A Different Work Future Requires New Models

A recent article via Linda Lacina is very impactful in these days of uncertainty. A focus on the future is ramping across all sectors, and one of the hottest topics is the future of work. The work discussion is focused on two different time horizons. One is the nearer term implications of the pandemic, labor shortages, automation, an aging society, etc. The other is a longer-term view of what work becomes. In both those conversations, a focus on our human traits and an urgent need to transform education is appropriate. That’s why this article resonated with me.

The article describes initiatives driven by Leena Nair, Unilever’s chief human resource officer – the first female, first Asian and the youngest ever person to hold that post at the company. It is impactful because it shows tangible steps that a leader and organization are taking to address the future at some level. For example, traditional structures will increasingly be challenged as our fast-paced future emerges. New approaches to adaptability and resilience are required (as COVID-19 made abundantly clear). One small step in this direction is the Unilever U-Work, model, which joins the flexibility of contract work with the security (and benefits) of a traditional in-house role. Employees don’t have a fixed role but plug into assignment-based work. Between assignments they can work on projects that are important to them. A marriage of gig work and traditional employment. This moves structures towards the flexible models required to support work in the multi-stakeholder (ecosystems) world that is emerging.

That program was initially created as an option for those approaching retirement as a way they could transition out of a classic 40-hour week. However, Nair said the program has seen surprising appeal with a cross section of workers. Around a third are approaching retirement, yes, but another third are juggling caretaking responsibilities for older parents or children. The remainder include younger people looking for flexible schedules that allow for opportunities such as travel or study.

Linda Lacina – Unilever’s HR chief: The future of work requires this key skill – and it’s the hardest to master

The pandemic made the challenges described in that quote more acute. Additionally, the future of education and the future of work are very tightly linked, making programs in this area critical. Ms. Nair identifies a key challenge for the workforce: the current approach to educating workers just once at the beginning of their careers doesn’t fit current needs. U-Renew is one answer to that problem, helping workers upskill in a learning sabbatical type of structure. Lastly, the article focuses on developing new leaderships skills. I love her description:

Our new work future will also require a new mastery of soft skills – of vulnerability, transparency and the type of empathy that ensures everyone can truly have a voice. Show your warts, your problems, your challenges. Be a human being. This is the time for human beings, not human doing.”

Leena Nair, Unilever’s chief human resource officer

A good discussion on various aspects of the future of work can be found in the podcast below.

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