Lieven Lambrecht’s career in HR spans over 35 years and several continents.  Guy Wolff/Maison Moderne

Lieven Lambrecht’s career in HR spans over 35 years and several continents.  Guy Wolff/Maison Moderne

Companies that don’t adapt to the shift the world is experiencing, will be left in the dust, according to PwC People Leader Lieven Lambrecht. From technology to HR’s strategic role in the future of businesses, Lambrecht tells us how to prepare.

PwC’s “Workforce of the future” strategy proposes four potential societies the world could evolve towards until 2030. The red world of 2030 focuses on innovation, while the blue scenario accepts individualism, capitalism and ubiquitous corporations as its foundation. The green one is characterised by a strong social awareness, environmental efforts, and trust. Lastly, the yellow approach places humanness, ethical practices and the greater good at its heart.

All scenarios involve a drastic change, though Lambrecht considers that the future will probably adopt a mix of values from these different timelines. In what direction it will go, Lambrecht can’t say—especially following the outcomes of the COP26—however, he reckons employees, rather than companies, will become the key players.

PwC brought out the “Workforce of the future” study, analysing the evolution of the professional world by 2030. In the plan, there are 4 different scenarios: which one do you think we’re heading towards?

Lieven Lambrecht: That’s a very good question. I don’t know, especially since the COP26 in Glasgow I’m confused about what world we’re going to, but I’m not sure I can identify myself with just one colour. I think we’re going to a world where there is a bunch of real challenges. One of course is everything that has to do with ESG and sustainability, but also, if I look at the world of work, I see it changing a lot. Changing in the sense that I think we had an acceleration of the change through covid and now we’re coming out of covid to a new reality that we dreamt of before covid, a reality of things that we really should do to address the demands of the millennials and the new generation. And on the other hand. knowing how the technology has evolved, if you combine these two, I think we have the opportunity to put that into practice. But if you look at it, it’s a world of flexibility, that’s number one. It’s a world of purpose--meaning, people don’t want to do things that they don’t stand behind anymore, that they don’t think has value, that doesn’t add value for them or the company, or society. It’s also a world of connections, meaning their work needs to be connected to their private life, it needs to integrate into their private life. So, it’s no longer “I am from 8-6 a certain persona doing a certain work.” No, today, it’s more “I am trying to be myself 24/7 and now everything I do has to fit into who I am, also my job, and the job has to adapt to me rather than the other way around.” I think that’s the real change. […] I think that is really the difference. That’s where you see the shift from what I would call decades of an employer’s market, to today, an employee market. It’s different.

All the futures explored in this strategy require to some extent accepting the automation of work. How do you think that an ageing global population will adapt to these technological advances?

L.L.: I think technology will adapt to the ageing population. When I look at my mother who’s 91, her best friend is Siri--she talks to Siri day in, day out. “Siri, what is the weather, Siri, call my son.” Technology has adapted to how she can use it. She cannot fully use an iPhone for all it can do but she uses it for what she thinks is great for: she uses it to listen to the radio, she likes to call me, and that works. She uses the technology but in a way that is adapted to her. I don’t think the human race will develop as fast as technology. AI is something that will really change our world. I don’t see that our ageing population won’t be able to adapt because technology will have to adapt, otherwise it won’t be used.

Then what about the workplace?

L.L.: What is the workplace? The question will be, where is it? Because I don’t think there are any definite spots of workplace anymore, because everybody will work in a hybrid way: at home, in a library, any café, at the client’s, in a rented office, maybe, or at the seaside. […] So, work will be delocalised. Secondly, I think the timing of work is changing. People will work when it fits them. It might sound a bit strange, but people will work whatever day time anywhere between 7 AM and 9 PM. That's when they will have their most productive hours, but they will integrate work into life, meaning they will go shopping, they will go get the kids, they will do all kinds of stuff in the meantime, so the work in that respect, and certainly the fine line between private and work will blur.

Do you think that people don’t want a clear separation between their work life and their private life?

L.L.: I think they do. But they will decide where that separation is. They will decide: “Well, now we're open for business and we're doing work and at 11, I need to go shopping, so I’ll shut my phone for half an hour.” They will decide when work is done. From an employer standpoint, you will ask for a certain output, a certain performance. As an employee, I don't think you will say: “I’ll give this 600 minutes or so a day,” but you will give it the necessary time to get to the necessary performance on your terms.

How far will the company have to adapt to that demand?

L.L.: It will have to adapt very thoroughly. It will need to stay attractive to the younger generation and the new employee, and to make sure that whatever the company wants is also what the individual wants. Individual objectives will determine whether a person works for a company or not, no longer the company objectives. That's where the difference or the change is really happening. In my view, if, for example, you want creativity and innovation in your role, and an employer doesn't offer any of this, I don’t think the employer will have any success. It'll be as simple as that. People will no longer be satisfied with a “these are all your tasks and this is how you do them.” We train people to be critical, we train people to think for themselves, we ensure that they have their own view on the world, and then, when they come to an employer, they should put their brain, desires, or values aside? I don’t think that will work.

Some of the future models require a total transparency on your private life. Do you think companies could ask this from their employees?

L.L.: Whether or not companies could or should ask that is a different story, but I think that if there's no congruency between your personal values and the values of the company, the marriage won’t last very long. People need to be able to see themselves in what they see around them in a company, and whether you like it or not, there still is leadership in a company that models the values. Now, if they cannot identify with the leadership, if they don’t see them as role models, if the business isn’t what they aspire to be, I don't think the employee will stay. […]

Newer generations of employees are coming in. How would an employer get the balance right between the older generations that are used to the way things are and the new generations that demand new ways of work?

L.L.: I tend to work on both sides. Every day, the world is changing around us, so the older generation has to understand that there's only one constant, which is change. They need to change with the times and there's no excuse to say: “Ten years ago, everything was better.” No. Nothing was better ten years ago; it was worse! It is better today: everything works better today than it did ten years ago. On the other hand, when these “zoomers” come in, and are trying to find their way, you need to be able to empathise with them and give them an environment in which they can flourish. That doesn't mean it has to be exactly what they want. I look more at what the underlying need that they express is, and how we can make that happen. You might find, for example, the older generation is still very much targeted towards a hierarchical organization and a policy-driven organisation. But the youngsters are basically looking for experiences and not so much looking for a long-term career. They want to learn something and go through an experience, and if you can offer these things to these people, you will have success. If you can't or won't, I think you'll be starving for people.

So you think that, as time goes, employers will have to prepare for employees that will not vow their loyalty to them on the long term?

L.L.: Yes, I think in the longterm you will find people in the market who are good at one thing and one thing only, and they really like doing that. Those will offer their services in that one thing to multiple employers. Who will say: “I like doing this task and I will do this for different companies, and not just for one, because I want to focus on that one task rather than have a whole job with a number of tasks just for one employer.” You will find people who will demand that and who will probably, throughout their career, go from one thing to another and find things that interest them more and try to make money out of that.

Where does HR come into play in this new world?

L.L.: HR is the broker in the market. As an HR you try to find all these different skills that you need to get the company going or to keep the company going and growing. You might not look for a person doing a job anymore. You might look for three or four or five different people doing certain tasks that were in that job. You might look for freelancers, or for people who offer a partnership for a couple of months. I think we will no longer just focus on employees as such, we will be a lot broader. Any sort of employment will be in our view and be in our platform. I think we're going to go through a sort of platform economy and labour where we'll pick who we need, at what time, and what we can do with them. I think the whole industrial concept of “employees” is a 20th century thing. By 2030, we’ll be looking at something different.

You joined PwC just before the pandemic. Has your HR strategy changed since?

L.L.: The pandemic has taught us a couple of things. One is that there are very different ways to run a company and to run it effectively. You could run it as we used to do, meaning nine to five, Monday through Friday, or you can run it in a hybrid mode like we do now. The presence is different; the physical world has diminished in value and the virtual world have gained in value. But these two remain interlinked in any future models [presented in PwC’s Workforce of the future, editor’s note]. That is what has really changed. And everybody from young to old has discovered technology. That is also something very different. If there’s one thing the pandemic did, it's to really accelerate the deployment of technology.

Have you noticed any changes in employee engagement since the changes in the organisation of workspaces?

L.L.: The numbers say we've done very well. The engagement was very high during the pandemic and still is today. If you translate engagement into performance, you would think that our engagement is at the top--we've never had such an engaged workforce. Is that because they have the necessary liberty and flexibility? There probably are multiple factors, but one of the things I think we've understood is that trying to get back to where we were before the pandemic isn't the right recipe. We need to benefit from and offer the employees all the good things we learned during the pandemic. I believe engagement is always based on trust and a purpose for the company. These two are probably the main drivers. We see this: we trust our people to do what is right--they've done it in spades we can only say, they perform fantastically. That is something we definitely want to keep. And if that is by giving them a leading flexibility in how they can do their work, that is what we should do.

This interview was first published in the Delano supplement.