Editor’s Note: This interview with “The Future Workplace Experience” co-author Jeanne Meister recently appeared on the National Center for the Middle Market web site. Below is an abbreviated version of the interview conducted by writer Chuck Leddy. Read the entire Future of Work interview with Jeanne Meister. Today’s middle market workplace is changing rapidly, as technology and the composition of the workforce continue to evolve. Baby Boomers are moving into retirement; millennials are now the largest generational cohort in the labor force; digital technology is enabling more remote working and changing the way middle market companies recruit, hire, and engage their employees. Meister is a founding partner of Future Workplace, an HR Research and Executive Network. Her book provides 10 rules for mastering disruption in recruiting and engaging employees.

Chuck Leddy: What are some of the driving forces pushing workplace trends for middle market companies?

Jeanne Meister: The changing composition of the workforce is driving some of the trends. We have a multigenerational workforce with five to six generations. One impact of a multigenerational workforce is more older employees being managed by younger employees. Future Workplace’s “Multigenerational Leadership Study” found that 83 percent of all employees have seen millennials managing older workers in their offices.

Another driver is what I call the blended workforce of employees, contractors, and artificial intelligence. We now have 54 million people, or a third of the American workforce, who work on-demand as independent contractors plus chatbots, defined as an artificial intelligence computer program designed to simulate a conversation and assist workers in their jobs.

Leddy: How are millennials different from other workplace generations?

Meister: Millennials want what we all want: purposeful work, flexibility to work when and where we want, and access to continuous, on-demand learning. Millennials also want  a more personalized workplace experience, meaning access to targeted mentoring, benefits customized to their needs, and a work culture which values growth and development at work.

Leddy: How is today’s multigenerational workforce a challenge for middle market companies?

Meister: When companies heavily market new benefits tailored to a particular generation’s preferences, this can create workplace resentments. For example, millennials are increasingly voicing concerns about their student loan debt and some organizations such as PwC have responded by providing them with a student loan debt repayment benefit of up to $1,500 per year for five years. Generation X, who is at a different stage of life, may feel left out. Some Generation Xers are asking their employer for assistance to finance college education for their kids.

Leddy: As aging Baby Boomers increasingly move into retirement, how can middle market companies avoid a “brain drain” of necessary know-how?

Meister: Baby Boomers are often looking to reduce their time in the office as they near retirement. So some companies are enabling Baby Boomers to work part-time or as faculty in their company’s training department to share their knowledge, mentor younger employees, and transfer their institutional knowledge on project-related work.

Leddy: How should middle market companies be “re-thinking” their workspaces to better engage employees?

Middle market companies can expect to see less need for office space, perhaps 20 percent less, due to the growth of remote working. A well-designed workspace should drive culture, enable choice, and promote wellness. Research has found that workspaces need to be a balance between open, quiet, and focused space.  With the majority of our waking hours spent working, there is a growing demand for healthy workspaces

In what ways is technology serving both as a middle market workplace disruptor and enabler?

Leddy: What is this “right” mindset for middle market companies in adapting to emerging workplace trends?

Meister: Middle market leaders will need to be comfortable with a “VUCA” workplace that’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. It’s no longer about asking “if” disruption will happen, but understanding that it’s a matter of “when.” Leaders will need to be workplace activists in order to prepare for this rapid pace of change. They’ll need to plan for alternate future states happening in the workplace, and recognize that if you’re not disrupting your industry, your competitor probably is.

You can read more Expert Perspectives on the National Center for The Middle Market web site which include authors, industry experts and other business leaders.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is highly collaborative, versatile communications professional with a proven track record as both a journalist and business communications trainer for Fortune 500 companies. As a reporter and freelance writer for the Harvard Gazette and Boston Globe, he's published hundreds of stories, features, profiles, and interviews. 

As a business communications trainer in Boston, he's worked with C-level executive from around the globe, helping them improve their business English skills in writing, presentations, negotiations, and other forms of communication.

Leddy graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, then graduated from Boston College Law School in 1991, after which he practiced law in Greater Boston for three years. He's been a journalist and teacher since 1995.