Facilitating Scalable and Flexible Workforces with Digital Transformation: Technology has always played a major role in the way we work, and it will play an even bigger role in the future of work.

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.

Kavita Kurup was appointed Global Head for Human Resources in December 2021. In this position, she is responsible for UST’s human resources strategy, including talent management, leadership development, compensation and benefits, as well as leading all human resources functions globally.

Kavita has served as the Global Head — Talent and Organizational Transformation at UST since February 2019. Over the past several years, Kavita has championed numerous organizational transformation initiatives revolving around managing high performance, learning and development, diversity and inclusion, organizational effectiveness, talent management, and social responsibility across various organizations like Axis Bank, ING Vyasa Bank, JP Morgan Chase, Unilever.

At UST, she is helping build best-in-class careers, culture, technology, and tools to be a global leader in the digital and technology consulting business by creating talent ecosystems around the globe, where employees are happy to co-create and share innovation. It has led to a culture of ‘giving’ thereby increasing organization agility and transforming lives. Her professional goal is to make work life better for 35,000+ Ussociates around the world by helping teams learn, nurture, and develop deep technology and domain expertise. She spends her time studying the world of work and all aspects of workplace technology.

She graduated with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Commerce from the University of Mumbai and a post graduate diploma in banking and management from NMIMS. She is a student of Indian Aesthetics that covers the disciplines of art history, archaeology, architecture, anthropology, literature, and philosophy.

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.

As a little girl, one of my most favourite memories is of the walks my dad & i used to take, every day, each accompanied by a truly customized story — “Beyond the mountains of Alaska, lived a little girl, a peppermint girl” — he would start, and the magic would begin. Every evening as we descended the steps from our second-floor apartment, I would wait with bated breath to hear about a new adventure. I remember his quiet, loving gaze as we would walk down. Without my knowledge, he would know how I felt and weave a story to suit my mood — a quizzical expression would mean a story where the peppermint girl would brave the odds and emerge victorious. A smile would mean a story that would encourage me to think about new possibilities and dreams. And a frown would make the peppermint girl the most courageous, brave, and awesome secret service agent who always saved the world.

Each story built the foundation of the person I am today — he made sure that I developed a mindset that always searched for a solution, an imagination where the impossible doesn’t exist and most importantly, faith and belief in me always being the hero of my story. It is one of the first lessons that has stayed with me.

Over the years, as I navigate through the peaks and troughs of life, I recognise and acknowledge the fact that not everyone is as lucky as I have been. I don’t mean that I haven’t made mistakes, or that I have never failed or even that I’ve not experienced the dark side of humanity. But that did not stop me because he taught me to learn from my mistakes, to dust off the dirt, and to start again — each time I failed.

He never let me get bogged down by societal constructs and narrow mindset. He always encouraged me to be the ‘hero’ of my own story. When someone would tell me, I couldn’t do ‘something’, it fuelled my determination more than ever to get that task done and prove them wrong. Because I knew he always had my back. I knew that like the peppermint girl — I could take on challenges, solve mysteries, save the world in whatever little capacity I had. He gave me that privilege — the privilege of empowerment, choice, and strength.

He showed me the power of listening, the power of storytelling and the power of unconditional love.

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?

The way employees work — where, when, why — has and will continue to change over the next decade, bearing little resemblance to work as it is today. The pandemic brought the ‘future of work’ forward to today, with the hybrid work patterns we formed, and working through a state of crisis became the new normal.

  1. Learning/learnability will be a differentiator — Upskilling and digital agility will outweigh tenure and experience. Organizations will establish and promote a continuous learning environment, meaning knowledge acquisition and transparency across the organization must become a part of day-to-day operations.
  2. Evolution of work-life balance into work-life inclusion. Employees working independently or in remote locations will face a dilemma — to fuel upskilling and manage better projects, they’ll take on more assignments, potentially to a point where they’ll feel like they’re working around the clock. In response, achieving work-life balance will no longer be enough; employees will strive to emphasize life over work. But there are shadowy aspects of future work-life balance. As technology closes the divide between geographically separate people, it introduces cracks in relationships and cultures. The remote distribution of work means that many employees will not build the same social relationships in the workplace, leading to issues of disengagement and loneliness. This shift to hybrid work will be a massive driver of transformation and leaders must be prepared to support.
  3. Well-being will be deemed as an essential measure of company culture. Employee performance stayed high during the pandemic, but disruptions have already made long-term and hard-to-reverse impacts on workforce health — that is, the health of employees, the state of trust between individuals, teams and leadership, and the work environment (e.g., feelings of inclusion). Ineffective approaches to hybrid work will only exacerbate these impacts. All leaders across subfunctions have a role to play in ensuring the employee value proposition holistically centers employees as people vs as ‘resources.’

Learning agility will become a core competency for people to stay relevant and succeed in the next decade.

What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?

There is no crystal ball to show us what the next year, month, or even week has in store for business. While we don’t know what tomorrow holds, there are proactive steps organizations can take to prepare for the future.

Failing to develop a local talent pool is placing your own business, and your workforce by extension at the perils of rapid technological advancement. In order to have an agile workforce, we need to facilitate skill-building within the work environment. As an organization we so that continuous training and retraining our employees in some facets of their jobs provide them with necessary skills for the near future.

At UST, our open talent model is designed to deliver the right expertise to drive client results. It integrates with UST as we pursue our mission: transforming the lives of customers, employees, and local communities. With customer demands continuing to grow, and top full-time talent increasingly difficult to find, UST needed to move from a successful employee-centric workforce to a flexible, blended, workforce offering greater agility and growth capacity. Our open talent service delivery model leverages the scale and efficiency of the freelance economy. Resourcing through talent marketplace partners enables us to provide the right expertise, at the right time, for exactly the right outcome, for UST and clients. The ‘cloud’ model, clearly successful in technology applications — is equally valuable when applied to talent models.

Create skills maps, which represent the skills needed to perform any role in the company. Skill mapping helps companies manage flexible networked teams as they change over time. Engage in continuous learning. Learning shouldn’t be just a part of onboarding or one-off solutions. Continuous learning can transform an organization and help it be adaptive and resilient in the face of changes. Learning is and will be a differentiator.

Ongoing training also shows employees that they are valued since the company cares about career development. Employees that are presented with the opportunities to grow in their respective fields are more uplifted and willing to excel in their skills, whether that’s related to business ventures or training and upskilling.

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?

The disconnect encompasses everything from how employees should be recruited, managed and retained to the organization’s performance and these gaps in expectations can create contradictory attitudes and behaviors. A majority of employees take pride in their work and have greater loyalty to their companies than employers estimate but at the same time, two-thirds of employees are still looking for or are open to a new job, which is turning the workplace into a “perpetual dating game” for even the most dedicated workers. As employers we must understand that the overall talent journey is not only about attracting, but also engaging and retaining. Compensation matters to the extent that employers need good benchmarking tools to understand what their industry and their competitors are paying. But money is not the only factor in attracting and retaining talent. Organizations also need to appreciate the importance that employees place on their work itself, on their hours, on time off and on their relationships with their direct managers.

One of the core reasons for the current shortage in skilled talent is the decrease in training funding over the past decade. Career planning isn’t even a top driver for talent management in certain organizations. Employees often see training efforts as generic and perfunctory rather than as personalized and meaningful.

Second, employees want to know that they contribute to the organization’s success. This desire to be an integral part of the organization also extends to people seeking jobs elsewhere. It seems employees have trouble understanding their importance and how they make a difference because organizations view jobs as simply transactional. Even more distressingly, employers don’t grasp the degree to which employees feel valued or recognized for the work they do.

Third, although employees are often promised work-life balance during their job interviews, when they come aboard some organizations, they find they are expected to work on weekends or respond to emails around the clock. Companies must deliver on the promises they make during the attraction phase. There is a compelling need for organizations to humanize the workplace and move beyond traditional HR approaches

And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?

By aligning the expectations of employees and employers, both can thrive, creating a workplace that meets the emotional and career needs of its occupants, as well as the business needs of the company.

We as HR professionals can strengthen employer-employee relationships by hyper personalizing learning and abandoning a one-size-fits-all approach to managing talent, an approach that can dehumanize the actual work experience.

It is essential to understand that If employees are engaged, they are much more aligned with the employer’s strategy. Employee job satisfaction is tied to how useful and connected employees feel — and whether they can provide meaningful feedback. One way is to strengthen relationships between employees and their managers.

Employers must engage their talent by supporting their development goals and creating cultures that foster meaningful human connections. Organizations can ask employees to quantify and detail the attributes and strengths they feel make them successful in their current roles and use these findings to ramp up career development programs. They can solicit employees’ ideas on future roles they’d like to pursue and perhaps discuss these ideas in the context of broader industry career trends.

We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?

The future is evolving much faster. Every company will have to formulate a work policy to suit the specific needs of the business and management.

While the pandemic impact is receding in many parts of the world, employers are calling back workers to physically join the office. There is a hesitation among employees. Last two years they have worked from home, productivity has improved dramatically through virtual meetings and they have not wasted time in commuting, flights etc. While several jobs shifted to work from home (WFH) mode during the first Covid-19 wave, it turned out to be a ‘Hybrid’ model (working partially from home and office) during the second and third waves.

The key questions before the workers and employers are will they go to the office again — and, if so, when or how often? Will there be a Hybrid way of working? What is good for all as the pandemic is still not completely disappeared. There are other questions like how will the new generation of workers interact with their senior colleagues, learn new things, or socialize if they are not going to the office physically?

A large number of companies have found a Hybrid way of working to maximize productivity, efficiency, and output. Employees are closer to family, have better physical and mental health, stronger work relationships, improved productivity, choice of location, less time to commute to work, benefits of Hybrid model add up. The model is great for diversity and inclusion as organizations can now tap into differently abled talent pool as well. Women have more opportunities as the flexibility of work hours and location in a WFH model are abundant. The model works well for both employers and their workers as employees are not sticking to a 9 to 6 but working a greater number of hours than that.

Of course, WFH can’t work for sectors where a physical presence is must — Healthcare, manufacturing or agriculture. Another challenge is that new employees need to understand the company, other colleagues. They feel a bit lost and detached because they started life on video calls. Being completely on the virtual band wagon, many employees have complained of zoom fatigue.

The Hybrid model is going to continue in the future as there is a high level of acceptability among employers all over. Transactional desk jobs like routine customer discussions can be done on call, however, if there is a new project, or new process implementation, that requires employees to collaborate with multiple teams, a hybrid workplace will be the new normal.

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 the past, examples of societal changes on the workforce include the shift in societal beliefs toward worker rights that occurred in the early 20th century that led to things we now take for granted such as paid vacations, five-day work weeks, workplace safety, and collective bargaining. Or changing attitudes over the last 40 years toward the role of women in the workplace that led to widespread shifts in their career paths and development and emphasis on gender equity in organizations.

It’s no secret our society has gone through a staggering degree of change in recent years. The impact these changes have had on the working world has been profound. The nature of the work we do, the people doing work, the technology we use and our expectations of work look completely different today than from 10 years ago.

One of the key workplace trends of the 21st century has been the collapse of the corporate ladder, whereby loyal employees climbed towards the higher echelons of management one promotion at a time. We don’t live in an industrial age, we live in a digital age. And if you look at all the shifts taking place, one of the biggest is the composition of the workforce, which is far more diverse in every way. This new diversity, combined with technological advances, has fed demand for a more collaborative and flexible working environment.

Work will not be defined by what people do, but by what people learn. Digitalization and automation completely obliterated the typical 9–6 jobs for 20 years mentality. As more people accept the reality that no type of work is safe from automation or radical transformation, employees will expect and even demand that work enable them to learn new skills to prepare them for future jobs. Forcing someone to work full-time in a job that does not enable them to learn new skills may soon be viewed as labor exploitation since it is setting them up for eventual unemployability. Companies have “flattened out” over the past several years, losing layers of management in favor of a more grid-like structure, where ideas flow along horizontal, vertical and diagonal paths. Career paths are becoming similarly fluid, with many following a zigzag rather than a straight path. The world is less predictable than it was in the industrial age, so you stay relevant by acquiring a portfolio of transferable skills.

In order to attract and retain high-caliber employees, companies need to foster a more collaborative environment. Not only do employees respond well to this style of working, but organizations benefit too as it better equips them to compete with the startups that are disrupting their business. The millennial generation expects much more entrepreneurial environments — more freedom to operate, less control. What this means in practical terms is individuals having the freedom to take full ownership of particular domains or projects, with minimal supervision or bureaucracy, and to be able to pitch directly to the CEO without having to go through several layers of management.

There is a move towards compensation transparency, primarily being driven by three factors. The first is a growing demand for pay equity, particularly for women. The second is frustration around the use of pay secrecy by companies to manipulate employee pay levels. The third is the growing desire to increase the return on investment companies get from money spent on compensation. The motivational value of compensation depends on people understanding the relationship between their actions and the financial rewards they receive. This understanding cannot happen without transparency and clarity around compensation methods and philosophies.

I see health care will become a major factor affecting costs and mobility as the society has placed more and more emphasis on mental and physical well-being. Similarly, age will join gender and ethnicity as a key issue affecting workforce diversity. Another advancement is companies using artificial intelligence and other advanced statistical methods to guide hiring decisions.

What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

The path to a good life appears increasingly difficult to find and pursue for a growing number of people. A key factor driving these concerns is the extent to which opportunities for finding stable, meaningful work have increasingly become polarized, favoring those fortunate enough to be living in certain geographies and to be holding certain in-demand skills. I still remain optimistic as the long-term future of work has changed for the better as it becomes more digitized. Remote working is easing the bottleneck of expensive housing in thriving cities. Numerous reports suggest WFH culture has created higher levels of happiness and productivity.

We need a future in which a range of options open up for the many, not just for the few. What is sorely needed to unlock this vision is a willingness of the part of leaders — and employees themselves — to make the right investments in upskilling and reskilling. The largest returns will be to individuals themselves. We need concerted efforts by businesses, policy-makers and various stakeholders to think differently about workforce planning — and to work with each other. We need retraining initiatives that combine reskilling programs with income support and job-matching schemes to fully support those undergoing this transition.

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 past few years have made it abundantly clear, if it wasn’t already, that a volatile and complex world is serving up change at an accelerating pace. Individuals and organizations need to be ready. That doesn’t mean reacting to the next challenge that comes our way but rather being prepared to meet it when it arrives. Of course, by becoming aware of and open to change now, we can maintain control over uncertainty before pressures build to the point where altering course is much more difficult, or even futile. This in turn has built pressure on us as individuals, not only in our homes, but also at our workplace.

Nearly two years after the COVID-19 pandemic began there are reports across generations of higher rates of anxiety, depression, and distress. The mental-health challenges among the current working population is so concerning that many countries have issued a public health advisory to address the current mental health crisis that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, as the world moves toward the end of the pandemic, almost one billion people have a mental-health or substance-use disorder as reported by a McKinsey survey. Employees are worried about their mental health as they return to the workplace after the COVID-19 pandemic and employers can thwart its impact. Employee wellbeing is about optimizing the health of all employees. It is not only about physical wellbeing, but other components of wellbeing that cannot be ignored when talking about healthy and well-functioning individuals or employees.

As companies prepare for a post pandemic return to the workplace, and as remote working blurs the line between work and life, focus on nurturing employee well-being is critical to developing workplace resilience for us at UST.

For us, employee well-being has expanded beyond physical well-being to focus on building a culture of holistic well-being including physical, emotional, financial, social, career, community, and purpose. At the heart of this is the growing need for flexibility in where, when, and how employees work.

Organizations should encourage ‘mindfulness’. Mindfulness can help you develop self-awareness, which is the first component of emotional intelligence and is the basis for developing all of the other emotional intelligence skills. As you become more present, you can understand emotional triggers, strengths and weaknesses and motivations in life. With that understanding, one can then lead a more meaningful life focused on what is most important and fulfilling. Through mindfulness we can develop better relationships and it helps build empathy, manage difficult conversations better, and exhibit compassion with our colleagues and build positivity.

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?

Keeping pace with the current environment requires recognizing that culture is evolving despite being remote and that organizations need to invest a substantial amount of time and energy into keeping their cultures on track or steering them in new directions. Different cultures work for different organizations. As an organization grows and evolves, so should its culture. There is no one “right” company culture. It’s like your relationship with a friend you’ve had since childhood. The things you enjoy doing together today are probably different from the activities you enjoyed when you were seven. You’ve had new experiences, grown up and matured. Likewise, it’s nearly impossible to keep every aspect of a company’s culture intact as the organization grows. And quite frankly, you shouldn’t want to do that. The saying “What got you here won’t get you there” is true.

The culture will change and evolve over time, and that will happen in part because of the guidance of the leadership team. Leaders can help the company evolve — or fall flat. It’s up to them to carry on the traditions, values and rituals. Leaders should periodically assess the organizational culture in light of the company’s changing business goals. They should consider whether the current culture continues to support evolving goals and whether it will be a help or a hindrance as they try to take the business where they want it to go.

Leaders should recognize that every team has a different subculture, and that each subculture needs attention. It’s important for team managers to help develop their teams’ subcultures, and to embrace those subcultures as part of the larger company culture.

It’s important for companies remove the people who aren’t right for the culture anymore. And in some cases that may mean getting rid of a top producer or someone who was around when the company started. These people may not be the right fit anymore. They could resist cultural changes and undermine your efforts to take the organization in new directions. Or they could do things that go against what the company stands for.

A remote-first attitude means prioritizing policies that ensure remote employees are as involved in the culture as those in the office. This approach also provides remote workers the necessary information and tools to get their work done efficiently.

Organizations have an incredible opportunity to reshape company culture. And culture goes way beyond perks like free lunches and happy hours. It will also develop whether you pay attention to it or not.

Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”

  1. Hybrid work. If working during a pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that commuting to a brick-and-mortar office is not the only effective option for businesses and their employees. The restrictions on mobility and an aversion to shared commuting are additional factors that are making remote work a more viable option for many businesses. With options like remote work or hybrid approaches likely to become almost as popular as working in a physical office in a post-COVID-19 world, leveraging workforce solutions that help inform such decisions is a wise decision for business leaders.
  2. Shifting focus from roles to skills. Leaders recognize that focusing on upskilling employees and career pathing can help their organizations close skills gaps. This means using a whole new set of tools to identify individual skill sets as opposed to more traditional job grading. Skills development can help organizations meet their most urgent business needs — and skills can be measured using what is referred to as “skill data.” At UST, we have an integrated program which combines your learning management system to your performance management system which all feeds back into the career pathing system thus giving employees complete control over their growth trajectory.
  3. Efforts towards employee well-being. Companies have increasingly been focusing on work-life balance and the mental health of employees — and this will continue into 2022, especially as the pandemic continues leading to more stress and burnout. Prioritizing employee well-being can also include providing additional employee benefits, greater flexibility, sign-on bonuses, and an overall positive workplace experience. During the pandemic, this focus on the “whole employee” has been a way for organizations to attract and retain talent. At UST we’ve had a special focus on employee well-being from mindfulness campaigns, to mental wellness programs to ensure that the workforce is not only engaged but also feels that they are cared for and are essential to the success of the organization
  4. Facilitating Scalable and Flexible Workforces with Digital Transformation: Technology has always played a major role in the way we work, and it will play an even bigger role in the future of work. One important distinction to make is that digital transformation isn’t about technology replacing the human workforce; it’s about digitizing how the workforce operates to help your people (and therefore your business) succeed. Due to the ongoing changes to the global business landscape, exclusively hiring full-time or in-person employees may no longer make sense for certain regions or groups, whole businesses, or even entire industries in some cases. No matter the strategy, successful digital transformations require understanding how an organization works best and how systems, tools, and proper resourcing can help achieve and sustain this.
  5. Understanding the Workforce: The multigenerational nature of today’s workforce presents both new challenges and unique opportunities for business leaders. Getting everyone on the same page, collaborating regardless of age group, and setting all employees up for success requires a deep understanding of how the organization works and a skillful adaptation of each generation’s preferences to align with business objectives. A potential challenge and risk for businesses with multigenerational workforces is the formation of communication gaps between different age groups/generations, which can significantly hinder both the effectiveness of an organization and employee experience. Workforce analytics can provide business leaders with continuous insights that reveal the existence (if any) of significant collaboration gaps across different generations of employees. A multigenerational workforce offers many benefits and can increase a business’ success rate, but in order to achieve that companies must be able to effectively manage diverse expectations, values, and workstyles in order to form cohesive teams and organizations.

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?

One of my favorite quotes is “Tomorrow is another day” from Gone with the Wind. It inspires me to do better every day, it keeps me grounded on good days and brings me hope on bad ones.

One of my favourite memories is one with my great grandmother — a lady who managed our home, family and ancestral lands, a lady who knew to read and write five languages including English and Sanskrit and a lady who thought much ahead of her times. She was always curious, wanting to know what was happening in the world, challenging stereotypes within our family & our community, and constantly surprising us with new nuggets of knowledge, skill and information when we visited her. During one summer holiday visit, as we walked through our fields in Kerala, she paused and told me “You have one life. Learn all you can. Explore all you can. Share all you can. Live all you can.” She was 97, I was 15 and I was mind blown. This has been my philosophy ever since and I have a little frame at my bedside along with our picture that reminds me of this every day.

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.

Having conversation with a diaspora of people has always been something that I have been drawn towards. Whether they are my peers from the industry, upcoming entrepreneurs or leaders who now lead boards — I would love to connect and have a conversation.

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?

You can find me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kavitakurup/

Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.