Article: In the hybrid world, organisations' focus should go beyond just ‘where’ people work: IBM’s Nickle LaMoreaux

C-Suite

In the hybrid world, organisations' focus should go beyond just ‘where’ people work: IBM’s Nickle LaMoreaux

In an exclusive interview with us, Nickle LaMoreaux, Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, IBM touches upon some of the most talked-about aspects of the new world of work including the hybrid work conundrum, lessons learnt from the crisis, work-life integration, top priorities of IBM, and more.
In the hybrid world, organisations' focus should go beyond just ‘where’ people work: IBM’s Nickle LaMoreaux

READ the September 2021 issue of our magazine: The Great War For Talent

The pandemic, which offered an opportunity to reimagine organisational structures and invest in the workforce as the core drivers of long-term resilience, will have profound consequences for the future of work. The reset needed to augment the transition to a fairer and more sustainable world is easier said than done. Human resources executives and business leaders are now called on to get things right and build a better future of work.  

In this interview, Nickle LaMoreaux, Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, IBM shares some intriguing thoughts on the future of work. Nickle leads IBM’s people strategy, skills, employee experience and services, and global HR team supporting more than 350,000 IBMers across 170 countries. In her 20 years at IBM, Nickle has led HR across organisations ranging from services to software to emerging markets – supporting the company’s business growth through leadership development, talent acquisition, performance management, and skill-building.

As VP of Compensation and Benefits, she led the design and deployment of all compensation and benefits programs globally. She was also responsible for the HR activities associated with mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures, and drove the people side of the Red Hat acquisition.

Here are the excerpts of the interview.

What defines the new world of work according to you? The flexible working revolution opens up a plethora of questions about synchronous work, collaboration, and work culture. With uncertainty still abound, what's your best prediction about what work will look like?

I think we are seeing a fundamental shift in how people do their jobs. There’s a lot of talk about the new world of 'hybrid work' but it’s too focused on arbitrarily setting how many days a week people go to the office. Companies should be focused on more than just where people work – the future of work is also about when people work, when they need to come together, and what they are working on. Teams should focus on outcomes, not activities, and this should drive how work gets done – and when teams should come into the office face-to-face, or when they should work remotely. Not since the industrial revolution have we had such an exciting opportunity to redesign work. 

Some teams will still predominately work on-site, such as manufacturing teams, certain R&D teams (such as IBM’s Quantum group), and those employees who work at client sites. Others can go to the office to meet with their team as needed. I think of this as being 'intentionally flexible', and it will look different for every company, and probably even every team. It requires managers to become experts at work design, and for companies to create policies that allow for the flexibility that employees are demanding in a post-COVID environment. That’s what we are doing at IBM. 

Employers are ready to get back to a significant in-person presence but employees aren’t. Even during the pandemic, the productivity of remote workers was the same as or higher than it was before COVID-19. The disconnect has been more profound than what most employers think, and a spike in attrition and disengagement may be at hand. In fact, the great resignation is already here. How can we fill the chasm of how employers and employees see the future?

The future of work will not be one size fits all. Points of view will differ by company, industry, geography, culture, even individual preferences. What is important as employers and employees navigate this new world?

1. Start with your company’s values and business model. Instead of trying to mimic other companies, employers must stay grounded in their unique values and business model to continue attracting and retaining the best talent. 

2. Embrace flexibility that supports your business. Rather than declaring tops-down if employees should work from home or the office, follow the flow of work in your business model. If some work can be done remotely, enable flexibility in when and where work gets done. New ways of working with tools and technology such as Box, Mural, WebEx, Slack, etc. are also enabling more remote work and collaboration. 

3. Communicate frequently and transparently. There will always be different expectations and preferences, but if you can be open and clear about why working models are the way they are and explain the business rationale behind those choices, that allows you to build trust with employees.  

The advice about staying true to your values and business model, allowing autonomy and flexibility where possible, and being open and transparent are three pieces of advice that a company should follow as they address any talent challenge. 

COVID-19 wrought havoc across the globe. But is this the moment, as many experts say, to reimagine all aspects of work —fix broken links, and build a fair and inclusive world of work? Do you see a synergy in terms of how big companies are charting their path forward? 

There are some lessons learnt from COVID-19 that I do hope we port forward – large companies, in particular, should consider these lessons. 

  • Be intentionally flexible. This flexible approach is particularly critical as businesses seek to create more diverse workforces and specifically bring more women back into the workforce. The pandemic has opened many companies to the concept that if employees achieve the outcomes they are expected to achieve, work can get done on a flexible schedule. 
  • Lead and manage with empathy. Even though at IBM we have long been focused on the employee experience, during COVID, we had to double down. We wanted to ensure we were doing everything possible to support our employees, especially as work and home life integrated in ways many IBMers had never experienced. We focused on leading and managing with empathy. We trained 30,000 managers at the onset of the pandemic and this has helped create a renewed sense of community around the world.  
  • Focus on skills. Every industry around the world is facing a shortage of tech skills. All companies must open the aperture of where they find skills. In a talent tsunami, focus on the skills needed, not necessarily degrees. This will open the aperture of where to source great talent.

I believe that companies who can be intentionally flexible, lead and manage with empathy, and focus on skills will open the aperture for more diverse candidates and be able to create more inclusive workplaces. 

COVID-19 disruption led organisations globally to bet on automation and other emerging technologies to boost efficiency, support employee well-being, and expedite work outputs. On the other hand, we see a growing emphasis on ‘humanity and emotional intelligence'. How do you view this 'tech-led but human-first' paradox?

Tech-led and human-first are not mutually exclusive. They are not either/or scenarios. In fact, tech-led enables human-first. 

In terms of automation, our AskHR chatbot is available 24/7 to answer employees’ questions, and if it can’t help, it refers the employee to someone to assist further. We also use robotic process automation in payroll and benefits to drive productivity improvements. These improvements allow IBMers to take care of administrative tasks quickly and easily and free up employees and managers to focus on higher-value work. 

A prime example of human-first to come out of the pandemic is that employees now expect their employers to take an active role in supporting their physical and emotional health. That means managers must be trained differently to lead their teams. As previously mentioned, specialized training for the 30,000 IBM managers was one of the first programs we launched at the outset of the pandemic. We wanted to help managers create a sense of community and empathy with their teams while also clearly showing career paths in a virtual workplace. Our managers clearly saw the value of conversations with their teams about emotional health, plus frequent individual check-ins with their team members.

Organisations have largely hailed hybrid as the future of work, but some are baffled by the extent to which this blended model is espoused! There are strong arguments against it such as extra cost, erosion of work culture, and data security issues. What’s your vision about this two-track work module?

The key word here is “flexibility”. IBM coined the term “work-life integration” 20-years ago, and flexibility has long been at the heart of our workplace. This requires a culture of trust and personal responsibility, which is one of IBM’s core values, along with dedication to our clients’ success, and innovation that matters for the company and the world. In a culture of trust, as long as teams achieve their goals, they can work in flexible ways to account for each other’s personal lives. I want to add that flexibility is also important for bringing more women back into the workforce since, as a recent IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) report confirmed, they’ve been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Expectations of leaders, employees, and other stakeholders from HR have increased to a great extent today. Interestingly, according to one survey, the demand for HR executives has reached near-epic proportions. What’s your advice for HR and talent leaders to reinvent themselves and deliver on these expectations?

Employees used to select companies based on factors like pay and benefits. Now companies are being judged on their culture, the potential for meaningful work, and company purpose. This changes the game for attracting talent. I advise HR leaders to stay grounded in their values because employees know when a company is faking it. Instead of trying to mimic what other companies are doing, be true to who you are. Secondly, adapt to change and co-create with employees. Everything shouldn’t be top-down from corporate headquarters; you can engage your employees transparently on the specifics. And finally, as companies return to the workplace, be flexible. Flexibility will be key to attracting and retaining top talent now and in the future.

MORE FOR YOU...

The crisis of 2020 has uncovered how some companies view diversity, equity, and inclusion as a nice-to-have rather than a core value. The onset of the pandemic saw businesses shedding jobs across industries including jobs related to diversity roles. But recent data shows that the hiring of diversity chiefs is now at an all-time high. So, the question is how do we fix the diversity equation and leverage DE&I practices as a sustainable competitive advantage?

Last year the combination of racial injustice and the pandemic pointed to the need for faster, meaningful progress from society and business. While IBM has a long history of diversity and inclusion leadership, we take our responsibility for action very seriously. Advancing D&I takes specific actions, not just platitudes. We continue to commit to education, skills, and jobs to create opportunities for diverse groups around the world, and we advocate for specific change in diverse communities. We provide allyship training and support to help every IBMer be inclusive, and we provide employee experiences such as our Be Equal initiative that support every employee to thrive and bring their authentic selves to work. Finally, we are doubling down on accountability that harnesses data transparency and AI to increase diverse representation and inclusion at every level of our company. 

With employees leaving and switching jobs in droves globally, what aspects of talent management do you plan to improve or implement in the coming days? What’s your advice for fellow talent leaders to win the war for talent?

This gets back to what companies offer employees, the “employee value proposition.” Employees want to do work that matters to them and to society, they want a welcoming, inclusive environment, and they want a company with 'purpose' that they admire. That’s why people want to work at IBM. Our company is more than 100 years old and yet we remain at the cutting edge of transformative technologies like quantum computing, AI and cloud. Last year more than three million people applied for jobs at IBM.

What have you learned about the best ways to use disruption as an opportunity? What are your larger priorities and top challenges at IBM?

There was already a worldwide tech skills shortage before the pandemic, and now it’s accelerating given the wave of transformation across industries. Companies must open the aperture for skilled job applicants to provide more opportunities. For some roles, it doesn’t matter if people got their training from a coding bootcamp, a previous job, or the military, as long as they can do the work. At IBM, this is what we call 'new collar' employees. In fact, we’ve removed college degree requirements for half of our U.S. job openings. We’re also investing to create the workforce of the future. IBM has a robust apprenticeship program, where people can “earn while they learn” in hot areas like cloud, cyber security, and AI. We just announced a program with the American Council on Education (ACE) where IBM software engineering apprentices can translate their 12 months of 'earn-while-they learn' training for up to 45 credits, or roughly three semesters of college coursework, from participating academic institutions. And we continue to support P-TECH, a STEM education model created by IBM. There are about 260 P-TECH schools worldwide, including many dozens across Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Mainland China, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.

What’s your mantra to achieve work-life balance?

I never judge myself on any one day, one week, or even one month. I look back over a 90-day period. If after 90 days I realize either work or home life is out of balance, then I take steps to course correct. I also give my team the same advice.

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Topics: C-Suite, Strategic HR, #TheGreatTalentWar, #HybridWorkplace

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