woman drawing
PHOTO: Retha Ferguson

Business will be forever changed in the months and years to come. Faced with what is likely a permanent move to a more remote workforce, companies are rushing to address new security considerations and integrate new capabilities and processes. Even as business leaders understand this reality, most are busy putting out immediate fires in COVID-19’s wake. They don’t have time to focus on the bigger picture months or years out.

But company leadership needs to consider changes that better position employees and businesses to weather any storm. Even before March’s economic downturn, workers were increasingly expected to be jacks of all trades, combining coding knowledge with business acumen and communication skills — and now COVID has raised the stakes again.

The Importance of 'Soft' Skills

For the past several years, we’ve been told the smartest, most successful people in our society are coding geniuses. The rising popularity of STEM programs in schools is just one of many signs of our increasing investment in hard skills like coding and math.

But that doesn’t represent the full picture. As artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities grow and companies embrace more transformative technology, end-users without coding experience can now create beautiful workflows, develop apps and even build websites. Emerging technologies such as videoconferencing, Slack and others have been crucial enablers during the current crisis, necessitating employees learn new skills in little time.

Today, it’s more valuable to be able to work alongside tech and automation, and adapt to fill spaces where bots can’t, than to be armed with a fixed set of hard skills. In addition to looking for motivated employees with adaptable mindsets, employers should build a culture of critical thinking and arm workers with the new skills and tools needed to succeed in corporate life after COVID-19.

Related Article: We May Never Go Back to Work as We Know It (and That's OK)

Building the Skills Needed to Thrive Post-COVID

Many companies experienced unexpected or undesired changes in the wake of COVID-19, like the push to launch digital transformation initiatives ahead of plans. But moving forward, leadership will have the opportunity to take a more timed, considered approach to change management.

Change management must include a holistic understanding of business processes that centers your company’s people and addresses the impact new forms of automation may have on them. In the near future, AI will perform many common coding tasks, compelling employees to develop a new set of critical thinking skills agnostic to specific fields, rather than overvalued hard tech skills.

To evolve beyond the current crisis and prepare for the next, businesses need to build and retain a jack-of-all-trades workforce by nurturing the following attributes:

1. Willingness to Learn

The switch to work-from-home demands companies introduce new workflows and tools to sustain business operations and enable connectivity. Coworkers connect over Zoom rather than coffee, and employee onboarding happens on a computer. Employees who take these changes in stride are your champions here, but you’ll also need to provide less savvy employees with upskilling programs to learn new tools. Create engaging ways to boost confidence in strategic skills and give end-users power to control and manage automation and workflows.

2. Values and Motivation

Identifying employees who go above and beyond to create wellness programs, resource groups and other initiatives becomes more difficult when teams aren’t meeting and seeing each other every day. Demonstrating your commitment to these programs — even if they’re virtual — encourages a happier workforce and boosts employee engagement. Championing your values-driven workers keeps your whole workforce motivated not just by long-term company revenue goals, but also to make the day-to-day work environment better.

3. Adaptability

Even if hard tech skills won’t play as big a role in the future as initially anticipated, the ability to work with tech certainly will. Automation will continue to transform roles and responsibilities as it reduces manual labor and streamlines processes. My firm Nintex conducted a survey with Gen Z workers and found that while 88% of them see automation as a resource, over half (57%) are worried it will impact their jobs. As a company leader, it’s on you to communicate the value of AI — and the value of your employees.

Even as C-suites juggle heavier workloads than ever, recognition of and support for the above qualities in your employees should be a top priority. Building a culture that values learning and development comes from the top down, and leadership should identify and celebrate workers that embody these skills. In addition, the more you’re living by these values yourself, the more resilient your workforce and business becomes. By planning long-term and enabling employees to excel at new roles and responsibilities, you ensure that your company is prepared to weather future changes to its operations.

Related Article: Digital Workplace Change Management Requires a Multi-Pronged Approach