Evolution of the workplace: Virtual work and reskilling at Infosys
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Evolution of the workplace: Virtual work and reskilling at Infosys

In this podcast, Ravi Kumar, president at Infosys, shares his perspective on how the COVID-19 pandemic will change the order of society and the enterprise as we are forced to transition into more agile, resilient, outcome-centric, and empathy-driven hybrid organizations.
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In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Akhil Verma speaks with Ravi Kumar, president at Infosys, one of the world’s largest information technology and consulting organizations, about the evolution of the workplace. Kumar shares his perspective on how the COVID-19 pandemic will change the order of society and the enterprise as we are forced to transition into more agile, resilient, outcome-centric, and empathy-driven hybrid organizations. He further stresses the need for reskilling and shifting from degree-based to skills-based hiring, which can open opportunities to more people, thus creating more diverse and inclusive company cultures.

Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (2:23) How have you evolved as a business leader and what has been the single biggest challenge you have faced in your journey so far?
  • (3:31) What were Infosys’s early reactions to the massive COVID-19 challenge?
  • (8:22) How will you and your colleagues in the leadership group at Infosys start addressing the changing order of the society, the enterprise, and the industry?
  • (14:05) Can you talk about Infosys's focus on reskilling its workforce around broader digital capabilities?
  • (19:56) What advice do you have for other leaders as they think about how diversity and inclusion efforts add value to their business?

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, the premier provider of leadership consulting, culture shaping and senior-level executive search services. Every day, we’re privileged to talk with fascinating people who are shaping the future through their leadership and vision. In each episode, you'll hear a different perspective from thought leaders and innovators. Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast.

Akhil Verma: Hi, I'm Akhil Verma, principal in Heidrick & Struggles’ New York office and member of the Global Technology and Services Practice. In today’s podcast, I'm speaking with Ravi Kumar, president at Infosys, one of the world’s largest information technology and consulting organizations. Ravi joined Infosys in 2002 and has had a deep and enduring impact ever since in supporting Infosys’s growth and its positioning as one of India’s most respected technology companies. Ravi began his career as a nuclear scientist at Indian’s prestigious Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, or BARC, as it’s commonly known, which has shaped the rigor, intellect, and effectiveness that he has brought to his career. Ravi, welcome, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Ravi Kumar: Akhil, thank you for the opportunity. Always a pleasure to talk to you.

Akhil Verma: Absolutely. Ravi, you started you career as a nuclear scientist. Why the shift from science to IT?

Ravi Kumar: In hindsight, what I would say is my own interest to explore new things got me into different jobs, starting as a nuclear scientist, to consulting, then I went and did sales, then I explored multiple geographies. I worked in India, then I worked in Asia Pacific and then in the United States. So, it really gave me a fantastic opportunity to work in uncomfortable zones and be comfortable about it, and it gave an outside-in perspective to everything I have kind of ventured into. I'm very lucky that I've got this kind of spread of opportunities across functions, across geographies, and across domains.

Akhil Verma: How have you evolved as a business leader and, outside of the COVID-19 element, which we will come to very shortly, what has been the single biggest challenge you have faced in your journey so far?

Ravi Kumar: You know, very early on I used to believe that you should be able to see what others are not seeing and bring that to your workplace and the industry you work in. But, as I see at my advantaged position, seeing what others don't see is not a big deal. However, convincing others what they don't see but you do see is a big deal. Once you can do that, you can bring the might of the company behind the force you want to be, and you can become a change driver for the firm. So the ability to get people to rally behind something they don't see but they believe in, because you as a leader believes in it, is probably the most difficult challenge in a large enterprise where you want to rally behind your teams and your teams have to rally behind you.

Akhil Verma: We are several weeks into the black swan context of COVID-19. Ravi, share with us Infosys’s early reactions to this massive challenge.

Ravi Kumar: I've been in multiple conversations on this topic, and this topic continues to evolve. I believe that the order of the society, the order of the enterprise, the order of the industry is going to significantly change. We are still in phase one where everybody has gone into a shutdown mode or 100% virtualized mode. We are going to get to a second phase, which is going to be back and forth until we get the vaccine. I would call it a phase of transition because this is a phase where you'll be partially shut down, and that will go on until [we have] the vaccine because, irrespective of what we do on social distancing and irrespective of what we do on testing and contact tracing, you're only going to go that far.

Then we would get to the third phase, which is going to be the phase where the vaccine is going to be there, and that's a phase [when] I personally believe we will get used to a new normal because it will be 6 to 12 months, and by then, you would have a hybrid workplace, a workplace that is anybody’s guess—how much of it is going to be virtual versus how much of it is going to be physical?

We would transition from an order of business where agility was the key to [one where] agility and resilience [are key]. Resilience will play a very important role, and how much we shift to the virtual world will depend on how much you trust your security systems to make sure that work actually transitions to a hybrid model. You know, there is so much that will change as the order of the society changes. Work is going to change, workplaces are going to change, the workforce is going to change. In fact, the workforce could move from humans to humans-plus-gig. If I have to be provoked, then half of it will move from humans to humans-plus-gig-plus-machines, because the embrace of AI and technology is going to be much, much more than ever before.

There is so much that will change about how we are structured in teams. If done well, it can boost productivity. Hybrid workplaces can boost productivity. I already have a hypothesis around it. If done badly, it could breed inefficiency. Most times, the technology adoption was kind of pivoted around consumer value chains and supply value chains; now it is around the workplace. So, there is so much in what we are doing that is up for change and that is going to flare up a debate. I would say the [companies] that will come out successful (and that is what we want to be) when we get to the fourth phase [will] be resilient, adaptable, virtual, and productive. That's what is going to determine how well organizations do, and my learning has been that you could be more intimate and more expansive when you get to a hybrid place because we will get used to overcommunication in the times we are in.

So, interesting times ahead, it will clearly differentiate the good [from] the bad, and I think some organizations will come out stronger and some weaker. I'm quite sure there will be industry clusters, which will be big. One of the friends I spoke to recently, a president at one of the universities, spoke about how education will change and how academic institutions could be partnering with big tech companies to change the paradigm of education. And I heard the same from big tech companies moving into healthcare. So, so much of the industrial order will change as well.

I would say this is a great time to reflect on how you could stay relevant as you get to the fourth stage of my hypothesis: I call this the punctuated equilibrium. You're going to have a stasis and then there's going to be an equilibrium, and that disruption will continue until we get to this fourth phase when everybody is going to look for more. Going back to the black swan event, clearly now we are preparing ourselves for a known unknown, and as we get to that fourth stage, we will prepare for an unknown unknown. Enterprises will look for more; they want to actually be prepared for the unknown, even then. [It] will be a black swan event, the next one that comes, and organizations will be much more prepared.

Akhil Verma: As you think about some of these radical contexts and concepts in terms of how they are impacting the workforce or will impact the workforce, as you move forward, how do you believe you and your colleagues in the leadership group at Infosys would start addressing those specifically and driving that vision in your own ranks? How do you think your organization is going to change?

Ravi Kumar: That's the conversation we're [having] now, once we get past this crisis and get to work, once the vaccine comes in, maybe a year from now. How much of our work can be virtual? In fact, I was running a webcast two weeks ago; one of the CIOs in the webcast said, “Two-thirds of my workforce will never come back to work; they will work from home.” So, very provocative, two-thirds, and I actually thought almost along the same lines: 75% of the people will be virtual.

This second shift is organizations like Infosys or consulting firms are 100% full-time equivalent—my hypothesis is 25% of our workforce will go gig, and that's a very big shift. The gig economy today is pretty much focused around the sharing economy, as they call it. With the experience we have now of a virtual world, our work packages have become very modular and very compact. People are working longer but they're working in shorter spurts, and that's one of the reasons why productivity will go up, because scientific study says that when you go to work and you work for eight hours in an office, you're only going to be productive for four hours. So, as the package gets sleeker, as the world gets more virtual, there is a natural fit for the gig economy because the gig economy normally comes in a virtual world. So we do believe that we will start embracing marketplaces that can give us that virtual workforce, which you can access when you want and curate the talent and then engage with them. So you will move from hiring, retaining cycles of HR, to accessing, curating, and engaging talent.

We do believe that shift is going to be tectonic in many ways. This experience of the crisis has also moved us to outcome-centric goals. As much as we all want to have outcome-centric goals, organizations [and] large enterprises were driven by effort-driven goals. We’re all going to move to outcome-centric goals, and I think that's a shift we will all have to embrace because you are actually going to have a part of your organization no longer coming to work, so the faster you could move to outcome-centric goals, the faster you would get there. I do sense that hierarchical structures in large enterprises, including companies like Infosys, will transition to network structures.

Network structures will drive future efficiencies. We used to hire based on IQ and PQ, IQ being intellectual quotient, PQ being passion quotient. I think we're going to hire based on EQ, IQ, and PQ, EQ being the empathy quotient. You know, never before in my own professional life have I felt so empathetic to my workplace and gratitude for what I have. So, there are so many of these things that are going to change our approach to enterprises.

One other fascinating thing I do believe will happen is we are going to move from degrees to skills. For decades, enterprises have hired based on degrees, and degrees [are] an easy way to hire because you are outsourcing the evaluation to somebody else who has done it for you, [and we will move instead] to hiring for skills. Our education will move from just-in-case education to just-in-time education. Just-in-time learning means you'll do lifelong learning in schools and then you switch to learning on time to redeploy to your jobs.

One final point is being able to move from jobs for life to a profession for life to multiple professions in life—the world around us is so dynamically going to change that we are going to move to multiple professions in life. And as we go to multiple professions in life, how do you get the mental strength to deal with the change?

All of what I just mentioned is going to work, provided you can build a culture that still makes you run in rhythms and get a sense of community even by working virtually, and that is the key point we all have to address: Can we build a sense of community in a hybrid workplace? So, lots of things to ponder, lots of things to reflect on, lots of hypotheses to validate.

Akhil Verma: We've previously spoken about Infosys already being focused on reskilling its workforce around broader digital capabilities. Talk to us about how you're going to change, or perhaps do so a little differently than your prior road maps.

Ravi Kumar: Not just us. I think everybody around us is thinking about it. Forty million people in the United States are unemployed now. In a workforce of 160-odd million, 40 million are unemployed and some of the industries are structurally destroyed. The key for reskilling, when you have to move from one work stream to another work stream, when you have to move from one industry to another industry, is to get an apprentice model where you do not just do online training but you handhold the people for a period of time where you curate this talent and then you get them ready for the jobs. If you want to move a professional from the hotel industry to the telecom industry, and you want to move them from the front desk of a hotel to end-use computer jobs in telecom or hand-and-feet support jobs of telecom—telecom is a recession-proof industry these days—you will have to do hand-holding and apprenticing. And for that, a consortium between the government, the apprentice, equaling and reskilling companies, online platform companies, and enterprises have to come together. That consortium is important for us to make reskilling work, be it for Infosys or be it for any other company.

Akhil Verma: I wanted to take this opportunity to talk a little bit about artificial intelligence and machine learning. Across your peer group of companies, Infosys has been a leader in delivering a whole range of AI and machine learning capabilities to its clients. In the context of what you have experienced and are experiencing now, how does that evolve?

Ravi Kumar: We are now going to get into an era where humans and machines are going to coexist, where machines will do problem solving and humans will do problem finding, and that's why the human endeavor will move from solving to finding problems. And when we switch to that endeavor, we are going to solve the unknown unknowns in a more efficient way. Today, we have not been able to solve the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns because we are so deeply entrenched into our own enterprises, doing repetitive tasks. To an extent, in factories, machines have—you know, mechanical machines—have kind of replaced humans, but in enterprises, in offices, AI software has not replaced humans, and that switch will happen because this pandemic will also accelerate that and there will be an exponential increase in the embrace of AI and machine learning. And as that happens, humans will start switching over to problem finding, and you will find more diversity and inclusivity in the workplace. Today, everybody is wired in enterprises to solve problems. I think, in the future, everybody will be wired to find those new problems that can be solved in conjunction with machines and software, and the software will amplify human potential. So that tipping point is now.

We've spoken about it for a long time, but it kind of didn't take off, and [now] there is a World Economic Forum report that talks about how 75 million jobs by 2025 will be gone—that was before the pandemic. The pandemic itself has taken 40 million jobs out just in the United States, so if I add everything else in the world, it is probably more than 75 million. But it did say that 125 million new jobs will be created. That bridge between old and new jobs is what these consortiums of policymakers and academies and enterprises have to bridge. And this is the point of inflection where you're going to see an exponential rise. It’s also because we need less human touch inside corporate functions and we want humans to be in the endeavor of tracking new problems, finding new problems, and driving solutions around them.

Akhil Verma: As you now reflect on your experiences over the past several weeks, how have your thoughts on leadership evolved, particularly in times of crisis like these?

Ravi Kumar: I would say leadership has been more purposeful, more intimate. I probably know personally more people now than before. When they came to our office, I probably knew fewer of them. When we’re not in the office, I think all of us are so empathetic to each other. There is almost a level playing field, more empathetic gratitude for things. In fact, people are giving their heart out in their jobs because they're so gratified by what they have. To a large extent, I would say this whole thing of resilience has come back in vogue. Agility was the only reason why enterprises survived, right? To go back to nature, martyrs don't survive, the toughest don't survive. The most adaptable survive, and I think we are now getting into this nice balance between agility and resilience to build a future.

Akhil Verma: I’d like to come back to you talking a little bit about diversity and inclusion. What advice to do you have for other leaders as they think about how diversity and inclusion efforts add value to their business?

Ravi Kumar: The fact that we're going to transition to skills makes it a level playing field for anybody who has the capabilities to come in, rather than the fact you're part of a school or you've come with a background or you've come with experience from a leading enterprise. So those boundaries are going to blur, and because those boundaries are going to blur, I would say the future is going to be much more inclusive and much more diverse. In fact—we spoke about virtual workplaces—one of the conversations I had with the US Chamber of Commerce the other day was, does this mean the rural United States will get more access to jobs? I said absolutely. If work goes virtual, what that really means is it’s not necessary for the concentration of jobs to be in the big cities—it can actually go to any part of the United States. So that by itself will create diversity and inclusivity, and in some ways it will bridge the divide that we have created otherwise in the old world.

Akhil Verma: Ravi, fascinating as always speaking with you. Thank you for making the time to speak with us today and sharing your thoughts.

Ravi Kumar: Thank you, Akhil, thank you so much. And this is a [paraphrase of a] quote from Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities: humans have in them to make the worst of times, but also the best of times. I really hope this crisis gets the best out of humankind.

Akhil Verma: Great words to close with, Ravi. Thank you.

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