The future of work: an interview with Dave Ulrich

Tuesday 20 June 2023

Ed Mills
Travers Smith, London

Héctor González Graf
Marván, González Graf y González Larrazolo, Mexico City


Silvia Tozzoli
Legance, Milan

Employment lawyers are – regardless of whether they assist private individuals or large corporations and of where in the world they practice – experiencing one of the most tumultuous and fruitful eras, marked by the development of new ways of working and organising human activities and, ultimately, our lives.

We believe that in this evolving context, getting the point of view of Dave Ulrich, influential and inspiring author and speaker, on the present and future of human resources (HR) and organisation matters is a highly valuable opportunity.

Dave does not need an introduction: he is the Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and a partner at the RBL Group, a consulting firm focused on helping organisations and leaders deliver value. He has published over 200 articles and book chapters and over 30 books. He edited Human Resource Management 1990–1999, served on the editorial board of four other journals and on the board of directors for Herman Miller, has spoken to large audiences in 90 countries, performed workshops for over half of the Fortune 200, coached successful business leaders and is a distinguished fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources in the US.

We thank Dave for his availability and generosity in sharing his views on topics that have a significant impact on employment law across jurisdictions.

Newsletter Editors (NE): Information technology and artificial intelligence, as confirmed in most contributions to our committee e-bulletin, are considered as key factors behind many of the changes we are experiencing. Employment lawmakers – especially in Europe – have opted for introducing limits to the use of such tools. Do you think that these actions are driven by a sort of ‘fear’ of the unknown or do they represent a necessary and effective balance of interests? More in general, is legislation the best source for introducing those limits?

Dave Ulrich (DU): Technology is ever-evolving. Trying to stop or slow technological innovation is like trying to tell teenagers to not use social media – it will likely not happen! So, the agenda is to learn to use technology in a positive way. Limits will likely be determined less by legislation and more by information (tracking time online) and personal choice (eg, an individual disconnecting for a period). Technology is essentially about accessing digital information more quickly and completely. This information may be through openAI, social media, automation or other tools. Using information to make better decisions is a challenge and an opportunity.

NE: Information technology also played a major role in allowing organisations to work remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic, but now many employers have implemented ‘back to the office’ policies, thus acknowledging the value of human and physical contact. What do you think could be the optimal arrangement?

DU: Technology allowed people to work remotely and still share information and be connected. One of the underlying psychological challenges is increased loneliness that technological connection cannot fully replace. My sense is that some form of personalised hybrid work will emerge based on the nature of the job and personal style of the individual. Obviously, some work and workers are more inclined to work remotely than others. The criterion is the ability to do work that continues to increase value for customers: work is less about the place where one works and more about being able to create value for the customer. When workers can create value for customers from remote settings, they are more likely to do so.

NE: Investments in human capabilities, learning and developing know-how are becoming crucial in all organisations. Traditionally, employers have tried to protect their investments in those areas asking employees to sign post-employment non-compete covenants. Those clauses are however under scrutiny in a number of countries (the UK and the US, among others). Do you think that these trends towards liberalisation and mobility in the job market will be beneficial or will they instead discourage companies from investing in their human capital and in providing learning and development opportunities?

DU: Employees ultimately have mobility, either by physically moving to a new job or by psychologically not investing in the current job, even if they stay. I like to argue that a company wants/hopes that its employees are getting job offers because this signals that the employees are talented and desired. Then, the company should build an employee experience so that this top talent does not leave. We have found that this experience is often influenced by the following aspects:

  • be safe – physical and psychological safety at work;
  • believe – sharing personal and organisational values to ensure meaning is gained from work;
  • become – learning and growing from work; and
  • belong – creating an inclusive community with positive relationships.

When these elements exist, employees who have other offers are more likely to stay.

NE: Environmental, social and governance (ESG) is now a widely known acronym, focusing on a wider set of interests that companies should pursue in their business activity. There are trends towards incorporating ESG targets into executive compensation schemes, but these practices also raise concerns (eg, ESG goals not being sufficiently challenging or specific, or concerns about the existence of strong links between ESG goals and the creation of value for investors or other stakeholders). What is your view on this trend?

DU: Currently, ESG includes a large host of initiatives intended to build an organisation’s reputation for having a sustainable social citizenship agenda, ranging from issues related to the planet (environment), people (social), philanthropy (social) or political (governance) processes. This large array of initiatives has been defined through efforts like the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals and ISO 26000 standards. Most of these ESG agendas include people-related issues as part of their blueprints. Many of these people-related issues are broad societal issues (eg, no poverty, zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, quality education, gender equality, human rights), more than specific people and organisation initiatives.

Some organisations are melding their human capability work into this broad ESG agenda. On the one hand, this makes sense because all of these intangible issues are aspirational and socially desirable. Managing human capability is clearly part of an overall social citizenship agenda. A company’s overall reputation is tied to a host of people, planet, philanthropy and political issues. Companies are preparing ESG reports that communicate commitment to these broader environmental trends.

On the other hand, by subsuming human capability issues inside an ESG report, specific human capability initiatives may be overlooked, discounted or neglected. When attention on human capability focuses on broad social themes (eg, social justice, fair pay, poverty), the specific initiatives that deliver stakeholder value may be underappreciated and undervalued. To have sustainable impact, broad aspirations require specific actions, or they become empty promises. When embedded into broad ESG logic, the specific human capability initiatives that deliver community reputation (or social citizenship) may not be prioritised. In addition, human capability initiatives also have a ‘home’ in most organisations with HR professionals being charged with prompting talent, leadership and organisation decisions in business conversations.