Q&A: The Future of Work with Dr. Shalini Lal

Every week, we schedule our weekly 1:1 with our readers. Want to be featured in an upcoming edition? Drop an email to abhash.kumar@springworks.in

This week we’re in conversation with Dr. Shalini Lal, Founder of a Think-tank, and consulting company - Unqbe. We talk about The Future of Work.

The interview is edited for length and clarity. All views are personal and not linked to any organisation.

  1. What exactly is meant by the "Future of Work," and how does it differ from current organizational practices? How do I perceive this concept?

The term “Future of Work” is expansive. Presently, it predominantly revolves around work setups: remote versus on-site. However, my perspective encompasses a broader scope. I focus on reshaping organizations for the future.

This outlook encompasses more than mere work arrangements. I label it as the "Future of Organizations." This approach encompasses four key facets: organizational design, culture shaping, leadership evolution, and progressive people practices. These constitute my comprehensive vision for the future of organizations.

Before delving into the future of leadership, let me provide a quick backdrop for my perspective. We're all familiar with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the seismic shifts it's ushering in. Coupled with this transformation is the pressing issue of climate change. These dual juggernauts are redefining our landscape. Within this context, our imperative is to engineer organizations with unparalleled adaptability – a league beyond conventional setups.

Now, turning to the crux of future leadership – it's inherently tied to this adaptability imperative. Leaders must engineer cultures capable of outpacing the sluggish adaptation of yore. To put it succinctly, I'm addressing how leaders can cultivate nimble, hyper-responsive cultures.

  1. What are the challenges that we are currently facing around it?

In the realm of future leadership, one of the foremost challenges is to proactively anticipate and embrace change rather than merely react to it. Traditionally, change was gradual, allowing for reactive responses. However, the pace of transformation, in this era, demands a more proactive approach.

Future leaders must keenly track and comprehend the megatrends that are shaping the landscape. This includes staying attuned to technological advancements – the tech stack is revolutionizing product offerings, customer interactions, and even reshaping internal work dynamics. Understanding the evolving role of technology alongside that of people within the organization is paramount.

By forecasting and responding to these trends, leaders can steer their organizations towards success. They will be equipped to shape their structures, cultures, and strategies in alignment with the changing forces well ahead of their direct impact. The ability to proactively adapt will define the success of future leaders in navigating the dynamic and ever-evolving business landscape.

  1. How do we strike a balance between humans and machines?

The landscape is being dramatically reshaped by two predominant forces – technology and climate change. Unlike climate change, which involves regulated agreements, technology can swiftly disrupt without warning. Long-established businesses can find themselves overturned overnight due to a technological leap. This underscores the criticality of being vigilant and forward-thinking.

Simultaneously, the shifting expectations of the workforce, particularly the emerging Gen Z, are redefining the contours of employment. It's imperative to recognize that their demands aren't unrealistic but rather indicative of evolving boundaries.

Leadership's response to these shifts can't afford to be reactive alone. Embracing a proactive stance is paramount. Anticipating the implications of these changes on various fronts – from hiring and candidate experiences to career trajectories and development opportunities – becomes the lodestar for modern leadership.

Furthermore, the structure of organizations is metamorphosing. Yesterday's setups were tailored for stable operations and efficiency. However, tomorrow's triumph hinges on innovation. The ability to foster innovation, encourage creative problem-solving, and swiftly adapt to change is the new hallmark of success.

In this milieu, the concept of career stability has transformed. Future-proofing careers is about fostering a culture of continuous learning, agility, and adaptability. Leaders must empower their teams to acquire new skills, remain open to upskilling and reskilling, and facilitate avenues for multidisciplinary growth. This shift is pivotal in equipping individuals to navigate the ever-evolving professional landscape.

  1. There is very little stability in organizations and careers right now. How are we future-proofing careers?

Indeed, the path ahead is intricate and multifaceted. With the evolving landscape, every organization needs to have a forward-looking approach. At Unqbe, we engage in proactive consulting, projecting how roles might evolve over time for specific lines of business. Given the rapid pace of change, it's a challenge to gaze too far into the future, making it hard to predict developments even a few years ahead.

You aptly pointed out the dilemma of responsibly harnessing technological advances. The key lies in ethical considerations. As technology races ahead, the need for an ethical framework becomes paramount. Regulations often lag behind innovation, leading to potential gaps in ethical standards. This brings us to the notion of a Chief Ethics Officer – a pivotal role in organizations. This role entails defining ethical boundaries and establishing guidelines for technology use, data privacy, and employee monitoring.

Considering the global variations in regulations, this proactive stance is more crucial than ever. The Chief Ethics Officer navigates the gray areas and helps the organization chart a course that aligns with ethical principles. While each organization's boundaries may differ, shared best practices can emerge over time, forming a soft consensus that goes beyond rigid regulations.

Ethical considerations will remain fluid, recalibrated as technology continues to reshape possibilities daily. The emergence of a Chief Ethics Officer reflects the organization's commitment to ethical leadership, allowing it to deliberate on its identity, values, and desired impact on society. This role is an essential guide, steering organizations toward responsible and impactful technological advancement.

  1. In a profit-driven landscape, organizations sometimes push ethical boundaries. With technology granting easy access to vast information, how do we strike a balance between leveraging such capabilities and ensuring ethical practices?

Absolutely, the prominence of ethical concerns is unparalleled in the current landscape. Over my three decades of experience, I've not witnessed such an intense focus on ethics. These concerns emanate from multiple quarters, notably investors and employees. Investors have recognized that an organization's ethical standing is intrinsic to the safety of their investments. Employee expectations have undergone a seismic shift in recent years, especially with the rise of Gen Z. This cohort places importance not just on legality but on a broader sense of rightness and ethical behavior. Leaders are held to heightened standards.

Furthermore, nations are becoming more assertive on this front. Even major tech giants are grappling with ethical quandaries. They find themselves entangled in parliamentary hearings and legal battles, particularly in European jurisdictions, which are taking a proactive stance on ethical matters. The convergence of these factors underscores the urgency for organizations to navigate the intricate terrain of ethics and technology.

  1. As workplaces evolve, diversity and inclusion emerge as integral aspects of the future of work and organizational development. How can both individuals and organizations actively nurture and shape diversity within their ranks?

Two significant shifts have reshaped the perspective on diversity and inclusion. Firstly, it's increasingly recognized as a competitive advantage backed by research demonstrating enhanced decision-making through diverse teams. Secondly, societal expectations now deem diversity essential – it's uncool for organizations to lack diversity in various dimensions.

However, challenges persist. Bias seeps into different aspects of diversity. For instance, age diversity is underexplored. Some organizations emphasize youth, while others undervalue experience. This bias is nuanced and runs both ways. Addressing this bias requires teams to appreciate the unique strengths each member brings.

The concept of retirement is evolving globally. Wealthy individuals often choose not to retire, finding fulfillment in continued work. However, India's demographics differ, with a predominantly young workforce. Older employees are less prevalent, especially women above 45. This demographic dynamic, coupled with cultural variations, shapes retirement trends in India.

One notable aspect is the intersection of age and gender diversity. Women's experiences, particularly around menopause, are a vital yet often overlooked consideration. Overall, embracing diversity and reshaping biases in various dimensions remains a complex but critical challenge for organizations.

Addressing menopause's impact on women in workplaces remains a taboo. Despite issues like hot flashes, mood swings, and medical procedures, awareness and discussion surrounding menopause in workplaces are notably inadequate.

The scarcity of women, especially those aged 50 and above, in workplaces is evident. This extends to leadership and senior roles, making it challenging to engage with them on topics like menopause. The lack of representation hampers discussions and insights into the experiences of women in this age group.

Do you work in HR? Email abhash.kumar@springworks.in and Let’s Talk!