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TR2050 interviews Dr Anna Tavis: “Business is always about people.”
Member Interview

HR expert and clinical professor Dr Anna Tavis talks about how her new book Humans at Work can help reward leaders preparing to meet the challenges in the future of work.

Clinical professor Dr Anna Tavis is currently the Academic Director of the Human Capital Management Department at NYU School of Professional Studies, Senior Fellow with the Conference Board and the Academic in Residence with Executive Networks. She has extensive experience studying and writing about HR and the workplace experience.

Her most recent book is Humans at Work: The Art and Practice of Creating the Hybrid Workplaceco-authored with Stela Lupushor, a fellow expert who teaches in an adjunct faculty at NYU. The premise is a guide for the workplace leader to boost the business’ market value by focusing on making the workplace more ‘human’.

It also argues that these changes are critical to create workplaces ready for the future of work, and are driven by four factors: digitisation of work, distributed workplaces, organisational redesign and a changing workforce.

Dr Anna, and this new book, offers our TR2050 Members insightful suggestions, ideas and case studies to help enhance our discussions around what reward systems and models may best serve the profession in the perceived future of work.

We sat down with Dr Anna to find out more.

Why should organisations consider their people rather than focus on productivity levels? It’s a hard sell!

I do not see the question of productivity vs. people as an either/or question. Business is always about people and it is about decisions that ultimately affect people. High productivity at a burn out rate of work does not scale, nor is it sustainable. However, if a company (the startups are a good example) needs that fast pace of work, people working there need to voluntarily sign up for it and be willing to make personal sacrifices, accepting the costs.

In the book, I am arguing for updating our current definition of productivity. There are helpful, work-tech tools that are now being integrated at scale that make the formally invisible aspects of productivity tangible. Companies are beginning to invest in what used to be ‘nice to have’ perks, treating them today as necessary productivity-enhancing measures.

Of the companies you reviewed/profiled within the book, which ones stood out for you?

I was very impressed with two companies in particular: Patagonia and Airbnb. The two companies stayed true to their values in the hardest of economic times. Much of what they did seemed counterintuitive to the prevailing best practices of competing in the market. For example, Patagonia became famous for putting out a Black Friday advert encouraging people Do not Buy This Jacket,thus appealing to their conscientious consumers on the most commercialised day of the year to think of the environment and sustainability first. The CEO of Airbnb, just as the pandemic tanked their business, refused to take any salary, created the most generous severance packages for the laid off employees and compensated their hosts. All of those decisions were made at the time when everyone predicted the demise of Airbnb.

What role does reward play in helping achieve these positive changes in the workplace?

The role of reward in the workplace is ubiquitous. Rewards effect all aspects of work and signal everything about the company’s business, culture, values, equity, inclusion or the lack thereof.  From research we know that when we talk about pay equity, for example, people care less about the pay and a lot more about the inequity, either perceived or real.

Will reward become more important to the organisation and the employee as we move forwards in time, considering all the factors that are driving broader changes?

Rewards will become a lot more transparent – and transparency will be the primary catalyst for change. The information that used to be hidden inside the highly priced annual consultant surveys and closed-door decision making is now made available to all. There needs to be scenario planning on how any reward decisions will play out, with all stakeholders, internal and external. There needs to be a good amount of anticipation of and preparation for the conflicting responses to the rewards information when made public.

What three things should reward leaders be considering as they explore new models and systems to meet the needs of the future workforce and the organisation employing them?

None of these are new:

  1. Align total rewards not only with the company’s strategy, but also with the company’s culture. There is nothing more damaging than a perception of a disconnect between company’s public pronouncements on the commitment to employee experience and DEI, and the actions of the leadership. Loss of trust in the company and its leaders is hard to repair and is the most serious risk to business continuity.
  2. Adopt agile rewards tactics. Rewards need to be relevant and timely. Companies must continuously communicate to all stakeholders on their rewards approach (not just the ‘what’ but the ‘how’ of rewards), be on the lookout for feedback and be responsive to unexpected market shifts.
  3. Innovate and experiment. Rewards is perhaps, the most conservative function in an organisation. Taking the role of innovators is challenging but necessary. For example, rewards professionals must continually explore and expand the available rewards portfolio, learn from the outside of the rewards function and find opportunities to test new rewards products and services before rolling them out.


I noticed you studied comparative literature and arts-based programmes when first at college. What led you into the HR/workplace space?

I want to start with the quote attributed to Sydney Harris, an American journalist written in 1960s: “The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers.”

I see the future of our profession shaped by the professionals with the backgrounds in the arts (things like writing, philosophy, theatre and journalism) alongside a set necessary practical skills acquired through MBAs, certifications and other business-related disciplines.  Many skills that, up until now, have been elevated, lauded and compensated as the most valuable assets on the market are getting automated and replaced with AI. Machines have already begun to displace developers and accountants, lawyers and statisticians. Even though skills-based recruitment and workforce planning are still in vogue, I would argue that in a matter of a few years, critical thinking, ethics, and understanding the bigger world beyond the confines of operational business will be most important – and those are the skills you gain in the arts- and humanities-based programmes.

Why should our TR2050 Members read your book? How might it help them as they discuss likely future scenarios and build solutions to potential future problems using reward?

The book lays out a rationale and a roadmap for transitioning operational businesses towards the human-centered workplaces. The compensation professionals need to share a common philosophy of rewards in the 21st century organisations. They need to revisit and re-enforce a set of shared ethical principles. Breakthroughs in AI and other advanced technologies will require a new way of thinking for professionals of all trades, especially those in rewards.  Skills alone will not get organisations through the next iteration of technological disruption. The rewards profession needs to be prepared for what is coming next.

What topic or area of this subject are you focusing on next?

I am currently writing a book on digital coaching, examining how technology is reshaping the helping profession. I am also returning to the topic of performance management transformation, examining how new technology is changing what performance means, how it is being measured and what matters most for performance at the time of AI.

What do you do for pleasure away from your work (if there is time!)?

I have practiced Ashtanga yoga for over 20 years. It is the practice that gives me physical energy and clarity of mind. It helps me get through all kinds of days, both the happy and the challenging ones.

Get your own copy of Dr Anna Tavis’ new book Humans at Work: The Art and Practice of Creating the Hybrid Workplace.  

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