Ahva Sadeghi On How We Need To Adjust To The Future Of Work

… Emphasis on equity, inclusion, and belonging, not just diversity metrics. An increase in the percentage of underrepresented communities in your workforce and on your leadership teams is only the starting point for DEI. Equity, inclusion, and belonging are essential to actually building and maintaining a diverse workplace. Keep an eye on how employers are carrying out equitable processes in hiring, promotions, raises, etc. Creating safe spaces for open dialogue and feedback from underrepresented employees (and acting upon what is discussed) will help organizations reframe the workplace as intentional, inclusive, and supportive.

When it comes to designing the future of work, one size fits none. Discovering success isn’t about a hybrid model or offering remote work options. Individuals and organizations are looking for more freedom. The freedom to choose the work model that makes the most sense. The freedom to choose their own values. And the freedom to pursue what matters most. We reached out to successful leaders and thought leaders across all industries to glean their insights and predictions about how to create a future that works.

As a part of our interview series called “How Employers and Employees are Reworking Work Together,” we had the pleasure to interview Ahva Sadeghi.

Ahva Sadeghi is a passionate social entrepreneur and co-founder of Symba, a venture-backed and all-female founded tech startup on the future of work. Ahva is an economist and researcher focused on remote work and workforce development. Prior to launching Symba, Ahva worked at the US Department of State in the Human Rights Bureau and completed a civil rights fellowship with Congressman John Lewis in Atlanta. She was recently named Forbes 30 Under 30 and a Global Entrepreneur Scholar by the US Department of State.

Ahva completed her graduate studies at the London School of Economics and received her BA from the University of Arizona Honors College. In her spare time, Ahva enjoys playing the cello.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today.

Thank you for having me! It’s wonderful to be able to share my journey building Symba and our impact on workforce development.

First, I’d say that my childhood experiences and growing up as an Iranian American had a huge influence on me. By maturing within two cultures, I learned to speak multiple languages and value different perspectives. As the daughter of immigrants, my parents instilled a strong work ethic and passion for education. At the age of four, I began playing the cello and it taught me self-discipline that translates into so many areas in my life.

Next, I would say that my professional experiences in remote work had a powerful impact on where I am in my career. In 2013, I was one of the very first remote interns with the US Department of State and it inspired the concept for my future company. At the time, I was a student at the University of Arizona Honors College in Tucson, studying economics and political science, and many of my dream opportunities were unpaid internships based in New York or Washington D.C. This virtual internship experience opened my eyes to the power of remote work to create access to opportunities without the financial or geographic barriers of in-person work. A few years later in 2017, during my fellowship with the late Congressman John Lewis, I learned that there were over twelve million students who did not have access to participate in an internship program even though they sought the opportunity. I began working on Symba to create the technology to empower employers to scale remote internship opportunities and ultimately increase the accessibility of internships which are one of the most important factors to landing a job after college.

Let’s zoom out. What do you predict will be the same about work, the workforce and the workplace 10–15 years from now? What do you predict will be different?

It’s amazing to see how much work has shifted over the past two years. In 10–15 years from now, work will likely continue to define our economic opportunities and be an essential component in our lives. But it will continue to change tremendously and become more automated, more efficient, and more global than ever before. Research by the Mckinsey Global Institute identifies five factors influencing the pace and extent of automation of work activities, those being: technical feasibility, the cost of developing and deploying solutions, labor market dynamics, economic benefits, and social and regulatory acceptance. That being said, we’ll likely see countries with more advanced economies blaze trails in automating processes. Those process changes may be conducive to a future where hybrid work is the standard. ​​Cisco’s inaugural Global Hybrid Work Index indicates that from July to September 2021 alone, the enterprise saw a 200% jump in the use of AI for key aspects of remote meeting engagement. Artificial Intelligence supported Cisco’s virtual work in areas like noise reduction, automatic translation and transcription, polling, gesture recognition, and other tools needed to maintain conversational workflows both in-person and in virtual settings. However, we will have to work to keep the “human” element alive in this dynamic work environment and figure out better operational models in the hybrid workforce to be more inclusive while increasing efficiencies.

What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?

We’ve experienced some significant environmental, social, and political shifts over the past few years, and if there is one lesson that has been reinforced, it is that the future is unpredictable. As a business leader, you must be comfortable with change and prepared to adapt; it’s not about change management, it’s about change resilience. With that in mind, make sure you have the technology and operational infrastructure to be flexible and scale. That might include decentralizing and going fully remote if it makes sense with your industry. Learn how to be agile with your tech stack now; being a late adopter can put you behind your competitors and make it difficult to transition technologies later. Start small with software and integrations that can streamline processes — for example, with Zapier. Or dive all in like major automakers and take advantage of Virtual Reality. GM, for one, accelerated the production of their Hummer EV vehicle and developed a prototype in about 18 months with the help of virtual technologies. The Detroit automakers showed up as avatars in a virtual office, engineering and designing the vehicle and reviewing with executives entirely remotely.

Invest in your people, and that includes from the beginning of your recruitment pipeline all the way to senior leadership. To start, grow your own talent and perfect your training model through internship and apprenticeship programs. Then take it a step further and expand those training models to establish reskilling and upskilling programs for your employees. These programs should be associated with career goals, like clear paths for promotion within your organization, or support employees in transitioning to a new role in another department. In theory, by providing in-house training pathways, your employees will feel more motivated to stay knowing there are opportunities for growth, both vertically and horizontally.

What do you predict will be the biggest gaps between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect as we move forward? And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?

One of the greatest gaps is the level of flexibility and support that employers might be willing to offer employees. Before the pandemic, many employers resisted the notion of remote work and providing a range of benefits that have since become much more commonplace. As work is evolving, employees are asking more of employers. This includes but is not limited to salary, time-off, paternity or maternity leave, and remote work options. We’ve seen tech companies begin to offer unlimited PTO and perpetual remote-work, however, it is key that leadership and the organization culture also embrace these policies. One of the main reasons why employees left their jobs last year was in search of more caring company cultures, along with more flexibility in their jobs, and the top reason was due to burnout.

I’d recommend that employers have a pulse on their industry’s work from home benefits and learn how to cultivate workplace environments that empower their employees. This means asking your employees about what they want from their employer and how you can better support them. The computer technology giant, Dell, began building a flexible work culture in 2009 and had great success. Dell noticed their employees preferred a flexible schedule and working at non-traditional times. They created a flexible work plan that baked in important elements of Dell’s company culture, like trust, accountability, and results; 60% of employers opted in to work remotely part or full-time, at the hours of their choice. Ultimately, the Net Promoter Score of employees that worked flexibly was 20% higher than those who did not. By reducing the number of people working in house, Dell has saved over 12 million dollars since 2014. By improving communication lines, employers can reconcile gaps and address the needs of their employees.

Lastly, employers can also gather feedback from employees who decide to leave their organization to inform areas of improvement. As Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, astutely put it, “Train people well enough so they can leave and treat them well enough so they don’t want to.” The insights you gather can help guide iterations of your retention strategy so you can better fulfill your current and future employees’ needs.

We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?

I participated in this Work from Home “experiment” well before the pandemic and was always a proponent of the benefits of remote work. However in 2017, when I co-founded Symba, working from home was not the popular option. Nor was it as widely offered, especially in the internship space. Now that many of us have had the chance to work remotely for the past 2 years and have been able to evaluate the pros & cons, it will be tough to return to the traditional 9-to-5 in-office, 5-day workweek. Companies can now reinvent their workspace and open up their talent pool of candidates beyond their geographies. This experiment has pushed companies out of their comfort zone and encouraged adaptation during a difficult period in our history.

I envision we will see businesses in industries like fintech, SaaS, e-commerce, and digital marketing continue on the virtual train and embrace aspects of it that support the overall business. To be quite candid, it financially and operationally makes sense. And other industries may shift to a hybrid model, only requiring in-person collaboration when truly necessary. I think over the next 10 years businesses will decentralize and we will see flexible working schedules and loose location requirements that accommodate workers’ lives.

Some of the new transformations that have come from this experiment include a potential shift in the traditional workweek. Research suggests that when 4-day workweeks are implemented effectively, reducing work hours can decrease employee stress and improve well-being without impacting productivity. In fact, U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) has proposed a bill that falls in favor of a 4-day workweek and would reduce all standard workweeks to 32 hours, requiring overtime pay for anyone working beyond that. Although it’s unclear whether 4-day work weeks will ever be the norm, it’s exciting to see new changes and advancements proposed to the ways that we work.

We’ve all read the headlines about how the pandemic reshaped the workforce. What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support a future of work that works for everyone?

More equitable support is necessary for ethnic minorities, socioeconomically disadvantaged people, mothers and working parents, neurodiverse talent, veterans, immunocompromised workers, and more. Most people are dealing with something deeper than what we see in the workplace — it’s important that we prioritize a high quality of life over a means of living and that employers perpetuate their workers’ wellbeing.

Here are some of the societal changes I foresee as necessary to support an inclusive future of work:

Increase alternative education-to-workforce pathways. 
Firstly, the way people attain job training & enter the workforce needs to change. I’ve had the fortune of attending higher education, but the costs of tuition are simply unattainable for many folks. Looking to the future, society needs alternative education to workforce pathways that meet talent where they are financially, physically, mentally, and socially. Our main objective at Symba is to open up the workforce, and we believe that employers have a huge hand in creating a future of work that works for everyone. Part of that is recruiting and meeting the needs of diverse employees. Additionally, employers need to invest in upskilling & reskilling employees, particularly among industries shifting towards automation.

All interns should be paid.
Despite the fact that 67% of employers have allocated more funds/resources since June 2020 to recruit historically underrecruited candidates, white students continue to be disproportionately overrepresented as paid interns, making up 74% of paid interns. This is significant because paid internships lead to full-time offers about 66% of the time compared to only 44% of unpaid internships. There is a disconnect that’s exacerbating gaps in labor market outcomes between minority populations and White Americans. Along the same vein, employers should practice wage transparency across all levels of leadership to increase communication and reduce pay disparities.

DEI&B Transparency and Accountability Efforts
To truly be accountable and progress, DEI&B initiatives must be measured and iterative. The workforce in the United States has been historically advantageous for white people. While we have seen a surge in diversity, equity, inclusion & belonging initiatives, especially following the murder of George Floyd, methods must continuously be improved upon. By reporting on impact openly, and hosting community events and online discussions that invite feedback, employers can strengthen dialogue with society and improve DEI&B strategies. If you’re ready to take your impact reporting a step further and welcome conversations with the community, check out this resource on leading community discourse.

What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

It gives me hope to see government agencies and private companies funding workforce development initiatives. These initiatives enable employers to build more strategic hiring programs that empower people for success at all points in their career journey. These investments are opening powerful new alternative avenues for training and job attainment. I’m also really excited about the innovation that will come from breaking free from traditional in-office operations. By listening and acting upon employees’ needs and desires, employers are expanding the ways workers can do their jobs, which has the potential to improve workplace cultures and shift us towards a more human-centric workforce. Along with these innovative ways of working comes a more globally connected workforce. Greater international collaboration may positively influence geopolitics in the future. I am optimistic that the future of work will embrace creativity and innovation to improve lives and help us make better decisions.

Our collective mental health and wellbeing are now considered collateral as we consider the future of work. What innovative strategies do you see employers offering to help improve and optimize their employee’s mental health and wellbeing?

If it wasn’t already, investing in mental health resources and prioritizing wellness and the psychological safety of your employees is now a requirement. The goal of a wellness program is to make work/life balance possible; for altruistic reasons and because employees who are burned out are more likely to leave. Some ideas include hosting wellness activities, offering mental health and flex holidays, implementing job sharing, and creating employee affinity groups. We also recommend regularly surveying your employees to understand their burnout levels, what they value, and policies and programs they’d like to see implemented. Don’t forget to train your managers on work/life balance best practices so they can lead by example.

One of our customers, a pet product e-commerce company, stays true to their brand and offers a paw-ternity policy as well as dog-friendly offices. Another customer of Symba, Robinhood, established 10 unique ERG groups (with on-brand names) to strengthen inclusivity in their workplace. Over 60% of their employees participate in these identity and experience-based groups.

Among our own employees at Symba, we prioritize mental health, wellness, and professional development. We’ve implemented the employee wellness platform, 15Five, to get a better pulse on how our employees are feeling and progressing. We offer unlimited PTO, mental health days, and host a weekly Wednesday Wellness session, where we do yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, and more. As a fully remote company, we find it important to host regular social events to get to know one another, drive team engagement, and build company culture. We have a monthly social that any team member can lead. We are also implementing a learning and development program to support our employees’ professional development.

It seems like there’s a new headline every day. ‘The Great Resignation’. ‘The Great Reconfiguration’. And now the ‘Great Reevaluation’. What are the most important messages leaders need to hear from these headlines? How do company cultures need to evolve?

Leaders need to hear that bonuses are not enough to keep their employees around. Where we decide to work and invest our careers involves much more than a salary. Employees are rethinking their careers, their passions, and life priorities and want to align themselves to companies they believe in. You need to invest in your talent at all levels, and provide opportunities for growth in their existing roles; if employees want to switch to a different role within your organization, provide a path for that too. Conduct surveys to take into account the variety of your employees’ perspectives and preferences and act through a DEI lens. Use the results from those surveys to make active changes and ensure that all leaders within the organizations are invested in the company’s culture. While every company culture is unique, they all must evolve to be inclusive, transparent, and growth-oriented.

Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”

  1. Continued digitalization of the workforce. The trend toward automation is not new, but it’s picking up speed and companies are adopting new technologies to amplify efficiencies. Throughout this year and by the end of next, according to research firm IDC, the majority of Global 2000 companies will use AI and ML to support the entire employee experience. While this will drive innovation and productivity (especially for remote workers), employers will need to properly train employees to make the best use of these tech tools. Digitalization of the workforce also requires that HR professionals be upskilled. As technology reconfigures what skills are desired and retired, organizations will need to forecast for future recruiting needs and invest in talent development programs based on these skill changes.
  2. A revamped recruiting process designed for a flexible workforce that also empowers nontraditional candidates who have not pursued college degrees. We’ve recently heard employers talk about diversifying their university recruitment model and recruiting from nontraditional education programs like bootcamps and vocational training programs. In the US, the overall dropout rate for undergraduate college students is 40%; colleges and universities are not for everyone. 38% of college dropouts, the largest majority, left due to financial pressure. When employers only recruit their early or emerging talent from traditional degree backgrounds, they miss out on a huge pool of potential talent and perpetuate a system of hiring talent who are there with the help of privilege. We’ll see progressively more employers recruiting from alternative training programs like YUPRO, working with talent placement services like PeduL, and leveraging matchmaking technology like RippleMatch.
  3. Emphasis on equity, inclusion, and belonging, not just diversity metrics. An increase in the percentage of underrepresented communities in your workforce and on your leadership teams is only the starting point for DEI. Equity, inclusion, and belonging are essential to actually building and maintaining a diverse workplace. Keep an eye on how employers are carrying out equitable processes in hiring, promotions, raises, etc. Creating safe spaces for open dialogue and feedback from underrepresented employees (and acting upon what is discussed) will help organizations reframe the workplace as intentional, inclusive, and supportive. This shift in DEI focus is important as more of Gen Z enters the workforce; in fact, a Monster survey showed that 83% of Gen Z respondents said that DEI was an important factor in choosing an employer.
  4. Internship and apprenticeship programs leveraged for employee retention. 
    Employers are investing in apprenticeships and internships to benefit their company’s bottom-line. Among apprenticeships, in particular, federal research demonstrates that 92% of apprentices who complete their program retain employment, with an average annual salary of 72,000 dollars. The potential for apprenticeships to boost employee retention has led to an influx of government funding for apprenticeship expansion. Paid internships are not far behind apprentice retention rates; for the class of 2020, the intern to full-time employee conversion rate was 66.4%. The same NACE 2021 Internship & Co-op Survey reports that hires who have interned with an employer have higher retention rates on average than hires who interned with other organizations and hires with no internship experience at all. This is true over one- and five-year periods. For this reason, at Symba we see internship and apprenticeship programs as more than just training programs for emerging talent but also as retention strategies.
  5. Upskilling & reskilling programs increasing internal employee mobility. Due to the Great Resignation, difficulties in filling skilled roles, and increased competition for emerging talent, employers will need to invest in their training programs. Not only are we seeing increased funding in workforce development programs by government entities, but corporations are also making massive investments in their in-house programs. When AT&T discovered that half its employees didn’t have the necessary STEM skills it needed for the future, the company invested a billion dollars in reskilling its existing workforce with online training programs and career portals. With this additional focus on reskilling and upskilling, the workforce will likely see increased internal mobility within their existing employers. According to LinkedIn data, in April 2020 the internal mobility rate was up by 20% from the year prior. This sparked discussions of the bevy of benefits that come with internal recruiting, like cost savings and retaining employees nearly twice as long. Internal hiring promotes cross-functional collaboration while retaining talent and institutional knowledge, a combination of agility and stability that is top of mind for many employers preparing for the future of work.

I keep quotes on my desk and on scraps of paper to stay inspired. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective?

“Get in good trouble” — Congressman John Lewis. This mantra is particularly special to me having completed a fellowship with late congressman John Lewis himself. His words capture the moral obligation to speak up and drive meaningful change. I will not allow myself to get complacent or comfortable with the status quo and work to continually push for progress in my personal and professional life. I am proud to be a John Lewis Fellow and continue my quest for “good trouble” by building tech for good.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she, or they might just see this if we tag them.

I’d love to grab lunch with Melanie Perkins, CEO & Co-founder of Canva. I have immense respect for her and would love to hear her learnings from her first start-up founding experience in the EdTech space, Fusion Books, and learn from her experience building the successful and disruptive technology company, Canva. Canva has empowered non-designers to craft beautiful graphics, and helps us build marketing materials and visual graphics for Symba, too!

Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?

Connect with me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ahvasadeghi/
I’d love to chat with you about the future of work. Social impact is accelerated in partnership — let’s open up the workforce together.

You can also learn more about Symba at symba.io and follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.