What will the future of work and skills look like?

Organisations that create a culture of learning agility will have a competitive edge over the next five years and beyond, says Dr Elouise Leonard-Cross
What will the future of work and skills look like?
As we look to the future and think about the skills needed, it’s important to first consider the different perspectives between employers and employees. Deloitte’s future of work research highlights the potential disconnect between what employees view as the skills needed in the future (technology specialisms) versus what organisations actually need (agility, flexibility, curiosity). 
 
Agility is a skill that organisations are increasingly seeing as valuable, particularly following the disruption of the pandemic and the resulting pace of change. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report published in October, the workforce is automating faster than expected, displacing 85 million jobs in the next five years – but that same ‘robot revolution’ will potentially create 97 million new jobs.

Top skills needed for 2025

Of the top 10 skills identified for 2025, half cluster around problem solving, with analytical thinking, creativity and flexibility in high demand. Data and artificial intelligence, content creation and cloud computing are emerging as some of the top professions and all require those skills. To support their people through this change, organisations should look to create a culture of learning agility, a concept that is based around maximising the human instinct to learn, adapt, unlearn and relearn. 
 
In a recent article, Forbes referred to learning agility as the “organisational ‘it’ factor” for future-ready businesses. Some powerful questions are suggested as a starting point for those responsible for skills development within business: 
 
  • What changes are coming in the industry? 
  • What skillsets will employees need to be successful? 
  • Which steps should be taken, as an organisation, to reskill employees who are at risk of becoming obsolete? 

Investing in ‘durable’ skills and proactive reskilling

As we build our organisational skills plans, we need to consider the durability of skills, something that has not always been a core criteria. Understanding the difference in reskill requirements between ‘perishable’ skills (eg technology and specialised skills) that generally require refreshing every two years, and the more ‘durable’ skills that have relevance lasting more than seven years (eg design thinking, project management), is key to that planning. 
 
The most competitive businesses will be those that invest in proactive reskilling and upskilling of employees, doing this in an inclusive way by considering the communities at risk of disruption that may need additional support to participate in programmes. Often the areas of our workforce most at risk of displacement through technology are those that can be the most difficult to release – those working on production lines or operational environments. 
 
Good employers will find ways to support all staff, with no groups left behind and, when upskilling and reskilling aren’t options, the people profession should be looking to build strong relationships with different types of organisations to help create outskilling programmes, preparing their workforce for alternative work in other sectors or environments. 
 

Collaborating to empower firms of the future

I’m anticipating that one of the big lessons learned from the pandemic – the power of pooling and sharing talent to address a common challenge – will help shape talent and resourcing models. One of the key skills we therefore need, and one I believe captures the uniqueness of humans in the workplace, is a willingness and ability to collaborate. 
 
The Ford Motor Company example illustrates this beautifully: its ‘pivot’ during the pandemic was to make masks. It didn’t know how to make masks, but what it did know was how to collaborate and problem solve. “We came as beginners and got smart,” the company said. Successful production followed and key insights were the ability to be agile, with the removal of rank and authority to slow down the innovation. 
 
The pandemic has shown how much can change when we have the impetus. Technology is often quoted as the reason businesses couldn’t evolve or virtually collaborate. However, we have seen adoption across a range of demographics – grandparents, those in the workplace and students are now happily using the same technology to connect, work and learn. 
 
So what should we be doing right now? I think we’re in a place of reflection; a small pocket of time to catch our breath and gain perspective. I’m encouraging the people profession to capture their ‘Covid stories’ to identify the skills, approaches and talent that emerged and what changed when we were released from the status quo of organisational operations, rank and process.
 
During 2020 we didn’t have the answers and because of that we asked more questions, listened more and were genuinely more innovative – I’m excited to see how these skills can help our profession to create greater impact and empower our organisations in the future.
 
Dr Elouise Leonard-Cross is head of people strategy and experience at Northumbrian Water and co-chair of the CIPD North East Branch. 
Top