men and women working together in leadership is itself innovation and will not succeed until it is treated like a business imperative rather than a social cause. Perhaps the single most relevant pillar of innovation is the understanding that one cannot generate new ideas from the old mindset. “Stuck in the weeds,” “in the quagmire,” you name the cliché, the concept applies. Innovation requires people to let go of entrenched beliefs and push through boundaries to reposition in a new perspective. Sometimes just a small shift can make a huge difference. From this new perspective, thought leaders emerge who can create a culture of innovation within an organization, even a really big organization. See also: 3 Keys for Building Women Leaders   Women face a number of particular barriers in the current mindset. Just to name a few, recent research shows:
  • Women (in general) are afraid to speak up and afraid to take risks. The consequences of failure for women are much harsher than for men;
  • Women are afraid to share their ideas, even when one might be a breakthrough, because their colleagues are not listening or will take the idea and make it their own;
  • Women feel more isolated the further up the organization ladder they climb, both because there are few women at their level and because they feel cut off from women at other levels;
  • Women and men don’t like it when women step out of gender stereotypes. Being liked is important to women, which amplifies the effect of attacks that result from breaking away from traditional gender roles. This is sometimes called “unconscious bias,” but is a powerful barrier for many women regardless of how it’s labeled.
All of these barriers have a chilling effect on innovation. When women step back, companies (and the world) lose 50% of their population of thinkers. When women step back, a much larger percentage of relevant expertise is lost for efforts to innovate. A mindset shift, a new perspective, is necessary for men and women; the results will be amazing. The recent explosion of effort to bring women together and to change the way women fit into the world is evidence enough of a strong desire to make change. The lack of progress is just as strong evidence that women don’t know how to make change happen. Stuck in the status quo, facing the same barriers day by day, women do not know how to change their circumstances and how to create the environment in which we are truly listened to and our ideas truly valued. What we need as a first step is a mindset shift, a way to free women from the ties that bind them to old ways of thinking. Anecdotally, successful women executives tend to agree on a few structural requirements before they would change their mindset:
  • A safe environment. The last thing women who have “made it” want to do is highlight that they are women. Participating in an innovation project regarding gender diversity at work does not feel safe. A third party or outside forum is necessary;
  • They need to be with other women to find common ground and shared experiences. Deciding to leave her comfort zone (the status quo) and jump the abyss without knowing what’s on the other side is HARD and is deeply personal for women. Being in the company of other women who can be trusted to keep shared stories confidential is critical;
  • Women need a common language and a common mindset as a foundation for innovating and re-designing the workplace; Few women are in top leadership roles, so expanding the scope of who should come together itself requires a break from the status quo. Women from different companies, industries, job titles and ages must come together to learn a common language and share a common mindset.
  • Like any innovation project, changing the workplace to better use the strengths of women in leadership requires an open mind and a willingness to abandon old beliefs and create without boundaries. Like any innovation project, the change requires dedication of resources, clear measures of success, sponsorship from top leaders and a safe environment for new ideas.
See also: How Diversity Can Stoke Innovation   Unless organizations commit themselves to addressing the creation of the workplace of the future as a pressing business imperative rather than a social cause, this, like other innovation projects, will stall. If you want to engage in conversation, if you want to explore how women can move forward, breaking through the tangles and making transformational changes for themselves and those around them, we would like to talk with you. Please reach out to us or check our website at

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