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TR2050 interviews Natalia Mikulich, JTI: “The pace and the number of new problems to solve just increases.”
Member Interview

Global Rewards Director at JTI Natalia Mikulich draws on her decades of experience when considering the changes and challenges in rewards, today and for the future.

“The pace and the number of new problems to solve just increases,” says Natalia Mikulich, Global Rewards Director at Japan Tobacco International (JTI) when asked about what changes she’s observed over 20 years with the company’s HR and reward team. “But that is what keeps working in this area so interesting.”

It’s a role that she sees as unique for the way in which it “sits at the crossroads of various functional areas within a business – it means you’re always in search of the best fit solutions.” She notes that she needs to be confident and astute when “dealing with psychological, financial and legal matters, while keeping in focus the interests of all your stakeholders. I have to be a skilled communicator and a marketer, as well as good with the numbers, plus we have to align with the agenda and objectives of the business.”

It is, in short, a juggling act, not least when you factor in the rate of change in the workplace – and the world – to which reward must keep adjusting accordingly. It’s a profession that this mathematician enjoys more than she could have foretold, having originally assumed she’d stay in academia, entranced by the “beauty and elegance” of mathematics. “And I need to enjoy my work and see its results,” she stresses. “That was always the career goal: I wanted a career that was interesting.”

Daily problem-solving

Reward certainly provides satisfaction to a result-seeker with an enjoyment of solving problems as the world evolves rapidly. While “human nature remains the same – Maslow’s hierarchy of needs remains true, really”, Natalia also recognises how the type of reward offerings that the workforce seeks is evolving constantly, in line with the changing nature of the workforce itself.

“The one-size-fits-all approach just won’t work, not least because of the multi-generational workforce we now have. The different generations have different expectations, and there is a greater demand for flexibility and autonomy. Furthermore, organisations are evolving with the speed that was never seen before.”

Building flexibility into systems that have been rigid for decades while maintaining simplicity is a big ask, especially at a global corporation where so many stakeholders have strong opinions. “We also need to make sure we have the tools to offer this flexibility and that these are financially viable for the business. Additionally, we need to be gathering continuous feedback to make sure the reward offerings are what is actually wanted so we can remove the parts that no longer suit.”

Alongside keeping employees happy, reward professionals must remain aware of the business needs. One major change for organisations is in the relationship between employer and employee, which many companies are still trying to find tools to better manage as roles become more disparate and diverse.

“People are less attached to their companies, whether that’s because they work from home or they’re a contractor employed for a single project or task,” she says. Younger generations are also expecting a career of multiple jobs with different employers and so don’t seek long-term commitments in the same way previous generations did. This forces companies to think of different ways to create a holistic company culture and a sense of belonging, as well as incentivise best performance. Once again, reward plays a role.

People power and technology

Much of the focus when discussing the future of reward is placed on the young generation. Experts try to predict what the young people growing up today will want and need in their working lives, alongside what social, geo-political and environmental changes may influence them.

Natalia easily remains aware of the next generation because she has a teenage son to go home to every night. “I think the job he will do hasn’t yet been invented,” she says when asked about his prospects. She’s conscious that jobs are disappearing and appearing so fast that the future workforce will be required to continually re-skill to ensure they remain employable, becoming more involved in the direction and shape of their careers.

“Individuals will take accountability for their own journey. They will become architects of their own lives,” she predicts. “The ones that approach this consciously and purposefully will be ahead. Everyone will need learning agility to keep and grow their value to society. But not everyone has realised this yet.

As with so many changes, technology is the major disruptor when it comes to roles and the nature of work, but Natalia focuses on the positives, not the loss. Technology was something that ignited her interest as a child, courtesy of parents who worked in the nascent IT and cyber scene in Kyiv.

“Both my parents were in that world and it had a big influence on how I shaped my interests,” she explains. “It encouraged me to look beyond the horizon and made me curious.” She studied Applied Mathematics before an MBA in Finance, as she had a natural affinity with numbers similar to her parents. She considered staying in academia and admits that she remains open to opportunities in IT if anything ever came along. “I just stay open minded. We’ll see!”

In some ways, her work in reward already sees her involved in much of the most innovative technology having an impact on the world today:

“I think that, right now, we’re at a breakthrough moment, really, with things like ChatGPT re-defining a lot of work and roles. I think technology will flourish but we’ll need to learn to prioritise certain tech solutions and re-craft roles for humans. Critical thinking and empathy might be the most important skills for future of work.”

Access to experts

It’s clear by the way Natalia speaks about reward that she sees time as relative. When thinking about the future of reward, she feels we should study and learn from the experiments being observed today. “Time might be relative when it comes to reward because some companies are only just starting approaches that others tried decades ago. We also need to consider the changes in society.”

She also feels that, currently, the pace of organisational changes and number of ‘experiments’ being tried is leaving rewards professionals without a full set – and the comfort – of benchmarking data that used to be relied on to justify their decisions or suggestions. It is a time of flux for reward and with many issues to be discussed, it is little surprise that the problem-solving Natalia was keen to join TR2050 to explore these with peers.

“The moment I heard about TR2050, I wanted to join this brilliant group of people,” she says. “These are the best minds in rewards, both industry professionals and academics, the people willing to push the frontier of reward. I thought it would help me find some solutions to problems I was already encountering, as well as work together on new scenarios. I hope we can build some new models that organisations can test and ultimately tailor to their needs.”

Importantly, she doesn’t see current reward practices as completely obsolete and anticipates that future rewards systems will involve “some familiarity, as human nature remains essentially the same. Every new generation is different to start with, but then they get older and have children and their expectations of reward settle into a familiar pattern. However, the rewards offerings on how to satisfy human needs will evolve.”

That being said, “it doesn’t mean we can squash the new generation into existing systems. We always need to approach these generations with a fresh eye and make a fresh start because they are bringing exciting new skills and will be more talented than we are, taking on roles we don’t even know about yet. I’m hopeful and am keen to help shape what’s ahead!”

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