The transformation of office spaces. Right now, businesses all trying to retrofit offices in the new work world. While some are creating more laid-back atmospheres to coax employees back to a physical office, others are exploring ideas like hoteling. These smaller-scale approaches are incremental after such a seismic shift in the workplace as we know it. I believe we’ll land in a very different office format compared to pre-pandemic.

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 Jignesh Shah, head of global integrated incentives at Blackhawk Network.

Jignesh is a digital rewards expert who is deeply entrenched in the incentives industry at a global level. For more than two decades, he has helped companies around the world use the power of rewards to motivate and thank customers in efficient and innovative ways. A pioneer in creating cutting-edge applications, Jignesh specializes in helping businesses employ Blackhawk’s SaaS based technology to integrate rewards into everyday program workflows; these embedded rewards are easy for customers to access seamlessly — driving meaningful results and saving program administers resources.

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.

I grew up in India and moved to the United States in my early twenties to pursue a career in technology. That immigrant experience is a big part of who I am today and has significantly shaped my personal and professional life — everything from my core values to business intuition and embracing an entrepreneurial-based mindset. I feel fortunate to have lived in these two great countries with diverse cultures.

I’m also extremely grateful to have had many incredible professional experiences in my 20+ year career. Earlier in my career, I served as Chief Strategy and Chief Marketing Officer at a fast-growth private equity-backed company in the enterprise software space. We more than tripled the size of the business in only two and a half years; it had a true rocket ship growth trajectory. It was an incredible experience and taught me valuable lessons including the importance of building teams and having the right employees.

Everyone thinks about employee fit from a skills and experience perspective, but when you are operating at a lightning pace, it tests the character and collaboration of the larger team. If you’re missing the right personality and cultural fits during this time, it can be a big obstacle.

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?

There’s no doubt that the workforce and the workplace are going to look extremely different in 2032. Before we jump there though, I’m inclined to focus on the next two to three years, as companies will figure out the right way to do hybrid and remote work.

I see that as the greatest challenge right now for companies of every size. Remote work has been a great game changer for employees and has provided tremendous advantages, like spending more time with family and avoiding commuting. There’s no going back; I think hybrid and remote work is here to stay and we all agree the benefits are real.

However, employers are left struggling with how to retain a sense of culture and collaboration. Right now, we’re in an experimental stage where employers are trying different strategies, like bringing people into the office on certain occasions or a few days a week. The workplace landscape in the next 10 to 15 years is dependent on which best practices employers adopt in the short-term to successfully balance the interests and preferences of their workforce with the needs of the organization.

Some people will go back to a physical office, and some may never go back again. And this might be hard for a lot of people to accept. Personally, I love and value in-person collaboration. So, I’m one of many who will have to adopt new mindsets and strategies. In my role, I speak with CEOs whose companies have anywhere from 10 to hundreds of employees, and they’re faced with the same challenge of finding the right balance. I don’t think anyone has cracked the formula yet; it’s a work in progress.

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

Acknowledging that hybrid and remote work is here to stay, employers are faced with figuring out which processes need to change as a result of that permanent shift. Some employers are still operating as if pre-pandemic workplaces and a “return to normal” are on the horizon. That mindset needs to immediately change if you want to future-proof your business.

A vital piece of the puzzle is how do you recognize people in this new remote, hybrid world? Before, this could be done in-person in a conference room or meeting space. How do you execute supervisor and peer recognition for achievements now? The reward and recognition dynamic are such a key part of building culture, and businesses need to think through how they can evolve their strategies and practices to align with the new hybrid reality.

It’s essential that businesses nail this down, and quickly. Amidst the current trend of many employees leaving their current jobs for greener pastures, a lack of recognition and engagement from an employer can translate to a lot of attrition.

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?

I’d say the expectations around working remotely and flexibly are the most charged points of negotiation between employers and employees. We’ll see a widening gap between employees wanting and expecting unlimited flexibility and employers requiring some minimum expectations for structure. There must be an equilibrium reached between both sides and there is going to be a lot of experimentation to get there.

There appears to be a big disconnect between employers and employees regarding the value of in-person interaction. I’m always amazed when I talk to friends or family on the employee side who think they won’t benefit from being back in the office — but I guarantee that someone on their company’s leadership side likely sees it completely differently.

From a strategy point of view, there needs to be a clear, transparent discussion in terms of why companies think certain employees benefit from being in the office on a certain cadence — if at all. I also suggest staying away from a broad-brush approach for everybody. You need to take a scalpel and carefully, specifically define which roles benefit from in-person work and with what frequency.

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

One thing it certainly has proven is that for many functions and roles, working remotely can be effective. But not always. It’s incredibly challenging to measure the qualitative impacts on creativity and innovation facilitated by a physical environment.

We know we can all get work done remotely, but in many cases, ideas and creativity can be difficult to nurture virtually. Employers are still figuring out the best way to optimize these intangibles, and we need more time to determine the best strategy for doing so. Depending on how employers approach fostering creative solutions, the future of work could include fresh ideas for innovation, a return to what has worked in the past, or otherwise. I’m looking forward to watching these ideas develop and come to fruition.

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 think the workplace revolution has driven meaningful societal shifts that will continue to be for the good of all. A few specific examples: After getting a taste of remote work, now, millions of Americans have quit their jobs to seek out a better work-life balance — and those actions are being applauded. At the same time, I also see people who couldn’t participate in the workforce now being able — and encouraged — to do so, which is phenomenal. For example, if you were a caregiver before the pandemic and didn’t have the option to go into a physical office, you now have accessible work options. This is amazing.

Additionally, businesses can now hire from any location and not limit their talent pool — which is especially helpful when there’s a shortage in local labor supply or when businesses are looking to build diversity within their workforce. Here at Blackhawk Network, we now have employees working across geographies and we see a real impact from diverse talent pouring in from different parts of the world. My division used to be only in the Washington, D.C. area, and it’s been fantastic to watch new ideas, people and perspectives contribute meaningfully and improve our business. We now have talent we could have never considered before the pandemic. It’s a great thing for organizations to be able to access a much broader talent pool.

Our society has also now seen how the shift to more remote work has positively impacted the environment, and from what I can tell, widespread support for this trend will continue. As we increasingly value fewer commutes and the preservation of natural resources, it will drive greater support for remote work — and our environment will reap the benefits.

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

It’s a very positive sign that by and large employers are not fighting the shift to hybrid and remote work arrangements and are in fact embracing them. It’s brought about some tremendous changes and opportunities like I mentioned earlier.

For example, geography is no longer a hindrance to the talent pool — and employees can work where they are or even relocate to parts of the country that can be more affordable or closer to family. This is very meaningful for morale. That said, employers do have a lot of work in front of them to maintain and boost remote creativity and innovation since in-person work is less prevalent. But I’m positive that technology advances will find ways to accommodate these key elements of the workforce even as it evolves.

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?

This is something that is always top of my mind for me personally. I have a family that I like to spend a lot of time with, and the people I work with also have families and lives outside of work. While the pandemic offered us the opportunity to improve work/life balance, there were also side effects.

One of the downsides we collectively experienced is that we lost a sense of boundaries and without in-person offices, people began blurring the boundaries between their work and home lives. One of the things I’m seeing employers focus on and what I’m also focusing on is being aware — and making my employees aware — that this flexibility to work from anywhere and anytime you want is great, but you still need to set boundaries to preserve your mental health and wellbeing. It’s so important but can be unbelievably easy to forget at times.

Some of the most forward-thinking employers will educate their workforce to do this proactively. Here at Blackhawk Network, I can say the tone is set from the very top. Our organization cares about balance and encourages employees to as well. You have to lead by example so employees understand it’s important to build healthy boundaries, and we take pride in doing so.

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 tend to err on the more cautious side when it comes to headlines and would encourage employers to look beyond them. You need to peel the layers back to understand what is fundamentally changing — and why. After two years of being pent up, it’s not that surprising that people are changing jobs in a tight labor market. We’ve seen this in the past and we’ll see it in the future again.

What is different, though, is that employees did truly revaluate their priorities. And some have shifted their mindset to now prioritize more time with family and more flexibility. This is just one example of a fundamental change beyond the market shift, and company cultures need to be sensitive to these shifts in workstyles and preferences.

We also have seen progress in the last couple of years in leaders’ recognition of a need to foster more equity and inclusion in their hiring practices and workplace culture — and a need to place more value in building diversity to better engage and celebrate employees. Maybe it doesn’t grab as many headlines, but these advancements are incredibly important. Blackhawk Network is very serious about this subject, and even has a formal program in place to expand our talent and embrace diversity among our employees. This is having a significant impact on company culture. More and more, employers are willing to take a step back and look at hiring practices with a broader lens and that is a big sign of hope.

I’m very optimistic that we’re making a lot of progress when it comes to evolving company culture in this space and it’s truly essential to success, as it helps prevent attrition by showing employees they are valued as people — not as commodities.

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

  1. The balance between remote work, workplace flexibility, and in-person work and collaboration. How do companies strike a balance? Is a certain number of mandatory days in-office the answer? Or do we keep or create more flexible workplace arrangements on a permanent basis? And how do we engage those that do need to work in a physical workspace? While helpful in the short term, I don’t necessarily think incentives like lunches or happy hours are long-lasting solutions. There needs to be more meaningful reasons to inspire and compel employees to come in.
  2. How technology evolution will support changes to workplace arrangements. One big area to look out for is how rewards and recognition will change and evolve in this new future of work. What is the role of rewards when your teams are remote and spread across the world? How will you reach a global workforce to recognize achievements? Our company is seeing a significant uptick in digital rewards being used where employees are already working (e.g., video conference calls), and I suspect this trend will not only continue, but amplify as businesses become more aware of the available technology.
  3. Continuing progress on DE&I. Businesses have done some great work with more widespread efforts and progress, but there’s a lot more to be done. It is not uncommon now for companies to publish various inclusion ratios to show how they are actively working on workforce diversity, and I think that’s the first step in creating visibility and accountability. With so many factors that drive the hiring process such as the available labor pool, a lot more work needs to be done to train a more diverse set of employees to be ready for the jobs of the future.
  4. How in-person business events will evolve. During the pandemic, in-person events were by and large canceled or moved to a virtual setting. I am hoping that in-person events will once again be seen as meaningful, essential opportunities. Perhaps events will continue to morph into a hybrid format with both digital and in-person features, but I’m optimistic that they will be back in full-force and better than ever.
  5. The transformation of office spaces. Right now, businesses all trying to retrofit offices in the new work world. While some are creating more laid-back atmospheres to coax employees back to a physical office, others are exploring ideas like hoteling. These smaller-scale approaches are incremental after such a seismic shift in the workplace as we know it. I believe we’ll land in a very different office format compared to pre-pandemic.

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?

“A team is a group of people working together toward a common goal”. I’ve seen many variations of this quote, but at the end of the day, a team truly does need to share a common goal. And it’s essential to understand you can’t just bring a team together with a slogan on the wall that encourages collaboration.

It’s the responsibility of leaders to make sure teams have a shared, understood goal to which everyone is held accountable. I often see that aspect missing in many organizations — they have the right intentions, but everyone is not driven by the same definition of success. A shared goal is a core part of what makes up an effective team, and I look to create this vision from the onset with my teams so we can reach collective 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 am a life-long student of understanding human behavior and decision-making. It is a fascinating area that shapes every aspect of our personal and professional lives, and yet often defies expectations and assumptions. I would love to meet Daniel Kahneman — one of the most insightful thinkers on the psychology of decision-making, as well as behavioral economics, for which he was awarded the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. He is also the author of one my all-time favorite non-fiction books: Thinking, Fast and Slow.

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?

LinkedIn: Blackhawk Network | LinkedIn

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