Nathalie: Yessi, thank you so much for joining me in conversation today.
Yessi: My absolute pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.
Nathalie: Well, I’d like to start by asking you the question that I generally open these conversations with – what do you think is happening in the global human psyche?
Yessi: Good question. I think we’re all confused. I think people are worried for different reasons. I think we’re all probably trying to figure out how we can operate in a way that gives us a sense of belonging and purpose, and I think that also translates into the workplace. Conversations that I’ve had with friends, peers, and family, the narrative is centering around how we think we can go into whatever the future looks like in a way that works for us, but also that works not only just on an individual level, but I think there’s a lot of collective responsibility as well. I think people are realizing more and more that the state of fake news and just the need for information to be verified and to be factually checked and truthful is crucial now more than ever, even if we look at the US election, but also given the fact that we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. I think it’s really scary to see how people are reacting to different things on social media, whether it’s vaccinations or even questioning whether COVID is a thing or not.
But I think it’s given us the opportunity to stop, acknowledge what we’re doing wrong, and reframe what we want to be doing going forward. For example, if I look at the world of work, many of the conversations that I’m having with founders, entrepreneurs, HR practitioners, CHROs, I think the real positive is that people are quickly realizing that work is something that we do for a lot of our time and for a huge part of our lives, and businesses are quickly realizing that employees are their most valuable asset and that requires a lot of thought on terms of looking after their people, whether it’s physical health, mental health, giving people the tools that they need in order to work to the best of their ability, but also breaking down barriers when it comes to realizing that we’re human.
I think work is becoming increasingly humanized in the sense that we’re all aware that within our roles we’ve been hired to do our work, but at the same time, we all have a personal life. Separating the two is often very challenging, and quite frankly, I don’t actually think that we need to be separating the two. I think anything that you experience outside of work ultimately transcends into your work. On a personal level, my dad passed away two years ago. He was going through cancer and it was really tough on our family. We were very lucky to have each other and to have the support network that we had. I was very lucky as well at the time, in terms of my managers and co-founders and CEOs to step up to the plate and giving me the support that I needed at work. But for a really long time, I really struggled with that. I was actually trying to forget all of that at home and coming to work every day and pretend like everything was okay. The truth is, it wasn’t, right?
Nathalie: Yeah, yeah.
Yessi: I think it’s about being honest and candid and having those conversations and realizing when people are struggling, giving them a platform to feel safe when it comes to sharing. Because while was being professional is important, and I don’t think we should ever lose sight of that, I think we need to be empathetic, both as leaders and individuals inside of workplaces.
Nathalie: It’s very interesting you touching on that point of re-humanizing how we think about work. So many of the conversations I’ve had in researching this book has touched specifically on that theme. Is this the age of the human, that’s what one of my guests, Chris Kane, was talking about. I’m wondering from your perspective as a technology and business journalist, and also the editor of UNLEASH, which if you’re listening and you haven’t checked it out, you really should, much of your work touches on how we can provide people with a sense of purpose and inclusiveness and belonging through the lens of HR. Given all the disruptions we’ve seen, what are some of the qualities that you think make for a resilient business?
Yessi: Yeah, really good question. I think the one reason why I was so excited to take up this new editorship at UNLEASH was obviously the remit, right? I keep telling people that the future of work is now, and when I say that, what I’m trying to say is that it’s no longer acceptable for organizations or leaders to think that they’ve got five or 10 years to think about what that future looks like. They really need to be agile when it comes to trying to figure out what the next 12 months are going to [look] like in a state of complete and utter confusion, right? I know there’s light at the end of the tunnel in terms of the vaccination and whatnot, but ultimately, I think it comes down to listening to your workforce, leveraging technology to get the data that you need, making data-driven decisions, giving people the flexibility that they require, and also trusting people, and if you use technology, making sure that you use it in the right way.
We had a piece go live some time ago that looked at employee tracking and how that’s often been necessary when it comes to productivity and engagement, and also at times to try and figure out where the people within your organization are looking to perhaps jump ship and go elsewhere. But it’s a double-edged sword, right? If you do that, you also need to make sure that you do it in a way that works for your employees and that it doesn’t have an impact on morale, which then of course translates into poor productivity and perhaps even less engagement.
I think the tools are out there. I think it’s about using the tools that make sense for you as an organization and also just having those open and honest conversations and listening to your workforce. There’s absolutely no point for an HR function to make decisions if they haven’t consulted the people that those decisions are going to affect.
Nathalie: Actually, speaking about HR and technology, I recently read a fascinating article by MaryLou Costa on UNLEASH about the use of AI chatbots and how HR can use these to drive employee trust, which I think is a fascinating concept. Since so many businesses have had to accelerate that process of digital transformation due to the pandemic, how do you think business leaders might make the most of AI in a way that cultivates transparency and employee engagement? Because obviously, if we’re talking about things like surveillance, it can be used both for good and for bad in the work context.
Yessi: Yeah. I have to say, that’s a really good point, because when I think back to the beginning of the pandemic, I kind of watched in despair as many of my friends and family … And for context, I’ve been working remotely for a few years now so it’s not something that’s new to me. What’s new to me is actually feeling like you live at work and you can’t necessarily go out into the world at weekends. But anyway, that’s another topic in itself. But there was a lot of people, which was a huge surprise to me, and perhaps I was a little naive at the time in the sense that before they were sent home to work from home, they kind of had to wait until the IT department installed all sorts of surveillance software on their work devices. Which I thought, these people aren’t really thinking about what kind of messages they’re sending to their workforce, because for me, as an employee, that just tells me you don’t trust me to do the work.
Presenteeism as a huge issue, and I think if anything, there’s nothing like a crisis to show cracks in one’s leadership. Going back to your point about the article specifically looking at how AI can be used to build trust, it really goes again back to my point earlier, in terms of thinking about what your employees need and then leveraging the technology to add value to their experience.
AI is a really interesting technology in itself. I’ve written about it extensively from several different lenses, whether it’s used in med tech or in finance. I think what people often lose sight of is the fact that it’s a technology that can help you automate processes and ultimately liberate your workforce to do work that is actually more meaningful. I think you need to use it in conjunction with people, I don’t think it should exist in a silo. When I say this, if we look at the health-tech space specifically, a lot of AI tools are being used to diagnose disease, but at the same time, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to completely lose doctors. You need the technology to co-exist with humans.
I think with AI, or any kind of technology, comes a sense of responsibility. I think people need to realize that we need to have the conversations around ethics and ensuring that the technology is being deployed in a way that’s safe, that is controlled. Even perhaps one of the things that we’ve been thinking about at UNLEASH is looking at how technology is shaping teams. Are we going to be seeing the rise of a chief ethicist officer, someone within an organization that exists just to kind of safeguard the workforce when it comes to technology? Because innovation is necessary, I think at times it’s super challenging, especially for businesses dealing with legacy systems, but at the same time, it can be really scary. I think when you are thinking about implementing technology, you really need to do it properly and in a way that makes sense.
Nathalie: It’s interesting you mention this kind of struggle between, I guess, the adoption of technology and also the impact that could have on how we structure ourselves within organizations, how we use the human capabilities we have to their best advantage. I think one of the things that people are clearly worried about is the future of automation and the impact this has on people’s jobs. Obviously, if we look back through history, wherever there is a great technological innovation across the world, there are job losses, but then there are also new professions that open up. I’m wondering, from your perspective, what do you feel are some of the human qualities that we bring that compliment technology, that cannot be replaced by technology?
Yessi: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I totally agree with what you just said in terms of thinking of it in a way that the industrial revolution automated a lot of processes and a lot of jobs were displaced but those people were then reemployed elsewhere. I think humans are creative, I think we have empathy, I think we have context. I know you could possibly argue that a lot of the AI has that with when it comes to data, but I think we’re also a lot more agile. We’re able to make decisions in a way that I think are way more powerful than any other machine. I know that in the world of AI, they talk a lot about how machines potentially will have the ability to think. I think that’s really exciting, but I also think it’s really scary. It’s this conversation around, well, innovation, regulation, how do we regulate so that we don’t stifle innovation, but at the same time, we need to control this process as much as we can.
I think there was a story a few years ago, and I remember reading this and thinking kind of like, “Aha.” Obviously, don’t quote me on this because it’s been a while, but it was a big publication in the UK. They’d run an experiment with an AI and got the AI to write a news piece, but also similarly had a journalist do exactly the same exercise. The piece that came back from the AI had covered all the bases in terms of ticking all the boxes. The structure was there and the information that was necessary in order to formulate the piece was all there, but when you compared the AI’s piece with a journalist’s piece, what transcended was that ultimately the AI’s piece had absolutely no emotion, no nuance, no context. It was all just very robotic. To me, that just exemplifies the difference between humans and technology to perfection.
I think, as humans, we bring a lot more to the table. It’s just about being able to use the tools to make our lives easier in a way that makes sense for our businesses or for every organization out there, but also collectively for the wider society.
Nathalie: It’s a tricky one because I think some of the ways in which we approach this technology question can be quite black and white and I think more of a nuanced approach might be to ask, well, what are the things that we want to encourage humans to focus on in terms of the skills that we have in abundance that we can cultivate, such as creativity, which you mentioned, or being able to incorporate some poetry to the piece or whatever it is, or an aesthetic judgment that we make in terms of the words we choose or the design of something, those sensitive, creative qualities that maybe we don’t yet see in AI. I mean, that all might come.
One of the interesting other things that I wanted to touch on and ask you about is the capacity for us to rely on technology rather than solve complex problems, which do involve more emotions. There was a study that I saw by Oracle in 2019 which found that of the people they surveyed, 50% of respondents admitted to asking a robot for advice over their boss. While that might be convenient and easy, it does point towards maybe a lack of trust in a culture or a lack of psychological safety that means that the fundamental issues of the culture are not being addressed and it’s just being patched over by using a different feedback mechanism, in this instance, the chatbots. What are the challenges or risks that you might see in terms of that sort of intervention on company culture and relationships?
Yessi: I think you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head there. For me, if your workforce is telling you that they’d rather use a chatbot as opposed to coming straight to you as a line manager or a team lead, I think that’s symptomatic of something. I think chatbots are a great tool when it comes to getting feedback, and we use them on our daily lives, whether it’s on a website. I certainly had a really interesting experience with one recently when it came to trying to speak to a customer service agent.
Nathalie: I want to hear about that!
Yessi: It wasn’t a happy experience.
Nathalie: Oh no.
Yessi: It’s just literally one of those instances where the technology becomes a frustration. It’s a friction point. I needed to speak to a human to solve a problem, which was quite urgent, and it was this loop and this vicious circle of me basically wasting my time trying to get the AI to point me towards a customer service person. I think that’s a really good example of how not to use the technology.
I also think all of these initiatives, you need to constantly review them. I don’t think it’s something that you should just implement and then move onto the next thing and forget about it, because ultimately, there’s a need to get data to figure out whether things are working and if not, why not, and if they’re working, why they’re working.
I’m just trying to think whether if I were in an organization and they rolled out an AI chatbot to get feedback, I’m just trying to understand whether I’d be much more honest and candid using the chatbot than I would be if I were in the same room with my boss.
I think it totally depended on the boss. It would depend on that person, because I’ve been in situations where it was absolutely fine to be open and candid and actually it was encouraged, but I also have been in situations where companies would ask all feedback to be anonymized, which I think is a good thing, but also that tells you that there’s a culture where you’re not necessarily being encouraged to speak up. I think it’s really difficult to find a balance and I’m not really envious of anyone operating in that space in 2021.
Nathalie: Yeah, I mean I think – one of the other things I think is really interesting, especially because it feels like we’re in very early stages with this, is how AR and VR might transform the ways that we do business, and I think especially when it comes to how we train people, how we upskill people. I wonder, given the tech trajectory that we’re on and what I think I’m observing as a growing appetite for integrating these forms of technology into business strategies, how do you think immersive tech might disrupt human resources post-pandemic?
Yessi: Yeah, really good question, because I remember covering VR several years ago and discovering its uses, like you just said, for training purposes. The defense industry was using it to train soldiers in really dangerous situations, like simulations and whatnot.
I think you have to be really careful with these two specifically, in my opinion, just because I feel sometimes they can be really gimmicky. I think when you’re using VR and AR there needs to be a real business case and use case to deploy it. I’ve seen a lot of companies go wrong just because they’ve used them just for the sake of using them, but I also think it’s a really interesting way to add value throughout, for example, a recruitment process.
I also think it’s going to be a really good way to engage a digitally-savvy audience. I’m a millennial, but I often joke that Generation Z is a completely different talent pool. They’ve grown up in the digital environment. My niece is five years old, but she probably started grabbing my iPhone at the age of one or two and could immediately go into Instagram and could scroll. It’s just fascinating to watch. I think organizations really need to be able to attract that talent pool, which, by the way, I also think is operating completely differently once they’re in work. I think they expect constant feedback, I think they expect leadership. I think they expect, like we were saying earlier, a sense of belonging and purpose.
I think the market is incredibly competitive when it comes to talent acquisition, so you do need to do things that add value, and particularly in a remote working environment. I know that you don’t join a company and you don’t get an office tour as part of your onboarding, so maybe that’s a really good use case for VR when it comes to giving people a feel of what that office was like pre-COVID and if the office is going to potentially exist in the post-COVID world. But I think as long as the technology is used in the right ways, I think it’s really valuable and it’s enriching.
Nathalie: That’s an interesting use case there, the idea of being able to have a virtual tour around the offices. One of my friends, Perry Timms, who I also interviewed for this series, gave me a virtual tour around his really fascinating platform that he’s using, which allows his dispersed remote team to log in at the same time, see who’s “sitting at a specific desk” and to actually interact as you might with someone across the office via Slack or whatever but knowing that they’re there with you, alongside you. It’s quite an interesting use case.
If I were to ask you to imagine what the future of work might look like, and this is really more of a question of envisioning because I think that’s perhaps a more useful way to create what we want, given our rapid and increasing reliance on tech and remote working, what might you offer as a vision of what we could be, how we could work?
Yessi: I’m not sure how different my take on it is going to be from other people, but I think we’re looking at incorporating more choice and flexibility. I think it will be more human in the sense that people are going to be much more empathetic and open, or at least that’s what I hope. I really do also really, really hope that this is an opportunity for us to make workplaces more diverse and inclusive. I realize that I am coming at it from running a privileged position, in the sense that I’m able to work from home and not everybody has that privilege. I think the pandemic has highlighted inequalities across the entire spectrum of society. I also realize that not everybody wants to work from home or not everybody can work from home. A lot of my colleagues on Twitter who are either sharing a flat or living in a bedsit or whatever, that’s not necessarily a productive working environment. I think organizations have a responsibility to work with their workforce to ensure that whatever this future looks like it caters for everybody.
I think it’s really interesting that Salesforce came out and said that the 9:00 to 5:00 workday is dead. In my opinion, the 9:00 to 5:00 workday has been dead for a while, but then again, that’s also my experience just because I’ve worked at businesses where we were empowered to set our own hours as long as the work was done. But I think it is about empowering people, giving them the flexibility to be able to make the choices that work for them, and I imagine it’s going to be a hybrid model of sorts.
I think the biggest thing that concerns me is the whole conversation around the vaccines, what happens if people within your organization don’t want the vaccine or refuse it for whatever reason, because I imagine that’s going to have a huge knock on effect on their potential return to the office. I think in terms of health and safety, oof, yeah.
Nathalie: Yeah, it’s complex.
Yessi: So complex, because obviously I don’t have a crystal ball, and if I did I’d clearly be playing the lottery, but it’s just going to have to require a lot of resilience and a lot of agility. I think we’re going to be in a situation where potentially COVID doesn’t go away completely. I’m not an epidemiologist or a virologist. I want to think as well that social distancing isn’t going to be a thing forever, but I think people are going to have to account for every possible scenario, but at the same time, we’re going to try and have to focus on the positive.
I think the challenges are obvious. It’s just about how we work up solutions that work for everybody and that you don’t alienate people, because I know childcare is a huge issue. I know from every single bit of research that’s come out over the last 18 months or whatnot, women are having to bear the grunt of homeschooling, childcare and working. I think we need to be really careful that we don’t lose that talent pipeline. There’s been so much work already being done in terms of trying to make work more inclusive. I know that, as a woman in business, things have gotten better. I think in some instances a lot of work still needs to be done, but I don’t want this to set us back several decades.
When I talk about diversity, I don’t just mean gender. I mean background, I mean sexual orientation, the whole shebang. I think we really need to be very mindful of that because as much as it’s going to be tough, I think it’s also a really good opportunity to reset. That’s the only positive I’m taking away from the global pandemic, by the way. It’s been incredibly challenging for a lot of people, mentally, physically. I know a lot of people have lost loved ones. Also, on a personal level, it’s made me realize just how some of the people that I really respected, I don’t necessarily respect as much anymore. That sounds really bad, but I think it’s this thing about social responsibility and trying to do something that means that we’re all looking after each other. I hope that we take that forward.
Nathalie: It’s such a difficult subject, isn’t it? Because I think one of the things that has really come out of this are the different ways in which we cope with adversity and fear and the cultural context that inform how we do that, the personal motivations or ideas about how we want to live. There are so many different competing needs and desires, and I think finding a way to learn as much as we can from the mistakes that have been made and also from the fractions that have happened, as you described, between friends or people that maybe make choices that we question and we think, “Well, is that really for the good of the community or is that something which has maybe putting the community at risk?” I know people who have opinions across all aspects of that spectrum, but I guess from the perspective of really using this as an opportunity to learn, as you say, what can we take from this? What’s the positive that we can build upon?
Yessi: On a personal level, I’ve changed a lot since the beginning of their pandemic. I used to be someone that had a criteria and it was either yes or no or black or white. I didn’t really have a lot of gray in my life. I think I’ve become a lot more tolerant. I think I’ve also become a lot more aware of my own privilege in terms of what I’m able to do. Even just being really grateful about the really small things, I took them for granted, like having a roof over your head, having a job, having a steady income, being able to travel, being able to go out and have a meal out with friends, which is making me a little bit emotional just thinking about it. But it’s all those things we took for granted.
I’ve also tried to take that into my work in the sense that I’m in a new job with a new team that has gone through a lot in terms of digital transformation and getting up to speed with things. I’m trying to take all of that insight into how I work and how I interact with people within a workplace, and it’s all about empathy and trying to put yourself in that person’s shoes and not making assumptions or judgements without having the full picture. I’m ashamed to say it, but I think I was a lot more judgmental in 2020 than I am in 2021.
Nathalie: I wonder how many of us who are hearing you say that are nodding our heads in agreement?
Yessi: Yeah. I mean, I’ve done okay in the sense that we’ve been able to do things this year despite all the adversity that I never imagined would have been possible, but at the same time, I’m seeing a lot of people lose their jobs and people that have been at companies for over 20 years, that also don’t have the confidence, by the way, and empowerment to realize that they have transferable skills that could be used elsewhere. I know the job market is tough, but I think that just tells me that businesses need to invest a lot more heavily when it comes to up-skilling.
Nathalie: But on that point about up-skilling and the qualities that businesses really need to cultivate to attract and retain talent, if you had to choose one or two qualities that you felt were key to the long-term success of a business, what would they be?
Yessi: Two things. Being digital first is crucial, regardless of whether you are working in manufacturing or whether you’re working in media or you’re working in the aviation industry. I think people need to become much more comfortable with technology. I think there needs to be an education piece. I think we also need to communicate in a way that ensures we’re captivating people’s attention in the workplace. For example, if I look at it from my own personal experience, I started off in lifestyle journalism. I never really wanted to go into tech journalism, I kind of fell into it, never really thought technology was a thing for me. Yes, when I was younger, I wanted the latest smartphone or the latest computer or, dare I say it, the latest Walkman or Discman.
Nathalie: Yeah, I remember those days.
Yessi: But at the same time, it was kind of this thing where, and this is an experience that I know is very similar across the board with many women in technology that I’ve spoken to over the years, you just feel like it’s a man’s world. In many senses, it still is, but I think we just need to change the way we think about tech. I don’t think people often realize that we’re using it every day, regardless of whether we’re interested or not. I think we need to have a software that’s intuitive in the workplace. That means that you can get up to speed very quickly. People need to be able to speak up and actually say, “Well, I’d like to learn more about this,” or, “I don’t know enough about this.” I think it needs to be a lot more collaborative. I don’t think we need to wait for leadership to implement these initiatives. I think the workforce needs to also be informing leadership in terms of where the skills gaps are.
I actually did a really interesting panel recently that was about apprenticeships. It was fascinating in the sense that my own personal view on it, which was completely wrong, was thinking about how apprenticeships were a good way to encourage a young pipeline of talent, but actually that shouldn’t be the case and you should be looking to engage anyone of any age or any background to learn in that way. I think businesses have a social responsibility to be doing that kind of stuff.
I know in the UK, there’s a lot of financial government support that incentivizes them to do that, but also it just makes business sense. People talk over and over again about how diversity and inclusion helps your bottom line. I’m almost sick and tired of listening to all the talk, to be honest. I just want to be able to start seeing action, because an every D&I panel I’ve done over the years, we’ve been talking about the same thing over and over again. I’m not saying that for any second that it’s an easy thing to implement in a legacy business, but I also think let’s jump at the challenge and let’s do it because it’s 2021 and it’s long overdue.
Nathalie: It’s time. So if I were to end by asking you what kind of world you want to build and what one thing could we do to move in that direction, how might you answer that?
Yessi: For me, it’s about trust and autonomy. I think people need to be trusted to do their jobs. I think you need to give people the autonomy and the freedom to do their job. That also, by the way, includes giving people the knowledge that failure is okay. I think we need to completely change how we think about failure because it’s often seen as a really negative thing, but at the same time, how can you learn if you don’t make mistakes?
I think we need to be more collaborative and communication is going to be key. The only thing that has stuck with me throughout the whole of the pandemic is the fact that I’m used to working remotely, I’m used to communicating with colleagues on Slack, on Teams, but I think people that weren’t necessarily used to that, I think their communications leave a lot to be desired, I think is a diplomatic way of putting it. But I think we all have a responsibility to build something that’s better for younger generations. Whether that’s working remotely full-time, whether that’s going into an office, whether that’s working for a UK company, if you’re working from Mexico, whatever that might be, I think it’s about creativity, freedom, and empowering people to help them do their jobs to the best of their ability.
As I said earlier, I don’t envy anybody in the HR space, but I also think that, in a way, with all its negatives, the pandemic has really helped to shine the light on that function. What is a business without a well-oiled HR department? What is a business without its people? I think we need to focus on that more heavily as we go forward.