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Last month, we introduced our 2021 Business Trends report based on in-depth conversations with top CSOs in our Outthinker Strategy Network. We will be expanding on one of these trends every week with the intention of supporting your organization’s strategy for the next year and beyond. This is our fifth installment.

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When we asked the CSO members of our Outthinker Strategy Network to list the top trends impacting their business decisions in 2021, the future of work came up repeatedly. Of the responses to our poll, 35% mentioned a concern related to people management, culture shifts, or organizational agility.

Many companies have recently faced or are in the midst of reorganizations. The new ways of working together during Covid and beyond the pandemic are a common challenge as well as an opportunity to reimagine a smarter and more efficient working dynamic. In most industries, the future of work has already arrived.

These were some of the questions on CSOs’ minds at the end of 2020:

How can we reinvigorate our employees from an AI, skills, and culture perspective?

What is the best way to lead through the pandemic virtual work environment and prepare for long-term impacts on culture, performance, and our business model?

How can we reduce bureaucracy and build happiness and passion at work?

Taking a holistic approach to transition

Earlier this year, I delivered a session with Dr. Anna Tavis, NYU Associate Professor of Human Capital Management and world-renowned expert on the future of work. In our session, Dr. Tavis explained that companies with disruptive and innovative products (think Amazon and Apple) only experienced exponential growth when they began applying that innovation beyond the product across the entire company to methods of recruitment, organization, incentives, and culture.

Dr. Tavis has found that workplaces of today and tomorrow demand agility, mobility, diversity, well-being, and empathetic leadership. Our existing technologies allowed us to make the jump from the office to home workspaces without devastating interruption, but there will be long-term consequences if we do not consider a holistic approach to this pivotal transition.

Organizations need to rethink and reform the way we work, by prioritizing real cultural reform beyond statistics, upskilling and reskilling employees, and determining if and when to return to the office.

Cultural reform moves beyond statistics

Outthinker research has shown, and Dr. Tavis’ presentation enforced, that organizations are moving away from hierarchies toward agile, self-directed teams. Teams choose which projects to focus on, and any member can make a decision. This requires a different type of leader and a different strategy for hiring. Companies are incentivizing diversity and inclusion in the hiring process, but they are failing to restructure the way teams work together.

New hires are expected to fit into established norms without much consideration of how they fit into the team. Fast Company found that while women and minorities are becoming more welcome in tech, balanced hiring statistics don’t tell the full story.

According to the article, “Getting people in the door doesn’t guarantee equity, when an organization’s norms, practices and patterns don’t allow individuals to have equal influence and participation.”

Instead of mentoring and sponsoring new hires to move up the career ladder by modifying their behavior to fit in, managers need to be empathetic to work styles and personality strengths. Rather than focusing on degrees and past companies, hiring managers should focus on choosing people from all backgrounds whose expertise and style will work best with the team.

Similarly, a metrics-based employee wellbeing program may not incentivize employees to take advantage of the benefits they need to stay healthy. Dr. Tavis states that in 2021, “every company will become a healthcare company”.

Leaders must drive the change by example. If there is an unlimited vacation policy, but the CEO takes only a handful of days per year, employees may not feel comfortable taking the time they need. Covid and remote work have blurred the barriers between work and home, and boundaries must be drawn to protect and promote work-life balance. Leaders should arrange their calendars to respect set hours, allow mental health breaks, and nourish themselves through meals and exercises, so that employees can follow the same practices to perform at their best.

Reskilling rises as expertise quickly becomes obsolete

Rapid advances in technology have moved us into a world where expertise is quickly becoming obsolete. The Future of Jobs Report 2020 from the World Economic Forum (WEF) reports that this pace of change is expected to continue and even accelerate further. We are moving from specialists with one or two areas of in-depth expertise to employee talent with many different areas of competency.

Companies estimate that 40% of employees will require reskilling if they remain in their current roles. The number increases to 50% for employees who expect to change roles. High-demand skills include critical thinking, problem-solving, and self-management. High achievers of the future will be resilient, flexible lifelong learners.

The responsibility for reskilling goes beyond employer offerings. To perform and compete in an accelerated environment, employees will need to take charge of their own learning path. The WEF report found that while employers plan to offer reskilling opportunities to 70% of workers, only 42% of employees are currently taking advantage of those programs.

During this inflection point, government will also hold accountability for investing in reskilling and upskilling, supporting unemployed or underemployed workers through job transitions, and improving our education and training systems.

Remote work works … for the most part

The Covid-19 pandemic forced many of us to settle into or establish home offices. We continue to see the benefits and challenges of working remotely. Early on in the lockdown period, virtual teams seemed to be the way of the future. However, later on remote work caused burnout and decreased productivity. So, which are more effective – in-person or remote teams?

Virtual work environments haven’t lured everyone. Dr. Tavis reported that 70% of the population still wants the option to return to an office post-pandemic. Senior employees favor working from home, but younger talent wants to return to face-to-face.

Her studies found that the most effective teams are either in-person on the same floor or virtually in the same city. The further apart in time zones, the lower virtual teams performed. Surprisingly, the worst results came from teams working in-person on different floors. She predicts that remote work is here to stay, but to be successful these virtual teams will allow the option for occasional colocation.

Conclusion

Adapting to the future of work is a societal issue. Employers, their employees, and public resources will hold responsibility to foundational cultural shifts. The workplaces of the future will exist both in and outside of our homes. The best teams will work quickly and efficiently, leading themselves without hierarchies.

Rebuilding for the future will include evolving hiring practice to compose diverse, multi-skilled teams, based not on a checklist of traits but on their ability to work together toward common goals.