Employers need to navigate new skills challenges as post-pandemic workplace takes shape


There’s no doubting the fact a new world of work has arrived. And it poses many new questions. Will workplaces become quieter and less populated in a post-pandemic age? Will workers become comfortable with remote arrangements? Will offices need to be redesigned as collaboration spaces so employees split time between work and home. Will new technology mean some workers will be in roles they didn’t expect to fill? Does the rapid advancement of technology (spurred by the need to provide new ways services) even mean fewer workers are going to needed? 

But despite all this uncertainty, one thing is clear: employers (ready or not), will have to react by providing more support for their employees – people who now working outside the office and will need new skills to keep up with fast-paced technological change. 

With careful attention though, employers can transition their employees into a future of work that will support their physical, mental and financial wellbeing. Meanwhile new technology that has arrived sooner than expected may prove to be a boon to productivity and career development, experts say. 

Says Cornelius Fröscher, director of global customer and distribution management, corporate life and pensions at Zurich Insurance Group: “The biggest change is that there is a wider choice of where, when and how we work.” He adds: “We are now equipped and acquainted to working remotely and it is more accepted by employers. So I suspect that many who work remotely will only return to the office for part of the week, mostly to collaborate rather than do day-to-day work. Instead of personal desks, we will see more spaces where teams and individuals can meet to collaborate.” 

According to Fröscher, companies must be better-informed about the overall needs of their employees. He says: “As work and private life have blurred, many employers have become more conscious of the need to support the holistic wellbeing of their employees by paying greater attention to their physical, mental, financial and social health." He adds: “The pandemic has clearly shown that employees are organisations’ biggest assets and investing in them creates a resilient workforce and business.” 

The good news is that employees have never been so receptive to this kind of support. Says Fröscher: “This is great news for companies because they can attract and retain the best talent by providing these financial and non-financial benefits.” 

The march of technology  

But where does technology fit in to all of this? According to Fröscher the fallout from the pandemic hasn’t just rearranged work habits, it has also spurred demand for technology that many employers didn’t expect to need for several years. He adds: “In addition, technology can bring flexibility in choice and personalized guidance to truly put the individual in the driver’s seat for a brighter future.” 

That's the positive side. On the other though, is the suggestion that this burst of technological adoption could also render obsolete those jobs traditionally performed by people. So do we know the answers? The good news is that according to Gordon Clark, Senior Consultant and Professorial Fellow at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment (SSEE) at Oxford University, technology will not widely replace the need for people to carry out most work. In fact he argues advances in technology are boosting productivity and therefore creating new jobs. This in turn, he says, means employees are finding new career opportunities and possibilities to earn more. 

What research is telling us 

Zurich and the SSEE recently partnered in a research initiative to look at some of the issues impacting the future of work. The results are featured in the recently released report, “Shaping a Brighter Future of Work. 

The report is the latest in a series of research initiatives that first began in 2015. It focuses on workplace protection issues and aims to deepen understanding of how COVID-19 is shaping the agenda for a new social contract at the national level. The rapid advancement of technology and the skills needed to address it were among the topics discussed in the research. 

“In the research we talk about the march of technology on the labour market, but there is a lot of scaremongering out there about jobs being lost,” said Sarah McGill, senior research associate with the SSEE. “The big takeaway is that there will actually be a lot of job creation in two broad categories – people who have technical skills to work alongside machines as technology changes and people with interpersonal skills who can provide service that, frankly, makes people feel good.” 

Clark agrees: “There is technical skill and there is the skill of being an employee who is able to produce and develop,” he said. “Employers must value people who display social acumen and the ability to collaborate well, no matter how quickly technology advances.” 

Technology and flexible work: 

Research by the SSEE revealed that remote working has played a significant role in dampening the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in some parts of the world, as technology allowed businesses to carry on their work despite lockdowns that kept offices empty. “It is quite remarkable how the reorganisation of work from the workplace to home has stabilised many developed economies and provided opportunities for employers and employees alike,” said Clark. 

According to Clark, those companies that have fared well have adapted to changes brought by new technology, remote working and flexwork arrangements. Some, such as those who made early moves to platforms rather than operating in traditional ways on “every street corner” are now “the success stories of the pandemic,” he said. 

Skilling up 

But success can only come from skills. Being comfortable with new technologies is dependent on employers’ cultivating their employees’ skills. 

Newly created jobs will themselves call for new skills, and researchers discovered there is some uncertainty around how people should be given the training they need for the challenges ahead of them. 

“We talked a lot about reskilling – the need for it in different areas of the economy; who should provide it and the responsibility of the employee for retraining,” said McGill. “But I don’t think a lot of people and institutions have come to grips with what is meant by reskilling. It’s a such a broad category – ranging from brushing up on Microsoft Office skills, to getting a new degree or changing career tracks or something in between. As such, it will be dealt with differently across different countries.” 

Employers, for the most part, understand that their employees have knowledge and understanding of their business that will be hard to embed into technology, argues Clark. He says: “This puts an obligation on employers to provide training opportunities. Some may hire and fire to reap the immediate benefits of technology, but those that do so may find it is not a winning strategy in the long-term.” 

Researchers at the SSEE were consistently told that the pandemic has amplified the need for digital skills that weren’t expected to b    for at least five years. Now, faced with the early arrival of new technologies, some employers have been frustrated over the lack of training programs available from service providers. Says Clark: “Companies are doing it themselves because they often have no choice. At the same time, there is an urgency to get it done that wasn’t there 18 months ago.” 

This article is provided by Zurich. 

 


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