Ever since the pandemic began and workforces went home for what turned out to be a long period of remote work (which has yet to fully end), we’ve been asking ourselves many questions about the future of work.
How are we adapting to this new environment?
Do we need new skills?
Will technology help us or hurt us over the long term? Is it OK to prioritize a healthier work-life balance when the world seems to be ending?
What careers will be on the ascent when this is over, and which ones should be avoided?
One thing is for certain: the Old World is never coming back, and we all must adapt to the reality forced upon us by COVID or be left behind. And therein lies the issue - how can you carve a career in a world full of uncertainty, for a job that might not yet exist, within industries in turmoil? Let’s face it; we’re on our own, as we’ve so often been.
In order to overcome this dreadful state of affairs, below is a list of skills one will need to polish to be able to “go get one of those jobs thing” once the post-COVID work transformation really gets going (I’m talking Robotisation, AI, matrix organizations, remote accountability, digital twins… and everything in between).
Better get the obvious out of the way early:
As much as I’d like to tell every Art History major in the room that they’ve made a smart choice, that their degrees will matter in the future, and that once algorithms do all the grunt work, all we’ll need is kisses, rainbows and pure thoughts to make it in Corporate City, that is simply not the case.
Yes, inherently, human abilities are incredibly important and will continue to be, as I describe below. But they will have to be mixed with at least some basic technical knowledge (data science, Java, Power BI…).
And no, I don’t mean being generally “Tech Savy”. Being Tech Savy is not enough. Knowing how to work a pivot table is not enough. Knowing how to convert a PDF file is not enough. Knowing how to set up a remote call is not enough. TURNING A VIDEO INTO A GIF DOES NOT MAKE YOU A “TECHIE”, KAREN.
The time will soon come when we have to be honest with ourselves - what hard skills do we have? How are they useful to society? There will be few excuses: from app building to data science, many resources are available and free to use for those motivated enough to learn.
One caveat, though - while technical abilities will be required, one should aim to remain a bit of a tech generalist until we know more. We’re not sure which code will be running the tech of the future. Maybe a new one will be created? The ability to pivot quickly is often under-appreciated in a corporate setting, yet incredibly useful.
Sorry? Getting technical accreditation while remaining a generalist is hard and convoluted? Well so is life, and look at you running yours like a boss, you beautiful unicorn you.
As many of us can attest, time boundaries were the first thing to fly out the window when our bedrooms became our offices. It is likely that this hybrid way of working will continue to remain dominant for most white-collar workers for the years to come. As such, and perhaps counterintuitively, knowing when to shut off the computer to take care of private business will be key to success in the future.
Indeed, outside interests are important to prosper in any career. Firstly, idle chit-chat about travels and sports is often the best way to bond with one’s peer. Secondly, burnouts are famously bad for business.
For the truly dedicated to their craft, proper time management may not be easy: we always want to finish that task on our to-do list, send that important email, write that last line of code… Down this path lies madness. And this is where rigor comes in. To future-proof one’s career, one needs to regularly walk away from the tools of said future, whatever they may be. We’re more effective and more imaginative when well-rested and had an opportunity to clear our thoughts anyway.
Mental health, work-life balance, and a new way of approaching time might very well be the forgotten keywords of the future.
Speaking of free time…
Many web developers agree that they get paid reasonably well for relatively few(er) hours compared to their technologically challenged colleagues. However, it is lesser known is that constant learning is required to stay on top of the game, often eating up many evenings and weekends. This need to consistently and constantly adapt is likely to apply to more and more professions as time goes: we’re entering the age of lifelong learning. And with new knowledge being accessible at a growing pace, one needs to be adaptable and not consistently yearn for the luxuries of the past (remember when you could enter the middle class without a Master's degree?).
Our schools are currently not responding to these new needs fast enough, but many companies seem to be getting the hang of it. MOOCs, too, are godsent and allow us to grasp the basics of thousands of topics. Even if it’s cursory, knowing the very basics of Java will get you further than knowing none of it if your role evolves to include “simple” coding. And it might.
When it comes to getting ahead, “active learning and applying thorough learning strategies” is the new “dating the boss’ daughter”.
This will bring joy back to our Art History major’s heart: in order to cut it in a work environment filled to the brim with algorithms and robotics, the ability to work in teams and communicate ideas and processes clearly will be key soft skills (not that it isn’t already).
Remember when you had group projects in school and thought, “what poppycock, I work better alone”? That is no longer an acceptable train of thought. Managing the expectations of the tech-illiterate man in the suit, as well as those of the Bazinga-Tshirt-wearing geek, is likely to become a job of its own - and an important one too, as the world (hopefully) grasps that Corporate Empathy is significantly correlated to worker retention in a job seeker's market.
Emotional intelligence and social perceptiveness is rare currency. As the projects become more complex and a wide array of stakeholders need connecting, it might become even more so. Speaking of connecting…
Connecting and enabling communication between humans is all well and good, but coordinating humans and machines is even better. Algorithms can work 24/7, but humans only work 10/5. That’s a 118 hours per week difference, during which algorithms/machines should be doing the work which does not require input. Similarly, some tasks are better if they’re robotized, but only if a human remains to put the finishing touches (think shelves-stocking or analyses that require specific visual expertise).
An employee who’s able to differentiate cooperation from automation and apply that knowledge to draw the line on the when and where of either will be a great addition to any corporation.
Back in 2018, the ever-so-insightful World Economic Forum named this the numero uno skill you’ll need to survive the rise of automation (“survive” is a strong word).
It’s true that as physical, manual skills, and basic cognitive skills become irrelevant, we see a rise in demand for higher cognitive skills and analytical thinking. The reason why is apparent: a machine learning algorithm can do the same work as 20,000 10-year-olds but cannot make the inferences and guesses a single well-educated 20-year-old might make from all this grunt work. YET.
It’s one thing to find out that US spending on science, space, and technology correlates with suicides by hanging, strangulation, and suffocation. Still, it’s another to realize that one has nothing to do with the other. Critical thinking is not likely to be automated anytime soon (or I’d be the first out of a job), and sharpening one’s instinct for such insights is likely to pay off big time.
More good news for our Art History major! As I’ve mentioned in many previous articles, one of the most troubling aspects of Artificial Intelligence is not necessarily the automation of jobs but potential human biases becoming prevalent in algorithms at scale (Exhibit A can be found at Amazon, as usual).
Algorithms can systematically “make” unfair decisions without anyone noticing or even understanding why. As such, teams should systematically make sure that an algorithm that aims to impact people’s lives is not plagued by bias. Hiring a diverse staff can help spot the reflection of the relevant social context, but this is rarely possible given the current structure of STEM classes… Alternatively, I’d recommend hiring a “bias detective”, a rare unicorn well-versed in both data science and humanities, to find unknown unknowns within the black box that something, as developed as an AI, can create.
This requires not only a strong sense of ethics but also an ability to think creatively about all the ways technology might do us wrong, taking the initiative to find potentially original solutions. This is how we get ethical innovation, and a potentially more equal corporate world than the modern-day Silicon Valley, which we know and castigate.
You knew this was coming.
Yes, saying leadership will be important is self-serving drivel of the highest order. However, real leadership and real social influence, though it has never gone out of style, is likely to be ever-more important in a business environment where seeing co-workers becomes rarer and rarer.
Working from home more, traveling less, no coffee breaks… leaders able to avoid any apathy from setting in such an environment would indeed be highly invaluable to the executive committee and rewarded accordingly.
This empathy was particularly important for all companies during the first few months of the pandemic to better understand what needed to be provided to employees at a time when a fog of war was descending over many households. Mental health, work-life balance, and a new way of approaching time might very well be the skills leaders of tomorrow will need to promote.
Being able to understand and apply the above is… not easy, to say the least. Consistently evolving, constantly learning, in the middle of a worldwide pandemic requires grit, resilience, and no small amount of self-motivation.
As such, these qualities are likely to remain highly sought-after by employers. This is especially true given that the current ways of working mean that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to look over employees’ shoulders at all times to make sure they’re working. Trust is the new micro-management and requires employees who can motivate themselves to work properly.
This goes more or less hand in hand with much of the above but requires even more “soft skills” - once you’re one of the very first persons in the world to hold a specific job, you can be sure that you’ll be required to teach it to others, and bring potential replacements up to speed. Such is the law of the jungle.
Hence, being able to efficiently train an entire team to scale a role within a business might be the most useful expertise of all in the long term. Adapt your CV accordingly.
At the end of the day, we’re the ones making decisions about how we want future jobs to be: do we want more humanity? More technology? More sustainability? More innovation? More profit? It’s possible to mix and match between those, yet hardly possible to have it all. Similarly, it’s up to us to decide what skills we want to see most in the near future, as acquiring all 10 over a short period of time is nothing but a dream.
I’m not too worried; we’ve always reinvented ourselves, over and over again, and always turned out all right. I see no reason to think we won’t come out of this stronger, smarter, and maybe, just maybe, nicer.
Originally published here.