Do you have the skills to get ahead in a world where the workforce has been decimated, leaving space for only a talented few, most of whom operate from a home office?

Do the ‘old ways’ still apply when your daily commute means shifting from bed to your home office (pants optional)? How do you collaborate when you’re sitting miles away from your colleagues? Doesn’t teamwork fundamentally involve some sort of face-to-face interaction? These competencies were highly valued when the advent of 4IR was an organisation’s most pressing concern, but what are the priorities in a post-Covid workplace?

Your office, right now

Then again, many of us may not return to the workplace at all. That’s not only because social distancing regulations mean that most workers will continue to work from home, but because the economic fallout of protracted lockdown conditions have made a severe dent in employment numbers. According to Bronwyn Williams, a trend translator and future finance specialist at Flux Trends, an estimated seven million jobs will be lost in South Africa this year. “We’ll have to switch from thinking about ‘jobs’ to thinking about ‘work’; becoming self-reliant for income, rather than having a boss,” Williams says.

This being the case, we’re likely to see a spike in the number of people participating in the gig economy, predicts Templar Wales, co-founder of DYDX.

Another big change is the non-linear nature of work. True, we had to adapt to a galloping pace of change as technological advances gained momentum, but that’s nothing compared to the absolute opacity of the next few years. Industrial and organisational psychologist, Margie Viviers, maintains that 10-year plans have become obsolete; the best we can do is try to plan for the potential disruptors we can but guess will interrupt our way of working within the next two years. At the same time, we will all be working off multiple (and different) platforms – so the idea of a simple progression between points A and B is woefully misplaced.Bronwyn Williams

How to adapt

Given these altered conditions, it’s reasonable to expect that some get-ahead competencies will have changed, too. But, says Viviers, this isn’t necessarily so. The collaboration that has been highly prized in recent years will be in even greater demand. If anything, this could be elevated to superpower status, as leaders struggle to unite people across geographic divides. “More than ever, the job of the leader is far greater than simply managing, driving or controlling people,” Viviers points out. Emotional intelligence and empathy are tremendous assets here – those with a knack for encouraging people to express their views or control their emotions under an extremely pressed environment will be in high demand.

Similarly, the need for creativity continues, especially since team members must be able to interpret customer demands in a disjointed world where face-to-face communication (and the attendant visual cues which go a long way to convey a person’s meaning) is not always possible.

We’ll have to switch from thinking about ‘jobs’ to thinking about ‘work’...

An ability to predict future trends is also useful, although this means nothing if you’re not able to adapt to these changes, Viviers says. Flexibility, then, is something to aspire to, especially as both individuals and organisations will be required to “expand and contract” at a minute’s notice as we are exposed to other unexpected disruptors. Linked to this is data literacy, which makes it possible to read and predict trends, as well as a dedication to lifelong learning. More than simply upskilling, this is the key that will help us identify and unlock new opportunities. Take the tourism or restaurant industries, for example – with thousands of people likely to lose their jobs in these sectors, they’ll have to find new ways to apply their skills. Of course, there’s always the option of completing an online course or webinar – which is also an effective way of expanding networks, which remains important even in a world without physical meetings.

Other crucial skills, Viviers continues, are agility – not only in thought but also in an ability to switch from one platform to another with ease – as well as critical thinking. “We’ve always spoken about the need for analytical thinking, but a talent for critically evaluating information from a diverse range of sources becomes critical in a world where even resources previously thought to have an impeccable reputation have become tainted by the prevalence of misinformation and disinformation.”

Going back to basics

Against this backdrop, there’s much to be said for the fundamentals of management, argues Dr. Linda Meyer, director of operations and sector support at Universities South Africa, a representative body of South Africa’s public universities. Above all, leaders must have a flair for coordination and planning – something which was difficult even when the world was in a more advanced state of cohesion. Now there is an even greater challenge in ensuring coordination between employees working on site and those still based at home, and that is making sure that their schedules align and that they are adhering to a structure.

Planning is vital for employees, too, as many will have discovered while trying to adapt to the unfamiliar work-from-home environment. But, observes Wales, there is a big difference between working from home because you have to, and working remotely on a permanent basis, which is where more organisations will be shifting. As they do so, it will be incumbent on individuals to become more comfortable with facilitating technologies. “A typical day at work involves more than simply tapping away at your laptop. Many people have up to three screens open at a time, just so they can complete the paperwork, admin and reviews that accompany their jobs,” he notes. A similar setup will be required at home; as will a knowledge of how to use technologies like Microsoft Teams or Zoom to their full advantage, making use of features such as breakaway rooms to foster collaboration. “If you’re working from home permanently, you’ll need all the equipment you used at the office, plus you’ll need to update your software skills and fine-tune soft skills like collaboration and communication.”

A typical day at work involves more than simply tapping away at your laptop.

Getting to grips with gigging

As workforces contract, individuals contemplating a freelance career would do well to arm themselves with technical skills such as bookkeeping, timekeeping and other basic business competencies, says Wales. They’ll also need to work on marketing themselves, building trust and offering a professional service remotely.

Williams says that a flexible mindset is another must for people embracing this freelance lifestyle. “People who opt for a salary need to accept that they will have to sacrifice some of their freedoms because companies will need to monitor individuals working remotely. Of course, corporates have rights in this regard, but it does raise questions around personal privacy,” Williams says.

The last word goes to Meyer: “Resilience will be the most useful skill you can develop – not only because it will help you adjust to a business environment that has changed drastically and rapidly, but also because it will carry you through a workplace where morale is sure to have been damaged by retrenchments. And, if you have been retrenched yourself, it’s the quality that will make you a more attractive prospect for other employers.” 

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