The Covid-19 pandemic hit the world like no other event. The economic downturn created by the lockdowns, the focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) spurred by racial unrest, and the accelerated pace of automation created the perfect storm. Today, as we continue to steer our lives and businesses through the pandemic, we know that the future will remain uncertain. Likely changes are how, where and with whom we work; how we use technology, how we communicate, how we acquire and retain customers, how we lead and how we think about the place of work itself. As we start to focus on thriving rather than surviving, our strategies are dependent on whether the changes are temporary or transformational.

The Social Contract Between Employees and Employers Has Changed

The tremendous impact of the pandemic on the personal and professional lives and the health and well-being of individuals and their families has redefined the worker-employer relationship. The following are just some of the areas in which we’ve seen massive shifts:

  • Mental Health: There is a strong business case for investing in the programs and services necessary to create a resilient workforce.
  • Culture: Culture is critical now more than ever, and most organizations are challenged to build and nurture inclusive cultures, encourage innovation and positively impact productivity.
  • Leadership: Leaders must be mindful and take a much more holistic view of their people to better understand the multitude of factors that ultimately impact performance and productivity. It’s also incumbent upon them to provide a psychologically safe place where employees feel respected and valued.

The Hybrid Environment Needs a Human-centric Model

The COVID-19 pandemic forced most of the global workforce to move into a remote work setting almost overnight. Now, as organizations are planning their back-to-the-office strategy, many hybrid or remote knowledge workers agree that their expectations for flexible work schedules have increased. The new design of work must incorporate employee-driven flexibility, intentional collaboration and empathy-based management.

Providing flexible experiences: Providing employees with the flexibility that allows them an equal opportunity to succeed is essential in a hybrid environment. The flexibility will enable individuals to balance their personal and professional goals, vital for women and caregivers who traditionally had to choose.

Synchronous and Asynchronous Collaboration: Expanding access to various collaboration models is essential to inclusion. Research has shown different talent segments thrive in each mode. Introverts, for example, flourished during the pandemic when they did not have to interact face-to-face with others. On the other hand, highly social individuals struggled with not feeding off the energy of others in the same room with them. Becoming more intentional about where, how and when we use each of these modes will be essential to achieving innovation in the hybrid environment.

Empathetic management: Organizations must equip managers to contextualize performance in a low-visibility environment by making empathy a key priority. Six key attributes define empathy-driven managers are that they:

  1. Prioritize people over processes.
  2. Embrace a growth mindset.
  3. Create transparency.
  4. Ask (as opposed to telling).
  5. Safeguard confidentiality.
  6. Contextualize their employees’ mindset.

However, organizations face three main barriers in driving empathy-based management:

  1. Skills: Managers may not have the skills needed to be empathetic.
  2. Mindset: Managers may resist the requirement to be compassionate, believing it is not their job.
  3. Capacity: Managers may not have the time to prioritize empathy.

If organizations genuinely shift to empathy-based management philosophy, they must create a holistic strategy that addresses all three of these barriers and invest equally in each.

The New Nature of Work Can Be Unbundled or Broadened

With the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) and the ability to automate repetitive tasks, there has been an opportunity to redefine jobs. Unbundling work from the job and dividing it into smaller pieces allows for greater mobility by allowing employees to take on short-term challenges, opportunities, tasks, projects or assignments that span job titles and departments. Unboxing people from jobs and deconstructing them into their full range of skills, experience and interests enables them to be seen as unique individuals beyond their job descriptions, with significant DEI implications.

On the other hand, according to Deloitte, an alternative is to broaden the scope of a job to focus on the broad outcomes to be achieved or problems to be solved. With latitude in defining the “how” of work in pursuit of broad objectives, employees get the opportunity to take on more prominent, more integrated roles and responsibilities that often cross functional boundaries and enable them to develop new skills and gain experience. The focus is less on specific hard skills and more on broad human capabilities, such as the problem-solving, curiosity and creativity necessary to identify problems and opportunities — and then develop, test and iterate on solutions.

All Major Future of Work Trends Need a New Skilling Imperative

The proliferation of collaboration and communication tools made the transition to remote work and learning possible. But the behavioral changes required to optimize the new work models and the accommodations for the shift in employee expectations go beyond what technology can offer. Thriving in the post-pandemic era requires an adaptive skillset and a mindset open to continuously learning and unlearning. The single most significant factor that will drive organizational and personal success through the decade is the ability to pair continuing technological advances with talent strategies, creating a broader culture of workforce digital dexterity.

The total number of skills required for a given job increases year over year. At the same time, the skills present in the average job posting from 2017 will not be needed by 2021. In this dynamic environment where the same person may have different roles on different projects and the need to switch frequently, it’s not a simple task to acquire new knowledge. The ability to learn, unlearn and relearn is vital for long-term relevance and success. Organizations with a sound learning culture have mastered the art of embedding learning in the flow of work, so it’s not a discreet activity but rather something that occurs as needed on the job. Agile learning is the discipline for making this happen.

Agile learning is a mindset and method of skills development, via short iterative bursts, applied in the flow of achieving outcomes that can dynamically adjust to changing needs. Agile learning connects motivated, self-directed learners to the enterprise’s strategic results. The manifesto, as defined by Gartner, consists of a set of values and principles, which are outlined Figure 1.

Figure 1.

To drive an effective culture of learning, organizations need to define the culture’s values and create processes that enable its implementation. The following three steps can be taken to operationalize the implementation of the Agile learning manifesto:

  1. Make purposeful investments in people (connect the learning and learning curve): The capability-building exercise for the organization must be personalized for each employee. This process starts with an inventory of existing skills, understanding what the future skill needs are, and mapping a learning journey based on the adjacencies or gaps. The excitement about developing new skills and new knowledge that helps enhance their productivity all along their career path will keep the motivation to learn alive.
  2. Take a dynamic approach to skill shifts: Stop trying to predict skills and invest in foundational skills instead. The top skills of 2025 will include critical thinking, problem-solving, resilience and active learning. Learning accelerators that deliver just-in-time training by leveraging existing skills as a starting point help compress the skilling timeline and enable progressive layering of skills for the individual.
  3. Promote multidisciplinary collaboration across internal and external stakeholders: Collaborate with talent acquisition, strategy, operations, compensation, DEI and employee resource groups to develop the real-time skills intelligence necessary to make better skilling decisions. Empower employees to seek opportunities in different parts of the organization to create a diverse portfolio of skills supported by a cross-functional community of peers.

Empower Employees to Be Future-fit for the World of Work

An essential part of any organization’s learning strategy should be about empowering employees who are not just future-fit for their organization but future-fit for the world of work in general. As the labor market evolves to be more automated, digital and dynamic, everyone will benefit from having a set of foundational skills that support the following:

  • Deliver value beyond what automation and artificial intelligence can provide.
  • Operate effectively in a digital environment.
  • Continually learn new skills and adapt to new ways of working.

Building proficiency in cognitive, digital, interpersonal and leadership skills over time can be associated with a higher likelihood of employment, higher incomes and higher job satisfaction. What the world of work will look like in the future is unknown. But investing in our ability to learn, take risks and try new things helps us build resilience to the inevitable disruption that’s just around the next corner.