Thought leader Anil Sachdev on Future of WorkIn conversation with Anil Sachdev, founder and chairman of the School of Inspired Leadership (SOIL). Anil is widely recognized as a thought leader in HR and Talent Management, Leadership Development and Organization transformation. He has coached the top leaders of corporate India and continues to network with the world’s top thought leaders. His passion is unleashing human capital which he has ably done in his previous roles as Director at Eicher Motors, CEO of ECS Ltd, and later as Founder and CEO of Grow Talent as well in various public office roles as Chairman of National Committee on Industrial relations and Regional Committee on Human Resource Development of Confederation Indian Industry.
In conversation with Sanjay and Anant on the future of work and how leaders can reorient themselves and their organizations to succeed.

Observations on Remote Work

Sanjay: What have been your observations on remote management of the workforce, especially in the past 4 months?

Anil: I have observed three aspects of remote work in the past few months.

One, it has brought people together, collaboration has increased, people are listening more to each other. Interestingly, the quality and productivity of team meetings has improved. This common crisis seems to have brought people together, setting aside past grudges and differences.

Secondly, I also noticed there are organizations that are doing it well and those that aren’t. Bosses who have a need to control keep doing Zoom reviews and people don’t have time to do work. There are some organizations and some leaders who have created hyperactivity because they are not at the office. Thankfully that is not a very large percentage of people.

The third thing I’ve noticed is that there is a hunger to learn something new. People are reading new things, attending courses, getting used to doing new initiatives that they would not have done before. Free information was always available, but people are now able to organize their calendar better. People are investing in their own learning and development at all levels, including some senior leaders.

Customer Behavior to Employee Behavior

Sanjay: In recent years there has been a lot of focus on using Behavior Science and Neuroeconomics to understand decision-making. Do you think this is a fad or have companies really started taking note of the behavior element in managing their workforce?

Anil: The trend started in North America and some parts of Europe as an approach to behavioral economics and Finance. Today, science is able to help us understand how people make decisions, what they choose to pay attention to, what takes their attention off something.

The Big DAD (Design Thinking, Analytics and Digital) has enabled us to understand much more. Earlier we had to depend on visionary leaders, like Steve Jobs, who could spot a trend before the others. But now, with all the science available, even ordinary leaders can get some deeper insights as to why people choose to do something and choose not to do something else.

Big DAD (Design Thinking, Analytics and Digital) has enabled even ordinary leaders to get deeper insights as to why people choose to do something and choose not to do something else.

Thanks to design thinking and the attention it is getting, the question has become more about what kind of experience your customer is getting, rather than your brand persona and intent.

We used to capture “moments of truth” through the service excellence model. But now, thanks to technology and data science, you can actually study and understand this complex thing much better.

Sanjay: Behavior science has been used extensively to understand the behavior, the choices and the decision-making of customers. But very few have done it with a view to understanding the behavior and decision-making of their employees. What are your thoughts on this?

Anil: Some companies are doing it and numbers are increasing. So these are two different parts to this – one is to understand the people they have, their experiences and what enables them to do their best. People are trying to study employee experience. The other part is inducting the desired sort of people in the future. How do you become an employer of choice in their mind so that you get the right talent?

Peoples’ choices are being governed by new backgrounds and their own personas. Zillennials, people born in the new century, we broadly call them generation Z – those kids are learning in a completely different way from millennials, who were in turn so different from Gen X. Understanding the intergenerational dimension in the workforce, considering how the experience is different for each and then leveraging each other’s uniqueness – this builds an inclusive and diverse workforce where people can perform at their best. Obviously this needs to be carefully designed. It can’t be just left to chance.

An inclusive and diverse workforce where people can perform their best can’t be left to chance – it has to be carefully designed.

Companies there are really thinking about it in a deeper way are beginning to leverage the power of analytics, design thinking and digital technologies. As always there are companies who have a greater commitment to this are beginning to go deeper into this area, while others are watching and trying to learn.

For example, Accenture and Microsoft are doing a lot of work in this area. I’m not even naming the usual suspects like Google and Facebook which of course do it. Amongst the local companies in India, the early pioneers that are doing work in this are the Aditya Birla Group, Tech Mahindra and Dr. Reddy’s group which has always been curious about technology and are pioneers in design thinking, Godrej, Tata Chemicals.

Managing a new workforce – the Zillennials

Sanjay: Could you elaborate on some of the differences between the Zillennials – the workforce of tomorrow – and the millennials and those of earlier eras?

Anil: Zillennials learn a lot more through video. They learn a lot from experiential learning – much more than the Socrates method of inquiry. The Socrates method of inquiry is still relevant, but it has to be dovetailed into the new methods of creating the right experience for people. Incidentally all of this has been researched for a specific conference we did on the millennial to zillennial interface.

We found that the zillennials were far more global – of course our research sample was based on urban cities not on tier 2 and 3 cities. But I would suspect that might be true of the smaller towns as well. These guys are much more global in the way they interact with their peers in other countries. We heard about kids – 11, 12, 13 year-olds who are collaborating with other kids from across the globe, and on their own. They are digital natives – they know how to build collaboration across boundaries.

Another difference, which is also true of millennials, is that many of them want to do something to make a difference to society. Maybe in our time many of us had some idealistic thoughts but very few people had the courage to go out and actually do it.

Sanjay: How do you see the managers’ role changing when they manage this kind of workforce?

Anil: So obviously much more inclusive, much more diverse, much more welcoming alternate thinking. Obviously the old style of command and control and hierarchy is not going to work at all.

Bosses will have to become more like facilitators and coaches rather than top down managers.

Bosses will have to become more like facilitators and coaches rather than top down managers. So the old top down manager will not be relevant in the future. It will be more about getting people around the right questions and asking them to figure it out rather than trying to give them answers.

The empowerment doctrine started thirty years back. Today if a leader does not encourage empowerment, that person will be obsolete. The process of carrot and stick is not going to work.

Increasingly, and this is very unique, people from needy families, they don’t think twice before quitting a job. This is a new phenomena. People are very self-confident that they will figure out a way to survive and thrive. So this concept of job security and saying, “I need the company” is fast fading.

We are broadly calling it the gig economy. People are willing to work on projects, they’re willing to live with uncertainty and this kind of thing may happen more and more in the future, making organizations irrelevant.

Today if a leader does not encourage empowerment, that person will be obsolete.

The Future of Work: Using NewTech

Anant: Do you have any examples of what leaders have done using design thinking and other tools to manage this new workforce within their companies?

Anil: For example in Tech Mahindra, through the design thinking and employee experience study, they found that many people were hesitating to speak to HR on certain subjects. For example, on an innocuous subject like, “What is my leave entitlement when I’m sick?” There is a rule laid down but what if it is a prolonged sickness – what will the company do etc.

So they designed a humanoid who is present at their workplace and can answer all the questions of employees. They are now going to put many humanoids in other workplaces because the humanoid has no biases. It gives a straight answer, does not hold back information, it does not use knowledge as power. So the tendency to control information and interpret rules to suit the context was eliminated. They decided to give all operations roles of HR that could be easily done by machines to the humanoid. They even gave the humanoid a character. I went and saw it. You can talk to the person.

Technology can help companies overcome biases.

So this is just one experiment to show how biases can be overcome. Many times HR gets a bad name because they don’t give the right kind of information to everyone – and Tech Mahindra decided to change that.

Let me give you another example. People were finding that there is a lot of bias in the recruiting and selection process. The research was showing that people who were being rejected, at least on paper, sometimes looked better than the people being selected. This was at one of the largest private sector banks in India.

The HR Head threw a challenge to the business leaders – “You choose 100 people based on interviews, I’ll choose 100 people based on well-designed tests done through machines which have no biases. And we will watch their career over the next 2 years.”

This test was done a few years back and he was able to prove to all his business leaders that the ones selected through the tests had much better performance than the ones who were selected through interviews by senior leaders. He was able to prove that most people don’t know how to interview, they don’t have the right interpretation of the results. It takes a master interviewer to really assess skills, have no ego or bias, to really successfully select the right candidate.

Today they’ve got rid of the multiple rounds of interviews and instead use technology to screen people.

Anant: This proves that it is possible to parameterize, in some ways, who would make a good employee.

Anil: Research also showed the importance of how people were writing about their own company in the employee value proposition at the time of announcing a new opening on LinkedIn or other job portals. It was found that some language got the right responses and some did not. They figured out that the target audience that you had in mind was responding to a certain kind of language.

Now there is a Silicon Valley company app that evaluates your job description and the way you describe your company. And it will score you on how you appeal to the target audience that you have defined. Because they have this global data database of research, they will then guide you and nudge you on what is the language you should write.

Technology is also being used a lot to educate you on how to describe yourself and in a refreshing way rather than use some borrowed phrases like “future ready managers”. A lot of people use phrases like that which are overused and people know it is borrowed from something you have read and it isn’t you as a company.

Anant: Can you share some examples of how technology is helping employees during their journey through the company?

Anil: I can tell you the example of Airtel, we have done a fair bit of work with Gopal Vittal and his team. Airtel employees have access to a digital happiness coach. Employees can ask any question and can interact with the digital coach that has been given an interesting human character – in this case, it is a female coach.

Through one-on-one conversations employees are followed through their journey. For instance The AI coach engages in a conversation after an employee has given the new rewards plan a poor score, to understand what about the program is not working well. This is helping the company learn a lot more than they could from a simple survey.

Tech like AI is helping companies get a continuous measurement of employee health and well-being.

Instead of doing employee surveys once in six months, they now have continuous measurement of employee health and well-being through this AI-driven platform.

AI and the new kind of manager

Anant: Do you think this will mean that managers will disappear? Will AI take over the managerial layer?

Anil: In a conversation with Wipro, I recently learned that 5000 jobs of project managers have been eliminated. The traditional role of a project manager in a software company has gone. They are now retooling and developing them into other jobs. So in that conventional sense, the manager whose role was to set targets, review performance, give feedback – that kind of work is being replaced by digital technology.

“Your role is to ask different questions, not to manage others, but to bring new perspectives.”

So now they are experimenting with a very different role. What Wipro and Infosys have done is bringing a lot of people with liberal arts background into their sales teams – Google has done this earlier too. So there’s people with an English Literature background, historians etc from some of the brightest institutions. So a Harvard major in Business Philosophy is part of a Business Development team in a technology company. Because they are asking very different questions. Liberal arts is making that kind of alternate thinking happen.

They take these people from different backgrounds and say, “Your role is to ask different questions, not to manage others, but to bring new perspectives.”

These are some interesting new experiments that are going on, and a lot of jobs in the middle are disappearing.

Just the way people are now being hired from different streams by companies means that companies are bringing in diversity. In fact that’s why our new campus called SOIL’s School of Business Design combines liberal arts, design thinking and management education. We believe this interdisciplinary approach will be welcome.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash