How will COVID-19 reshape our jobs?

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A new way of working will be upon us as we emerge from the pandemic, but what skills will we need?

The almost instantaneous need to work from home triggered by COVID-19 means that for many companies we’re all passengers on the information superhighway. For firms and workers, that has meant building a working vehicle while travelling 160km/h.

So far, most of us are happy with the journey.

A survey of 25,000 people by IBM recently found that 75 per cent would like to continue to work from home post-COVID in at least some capacity.

That’s definitely the case for top-tier law firm, MinterEllison. Overnight, almost 2500 employees decamped from their desks and set up at home. And according to Mary Lyras, chief talent officer at MinterEllison, practically no one batted an eyelid.

“It’s been remarkably seamless,” Lyras said. “The response was surprise at how much we could do remotely.”

In an industry where the perception to get ahead is to log long hours of office face-time, a new way of working is taking hold.

MinterEllison’s appreciation for the new-found flexibility is remarkably similar to IBM’s findings. A staff survey at the law firm found that 72 per cent of employees would like to continue working from home between one to four days per week. With the exception of those juggling homeschooling with work, the working-from-home experiment has been a success.

“We keep track of hours worked and productivity did increase,” Lyras explained. “We’ve seen people make better use of their time. They are saving an hour or two when not travelling, they don’t have to run from meeting to meeting. People are thinking long and hard about the gains.”

What’s been pleasantly surprising to Lyras is the ease with which employees across all ages and levels have picked up the technological element of working from home.

“We expected a spike in calls to our helpdesk, and we didn’t see that,” she said. “Instead, the revelation for many is that digital is not that hard. You can play around with the tech and not break it. That has meant that people are talking more openly than before about what they have discovered.”

That openness and adaptability to embracing new technology will be a key attribute for the modern worker, said Jade Moffat, Corporate Social Responsibility Lead for IBM A/NZ.

Older man on a video call with colleagues.

“A recent study by the OECD, conducted before COVID, found that your adaptability quotient is the most critical trait for future success,” Moffat said.

In fact, behavioural skills such as adaptability were more important than technological skills, according to a 2018 global survey of chief executives. IBM’s Institute for Business Value report on closing the skills gap found that where capability in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) was the number one core skill in 2016, by 2018, that skill had dropped to sixth most important, while “willingness to be flexible, agile and adaptable to change” was the most important attribute. Time management, teamwork, and communication rounded out the top four spots for CEOs.

Moffat said it was a reflection of how quickly technologies were changing and a recognition by employees and employers that lifelong learning was the new model for success.

Moffat is IBM’s lead for P-TECH in Australia and New Zealand, an innovative program that creates pathways for high-school students into STEM careers, and said there were many parallel lessons for corporations in how the program skills up young people for today’s workplace.

The learning model for P-TECH is based on the “three justs”: “Just in time, just enough and just for me,” Moffat said.

“Students want to do micro learning chunks, not the whole syllabus to use 10 per cent of it. ‘Just enough’ is learning enough for now with the view that we’ve got lifelong learning ahead of us. And if I need to learn more in the future, then I will. And then ‘just for me’ is really about an individual’s consumption. They want to learn in a personalised way.”

Video call with colleagues

At IBM, that approach has been built into their internal training systems. Via the Your Learning platform, formal and informal courses are available to employees, with content from both within IBM and from outside. IBM Watson cognitive technology is embedded in the system, suggesting further micro-learning modules as it notices employee interest in a topic. As knowledge increases, staff can earn digital badges noting their expertise that they can share on social media platforms such as LinkedIn.

As corporations recognise that specific, technological knowledge can be gained online in a self-directed way, they are focusing more of their attention on ensuring their people have the soft skills necessary to work effectively as a team.

As IBM’s Institute for Business Value’s skills report found, the digital era has created a need for speed, which in turn requires greater transparency, less hierarchy, more fluid teams across organisation and functional boundaries and an agile culture based on experimentation.

The P-TECH program is designed to prepare young people for such a workplace. While it focuses on evolving digital products such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and cloud computing, “it has an equal emphasis on professional skills (like) design thinking, agile workflow and critical and creative thinking,” Moffat said.

The importance of interpersonal relationships is certainly an important takeaway for MinterEllison’s Lyras. She was impressed with how employees embraced digital tools such as Yammer to create new non-work related conversations around topics like homeschooling, and video conferencing tools such as Webex to facilitate morning teas, or Friday night drinks.

But there was also a recognition of the importance of deep personal relationships, particularly for younger employees.

“Junior lawyers and consultants do benefit from learning from exposure. But does it need to be 100 per cent all the time?” Lyras said.

“The digital platforms mean you are not cut off – you can share the documents and have the conversations. So we’re quickly rethinking face-to-face learning. But social contracts are important, as is taking the time for those social contracts.”

Originally published on The Australian
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