READ the full interview in the December 2021 issue of our magazine: Work in 2022: What's Next?
Professor N. Venkat Venkatraman is the David J. McGrath Jr. Professor of Management at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. One of the world’s most-cited researchers in strategy and digital business, he has won prizes for his research. He has consulted and lectured all over the world, including teaching stints at MIT Sloan School and London Business School. In 2017, he authored The Digital Matrix: New Rules for Business Transformation Through Technology, LifeTree Media.
In this conversation with People Matters, Professor Venkat talks about how we are adjusting our assumptions and expectations for the year to come. Here are the highlights of the interview.
How has the year 2021 been in the context of the world of work? What have been some of the positive trends that emerged during the year?
I would characterise 2021 as an inflection point: a point in time for companies to revisit and reassess their assumptions and adjust their expectations. Innovations arise out of adversity and challenges and COVID-19 surely created chaos in terms of how we live and work (learn and play!). Specifically in terms of work, companies—across the board—rapidly adapted to virtual work with the available technologies and tools. In the beginning, some perceived the pandemic as temporary but soon realized that the shift is likely to be more permanent. That meant redesigning work. We saw that knowledge work—innovation, R&D, design, and related areas—could be redesigned more effectively across distance while production and related work—logistics, supply chains, maintenance, and related areas—posed more challenges.
However, if there’s one silver lining in this once-in-a-century pandemic, it is that companies have paid more attention to the design of individual tasks as well as the redesign of work to be more resilient to disruptions and focus on the needs and wants of the workers.
Some companies also learnt that some workers can more productively carry out their tasks remotely without the added burden of needing to come to specific locations.
Historically, the mental model of production work was someone at the factory doing things with machines but now production work is remotely instructing work on the shopfloor. Historically, knowledge work was carried out by workers at desks in offices but now it is truly unbounded by desks or office buildings. As Sundar Pichai of Google said: “the future of work at Google is flexibility.” That’s a positive trend. Workers will be able to demand flexibility and design work with greater balance than what was achieved before.
Do you see a synergy in terms of how the best companies are rallying to lead their organisations out of the crisis? How do you characterise the patterns?
Let me highlight three patterns.
One—leaders recognise the importance of not giving the organisation a false sense of comfort that we will somehow go back to the old normal. There’s no going back to the way things were before the pandemic; there’s only going forward to the next normal.
Two—companies understand transformation and adaptation are necessary ways to become more efficient and effective, and use this crisis to come out stronger together. Do not let the crisis go to waste!
Three—the leaders recognise and communicate that the pain will be shared to the extent possible. It’s not that the workers get to suffer the pain while the managers and shareholders get to enjoy the gains. The better companies see the need—now more than ever—to embrace and practice a more inclusive, collaborative approach involving the multiple stakeholders. Personally, I hope this trend continues—well into the future—not just to weather out this crisis.
What should be the key focus areas for HR and talent leaders globally as we enter 2022?
I like to frame it in terms of five Rs. All need to be recognised in an interconnected fashion.
Reframe. Start by reframing work with flexibility and resilience but focused on the future where there will be more automation and digitization.
Recruit. The pandemic has also seen major disruptions in the labour force as many are leaving their current employers to find more purpose-filled jobs with greater flexibility. That means recruiting for talent is more important than before. Recruit those that will be fit-for-the-future rather than just those that fill today’s needs. Cast your net wide to recruit the future leaders.
Retrain. Hybrid work and flexible work introduce significant culture changes. Retrain workers to understand the inevitable challenges and opportunities that arise from new ways of working that cut across time and distance. Retrain to fully understand the available technologies and tools as well as organisational protocols and norms to allow for individual freedom and collective collaboration.
Retain. The post-pandemic labour market will be volatile and uncertain with an increased possibility of churn. So, in addition to focused attention to recruitment, companies must pay attention—renewed programmes, if you will—to retain employees.
Reward. The market for talent is intense and there’s upward pressure on salary and compensation for the top performers. So, the final focus area should be on rewarding those that have the highest potential to lead the organisation towards a digital future; reward those that thrive in ambiguity and uncertainty and still excel; reward those that have adapted well to the present crisis.
The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2022, no less than 54% of all employees will require significant re-skilling and upskilling. How do you think workforce skilling will play out in 2022?
My own research on digital transformation indicates that tasks will be progressively automated, requiring companies to explore ways of creating value through smart humans and powerful machines (robots, artificial intelligence systems, machine learning programs and so on) working together. That requires significant redesign of work (beyond the reasons brought about by the pandemic) and reskilling of the employee base. The 5Rs that I mentioned above must be approached from a future-proofing point of view. Reskilling and upskilling are key to ensure that your organisations not only survive but thrive and lead in a digital future.