The Leading Edge Episode 1: The Future of Work

The Leading Edge Episode 1: The Future of Work

The Future of Work

Ransom Group Podcast The Leading Edge –  Episode 1

In this episode of The Leading Edge, Ransom Group CEO Dave Ransom sat down with Dr. Raghu Krishnamoorthy, Senior Fellow and Director of the Chief Learning Officer Doctoral Program at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss the ever-changing landscape of the modern workplace. 

Dave Ransom: Raghu, thanks for joining us. After spending many years at GE, including your role as CHRO, you decided to go back to school to pursue your Doctorate. What motivated this decision?

Raghu Krishnamoorthy: Dave, thanks for the opportunity to be with you today. Well, there is nothing romantic about me pursuing a doctorate. I wanted to do this when I was 23. I was based in India at that time, and although I got admission, my visa was rejected. Because I never had a chance when I was young, I wanted to fulfill those ambitions and intentions. When I retired, I had the time and ability to take a serious look at pursuing a doctorate.

In terms of my focus on the future of work, I must tell you that when I was in HR, in the corporate world, I hated people working remotely. I agreed with the ancient notion that remote working was equivalent to “shirking” or “loafing,” so I forbade it and made sure my organization never embraced people working from home. And here I was during the pandemic going through a revelation.

You know, Lenin once said, “There are decades when nothing happens, and then there are weeks where decades happen.” So, the pivot to working from home, which was necessitated by Covid, had me thinking about remote work, working from home, and the future of work very differently. What I realized was that working from home and remote working was no longer the band-aid or perk that we had thought it would be. It was in the years between 2010 and 2020 that we witnessed a shift in management, and I wanted to dive deep into what was likely to happen in the future. In some ways, I wanted to redeem myself from my sins of the past, and I also realized that what I had experienced in 38 years of working was no longer likely to be true anymore. We have to adapt and change with the times.


Dave Ransom: One of the things that’s top of the mind for many leaders that we speak with is where and how work gets done. As these leaders are determining this ever-changing evolution in work environments, how should they think about this in the future?

Raghu Krishnamoorthy: It’s not just “where” and “how,” Dave, it’s also “when” work gets done. If you look at people working remotely, or working from home, a recent study said that they have three different peaks. There’s a peak at eleven o’clock in the morning. There’s one at three o’clock in the afternoon, and one at ten o’clock at night. Therefore, even “when” people work remotely has changed. Now, “where” and “how,” as you rightly pointed out, have also changed, but for me, I think all this points to one simple thing. The new place of work, or the only place of work, is the worker themself. It’s not a geographical location. It is here (points to mind), not here (gestures around the room). So, it’s a worker’s mind that’s the place of work, and if you just metaphorically shift your thought to using the worker in total as the whole person, it doesn’t really matter where the person works from, how the person works, or when the person works. Don’t get bound by the geography. Instead, tap into the intellect and the emotions that the person brings to the work.


Dave Ransom: What are some of these advantages that hybrid work environments are achieving relative to this new shift?

Raghu Krishnamoorthy: Quite a few, actually. If you look at it deeply, when we went into Covid, there were quite a few studies done on what really happened. One Mercer study said workers gained about three hours a day, partly on account of not commuting to work. Harvard said people devoted 48 more minutes, about an hour more, to their real work than they used to in the past. What this tells you is, okay, I’m gaining three hours, I’m willing to devote one hour to my work, and I’m going to have two hours to myself, right? So, it certainly has improved work-life balance, or people feeling that they actually have a choice to do a few other things in life. So, from a personal point of view, people feel a little more balanced when they make the choices that determine how they want to work.

In terms of the work itself, people feel they are more productive. Rather than managing meetings, they’re managing work. It’s really helpful in terms of task performance that is particularly focused on getting things done where you need to concentrate on your work and ensure that you are not distracted from other issues that you would confront when you’re working in an office. So, I think it gives you a benefit in terms of more work that you can do, but also more life that you can enjoy.


Dave Ransom: How about the other side of this and potential sacrifices around employee engagement, culture, recruitment, or retention?

Raghu Krishnamoorthy: I think some of those are assumptions. They have not been proven in practice yet. The data is still evolving. I think organizations and some leaders feel that employees are not as productive, but I think that is a wrong assumption. If you ask the employees, they feel they are more productive. That means that there is a difference between how employees and employers perceive the term productivity. For employers, they like employees to be visible. When they have a lack of visibility, they draw the conclusion that the employees are not as productive. So, presentism becomes their definition of productivity.

Having said that, I think there are some clear issues that you wouldn’t necessarily have working from an office. One is you lose creativity with remote work, but organizations don’t measure creativity. They measure productivity, time, and output, but not creativity. Team performance is also compromised when you require intense collaboration and coordination as well as long-term projects because you need to have a very disciplined way of approaching them.

So, we’ve seen some of those challenges emerge, but they have answers. Organizations need to invest time and effort to figure out what the alternatives are to ensure people are more creative or more collaborative. Unfortunately, there is a gravitational pull to go back to the old, which means that people are not comfortable with trying out, testing, and experimenting with the new.


David Ransom: Since the pandemic, we’ve observed that several longer-tenured CEOs have been much less flexible in embracing an alternative worksite model versus a number of rising CEOs who fully support remote work environments. They believe the quality of candidates is much higher if they offer flexibility on where the candidate can live. Does your research support any correlation between the two types of leaders and how they are addressing where people work?

Raghu Krishnamoorthy: I won’t necessarily say it’s completely correlated to the tenure of the leader. External market conditions have changed, and leaders need to realize it’s not just the people dynamic or the working-from-home dynamic that has changed. As we have emerged post-pandemic, the market conditions have gotten a lot more chaotic and complex. It’s multi-dimensional. There are geopolitical issues, supply chain challenges, and economic and recessionary dynamics.

There are many things that leaders don’t control anymore. So, when we were in the pre-pandemic era, you could command and control, and that leadership approach worked because you had a lot more elements under your direction. Now, when there are so many things that are simultaneously changing, you cannot lead with command and control. You can only sense and respond. If you are a leader who is accustomed to command and control, you are not going to be successful because you’re not going to be able to sense and respond to the changes in the external environment. It’s not just about how you deal with people; it’s about how you navigate the macro environment.

You need to shift your leadership model and how you’re approaching the conversation because, for a long time, we said leadership has to do with where you are in the hierarchy. Right now, that’s not the case. If you really look at how people need to think about this evolving model, it requires flexibility, agility, and nimbleness. Leaders no longer steer the organization. It’s the market that steers the organization and if leaders don’t embrace this shift, they will become redundant and obsolete. It calls for rethinking what leadership is all about, and the symptom of that is where people work.


Dave Ransom: When you look at rethinking leadership within this new mindset, what skills are required to be successful?

Raghu Krishnamoorthy: When we were going through the pandemic, there was a survey done on what leaders expected in terms of training interventions among their employees. They wanted the employees to double down on performance management, Lean Six Sigma, and process improvement because they felt the employees had the capacity and the time. The employees, however, were hurting emotionally. They wanted to go into stress management or resilience. In fact, the Udemy course or the Coursera course on stress management and resilience went up by 4,000%. People wanted to learn about happiness. So, you can see that they were talking two different languages.

First, leaders need to learn the art of giving emotional first aid. They’ve never had to do that before because they would say to keep the emotions outside the door, but when people are working from home, work intrudes into life and you cannot ignore the emotions that come with it, especially when you’re going through a pandemic or other life-changing world events.

Second is radical prioritization, not just ordinary prioritization. You have to be so sharply focused on what you want to get done. Everything else falls by the wayside because you want to really make sure that you get stuff done.

Third is micro-understanding, not micromanagement. Micro-understanding is knowing things at a granular level. Micromanagement is when you are able to peer over somebody’s shoulders and manage the person. You don’t have that right now. When people are working in a very distributed fashion, you need to know what is happening, but you also need to stay on top of coordination, remove obstacles, and make sure that you are in a position to pull and push the organization appropriately. So, you’re steering the organization, not necessarily controlling it.


Dave Ransom: One of the things that we hear a lot is that culture is impacted adversely by remote work environments. I wonder if you would agree. If so, what can be done to maintain a healthy culture when your workforce is distributed?

Raghu Krishnamoorthy: My conclusion is that where people work doesn’t really matter. I want to redefine culture. A culture for me, coming out of the pandemic is a response to success or failure. It’s not where people work or how people work.

So, I was with an organization about a week ago, and they have a very distributed workforce. There are people all over the world who pretty much work wherever they want to work, and this is not a software organization. Interestingly, they grew 300% during Covid, and they grew their employee base from 5,000 to 10,000, and most of the employees work in clusters. When you are producing goods, obviously you need to have a place to go, but otherwise, people are working remotely. The CEO is in one place, the CFO is in another place, and the CMO is in a third location. It works! The reason is that they are really celebrating the fact that they could double in size, thinking, “We can do anything; we will do anything it takes.” One of the things that I saw in the mindset of the employees is the idea that “we don’t do jobs, we occupy roles.” What is the difference? “I will do whatever it takes to get it done” – that is the new culture.

It calls for us to rethink how we think about jobs, how we think about roles, where we work, how we work, and what is the key motivation. Work, for most of us, was a means to make a living. What if work is a way to make meaning? I’ll give you an example of this. I was talking to a vaccine manufacturing entity, a very big organization. They had a factory in Michigan and during the first 12 months of Covid, they had no absentees because everybody from the janitor upwards was focused on getting the vaccine out. When you have such a strong purpose, and when you have such a strong focus on getting it done, I think people rise to the occasion. So, think about redrawing what the new culture should be rather than going back to what you feel was the old culture. This is an opportunity for you to renovate your culture.


Dave Ransom: During your research was there anything that came up that was counterintuitive, surprised you, or challenged common assumptions people make about this changing work environment?

Raghu Krishnamoorthy: I would say two things. One is that having a very strong sense of purpose in an organization is key to well-being. Yes, it’s about physical and mental health, but the hidden dimension of well-being is focusing on something that fulfills you, serving a larger cause by helping humanity and mankind, even if it means that you need to make sacrifices. You saw that in the doctors and the nurses, right? They would sacrifice their lives to save lives, but in the process, even though they were exhausted, and they didn’t have the PPEs and whatnot, they felt a sense of “I am meeting what I want to do in this world.” So, do not underestimate the power of purpose as a key well-being tool. That was an “aha” for me.

The second thing is that we always talk about the word “flexibility.” We are giving employees the “flexibility” to work from home. My own diagnosis of the issue is that people are not looking for flexibility, they want autonomy. The difference is, with flexibility, I am giving you the parameters, and you can work within those parameters. But I, as the leader, give you those boundaries.

Autonomy is where I, as the employee, draw the boundaries and jump in to do the work when my boundaries are taken care of. See, I have the agency as an employee to do what it takes. Therefore, I have the autonomy to choose when, what, where, and how. On the other hand, if you give me flexibility, you are controlling it, not me. Employees want autonomy. That’s why Apple had such backlash when they said, “All right, we’re going to bring you back for two days or three days” because people said, “Hey, we didn’t have a say in that,” right? That was a big lesson for me.


Dave Ransom: Where do you think this is all going?

Raghu Krishnamoorthy: Well, first is that most leaders and organizations underestimated the shift. They thought it was a contingency plan to work from home. Moving from the office to home was a logistical move, but moving from home back to the office is a psychological move.

You can’t just mandate that people come back to the office, so the most important thing you need to do is not commit one way or the other. Anytime you say, “We’re going to go make this a policy. People can work from home,” and then two years later you renege on this policy, you’re going to lose trust. However, what if you say, “Listen, we’re going to do a lot of experiments, we’re going to keep piloting, and we’re going to involve employees in thinking through how we’re going to evolve here and keep it open for a while until things settle down?” We haven’t seen the end of this yet, and I would say that organizations would be better off using the second approach because it gives them the flexibility of morphing and adapting themselves to whatever changes.

Keep in mind that the office is a social construct, not a workplace construct. Take advantage of that. I was working with an organization a few weeks ago where they bring in their employees once a month for three days. Of the three days, one day is just social. The rest of the time they do a little bit of work and collaboration. The employees like that because people need connections. You also realize that there are some Gen Zs, the newer workforce, who have never seen an office, so for them nine to five is alien, and we’ve got to onboard them properly. There are many different layers here that you need to work through, so my advice is don’t fixate on a position that you can’t walk back on.


David Ransom: Raghu, as we end, is there anything else that you want our listeners to know about this subject or is there anything we have not touched on?

Raghu Krishnamoorthy: The one last piece of advice I would have is to listen to your people. Every six months, do an exercise called the Renovator’s Delight. It involves bringing your team together and saying, “What do we keep, what do we change, what do we add, and what do we discard?” The simple act of asking people how we should go forward is itself a very big part of the new equation because people want to have a say in how their life and work is determined.

You cannot underestimate the fact that people have adjusted to a very different way of working and living, and they like it. So, unless you’re willing to battle that through, and that has its own implications, you need to be prepared to give employees some agency in terms of how they want things to proceed moving forward.


Dave Ransom: I really want to thank you personally for spending some time with us and our listeners, and really appreciate the wisdom and insight you’ve been able to offer us today.

Raghu Krishnamoorthy: Thank you so much.



Dr. Krishnamoorthy is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Chief Learning Officer Executive Doctoral Program at the University of Pennsylvania. He has over 38 years of experience in the fields of Human Resources and Learning, including a distinguished tenure as the Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Learning Officer at General Electric (GE), where his work led Fortune Magazine to name GE’s Learning and Development function as one of the best in the world.

Following his retirement from his professional career, Dr. Krishnamoorthy completed his Doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. His research and teaching centers on the future of work, the workplace, the worker, and workforce preparedness. In the interview below, Dr. Krishnamoorthy discusses how leaders should navigate seismic shifts in how work gets done and what it means to work in a non-traditional setting. Whether you’re an aspiring leader, a seasoned executive, or simply curious about the future of work, we hope you will find these insights valuable.

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