UML’s First New Women’s Leadership Conversation Explores Future of Work

Elizabeth Altman speaks during the webinar
Asst. Prof. of Management Elizabeth Altman talks about the future of the workplace during the first Women's Leadership Conversation, a new virtual series hosted by UMass Lowell.

By Ed Brennen

As leader of workforce transformation at Big Four accounting firm Deloitte, Robin Jones thinks of the traditional workplace like a castle, where trusted employees conduct business inside walls fortified by security desks and badge scanners.

When Jones thinks about the future of work, she envisions a busy train station.

“There are more shared spaces, more coming and going, with people working on different teams and with people from different organizations,” said Jones, who sees technology enabling this new workflow. “People are more connected when in motion, with lots of casual collisions sparking innovation and leading to new ideas and opportunities.”

Jones recently joined Elizabeth Altman, assistant professor of management in the Manning School of Business, for a discussion on the future of the workforce — a virtual event that kicked off UML’s new series of Women’s Leadership Conversations.

More than 150 people from a variety of companies and organizations attended the event, which was created after June’s annual Women’s Leadership Conference at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Women leaders and women’s voices will only become more important in the days and years ahead across all industries.” -Chancellor Jacquie Moloney

“So much is uncertain right now, but one thing I am certain of is that women leaders and women’s voices will only become more important in the days and years ahead across all industries,” said Chancellor Jacquie Moloney.

UMass Lowell has ranked among the top 15 women-led businesses in Massachusetts for the past four years. And this summer, the university created a Council on Social Justice and Inclusion.

“We’re living proof that diversity at the top, and throughout the organization, is a formula for success,” Moloney said. “We are committed to fostering these conversations and to building up female voices and leaders across the commonwealth, especially in areas where we’re underrepresented.”

In March, Altman was invited to serve as guest editor for the MIT Sloan Management Review "Future of the Workforce" project, a joint research effort with Deloitte that includes Jones. The team has spent the past several months surveying thousands of business leaders around the world, and Altman has interviewed more than 20 C-suite executives at companies including Amazon, Walmart, IBM and Nike.

One of the trends they’re seeing, Altman said, is that companies’ workforce strategies are driving their business strategies, which flips the usual paradigm.

“There’s a much more dynamic conversation among business leaders around, ‘If this is what we can do with our workforce, this is what we can do as an organization,’” said Altman, who expects their report to come out in April.

Jones highlighted seven trends that are disrupting the workforce, including the rise of technology, artificial intelligence and automation, as well as a “tsunami of data” that can leave workers feeling overwhelmed.
Deloitte's Robin Jones speaks on Zoom during the webinar
Robin Jones, a principal in Deloitte's Human Capital practice, says the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated changes in the nature of work and the workforce.

There’s also the explosion of contingency work (such as Uber drivers), increased diversity and generational change (millennials make up 50% of today’s workforce), and the changing nature of careers. Jones noted that the average job tenure is four and a half years, and the half-life of skills (the time it takes skills to reduce to half of their initial value) is only two and a half to five years.

“COVID has accelerated some of these changes, making it quite real that the future of work is actually here and now,” said Jones, who pointed out that 75% of surveyed CEOs said they intend to shift at least 20% of their employees to a permanent remote role following the pandemic.

“The castle and the train station will need to coexist,” she said.

And while people will need new skills and certifications to keep up with the changing nature of work, Jones and Altman agreed that fundamental critical-thinking and problem-solving skills will always be vital.

“People need to be able to look at problems and gain perspective so they know what to do with all this data,” Altman said. “Once they have the statistics, they can think more holistically about what that means for an organization.”

Jones was asked what advice she would give to a young woman just starting her career, and to a midcareer woman.

“To young women, there are things your parents and professors taught you that really matter in the workplace: honor commitments, show up and try to be a good team member. It’s about attitude and aptitude,” she said.

“And to a midcareer woman looking to change careers, I would never want to hold anyone back, but be careful of making a radical career change. Do your research and make sure that things connect. What is it that you do really well, and how does that logically translate to new opportunities or a new field?”
Jennifer Keene-Crouse, assistant director of College-Based Advising in the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences, was among the attendees happy to see the conversation take place virtually despite the pandemic.

“It was reassuring to see the university’s commitment to this topic, as well as the numbers in attendance,” she said.