Dr. Vijay Pendakur: Key Notes from the Keynote
Pam Sornson, JD
Working. Workers. Workplace. According to Pasadena City College’s (PCC) President/Superintendent Dr. Erika Endrijonas, these three occupational tenets comprise one of the college’s two primary missions: developing a workforce that can respond to the evolving contours of today’s tumultuous economic climate. Adding complexity to the process is the growing demand for a more equitable and fair employment experience. The concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are becoming more critical for achieving corporate success, so companies are looking to improve their DEI metrics as a means of maintaining competitiveness.
California’s community colleges are working to meet these sweeping evolutions by revising existing systems to meet emerging needs. One way to learn about those needs (and potential responses) is to talk about them, which the hosts and guest speakers were doing at PCC’s third annual Future of Work conference, held virtually Tuesday, November 9th. (Listen to the replay here.) For attendees, the morning was filled with information and insights about how DEI leaders have approached these issues in the past, and ideas about how to view and address them in the future.
Starting the conversation was keynote speaker Dr. Vijay Pendakur, Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer and Global HR Leader for Zynga. This digital gaming company produces numerous globally popular social games such as ‘Words with Friends.’
Insights Inform Actions
Having twenty years of experience studying and working on DEI issues in the higher education sector, Dr. Pendakur shared his perceptions of today’s contorted workplace and how it poses both challenges and benefits to today’s workers. (He also spoke with PCC’s EWD – hear that chat here.)
On the positive side, pressure to provide more flexibility in the employment environment was rising even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The past decade’s explosion of devices and programming has decimated the concept of the old-style ‘office,’ and more workers than ever were working remotely without losing productivity.
The COVID crisis only enhanced this phenomenon, launching millions of employees into a fully remote work situation. Companies that had the resources were able to acquiesce to the shift, and it seems that both employers and employees are enjoying the opportunity to find a better balance between work and home/community.
Now, workers in one geographical area can work in another, which disperses talent across a wider swath of industry.
In addition, ‘hybrid’ working conditions, where workers split their time between their home and employer’s offices, are becoming ubiquitous, too, providing precisely the fluid work environment that many workers need. (Hybrid work situations generate their own concerns, however. See below … .)
On the negative side, Dr. Pendakur recognizes that much of the same technology that facilitates remote working is also eliminating many jobs altogether as companies engage robots to perform the routine tasks formerly done by humans. Moreover, because so much of that tech is new and emerging, people simply don’t know if their jobs are about to become obsolete, nor do they know what they’d do without them.
Pendakur used the acronym “VUCA” to describe how all these factors impact today’s work environments: they are increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, creating fear and tension for both employers and employees. The situation makes it even more difficult for systems to address DEI initiatives while contemplating responsive activities.
Assess Before Starting
Fortunately, Pendakur also offers a theory that facilitates appropriate evaluation of the evolving work world and strategies to use to implement needed changes. He suggests leaders look at the impacts of three fundamental realities emerging in today’s workforce sector, and consider how managing them will affect the organization as a whole:
1. The phenomenon of Skill Extinction
‘Skill extinction’ occurs when the nature of work changes and prior skills are no longer relevant. Workers whose jobs are overtaken by technology or other workplace evolutions often find their skills no longer meet the needs of any employer. One study suggests that up to 20 million jobs (and their requisite skills) will be obsolete by 2030.
Pendakur urges employers to encourage their workforce to develop ‘learning agility’ while on the job. Essentially, providing employees with opportunities to develop new job skills and abilities within their current occupation reduces their risk of becoming obsolete. It also reduces employee turnover, making the policy a win-win for the company.
2. The Hybrid Worker phenomenon
While a hybrid work arrangement offers many pluses, management must also address several drawbacks:
People who work both from home and at an office must manage inconsistent work conditions. The home office situation may be impacted by family needs, technological challenges, and even security concerns that are not evident to most employers.
‘Work from Home’ (WFH) employees also miss out on those informal ‘water cooler’ chats where ‘aha!’ moments frequently happen. Pendakur refers to this as a ‘loss of serendipity.’
WFH talent is also often invisible to on-site managers, who may lose track of their effort and contributions. The ‘invisibility might also lead to
‘Proximity bias,’ where leadership offers rewards like promotions and special projects to those workers who are physically on-site more often.
Ironically, Pendakur suggests using technology programs such as MIRO or Donut to overcome these potential productivity handicaps.
3. The Demand for Wellness and Well Being
Workers were complaining about difficult work situations well before COVID descended; the pandemic simply underscored the relevance of their concerns. These days, worker burnout is an even more significant challenge, and, in many cases, employers can make changes to reduce its impact.
Pendakur suggests adding benefits that support the worker as a whole, not just their employment situation. Offering financial management guidance, child care stipends, and other ‘life’ related perks can assuage feelings of burnout. Assessing and reducing workloads is another step that will alleviate worker stress; providing many opportunities to recognize and reward effort is another. And corporate culture matters, too; workers who are welcomed and comfortable in their workplace are more productive than those who feel sidelined or unseen.
Most importantly, Pendakur encourages leaders to assess their organization’s DEI efforts as those arise within these three concepts: skill extinction, hybrid work sites, and worker wellness. Every worker brings value to every company; ensuring that all employees have the appropriate environment, skills, and opportunities to do their best work enhances the success of both.
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