Sirisha Palepu is the People & Communities (HR) leader for Cisco India & SAARC. She works with senior leaders and their leadership teams to build integrated Talent and People Strategies across the region. Over the last 20 years, Sirisha has worked with MNCs across diverse industries, such as Technology, Sales, Banking, Financial & ITES, and with business groups across geographies such as India, the Middle East, ANZ, and Japan. This has helped her strengthen her expertise in Leadership Development, Organization and Culture building, Workforce Design & Planning, Talent Management, Mergers & Acquisitions, and Executive Coaching. She also mentors and works with startups through Cisco LaunchPad. She leverages her experience to guide startup founders and organizations in exploring options regarding their people strategy.
In this exclusive interview with People Matters, Sirisha delves into great depth at what organizations must prioritize in the digitally driven workplace this 2022. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Given the rapid digitisation of the workplace that has become part of the new normal, what are some key trends from this year that will have an impact on the digital workplace in 2022?
The last 18+ months have seen a radical change in workplace culture and how technology has transformed the key workplace elements. Until last year, what was considered buzzwords – 'new normal' and 'hybrid work'- have now become a reality. It's fair to say that we've learned to adapt to new behavioural patterns and expectations. We've also learnt that work styles and preferences are different for everyone. To best play to the employees' strengths, organizations have to be flexible, adaptable, and open to what works best for each individual and team. According to NASSCOM, more than 50% of India's technology workforce is likely to return to the office three times a week.
Any approach to hybrid work is going to require people to be able to connect using seamless and secure collaboration and infrastructure technology. It must bring together networking, security, and collaboration tools to enhance health and well-being, safety, and efficiencies. Also, as technology becomes core to everything we do, the demand for a technologically savvy, digitally native workforce will increase tremendously.
In the workplace of the future, skilling will be a priority from both the employee and from an employer's perspective. There will be a transition towards an unconventional learning approach that is more micro, mobile-first, innovative, and on-demand to meet hybrid working patterns. Learning will be more automated than hands-on; the platforms will be more interactive, and learning modules will be more personalized – no more one-size-fits-all learning modules.
Similarly, the past 19 months have had a profound impact on every aspect of our lives. It has triggered changes on multiple fronts – from how we live, work, learn and consume. The uncertainties have undoubtedly played a role in the current state of mental health. In response to this, employees' perceptions of benefits have also changed. Employers will have to look at benefits in the form of additional paid leave for caregivers, financial support, and expanded holistic health benefits. And most importantly, leaders will have a central role in creating and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Leading with empathy and proximity will be critical because, after all, it's only when we get teams right, we win.
With L&D becoming a key priority for organisations as they adapt to this new and challenging environment of people and work, how can learning strategies be innovated to fit in the organisation's growth strategy and adapt to the digital landscape?
L&D is evolving quickly, with its primary focus shifting from building technical expertise within a domain to building leadership capability and talent engagement within the organization. One of the biggest changes in this evolution has been the acceptance among organizations that learning and development is a key function instead of just an adjunct to Human Resources.
Business leaders have realized that effective L&D programs must be strategic, engaging, flexible, and digital to be successful in the global economy with a diverse workforce. The learning strategies have to incorporate collaborative eLearning methodology, and learning platforms have to become a knowledge marketplace for employees and provide a secure and seamless learning experience to all. It's all about 'superskilling' as we go deeper into the digital-first world.
Technology will continue to play a significant role in creating personalized, continuous professional development. Moreover, there is an abundance of scope in the field of L&D with emerging technologies (AI, ML, data analytics) entering the space. Organizations will leverage these technologies to bring in improved content, enhanced programs that encompass future skills, etc.
Work cultures must become people-centric and pay close attention to a number of facets of the employee experience. Following that, in what ways can organisations build a positive employee lifecycle and what role can a learning culture play in this endeavour?
Today, many organizations are experiencing the 'Great Resignation' and losing their most talented staff to their competitors. It's not just direct competition, but the plethora of available options – from freelancing opportunities to upskilling courses. According to PwC, nearly nine in ten (88%) executives say their company is experiencing higher turnover than usual. Businesses, irrespective of size and sector, are finding it challenging to retain talent. Employees today are on the lookout for holistic well-being, which includes physical, emotional, financial, social, and career well-being. At the heart of this is the growing need for people-centric work culture.
It doesn't matter if your organization has the best strategy or the best people in the world. If your culture isn't the right one, you will fail. Regardless of where employees are located, whether at home, at work, or in the field, it offers a chance for organizations to revisit priorities and create work environments where employees feel safe, engaged, inspired, and productive.
Most importantly, many companies are reevaluating why they exist and how they make an impact beyond profit – they are reimagining the purpose they serve in the world. Essentially, an organisation's purpose will become increasingly vital to attracting the best talent.
At Cisco, we understand that to succeed in this new hybrid world, we have to establish new and elevated levels of trust and transparency within our teams and our company as a whole. Our Conscious culture allows everyone to bring their true selves to work because, at its very core, our Conscious Culture means each and every one of us treats one another with dignity, respect, fairness, and equity. We proudly believe, what gives us our edge is our people, and that is because we bring our best to work every day.
As organisations are set to re-invent themselves in the year 2022, what are the potential challenges they must be on the lookout for and what are some of the best practices they can engage in?
Organizations have now witnessed the benefits of WFH first-hand - reduced operational costs, happier, diverse workforce, etc. Industries are reimagining the way work can be done, be it with the use of technology and automation or through flexible work options, including exploring a hybrid work environment. This means that talent development programs will also need to be reimagined to offer a cohesive learning experience for both remote and in-office workers.
Hybrid work is undoubtedly going to be harder because to make these new workplaces safe and intelligent, there are several nuances that need to be addressed. One of the challenges that leaders need to address is, merging physical & virtual workspaces to create a hybrid workspace that embodies the culture, values, and tenets of the organization, which in turn is experienced as an inclusive, engaging, collaborative, productive, rewarding, and encouraging work and learning experience for employees. Secondly, while the remote work model has several advantages, issues like bandwidth, security, home-office setup, employee sentiment, etc., can adversely influence the overall employee experience. Technology will continue to play a vital role as an experience curator and enabler as well as a collaboration, connection & engagement platform. Therefore, the hybrid work solution needs to be flexible and inclusive to adapt to any work style, role, or environment, and it should have security built-in and not bolted on as an afterthought.
Lastly and most importantly, it starts quite simply by leading with empathy, understanding, authenticity. As leaders, we drive our employees' experience. Today, when one is working and living through uncertain times, a leader's responsibility should be to nurture openness, fairness, and respect across their teams.
What are some words of advice that you would like to share with HR leaders as they embark on their journeys for HR transformation in the year 2022?
Firstly, according to Gartner, 60% of HR leaders globally reported that building critical skills and competencies will be their number one priority in 2022. HR leaders will need to double down on talent acquisition and retention efforts and focus on creating a work environment that is attractive to existing and new employees, as the war for talent will only intensify due to the current shortage of skilled workers. Talent management should become a skills-centric process to close development gaps and create a more adaptable workforce.
Secondly, as the world has changed, so too has the importance of empathy and well-being. In the new world of work, communicating with kindness, with the focus on listening, will be critical. It also means equipping your teams with the right tools and technologies to enable seamless collaboration.
Lastly, Diversity and Inclusion will be the major differentiator in the future. According to CNBC Workforce Survey, nearly 80% of workers globally said that they want to work for a company that values diversity, equity, and inclusion. The need of the hour is not just to think about diverse representation in the workforce but also enabling, empowering, and engaging diverse teams through an inclusive culture.