A Conversation on The Future of Work at the 2019 Concordia Annual Summit

By Annabel Beales, Researcher, Business Fights Poverty

To mark the launch of a new Challenge supported by Walmart on the Future of Work, Enrique Ostalé, Regional CEO of UK, Latin America and Africa at Walmart International, and Zahid Torres-Rahman, Founder and CEO of Business Fights Poverty joined Brad Staples, CEO of APCO at Concordia’s 2019 Annual Summit, to speak about International Future of Work Trends.

To mark the launch of a new Challenge supported by Walmart on the Future of Work, Enrique Ostalé, Regional CEO of UK, Latin America and Africa at Walmart International, and Zahid Torres-Rahman, Founder and CEO of Business Fights Poverty joined Brad Staples, CEO of APCO at Concordia’s 2019 Annual Summit, to speak about International Future of Work Trends.

The new Challenge asks the question: How can business accelerate upward mobility of entry-level workers in the future of work? Concordia’s 3,000 guests from the public, private and civil society sectors made up the “largest and most inclusive nonpartisan forum occurring alongside the UN General Assembly” in New York, on the 22-24th September 2019.

Watch the video of the interview:


During the dialogue, the participants discussed the important role that business can play in preparing for the future of work. Businesses contribute to the development of economies through their role in the formalization of work, providing entry-level jobs and career progression which promotes stability and higher standards of living. However, the role of business in the future of work is far greater in scope than job creation alone. This is particularly true for larger organizations and those in sectors such as retail which offer employment right across the skills curve and which have significant reach into communities across the globe. Although rapid advancements in technology mean that jobs are changing, our participants shared an optimistic outlook that the transition to a digital economy is presenting more opportunities than threats. Companies can play a key role in identifying what capabilities will be needed in the future, and in actively supporting their employees and workers in that transition through training and clear career pathways. Individuals will need to develop an attitude of lifelong learning to prepare themselves for evolving demands at work.  Governments can provide additional study opportunities to build skills as well as devising new regulatory frameworks in response to the increased job flexibility arising from future of work trends. Of key importance is the people-centric approach, starting with the individual in mind and helping them not only to survive in the future of work, but to thrive.

Brad Staples (Moderator): We have an exciting and important topic to get to grips with, which is the international future of work trends which come into clear perspective when we look at a world defined by globalisation, by urbanisation, by discussions about the potential impact of artificial intelligence and technology overall. We have a conversation taking place around us about climate change and the opportunities the green economy might pose. We also have employees in our organisations who have very different expectations for the future. You’re starting a conversation through a Challenge on the Future of Work.

Enrique, I’d like to ask what brought you together; tell me about the collaboration between Walmart and BFP?

Enrique Ostalé: Thank you for the invitation to both of us to talk a little bit about this relationship. Walmart operates in 27 different countries in the world, of which only three are developed countries and the rest are all emerging economies.  Of course the challenges we face are very different, depending on which part of the world we are talking about. One of the biggest challenges in most of the emerging markets is that a big proportion of the economy is informal, and in part, development depends on increasing formalization. Of course, we are a business, but we at Walmart feel part of the process of formalization of work that those economies need. We want to participate more actively in the role that we play as a business: not only offering new formal  opportunities for people in those countries but also in terms of how we can help in the future of work more generally. We’re very pleased at the opportunity to collaborate in this ongoing conversation with Business Fights Poverty because our commitment here is to engage and to try to contribute to this important topic.

Brad Staples: And Zahid, what brings you to this partnership?

Zahid Torres-Rahman: So for those of you who don’t know us, Business Fights Poverty is a global community of organisations – companies like Walmart, nonprofits like Concordia – and about 23,000 individuals as well, all of whom are passionate about harnessing business for social impact. What gets us excited, what gets me excited, is a good question. For us a good question is one that sits at the interface of core business and social impact. We find a good question is where a great collaboration starts from, because it allows us to find the right people to have a focused co-creation process to move the needle on that question and that builds insights and relationships.

So when Enrique and the team came to us with the question, “how can business help accelerate the upward mobility of entry-level workers in the context of these trends around the future of work”, we jumped at the opportunity for two reasons really.  One is that for anyone interested in the social impact of business, job creation is absolutely central; that is the biggest impact any company can have, often, in the communities in which they operate. We’re focused on entry-level jobs, and what is particularly interesting about these, especially at the base of the pyramid, is that they are often a way that people can move from the informal to the formal sector, which means much more stable, higher levels of livelihoods. If accompanied by effective training and support, formal employment can be the start of a long career progression for those individuals. The other side of it, though, is that those entry-level jobs are probably the most impacted by some of these trends that we’re seeing, so as an issue it’s really important for anyone who is interested in the interface of business and poverty. 

Brad Staples: So in that context, why is retail so important to the future of work?

Enrique Ostalé: Well, first of all, scale – you know, retail has an important scale in terms of hiring people and offering job opportunities, particularly at the entry level. Just as an example, in Walmart we are 2.2 million employees – or “associates” as we call them – throughout the world. More than 700,000 of them are outside the United States, so we provide a lot of opportunities and other retailers provide a lot of opportunities as well. In terms of the business, we are customer-centric, very much people-centric. Looking to the future we don’t think that a lot of the jobs are going to disappear, but that jobs are going to change. There are going to be new opportunities that we are seeing already, so at Walmart we’re on the more optimistic,  positive side in thinking that the opportunities that lie in front of us are greater than the threats. But of course there will be change.

We think as a retailer given the number of people we impact – and we continue to grow in that sense – we have an important role to play, and also an important role to collaborate with others.

Brad Staples: What’s your perspective on the role of retail, Zahid?

Zahid Torres-Rahman: Building on what Enrique said, I think when you look at the retail sector, clearly there’s a lot of people whose livelihoods depend on the retail sector for jobs, but what’s interesting in particular about the retail sector is that those jobs are created right across the skills curve and right across geographies.  So, Enrique was telling me there’s over 200,000 people working for Walmart in Mexico, and in the majority of municipalities across Mexico there are Walmart stores, so the reach that retailers like Walmart can have is huge. Also, I think the reason to be looking at the retail sector is that it is probably one of the most impacted by these big trends, whether its automation or changing consumer habits and spending behaviours, online shopping, you name it! A whole range of things are really impacting the retail sector, so I think that intersection is very important to understand.

Brad Staples: So I guess there is one element of the future of work that affects all businesses in all sectors, and that is the transition to a digital economy. Every business one talks to these days is data driven, is digital in its aspirations for the future. Can we reflect on that and how it’s going to shape the future of work?

Enrique Ostalé: Yes that’s an important topic that we have been talking about. It’s hard to have final answers, of course there’s a lot of questions and maybe a few answers… but as I said a few minutes ago, we are on the optimistic side. Why do I say so? Because as some of the jobs are changing, there are other opportunities being created. Just to give you an example in our business today, in addition to the e-commerce and the online opportunity, we utilising crowdsourcing platforms to offer personal shoppers. Personal shoppers will shop for our customers and deliver their food or merchandise to their homes, most of the time in less than an hour. When you look at the number of people working in that area, it’s quite a lot. So in the end, we see in our business that we are creating and transforming more jobs than are being destroyed.

On the other hand, the regulation will face some challenges because this kind of digital opportunity will need a different thinking about flexibility.  As another example, today in many of our markets, an employee can work for us full time or part time, but also at the same time on their way home they can be working for Uber, and also on the weekends, if they decide, they can work on those crowdsource platforms doing work like the personal shopper job that I described, and that is becoming very common. So we see that the future of jobs is going to be more flexible.

The other area which is important in this transition, is training. Training has two dimensions in my view. The first is our responsibility as a company, how we can train people to help in this transition. This is not only thinking about the capabilities they need to do their actual job but also thinking about what new capabilities they need for the future. To give you an example in the United States we have 200 academies that were set up in the last 3 years to help train more than 800,000 employees, mostly through digitally enabled tools, trying to prepare those employees for the future. And we are leveraging what we are doing in the US, spreading it throughout the world. So that is a key aspect, the role of companies to provide that training, but that doesn’t stop there. In the end, all these changes need an attitude from the employees, an attitude of continuous learning. They will have to have the motivation and I hope that governments can articulate and provide incentives for those people to access other sorts of training: not only training that comes from inside companies but also if they want to train outside for their own sake they can do that too, and I think that is complementary.

Brad Staples: So this transition to a digital economy, is that going to help you in your work Zahid, in terms of helping business play a meaningful role in bringing large populations out of poverty? Or is it going to be a hindrance? Are we facing another hump ahead of us or is it going to accelerate the change?

Zahid Torres-Rahman: I think on your point about attitude Enrique, I think that also applies to the company’s attitude in how to approach the issue and how they respond to it, in partnership with NGOs and governments.

Two really striking facts that I read about during the course of this work: one is that McKinsey predicts that up to a third of all working hours in the global economy will be automated by 2030; and the other is that 65% of all primary school students when they get into work will be working in job types that don’t currently exist. So these are massive trends coming. But I think the attitude of companies in how they respond is key: what’s been interesting about Walmart’s approach is this idea that the Future of Work should be people-centred and tech-enabled, rather than tech-centred and people-enabled. I think it is a very important distinction because that leads you to conclusions and actions such as on-the-job training, lifelong learning, thinking what the future skills are, things that computers can never do – the soft skills like customer service, digital literacy, and a whole range of things that people need to be upskilled and retrained in. So that people-centred approach helps you think about the people and how you can help them through that transition. Technology can obviously help you deliver that training, but I think there are really important things that come out of having the right attitude as a company.

And there are other elements to it. Enrique mentioned the structure of work; how technology is changing that through the sharing economy and so on, and there are new opportunities that come with that to bring more people into the business.

Another piece of the puzzle – again this is something Walmart is looking at – is how you think about individuals and how you can help them progress through their career, whether or not that actually is within the company or beyond the company. But starting with the individual and helping them through that transition opens up the opportunity to actually help those people not just survive in the future of work, but to thrive. I think that’s what’s exciting.

Brad Staples: I think we find ourself in a moment where the world faces a good deal of fear and uncertainty, and a degree of unpredictability about what is ahead in the context of the future of work and I find it very reassuring that you’re having this conversation, that you’re engaging in the way that you are; and I’m sure that everybody in the room will look forward to seeing the results of your collaboration and to see where it takes us.

Zahid Torres-Rahman: Actually one thing as a call to action, if I might… This is a start of a conversation, it was launched yesterday, so over the next few months we will be asking all of you to share your insights, your examples, and your thoughts on how business in partnership with others can take action to make sure the future of work is inclusive. So we invite anyone who wants to, to get in touch and get involved.

Brad Staples: Thank you very much and we look forward to seeing what’s ahead.

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