Photo: Ralph Lauren's Vice President of HR for EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa), Patricia Lajara. Credit: Courtesy of the interviewee

By Cristina Sánchez

The coronavirus epidemic (COVID-19) has shaken the world of work. While professionals face a time of uncertainty, Human Resources (HR) departments are working to meet their new needs. Ensuring their health and safety, supporting the CEO in revising the strategic plans and adapting the organisation to accommodate new ways of working are the main roles of corporate HR managers in tackling the crisis, according to a recent survey of more than 700 managers.

While Ralph Lauren's Vice President of HR for EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa), Patricia Lajara, is aware of the challenges that the new normal poses for talent management, she is also optimistic about the opportunities that are arising for companies to improve the day-to-day lives of their professionals and to build closer ties with them through the use of technology.

Every year the MIT Technology Review in Spanish publishes a list of 10 technologies that can change the world. This year's list includes artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that can be run on a smartphone, without the need for the cloud. How are technologies like AI and big data changing the HR landscape?

In recent years, software solutions have emerged in the cloud. What we need to do now is to combine these services and the employee data in a consistent way and think about how the algorithms and AI will help us.

The employee experience is an area of great opportunity. We used to use people analytics and now analyticsis going to be used to serve the people. Before, we only had information about employees' dates of birth, dates of entry into the company, where they lived, and so on. Now we are going to know what their circumstances are, what their motivation is… We are moving towards establishing an emotional connection with people.

It will be interesting to see how AI allows for employee engagement strategies and how programmes will be created to identify where they are and what they need. In the future, human resources will be both more technological and more human.

What processes in your field will be made simpler thanks to technology that will allow your professionals to focus on more valuable tasks?

During the recruitment process, progress has already been made in filtering [candidates] by using algorithms. Administrative processes need to be automatised so that the less valuable tasks are carried out by programmes and people can focus on the business strategy. It is the management of employees' culture and experience that will have value, not administrative management.

“In the future, human resources will be both more technological and more human.”

What are HR managers' main duties and challenges in tackling the coronavirus crisis?

As a result of the pandemic, corporate culture is being affected, there is a lot of instability and it is questionable how many businesses will survive and under what conditions. For HR managers, the key issue at the table is how to how to maintain employee loyalty and commitment and rebuild the culture of the company. If you don't have a good culture, the company will succeed, and it will show in terms of productivity and performance levels.

A study conducted by several Spanish universities indicates that 46.7% of Spaniards have experienced a decline in mental health during lockdown. Are companies more interested in taking care of the physical and mental well-being of their employees as a result of the crisis?

Welfare management has become a priority in all companies. Unfortunately, many people are suffering right now. These are times of uncertainty and we have to give employees a sense of security and vision, and we have to manage their well-being more than ever, in a humane way.

Wellness management is thought to just be about exercise programmes, but it starts with organisational design. If an organisation is well structured, the workload is well balanced and if the processes are well designed, employees will have an environment in which they can work better. It is in the human connection between people that the greatest transformational power is found and it is essential to work on engagement programmes that strengthen that connection.

What qualities will leaders need in order to establish that connection?

Future leaders will need to possess human values and to be able to listen, understand and stimulate the emotions of their team. A genuine leader encourages co-existence and cooperation. We must make use of the power of the community at this time.

What soft skills should employees develop in order to adapt to this time of uncertainty?

All those related to managing change, because change is ongoing and in the future it will be exponential and non-linear, as indicated in Raymond Kurzweil's book The Singularity is Near. Resilience, composure and analytical skills will be fundamental. The capacity to reinvent oneself along with lifelong learning will be the indicators of success for people and companies in the future.

“If you don't have a good culture, the company won’t succeed”

The large-scale implementation of teleworking has been one of the major changes within the professional sphere over the last few months. Do you think that this modality will continue in the future?

I think that flexibility is here to stay and that hybrid models of face-to-face and virtual work for office jobs are going to emerge. In the coming months, HR is going to need to develop flexible policies that consider how much time will be spent face-to-face and how much will be virtual work. This will have a series of implications, such as a migration from the city. How are we going to manage the fact that employees want to change their location?

Also, I believe that many opportunities are opening up as a result, such as finding talent at a global level. Before, if your company was based in one place, you could only find talent that could commute to that office, but now we are going to be able to find talent from anywhere in the world.

Besides their salary, does new talent value receiving other types of benefits from the company?

Employees not only value financial compensation, but also consider where they can work from, what the company's corporate social responsibility is, how committed the company is to the values that they feel engaged with, how their well-being is being cared for, etc.

One trend that is emerging is employee activism. Previously, employees were wondering how to solve their company's problems, now they are considering how they are going to solve society's problems and what their company is doing to help society, sustainability and diversity. These questions will continue to emerge. The future is not going to be as simple as an office, a city and a salary.

“Wellness management isn't just about exercise programmes, it starts with organisational design”

Diversity remains a challenge for many companies. How has corporate concern for different types of diversity evolved?

Gender diversity is very important and, unfortunately, one study indicates that women have considered leaving work or slowing down their careers 1.3 times more often than men because of family commitments during the pandemic. In terms of diversity in a broader sense, it is a very important issue that has been reinforced by the Black Lives Matter movement and employees are very aware of it. It is important to go beyond diversity and reach the level of inclusion, because “diversity is being invited to the party, but inclusion is being asked to dance” [a quote from diversity expert Vernā Meyers].

In terms of generational diversity, people over 55 and under 30 are experiencing difficulty during the pandemic. It is going to be crucial to create workplaces that are diverse in every way because it has been proven that diversity adds value to the company's performance. We must not underestimate any group of employees because they are under 30, older, female or a minority. Companies that fail to see the importance of diversity are going to suffer from a competitive disadvantage.

What is the best way to prepare professionals for digitisation and help them adapt them to more agile and collaborative working models?

Re-skilling is a complex process, it is not only achieved through training, it is also achieved through management of the whole culture. If we want to have a more digital workforce, we have to digitise the company's culture, and that starts with the leadership team and filters down to everyone. The Management needs to lead by example and digitalisation must be across the board, no department can be left behind. We need to invest in the transformation of culture.

With the technological changes we are experiencing, what do you predict the employment market will look like in the next few years?

The job market is going to be full of changes and opportunities. For some jobs there will be a search for cheaper labour, they will disappear, they will be automated, etc. But other jobs are going to emerge that are going to be in demand, and we have to remain agile and able to adapt and manage change. The millennials and Generation Z are arriving, and they will be more open to freelance or part-time contracts and more flexible ways of working will emerge. We all have to continually reinvent ourselves.

Published by OPINNO © 2022 MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW spanish edition