The world of work is changing rapidly. There is a diverse, four-generation workforce, accelerated globalisation, and an unprecedented choice for people of how, and for whom, to work. Traditional ways of operating have been called into question by the rise of technology. According to Karen Rivoire (pictured right) businesses have an opportunity to harness new tools and pioneer a fundamental shift back to the most critical asset: their people.
For over 20 years, Rivoire has led the people function at some of the largest corporations in the world, including the WPP, Thai Union Group, and Unilever, where she spent 12 years as Global Group HR Director. Currently she is the Contributing Editor of Hot Topics, an online media platform for technology leaders and executives, and an advisor to the founder of T.I.E , an organisation that places talented professionals to work with social initiatives all around the world.
In this interview, she shares her observations on the emerging trends impacting on the future of work, the changing role of leadership, the need for a people first approach when adopting new tools, and how good communication must set the direction of the business. Plus, we discuss the challenges and opportunities posed by the rise of artificial intelligence.
Gloria Lombardi: What are the emerging trends impacting on the future of work?
Karen Rivoire: Back in 2007, I worked with Lynda Gratton – she was one of the first people from academia to create a conversation around the future of work. Together with some other players from different walks of life, we created a piece of work around new ways of working. We were quite insightful about some of the changes in demographics as well as the gig economy, new approaches to talent, and career management. But we totally underestimated technology.
Innovation, of course, will always be important. But, not only is there a technology shift, there’s also a shift in people’s lives. We could potentially live to 100 years old. The combined effect of longer lives and technology means that we fundamentally have to redefine what work looks like, what work represents in society and also in companies – especially how people transition, and how they manage their lives in a far more balanced way than my generation did. And how we value, integrate and collaborate with people who are going to have a far more fragmented career than past generations.
GL: So, how should leadership respond to those changes? What should leaders do to evolve and optimise both their role and their organisations?
KR: A good definition of what great leaders need to do is given by Steve Radcliffe, who encourages action through FED – Future – Engage – Deliver. Leaders are at all levels of the organisation and should be encouraged to bring their whole selves to work and contribute. The more they contribute the more the will be motivated.
To create the right future, we must have the right purpose. Leaders have to be value driven. We will look less and less at their technical skills, or their ability to manage profit and loss. We will look more at their behaviours, their ability to change and learn.
Leaders have to understand that it is not just about profit. It’s also about people and planet. Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, is a good example. He comes from Finance, but he fundamentally believes that you need this triple bottom line approach. He has changed the way the company defines success by talking about people, profit, and planet. One of the reasons why some corporations have not taken on their full responsibility in society is because the financial system is still quite archaic.
GL: Going back to technology, what is your advice to organisations when adopting new workplace tools?
KR: Be bold, and think about the user. We have a tendency to improve systems for our customers; we rarely think about our people first. It may sound silly but that is often the case. Businesses have the latest analytics systems for their clients but when the salesperson comes back to the office she still has to work with a clunky system. So, think about your people first.
Think about simple systems too. Take passwords, for example – make it easy for me to log on and start working. If every system has a different password then it will take a lot of my time. People are people, not ID numbers – if you think of the time they waste trying to remember their various identities across the enterprise when these days you can have single sign-on, and fingerprint sign-on. You want your people to spend their time with clients, being with their team or improving the products, because that is what makes a great business – you do not want them wasting their time on your systems.
You should have engagement tools that can help you to listen to what is going on inside the business. Make sure that you have your finger on the pulse and that you are listening to what people have to say.
Be very clear about where you are going and why, at whatever scale of the business you are at. If people do not know where we are heading, they will not be able to contribute, and that leads to disengagement and frustration.
Set out the key priorities; have guidelines in place and refer to when you need to make decisions on investing in new technology.
GL: You have just pointed out the need for listening and good communication. With this in mind, how do you see the role of internal communication in championing new ways of working?
KR: Depending on the structure of the organisation, communication can have its own function or it can sit within HR, and sometimes within Marketing as well. All of those functional lines are blurring – they are not as siloed as they used to be. It is about being one brand and internal communication is part of defining what that brand is. But hopefully other functions are involved as well.
One thing that came out of the future of work project that I did with Gratton ten years ago: we will be living and working with multi-experts. So, it is good to have a core expertise, in this case internal communication. But, more and more we need people who can also do Marketing, and HR. They will build their expertise as they work on a particular project.
Yet, the core expertise of internal communication remains around understanding the target audience, and the channels – and that is not easy in a multi-platform world. In fact, internal communicators are the guardians of consistency – making sure that what happens in the inside is what it is talked about outside and vice versa. They need to be permanently in a listening mode to ensure that consistency.
I am a strong believer of employee activism, and consumer activism, to make the world a better place. If we do not listen to those groups of people, internally or externally, then it becomes pointless to have all the available tools – the more we start putting in engagement and analysis technology the more we have an obligation to actually use it. Sometimes it can be quite overwhelming but hopefully our dashboards are becoming more user friendly and we are measuring the right things.
GL: So if communicators are the guardians of consistency, what are the skills required to achieve that?
KR: Being able to listen with an open mind. Yet, having a critical eye on what is being said – critical thinking rather than just taking in whatever has been said.
Also, the skills around brand development – how to build brand equity, and activate the corporate brand in an authentic way.
Influencing is also essential to make sure that not only the point of view of the CEO is heard but also the views of the different stakeholders. It is tougher today because of the multi-channel world, which you cannot control as much as you did before. But if the brand equity and the way we position our brand is based on strong insight, then the risks are slightly lower.
So, positioning skills – the time spent on understanding your audience (employee insight) and building your brand – are extremely important. Yet sometimes we forget those initial stages and we just go into persuasion or selling mode. And that is where you get consistency issues, which might be called out immediately by different activists and groups – an NGO, frustrated ex-employees, or unhappy consumers. So, the more time communicators can spend on positioning the brand and making sure it stands for something that the whole company believes in, the easier the channel management work becomes.
GL: Artificial Intelligence (AI) is entering the workplace. How do you personally think it is going to impact the future of work?
KR: I see it as positive, an opportunity for HR to free up time and for the world to become actually more human. Some of the technology, before getting to machine learning, is already helping. We have to be careful – it is going to require new skills to understand how we redefine our work with bots and where the responsibility lies for their actions – there are a lot of legal, ethical, and security challenges. But the overall picture for me is positive – I do not agree with the dark view of machines taking over.
But I think it depends on us – there are some great people, such as Stephen Hawking, who stand up for the ethics that should be built into the machines. Hopefully, we will get better and better around diversity, making sure that the companies who are building the robots are not full of biases: that they do not have just men doing the programming.
There are plenty of examples of how AI is helping to solve complex problems – for example, putting together different science disciplines to help cure diseases. Many AI companies are starting up, and we should expect more AI solutions in our organisations in the future.
We can learn something from historical disruptions and transformations, such as the whole awareness around sustainability. When we started talking about sustainability, we spoke about plantwide destruction: it scared people – it did not have the effect of getting people into action and believing in the cause. It was only when we started talking positively about it that things started shifting. I see that as good learning for AI. Fearmongering is never a good way to shift people’s behaviours and help them change. It’s best done by involving people, and sharing positive examples of how AI already helps and will help us in the future. Yes, we have to be realistic – some jobs might disappear – but as humans we have an amazing ability to adjust and innovate.