Karin Reiter, is Senior VP at The Adecco Group. Karin is passionate about catalysing positive, long-term transformational change and driving E, S, and G right through the value chain. When it comes to the changing world of work, she has a frontline view. We’re going to find how what she thinks work has in store for all of us. 

Preparing for the changing world of work

Welcome to the Eclipse podcast. I'm your host, Toni McKee.

As the world transitions to a cleaner, greener, AI -driven economy, it relies on a skilled labour force to deliver the change. Are we ready as a workforce? And what can companies do to support workers and secure long -term employability for all?

My guest today is Karin Reiter, Senior Vice President of Sustainability and ESG of the Adecco Group. Karin is passionate about catalysing positive, long -term transformational change and driving ESG straight through the value chain. When it comes to the changing world of work, she has a front-line view. We're going to find out what she thinks work has in store for all of us.

Karin, thanks for joining us.

Thank you so much for having me.

Karin, I believe you were educated as a lawyer. Is that correct?

That is correct. I indeed started out as a lawyer and then I saw the light I moved into sustainability. I'm just kidding. I actually love being a lawyer and I think there's many skills that are actually the same that you need in order to be successful in both roles.

 Wow, that's really interesting. I hadn't really thought about that. It's a good transfer of skills from one profession to the other. So how did you actually move into the world of corporate sustainability? And how did you end up at Adecco?

I actually started out as an  Adecco associate about 20 years ago. They provided me with my first job right out of university when I was working as a temporary worker for a really large insurance company.

And then while I was looking, you know, for other opportunities that then didn't work out, that insurance company took me on as a permanent employee within their legal department. A few years later, they launched, in the wake of the tsunami in - I think that was the end of 2004, they launched this big employee engagement program to help rebuild the communities. And that was the first time that I came in touch with the concept of corporate responsibility.

And it just really, it was that Eureka moment when I realized this is something that I really want to move into, because it allowed me to use the skill that I had built as a lawyer, but really combined it with my passion to work at the threshold between business and societal needs. And then through a number of fortuitous turns, I was actually able to move into the sustainability department of Zurich and help build that up.

I reached out to a number of people there. I took it upon myself to educate myself further at university, and then really it was the engagement with many people that led me there and gave me that opportunity.

And I was always passionate about the social side of things. So now being able to drive these issues within one of the largest employers in the world and at that, the company that provided me with the first job out of university, is just the icing on the cake.

That's brilliant. So, I can see how it all comes together then for you, but can you connect everything up for us? From my point of view, I think many people see the green transition as sort of a separate thing from the workforce transition, but you see them as very much connected, right? Can you explain why that is?  

We all at the Adecco Group, we believe they need to go hand in hand. You can't make the green transition happen if you don't have workers with the right skills, right? Who is going to be the ones that develop the new technologies that are needed? Who's going to install photovoltaic infrastructure? Who's going to... rethink supply chains, or who's going to look at waste management, circular economy?  

So, you do need the right people with the right skills within an organization. And I think that is often a missed opportunity where companies develop their climate strategies and often very ambitious climate strategies at that, but they don't connect their human capital strategies to it. So, to really understand, do they have the right skills? For that? Where do they have gaps? And then how do they upskill and re -skill their current workforce into these jobs of the future?

Or where do they find this talent in the market? That's a bit more the opportunity side, but then it's also looking at what jobs are most at risk through that transition. And then how do we support people in these jobs to ensure that they're not being left behind?

And it's typically the most vulnerable already, that are faced with this risk. So, there's a strong responsibility for organisations to address these topics as well. It's also looking at workplace health and safety of workers.

If it gets hotter out there, we need to make sure that workers are supported. For example, when they work outside or when they're working in big factories or so, that the working conditions are adaptive to the climate environment.

There's then also how we reflect the different needs of different communities in decision making. If you think back to the recent announcement from the host country of the next UN climate summit in 2024, Azerbaijan, when they announced the organising committee, it was initially exclusively comprised of men. And only after a lot of outcry from different communities they rectified and also included more women in the organizing body. And I think this is so critical that those that are likely most affected by climate change and many of these decisions, their voices need to be brought to the table as well.

These are women, it’s indigenous communities, it's the next generations. We need to ensure that decision-making bodies are reflective of those that are affected by climate change, these decisions and bring their voices to the table.

So I think there's a lot of social topics that are interrelated within the climate and the green transition and I think that's why we really see the emergence of the ‘just transition’ as a concept and sort of moving more into the mainstream and not just being talked about by a few experts, but it's being top of mind within these international negotiations.

Right, okay, so there's so many different social issues that are coming to the surface as we move into the future and the climate transition is happening. All of that, I guess, is creating what the future of work will be.

Who would you say is leading the charge when it comes to creating that future and making sure that workers are taken care of? Is it governments? Is it companies? Can you kind of explain how these different groups are looking at the future of work and how they're contributing?

I do believe it needs a good faith collaboration between all the labor market actors. I don't think it's the responsibility just of one party within that.

A few years ago actually, at the Adecco Group, we developed what we would call a new social contract that very clearly lays out what we think are the different expectations of the labor market stakeholders of each other, but then also the responsibilities that they have. So if you think of workers, they would expect that they receive active training and career support and that they're being guided through these big transitions.

But then two years ago, we did a global ‘workforce of the future’ study to understand where the workers actually feel supported in these transitions and while we see that about 60% are worried for their jobs because of the green transition, and know, they need to adapt and learn new skills, it was only about 30% to actually feel supported by their employers, that they get the necessary guidance as to how their jobs will change, what skills they will need going forward, and how they go about upskilling and re-skilling themselves.

We see similar statistics with the AI transition. There's the expectation from employees as to receiving training and guidance, but it's then also the responsibility of companies to do so. Governments then play an important role in terms of creating that enabling environment. And that's also something that we don't see enough happening, that governments put in place active labor market policies to specifically support the green transition and connecting again their infrastructure investment programs as we've seen in the EU or the US with really proactive skilling and labor market strategies.

We just recently launched or released, the ‘Green Talent Potential Index’, that really analysed the labor market policies of the G20 with a specific view to the green transition and it's really quite scary when you see how unprepared many governments are in terms of preparing the labor market for what is to come and putting the necessary policies in place.

So, I do think there's an interplay between all the different labor market actors that needs to come more strongly to the fore. It's not just one party to drive this or not.

How do you think that collaboration can be increased between these different players? Or how can these sort of barriers, that may be there today how can they be removed?

Already we have that recognition that no one can solve this on their own and I think we have that right, that's why at the Global Climate Summits or so, you have an increasing number of companies engage, sometimes to the detriment of the negotiations if it's sort of really going towards lobbying rather than sort of proactive and meaningful engagement to say, what is in the best interest of economy and society and how do we work together to make that happen? But I think it's then also the recognition that we need to bring more voices to the table that are currently not being heard.

So I think we're starting to see a shift in more of a collaborative effort, but I think more transparency and access to information would certainly be key levers to make that more successful.

If we zero in on companies and their role in creating the future of work and in protecting workers, what trends do you see in HR departments and how they're working with employees?

One thing that we see is that Gen I is really accelerating the shift from a job-based approach to really a skills-based approach.

So it's really looking more at what skills does somebody have to be successful in a job and how they're transferable into another role rather than whether a person has already completed the same job in a different environment before.

My example at the very beginning, how I moved into sustainability is the perfect example. I've never worked in that area before, but somebody recognized the transferability of my skill set from one point to the other.

When I left that insurance company and was looking for something new, there I had the opposite experience, where the recruiters were just looking at my profile and said, "Well, you've worked in the financial services industry, so you can only work in the financial services industry. "Well, actually, you only worked with an insurance company, so you can only work in an insurance company, or you managed your foundation, so you can only manage a foundation and they didn't really look at what are the skills that enabled me to be successful in those roles. I think... that is a shift that we currently see where there's more of an emphasis on the human part.

Fantastic. So you mentioned AI just before. And obviously that is on the radar of a lot of workers these days. What do you think are the biggest workforce challenges that AI is posing to the workforce as a whole?

What we see is that there's a bit of a risk or a significant risk actually, that we're creating a two-tier workforce, those that have access to the necessary skills that are being upskilled in these skills that are being equipped to successfully navigate this transition and those that aren't.

And we already see in a survey that we recently did, sort of the second edition of our Global Workforce of the Future study with specific focus on AI, is that, there's a specific risk between better educated, sort of university educated people and those that only went through secondary education, it's office workers and non-office -based workers.

We also see a difference in genders in terms of how fast they're adopting these technologies. And I think that's why it's so critical that companies take a human -centric approach to these new transitions. transitions and really put the worker and the individual at the heart of this. I think there's a lot of potential with GenII, and I think we're currently a little bit in a honeymoon phase in terms of how it's being used, but it's then really making sure that we're taking a responsible approach to it. That we're always being mindful of what are the implications, that it's still the decision-making of the human that is at the centre of this, and that we're always conscious of what is the data set that is actually feeding the AI, how might it influence some of the results that are coming out of it, who has access to the information, and who is being up and reskilled with the necessary skills to proactively and successfully adopt it.

I think that's also something that I'd like to see is, when you look at the term human resource, I think over the last years and decades, we've really honed in on resource, you know, something that is replaceable. Where I think now it's really putting the human potential back at the fore of companies and I think only those companies that really invest in their people and bring those uniquely human skill sets to the front will be successful over the longer term. So, it's AI is augmenting, or hopefully is used, to augment the human capability.

That's really good news, isn't it? Like you said, if you look back over the last several decades, I for one, I've definitely felt like a resource rather than a human at certain points in my career.

I don't want to say this is completely over, right? I think this is also a little bit the idealist speaking in me and I think that's part of sustainable leader, right? It's we have a certain idealism. We believe that change is still possible and we have to. It's not just how do we get there. We need to be a little bit more pragmatic.

What I also fully recognize is that I'm speaking from a very privileged, more Western oriented and office based environment and that the realities on the ground and in many different countries look very much different. And I think that's something that we also need to be much, much more mindful of is, who is most affected and what different type of support will different people need at different times and different groups and different skill sets. And I think that's something where again it's that human centricity that is so critically important.

Yeah, that makes good sense. That's a super good point. We are quite privileged in our Western office spaces, aren't we? And I suppose it will be a long-term transition in terms of really getting that human experience to come through.

But I think this is also the point where AI can be really useful and actually lower barriers to access for workers to enter the labor market. If you think people with a disability, I think with many new tools in AI, it might be easier for them to access the labor market, find jobs, remote work certainly. I mean it has its pluses and negatives, but I think for certain populations, it really enables them to more actively participate in the labor market and take on different roles that maybe they couldn't before. So I think it's how we use AI to really bring out that human potential and enable everyone to thrive and ensure that nobody is being left behind.

Do you think that AI will be like a net positive for the workforce or net negative? If I might put it so black and white?

Again, the idealist in me says, I would say it's net positive. I think we fully expect similar to the green transition and other transitions that we've seen in the past that jobs will be destroyed. But also a lot of jobs will be newly created. Many of the tasks that absorb our time today will be automated, but that also has to upside that we can then really focus on those things that, again, make us human. If I look at recruiters, they can then spend much more time with the candidates and support them in their long-term employability rather than focusing on sifting through CVs and sort of analyzing that.

We're actually also developing a new platform together with Microsoft, that really supports people in better understanding the skill set that they have, and put that into the larger context and show them different pathways into which direction they may be able to develop, what that may mean from an employability perspective, from an income perspective, and really open horizons for them and provide them with pathways that they might not have thought of before.

So again, it's putting the skills rather than job. at the center of an employee's or a worker's journey going forward.

That sounds brilliant. So, do you have any advice for companies that are looking to take a more human-centric approach to their workplace and recruitment?

I think it's about investing in people as much as you do in technology. One of the downsides that we see today with the current accounting systems is that from a balance sheet perspectives, investment in people are treated as a cost and not an investment. This is something that needs to change. So, investing in people and particularly investing in their ups and re-skilling will certainly pay dividends for every company there is.

And particularly also with the focus on the soft skills side. I think we still call them soft skills, although everybody recognizes that they're probably much more the currency that pays off in the future. And I think that is how leaders can also then support their people through these big transitions. So again, it's investing in people as you would in technology.

That sounds like pretty good advice. What do you think the future holds for workers as a whole, like on a very high level?

 It's really difficult to predict. There were probably a few people with tremendous foresight who saw COVID or a big pandemic and the potential impact of that. Same with Gen AI.

I think it's really difficult given how fast these transitions are currently happening to make any predictions about the future. What I would love to see much more is really a partnership between companies and their workers, right? And really recognising that employees are not stakeholders, they are your company. So that's something that I would like to see much more. Again, it's linked to the human potential, it's to the human centricity and how we bring that up more, and how do we shift away from a resource focused approach to a human centric approach.

But in the end, it's companies and leaders who have a very, very strong role to play in terms of guiding their workers through this transition. But I think there's also a role for individuals to play in terms of embracing lifelong learning in cultivating adaptability and being open to change. We now know that this is a very dynamic work environment and change will just come at us and continue to come at us. So, it's how do we as workers, irrespective of where you're based, is how do you embrace that? How do you proactively engage with it? And then also seek out guidance and support. I think it's recognizing that no-one should be and is on their own, but that there's a lot of resources and partners that can be tapped into to move this forward together and again make sure that nobody is left behind but even more importantly ensure that everybody is being moved forward.

Oh, that's great. What advice do you have for workers as they forge into this future?

I'll try to make this as generic as possible as applies to a broadest set of people, but I think it's the embracing lifelong learning. That's what we've certainly seen with all the change that is coming at us. And it feels that it's just coming faster and faster at us. It is that, the need to be open to that change, to embrace it, to be more adaptable and to build that own resilience by continuously up and re -skilling ourselves as well.

It's to some extent holding our employers to account for that as well, in terms of what support they provide to us and how they guide us through that transition, because in the end it's in their own interest and we know it pays off for them to retain their workers rather than trying to find new skill sets and new people in the market. But also there's a proactive role that workers and individuals can play on their own, in terms of managing that transition.

Interesting. That's great advice.

At the ADECCO group, our purpose is to make the future work for everyone, which I really love because on the one hand it is about ensuring that there still is a future. But it also has that concept at heart of sustainability that it's not just about creating value for shareholders, but it's really for everyone, for all the different stakeholders, as well as your employees, and really making sure that people are not being left behind, but that we're moving everybody forward and providing them with the necessary capabilities to really thrive over the long term. And I think in our organization, I really see that shift, from purely focusing on employment and access to employment, to really working towards lifelong employability,

So what skills are required to be able to thrive through all these different transitions that are coming at us?

That's great. I have a couple of teenage kids and they're really worried about their future.

What I keep saying to them is the world of work is gonna change so much by the time you actually reach the workforce, even though it is only five years away. I've been saying to them, be open and explore your curiosity and don't worry so much about picking the right path because other paths will open up to you." Is that good advice?

Again, looking at my own career path,

I never saw myself in something like sustainability because I didn't even know it existed at that time. I started out as a lawyer, saw myself maybe becoming a judge, something more traditional, right? But it's then something like sustainability opened up to me and now it's evolving year on year, right? I moved into sustainability close to 15 years ago, and that field has completely changed since then, right? From back then, it was much more generalist. And now you have a lot of new technologies and new tools and new knowledge that we didn't have that opens up again, many new pathways.

If you think about ethical AI, this is now something that is moving into the mainstream. If you think responsible tax practices, you know, it's not really something that we talked about 20 years ago. So, in the end, I think you can integrate the concept of sustainability into pretty much every job there is and that's what we need to do, right? It's how do we mainstream these concepts?

And it's how do we build the capacity of people to drive that change that they would like to see. I think again, this is a very privileged perspective and I know for many it's different where it's really about access to a job, means survival, because it's about putting food on your table and feeding your family. But it's, how can we as best as possible be proactive drivers of our work life as well given that it takes up such a big part of our lives?

That's such a good point.

And again, right, I think this is a very specific perspective and not everybody has that opportunity. So it's then on us to say, how do we broaden that and how do we broaden that access to this opportunity for everyone? How do we move the hundreds of millions of workers from the informal economy that don't have access to the same protections, safe work environments that many of us do? How do we move them into the into the formal economy? So I think we do have have a responsibility to think beyond our own small ecosystem and see how do we bring more people along on this journey and ensure that they're not being left behind, as we're grappling with these really interlinked transitions from AI, tech, green, there's probably many more that are coming at us that just exacerbate some of the challenge but also provide many more opportunities. I'm always fascinated by the ingenuity of people, right, and the inventive power, and the creative thinking and problem solving skills of people to come up with new solutions.

So, and that's what sets us apart from AI, which is great at computing data and synthesizing it, but it's still the skills of problem-solving, solutioning, design thinking that's what's now required. I think it's how do we instill that capacity within the next generations for them to drive that forward?

Great. This has been really exciting conversation and really optimistic. I feel really excited about the future of work.

Thank you, Karin.

I mean, it's worth it. We don't believe that change is possible, right? I mean, I go through up and downs, and sometimes when you look at the world and the headlines and the recently released global risk report by the World Economic Forum and looking how some risks are sort of being moved more to the background as we're now grappling with a lot of the geopolitical challenges and yeah, sometimes it's really hard not to lose faith in humanity, but I also don't really think there's an option.

Yeah, exactly. We have no choice.

We have to stay optimistic. Well, thanks so much for taking the time. Really enjoyed this conversation.

Thank you.

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