To stay afloat in the churning waters of the 2020s, companies will need a raft of future skills. Covid, inflation and war in Europe are rewriting the way business is done. The climate emergency, relentlessly ticking in the background, is set to create further turmoil in the years ahead. Leaders struggling with change and uncertainty can support themselves and their teams by investing in the skills that will safeguard their future.
Working Voices has been analysing a pattern of widespread concerns expressed by many of our clients. Struggling leaders, caught in the fallout of global events, are looking for clarity and support on a specific range of issues. In collaboration with Mercer, we have put together a detailed package of solutions for managers who share three challenges in particular:
Reimagining company culture – Flexibility and hybrid working have eroded the identity of organisations. Downsized offices and fragmented teams make it hard to hold on to identity and purpose. There is a need to revise perceptions of culture, though little consensus on what these should look like.
Managing teams – The pandemic was a watershed moment. Working from home created new expectations, new flexibility, new values in personal and cultural wellbeing, new mindsets at work. Recognising these, and balancing them with the needs of the business, is a tough juggling act.
Maintaining motivation – Teams work best when pulling together in unison, driven by a collective sense of direction. When this is blunted by uncertainty, cohesion and creativity can crumble. At that point, how should managers maintain motivation and morale?
In building solutions to these challenges, shaped by Mercer’s extensive data and insights, we have launched a ground-breaking range of courses in Future Skills.
What are future skills?
During the pandemic many people rediscovered personal priorities and values. In recent months, organisations have needed to evolve. Now, onboarding processes are more likely to emphasise personal identity. Performance reviews, no longer restricted to an annual chat, may include ongoing updates on personal progress. Diversity and Inclusion strategies are more likely to take centre-stage.
It’s true that such innovations were slowly developing before Covid. However the pandemic brought new impetus, internationally and across all sectors of the economy. Keeping up with change isn’t easy. But businesses are more likely to get ahead by taking organisational responsibility when managing twists of fate rather than leaving it to individuals to sort things out for themselves.
Organisations looking to support their people, preparing them for what may come next, will need to help them get to grips with thinking critically, managing complexity and understanding the value of social wellbeing. These are the skills of the future that will carry people through change and uncertainty.
Examples of Future Skills
In the years ahead, organisations will need flexibility and adaptability in their DNA. Future leaders will need to be diverse thinkers and excellent communicators. They must be able to navigate unfamiliar challenges and understand how to guide people through change – steering a course through difficult conditions and capitalising on the opportunities that change always brings. These challenges will require new skills.
At Working Voices, we’re grouping our future skills courses under three headings:
Agile Thinking – making strong decisions; understanding flexibility; utilising data and knowledge; engaging creatively with problems and understanding how others think.
Leading Through Change – navigating change, uncertainty and complexity; maintaining bounded optimism; inspiring future leaders.
Social Wellbeing – sustainable productivity through connection, collaboration, self-awareness and emotional intelligence.
1. Agile Thinking
We live in an age of ceaseless digital messaging. As information proliferates, and the possible interpretations multiply, leaders need a playbook of good problem-solving and decision-making strategies. These include the ability to assess your own thoughts with an expert eye, forming a critic’s opinion of your possible options. Agile, critical thinking, coupled with an understanding of how multiple perspectives can add value, brings a multitude of benefits:
- Flexibility of attitude and workflow – less reliance on habit, dogma and bureaucracy.
- Accelerated decision-making and information-sharing – better ability to decide which considerations are critical.
- Innovation and collaboration – encourages open-minded attitudes that are curious and courageous.
- Ability to solve or break up intractable problems – going back to fundamentals to assess what needs to change.
- Deeper engagement and loyalty – deeper understanding helps colleagues become more closely involved.
We offer four courses on Agile Thinking:
Creativity is relevant to every area of business, particularly problem-solving. We need to be able to re-imagine how we do what we do, to create options and opportunities. However, there are obstacles to the creative mindset – in individuals, groups and institutions. So the first step is to remove these and create conditions where creativity becomes possible – ideas flow, mistakes are recycled into the process and a growth mindset prevails.
How do you find sparkling gems of useful information among stacks of data? How do you cherry-pick information from different sources, combining it into insightful conclusions? A methodical approach to information management can tame the quantity of data available to you. By separating valid knowledge from reflexive thinking, motivated reasoning, bias, and pseudo-science, participants can take a lead over competitors by building a persuasive position founded on well-sourced principles.
To find the elusive truth amidst the background noise of everyday communication, we need to adopt two traits that allow us to profit from the thinking of others while constructing our own view. Firstly, intellectual diversity involves looking for alternative viewpoints. We can do this by looking to other disciplines, to other types of personality and to people of backgrounds different to our own. Secondly, intellectual humility is the ability to review, revise and even reverse our thinking in the light of new information.
Thinking flexibly relies on having a toolkit of ‘mental models’ – alternative interpretations of the world and the way it works. Every time we use concepts like scientific method, economy of scale, margin of safety, first principles, diminishing returns – and so on – we use a mental model. This course explores how we can combine and apply various models systematically, so that we can remain agile and effective across any present or future context.
2. Leading Through Change
Leaders are currently navigating complex and uncertain terrains, this is unlikely to get easier as the 2020s wear on. Transformations in technology, the environment, geopolitics and social attitudes make it vital to develop resilience and a growth mindset. Optimism – acknowledging and addressing threats while focusing on what can be achieved – is a key part of effective leadership. So too is the ability to grow the people around us into leaders in their own right, so that leadership teams are supported and replenished by motivated juniors. The benefits of being prepared in this way include:
- Culture of optimism and opportunity – collective focus on steadying and developing the business.
- Initiative and resilience – riding out crises, holding the line.
- Trust, morale and functional interaction – greater stability, cohesion and retention.
- Leaders who continually learn – developing a motivated workforce that believes it can thrive here.
We offer four courses on Leading Through Change:
Leading Through Complexity
Leaders need to be all things to all people and sometimes this creates conflicting and contradictory expectations. They also need to constantly switch between emotional understanding and rational analysis. The ability to navigate through complexity means understanding what this involves and how to break the whole into manageable parts so each can be addressed. Through this course, leaders will learn to acknowledge the core of the complexity, then simplify the picture for stakeholders in a way that is appropriate.
Uncertainty can be damaging for progress if it’s not correctly understood. This course helps people deal with high levels of uncertainty by tackling their own relationship with it. In exploring ambiguity, helpful tactics can be found and headway made, even when not all the information is available. Participants will learn practical steps including a structure to help navigate decisions, how to communicate along the way, and to provide clarity and direction whilst in choppy waters.
Leading with Bounded Optimism
This course will enable leaders to see the opportunity in every difficulty, so that they can stay positive during times of adversity. It encourages participants to demonstrate empathy as well as assertiveness in order to empower their team. Bounded optimism is fundamentally different from ‘staying positive’, wishful thinking, hope, magical thinking or self-serving bias, which can all lead to serious misrepresentations of the situation. Bounded optimism is grounded in reality but also allows for the strength, ability and creativity needed to overcome challenges.
The most effective learning comes from practise. Reading, studying and being instructed are all vital parts of the picture but they need to be underpinned by continuous workplace learning. To ensure that we are always bringing through a new crop of leaders, knocking on the door for more responsibility, the current leaders need to be creating a workplace conducive to learning. That means they need to create a setting in which their junior colleagues can grow. This course explains what needs to be in place so that direct reports can learn to be independent, empowered and strategic.
3. Social Wellbeing
A positive company culture, that’s rich in respect, trust, psychological safety, and belonging, can be described as social wellbeing. This offers a sustainable way of working that tackles the long-term causes of disengagement more effectively than wellbeing apps, gym memberships, and mindfulness classes. These traditional forms of wellbeing may benefit the few keen individuals who sign up to them, but to support everyone across the workforce something more is needed.
A culture of social wellbeing, encouraged by leaders and adopted by all, leads to the sustainable working practices that support stronger motivation, engagement, and retention, as detailed in our guide to the Sustainable Human. The benefits of social wellbeing include:
- Sustainable productivity – less burnout and presenteeism, more honesty about what genuine productivity looks like.
- Fewer outbreaks of disharmony – a shared understanding of social human needs.
- Better physical and mental health – less productivity lost, a better place to work.
- More functional communication and interaction – smoother workflow, more buy-in, less ‘me-first’ behaviour.
We offer four courses on Social Wellbeing:
How Leaders Create Culture
The best way to harmonise the collective efforts of those you lead is to instil the right culture: the shared notions of who you all are, what you do, and ‘how things are done around here’. Culture is often invisible and therefore overlooked or misunderstood. Now that culture has to extend out from an office into peoples’ homes and workspaces, it needs to be much more explicit, understood and deliberately created. Participants in this course will learn where group culture comes from, how it affects what people do, and how to change it.
Hybrid Working Practices
This course addresses the adaptations required for successful hybrid working, including guidance on how to maintain energy, relationships, engagement and productivity. We explain how to integrate work and home life, and how to communicate clearly and sensitively to minimise uncertainty and maximise adaptability. People who attend this session will review assumptions they may have had about working in different scenarios. They will work out the best ways to leverage the positive and let go of the negative, and they will develop a strategy for conducting discussions about systems and processes. This session is available for both leaders and employees.
The Social Human at Work
Our social lives, interactions and identities are very important to our motivation, our productivity, and our sense of belonging. When we are involved with those around us, the group as a whole can benefit from collective intelligence, collaboration and a sense of community. This session is specifically designed to harness the power of connection to magnify our own abilities and each other’s. Participants will explore the component parts of social wellbeing so as to promote it explicitly and deliberately.
Building Social Confidence
The pandemic has affected many people’s confidence. Some may need support when interacting in social situations they find challenging; from speaking up in meetings, chatting easily with colleagues, having open conversations with all levels in the organisation and conveying ideas in an interesting and compelling way. These are all moments that come down to social confidence, allied with strong interpersonal technique. Developing social confidence begins by confronting and tackling the limiting ideas that get in people’s way.
Insights into Future Skills
Tips, advice and analysis on Future Skills, from our Insights pages:
A comprehensive look at our courses on Future Skills will help you choose those that are right for you. While all these skills are learnable, the truth is that we all of us have most of them already. Agile critical thinking, managing complexity and a sense of social inclusion are innate capabilities, we just sometimes need a little help to unlock them. Success in doing so will pay dividends both to individual leaders and to their organisation.
In uncertain times, now and in the future, we’ll need highly capable leadership – clear-minded thinkers who can see the way forward and bring others along. By understanding straightforward principles of human interaction, leaders can increase the choices available to them in wisely and effectively managing others. These fundamental elements of future skills serve as the key components of culture. They shape direction, support integrity and encourage leadership that is humane and inclusive to its roots, so that an organisation can be sure it is prepared for the future, with the best people doing their best at work.