Agility, resilience, empathy: These words dominate today’s talent lexicon as the lessons of 2020 continue to shape and impact the workplace and workforce. Much has been written about these concepts related to organizational success, and for good reason; survival was front and center last year. But there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel — a chance to start anew and reconsider what the future of work holds.

COVID-19: Accelerating the Future

Humans have endured crises before and come out on the other side full of new ideas. Friction and discomfort inspire, and innovation is driven by people looking for a better way. Changing how things happen helps work (and life) improve, resulting in technological advancements and enhanced experiences. Still, change can be slow without impetus, and though there was little time to prepare for the upheaval presented over the last several months, it is impossible to deny its long-term effect.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the conversation around the future of work looked at how automation would change skill sets. In 2017, McKinsey predicted that “between 400 million and 800 million individuals could be displaced by automation” by 2030 and that “[75] million to 375 million may need to switch occupational categories and learn new skills.” Of course, that was then, and this is now. There is no longer the option to resist change or believe that it remains a decade off.

The Talent Opportunity

Values are shifting, and organizations now have the opportunity to reevaluate their approach to people. Through innovation, employers can strategically skill talent, build dexterity and, ultimately, do better by their workforce. It starts with reframing the narrative; moving away from a sense of ownership; and recognizing that employees, especially their skills, can be boundary-less.

For too long, business units have looked at talent as a possession, something they nurture and grows through learning and development (L&D), management training, and other tools (self-service or otherwise). Such programs and platforms generate endless streams of data that organizations can use to understand the workforce better, improve collaboration, uncover skill strengths and deficiencies, and break down the existing barriers. There are ways to leverage this information and direct skills toward the work that needs to be accomplished.

Gone are the days of “This is what we want to do. Do we have the people to do it?” When the answer was no, organizations found new people, directly contributing to the shortages McKinsey predicted in 2017. However, under the right conditions, renewability promises a path forward, a sentiment McKinsey echoed in 2020, writing, “the future of work will require two types of changes across the workforce: upskilling, in which staff gain new skills to help in their current roles, and reskilling, in which staff need the capabilities to take on different or entirely new roles.” Dynamically upskilling and reskilling will move the business forward, keeping talent engaged and retained while ensuring workforce dexterity.

Reevaluating Talent Acquisition and Talent Management

If this thinking isn’t core to an organization, the first step is to look at talent acquisition. To develop a more collaborative model, employers need to create a baseline by hiring utility players — workers with a base level of skills and a base level of values that reflect the organization. By prioritizing these factors in the hiring process, the organization grows more agile, investing in workers who are able to reinvent, replenish and renew their skills as business objectives evolve.

If dexterity is already core to the organization, it becomes easy to deploy through a talent management reset. This new approach might mean that from time to time, someone leaves one team and enters another, bringing his or her unique abilities to help meet the needs of a different business unit. In some instances, workers will return to their original team, while in others, they will continue to move about the organization, gaining new skills and experiences along the way. Either way, the employer becomes able to reinforce strategic skilling while maintaining the workforce it needs to navigate both the certain and the uncertain.

The experience of last year illuminated that people crave safety, security and surety, even when they seem impossible to provide. Workers want to know that if they continue to learn and develop, they will remain relevant, with a role available for them. COVID-19 exposed these feelings, revealing deep fault lines in talent acquisition and management and accelerating the need for transformation. It presented an opportunity to reshape how organizations think about work, their workforce and their talent. Never again will we be able to hit the reset button in such an overarching and powerful way.