Defining Flexibility: You will see more definition around what the expectations are in a flexible workforce. More companies are likely to mandate specific times to physically get together, or specific expectations of when an employee is expected to be available beyond traditional office hours.

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 Mark Wachen.

Mark Wachen is the CEO and Founder of CardSnacks, an employee engagement platform that lets you create employee and customer recognition programs through the sending gift cards and ecards by text or email. Mark also runs Upstage Ventures, a seed fund whose investments include SeatGeek, Veritonic, Bolster, and many others. Previously, Mark founded Optimost, the company that pioneered A/B and multivariate testing on the internet, which he sold in 2009. And prior to that he worked at Sony where he helped launch Sony Music’s new media division back in 1995, and then ran many of its early internet initiatives.

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.

An early experience that had a major effect on me from a career standpoint was my time running a radio station when I was in college at Dartmouth. This was back in the dark ages before Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube, when people actually listened to the radio to get their music. We had a really unique situation at Dartmouth because we had commercial AM and FM radio stations. Our FM station, which went by 99Rock, was the #2 radio station in all of central New Hampshire and Vermont, and 90% of our audience were non-students. We were on-air 21 hours a day, 7 days a week, and my “employees,” who were my on-air talent, were students who weren’t being paid. So I had to figure out how to keep them engaged without the carrot of a salary because if they decided not to show up for work, we’d have dead air. I had to learn how to make people feel valued and appreciated so they would work hard, do great things, and be motivated by something other than a paycheck. It was a great challenge to experience at a young age, and it certainly helped me learn that things other than money could be powerful motivators.

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?

From my experiences running and working for companies of various sizes, I have seen across the board that when employees feel a sense of belonging, feel valued, and are treated with respect by their employer, they will always outperform those who do not feel aligned with and supported by the company. I don’t see that changing in the next 10–15 years. I think the biggest area of change will be that a much higher percentage of employees at companies will be fractional workers. This was less practical when being physically present in an office was a requirement, but now it’s much easier for people to work for multiple companies at the same time at both the senior and junior levels. The benefits for the companies are significant too because if they only need a part-time CFO or a part-time marketing manager, they can attract great talent without needing to pay someone full-time. As with full-time employees, it will be important, perhaps even more important, for companies to expend effort to keep these fractional workers engaged and feeling valued since they will effectively be competing with the other companies for the fractional worker’s allegiance every day.

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

We know how expensive it is to hire versus keeping your existing employees. So to retain employees, that requires a deeper investment in making your employees feel valued. Companies certainly see the need to do this, and we saw it manifest in how companies were using our consumer CardSnacks ecards to thank their employees. It’s actually what led us to create a business-to-business unit so we could even better serve this need. It’s clear that more and more companies are starting to make recognition programs a part of their company culture. When workers feel appreciated, they are more productive. That lets you compete better.

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?

Employees are expecting more accommodations around their personal time and lives, and seeking better work-life balance. Many companies have responded by allowing more remote work and offering unlimited paid time off. But in exchange for this, many employers do expect occasional availability of their employees at non-traditional times, be it weekends or late at night. I think the best strategy for companies is just to be clear with their expectations so that individual employees can understand that extra flexibility is a two-way street, and they can decide if they are willing to make that trade.

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

COVID certainly created a trial by fire for how to manage a completely remote workforce. And what surprised a lot of people was how much certain employees actually preferred it to the traditional office existence. We’re in an interesting period right now where some people, particularly those with families, love working at home all the time, while others, particularly those who don’t have family obligations who really want to meet new people, are longing to be back in the office more regularly. I think the level of acceptability of remote work will become a distinguishing characteristic of companies in their recruiting process. Some companies will mandate being mostly in-office, and that will be a plus to some people, while other companies will be almost entirely remote and that will be a plus to other people. But in either case, making the employees feel valued and recognized will still be critical in either scenario. Accomplishing this with an entirely remote workforce is more challenging for sure, and that’s why employee recognition and appreciation programs become even more critical for companies with largely remote workforces.

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?

One of the interesting byproducts of working during the pandemic was that employees were no longer partly evaluated, either explicitly or implicitly, by the amount of time they spent in the office. Evaluation is now much more based on results rather than “facetime” in the old school sense of being physically present at work. This is a good thing overall, but it certainly puts the onus on people to be more self-motivated and focused since their boss is no longer right down the hallway observing them all day. But on the flipside, hard-working remote employees may lose the daily affirmation they used to get from grateful co-workers in the office. That’s why companies will have to build mechanisms to show they value their strong-performing remote co-workers to keep them motivated and retained.

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

Because I’ve been a founder and also an active venture capital investor, I am always optimistic about work because of the entrepreneurial spirit I see. It’s always energizing to see how former employees of mine or of companies I’ve invested in have become founders of their own companies. When I was growing up, the view of work in general was that you went to school, got a job, and then navigated a corporate ladder. When I graduated from Dartmouth, you could count on one hand the number of people who started their own company, or saw entrepreneurship as something in their near-term future. That has changed dramatically, and has led to incredible innovation. Technology has really torn down the barriers to entry for anyone to take their career and truly own it.

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 that companies with strong cultures also have teams with good mental well-being. It was revolutionary when more health plans added mental health support as a benefit, but fortunately that is now commonplace. But monitoring mental health becomes more challenging when people are working remote most of the time. So it becomes exceedingly important to devote more quality time when you are in-person with your employees to understand their mental well-being. And again, paying extra attention to celebrating the accomplishments of your remote workers whether it be in an email or ecard will help them feel valued which will contribute to their well-being.

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?

There’s a cliché that people don’t leave companies, they leave bosses. Organizations would benefit from spending more time fostering future leadership and management training, with a focus on collaboration and collegiality. The key is to create more engagement, which is the antidote to all this worker angst and disillusionment

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

  1. Increased Employee Appreciation: As more companies focus on retention that should lead to an increase in employee recognition programs that are more structured and robust. This will be a change, since feedback and recognition traditionally happened around times of employee reviews. Now employee appreciation will be something that is top-of-mind on a day-to-day basis.
  2. Peer-to-Peer Recognition: The top-down model of evaluating and recognizing employees will likely flatten Additionally, reporting hierarchies can become much more vague in a largely virtual organization. To keep everyone motivated and engaged, employees will want to celebrate each other’s accomplishments regardless of their status on the org chart.
  3. Defining Flexibility: You will see more definition around what the expectations are in a flexible workforce. More companies are likely to mandate specific times to physically get together, or specific expectations of when an employee is expected to be available beyond traditional office hours.
  4. The AI Revolution: AI will have a profound effect on customer service, creative development, employee training and many other areas. It’s only a matter of time before AI is leveraged across every organization from new startups to Fortune 500 companies.
  5. A More Fractional Workforce: With physical presence no longer being a requirement for many jobs, more people will be able to work as specialists across multiple companies. This benefits the employee as it creates flexibility in the work they do, but it also benefits the employers because they can have high-quality talent for tasks that don’t necessitate a true full-time employee.

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?

I have 3 quotes that are very similar but get to the same point. I love Robert Half’s quote that says, “Hard work without talent is a shame, but talent without hard work is a tragedy.” Some people are lucky enough to be born with incredible natural skills. But if you truly want to be great, you still have to work hard no matter how much talent you were born with. And if you aren’t lucky enough to have a natural gift, there is still no limit to how you can succeed if you work hard. As the related quote attributed to Tim Notke, a high school basketball coach, says, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” There’s no shortcut if you want to be really successful. Or to quote another great sage, Ringo Starr, “You gotta pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues.”

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.

That person would be Bruce Springsteen. First off, to dovetail off my last quote, while he’s incredibly talented, he is also very outspoken about how hard he worked to get to where he is. In an industry where so many burned out at a young age, he’s managed his life and career in such a way that he can still sell out stadiums after 50 years in the business, and still play longer shows than virtually any other artist.. And he’s not afraid to take a stand on issues important to him even if it will alienate some potential record buyers. He’s always promoted diversity in his band which sets a great example, too. And finally he’s provided me with so much wisdom through his lyrics that I feel his influence really every day. So on the off chance he is reading this, I’m free for breakfast or lunch any day!

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?

The best way is to see some of our thought leadership in our resources page on the CardSnacks site. You can also follow me on LinkedIn.

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