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Jeremy Broome & Michelle Gervais

January 2021


4 - 5 Minutes

The great flex-periment: Insights from Visa CEMEA into the future of work

COVID-19 has accelerated change in the world of work. As organisations around the world grapple with their new normal, Visa CEMEA’s Jeremy Broome, Head of Human Resources, and Michelle Gervais, Vice President Data Science, discuss how they have coped with the shift, what changes are here to stay, and how payments can help navigate the future world of work.

For many businesses, their response to the pandemic has represented the most dramatic change to how they operate in their history. A recent McKinsey study found that responses to the pandemic have speeded the adoption of digital technologies by several years – and many of these changes could be here for the long haul.1

Jeremy Broome, Head of Human Resources for Central Europe, Middle East and Africa (CEMEA), remembers it as a three-stage process that began, as for many of us, last March. “That initial stage was just getting everybody straight out of the office and into home working. For us, coping with it was about being really responsive,” he says. The next step was making sure that everyone, clients and employees, knew how Visa was now operating, so that the business could, as a third stage, shift focus to its wider ecosystem. “By the end of March, we were already talking about, how is this affecting our clients’ businesses – and how can we help them deal with the situation and accelerate out of it?”

Throughout, the biggest challenge was meeting the demand for information. "When we're in the physical office, people talk to each other all the time, there’s information by osmosis,” he says. “We realised that we had to plug in communication: from our CEO, Al Kelly, going from a quarterly town hall to a weekly bulletin video, to Andrew Torre, our regional president, having a town hall every two weeks.” That process also involved accepting that answers were not always immediately available. “Everyone wants certainty. So, it was getting people used to that and making sure that they didn’t feel that they’d be penalised if they gave an answer that two weeks later had changed.”

New tools and policy changes

On a practical level, as many of us have found throughout this crisis, making sure that people had the equipment to work remotely was the more straightforward element. In April, Microsoft Teams surged in popularity, clocking more than 4.1 billion meeting minutes across its education and business users in just one day, up from a daily average of 900m in early March2. To that end, Visa University, the in-house learning organisation, quickly began running training sessions using video conferencing: “We did a lot of work around flexibility, home working, resiliency, working virtually.” The team also adapted benefits to support employees, as many faced increasing family responsibilities: from establishing wellbeing hours, where no meetings were to be scheduled, to allowing online work from overseas, responding to the needs of people who had to travel to care for older parents, for instance.

Since Visa CEMEA covers almost 90 countries, from Saudi Arabia to South Africa, consistency of approach was key; after the early lockdown period, countries’ and other companies' responses to the pandemic varied widely. “We had to come up with internal Visa principles quite quickly and say, this is how we're going to approach it,” says Jeremy. “If our number one concern was the safety and welfare of our employees, starting from that it was much easier to rationalise to people why there might be different applications in different offices.”

Office culture without an office

A big question business leaders are wrestling with in the wake of all this change is what is lost when people do not gather in a workplace, of course. “A lot of that comes around culture, belonging and trust,” says Jeremy. “Since the end of March, we've onboarded 100 people in CEMEA – more than 10% of our workforce has never been into a Visa office. And so how do you embed people in the culture when they don't have all those natural day-to-day interactions?”

As a technology leader, Visa is constantly exploring new innovative ways to reimagine work and one solution might lie in using AI (artificial intelligence) to help ensure people are getting all the information they need. “There's a big upside to AI: making sure people are connected into a web of collaboration,” says Jeremy – but he acknowledges that the concept can cause concerns about technology replacing jobs or, of particular relevance as businesses adapt to staff working remotely, surveillance. In response, leaders will need to explain its benefits around, for instance, providing the right training, planning staffing and aiding decision-making.

Because what is clear is that flexible working, in terms of both when and where we work, is here to stay. Within the CEMEA region, Russia recently brought in legislation to regulate arrangements around remote working; Dubai, meanwhile, has introduced a new virtual working programme allowing overseas professionals to apply for a one-year visa to live there while remaining employed abroad. “Everyone has had a total reset in terms of expectations,” says Jeremy. “We have to accept that that has fundamentally shifted.” He welcomes a greater focus on output – a wider realisation that “it doesn't matter how or when people are doing work, if they're doing it”. However, employees' expectations will mean any changes to their new working arrangements will need to be negotiated thoughtfully, he notes.

Fresh pools of talent

Flexible working will also impact the way businesses access talent, the Visa team expects. Even before global travel became so restricted, the world was starting to see more barriers to the physical movement of work – difficulties in obtaining visas, increasing protectionism in various countries. But, at the same time, the rise of remote working has acted as a force in the opposite direction – “globalising through technology rather than through the mobility of people”, as Jeremy puts it.

Michelle Gervais, Vice President Data Science, CEMEA, confirms that this is a trend she is seeing. “Companies are seeking skills rather than geographies,” she says. “One of the things that is starting to happen with work-from-home is that location barriers starting to lower, and we’re finding that companies are more comfortable having employees who are not necessarily based in the same region. In Visa Data Science, we already use an approach where someone can work from a completely different region.” In this situation, she sees the CEMEA region as a net sender. “We have great talent and there are pockets where, if you know if you’re looking for, you can find really, really skilled people, like Ukraine, South Africa or Nigeria, where recruitment is not as intense. Over the next one to two years we will find a lot more companies seeking to hire remotely for data science, and CEMEA will start being a real focus.”

Payments for a different world

Of course, even before the pandemic, many people were already working outside of an office environment – and Visa CEMEA has been supporting them through its services. Visa is focused on allowing companies and employees in retail and other sectors to work remotely and more efficiently too. “One of the great examples has been the move to digital and contactless cards – this region already had a good penetration of contactless payments,” says Jeremy. For people in retail, contactless payments allow a faster throughput of transactions, compared to cash and traditional cards. In the delivery sector, the traditional cash-on-delivery payment model – still common across CEMEA – can also be transformed.

“Visa’s working to, essentially, digitise that transaction,” he says. “Nobody wants to walk around with traditional point of sale devices. One solution is where you pre-pay, for example, but then you only release the payment through an app when you’ve got your delivery in front of you.” Another is Visa’s Tap to Phone technology, which allows smartphones to act as point of sale terminals without requiring extra hardware. “So, there are ways that Visa is trying to help the workforce overall.”

Ultimately, the message from CEMEA is that more changes will follow the transformations of the last year. “There are a lot of bigger trends in the workplace that the pandemic has accelerated or tweaked or brought to the fore,” says Jeremy. “A post-COVID world is not the same as a COVID world.”

Key takeaways: three trends that will shape work

  1. Defining flexibility. Business leaders will need to communicate effectively if they want to add structure to new ways of working, Jeremy suggests. “If physically being around other people is important, how do you start to articulate limitations to flexibility in a way that don't just upset everybody?”
  2. Embracing remote hiring. The results achieved outside a traditional office has shown leaders that working remotely allows them access to new pools of employee talent.
  3. Creating culture. “If we can do our job very successfully from home, what are we losing by not going in?” He predicts leaders will want to nurture workforce culture and belonging in new ways.

Jeremy Broome is Senior Vice President and Head of Human Resources for Visa’s business across the CEMEA region. In this role he is responsible for driving the organisation’s people strategy, ensuring that Visa has the right talent, leadership and culture to shape the payments environment.

Michelle Gervais is Vice President of Data Science for CEMEA region where she supports Visa’s work with banks, acquirers and merchants to extract value from Visa’s unique global data assets. She has 20 years of experience in leading large global organizations.


1 McKinsey Study, October 2020: How COVID-19 has pushed companies over the technology tipping point—and transformed business forever: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/how-covid-19-has-pushed-companies-over-the-technology-tipping-point-and-transformed-business-forever

2 FT Special Report: Working From Home, July 2020: https://www.ft.com/content/0f77fd34-aa65-11ea-abfc-5d8dc4dd86f9

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