Portable Benefits. Benefits for humans will be portable. You will no longer have benefits tied to a job. They will be tied to an individual, just as pensions have migrated from being a liability for the company to portable 401(k). The 401(k) plan is our individualized / portable pension fund. Your benefits will be tied to you as an individual and you no longer must switch insurance providers when you change jobs.
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 Rob Whalen.
Rob Whalen is the Co-founder + CEO of Seattle-based PTO Exchange, the first platform that allows employees to self-direct the value of their unused paid time off (PTO) for other needs and causes. While building the company, Rob and his co-founder, Todd Lucas, found their mission was to enable flexibility into those benefits that employees earned but could not utilize. They also discovered that by enabling this capability and accountability, PTO Exchange created equity and inclusion for workers to be compensated for their accrued productivity creating a better benefit.
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 family, friends and all my failures have shaped me. I come from a family of nine children and watched my father build several companies for others and then get fired after the companies were sold. Finally, he started his own company with two other silent partners at the age of 55. They all put in 500 dollars and then the silent partner gave him a loan for 11,500 dollars. He built it into a great company then sold it to my brothers.
I also watched my uncle build numerous companies, watched some of them fail miserably and watched him get up the next day as if nothing happened and start all over again. I watched him change the world with an education software company named Edmark, took it public and then sold it to IBM for 80M dollars. He was an inspiration, always staying grounded and self-aware. He did not have a formal education, just an incredible work ethic and desire to learn and solve problems.
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?
I believe that we will still be juggling life and work together, as we are today. For many of us, particularly desk or knowledge workers, we’ll increasingly work in an asynchronous mode as opposed to the classic 9–5 schedule. Meaning several hours on, perhaps a break to walk the dog or pick up kids, then back online. Personal and professional time will continue to blur. The ability to draw boundaries and have discipline to step away from the computer will be even more important for health and balance.
The remote option will continue and gain momentum. Many workers will be able to work from any location, as we witnessed during the pandemic. That being said, I do see incredible value for in-office or in-person collaboration and I don’t think you can get the same results from screen relationships or the metaverse. The service industry will still be driven by humans working 8-hour shifts. No other way to clean a hotel room or cook a gourmet meal.
I think we’ll see more and more changes with the immersive experiences we work and live in and how companies manage our time and productivity. The big changes are going to be in the way we are compensated, rewarded, and the way benefits are delivered in the future they will be seamless, portable, pay for use.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
Lead, do not follow. We are Human first. The companies that engage with their employees are going to win. I have heard from so many companies regarding how their employees don’t engage with them. To that, I’d say don’t look for your employees to engage with you. Think of your relationship with your employees as a relationship with your best friend or your spouse. As a company you must be present, aware, and show up. And I mean SHOW UP for those individuals that give you, their leadership, their time.
It will cost more but the longer you keep your employees the more efficient your business becomes, and costs will reduce over time. As the CEO, my mantra is that the company belongs to the employees who service our customers, they willingly give their most intimate asset, which is time, and the shareholders reap the benefits. I always say thank you every day to our team. I know at large companies this becomes more difficult, but that culture comes from the top and managers should be mimicking the behavior.
I never worked for Costco, but I remember friends that did and they always received a handwritten card from the CEO, Jim Sinegal with the famous green pen on their birthday. I thought, “no way Jim does that for everyone.” One of those friends was a pilot, and I was able to fly back one time on the Costco company jet and I watched Jim sit there on the flight signing cards for those employees. Watching a CEO be so aware of his employees and grounded was an inspiration.
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 think the biggest gaps are ones you are seeing today. Wages have not grown but productivity has 6.2X and this is prior to the pandemic. I believe that employees will command more money for their time.
Companies should be evaluating their current spend on employees on a total comp basis. They need to understand that they will need to build flexibility into their compensation and benefits to attract and retain staff. They’ll need to look at their employee expenses and take a more “value-based transaction” approach for the benefits they are providing, so that they can better meet the different needs and priorities of their multi-generational, diverse workforce.
The other culture-killing strategy that companies should NOT do is separate benefit types by employees — all for the cost savings. An example: executives or salaried employees having unlimited PTO and the rank-and-file employees having accrued PTO because they are hourly. By doing this you are setting up yourself for a “have and have not” scenario.
Leading firms will operate their businesses thinking about the lowest common denominator. Leadership needs to think of the employees in the call centers, the employees cleaning the hotel rooms, the employees servicing customers and making their experience and your brand more valuable. How do I engage with and make those employees happy? If you get that right, the business and profits will grow with it.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
I believe the pandemic just accelerated the trend toward flexibility. But because it was forced upon the world, companies were not able to prepare and create solutions to best support their employees and their mission. Companies who thought they had a bullet proof culture saw it shatter. Companies will need to learn how to create community and culture within a hybrid work environment. The companies that can do this most effectively will be magnets for talent and lead their respective categories.
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?
In order to best support the future of work so that it works for everyone, I believe organizations will need to create compensation and benefit solutions that are equitable, flexible, inclusive and serve a diverse population. There is a need to create some regulations around how companies account and expense those dollars in a way to better support the whole worker. Those workers are the ones creating and increasing value for customers and shareholders. Similar to the way corporate directors have a fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders through the by-laws of the company, I believe there needs to be regulations that require organizations to accrue or expense benefits and compensation through the profit and loss statement.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
I am incredibly optimistic about where the future of work is going because we live in the greatest country with the greatest wealth-creation system in the history of the world. When tasked to help and solve big problems, we work together. I also believe technology is getting to a point where we can solve some of these problems with reduced friction.
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 strategies that companies need to deploy are solutions that meet their employees where they are in life.
Companies need to think about the life cycle of their employees and the individual transitions they are going through. The one-size-fits-all benefits package does not always work when you have so many generations in different stages in their life and the transitions that they may be experiencing.
I also think that the pandemic — which created a work-from-home environment — splintered the culture of many organizations and created a feeling within the workforce of loneliness. Creating ways teams and companies can come together to create memories and experiences together on a regular basis will be very important to reclaim the culture. These experiences should include the employee’s family (The Whole Person).
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 messages that leaders should be hearing is that the culture, purpose, and mission are the glue that keep employees engaged and motivated and delivering value to customers. The actions of leaders will either make their companies successful or alternatively, lead to struggles as employees peel off, which will lead to more expense to hire, train, and develop staff to support the business.
Company culture is going to be the most difficult to reclaim and create in the current environment. But this one thing will determine winners and losers in the war for talent.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
1. Web 3.O
The average employees and employers do not understand the tectonic shift that is happening around the crypto / blockchain space. Most think it is a currency, but it is really the future technology stack that everything will run within. It is the next internet.
2. Financial/Insurance Consolidation
I see huge consolidation within financial and insurance companies. With the rise of Web 3.0 you will see the infrastructure of finance and insurance companies consolidate.
3. Portable Benefits
Benefits for humans will be portable. You will no longer have benefits tied to a job. They will be tied to an individual, just as pensions have migrated from being a liability for the company to portable 401(k). The 401(k) plan is our individualized / portable pension fund. Your benefits will be tied to you as an individual and you no longer must switch insurance providers when you change jobs.
4. Paid Time Off benefit
Paid time off will be owned by the worker, funded by the company.This will look just like a 401(k). It will be portable, and you will be able to save it just like other tax deferred accounts. This way you could save six months for Parental Paid Leave or a sabbatical. You can save enough time off to transition to another job when one ends. You can save it for a rainy day or emergency. 1099 workers could use it in a deferred way to pay for insurance, and tax deferred accounts. Think about how the gig economy workers could have enterprise-like benefits. This only comes through having a deferred compensation account.
5. Organized Decentralized Work Force
As companies like Uber, Instacart and other shared economy corporations have profited from not having workers become employees and pushing the benefit and tax liability expense to the individual 1099 worker. I believe that these workers will organize in a social platform (like a union) to achieve better compensation and sharing in the financial success of their employers. I think you are seeing the beginnings of this with the great resignation and the power of employees deciding what companies are worthy of my time.
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?
“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” — Albert Einstein
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.
Ben Horowitz — From A16Z, Ben has seen plenty of companies and ideas impact society and I would certainly like to have a conversation about where the future is going and how to create an equitable future.
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?
Email: [email protected]
Twitter : robertswhalen
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.