A little peek behind the proverbial curtain for you: I have a digital notebook (I use Evernote) where I capture blog ideas as they come to me. I periodically review that list to see what topic ideas I may be able to research and write out as a full post. I had an idea in January to write about the need to invest in workplace training to help upskill team members for the future of work.
I wrote the following draft of a first sentence: "Maybe 2020 isn’t quite the future we imagined.” Looking back on that now, I can confidently say most of us never predicted a global pandemic, economic upheaval, and social unrest—and we are only through the first half of the year.
The topic does seem more apt now than ever. As things have changed so dramatically and we are all forced to think about the future of work, what do we need to do to be ready? What do our employees need to be learning now to help them in the future? What should leaders be planning to do differently, and how should we identify and fill gaps in our own skill sets? What about the tens of millions of people who are unemployed? What skills do they need as they re-enter the workforce?
In addition to the changes that were already coming at us—Harvard cites "Robotics, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, the 5G wireless network, and other technologies” as forever changing the world of work—we also need to incorporate the new necessity for remote working and management skills and the ability to navigate health and safety guidelines into the shifting paradigm of what going to work looks like in the future.
In Forbes article, William Arruda argues that remote work will be here to stay: “Now that more people have had a taste of it and proven their productivity, it will be hard for companies to take it away from their talent.” Many companies will likely move toward more flexibility in allowing employees to work from home or in the office depending on the role and preference of the employee.
In addition to flexibility in where you work, there will likely also be more flexibility in when you work. Traditional 9-5 hours may not be feasible if you need to stagger workers to limit the number of people on the factory floor, for example, or if you have employees working from home and sharing childcare responsibilities. For people working remotely, one of the benefits is that they get the work done at times when they are most productive—even if that’s early in the morning or late in the evening outside of traditional business hours.
Workplaces themselves will look different. Many will be redesigned to promote social distancing and reduced collaboration in shared spaces until there is a vaccine. Even after a vaccine is in place, we may see the trend of open floor plans and bullpens full of people go away in favor of private offices, or at least shift to include more partitions and space between desks. Or the purpose of the office could change entirely; maybe it becomes a place where you only go if you need to collaborate or work with others while doing all of your individual work from home.
In the new world of work, much of the learning needed to upskill and develop will happen via e-learning. Over the last few months, I have been inundated with emails about webinars and online courses as most companies transitioned in-person offerings to virtual delivery. While I’m sure there will still be a time and place for some in-person learning, now that the systems are up and running, I wouldn’t be surprised if a large portion of workplace training continues to happen via e-learning due to the convenience and cost savings.
In spite of your mounting Zoom fatigue, video conferencing is not going away. Building a skill set around facilitating and participating effectively in virtual meetings is going to be essential in the future of work. This has all kinds of implications—both positive and negative. Think about all the geographical potential that opens up to your business if you’ve been able to successfully shift online. Think about the talent pool that opens up if it doesn’t really matter where they live. Also, think about the consequences for your team morale and employee health if their days are spent isolated in front of a screen.
Another trend that’s accelerated this year is increased automation. In efforts to reduce the number of people physically present in the office/store/restaurant and remain profitable and functional on a very lean staff, many companies have found ways to automate more repetitive tasks. With advances in technology, this was coming anyway, but the pandemic has likely accelerated automation and may result in fewer or different-looking jobs when the economy does come back full swing.
So, what are some skills to focus on and hone to be as ready as possible for the new world of work?
- Technology competency. You need to understand how to use the changing tools of the trade, whatever your trade is. Understanding how to set up and manage automation, leverage AI appropriately and maximize remote working tools are now becoming table stakes for businesses. Keep up to date on the cutting edge technology that is impacting your industry, and learn from other industries. You could come up with a great idea for disruption by watching how others are utilizing technology in different ways.
- New media proficiency. You need to learn to communicate effectively across different channels. It’s not enough to be able to digest written communication and articulate your ideas clearly. There are many different channels for communication—chat, video conferencing, email, social media—and many ways to get your message out. You need skills to be an effective consumer of information from all these different inputs, ways to organize the information overflow productively, and skills to maximize the impact of your message by choosing the right medium and ensuring your message was received by its intended audience.
- Critical thinking. The ability to examine the facts, understand data, and make sense out of it are key. Determining the significance of all the information coming at you in this data-rich world is an essential skill for decision-making. You have to be able to tell the difference between noise/distractions and real, critical data.
- Emotional intelligence. It’s not just about handling tough situations with tact. With so many disruptions and changes happening in the world, the ability to relate effectively with others on a human-to-human level has never been so important to your work success. As a leader, you can anticipate your team will be facing the emotional fallout of this traumatic collective experience for some time. You'll need to be able to navigate emotions, complexities, anxiety and grief. If social interactions are limited in the future due to health and safety concerns, you need to find ways to build genuine relationships, foster empathy and create social cohesion for your employees.
- Creativity. You will need to be able to come up with creative solutions and adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. You’ll have to think differently and not just do the same thing everyone else is doing to respond to disruptions. You need to cultivate curiosity and a “find a way” mentality in your team. Embrace design-thinking and learn some principles to solve complex problems and manage complicated processes.
- Cross-functional collaboration. You can’t work in splendid isolation. For your company to be successful and profitable, you need to break down silos and work with other departments and disciplines to get things done. It’s not the time to be territorial; it’s the time to pull together and pitch in. Learn about the other roles in your company—how does their work impact yours? Where do they overlap? Where is the tension? Figure out how to solve those to create a well-oiled machine without the typical communication breakdowns that cost time, money, rework and frustration.
- Cultural competency. The workforce will only grow more diverse with the increasing popularity of remote work. Imagine being able to hire the best in the world at what you need in your company regardless of where the person lives. The ability to successfully navigate team dynamics, be sensitive to cultural and political issues, and celebrate diverse experiences and viewpoints will be critical in the future.
As you think about the future of work, think about your competencies in the areas I listed as well as any other specific job and leadership skills you know you need to work on. Pick a shortlist (2 or 3 things), and start working on them now. Take a class, read a book, get a mentor or an executive coach, do something every week to get a little better and build your skills to meet the future with confidence.
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