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Expert Insights l Monica Parker

Q&A with organisational change expert, Monica Parker
What does the future workplace look like

We were delighted to interview Monica Parker, Founder of HATCH Analytics for our recently released report, Uncovering the DNA of the Future Workplace report. We featured a snippet of Monica’s Q&A in the report with the full Q&A available below. Our report looks at the four core elements we believe will shape workplaces of the future: flexibility, technology, upskilling and purpose.
 
We are grateful for Monica’s contribution that lends much needed human context for organisations in Asia as they race towards more digital and automated ways of working.
 

Flexibility

 
Q. How do you think increasingly flexibility (and therefore autonomy) will impact both the workforce and workplaces of the future in terms of psychology and behaviour?
 
Flexible working is the single biggest non-remuneration benefit in the OECD. People will take a pay-cut for flexibility. Autonomy drives greater performance and increases wellbeing. And now that the spectre of complete organisational collapse has been vanquished, this mass global experiment into remote working has shown that not only are people capable of working flexibly but that they want to work flexibly. Thus, the expectation will be that a person has a right to work flexibly, and the demand will be much more explicit. I see this as primarily positive. There are risks in poor management and workplace surveillance that are already being seen, but overall, this shift should be a boon economically, socially, societally and psychologically for people, organisations and communities.
 
Q. Many organisations fear that remote working in particular will impact productivity. How can they overcome this fear?
 
My first question is do they really want to overcome this fear, or is this an excuse to simply continue on a path that they feel more comfortable with? My second question might be to challenge whether productivity of humans in knowledge worker organisations even can be – or should be – quantified. Performance, perhaps, but quantifying productivity outside of call centres or very process-driven environments is almost impossible. Performance as a goal is more holistic, and in turn takes into account wellbeing metrics as well as pure output measurements. But if we are to look at process-driven environments like contact centres or insurance adjusters, the data is quite clear that flexible working increases productivity.
 
In study after study there is zero evidence that remote working impacts productivity. On the contrary, flexible working increases productivity.
 
It is important we recognise that what we are doing now during the pandemic is not real flexible working, because our autonomy has been taken from us. So, it is natural to see in some places that productivity would dip during this time as stress levels are through the roof and are often combined with increased caretaking responsibilities and home-schooling in some areas. Despite this, however, surveys being run today by HATCH and others show that even under these terrible conditions, people are self-reporting higher performance levels for the most part.
 
Q. You have previously spoken about our obsession with glorifying overworking. But in some places, overworking is considered an ‘entrepreneurial’ mindset. What are some of the less obvious drawbacks of this way of thinking?
 
One of the elements that is less appreciated is the risk of action bias. Also known as intervention bias, action bias is the tendency to act hastily, without considering all possible solutions, particularly when under pressure or to gain control of a situation. Further, with action bias people tend to overestimate past successes and underestimate the risks associated with action. There is a cultural allure to people who make fast decisions, and they are often seen as good leaders, even if the outcome eventually is found to be the wrong action. This bias finds fertile ground in an ‘entrepreneurial’ culture replete with what is colloquially known as “productivity porn”, a social drive to be seen as highly productive. As Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman observed in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, “If there is time to reflect, slowing down is likely to be a good idea.”
 
Q. Considering the growing popularity of remote working options, what role will physical office spaces play in the future?
 
The office is not dead. On the contrary, it still has a huge role to play. But being a place where we come and sit in desk-farms is likely not it. Offices of the future, I believe, will serve primarily as places of collaboration and socialisation.
 

Technology

 
Q. You have previously said that every company is a technology company today – please elaborate on what you meant by this and the significance of it, if any?
 
What I meant by this is that every knowledge worker company lives and dies on technology. Email, word processing, accounting, analysis – all of it depends on technology. And when the technology doesn’t work, we are often at a loss on how to proceed. Often in change management or office design however, we leave the tech implications to the end. IT must be seen as one of the critical elements of work, along with space and behaviour. When we leave out that component, it is at our peril.
 
Q. The majority of our respondents said their organisation’s technology/digitalisation journey was very important to them, regardless of their role. Apart from providing accessibility and tools for work, why do you think an organisation’s digitalisation journey would be important to employees?
 
First and foremost, technology serves to decouple us from specific space, and that mobility is craved by most people, even if they don’t take advantage of it constantly. The biggest example of this is how the mobile phone has decoupled so many activities from specific spaces. We are no longer rooted to a computer on a desk, a phone plugged into a wall, a printer at our office. It has now been 10+ years since society has had to adjust to smartphone technologies, and that has made the biggest impression on our perception of the rate of change and the impact of technology on our lives.
 
Any change involves a psychological element. Most resistance to tech changes are akin to any other change – it is uncomfortable because it requires a rewiring of our brains. And once that rewiring has occurred, assuming the technological intervention is in fact an improvement, people’s behaviours will adjust. Just look at how quickly ‘Zoom’ became a ubiquitous verb across multiple generations – if there is a driver and it serves a purpose, technology will become encased in time, and sometimes in a very short amount of time.
 
Q. Many companies in Asia are still early in their digital transformation journey. Is there any advice you could give them as they make this transition?
 
First, collect evidence to ensure you are actually solving for a problem that exists, and solving it in a way that ensures an honest solution story that can be told. Second, like any change, people need to be engaged and brought along on the journey. They need to buy-in to that solution story. Third, never forget that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Technology can throw up some ethical red flags (like corporate surveillance or certain intrusive AI). When that happens, organisations must stay true to their organisational ethics.
 

Upskilling

 
Q. 71% of our respondents said that reskilling (defined as the process of learning new skills to succeed in a different job) became more important to them after the pandemic hit. What are your thoughts on this?
 
The notion of changing jobs being taboo is one that is quickly dying. A young person entering the workforce today will have 17 jobs in 5 industries. Some of those changes will be the result of foreseeable elements like automation and unforeseeable elements like pandemics. But regardless, movement among jobs and industries is going to be normalised. I think companies will be well-served to begin looking at hiring for skills-clusters rather than specific job descriptions or roles (and to support this shift, schools and universities would be well-served to shift to skills-cluster programmes). The need to support people moving from one job to another needs to be better implemented by companies. It is a pity to lose someone who has shown commitment and drive and is a good cultural fit just because their skills on paper no longer seem to fit.  
 
Q. You have said before that the biggest skills gap is actually around the skills that make us human. How can we encourage skills that make us human in work cultures that only focus on skills that directly translate into results?
 
This comes from education. Research of the applicability of these human skills exists. Its more about whether leaders are willing to give it the weight it deserves. And the awareness of this is growing. More and more CEOs see communication, empathy and listening as important but they often just think of these as inherent to a person’s personality rather than skills that can be taught.
 

Purpose

 
Q. 90% of our respondents said that purpose or meaning played a very important/important role in motivating an employee’s performance. How can companies incite this in their employees?
 
Two primary ways. The first is by knowing and holding true to their organisational purpose, and second by helping each individual within the organisation connect to their individual purpose. Once you’ve done this, a natural alignment occurs, or it becomes clear that culturally, even if a person is a high performer, they are not right for the future. This awareness and insight allows for the cultivation of an aligned and purpose-driven culture.
 
Q. Who carries the responsibility for building or maintaining purpose in an organisation? Would it be leadership, HR? Who should drive this in an organisation?
 
Culture is the wake you see from a series of behaviours. You can say you are ethical, responsible, caring, transparent etc. but if your behaviour doesn’t show that, then your culture is not that. Each behaviour in aggregate makes culture. And if the culture is diffused, meaning the behaviours that align with the aspirational culture are sporadic or scattered, then you won’t get as clear of a wake; thus your culture will not have as much power and influence.
 
This doesn’t just happen naturally, though. Often people need guidance on seeing values in action. If transparency is a value, for example, most people will need help to take a look at their job role and parse it apart to see how they can manifest that value in each of their actions. Further, there need to be assurances that if people are acting counter to the stated values, there are mechanisms for holding people accountable without retribution for the observer. So, at the end of the day, executives have a responsibility to set clear strategies that support culturally aligned behaviours, leaders have a responsibility for holding people accountable, and then, ultimately, every single person has the  responsibility of creating that wake.
 

Future of Work

 
Q. 71% of our respondents said that being open to change would help future-proof their organisations. How can companies improve their openness to change?
 
Being open to and capable of change is the only thing that will future proof organisations. The pandemic is proof of that. Change is happening more rapidly than ever before due to rapid proliferation and prototyping of ideas, spurred by globalisation. If a business is to remain relevant, it must be very comfortable with change – but not change for change’s sake, rather change when helpful or necessary. And that is cultural as well as procedural change. Cultures that fail to see the need to change, like towards flexible working or support for diversity, are doomed to become irrelevant.
 
Q. Our respondents overwhelmingly said that both Diversity and Inclusion were very important in a business. How can organisations implement this without creating in-grouping and divides?
 
Diversity banishes in-grouping. But diversity itself is not enough. Inclusion and psychological safety must be part of the mix to ensure that when different types of people are brought into the business, they have a fair chance to achieve. Verna Myers said ‘Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance’. Businesses must get better at not just inviting people to the party but asking people to dance.
 
Q. 71% of our respondents said that being part of an organisation that values employee wellbeing became more important to them after the pandemic hit. Beyond healthcare and insurance, how do you see ‘employee wellbeing’ evolving in the future?
 
Flexible working, psychological safety (feeling safe to be yourself at work), normalisation of caring responsibilities and de-stigmatisation of mental health are all elements that require greater focus. But at its core, wellbeing is not fresh fruit or yoga classes, it is autonomy, respect, fairness, and equity. If every business genuinely offered that, the wellbeing of its workforce would undeniably improve.
 
Q. How do you think leadership and workplace hierarchies will (or should) evolve in the future?
 
Hierarchies serve a purpose. People find comfort in them. They create order and clarity. But using them as a mechanism for repression will not be suffered as it once was. Mankind is on a journey of self-actualisation, and that means a greater expectation of respect. If the hierarchy is based in that and those who reach higher rungs of the hierarchy are there because of fair and equitable systems, hierarchies will continue to have a valid and helpful purpose.
 

The end

 
We would like to take this opportunity to thank Monica for her time in answering our questions. Don’t forget to download your free copy of the report by clicking here.