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Executive Roundtable: The Future of Work is Now

February 23, 2021

The Future of Work Is Now

The COVID-19 crisis has thrust the role of CHRO into the spotlight. What have been the key lessons and challenges, and what is going to change long term? Adam Bryant, Executive Roundtable Editor, interviewed four CHROs to hear their insights and strategies. Their comments were edited for space and woven together in a roundtable format. This article was published in print and online in the Summer 2020 Issue of the Journal of HR People + Strategy.


  • Lucien Alziari, Chief Human Resources Officer of Prudential Financial
  • Alan May, Chief People Officer at Hewlett Packard Enterprise
  • Dawn Rogers, Chief Human Resources Officer of Pfizer
  • Pat Wadors, Chief Talent Officer at ServiceNow

People + Strategy: What lessons are we learning from this crisis?

Pat Wadors: It’s creating more agility. I see it in ServiceNow, and it’s happening at other companies as well. There’s more freedom to be perfectly imperfect. We’re all in this awkward, wonky state, and so forgiveness has never been higher. We’re not as worried about the polished output, and we’re more engaged.

I hope that we continue with this perfectly imperfect agile mindset, because it’s unlocking so much innovation in how we care for our employees and how we develop products. We’ve seen innovations move from idea to execution in just a week or two. It wasn’t perfect, but it went out and customers made it better. I think that’s huge.

Lucien Alziari: The mental model in some organizations was that you can either have speed or high quality, but not both because they’re mutually exclusive. We’re seeing that they’re not. We’re proving to ourselves right now you can do both speed and quality at the same time. We don’t need everything we do to be at the 99th percentile. I’m not saying average—we enjoy having high standards. We’re learning that good enough is just fine most of the time because that’s all that anybody ever really needed. The challenge as we move forward is to keep working these muscles and not treat this period as some kind of aberration.

“I don’t think this crisis fundamentally changes the role of HR. What it does, though, is reveals how companies think about HR. For the companies that have a very limited view of the role, that’s exactly what they’re getting right now.”
—Lucien Alziari, CHRO of Prudential Financial 

In any change process, you always start with understanding the baseline to track progress against. Two months into this crisis is now the new baseline. We’re never going back to all of our past practices. When we talk about the future of work, we’re living it now.

Imagine if we had taken a team of five of our highest-potential leaders and said to them 10 weeks ago, “Tell us what it would take to get 97 percent of our people working remotely with performance and productivity at acceptable levels.” That would have been an 18-month process and the conclusion would have been that we couldn’t do it. But we did it in 36 hours.

How do we keep that speed of decision-making? We’re not having to say to people, “You can do it.” We’re saying to them, “Look at what you’ve just done.” That gives people confidence and assurance that they can keep moving forward.

P+S: What has been the most challenging part of leading through this crisis?

Alan May: The crucible of time. The need to communicate has ramped up exponentially. In addition to our meetings, most of which are now online, I need to reach out individually to the people who work for me and to many others. Many of the conversations are simply me asking people how they are. It’s part of what I call the priestly or rabbinical part of the job. It’s about listening, and that takes time.

Ironically, I think we’re more connected as a team, and not just because of the challenge of the crisis. While in theory you could bump into one another at the office in the past, we were often on business trips, so there were times when you might not see a colleague for a couple of weeks. Now we’re connecting daily as a team on video calls. If anything, I think it’s improved the connective tissue. We’ve also raised our game in terms of synchronizing our decision-making.

Dawn Rogers: As the CHRO, you are trying to help leaders and your team on the front lines navigate this. What are the things that are important? What do we need to do? How do we need to do it? You’re trying to figure it out for yourself as you’re trying to guide them.

“In the past, we spent a lot of time trying to teach leaders not to let personal circumstances influence how they lead different people, but the opposite is now true.”
—Dawn Rogers, CHRO of Pfizer

But in this environment, we don’t have context for how this crisis is impacting other people. I don’t have little kids at home. I don’t have sick family members. The challenges are different for everyone. One of the biggest responsibilities for an HR person is to try to help other leaders gain that context and to understand that everybody is dealing with different circumstances.

We all have to ask questions and listen. In the past, we spent a lot of time trying to teach leaders not to let personal circumstances influence how they lead different people, but the opposite is now true. Asking questions is the only way you’re going to understand the context of what other people are going through.

P+S: What are the management and the leadership skills that will carry more of a premium in the future?

Rogers: You’ve got to have leaders who can be more responsive in the moment and who can manage through ambiguity. We’re not going to be able to provide black-and-white answers for many of these challenges. We need leaders who are comfortable looking for answers in that ambiguity, and the answers may be different in one part of the business than they are in others.

May: It raises the bar for all leaders to be very crisp, very specific about our expectations. From an employee’s perspective, it will require them to be more self-managed. They have to be very transparent with their supervisors around what they can do, what they can’t do and timetables for getting work done.

Wadors: There is a difference between managers and leaders. Managers will struggle more in a virtual environment than leaders because they’re used to command and control, and they need to see their people in the office. Letting go and doing things in a remote, distributed way is a muscle they’re having to build now by force of nature.

Managers are getting a master class in leadership right now, by having to empower their team and being more inclusive and having more compassionate styles to get the job done. They’re getting better at focusing on the priorities that matter. Every company struggles with focus. This is a forcing function for understanding the balls that you can’t drop.

May: Many people are leading through their first crisis right now. I would argue that a severe crisis like this will accelerate a lot of the things that we’ve been reading about for decades around emotional intelligence, empathy, the importance of communication and servant leadership. In a world of work that is largely virtual, the ability to connect with people and inspire them will have a higher premium than perhaps it did in the past.

“This experience could create a more collective mindset among workers who are not in white-collar jobs or in technology businesses. This might be personified in a traditional form like labor unions or manifested with employees using social media.”
—Alan May, CPO at Hewlett Packard Enterprise

Now, there are certain laws of physics and finance that are immutable, and people can argue that the business world will go back to a more singular focus on grinding out more profit and more productivity. But I think the skills required to do this are subtly going to change over time.

P+S: What lessons are we learning about remote working?

Rogers: You can do things remotely that you never thought you could. This has accelerated the thinking of leaders who believed that things had to be done face-to-face in order to be effective. But I don’t think we’ve missed a beat in terms of productivity.

Part of HR’s job is to figure out how we capitalize on these gains and help leaders see the advantages in being more flexible than we’ve ever been. If we can make this work for us, it’s going to help us to attract the talent that we want and need.

Wadors: Interestingly, the sense of belonging inside companies has increased around the world. In our ongoing surveys, we see the trends in people’s responses. They are really leaning in to connecting with other humans, and that is changing a lot of dialogue. I’m seeing compassionate leadership getting stronger and stronger during this pandemic. Leaders are learning more about the people on their teams, and I see them scheduling meetings in ways to accommodate all the things that people have to take care of at home.

P+S: We’re hearing from a lot of leaders that working through this crisis has sharpened the need to prioritize, which is something that companies often struggle with when things are going well.

Alziari: Part of it is mindset, but in a crisis, you also build in protocols that enable very fast decision-making. You tend to have a daily call rather than a monthly call. And in a daily cadence, you expect a decision by tomorrow and you’re executing by tomorrow night. When it’s a monthly call, stuff gets stored up.

In some ways, I worry a bit about the daily call becoming a weekly call. You can just see how easy it is for the organization to settle back into old patterns. You can’t have the organization operating at warp speed all the time because then you end up with capacity issues, but you also don’t want people to revert to whatever they remember of the past.

P+S: Let’s shift to predictions. What are your thoughts about the future of work post-COVID-19?

Alziari: There will be a mix of remote working and people working in offices. Innovation work is more effective with teams working together. Strategic insight discussions are better with everybody in the room where you can see each other’s eyes. It’s about being thoughtful about the mix going forward.

A mix of in-office and at-home is a much better mix. It gives people more control over their lives. It’s better for the planet in terms of commuting and cars on the road. It removes some stresses and adds a degree of variety.

May: The whole notion of sustainability—with corporations serving many stakeholders and considering the environmental impact of their strategies—has been accelerated instantaneously in terms of its importance. When we look at this world today, it’s the epitome of sustainability, given how interdependent we are across so many different dimensions. People are going to be much more aware of the dependency that we share at all levels of organizations to get work done. The constituencies outside our companies are much, much broader now and much more important than they were in the past. We’re going to see a lot more maturation of that concept within the corporate environment.

Wadors: A prediction is that mental health and wellness benefits will never be an afterthought again. I treated it like a competitive advantage when I was the CHRO at LinkedIn, and I’m doing so here at ServiceNow. I’m making them bigger and more robust, because if you care for the employee and their families, that means a lot.

“A prediction is that mental health and wellness benefits will never be an afterthought again. I treated it like a competitive advantage when I was the CHRO at LinkedIn, and I’m doing so here at ServiceNow.”
—Pat Wadors, CTO at ServiceNow

I think digital learning, democratization of access to learning and development will be more dominant. I think that leadership development-on-demand, in moments that matter, should be available all the time, because I need to train managers now in how to lead and manage in a digital way with humanity.

I think we will change our footprint in the physical space. We will change our job descriptions, because I think every job could be remote now. It doesn’t have to be tethered to an office. The days of people worrying about productivity dropping because the parking lot’s empty are over.

It just changes the equation because I’m not constrained by workspace. What if I can give more students with economic needs, with diverse backgrounds, the opportunity to share in a career-transforming opportunity like a digital internship?

P+S: What are your thoughts on whether the HR function is going to change or evolve because of the crisis?

Alziari: I don’t think this crisis fundamentally changes the role of HR in companies. What it does, though, is reveals how companies think about HR. For the companies that have a very limited view of the role, that’s exactly what they’re getting right now, and my guess is they’re going to struggle.

For the ones that have always understood that it’s central to how they compete and build capabilities to win, I think they’re getting full value because it’s so central to the debates about how we help companies through this and how we create the future.

I’m sure HR will be more digital, more virtual, more mobile, less formal and we will be faster. Those elements were probably all being mentioned by all of us before as CHROs. This crisis has really accelerated our progress toward those goals. The differentiator going forward is whether people can make that part of the DNA so that it becomes the norm.

Rogers: This period is going to reinforce for companies that it was people who kept the world going through this whole pandemic. Many companies were starting to realize over the last several years, after maybe a decade of trying to find ways to do things more efficiently and with fewer people, that it’s not as easy to find the people you want, nor is it as easy to keep them as it used to be.

Many companies have shifted gears to more of a mindset that your people are your competitive advantage, because they bring the innovation and creativity to compete in almost any marketplace. Those companies have found that the secret sauce to making their people a competitive advantage is to form a stronger partnership and two-way commitment with them.

HR’s role is to help people continue to understand how to make that relationship work better—not in an altruistic way, but in a way that says by working together, we can build a future for our company.

May: I think this experience could create a more collective mindset among workers who are not in so-called white-collar jobs or in technology businesses. This might be personified in a traditional form like labor unions or manifested, as we have seen in recent years, with employees using social media to express their points of view and to advocate for them.

This crisis has been disorienting to the overall economy, but it has also been disorienting for how work is done, with so many of us sheltering in place. That isolation will make people want to feel more connected, and that could lead to efforts to organize or to work collectively to see major change.

The implication for me as a CHRO is that, if we see further acceleration of that trend, we need to be engaging in even more active listening with our workforce and making sure that we’re providing them what they need as best possible.