Kavi Guppta on the Future of Work


Techsauce met up with writer Kavi Guppta at the recent 7in7 conference in Bangkok. Kavi writes for Forbes about the future of work.

What are are some main ways that workplaces are changing in the 21st century?

Kavi: Primarily, it’s about flexibility and how we choose to work. It’s still up in the air about what people will work on in the future, things like automation are obviously coming in to the forefront.

Technology is changing the way in which we can choose to work, not only where but what we want to do, when we want to do it, how we want to do it and it also allows for companies to look beyond the local confines of a region and hire better talent.

It also brings into question, new ways of working for people that may have left the workforce and couldn’t get back in. Technology allows you to diversify your skill set to get jobs that maybe you’ve just learned skills for and also have flexible ways of getting back into that workforce.

The unemployment rate we see in most countries may not necessarily mean that there’s a lack of jobs. It may mean that there are a lot of job vacancies but there just aren’t the skills to fill them. Or people may have just stopped looking for work because they don’t see how to apply their original skills to new ways of working.

What can countries or governments do to try to bridge that skills gap?

I think the number one answer to that question is immigration. How can we allow more skilled workers into these countries to do great work and to be an example to companies and individuals. I talked about South Korea, because South Korea is a great country with some of the smartest people in the world – but their smartness is being used for a very outdated way of working that no longer exists. So they’re bringing in people like me from other cultures to come in and talk about how they can transform the culture to navigate this new way of working.

I think that’s critical because it allows them to learn from people, then adapt and apply it themselves to find new ways of working. They’re hungry for talent, they’re hungry for new skill-sets, and someone in that region can take it even further.

In many parts of the world we’re seeing a nativist trend where people are feeling very anti-immigration. They feel that increased immigration into the country is going to lead to immigrants taking their jobs. In your opinion, how best to explain to people that immigration is for good and will improve the job situation in the country?

It’s a very challenging thing because the reality is that economics is very fuzzy to everybody. You can’t really visualize the impact that things like the decline of manufacturing are having on working people, or what jobs are going to look like if factories are no longer the way that most people work.

The easiest way to assert your aggressiveness and your negativity on that new reality is to look at people who are different from you. My home country of Australia is a good example of this. They’re very anti-immigration because that’s how they visualize, and they tend to make that negative aspect of the declining workforce a very tangible thing.

If I see more Muslims coming in, if I see more Indians coming in, if I see more Asians coming in, I feel “Well, they’re taking all my jobs”. But the reality is they’re taking the jobs that nobody wanted to do in the first place. It’s very low-paying, menial labor and so it becomes a question to governments to take leadership and say, “Look, we need these people – they’re actually not scary people – to help us create a more diverse workforce. These are skills, these are entrepreneurs, these are companies that are going to change the way we think about work.”

We obviously have to work harder to put protections in place so that Australian people, for example, aren’t hurt and that we’re also not hurting the people that want to come here because they see a diverse opportunity to expand.

I think it’s also an individual’s responsibility to accept that diversity and there are many examples of people in my home country of Australia, in the United States, in Europe, that believe that pluralism and diversity is important to how we maintain prosperity through work.

The problem is no one is actually answering the question or taking stand to say, “Look, manufacturing is going to die.” We’re still trying to prop up certain ways of working that no longer can subsist in the 21st century – yet they were great in the 19th century or the 20th century, right?

Until we have that conversation with people and say, “The car factory is closing because we don’t need to make cars anymore, let’s look at other industries that we can be good at”… Until we have that conversation or consistently and bluntly, that’s when we’re going to finally start to see a huge amount of change and acceptance.

It may take a long time for these kinds of legislative or societal changes to happen. In the more short term, what are some practical things that a company can do if they are interested in recruiting more diverse workforce, or expanding beyond their country’s borders to find more talent?

Opinions don’t matter as much as evidence, in fact, evidence should always trump opinions – so I often talk about how can companies can pilot small programs. Don’t go too big, don’t go too fast. Government has a habit of doing things way too big and failing and getting a lot of flak for it.

Companies have the ability to take some capital, some knowledge, start small, pilot it, maybe with ten people, see how it progresses, what succeeded and what failed, learn from that, iterate and scale. As you continue to build evidence for your ideas, you’re going to be able to go to the government and say, “Look, we’re actually able to do this. Here are areas where we couldn’t figure it out, that’s where we need you to make legislation.”

The issue is we have more opinions than we do evidence. So, one of the things I’m trying to do is present more of that evidence. In my talk I showed examples of companies in South Korea, Israel and Portland, Oregon, these are real examples that we can take to governments and to other companies and say, “This can work, let’s try it out.” So, my roundabout advice is – gather as much evidence as you can!

What you’re describing is a more scientific way of approaching the problem because what works in one country may not work in another country?

Yes, and a great example of that is internships. We don’t actually have any real data that suggests that internships are useful, we just have a lot of anecdotal data. There are some people that did really well and we often hear about people that didn’t do very well.

Whereas apprenticeships, where governments actually have regulation over, we have hard evidence on what happens when you go into an apprenticeship program.

I wrote an article about this where I had to tell young people, “Screw the internship entirely.” We need to make a whole new system rather than trying to plug into the existing system or fix it with a band-aid solution.

Try to look for remote work, try to get entry-level work in other countries, learn to sell yourself so that you can get into training much faster than an internship. Because if you get into an internship, you’re don’t know if you will be doing the work you’re meant to be training for. You might just be doing kind of grunt work and then you have to go to another internship, right? Let’s scrap that system, let’s build a whole new one and find hard evidence for it, bring it forward, get more people on board.” It’s going to be very hard, it takes a lot of patience, perseverance, and practice but it can be possible.

Many companies encounter a lot of cultural challenges when they hire people from outside their home country for the first time. How can companies ensure they’re getting the right kind of individuals – people who share their values and the same ways of working?

Absolutely, and I think this goes beyond other ethnic cultures, we’re seeing this with women in the workforce as well. We have come to a point where we just check the box to say, “We need a quota for hiring enough women, enough under-represented groups to be in our company.”

That’s not enough. If you think about any situation where you’re bringing in different people into an environment that was not built for them, there’s going to be an immediate culture clash.

My remedy to that is: we need to have more consistent and open conversations about how we’re doing. It’s not enough to just say, “Well, we let you in. Now figure it out.” We need to be very frequent about feedback. “How are we helping you or how are we not helping you? How can you do things differently, how can we work together to do that?”

So have those conversations. That could be regular meetings, that could be software that put surveys out to the team every week to say, “How are we doing ?” Listen to your employees and say, “What are we doing wrong? What can we do better?” The moment you start to have those conversations, and you make a safe space for those conversations, you’re already way ahead of the curve.

Many companies don’t have a safe space to talk about these issues or to provide criticism and constructively discuss new ideas. The company I work with, for example, we have these conversations all the time. It’s very hard, it’s awkward sometimes, it gets very intense but we have them and the fact that we can have them, puts in place a culture that says, “You can always talk about something if you think it’ll improve the way we work.” That’s the thing that companies need to do when they want to bring in more women, more undereducated people, overeducated people, whatever. When you put these many people together, they need to talk about it.

You can follow Kavi on Twitter