The future will require a shift in work culture and mindset

March 4, 2021

Myrtha Hurtado Rivas, Global Head, Legal Brand Protection, Novartis International AG.

Undoubtedly, the characteristics of work will continue to evolve. We have already experienced a major change triggered by the combined impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing spread of advanced technology. However, many things were already being transformed and the pandemic has simply accelerated the trend. Trying to figure out what work will look like in future is a difficult exercise. I believe that we should all involve ourselves in the process rather than merely submit to it. 

The pandemic has accelerated in many ways changes that were planned at a much slower pace and has shifted many real-world interactions to virtual ones. I believe many of the changes are here to stay. There are numerous articles telling us that we will never go back to the old normal; most explain how companies will need to adapt to it.1  The pandemic has proven that many changes can be implemented more rapidly than previously expected – in particular, with respect to an increase in flexibility and productivity. This is an insight and upside that we should retain for the future.

For managers, a critical element will be how to get and maintain the engagement of all team members. As workers we will need to understand that our role is no longer defined by our title or job profile, but rather by our skills and capabilities. Bearing this in mind, I believe that the changes we have faced and the ones to come present us with many opportunities. This will not be the case in all industries and for all employees, but instead of being paralysed by the fear of losing our status quo, we need to embrace those opportunities. This is not to ignore that these changes may create further social injustice and it may also take time for the benefits of the changes to be realised and to bring about positive social impact.

Remote working for all?

I work as an IP lawyer in an international company and have held global responsibilities for the past 14 years. Therefore, when the pandemic hit us, I was already used to interacting with many of my team members via video calls and online chats. In addition, for the last six years I have been able to work one day a week from home, so that I was pretty much set up for working remotely. In addition, I spent the last decade trying to achieve a healthy work life balance, with varying success, so carving out private time to remain physically and mentally fit during lockdown was not entirely new to me. Still even for me, working from home on a permanent basis for several weeks in a row was not easy and the challenges varied according to the phase of the pandemic that we as a team were facing.

The activities with the highest potential for remote working are in the finance, insurance, management, business services and technology areas. Similarly, hybrid models of remote work will be available after the pandemic to the same category of highly skilled, highly educated and well-paid minority.

Should we just assume then that those working 

in intellectual property, or even more broadly, in legal services, will navigate these changes easily and quickly? We tick many of the boxes: most IP professionals have a higher education, have basic skills that enable them to use tools enabling them to work remotely and need to be flexible to adapt to the different clients and may have encountered an international component in their work and hence are used to virtual collaboration. 

A recent analysis by McKinsey narrows down the industries, occupations and geographies that will benefit from this change.2 Activities in many areas of manufacturing, laboratory work and agriculture cannot be done remotely. And whereas some other activities can be done remotely this does not always mean that they can be done as effectively as in person. We all have experienced this where a more direct exchange and for which empathy may play a critical role, such as coaching, building relationships, onboarding new team members and the like. Let alone classroom learning. We have also experienced a magic moment between humans during live interactions; I dare say that very few of us can recall such moments during a zoom call. This is important as those magic moments can be decisive in decision making, negotiations, learning, etc.

Further we should not assume that all workers, even those in advanced economies, have equal access to high-speed connectivity. If more people are to work remotely in future, governments will need to make serious investments in broadband infrastructure.

In all these considerations, the human factor cannot be ignored; the best technology in the world will not result in higher efficiency and productivity if our work culture fails to adapt. The risk of loss of engagement and isolation of workers is a serious consideration and we should all take appropriate measures to minimize these possibilities.3

We need a cultural and mindset shift

The way start-ups work today is often promoted as a desirable workplace model, where small cross-functional teams are enabled to make decisions and collaborate to tackle a specific task or group of tasks. The required talent to tackle the task can be sourced from any department within the company and/or is contracted just to work on this specific task. Technology and big data are used to enable the teams to be efficient and it will also create an environment where try and fail until you succeed is acceptable. At the same time technology will allow managers to follow on progress without the need for constant interaction and presence. This could translate into a structure where common processes exist to avoid creating redundancies and small teams would tackle the specific tasks entrusted to them within the framework of the corporate mission and values.

Critics may argue that achieving the corporate mission and values will always take second place behind profitability and shareholder interests. This neglects the impact that purpose and reputation have in the eyes of the consumer. Consumers now want to understand a company’s purpose, which will impact how we define and prioritise tasks and link them to that purpose. If team members know how their own work relates to that purpose, they will feel greater engagement and will also experience a greater level of independence and motivation through working in a flatter hierarchy.4

The collaboration between companies in the pharmaceutical industry during the pandemic may have reduced the autonomy and ownership of outcomes of the individual companies, but the positive impact on the industry’s reputation has been an important gain as well as a significant boost in motivation and engagement for employees.

AI will further transform our work

Another change that I expect to see over the next 10 years comes from technology. Leaving aside the risks associated with artificial intelligence (AI) for a bit, I believe that a lot of improvements can come from AI supported tools. Every morning I get a nice email telling me that I have certain meetings coming up and documents are attached to the 

email based on the subject of each meeting. What if in the future the AI assistant were to search not just my inbox, but my entire electronic archive? This would substantially reduce the amount of time I have to spend looking for the appropriate document or email. My electronic assistant already blocks out time in my calendar for so-called focus sessions, and all I have to do is just confirm the choice. What if tomorrow we could set a limit on the number of meetings per day, and anything extra would automatically be rescheduled to the next available date?

Balancing benefits and costs

When thinking about how I picture myself working in ten years from now I can foresee further changes. But how would I ideally want to work? What are the costs and potential negatives of some of these new workplace benefits?

In my company, we started a cultural change journey a couple of years ago that includes many of these elements. We are trying to achieve an unbossed environment. We took inspiration from the book by Lars Kolind and Jacob Bøtter titled Unboss5.  This approach aims to change the work mindset, empowering workers to take decisions at the lowest possible level in the organisation. To a certain extent a shift in power takes place. Combining this mindset with the launch of a vast e-learning program, the company aims at updating the skills of team members and energizing them.

Distributed working was introduced this year and in essence, it allows team members to work from home – within the country boundaries – whenever he or she wants. This freedom of choice comes, however, with a new responsibility: determining how and where to work. Some may see this as a way for a company to free themselves of a certain level of responsibility for the wellbeing of their workers. To this way of thinking, some of the measures which have been implemented now and to a certain extent are here to stay even after the pandemic, can be viewed as merely ways to reduce costs: i.e. building rental, maintenance and staff facilities like canteens and kindergartens for children of employees. Will this lead to an increasing emphasis on individual responsibility of each person in our society? If so, it could undermine the largely accepted role of the employer today as provider of a social safety net through such things as above-market minimum wage, parental leave and promotion of gender equality.6

A further impact will be the need for continuous upgrading of skills and qualifications, which raises the question of who will pay for this ongoing education? Let us face it; most of us, even those who work in technically advanced sectors, will need to be continuously re-trained to stay up to speed with all of these new technological developments. The upcoming changes are not limited to the use of basic digital tools. They will require a plan to achieve new levels of digital literacy in the long term.

We must also acknowledge that we are fundamentally creatures of habit. Do you remember when you had to switch from reviewing things on paper to doing so on a screen? How easy – or not – was it to convince people to stop printing and only keep electronic copies? Those were small changes in comparison to the changes we are already facing and will be facing in the near future. In addition, AI based tools will not only replace humans with robots in some manufacturing jobs. It is rather that humans will need to use AI based tools to increase efficiency and get better results. However, when productivity is increased the number of workers needed will decline, we have seen this with call centres and in many other business services areas. 

A decade ago, we faced the challenge of defining and then outsourcing routine jobs that did not require company internal knowledge. In this sense, new technologies will also redefine what routine jobs are.7 Similarly, as during the period of outsourcing, we hope to free up time for more added value tasks, but headcount reduction still may materialize. Even in the legal environment, these changes will take place and it is high time for us to ensure that our colleagues are reskilled in other areas so they can switch roles more smoothly.

In a recent Gartner HBR White Paper “Reconciling Cultural and Digital Transformation to Design the Future of Work”8   there is discussion of the scarcity of skilled workers and the fact that companies may not always be in the situation to be able to attract the required workers with high salaries or other monetary incentives. Short-term workers, independent contractors, freelancers and the like are filling the gaps. They are highly sought after. The employee no longer that needs to convince the employer of his capabilities, but rather the employer that needs to convince the person to come and work on a specific project for this specific company.

Gartner states also that almost a third of companies have a cost saving motive for replacing their full-time workers with contract workers. Where there may be some upsides to being a contract worker: higher flexibility to manage private and professional obligations, higher autonomy to decide for whom to work and on what, and higher autonomy to decide where to work, it also comes with a higher risk of economic insecurity. Non-permanent employees are facing the highest economic pressure and have least access to financial support during the current economic crisis. In order to better understand the needs of employees, companies are increasingly using people analytics. This trend is likely to increase and we will need to delimit carefully what can be done by companies and what can’t due to privacy and other concerns.

Preparing ourselves for the future

If we accept that some changes triggered by the pandemic are here to stay and others are to come soon, how can we best prepare ourselves? I suggest we use this extraordinary experience to define how we would like to work in the future and to compare this to what we think is reasonably possible.

I attended a TEDx Basel Women event at the beginning of December 2020 where Rebecca Ivey from the World Economic Forum shared her predictions for the future of work. She foresees a reduction in the number of working days per week. Referring to how the five-day working week was introduced in the US by Henry Ford in 1926 without a pay reduction, she made a compelling case for a four-day working week to give workers more free time. While this may seem very attractive and may be appropriate for specific industries, we need to ensure that all potential impacts are being considered and the system remains flexible and can be adapted to individual needs. I am also concerned about the possibility of exacerbating further the already existing social gap/inequality between a highly educated, well paid minority of the work force and those working blue collar jobs. Primarily, the jobs that might suit a four-day working week will be for people delivering services and that often will have some type of higher education and skills that will allow them to take advantage of digital tools.

Consider letting go of titles and defined roles; try rather looking at your strengths abstractly. Then, let us assess if we have the required skills and define the training needed. What are the skills worth investing in? Do not shy away from asking your current employer for training or learning opportunities. Keep an eye on developments in your work environment; try to be part of the change. Finally, as things are becoming more fluid within corporate structures think about managing your network accordingly. Having access to the right contacts may become even more important in small cross-functional teams focused on delivering on specific tasks.

1 Gregor Jost, Deepak Mahadevan, David Pralong and Marcus Sieberer, How COVID-19 is redefining the next-normal operating model, McKinsey & Companies, December 2020, p. 2.

2 Susan Lund, Anu Madgavkar, James Manyika and Sven Smit, What’s next for remote work: An analysis of 2,000 tasks, 800 jobs, and nine countries, McKinsey & Companies, November 2020, p. 2.

3 Susan Lund, Anu Madgavkar, James Manyika and Sven Smit, What’s next for remote work: An analysis of 2,000 tasks, 800 jobs, and nine countries, McKinsey & Companies, November 2020, p. 13.

4 Gregor Jost, Deepak Mahadevan, David Pralong and Marcus Sieberer, How COVID-19 is redefining the next-normal operating model, McKinsey & Companies, December 2020, p. 3.

5 Lars Kolind and Jacob Bøtter, Unboss, Jyllands-Postens Forlag; 1. Edition, 2012

6 Future of Work Trends Post-COVID-19, Gartner for HR, Long-Term Impact & Actions for HR, 2020, p. 5.

7 Kalyan Kumar and Rakshit Ghura, Reconciling Cultural and Digital Transformation to Design the Future of Work, White Paper, Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, p. 3.

8 Future of Work Trends Post-COVID-19, Gartner for HR, Long-Term Impact & Actions for HR, 2020, p. 6.

Myrtha Hurtado Rivas joined Novartis International AG in 2016 to lead the trademark, domain name and copyright function across all Novartis divisions, i.e. Sandoz, Novartis Pharma and Novartis Oncology, globally. Her breadth of experience in intellectual property comes from an extensive and diverse education; time spent at the Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property in Bern, five years at Novartis Pharma and almost 5 years at Sandoz. She has particular expertise in intellectual property, anti-counterfeiting and domain name law, international business law, change management and the pharmaceutical industry, including defense and enforcement in these areas.

She is also the founder and executive producer of Leaderching, a weekly podcast in Spanish and English which covers topics around leadership and diversity.

Myrtha is involved in various IP associations, in particular she is the Chair for the INTA Anti-Counterfeiting Committee for the term 2020-2021 and the Chair of the ECTA WIPO-Link Committee. Of Peruvian heritage, she speaks German, French, English, Italian and Spanish fluently which enables her to take a global perspective. Her current appointment at Novartis has provided her with the opportunity to oversee the Legal Brand Protection function of one of the pharmaceutical industry’s leading players, as well as to contribute to policy making.