This month, we interviewed Johanna Van Herreweghen, a participant of the 5th edition of our Women Talent Pool program (WTP) and a Counsel at Osborne Clarke, specialised in Human Resources and Employment Law. Johanna spoke to us about her secondment in Silicon Valley, as well as the digital transformation and its role in Human Resources. In addition, Johanna reflected on the changing role of gender in employment and the value of diversity within companies. Find out more about Johanna by reading the interview below!
You have developed a successful law career and have recently been promoted to Counsel at Osborne Clarke in the international employment team in Brussels. What motivated you to pursue employment law and HR policies?
What I like about employment law and HR is that it combines law and working with people. Specifically, the human relations angle that combines both hard and soft skills. At Osborne Clarke, we mostly work on the employers’ side. Nonetheless, it is very satisfying to help companies roll out an HR management that is good for both employers and their employees.
You had spent a secondment to Osborne Clarke’s Silicon Valley office in 2014. How did work culture differ in California compared to your experience in Europe and what challenges do American companies face when establishing their business in Belgium?
The most obvious aspect of work culture in Silicon Valley is the very dynamic business environment. There, the failure of a business is seen as an opportunity to learn, while in Europe, it could be seen as a negative impact on the rest of someone’s career.
People’s constructive and open-minded mentality surprised me, as even though everyone is very busy, people take the time to give feedback and help each other. I found the entrepreneurial atmosphere very refreshing.
There was actually a lot of respect for work-life balance. For example, business development and networking events were usually scheduled during business hours. Even though the workdays started early, they ended at a reasonable hour too, which was great and unlike Belgium, where networking activities usually take place at night.
Regarding the challenges American companies have when establishing their business in Belgium, they seem to be intimidated by the idea that the employment regulations are much more protective of employees in Belgium compared to the United States. However, after seeking local counsel and being duly informed, dealing with Belgian employment law is not such an issue.
You recently spoke at the AmCham HR committee on the topic of digital transformation in HR. How is the so called 4th industrial revolution with innovative technologies such as blockchain and AI playing a role in human resources?
Digital transformation should be much larger than just an IT project; it should be a business strategy where HR teams play a significant role. On one hand, technologies emerging related to data should help make HR methods easier. On the other hand, HR can have added value in motivating employees to embrace these new technologies, rather than remaining reluctant to use them.
Digital transformation should be much larger than an IT project; it should be a business strategy where HR teams play a significant role.
Technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) can have aninfluence on traditional methods of recruitment, for example by helping to identify and attract talent that might have been overlooked. However, algorithms used by AI can also replicate human bias or create their own. Therefore, it is also important to look at how AI is being programmed and whether the right criteria are being used.
Blockchain technologies are in the rather early stages of use in HR. Essentially, blockchain makes background checks easier by eliminating the necessity for third-party partners in validating the competence of candidates. In Belgium, we are not quite there yet due to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). However, it is only a matter of time before the implementation of technologies that can respect the GDPR.
What significant legal and operational challenges do you see in the implementation of the digital transformation, especially for cyber security?
The flipside of the digital transformation and all its benefits is the increased risk of cybersecurity and unauthorized data use. Nowadays, cybersecurity is very high on the agenda of many companies which are therefore more inclined to appoint directors with prior digital experience.
Considering these concerns, HR has an important role in educating employees on correct conduct and safety regulations, like password protection and user guidelines. Often, human errors cause cyber breaches and malicious attacks from outside sources. For example, in relation to phishing, many employees do not identify a physing email as suspicious and just click on it,, allowing third parties to gain access to information.
You advise on employment matters, HR policies, and various legal issues. What changes have you seen with gender in the employment relationship?
An increased amount of companies are realizing that a diverse workforce is not just a legal obligation, but a way to make a difference in productivity that also creates real added-value. It is beginning to dawn on employers that a heterogenous group of employees leads to a greater number of different viewpoints. This provides a more accurate reflection of our society and these diverse perspectives also provide new ideas for problem solving and achieving goals.
In general, there has been an (slow) increase in female representation at a higher executive level. What I find particularly interesting is that, at a junior level, and especially with recent law school graduates, there are more female than male lawyers, but in time so many of them tend to leave the Bar and take on a position in-house. . Right now, we could see an active conversation about more diversity and efforts to make sure that the right people, not necessarily just male, are promoted.
Right now, we could see an active conversation about more diversity and efforts to make sure that the right people, not necessarily just male, are promoted.
You are a current participant in the 5 the Edition of our Women Talent Pool Program (WTP). What is your vision of female leadership and specifically the future of female leadership within the digital transformation?
The digital transformation is driven by implementing various new digital technologies in companies. Knowing that women are underrepresented in STEM, I think it is crucial to increase the number of women who are experts in digital technology. Just as AI can replicate the biases of the external world, other new technologies and their implementation in the workplace can mimic the culture of the status quo. It is vital that women are a part of the conception, creation and application of the digital technologies that increasingly shape our world.
In addition, the speed at which changes occur in this era of digital transformation, is unprecedented.
This phenomenon calls for creativity in dealing with change. Throughout the last decades, leadership teams tended to be composed of like-minded individuals focusing on a specific set of skills. By incorporating female leadership and a diverse team, companies can see various perspectives through greater collaboration, allowing them to act more quickly and increasing their competitive advantage in the age of digital transformation.
By incorporating female leadership and a diverse team, companies can see various perspectives through greater collaboration, allowing them to act more quickly and increasing their competitive advantage in the age of digital transformation.
Finally, we always end our interviews with a question inspired by the Proust questionnaire: Which living person do you most admire? I do not really admire one living person, but in general, I really respect and admire people who, regardless of their position and personal ambitions, stay true to their self and to their values. I find this authenticity so refreshing.