In today’s accelerated era of transformation, organizations are entering “The Great Convergence,” where the industrial world is becoming powerfully integrated into the digital world. The Great Convergence refers to a new age of globalization driven by fast-paced technological change that has drastically reduced the cost and the complications of exchanging ideas across borders. The impact of information technology (IT) has resulted in a hyper-connected global marketplace that is more unpredictable and uncontrollable as organizations grapple with unprecedented policy fluctuations to remain innovative and competitive in a rapidly evolving landscape.

Meanwhile, within our workplaces, professionals are experiencing “The Great Disconnect,” in which the desired level of enhanced connection, collaboration and alignment may seem out of reach in today’s remote and hybrid workforce.

To explore how these connections have changed — and how to support them going forward — NovoEd recently conducted a survey of 500 U.S.-based, full-time employees across three different functions: senior management, middle management and individual contributors. We asked these professionals about their newly emerging collaboration requirements and how well they are connecting with colleagues to work together and learn the essential workplace skills needed to succeed. The study found that the shift to remote and hybrid work has resulted in The Great Disconnect, in which workers are feeling less connected to their colleagues, and employees lower on the food chain are falling behind.

How the Workplace Is Evolving During Historic Disruption

To meet the demands of today’s rapidly transforming economy, organizations are challenged to develop, upskill and reskill their employees to not only keep up but, ideally, to innovate and surge ahead. This is a strategic imperative that involves understanding where employees are skill-wise, recognizing where they need to be to thrive and bridging that gap with strategic learning initiatives.

Job functions and skills agglomerate, or “cluster,” differently than they did just five years ago. Agglomeration refers to work in both a physical and psychological sense. In terms of working arrangements, people freed from offices are working in close collaboration with others with disparate, varied and/or complementary skill sets. Future of work trends like fractional employees, job-sharing, platform-mediated work and the gig economy mean work is no longer constrained to full-time arrangements in a strictly office-centered setting. Employees of different firms, working under different arrangements, are free to work alongside each other. The emergence of co-working arrangements (with social and residential counterparts) amplifies this movement. More critically, agglomeration also applies to the skills themselves — today’s job roles require different skills being bundled together in new ways to meet evolving demands.

At the same time, the demographics of the global workforce are changing significantly, including the presence of five generations working side by side for the first time in history. With these demographic changes come new expectations for honoring, supporting and cultivating human differences at work. RedThread’s Diversity and Inclusion Technology report states that “Younger and increasingly diverse populations often bring with them evolving expectations and willingness to bring diversity and inclusion to the forefront of societal conversations.”

The very nature of industries themselves is changing, forcing the breakdown of silos at work and bringing people together across functions and whole industries. We are at the beginning stages of The Great Convergence, wherein traditional industries co-mingle and grow symbiotically (e.g., education and technology, manufacturing and technology). Human resources (HR) analyst Josh Bersin commented on it in a recent article: “…more and more industries are being redefined. Retailers are becoming healthcare companies. Auto companies are becoming electronic manufacturers. Chemical and oil companies are moving into hydrogen and batteries.”

Due to the interconnectedness of industries and new business models built around networks, platforms and marketplaces, many companies must move from a rigid, vertically integrated model to an ecosystem model, in which complementary assets and capabilities can be brought together dynamically across firms. Creating value no longer means only creating great products and services; it comes from developing an environment (whether a literal platform or marketplace or a less literal ecosystem) that enables connections between people, products, software and services to flourish. Indeed, some of the most powerful companies of our time (like Google, Microsoft and Salesforce) rose to dominance through ecosystem strategies.

Therefore, work has become both more collaborative and more cross-functional in nature. Unsurprisingly, our 2022 study shows that two-thirds (66%) of respondents work in an organization that now requires them to collaborate with coworkers differently today than they did in 2019. By far the most common pivot is the need to work more collaboratively in general (cited by 35%), followed closely by the need to work in a more cross-functional manner across various job titles and levels (noted by 31%). Meanwhile, nearly one in four respondents (23%) reported that there is a need to find ways to work together differently, with an emphasis on greater internal alignment to collaborate effectively.

Despite these widespread needs, many teams are struggling to work both more collaboratively and cross-functionally. A study from Stanford University found that as many as 75% of cross-functional teams are actually dysfunctional, failing in such critical areas as staying on budget and on schedule, meeting customer expectations and maintaining alignment with the company’s goals due to a lack of strong leadership and clear-cut communication that erode the alignment needed for positive business outcomes.

Transforming the Learning Function To Meet Evolving Business Needs

Alignment is the baseline but not enough in itself. Due to the forces we discussed earlier, the context and the nature of work keep changing (different people, industries, functions, places of work), so it’s not enough to just be aligned once; it’s not “one-and-done.” Something much more deep-rooted and lasting is required. Here’s where capabilities come into play.

Capabilities are professionally bundled skill sets (such as “inclusive leadership,” “design thinking” and “entrepreneurial mindset”) that make individuals, teams and whole organizations robust and resilient. They are acquired through intensive learning that goes beyond knowledge acquisition, practice and application, to include awareness, social context and courageous action.

It can take years for a team to develop these instincts — a common language, business shorthand, shared experiences, the ability to read in between the lines, and to communicate nuances and move in lockstep with each other. And it often requires in-person experience. It’s the secret reason why companies are often so intent on bringing people together in person. For years it has been the only way to accomplish this process and ensure that learning and working are occurring at once. (At its most basic level, working from the same place means you can observe others in the office to pick up necessary cues.)

Since the pandemic began, 55% of companies have had to pivot to require different or additional high-level skills from their workforce, according to our survey.

Fortunately, technology can be an impactful solution. The right technology — beyond cobbled-together Zoom, Teams and Slack — can guide workforces to build team instincts and deep capabilities. The right tech can provide professionals with powerful opportunities to link up and learn new skills and capabilities — both synchronously and asynchronously and at their own pace.

While The Great Disconnect poses an unprecedented challenge for employers and employees alike, and the paradox of organizations needing more alignment to accomplish their goals and individuals finding the connection and collaboration they require harder to achieve, it’s also an opportunity.

Companies that invest in strategies and tools offering middle managers and individual contributors learning traditionally reserved for only senior managers will have the competitive edge over businesses that remain stagnant.

This organizational pedagogy transforms the type of small-group, peer-based learning senior leaders receive — and broadens and deepens it for those at lower levels. The focus is on nuanced, context-driven learning and development (L&D) to empower these people to be able to make sound judgments and operate with more conviction in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment.

The world of work has changed dramatically. But perhaps the most important shifts have come in the ways in which we connect with our colleagues across, up and down the organization. In an increasingly complex business and economic environment, every workplace needs strong, trusting, respectful and collaborative connections among its people in order to solve complicated challenges, meet new priorities, and stay competitive in a crowded marketplace.