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The Future of Work | Working the Future
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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking


2020-12-04 10:27

Cathryn Barnard



This week, a Bloomberg article described 2020 as ‘the year that lasts a generation’. How I wish I’d have come up with that, as it’s such an apt...


This week, a Bloomberg article described 2020 as ‘the year that lasts a generation’. How I wish I’d have come up with that, as it’s such an apt descriptor. 


I know I’m not alone when I say I’ll be glad to see the back of this year. I suspect everyone’s eyes are now firmly fixed on 2021, the hope of a smooth vaccine rollout, and the prospect of improved economic conditions.


But while thinking ahead, in parallel I’ve been reflecting on the year gone by and pondering what it’s taught me. Several things spring to mind...


1. Connection and community are everything

When the chips are down, connection and community are everything. In the early weeks of the lockdown imposed by the pandemic, we all clung to our devices – to speak to friends and family and make sense of our extraordinary situation. 


Many of us felt compelled to check in on friends and connections we’d been out of touch with – it was as if we suddenly realised who we really cared about and valued. And when we connected, we gave each other the precious gifts of time and attention. 


We listened and were listened to. We felt seen and heard, and this sense of connection felt incredibly therapeutic. Being granted permission to verbalise our version of events as they unfolded enabled us to sense-make and feel slightly better about the world. Our relationships strengthened as we shared a common experience, and our resilience grew as a result.


Aside from the restorative nature of human connection at a personal level, relationship and community are undisputed linchpins for business in the future of work. They’re superpowers no algorithm can replace. 


Anecdotally, one owner of a bespoke chain of London-based coffee shops shared a story. With five shops pre-pandemic, he’s now down to three. The damage Coronavirus has done to urban hospitality businesses is vast. 


When I asked how he decided which ones to close, I expected him to tell me it was a profit and loss decision. 


But his answer surprised me. He told me a key factor in his decision was his landlords’ response to his request for rent leniency. Two landlords insisted that full rent continue to be paid regardless of lockdown. The others, clearly thinking holistically, offered to share the pain, in the promise of an eventual upside. 


When we help and support each other’s businesses through hard times, we come out all the stronger for it.


2. We’re way more adaptive and resilient than we think

For all the limiting talk about certain cohorts being ‘snowflakes’, I think the pandemic has shown us to be way more resilient than we imagine. When the going gets tough, we’ve no choice but to adapt. As the adage goes, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.


We should celebrate this. The next decade is likely to be one of huge transition, and people have already shown themselves to be remarkably flexible. For years within business, it was maintained that working from home was non-viable, that system infrastructures wouldn’t allow it. And yet within days, we’d adapted, and the systems coped.


I’d argue its institutionalised mindsets that are inflexible. 


Those organisations that are struggling to adapt to the shifts that the pandemic has induced are fast becoming irrelevant.


3. Humans are naturally curious and self-actualising

As part of the consultancy we did for TalkTalk this summer, we came across something surprising. 


When given time and space, humans tend towards curiosity, learning and self-improvement. Nearly half of those surveyed reported using lockdown to teach themselves new skills. 


Business owners take note.


Our global reskilling emergency has been exacerbated by the pandemic. The pace at which enterprise technology is evolving is outstripping our ability to upskill and adapt. 


Considering our discovery, perhaps responsibility for the skills and learning gap sits more with the outdated attitudes of employers than with employees. 


People are naturally curious, but we’d argue that key to embedding continuous learning at work is allowing workers to decide for themselves how best to upskill themselves. The days of traditional L&D as ‘training’ are numbered. 


4. Self-care is essential

Oh my – what a lesson I’ve learned!! 


Having experienced bereavement at a young age, I thought I knew what it meant to be resilient. But the mind-bending nature of this year has tested me. I’m so enormously grateful to friends who’ve generously shared their wisdom on the criticality of self-care in business resilience. 


I’ve not nailed it by any stretch, but I do now at least know when it’s time to switch off and do something else instead. Without self-care, burnout could come all too easily.


5. The climate crisis is real

Two of the most distressing images I’ve seen this year have involved the widespread loss of homes, natural habitat and wildlife. The wildfire events in Australia and the US this year had an end-of-days horrific quality. The 2020 WWF Living Planet Report revealed that human activity is responsible for an almost 70% decline in biodiversity in 50 years. That’s beyond sobering. 


Our climate crisis is real, and we need to act fast…


As business leaders we must do whatever we can to reduce our carbon emissions and waste. 


This isn’t just a moral imperative – the future of the planet depends on it. Additionally, 2020 Edelman research shows that people want and expect business to solve the great challenges of our times. And they’ll vote with their wallets.


When we’re seen to take positive action on key issues, we build huge brand trust. Trust is a measurable that will help define commercial success in the 21st Century. 


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So, despite often feeling utterly fed up with pandemic-induced loss of civil liberties, there ARE silver linings as the year draws to a close. 


While all eyes may be on science and technology to get us out of this predicament, let’s never underestimate the power, potential and utter brilliance of what it means to be human. It’s how we’ll thrive in the future of work.


What are your key learnings from 2020? We’d love to hear about them, so please do feel free to share in the comments field below.


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Looking to dive deeper into some of the areas covered in this blog post? Check out our Navigating Talent RiskHybrid Working and Foresight Focus reports and products.

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