Earlier this year, SAP named Christian Schmeichel as its Future of Work Officer, a role SAP said sets it apart as “one of just a few other companies to have someone managing this topic holistically at the C-suite level.”

Schmeichel, who holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration, joined SAP in 2005 and has held several positions, including head of HR strategy, COO for HR, and HR business partner lead for four of SAP’s Board Areas.

Schmeichel pledged in July 2022 to share his team’s work with SAP customers. Making good on his pledge, Schmeichel spoke with ASUG to discuss his role and responsibilities, how SAP Future of Work initiatives will use and expand SAP technologies, and the opportunity to provide ideas and inspiration to ASUG members.

This is an edited version of the full interview.

Question: Why did SAP appoint a future of work officer? What is the role, the responsibility set, and what do your team and resources look like?

Answer: The world around us is changing at a breakneck speed, driven by macro trends: the world is getting more volatile, uncertain, and complex with climate change, new business models, technological innovation, and disruption. At the same time, the war for talent is getting more intense day by day, week by week, and quarter by quarter. So, if you want to manage all that's going on, you need to manage it holistically, with a holistic future of work agenda.

First, the future of work for us is the future of the workforce. We need to have a clear target picture of SAP's workforce in five or 10 years from now. Second, once we know how many gig workers, permanent employees, or robotics we will have as part of the workforce, we can also derive the respective people practices–and making sure we have that innovation in place to attract and retain this new workforce.

Based on that, we can define requirements for the future of the HR function itself because if you have that new workforce plan and new people practices, you know how to shape the HR function accordingly.

To manage all of that, somebody on C-level needs to orchestrate and bring these different dimensions together and see it end-to-end.

I have the privilege to lead this future of work topic for SAP, end-to-end, together with my team. This is probably the best thing we can do in times of unprecedented change. We need to ensure our organization stays resilient, that we get future ready, and that we continue to be a very attractive employer of choice. People are, for us, one of the most important resources that we have.

Q: What is the specific makeup of your team?

A: We are set up in an agile way. We have eight topic clusters, from our future of work strategy and strategic workforce planning to managing flexible working models and the like.

We have a program office that manages our implementation of flex work across the globe across 75 countries. And we have a particular team focused on new work practices—on agile ways of working.

The whole health, safety, and wellbeing management are also in scope. This includes SAP’s mindfulness practice and the future of work insights team to provide the right data. I’d say we are very much data-driven, making sure that we know what we do and not just relying on anecdotal feedback. And last but by no means least, we are leveraging our own SAP technology as part of the future work to ensure that we can provide the right, attractive employee experiences for our 110,000 employees across the globe.

Q: What differences do you see in the global workforce and the North American workforce?

A: When you look at the current workforce patterns across the globe, there are a lot of similarities. For example, digital transformation is a heavy driver, creating a heavy lift in terms of upskilling and a constant need to learn. Just to put numbers into the game, we are seeing that more than 1 billion jobs will likely be transformed by technology in the next decade. AI, automation, and machine learning require a lot of digital education on the one hand for companies, but also for countries or societies as a whole.

We also see there needs to be support for people, for individuals ready for that change. There is a shortage of skills everywhere.

We see a lot of interesting endeavors underway to address this, whether you try to hire from abroad, or you try to make sure that you have new people entering the workforce with flexible working models and the like. We need to consider, though, with the change in demographics across the globe, that expectations from employees are changing—in particular, new generations, be it Gen Y, be it Gen Z, you name it.

We are talking about digital natives who grew up shopping via Amazon and not going to a department store. When they think about communicating, they think iPhone or Messenger. They’re not thinking about meeting face-to-face all the time. And they have completely different expectations toward their employer.

They’re expecting, from a technology set up, what they have at home. And this is something employers need to be ready to cater to these new expectations, which are sometimes quite demanding. Because if employees don't get what they want, they'll often simply leave.

When it comes to the U.S., flexible working models have now been introduced in a lot of industries, particularly in IT. Some companies in the U.S. were also quite strict regarding their return-to-office policies, while SAP was a bit more flexible. With our Pledge to Flex, we're committing to our 110,000 people across the globe that they can align with their managers when, where, and how it works best because we strongly believe that one size doesn't fit all.

The second thing in the US is that the private lifestyle seems to be somewhat different given the nature of the country, often with long commuting distances.

Q: You've mentioned some of the changes in the last two to three years in terms of work and workforce. Are there any others that you wanted to mention?

A: The future of work is not a completely new topic, but we see that the pandemic was a huge accelerator. Digital transformation was already happening even before the pandemic. A lot of working models were already in question before the pandemic. But all of a sudden, it seemed possible to change. This momentum is now behind a lot of companies’, and many industries’, huge openness for digital transformation.

We also see the HR function has changed. As part of this crisis management, HR often had a seat at the table for the pandemic management and now has to make sure people are coming back to the office or back to a hybrid work setting in a very productive way.

There’s a lot of enablement and training required. This means managing employees in the right way and making sure leaders are prepared for a new way of working. Making sure that health, mental, and wellbeing systems often associated with HR are brought to the next level.

In the past, the focus was often on physical health. Now there is a stronger focus on mental health and wellbeing. With all the stress going on, this should not be underestimated. Things like mindfulness training must be seen as a highly productive element to enable employees to work in a sustainable fashion over time with high performance.

Q: What technologies will change and affect the future of work? And what specific SAP tools might be changing the future of work at your organization?

A: I think things like virtual and augmented reality will help big time in terms of hybrid working and allow you to work in an asynchronous way, so you can collaborate without being present. That's a big game changer. For example, think of new ways of onboarding where you can envision your new office environment and meet your new team members ahead of time in a virtual setting.

A second huge dimension is automation, machine learning, AI, and robotics—and the corresponding productivity focus. Technology will help us become much more productive and drive synergies so that we can reinvest elsewhere in value-add activities. If the war for talent is getting more intense, you need to have money for employer branding, new recruiting processes, and so on.

You also should not forget the hardware side of the house, in terms of whether there are VR glasses or new tools that make virtual conferences much more tangible. Or, for example, having the right feeling for your counterpart in a virtual conversation with a better perception of facial expressions or gestures. And we can already imagine that when the metaverse becomes more specific and concrete, there's certainly a lot of opportunity to leverage this as well.

And we are now in the sweet spot as SAP. We can leverage our own technology. SAP is an industry leader in the area of human experience management, with our HXM solutions in use by more than 30,000 customers and more than 220 million users across the globe. This gives us the opportunity to drive a lot of change beyond our own company.

The HR function at SAP sees itself as kind of a Formula One test driver for HXM. Of course, we are a showcase for SAP, but we also test the beta versions to provide real-world feedback. And this helps us big time to help our customers get the best solutions possible.

If you talk about the future of work these days, there's a heavy focus on having the right talent management processes in place. Starting from recruiting over to onboarding, but also learning and performance management. Putting the individual at the center of what we do and putting people and their requirements and personal needs in focus is a great starting point. Continuously listening to our people is something that we do with our HXM tools, but also with the Qualtrics solutions. We always know how our people feel, what they need, and how we can take care of them.

Q: What is your perspective on how ASUG members—our membership and your customers—can learn and benefit from the work that you're doing?

A: We closely partner with our HXM team so that our learnings are always available through our products and our respective contacts to our customers.

SAP's own HR function also joins our sales teams for our pre-sales contacts in customer conversations to share our journey, what we have learned when we were implementing SuccessFactors, our key takeaways, and maybe what to recommend when implementing this.

We also put together our learnings and our thought leadership into publications. There is a new one just coming out: Future of Work - powered by SAP Booklet

Q: Anything else you would you like the ASUG community to know about?

A: This holistic future of work agenda is imperative. The right workforce plan, the right people practices, and a flexible work element is the key to success these days.

Everyone is looking, of course, for good compensation, and a lot of people are looking for great career opportunities. But frankly, today, these are table stakes. What people are now looking for is additional flexibility in their working models—that you can really have a great job, and at the same time, you can take care of your private commitments. All of this needs to fit together.

And needless to say, at SAP, we would like to create an attractive workplace that is achieving zero inequality. To do this, we focus on DEI efforts and aim to provide equal opportunity for all. And if you want to drive a culture of innovation and trust and, like SAP, be an attractive employer. Leveraging our solutions will help big time, be it HXM, Fieldglass or Qualtrics

And I want to emphasize again that the future HR function will be different than today. The HR function will need to evolve. This includes the digital foundation of an HR function as well as new skills being required. This doesn't mean an HR person will need to code software, but they should know how to use the systems to support the business as best as possible.

Next to being more digital, HR will need to become much more data driven so that the business can come up with the right talent and organizational decisions.

So, I would say: exciting times to be in HR!

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