Perks are not the same as employee care. Employee care is an intentional combination of culture and policies that support employees’ pursuit of wellbeing both in and out of the workplace. Employees are now looking for a sense of belonging, the feeling of being valued, and flexibility for life outside of work.
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 Malika Jacobs.
Malika Jacobs (she/her) is the founder and CEO of Kingmakers, a company offering virtual team bonding experience for business leaders who understand the value of investing in radical employee care. Through facilitation and customized board game-centered experiences, Kingmakers is an innovative approach to team bonding that enhances joy, connection, and inclusion for companies with hybrid and remote employees.
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.
My parents immigrated to the US from Sri Lanka when I was about four and a half. As a mom of kids around that age, I have a newfound respect and awe for moving halfway around the world (away from family, friends, and everything familiar) to start from new. It’s incredible what people have the capacity to do!
As a young family, we landed in Michigan, where my dad began graduate school at Michigan State. It was an incredibly international area; I had friends from all over the world in my lovely elementary school that ended the year with an International Night celebration. I quickly dropped my native language and picked up English on the playground.
Later, we moved to a suburb of Boston. I immediately felt out of place in that predominantly white, homogenous community. Everyone was very kind — I could just feel we were different. I have no idea how my parents came up with this idea, but about midway through living there, they pulled my sister and me out of school and had us finish the school year and summer vacation in Sri Lanka. Being around people with whom I shared an identity changed my life. I finally had a sense of my larger family and culture, and it gave me the confidence to be proud of how I looked and where I came from. I still draw from that experience today.
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?
The Kingmakers team regularly talks about the future of work and what it means to be a tool in one subset of culture development in this broad, all-encompassing topic. Due to the nature of our work, we’ve had the opportunity to hear about the experiences of hundreds of dedicated team leaders and engagement professionals. We’ve learned about what it means to work with people through this monumental time. Like so many, leaders are also learning, shifting, and developing new practices to best care for employees in real-time as expectations quickly evolve.
While it’s challenging to predict specifics as we’re living in the midst of so much change, humans will always be at the center of work. Despite continuing advances in technology and AI, organizations currently and for the foreseeable future need human labor, thoughts, and ingenuity. As the human workforce continues to globalize and distribute, the need for connection, understanding, and belonging remains a workplace opportunity for growth and innovation. Rather than looking at ways to “get back to the way things were,” we encourage organizations to have a forward-looking mindset and find new ways to connect their teams; those who do will have the advantage.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
My advice to employers who want to future-proof their organizations would be to accept that change is constant and to be open to new ideas. Super simple in concept but difficult to execute in real-life business. To meet a shifting marketplace, it requires constantly re-evaluating if you have the right product and people mix. While rare, sometimes the shifts can be so significant and sudden, like in 2020. In my opinion, what allowed Kingmakers to persevere in that time was having an open mindset, accepting that change brings new possibilities, and being willing to let an aged model go.
How do you build a culture that is open to new ideas? Kingmakers is a small team, but we can proudly say that we are diverse. Our diversity spans race, gender identity, age, generational perspectives, geography, and professional backgrounds. With diversity at our company’s core, it has allowed for enriching conversations in business strategy, ideation, and the development of company goals. Expanding from our example, I would advise other companies to focus on diversity at every level of your organization (for the quickest impact, focus on hiring diverse leadership!). Then, develop structural policies and a culture that allows people to feel comfortable sharing their ideas and speaking up.
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?
In our line of work, we see gaps in what employers think employees want versus what factors actually matter for employee retention. Aligned with what we see first hand, a recent McKinsey study states that the two highest needs from employees were the feeling of being valued and having a sense of belonging. First, as the study shows, employees want to feel valued by the company and its leadership. Secondly, employees need to have a sense of belonging and community in their workplace. Yet, more often than not, employers overlook these relational factors in favor of transactional ones, responding that employees are looking for more upward mobility and better benefits.
We believe these two factors go hand-in-hand as it can be difficult to feel valued when one might not think that their compensation is fair. However, the biggest takeaway might be that company culture is a series of small, everyday decisions that roll up to how your people “feel” about their workplace. Developing a culture of listening can help pave the way for a better work environment and understanding of employee satisfaction. The biggest mistake organizations make after listening to employees is being unclear about what the next steps will be. It’s essential to be transparent about priorities and how leadership makes decisions after receiving feedback.
Gaps between employers and employees will only grow if we don’t take a moment to pause and understand what is happening in this deeply transitional period. A sense of clarity and reality hits when the expectations of the past do not bind our future. For many, the way we know how to work is gone, allowing us to look at our core values. As a result, we have an opportunity to reset and realign in our workplaces.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
So much for work-life balance, eh? Work and life became quickly enmeshed like never before for many people in the workforce. The greatest lesson we learned from remote work is that individuality exists and work cannot be one size fits all. Everyone has different needs, experiences, and ways to be their most productive. For example, some working parents can’t imagine recommitting to a commute while others crave the office’s relative silence. On the contrary, some young professionals are taking the opportunity to work from anywhere, while others are missing socializing in the office setting. I believe it will take some time for us to understand the full extent of what we learned from the past couple of years, but some trends are quickly emerging.
1) Policies should genuinely support and connect people, including those needing a flexible work model with inclusivity in mind.
2) Boundaries are necessary and should be demonstrated and celebrated by leadership.
3) Employees are increasingly realigning their values between work and life, so structural changes are necessary and should be flexible to support employees.
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?
Many necessary societal changes are connected and interrelated. However, the following are the most prominent in my opinion. The first necessary societal change I foresee as needed to support a future of work is affordability and quality of childcare. In order to avoid financial strain, stress, and anxiety, we should be thinking about the mental health of working parents, some of whom are working multiple jobs to support their families.
Another necessary societal change would be reevaluating our public education system. Suppose we hope to educate and grow the workforce of tomorrow. In that case, we should stop betting the future of our workforce on an irrelevant indicator — zip codes — about where that future talent emerges. Aside from its deep inequity as a moral issue, it also harms the future workforce. I encourage you all to think about our future society and workforce and ensure that our students have a clear path to successful, fruitful work. Lastly, the broader issue of accessibility requires some attention as a societal change would support an inclusive future of work. Attending this issue could avoid the continuing tensions in the labor market.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
Women in the workforce! Women are still working hard to break into traditionally male-dominated industries such as construction, finance, logistics… and Presidency! I’m hopeful that the pace of change will quicken because women freely share their time, knowledge, and resources with their networks, creating access and opportunities for others. It is also well documented that when women earn wages, they invest that capital back into their communities, supporting families, schools, and youth.
I’m particularly inspired by a subset of this workforce, working mothers. I am constantly impressed by how this group manages the emotional labor of work and home while being fully present in both spaces. Caretakers, in general, offer an essential balance to business — I know that I have become more patient, resilient, and deliberate since I became a mom. One organization I admire is The Mom Project. I encourage anyone looking to hire exceptional talent to look here as they specifically help support moms re-entering the workforce. We recently hired from that group and are so impressed by the talent.
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?
Now more than ever, employers need to have a genuine and consistent plan that has the variety to suit individual needs and wellbeing. For any plan to truly work, it has to start at the top with leadership talking about separating mental health from performance. This separation is vital for employee expectations, day-to-day interactions, and leave policies. While speaking about this helps, leadership should also consider leading by example, allowing their employees to feel comfortable taking time off, and setting personal boundaries. Having these conversations and showing these actions from leadership can help change the company’s culture to one that doesn’t view mental health as collateral for productivity.
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?
The headline may change, but the truth is that it’s essentially a buyers market, and employees hold power. Because there is a shortage of talent and labor, workers can scrutinize wages, benefits, and company culture like never before. Unlike previous generations that may have felt loyalty and commitment to a company, workers today are willing to pursue new opportunities. They are not reluctant to leave one place for another that more closely aligns with their values.
Now more than ever, more information is readily available for employees to assess a company before joining. The way we see it is, as leaders should be considering company culture as their brand and employees as brand ambassadors. Your company culture is everyday decisions and interactions that lead to the way employees feel about their workplace, which leads to how they talk to others about your company. There is no one size fits all formula for building the perfect company culture because each company is different, but leading transactional factors like pay and benefits with fairness and authenticity in relational aspects like belonging and trust will attract people that match your company culture.
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.)
- Virtual Work (whether fully remote or hybrid) in the corporate sector is here to stay.
This trend will become more dominant because virtual work grants access to a global talent pool and complements the employee preferences for flexible work.
2. Perks are not the same as employee care.
Employee care is an intentional combination of culture and policies that support employees’ pursuit of wellbeing both in and out of the workplace. Employees are now looking for a sense of belonging, the feeling of being valued, and flexibility for life outside of work.
3. Trust that your employees know what they need the most.
Micromanagement kills trust — from how employees fit work into their lives to how the work gets done. When you give people the freedom to make the right decisions around working location, hours, and process, you develop trust, increase productivity, open the door to innovation, and ultimately create a culture of care.
4. Company culture and values need to be demonstrated from the top.
Inclusivity, best practices, and core beliefs must be exercised, seen, and accounted for at the highest level of leadership for all levels of an organization to feel it. I often think that the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate speaks volumes about the company culture. Leaders will continue to be held accountable for setting the boundaries of desired and undesired behavior and practices at work.
5. Play will continue to be a powerful tool for team development.
Kingmakers has been privileged to see how board games can infuse play into the workplace in a meaningful way. Play allows us to see a different side of our colleagues. It fosters a sense of belonging by providing opportunities to gain familiarity and trust with one another. Plus, board games are a low-stakes, overall accessible, and often nostalgic way to participate in joy. Teams that play together work well together.
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?
Look at failures as learning opportunities. At Kingmakers, we take both our successes and failures as learning moments. We reflect on how we can grow and change our practices and what our failures have taught us. We are constantly evolving different iterations of business practice and those iterations are equally built on the information that we gather from our successes as the information we gather from our failures.
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.
Oh yeah, Padma Lakshmi! She has remained so wildly authentic while continuing to evolve in her career. She shows up with kindness and humor and it’s incredible that this 6 foot tall, stunning, immigrant brown woman is able to make fans of everyone from farmers to celebrities to line cooks. We’re both raising daughters and love food, so you know the conversation and the meal would be fabulous.
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?
We’re excited to build community through LinkedIn! Connect with me @MalikaJacobs and Kingmakers at @Kingmakersfun
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.