Build to Last: Not necessarily creating the most efficient organization but the one that is built to last. Spending more on employee health and well-being while providing more flexibility than ever. From a technical standpoint, laser focus on digital skills. In years to come, more organizations will value and promote people who are able to use devices, applications, platforms, tools and more to manage processes and information.

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 Jeff Wahl.

Jeff Wahl is the CEO of Big Blue Marble Academy. He has 35 years of management and leadership experience in services businesses, dedicating the last 20 years to the early care and education industry. Jeff joined Big Blue Marble Academy in 2019 as Executive Chairman and was named CEO in 2020. Prior to joining Big Blue Marble Academy, Jeff supported Avathon Capital as an Executive In Residence. He was previously the Chairman of Glynlyon (Odysseyware and AOP), and CEO of Edison Learning. Jeff also held numerous senior executive leadership roles at GE for over 15 years.

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?

As the second born of six boys, I learned a couple of key lessons that would stick with me through life. First, I had to move fast at the dinner table — if I didn’t eat quickly, I didn’t eat at all! More importantly, growing up in a full household taught me to be a team player which has helped immensely in my professional career. Fast forward to my incredibly fulfilling 15 years at GE where I had the opportunity to learn from one of the greatest businesspeople of all time, Jack Welch. One of the most impactful business lessons I learned from Jack that I still practice today is to keep things simple. The key is to clear your organization of bureaucracy and anything else that prevents the free flow of ideas and decisions. I’m proud to utilize my previous experiences in my role as CEO of Big Blue Marble Academy to grow the organization and brand for years to come.

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?

When it comes to the future of work, I believe that much will change completely and not look much like they do today. First, from what I’ve been reading, technological advances will rule the day. As an example, employees will eventually use avatars backed by AI when interacting with others and employers will be able to use technology to track when employees need to take a break. In addition, organizational structures should be less hierarchical and flatter. Employees will want their work to make a difference, so employers will have to provide opportunities for that in the future.

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

As we’ve endured economic hardships for nearly two years due to the pandemic, there has been increased emphasis on employee satisfaction. To future-proof your organization, it’s imperative to be as emotionally intelligent as possible as it will only become more important in the future. It really starts with asking employees what they need — allow them to work from home as much as possible, be flexible, and hear their concerns. At BBMA, we’ve done that by instituting employee engagement surveys. The most important element is instituting what they tell us as it shows them we are listening, we care, and we are in it together. Finally, try not to solve for today but for years to come. When you add talent, make sure your process owners are big enough to be your decision-makers based on the company you want to become years down the road.

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?

From my experience, I believe the biggest gaps we’ll see will be on flexibility, such as work schedules, for example. I truly think the smartest employers will find ways to provide the most flexibility possible. At Big Blue Marble Academy, we introduced PTO rollover in 2021 in recognition of the fact that staff were largely unable to use their PTO due to staffing challenges related to COVID-19 in 2021. This is an excellent example of how companies need to be flexible in order to reduce employee turnover.

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

On a macro level, working from home will open up more opportunities that should ultimately give employees increased flexibility and more leverage with their employers. For example, in our industry of childcare, foreign language teachers have become even more of a premium with some wanting to continue with virtual teaching. As a reliable employer, we want to accommodate them, which has resulted in a positive outcome for all involved as the children in our care think it’s magical when their Spanish, French or Mandarin teacher interacts with them in real-time by name. In addition to this, working from home can also boost employees’ productivity and improve their work/life balance by focusing more on the work itself. In fact, I’ve read several reports stating there will be five times more people working from home in the future. With that, it’s critical that employers make work from home engaging to reduce burnout.

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?

The pandemic forced employees to think about their work lives and their personal lives. Employers will need to provide greater flexibility moving forward, and they’ll need to have a social purpose — for BBMA, it’s our Heart Projects, being good citizens, giving back and paying it forward. At BBMA, we foster a sense of value, purpose, certainty and belonging for employees within the organization. I like to think of us as a family that allows the members of the family to be themselves. We’ve listened to what our employees want and have increased our communications. We have launched a record number of employee-based initiatives and offer defined career paths, too.

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

My greatest source of optimism is twofold. First, I’m excited about making the employee experience as positive as possible, providing them with tools and information they need to get the job done. Working from home is a big plus for many as it prevents expensive and time-consuming commutes, often resulting in happy and productive employees. I believe many businesses will be hardened, digitized and efficient, ultimately emerging stronger from the pandemic. Second, as a company that is deeply devoted to enabling children to succeed in the future workforce, it’s absolutely critical that we lay the foundation for tomorrow’s workers now. We must keep in mind that we are helping to shape children for roles that are yet to be invented. With the innovation and speed of technology and science, the future of work is limitless.

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?

To improve and optimize employees’ mental health and wellbeing, it’s crucial that employers invest in meditation and mindfulness training, as well as create more generous PTO policies for more time outside of work to focus on mental health. Mindfulness shapes my leadership style and overall life for the better. Through daily practice, I’ve increased my focus and sense of purpose for what needs to be accomplished. Most importantly, mindfulness has created space for more impactful and meaningful dialogue at BBMA. Mindfulness, when practiced from the top, creates an environment of open communication that leads to more job satisfaction and increased productivity. Additionally, it can create channels of open communication that allow conversations to turn good ideas into great ideas. When we instill a culture of mindfulness, it helps every member of our organization become aware of how our actions affect those around us — leading to greater respect and accountability within teams.

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?

It’s absolutely essential to show flexibility in every way, including where people work, when people work, and allowing them to contribute to how they define their roles and contributions. With this method, employees will be more engaged, stay with the company longer, and promote the company to others. Employers need to be very clear with employees regarding expectations. Give employees different ways to connect and don’t assume you know how they want to work and collaborate with one another — ask them! Some examples of how to easily connect with employees include:

  • Weekly all staff Zoom calls.
  • Create a 1:1 mentor program.
  • Provide honest, frequent feedback.
  • Extend opportunities to provide feedback through anonymous surveys, as today’s workers want to feel heard.
  • Create fun company traditions like Zoom pizza or birthday parties.
  • Implement a true open-door policy.

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

  • Build to Last: Not necessarily creating the most efficient organization but the one that is built to last. Spending more on employee health and well-being while providing more flexibility than ever. From a technical standpoint, laser focus on digital skills. In years to come, more organizations will value and promote people who are able to use devices, applications, platforms, tools and more to manage processes and information.
  • Hybrid Work Culture: Giving employees the choice to work remotely or in-person rather than forcing them to do one or the other will be a key to success. As a business professional, I truly believe this is the next phase that employers will be shifting toward. I would recommend providing a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario to an employee where s/he may be very productive from a home setting and be able to occasionally collaborate in-person with peers.
  • Less Hierarchy: Focus on what people are actually skilled to do (regardless of years in the workforce) rather than fitting into a hierarchical structure.
  • Tracking Employee Performance Through Technology: As we continue to evolve, technology will play a larger role in tracking how an employee is feeling, when they need a break, and more. Like a business FitBit, a tracking tool will encompass everything from virtual time clocks to application monitoring.
  • Opportunities for Social Impact: Employers offering employees the opportunity to make a social impact while performing their work will continue to grow exponentially. Employees today are looking for more than a paycheck with a growing trend to “do good while doing well.” Oftentimes, employers can help solve a local or community need by creating alignment with their employees’ work and participation.

What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective?

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication (Leonardo DaVinci).

We frequently overcomplicate business and make it much more bureaucratic than it needs to be. Being simple is actually elegant; it takes hard work to simplify complex business issues. I’ve regularly encouraged people to use root cause analysis to truly understand our challenges or problems, understand how to fix and learn from underlying issues, and apply what they learn to prevent future issues or, ideally, repeat success.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she, or they might just see this if we tag them.

I was lucky enough to partner with Magic Johnson at a former company where we opened centers for high school students who either had dropped out or were at risk of dropping out of school. It was life-changing work, and I’ll always admire Mr. Johnson’s and his team’s dedication. They could have chosen many other causes that would have garnered a lot more money but instead they focused their efforts on bettering a critical issue right here in the United States. I will always be grateful for the experience to personally contribute to this.

How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?

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