In this exclusive conversation with All Things Talent, Ms Pradnya Kulkarni, Regional Head - Talent & Learning at Western Union, shares her views on the ongoing remote work renaissance, the increasing need for flexibility, and creating a future flexibility framework that is based on Core Values. She also talks about the role of leaders and the employees in creating a sense of belonging and ensuring that ‘out-of-sight’ is not ‘out-of-mind’.
ATT: As businesses grapple with the acute disruption brought on by the pandemic, we find that many companies have accelerated their digital transformation efforts. There has been increasing use of technology to work, play, and stay connected which is shaping new digital habits and redefining work. What are some of the factors that have helped organizations to reset, pivot, and think big to transform their business operations to match the new digital business and operating models?
Pradnya: There are three key areas that will play a vital role in this – a) the nature of work, b) our workforce- the human capital, and c) our workplace- both physical and virtual. While almost all organizations had their digital roadmaps drawn pre-pandemic, the pandemic accelerated digital adoption in a big way.
Customer needs changed overnight given the restrictions brought about by the virus. This led to faster digitalization of solutions by all businesses exploring ways to digitize some or all work through advances in robotics, IoT, cloud, and other technologies. The same happened with the workforce of the large corporates – especially those in the knowledge economy.
The sudden switch from mostly on-prem work to the remote working model brought on a never seen before adoption of the collaboration tools and platforms to support dynamic working. As the horizon for so-called return to normal kept getting distant, there was a perceptible change in the mindset and a new normal quickly emerged wherein the previous dogmas around operating models started being challenged and most organizations decided not to waste a good crisis and leapfrog into the new ways of working.
Organizations started futureproofing their strategies, trying to optimize the benefits of both on-prem and remote working models in order to increase productivity, reduce operational spend and increase their access to the now inaccessible talent pool.
ATT: COVID-19 changed the way we think about remote work. Currently, we’re in a remote work renaissance, with many options available to connect and collaborate with each other and a new range of possibilities for the way businesses can work and structure themselves. But after everyone settled into the new working environment, what quickly became apparent was that in addition to its benefits, WFH created new mental health challenges for employees and profoundly impacted their work-life balance. What lessons are you drawing from these experiences?
Pradnya: Some lessons learned from the past year are that we can accomplish many tasks remotely without a significant impact on productivity or quality.
Most employees appreciate flexibility, especially those with long commute times, the minimal support system at home, elderly parents or young kids, etc. On the flip side, we also saw many employees are experiencing hardships working from home: struggling to separate their work lives from their personal ones, experiencing loneliness or miss an office with a dedicated workstation.Some lessons learned from the past year are that we can accomplish many tasks remotely without a significant impact on productivity or quality. Click To Tweet
We learned that if we help employees support their personal lives more effectively, they not only have better lives but perform at a higher level. Continuous remote work extends the workday, diffuses work-life boundaries, and affects mental wellbeing. From the employee perspective, the shift is massive and very consequential: people are making new choices about where they want to live and creating new expectations about flexibility, working conditions, and life balance that can’t be undone.
We may see an evolution where employees no longer have an agreed-upon set of hours to work and instead just focus on a set of outputs to achieve. In the pre-COVID environment, the existing workforce relied upon their deep working relationships to collaborate seamlessly in the virtual environment. However, the new recruits who onboarded virtually during the pandemic would take a lot longer to create a strong bond, understand the organization’s culture and then embed themselves.
The key question then is – “How would the new talent pool adapt to these changing work environments?”. There is work set out clearly for the leaders and existing workforce as well as the new recruits to create a sense of belonging and stay in the information flow of the organization ensuring ‘out-of-sight is not ‘out-of-mind’.
Organizations have to rethink their working arrangements. While remote working has been successful for most teams, the need for face-to-face interaction cannot be overlooked to facilitate collaboration, build relationships, solve complex challenges and generate ideas. This re-calibration will eventually see a sustainable new normal, maybe a hybrid workforce and distributed workplace.
As leaders, support for mental health and financial health will become table stakes of the benefits to be offered to the employees. Organizations would invest in preparing the managers for perpetual virtual working for some part of the workforce.
ATT: The current world context is pushing organizations to make better-informed decisions, redefine work and workplace, experiment with unfamiliar business models, embrace agility and flexibility to survive in a rapidly changing environment. There is no playbook here, and definitely no one-size-fits-all approach to how one deals with this crisis, therefore, organizations want to provide as many options and resources as possible to their employees. Western Union has been operating according to the highest ethical standards, prioritizing the health and financial security of its employees, addressing unmet social needs, and promoting the well-being of its employees, customers, and stakeholders. How are the pandemic-induced regime of remote work, flexible hours, and virtual technology redefining the future of work at Western Union?
Pradnya: We have a strong listening strategy, which was deployed 2 years ago. Through our monthly listening, we get real-time employee sentiment and experience. Key data themes across internal and external sources show significant changes in previous work expectations. The risk of losing top talent to employers whose work models align more with employee expectations is very real. Therefore, we are working towards shifting mindsets, creating guidelines on flexibility which are globally consistent, locally relevant, and modelled by leadership with limited exceptions for work that cannot be achieved without physical contact. Consistent with our Talent strategy at WU, we notice and understand that workplace in the post-pandemic environment is changing, it is becoming more flexible and still balancing employee and employer needs.
ATT: Along with remote working, ’flexibility’ has become a major part of our “new normal.” Today’s newfound flexibility not only helped businesses embrace uncertainty but also mitigate some of their greatest challenges. Flexibility, to put it mildly, has the ability to change our ways of working forever. How do you plan to drive a flexibility framework and use it to your competitive advantage?
Pradnya: We have put together a series of communications throughout the year that will help drive the flexibility mindset. Some examples of which are:
- Taking time off: Importance of mental health and productivity benefits, scheduling time off, and modelling the right behaviours by the leaders.
- Meeting reset: Adjusting meetings to 20/50 minutes so as to allow some time between meetings. Reviewing the invite list to see if indeed each of the participants must attend the same meeting and frequency of meetings. Better appreciating time zone equity
- Creating boundaries: Scheduling some No-meeting periods so as to be able to work across time zones. Allotting working hours and how to say no.
- Communicating effectively
- Building remote work relationships
As we think about the future, we are reimagining the workplace to support our strong culture and talent strategy and incorporating flexibility. Our focus on our customers, business growth, and the safety of our employees is grounded in our core values.