Shockwaves rippled around the HR and media worlds last week when KPMG published the findings of its latest CEO outlook.
The report surveyed over 1,300 global CEOs from companies with more than $500m in annual revenue, and found that a whopping 64% expect a full return-to-office by 2026.
Speaking exclusively to UNLEASH, KPMG’s global chief people officer Nhlamu Dlomu shares that she was surprised by the percentage, but less so by the sentiment.
“I know there’s been that sentiment circulating that the best way to get productivity up is to have people in in the office,” Dlomu notes.
“There are really good reasons why you would want people in the office” – but why does that translate to embracing fully in-office work for the majority of CEOs? Why can’t hybrid be the solution?
The fact is that so much has changed since 2019 – CEOs might want to turn back time, “but the reality is, once certain things change in society, it is very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle”.
Although Dlomu does empathize with CEOs – they want their business to perform, and they need to report back to their shareholders – she is clear that they need to accept that the world has changed.
Life has moved on; it is time for CEOs to get with the program and get rid of one-size-fits-all approaches at work.
Getting purposeful with hybrid
“Collectively, we all need to take a step back, and really recognize the moment,” continues Dlomu.
Organizations need to reflect on what they have gained from remote and hybrid work, and what they risk from forcing everyone back to the office.
Not only are there risks around employee engagement and retention, but Dlomu has particular concerns about the diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging side of return-to-office – particularly given the stat in the outlook report that 87% of CEOs would reward those who come in with better projects, raises and promotions, which rings alarm bells around presenteeism.
There is a lot of research that shows that the people who are coming back to the office faster are white, middle-aged men.
What does say about the benefits of hybrid work for keeping women in the workforce (as well as allowing them to fulfill their caregiving responsibilities)? Does it suggest that the office is a place where everyone feels welcome and like they belong?
Inclusion and belonging are closely related to productivity – therefore, when thinking about asking people to come to the office (even some of the week), “we need to put inclusion and belonging at the center”.
Also top of mind for Dlomu is creating a purpose around when and why employees should come into the office. “It needs to have a reason, rather than just being a rule”, she adds.
“As a senior leader, I can go round in circles trying to make a rule that doesn’t make any logical sense – the purpose of coming together is really important,” notes Dlomu.
However, she shares her empathy with CEOs, particularly those at large organizations.
“If you’re a big organization, and you see [the scale of having] to try and manage this through many teams and leaders, it feels too cumbersome.”
AI and the future of HR
Fascinatingly, while the CEOs surveyed by KPMG are keen to quite stuck in the past on working location, they are extremely forward thinking when it comes to emerging tech, and particularly generative AI.
The report found that 70% are making generative AI an investment priority – this is because they see the potential competitive edge from doing so.
52% of CEOs expect to see return on investment in three to five years, and two in ten are hopeful that generative AI will have a significant impact on their profits.
This AI enthusiasm did not surprise Dlomu at all – “almost every person in any business I talk to today is excited about generative AI”.
She shares that CEOs are excited about the profitability of AI because they hope “it can unlock some of the productivity that’s latent in organizations”.
For Dlomu, AI will have a positive impact on roles – “it could open up people’s time to do even more value-adding work”.
But overall, “there’s real work that’s needed to understand what this actually means for businesses, and how we can actually supercharge growth using AI in a responsible AI”.
Ethical AI is top of mind for Dlomu – she calls for caution, “the impact in the medium to long-term are not fully understood yet”.
The good news is that CEOs are on board here. 57% of CEOs surveyed cite ethical challenges as the top concern when it comes to implementing generative AI.
AI and UNLEASH World
Automation and AI is going to be front and center at UNLEASH World 2023.
Grab a ticket now for our upcoming Paris show to get invaluable, in-person, actionable insights on how to use AI to your advantage from Josh Bersin, as well as HR leaders like Anika Grant and James Purvis.
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