Flexibility in Work — The pandemic has shown us the need for greater agility when it comes to where and when people work and, as Gen Z enters the workforce, they’ll all but demand it. To attract and retain top-performing talent, companies will need to be flexible in the times of day and hours people work. The future of the workforce will also involve more gig and contract workers who may be employed by multiple organizations, as well as more nomadic employees who are empowered to work from anywhere in the world.

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 Jafar Owainati.

Jafar is co-founder and CEO of Barley, a compensation management software that makes it easy to structure, analyze and manage compensation, as well as keep a pulse on changing salary trends. He is a serial entrepreneur who formerly co-founded Loopio. Jafar attended the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and Queen’s University.

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.

A lot of what shapes me today maps back to my childhood experience as an immigrant. My family is Iraqi, and I was born and raised in Abu Dhabi. When I was growing up, my parents decided they were going to relocate us to the United States. We made the big move to California, but that didn’t end up working out and we returned to the Middle East. They decided to give it another shot a while later and we moved to Canada.

These experiences taught me a great deal about adaptability. As a kid, I had to learn how to make new friends very quickly and was immersed in different cultures and new environments. I built a lot of appreciation for what it takes for people to make big moves. That helps inform how I approach work every single day and it extends to how I think about inclusivity of different cultures and backgrounds, because I saw it firsthand as I moved around.

School was another very formative time in my life and career. I went to a great university in Canada called Queen’s University and studied engineering. However, it wasn’t until I went to do my MBA at Northwestern and surrounded myself with some of the smartest people I ever met — people who went to Harvard and Stanford for their undergrad — that I learned that I was able to keep up (and even outperform). That instilled a level of confidence in myself and my abilities that I didn’t have before and gave me a new outlook on what I could accomplish in my career.

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?

We all got introduced — whether we liked it or not — to the idea of remote work and it’s something we can never take back. Remote work will be with us forever, permanently changing the way we create systems and processes to support the different ways people want to work. Businesses have had to shift from being office-oriented to adapting to all types of work models. This will be with us for the next 10–15 years and beyond.

I foresee that, over the next decade, we’ll see work-from-home bring about a more borderless world of work. Right now, people are restricted by country borders based on visa constraints, residency and tax requirements. But, even with the current global structure, we’re starting to see the emergence of more nomadic workers who can travel from country to country. At the same time, more countries are beginning to introduce new visas and open up to other countries, paving the way for a truly remote and mobile workforce in the coming years–at least for knowledge workers able to work from nearly anywhere. Organizations will need to figure out how to support that desire and where they stand on issues such as location-based pay. How do you pay someone who’s living in Indonesia then Australia then the UK in a given year? Does their salary keep changing or do you need to think about a more globalized way of paying? These are where lines of location-based pay start to blur. These are important considerations for companies to start sorting through.

Another change I see afoot in the longer term is “metawork” where more work moves into the metaverse (or at least some form of virtual immersive environment). I believe that companies will step beyond the ubiquitous tools of virtual collaboration that we use today, such as video conferencing and virtual whiteboarding software, and start adopting solutions that build digital spaces that aim to make virtual work “more human.” At Barley, we already do this in some form with software that allows you to build a virtual office space. Through this software, we each have our own avatars and virtual desks, we walk up to our virtual carpet to have standup meetings, and even connect socially over some online games.

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

Employee engagement is a really critical piece of future proofing. If they’re not already, business leaders should start doing AMA (ask me anything) forums where employees can anonymously inquire about different parts of the business during all-hands meetings. Employee surveys can also help guide your business direction. You don’t want to burden employees with a survey a month, but conducted periodically and strategically, surveys can be highly beneficial in revealing certain trends that you can take into account as you plan for the future. Another upshot is that employees who feel heard and engaged tend to be more loyal and that contributes to retention.

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

Looking ahead, I believe we first need to essentially divide the workplaces between organizations that can effectively support a working-from-home model vs. those that require in-person collaboration and work. These are two different camps. There are some that can support a bit of a hybrid where you don’t need to be there every single day and there are ones where you need to be there day in and day out. For example, if you’re a doctor, there may be days that you absolutely need to be there in person, but you may be able to do virtual consultations from home two days a week. The experiences we went through last year challenged the ability of certain jobs to be done remotely. The questions become: Can the work be done remotely? Is doing it remotely the most effective way to do the job? In some cases, the answer is yes and, in others, it’s no.

Another way the experience has influenced the future of work is reshaping how we think about our physical office spaces. It’s shifted from people having their own desks to more companies having hoteling systems and more spaces being communal or collaborative for those times you’re in-office. Office spaces are also being better equipped with technology to engage people in the office and at home on an equal playing field.

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?

One sizable and growing gap will be the alignment between organizations and their employees on compensation. As we talk about trends related to a more nomadic and global workforce where you’re hiring across borders, employees are going to demand more transparency and a better understanding of the company’s approach to location-based pay, including the reasons behind their decisions. The reality is that there may be a gap between the company’s intentions and their obligations to shareholders when it comes to maximizing profitability or revenue. Those may not align with the philosophy or expectations of their employee base.

To help close the gap, there needs to be open communication where companies are sharing the ‘why’ behind their decision. They should also be open to feedback from employees.

At Barley, we’ve seen companies making location-based pay decisions down to the city or country by country. In a more globalized workforce, companies may consider moving toward a single global pay across anywhere in the world. Some remote organizations are already pursuing that approach and it’s working well for them. It will continue to be a challenge, especially for remote organizations, to come to a consensus around how they approach pay across different geographies.

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?

I’d say a shared sense of empathy for our fellow humans. The pandemic has cultivated a nationwide sense of empathy and that’s carried over to the world of work. People are bringing their home lives into the workforce in a more intimate way. We’re seeing each other’s homes on our screens, learning more about each other’s family lives and discussing health issues in a way we didn’t do before. When you work from home, you’re bringing your work home and, at the same time, you’re bringing your home to work. A more empathetic society will go a long way in supporting this new personal workplace.

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

That more opportunities will be unlocked for people and give them a chance to work for organizations where they couldn’t have secured a position before, and all that comes with that. It’s rewarding to see employees no longer relegated to work at the company in their own geographic backyard, and have options in different cities, states, and countries — which also allows them to learn from others from different cultures and backgrounds. In this world, companies benefit by getting to unlock the potential of more people around the world and integrate an even more diverse perspective on the services they offer and products they build.

I’m also excited about the continued rise of the gig economy that is empowering more people to work for themselves as freelancers or consultants or embark on a different entrepreneurial journey.

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?

The shift to working from home (without truly adjusting how we work or how our companies are run) has led to people relying heavily on video conferencing as a medium for communication and a high level of intensity, jumping from one Zoom meeting to the next. It’s not like when you’re in an office where you can wrap up a meeting and have a quick laugh with someone on the way back to your desk. Many employees are entrenched in back-to-back video conferences where there’s no time to clear your head or turn off and that’s exhausting and takes a mental toll. There has also been evidence of employees being isolated and not having access to the people and resources to get them unstuck. One of the best ways to mitigate burnout is to support meaningful interpersonal interactions and build a sense of community.

One innovative approach to address these challenges is by implementing technology that helps you identify the sources of burnout in the first place. Companies are using technology to map out interactions between employees through email and Slack or Microsoft Teams. This then allows managers to visualize which employees are isolated and perhaps are not connecting with other team members. You can also use software to identify meeting bloat across your organization and establish actions to address that bloat.

Once the issues are identified, the crucial step is then implementing solutions to these problems. Consider having frameworks for when a live meeting should or shouldn’t be held. Empower managers to mix up their one-on-ones to include walking meetings or simply just phone meetings. Look into company-wide rules for quiet work time and for turning off notifications. Companies should also provide mental health resources to their team and create the space to interact and connect more socially. It’s easier said than done, but to support better mental health the behavior starts at the top of the organization and it’s important that we all lead by example, show our vulnerability when we are facing burnout ourselves and show the team that it is OK to use mental health resources and disconnect.

Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track in the Future of Work?”

  1. Pay Transparency — New laws being enacted in the states of New York and California, requiring employers of a certain size to post and share a position’s salary range, are putting pay transparency at the forefront and we are likely to see more broader adoption in the next couple of years. The bigger issue that’s not being widely discussed, however, is the discontent it’s creating among current employees who can now see what’s being offered to new hires for similar positions. The consequences of this are that employers need to establish clear pay structures, guidelines, and communication for their existing teams. More legislation is going to create more opportunities for companies to get ahead of these issues — even those not mandated to do so — by looking at their pay more structurally and being more transparent with their employees. Employers must get ahead of the game or risk squeezing out great employees.
  2. Flexibility in Work — The pandemic has shown us the need for greater agility when it comes to where and when people work and, as Gen Z enters the workforce, they’ll all but demand it. To attract and retain top-performing talent, companies will need to be flexible in the times of day and hours people work. The future of the workforce will also involve more gig and contract workers who may be employed by multiple organizations, as well as more nomadic employees who are empowered to work from anywhere in the world.
  3. Middle Manager Role Grows in Importance — With more organizations adopting a remote or hybrid work model, the role of the middle manager becomes more critical than ever because they carry a very high burden when it comes to directing teams and setting expectations for the new world of work. For example, they’re the ones responsible for implementing and communicating guidelines about how employees work across time zones and protecting them from burnout. First-line managers will have to be empowered and educated to provide the right coaching, guidance and frameworks to support the rest of their team.
  4. Move Toward Agile Compensation — Flexibility in work also means flexibility in pay. There’s an emerging trend toward agile compensation where employees can decide how their pay is broken out by base salary, variable compensation and stock options (or other forms of equity-based pay). As an example, Shopify has implemented a program they call Flex Comp, which gives their employees agency on the mix of their pay between cash or company stock from when they are first hired and to revisit that mix on a regular basis. So, as an employee’s life circumstances change, they can change how they get paid.
  5. Asynchronous Communication Goes Mainstream — With a shift towards more geographically distributed teams comes the challenge of collaborating across multiple time zones. Many organizations establish overlap or core hours to ensure some synchronous communication. However, there needs to be better support for asynchronous communication and decision-making. Companies will support more of a “work anytime” approach and place a greater emphasis on pre-recorded videos, clear documentation, goal-setting/tracking solutions, and frameworks to empower both asynchronous and more autonomous work.

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 would welcome the chance for them to follow and interact with me and Barley on any of my social channels. You can find us on the web at https://www.barley.io and on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jowainati/ and https://www.linkedin.com/company/barleyinc. We also publish a blog at https://www.barley.io/blog.

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