The future of work will include more flexibility when it comes to working from home, and a greater emphasis on culture, diversity and purpose as companies seek new ways to keep employees engaged and motivated, attendees at PRovoke Media’s 10th Entrepreneurs’ Forum heard yesterday.

A panel on “The Future of Work; Building a Strong and Inclusive Culture,” sponsored by APCO Worldwide and moderated by APCO managing director Licy Do Canto, followed from a panel on how agencies were dealing with a post-pandemic return to the office and found clients facing many of the same challenges—and coming up with their own creative solutions.

“One of the things we realized, and we are a very traditional company in some ways, is that we didn’t have a lot of remote workers,” said Kathryn Beiser, vice president of global communications at Eli Lilly and Company. “But we realized we could do this very quickly. We learned how resilient we could be.”

At the same time, she said, the company found itself “living off our cultural capital” over the last 18 months. “As we look to the future, we have to think about how we build that capital rather the continuing to draw from the banks.”

One downside of the increase in remote working: “Our young people felt isolated and didn’t get the mentoring or the growth they would have received.”

Duncan Cox, vice president of business development at the Learning Economy Foundation said his company had been working remotely “from day one,” and had played a role in “shepherding out community into that space” when the pandemic struck.

But he warned that “remote work can have an outsized negative impact on younger employees and female employees. It can be a lot more stressful for those people to be on Zoom all day.” Turning off cameras by default can help people relax and feel more comfortable. “Anyone can join at the table from the space where they’re at,” without feeling self-conscious, he said.

To ensure that company culture doesn’t suffer from an increase in remote working, “Everything we do begins and ends with purpose,” Beiser added. “We have been focused on talking about purpose, and living examples of it. We don’t focus only on the heroic, but on the day to day, because we want to make it clear that everyone’s role is important to delivering on our purpose.

“As storytellers our instinct is always to look for that amazing story, but we need to find the divine in the ordinary. When you talk about teamwork and the pieces and how they work together, that can be even more inspiring.”

Lilly also took a long hard look to figure out why the company didn’t have the diversity it wanted. “We looked into the experience of women employees, Black and LatinX employees, the LGBTQ+ community and we listened to their stories. That helped us to understand the true barriers to inclusion.”

One lesson, Beiser said, was that every employee—and especially communicators—“should take their teams through unconscious bias training.”

Another lesson: “Where it goes bad is if you keep it separate and it feels like a bolt on, a human resources program. As communicators, we have to make sure it is knit together and part of the fabric of the company. You have to be purposeful about it and plan for it. And then you have measure it.”

Eric Kraus, a former CCO for companies like Covidien and Bacardi introduced a note of caution about remote working. “I’m a big believer in the value of face-to-face communication and the office environment.”

But he agreed with Beiser on the value of purpose in the new world of work. “There’s always going to be an ROI analysis, but at the end of the day there’s never been more of a need for a company to have a purpose or to drive home their values. Companies have to work harder at that when everything is remote. There has to be a way to bring what a company stands for to life inside and outside of the company. Without that, the isolation becomes that much harder for people to deal with.”     

He cited a variety of studies showing that when companies have a purpose, their employees are more engaged and more productive. “Companies that don’t have a purpose are at a disadvantage,” he said, but he warned: “There are companies that really believe in purpose and there are companies that say we have to have a purpose because that’s what is expected of us. Employees know the difference, and that can be worse than not having a purpose at all. It has to be in your DNA.”