Listening first and always to employees. When we began defining what the future of work would look like at Mars, we brought Associates to the table. We wanted to build a strategy with them, not push it to them. Leveraging qualitative and quantitative research methods, we were able to identify trending pain points and weigh where interventions could make the most positive impact.

When it comes to designing the future of work, one size fits none. Discovering success isn’t about a hybrid model or offering remote work options. Individuals and organizations are looking for more freedom. The freedom to choose the work model that makes the most sense. The freedom to choose their own values. And the freedom to pursue what matters most. We reached out to successful leaders and thought leaders across all industries to glean their insights and predictions about how to create a future that works.

As a part of our interview series called “How Employers and Employees are Reworking Work Together,” we had the pleasure to interview Alison Mulligan, Mars Incorporated’s Director of Workplace Transformation.

Alison Mulligan is the Director of Global Workplace Transformation for Mars Incorporated. With 17 years of experience in the human resources space, Alison leads Mars’ Future of Work program and is passionate about creating a workplace experience that aligns with the global, family-owned business’ Purpose and Five Principles. Mars employs 133,000 dedicated Associates across its diverse and expanding portfolio of treats, snacks, food and pet care products and services. Mars produces some of the world’s best-loved brands including DOVE®, EXTRA®, M&M’s®, MILKY WAY®, SNICKERS®, TWIX®, ORBIT®, PEDIGREE®, ROYAL CANIN®, SKITTLES®, BEN’S ORIGINAL™, WHISKAS®, COCOAVIA®, and 5™; and takes care of half of the world’s pets through their nutrition, health and services businesses, including AniCura, Banfield Pet Hospitals™, BluePearl®, Linnaeus, and VCA™. Before this role, Alison led a multi-year change program opening a new, state-of-the-art office for Mars Wrigley, located in Newark, New Jersey.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today.

Sure! First, growing up alongside my large Irish family is a big part of my identity. I’m one of 21 cousins on my mom’s side alone. My sister and I grew up in New Jersey, watching my parents juggle raising a family and building meaningful careers. My mom is a nurse, having spent her early career in internal medicine and then pivoted to consulting, where she led healthcare tech transformations. My dad was an executive focused on indirect procurement. I saw my parents thrive in careers they loved and maintain geographical roots close to family. For a decade, Mars has worked with me to chart a meaningful career path and honored my choice to stay located close to family. Moving across state lines or even continents might be an advantage of working for a global company for some, but for my husband — a school administrator — and me, staying close to home and our families trumped all. I hope in the future more companies will help employees build careers and progress forward like Mars has done for me, without the geographical boundaries of offices defining someone’s potential.

Second, my most important role is always mom to my two young kids. Even though I work in HR and have led programs to support working parents, I don’t think I fully appreciated the complexities of integrating work and parenting until I became a mom. Then, a global pandemic. My experience helping two kids navigate things like distance learning made me even more committed to changing where, when, and how people work. Change was long overdue. The future of work is more than a topic of conversation for me — it’s a professional passion.

Let’s zoom out. What do you predict will be the same about work, the workforce and the workplace 10–15 years from now? What do you predict will be different?

If anyone tells me they can predict 10–15 years from now, after living through the last 18 months, I’d ask if I can borrow their crystal ball. I’m most interested in identifying what positive, meaningful changes we can make today that will impact work, workforces, and workplaces tomorrow. To avoid chasing trend after trend, Mars is guided through these uncertain and ever-changing times by our purpose and values.

I believe the way we structure jobs and define workflows will change — it’s changed over the last decade and will certainly change in the decade ahead. The desire for speed and agility will only heat up, and it will be critical that organizations react and respond with pace. With the volatility and change in business, I don’t foresee setting goals in January and evaluating progress in December continuing to be best practice. Meaningful outcomes will drive the future of work. I ask myself every day, ‘how did I deliver meaningful value for Mars today, and is that value aligned with the organization’s ambition for tomorrow?’ Also, travel will be different. We’re advising our Associates to travel for purpose over presence, and there are clear benefits for Associates’ wellness and cutting our carbon footprint. And, I think travel will continue to be part of the dialogue as we define a new balance of the speed technology provides and the value created by in-person relationship building.

The need for human connection will not change. Mars is a relationship-driven culture, where colleagues I’ve met in my early career cross my path again and again. We hire principles-driven people and, in my experience, good at heart — so two Associates may begin as teammates and move forward as friends in their next jobs. I don’t want to be a part of a work culture that’s transactional. There’s still going to be a place for sitting around a table, sharing a meal, and recognizing a team for their hard work and accomplishments. That experience, and recognition, simply isn’t the same on a video call. I’m glad Mars values it today, and because of our values, I know we will in 10–15 years.

What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?

Whether start-ups or large multinationals, organizations need to be clear about who they are and want to be. At Mars, the Five Principles provide an unwavering foundation and connection to our history and our Purpose gives us a north star every Associate connects to. Combined, they truly unite our 133,000 diverse Associates. We know who we are, where we’re going, and what makes us Mars. Don’t try to follow someone else’s playbook.

What do you predict will be the biggest gaps between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect as we move forward? And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?

This question makes me think about Mutuality — one of our Five Principles. One of the biggest challenges organizations face right now is how to respond to this increased emphasis on individual working styles and preferences (office location, working hours, methods of communication, etc.) while delivering outstanding business results. Expectations have changed for employers and employees. When we talk about mutuality with our Associates, we articulate that ‘a mutual benefit is a shared benefit; a shared benefit will endure.’ We have always valued our Associates for their talents, and they are rewarded fairly for their results. We continue to leverage our Principles when thinking about the relationship between Associate and business and if done correctly, it’s recognized by all as mutual.

We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?

This experiment was already happening, and the pandemic just accelerated the pace of that change. The pandemic sparked the biggest disruption to how work gets done in modern history. Mars had to pivot quickly to keep our Associates safe and businesses operating. We also had to quickly reinvent the way work gets done, and it taught us that we should continue with this spirit of reinvention. For me, working remotely ultimately sparked a lot of questions worthy of personal reflection: What do we miss by not working together in person? How can we better connect digitally to harness our workforce’s brainpower and passion?

We’ve all read the headlines about how the pandemic reshaped the workforce. What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support a future of work that works for everyone?

We’re transitioning to hybrid working at Mars because we believe it’s better for our business and people. We want the benefits hybrid working offers to help further our inclusion and diversity efforts. Not too long ago a panel of our Associates shared their perspectives on how they hoped hybrid working could level the playing field. Everyone came with a different story to share about the past 18 months, yet everyone was united by the hope that work in the future can be more inclusive and better for all. And there’s power in listening at scale too. For example, Victoria Mars recently shared in an interview that according to Mars’ #HereToBeHeard global listening study, one in three women emphasized the need for more support as parents, and not just by employers extending paid leaves or providing childcare services, but by encouraging greater work/life balance and prioritizing mental and physical wellbeing.

Listen to your employees. They’re telling you what matters most to them — organizations need to be willing to hear them out.

What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

We have truly witnessed our capacity for change. Yes, change has been fatiguing at times, but employees and business leaders were thrust into an experiment that showed everyone what’s possible. I think many people craved new ways of working for quite some time. Working hybrid; saying no to back-to-back meetings; recognizing the cognitive fatigue associated with that type of schedule; acknowledging the need to carve out focus time for creativity. I’m excited that we’re taking steps to make this work-life more sustainable and fulfilling.

This year, I’ve been able to walk my daughter to the bus stop almost every morning. I didn’t know how much that mattered to me until I got the chance to do it. When I began my career in New York City, I felt like a hamster on a wheel. My commute would take three hours out of my day, and I still remember rushing down 6th Avenue. I never thought integrating a meaningful career and life would be possible when I was grinding in my 20s. In fact, I stopped working in the city because I felt like I couldn’t maintain that professional life and raise a family without a serious toll on my wellbeing. Mars has embraced and welcomed what makes me feel whole — achieving my professional aspirations and being present for my kids’ moments. I have a friend at Mars who leads a high-performing team and is the head coach of his child’s baseball team. Another who is training for a marathon. There’s tremendous value in these life experiences. And we know it drives performance because there’s an appreciation factor and recognition of what Associates value most.

Our collective mental health and wellbeing are now considered collateral as we consider the future of work. What innovative strategies do you see employers offering to help improve and optimize their employee’s mental health and wellbeing?

I believe employers play a role, but not the only role in someone’s health and wellbeing. We have an Associate Health & Wellbeing team developing and strengthening programs that offer guidance and support to our 133,000 Associates. From campaigns reducing stigma about mental health to incentivizing wellness and preventative care, the aim is to provide people with resources that help them and their families thrive and to really integrate wellness into the Mars culture.

When I think about how health and wellbeing intersect with the future of work, I’m most curious about cognitive capacity. Are we giving employees the space and support for creative, focus time? Are we providing the technology needed to collaborate efficiently and effectively? Treat employees like world-class athletes — provide the coach and the trainer. I’m also pushing for expanded conversations about benefits. What employees value most may be driven by their life stages. For example, some benefits I appreciated most in my 20s — social events, commuter benefits, etc. — have been superseded by others I appreciate as a working parent now (family healthcare, parental leave, childcare support). Innovation will come with individualizing benefits.

It seems like there’s a new headline every day. ‘The Great Resignation’. ‘The Great Reconfiguration’. And now the ‘Great Reevaluation’. What are the most important messages leaders need to hear from these headlines? How do company cultures need to evolve?

I’ve had the privilege of working under the leadership of Nici Bush, VP Global Workplace Transformation, in this role. When Nici began to see stories about the ‘Great Resignation,’ she shared that mentions of the ‘Great Reset’ resonated more with her. Because changes people were making to their lives went far beyond work — and those changes are here to stay and will continue to evolve.

I’d want leaders to hear loud and clear that this ‘Great Reset’ isn’t only about your employees. This topic should be on the agenda of every leadership team as the choices organizations make today in this space will impact their reputation, customers, and top line. The ground has fundamentally shifted underneath us, and we need to acknowledge that. Leaders should step back and question everything with this new context in mind. You don’t need to change everything, but you should be questioning everything.

Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

I’ll keep these brief and punchy because I’ve touched on a few already.

  1. Listening first and always to employees. When we began defining what the future of work would look like at Mars, we brought Associates to the table. We wanted to build a strategy with them, not push it to them. Leveraging qualitative and quantitative research methods, we were able to identify trending pain points and weigh where interventions could make the most positive impact.
  2. Employee experience will be as important as consumer experience. With more than a century of selling some of the world’s most famous brands — M&M’s, Snickers, Pedigree — I’m inspired by how we can take our consumer insights and experience capabilities and translate those strengths into cultivating a connected, seamless experience for our Associates fit for the future.
  3. Empathetic leadership will be required at every level. The pace of change isn’t going to slow down across businesses and industries. Employees will ultimately decide who they want to go through change with, and the leading voices of that change matter.
  4. Recognize employees who embrace new behaviors. People who don’t embrace new ways of working will be a source of disengagement for others. People will have less patience for the co-worker who doesn’t respect boundaries and expects immediate responses at all hours.
  5. The physical workplace will be a beacon of culture and employer differentiator. Simply having office space will not give an organization a merit badge. Organizations will need to craft an experience and continually invest.

I keep quotes on my desk and on scraps of paper to stay inspired. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective?

That’s a great question! I love Babe Ruth’s quote, “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.” Competitive sports were a huge component of my life through college. My experiences with teams, often in high-pressure situations, shaped my perspective and style as a people leader. I’ve learned so much from all the teams I’ve been a part of, and, through all the wins and losses, the lessons have brought me a great deal of joy.

Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?

I’m active on LinkedIn, so please find me there!

Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.