Significant shifts in the workplace are under way. Here's what to expect in the coming year.

Some fundamental shifts are occurring in the workplace. Though it appears that little has changed—as employees who haven't yet been laid off hunker down, try not to get noticed, and wait things out—in fact, the workplace continues to evolve. Shifts are happening below what is visible on the surface. New trends are emerging and some old ones are coming back, too.

The past few years have been difficult all around. The recession has affected all aspects of our lives. The Occupy Wall Street movement has brought attention to many of the ways our current systems and structures no longer work. There is pent-up frustration with many aspects of our modern society, and the traditional model of the workplace is no exception. Some employees are resigned to making less and doing more, while others are drawing the line on what they will and will not accept—and you may be surprised to find that it is the latter group you most want in your organization. In addition, new research and changing demographics continue to exert influence on how the workplace is evolving.

The following nine trends are among those emerging or returning in 2012.

An expanded definition of what it means to be a leader

Expect to see real movement from management principles to leadership values. Employees are savvy, and although they have been relatively quiet as they wait for 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 assessment tools strive to measure leadership agility and learning agility, which by definition require a more conscious, aware, and, dare I say it, spiritually connected leader. The leader as an expert with a command-and-control style is out. The leader as a visionary who facilitates creativity, collaboration, true empowerment, and shared purpose is in. Leaders in the evolving workplace engage their employees' hearts as well as their minds, and seek to draw out the leader inherent in every member of their workforce.

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 along" seemed like the only choice they had. But underneath they've been yearning for a deeper connection, and they are aware that 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. In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink discusses employees' needs for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Expect the evolving workforce to insist on living their values at work, as well as the organization's values.

Resources are expended to develop a sustainable culture

Expect to see a focus on workplace culture as a means to grow the business. Some of the best organizations (for example, Whole Foods, Panera Bread, 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 really 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.

Management often is blamed for workplace cultures that are less than optimal, and though they often do need to take the lead, in great workplaces everyone is brought into and shares ownership for the culture they collectively create. Ron Shaich, founder and chairman of Panera Bread, remarked at a recent Conscious Capitalism Conference that "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."

A return to a focus on diversity

Remember back in the late 1980s and early 1990s when organizations had departments devoted to fostering diversity? Diversity is back. There are 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 to attract. And though it doesn't feel like it now, there will be a shortage of skilled talent in the not-too-distant future as Baby Boomers leave the workplace in increasing numbers.

Demographics alone make clear that those companies that will effectively compete are those that have created organizations where they can harness all of the talent the marketplace has to offer. And let's not forget diversity of perspectives and thinking. The best companies embrace diversity of thinking, believing a nonhomogeneous workforce results in greater innovation, faster. 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 out" once they reach a certain rung on the ladder. This is true, and there are myriad reasons for it. However, what also is 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 & Company and ION show a correlation between having more women on corporate boards of directors and higher company earnings. Grassroots campaigns such as 2020 Women on Boards, and professional organizations such as ION and The Boston Club were created with the expressed mission of increasing female representation on boards. They are drawing attention to those firms who are doing well or making progress, and those who are not. And in light of recent legislation mandating greater board diversity in Europe, many American companies are looking to more proactively get ahead of the curve.

It's about who you know

Where you are geographically or on the organizational chart is less important than who you know. Although the downside of instant-access technology gadgets make employees feel on call 24/7, the upside is that all of that technology, as well as social media platforms such LinkedIn and Facebook, make it easier to maintain relationships with both current and past co-workers.

Greater amounts of information and expertise are shared and used as an advantage, and employees become known for who they know and 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.

A bigger focus on the work and the team

Job titles and hierarchies are less important than the work and the team. In a similar vein, instant-access technology means that 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 that to be successful they need their co-workers, 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 that everyone chips in and does what is needed. Savvy employers are staffing the work, not the jobs, by creating more flexible work arrangements that allow them to scale and take advantage of talent that is less interested in a traditional 9-to-5 model of work.

The talent war is back

McKinsey & Company released "The War for Talent" in the late 1990s, which described an ongoing, constant, and costly battle for the best and the brightest. It predicted that organizations would have to be more creative in attracting talent and would have to work even harder to keep it.

Even in this economy with record unemployment, employers still say they can't find qualified employees. The most sought-after talent are fast-moving, independent thinkers who have adapted to the new free agency reality. They view their permanent jobs as long-term assignments, use the skills and talents they bring, and don't worry if what they most want to accomplish in life doesn't seem to fit within the confines of work.

If they are getting their greatest needs met, they also are likely to make their strongest contributions at work; it is not a zero-sum game. The hottest talents value their freedom, know their value, and are with you because they choose to be, not because they don't see any other options. Realize that they are likely to be ready to leave you before you are ready for them to go, and eliminate as many reasons for them to leave as you can.

Partnerships with higher education

Larger corporations and more elite universities know how to partner well and have established strong internship and recruiting programs that let them attract and identify top emerging talent. However, there are more opportunities than ever to partner with community colleges.

One of the effects of the ever-rising costs of both private and public universities is increased enrollment at community colleges, with many colleges forced to add classes late at night and early in the morning to meet demand. In addition, many two-year colleges are under scrutiny by state officials to make sure they are truly educating the future workforce. State governments are looking for better community college completion rates, as well as specialized and targeted curriculum that prepares graduates to truly contribute to the local economy. Expect to see an increase in private-public partnerships between local employers and the two-year institutions in their neighborhoods.

Accepting the challenge

Despite the recession, significant shifts in the workplace are under way. Organizations must address these trends to ensure that they are well positioned for sustainability and growth.

Forward-thinking companies will be proactive in facing these challenges and opportunities head-on.