The Race to Reskill

One bitterly cold night in post-war Osaka, Momofuku Ando was walking home from the salt factory. He saw clouds of steam in the street, around which crowds of people were huddled. They were waiting, a long time as it turned out, for ramen noodles to be cooked in vats of boiling water. “Why should they wait so long?” he pondered, when he was struck by inspiration.

Ando quickly became consumed by the challenge of making noodles that didn’t take so long to cook. With food shortages rampant, he believed noodles may even solve world hunger. After toiling away in his backyard shed for an entire year, the 48-year-old invented the process of ‘flash-frying noodles’ first so they would cook much faster. Ando had just invented “Instant noodles”. In 1958 he sold 13 million bags of three-minute noodles. Ando followed that up with the 1971 innovation of Cup Noodles, inspired by customers who reused coffee cups as ramen bowls. Today, around the world, over 100 billion servings of instant noodles are eaten every single year. The Japanese voted instant noodles their second most important invention of the twentieth century (after the now obsolete Sony Walkman). Ando, who went on to found Nissin Food Products Co. Ltd. even has a museum dedicated to his beloved innovation.

Today, with the challenges of the pandemic, it is the innovative organisations and people who are thriving. It is a fundamental truth that the greatest innovations arise from the most significant barriers. Innovation is stimulated when four factors are present:

  • Dissatisfaction with how things are,
  • Inquisitiveness to ponder “what if,”
  • Initiative to take action,
  • Persistence to transform the what-if into a viable reality.

All four are essential. Dissatisfaction alone results in frustration and complaining. When you add inquisitiveness, you’re still only daydreaming. Nothing happens until you take action. Taking action gets you in the game. And persistence separates true innovators from mere dabblers. How persistent is persistent? James Dyson, founder of Dyson vacuums, went through 5,127 prototypes of his dual-cyclone, bagless vacuum cleaner before taking it to the market. That’s persistence!

“The first ingredient to being wrong is to claim that you are right. Geniuses have a knack for raising new questions. Hence by the public they are either admired for their creativity or, even more commonly so, detested for disturbing the daily peace of mind.”
― Criss Jami

Disruption Drives Reinvention

The world is changing. The future of business belongs to those who don’t wait to create it. We are being forced to innovate. Along with these changes, having a connection with a deep meaning and purpose in life is essential. Necessity breeds innovation and we are creating new ways of working, living and caring. We’re being challenged to rethink our collective and individual responsibilities to each other, to the institutions we work for, and to the societies and environments we live in. This renewed mission for life is the tonic humanity has been thirsty for.

Because the role of business itself is morphing, we must cultivate and hire for the four critical traits: dissatisfaction, inquisitiveness, initiative, and persistence. And while innovating doesn’t guarantee that your business will succeed, failing to innovate almost guarantees that it will not. Today’s greatest companies are fuelled by passion and purpose, not cash. They earn large profits by helping all their stakeholders thrive: customers, investors, employees, partners, communities, and society. These rare, authentic ‘firms of endearment’ act in powerfully positive ways that people recognise, value, admire, and love. They make the world better by the way they do business – and the world is responding.

“You are unique. You have different talents and abilities. You don’t have to follow in the footsteps of others. And most important, you should always remind yourself that you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing and have a responsibility to develop the talents you have been given.”
― Roy T. Bennett

Chasing Talent, Not Capital

Just as the speed of digital transformation has been accelerated by the pandemic, so too has the value of talent increased within every organisation. In fact, talent has become perhaps the greatest asset of any company in our ever-changing world. New technology that provides a competitive edge today, becomes obsolete tomorrow. This leads to a never-ending demand for new skills — skills with a very short-lived value proposition. In order to maintain the value of an organisation’s most precious asset (its’ talent) HR leaders must be willing to constantly reskill the current workforce and be on the look out for new talent.

This seemingly endless cycle creates a major challenge for organisations seeking to build new products or introduce new services. Additionally, failure to innovate is an invitation for the market to render your products and services obsolete in the same way an outdated skillset devalues your talent pool. Meanwhile, the pandemic has thrown fuel on that fire across every industry. From health care and technology to logistics and retail, change is happening at light-speed as our agility is further tested.

“The knowledge of all things is possible”
― Leonardo da Vinci

Global Skills Revolution

As we race to reskill, humanity is embarking on what can only be described as a Global Skills Revolution. Talent is the new currency to sustain ventures because talent is needed to support technology and innovation. In response to the pandemic, the pace of new technology has become so rapid that most people do not even know about the paradigm changing technologies being used today, or what is coming out in the next two or three years. Businesses use the same approaches that have brought them success, yet their products, services, and business plans are quickly becoming outdated. Whole industries are oblivious as to what has started to replace them.

As humanity awakens, the social acceptance of paradigm shifts is becoming mainstream. Humanity is now beginning to accept new smart ideas and technology very quickly, because they work much better, and history shows us that clinging to the past quite literally kills us. Still, it remains true that an organisation is only as good as its’ talent.

“You must add value to yourself to be relevant”
― Sunday Adelaja

5 Most Pervasive Global Talent Trends

Stripped down to focus on what’s truly important, companies around the globe have proven the resilience of pre-pandemic trends towards winning with empathy. At the start of 2020, Mercer identified four trends that companies were pursuing to stay ahead. There was renewed focus on the future of humanity and the planet, active reskilling, combining human intuition with workforce science, and on energising the employee experience. Those companies who were already on this journey naturally thrived during the pandemic. Those still stuck in the old-outdated paradigm need to quickly decide which new practices to keep – and which to retire.

One of the challenges in 2021 will be driving an aggressive change agenda in the face of widespread stress and fatigue. Stress and fatigue is not hitting all workers in the same way. According to a study by the American Psychological Association’s Stress in the Time of COVID-19 nearly half of parents (46%), report stress levels between 8 and 10 on a 10-point scale (where 10 is “a great deal of stress”), and 28% of childless adults say the same. These stressors are permeating through to business. HR leaders say the primary barriers to transformation are juggling multiple priorities (47%) and employee exhaustion (45%), according to Mercer’s 2021 Global Talent Trends Study. With no end to the pandemic or its effects in sight, managers need to refocus on how best to help their team through the wreckage. Each workplace is different, but business is business. There are a few common sources of on-the-job stress that every business leader needs to know how to combat. 

  1. Tight Deadlines

Tight deadlines can have a brutal impact on mental health. A study from the jobseekers platform, CareerBest found that tight deadlines were the leading cause of workplace stress, with nearly twice as many respondents selecting this than the next most common response. If the research on the impact of tight deadlines is settled, why then do so many workplaces still implement them? Much better planning and project management is necessary.

The short answer is that it’s hard to push back against a decades-long norm: as projects crop up, the incentives are high to finish them as quickly as possible. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to break that trend. Set schedules very early on in the planning process in order to make sure that no one feels crept up on by onerous deadlines. Most importantly, always prioritise the wellbeing of your workers over early or on-time project completion—too much of the latter will cause some vicious burnout in the long term. 

  1. The Shift to Remote Work

Workers were basically expected to embrace remote work overnight in 2020. While the virtual commute brings with it some benefits, the whiplash many employees experienced continues to be felt to this day. Mental and behavioural health provider Pathways found that half of all workers experience stress related to remote work. Is your business doing enough to combat this?

The key to managing remote work is balance. While every office needs some degree of continuity, do your best to accommodate the preferred working styles of each of your employees. Some of your employees may prefer Zoom calls while others opt for Slack chat. Any method is fine so long as no one is forced into using platforms or workflows that cause them anxiety on the job. 

  1. Low Morale

This one should be self evident: how could any business possibly keep morale high in times like these? Traditional office pastimes have been curtailed, growth is erratic, and meetings are now more characterised by fatigue than they are by collaboration. 

There’s no easy answer here, but there is one thing you shouldn’t be doing: bemoaning the circumstances. As tough as things may be, you still have a raft of tools at your disposal for keeping your team motivated. Defining your purpose and setting goals are perhaps the two most important stepping stones to strong morale. This can easily be done online. Adapt to what you’ve been dealt instead of waiting for things to change, because who knows when they will, if ever?

  1. Not Enough Time Off

The halt on travel associated with the pandemic has also meant a general decline in the usage of annual leave. This is a troubling omen for workplace stress levels. Employees need regular breaks in order to stay balanced, calm, and productive. If members of your team are nearing some critical points of overwork, talk to them about taking some time off. Even consider expanding your organisation’s leave policies in the hopes that those in need of a break will finally take one. Also, avoid putting the balance sheet first and your employees second by enforcing mandatory leave on blanket terms. This is a time to be accommodating so that employees don’t return from a break more stressed than when they left.

  1. Bad Tech

Bad tech can slow down work and cause more problems than it solves. Tech problems induce high levels of stress in the process. A study from customer service technology developer Verint, paints a rosier picture of the impact technology can have on work: 72% of workers with low stress levels attribute that (at least in part) to great technology lightening their workloads. Good tech is the lowest of low-hanging fruit when it comes to employee engagement and effectiveness.

The best tech needs to streamline existing processes and alleviate workplace anxiety in the process. If it does that, it will be one of your greatest investments. Workplace stress may be ubiquitous, but that doesn’t mean that it’s inevitable. Taking the right steps now can put your business on the right path for years to come. It may not be easy, but it’s always worth it to invest in your precious talent.

“Chance favours the connected mind.”
― Steven Johnson

Impact of Remote Working on Innovation

Remote working was gaining traction before the crisis, but the pandemic has shown that telecommuting is here to stay. In a global study Steelcase found that when people work from home frequently, and they are not happy with the experience, their innovation drops by 7%. This may not seem like a lot, but it is hugely significant over time. When factored with the business value of successful innovations, a 7% reduction in the number of new innovations or a 7% delay in getting an innovation to market would make a big difference. A recent Gartner survey revealed that almost three in four CFOs plan to “shift at least 5% of previously on-site employees to permanently remote positions post-COVID-19.” Although many employees “learned by doing” during the first phase of the crisis (or received “quick and dirty” training) continued remote working will probably keep posing a reskilling challenge. There is a need for ongoing learning opportunities inside and outside companies. In an ideal world, everybody would be certified regularly and reskilled. We need to create a pathway to lifelong learning which leads to lifelong innovation.

There are three levels of innovation: incremental, evolutionary and revolutionary. Focusing exclusively on revolutionary innovation is a high-risk and often unwise endeavour. The surprising truth about innovation is that the most successful companies allocate the majority of their innovation assets (70%) to initiatives that are already core to their business. 20% is allocated to slightly risky initiatives, and only 10% to transformational ones (Inc. magazine). Don’t overlook the innovation that is necessary to keep your business moving forward: continuous improvement and (periodically) product and process evolution. While a home run gets them cheering, a stream of base-hits can be even more effective. Remember the three levels of innovation.

“I see no advantage in these new clocks. They run no faster than the ones made 100 years ago.”
― Henry Ford

Scenario Planning – Yes Now, Here’s How

So here we are, into the next phase of the pandemic. Businesses and consumers are slowly re-boarding, increasingly reengaging the marketplace and revving up the economic engine. Yet it remains a time of great uncertainty and there is still a wide range of possible outcomes. The virus might gradually subside and life may even return to something like what it was. Or (like SARS) the virus could disappear altogether – imagine that. Then again, the reopening of society could result in another wave of infections, causing us to return to the policies and practices of mid 2020. So, how do you plan for what to do when what to do is so contingent? 

Scenario planning. Scenario planning is an excellent strategy tool – especially in times of uncertainty. When your confidence in any one scenario is low, having several at your disposal will help you deal with any eventuality. Here, in a simplified form, are the basic steps:


Identify up to three, top-priority scenarios – considering the likelihood and impact of a broader range of scenarios. For example: you might decide that a second wave of infections is quite likely and that the impact would be serious. That might be one of your scenarios. Or, you might choose to identify a best-case scenario, worst-case scenario, and most-likely-case scenario.


Identify the triggers that would cause you to take significant action, given each scenario. In the second wave of infections scenario, you might decide that a sustained increase of infections by “x” percent over “y” amount of time would cause you to take action.


Consider alternatives and identify the best course of action for each trigger. Would the rate-of-infections trigger, for example, cause you to cease in-person meetings and revert exclusively to virtual meetings?

These three steps provide a structured way to anticipate and plan for top-priority scenarios, before you get caught up in the heat of the battle. Yes, these are uncertain times. And you can mitigate the risks. This is THE time for scenario planning.

“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old”
― Peter Drucker

A Lab Mindset

You may have innovation on your mission statement, but is that truly what your employees experience? Some people find inspiration in the shower, others when bouncing ideas off colleagues, and some get their best ideas while walking the dog. Wherever creativity happens, it is clear that innovation is no longer only in the realm of the tech-head or creative genius. In an era of continuous transformation, innovation is everyone’s job. And it’s a job that sits at the heart of how individuals, companies and society prepare for the future of work. Innovative businesses flourish and so do their people: we know that innovation makes a difference to where individuals want to work, and where they want to stay.

Yet, the employee experience often lags this aspiration today, with only 45% of employees saying their company accepts failure as a part of learning (Mercer). So how do we move forward? A lab mindset is one that poses reasoned questions, investigates hypotheses, and draws on data to support or disprove ideas. It is at the core of the future of work and moves us closer to the goal of innovation. Talent practices, such as creative performance management and workforce analytics, can infuse an enterprise-wide culture of experimentation, one that drives new products and solutions, and also drives evolution in HR. Cultivating a lab mindset is an intrinsic part of building a thriving workforce for the future, and helping HR make smarter, quicker talent decisions. And it all starts with HR.

“Collaboration has no hierarchy. The Sun collaborates with soil to bring flowers on the earth.”
― Amit Ray

New Realities, New Momentum

2021 begs for a more expansive view of organisational success — one that puts purpose and good outcomes for all at the heart of the transformation agenda. Mercer’s findings highlight the need to plan workforce transformation with care. In 2021, the successful organisation:

Takes care of collective futures. 

We saw renewed impetus at the end of 2020 to make progress on environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals. Two in three HR leaders say the pandemic has spurred their companies to continue or step up the pace toward a multi-stakeholder business approach. In 2021, Europe leads the way on focusing on this agenda (71%), followed by AsiaPac (67%) and North America (61%). 

COVID-19 certainly thrust companies’ treatment of employees forward. Responsible employers extended wellbeing provisions, and were celebrated publicly – a practice to continue if organisations wish to remain a magnet for top talent. In fact, a September 2020 Workforce Institute global survey found that 33% of employees say they now trust their employer more because of how the employer reacted to the pandemic. Thinking holistically about employee wealth and benefits, such as benefits for non-married partners or global paternity provisions, is one way in which companies can shine. For example, providing gig or contract workers with access to some services could be an area for investment in 2021. Likewise, most companies (65%) don’t offer or plan to offer phased retirement, a worrying finding given that the pandemic put many people’s retirement plans on ice. 

Scales the skills agenda. 

In the “buy, build, borrow or bot” paradigm, borrow is having its heyday. The pandemic proved that being able to rapidly redeploy resources (in other words, leaning on an internal talent marketplace) is not only possible – it is critical to success: 44% of organisations made it easier to loan talent internally in 2020 and a further 26% plan to do so in 2021. Make no mistake: proper acceleration in the “borrow” lane demands clear reskilling strategies. We need to update talent models so that skills are the basis for defining work, deploying talent, managing careers and valuing employees, rather than simply looking at their job titles.

The good news is that the era of apathy around reskilling is over. Before the pandemic, just one in three HR leaders had invested in workforce reskilling as part of their future of work strategy. This year, they see the upskilling/reskilling of critical talent pools as the primary key to successful transformation. That being said, just 15% are targeting reskilling efforts at workers likely to be displaced. The risk here is that this leads to a skills gap in societies and learning becomes unhooked from real skills and jobs of the future. Over the course of last year, it became clear that skills-based talent models deliver the flexibility that allows organisations to meet new realities. Preserving this new practice will require a shakeup of many talent processes: hiring algorithms still search for traditional qualifications and promotion still tends to be tenure (rather than skillset) based. Successful organisations recognise the imperative to change and a leading 14% have started their skills-based talent strategy journey, including pay-for-skills. As we enter 2021, the data and dashboards are there to enable innovative companies to add a skills dimension to their reward philosophies so workers can see the link between skills, pay and promotion.

Stays ahead of the data wave.

COVID-19 drove a data explosion — with companies collecting ever more highly personal information on employees’ location, health and remote working habits. Now big data is driving decisions – some for good, and some as yet unknown: 45% of HR leaders say they plan to improve their analytics capabilities to support strategic workforce planning in 2021. The challenge is how to use the data, taking account of employees’ consent and the data’s influence on other talent decisions. Companies face a trilogy of new data, old mindsets, and decision-making delegated to remote or distributed teams. Ethical decisions made at the top about data usage may get lost along the way. Achieving a human-tech blend demands reviving efforts related to workforce science in 2021 – to rethink how HR builds its ability to understand patterns in a new way for a new era, and to set standards for new behaviours from the outset. 

How can companies blend human sensing with science? Executives are demanding analytics around benefit costs, outputs and productivity. Consequently, HR leaders plan to improve insights around skill acquisition (48%) and remote working-related performance (42%). But key to maintaining the strides made in 2020 will be balancing these with metrics on energy, equity and engagement. There is quite a way to go, with just one in three companies planning to improve analytics on physical wellbeing in 2021. Embedding the gains in new thinking, born out of the crisis, demands a mix of economic and empathetic data. For instance, the impact of cost decisions on health and engagement – something just 24% of companies do today.

Energises the exhausted. 

The current global flexible working experiment dominates today’s conversations. In 2020 we learned that a job’s degree of flexibility is only half the equation. Equally important is how much flexibility people want (or can accommodate) given the toll on their non-work lives. Half of companies (52%) have plans to reinvent flexibility in 2021. Leading organisations will take into account how much flexibility is possible, what is desirable, and the infrastructure and culture required to sustain it. 

Leading the exhausted requires listening and reviving a broader view. What constitutes caring in the global pandemic era? Addressing financial wellbeing and mental health will be a strong indicator. The bright spot is that HR leaders intend to make progress: almost half (47%) say they will add benefits to address emotional health this year. Also, only a few organisations are looking at younger, female or minority workers differently – three groups disproportionately hit by the pandemic: just 25% of companies plan to re-segment the workforce to better tailor benefits to new needs brought on by COVID-19. Turning the target operating model of old on its head will be vital to inclusivity. 

Companies are also taking a long hard look at what is truly core to the future of HR, and how to provide the desired target interactions in line with today’s digital lives (60% are using interactive processes to co-create new employee experiences). Progressive companies are leveraging technology to transform how they listen to employee segments, how they meet employee expectations on digital health, and how they automate HR processes. 

“Some people think only intellect counts: knowing how to solve problems, knowing how to get by, knowing how to identify an advantage and seize it. But the functions of intellect are insufficient without courage, love, friendship, compassion, and empathy.”
― Dean Koontz

Still Winning with Empathy

How will we remember 2021? Will a once-in-a-generation pandemic cause a genuine watershed moment, in which companies reset their focus to redesign their purpose? Will companies be at the forefront of repairing and driving a more equitable and inclusive society? Or will we revert to the tried and tired processes of old as we abandon new ideals in the fight for survival? 

As this extraordinary year resets the agenda. Preparing for tomorrow requires organisations and their HR function to transform faster than they ever have before – to redefine jobs and careers, to rearticulate what it means to retrain and retire, and to reignite what it means to be responsible. Success relies heavily on bringing employees along for the ride (consider that only 10% of employees strongly agree that they know how to contribute to digital transformation efforts, according to Futurum). By focusing on human-centred leadership, values and wellbeing, companies can build sustainable, bright futures for all.

The world of work is changing. Again. The rise of technology has given us so much information that data guides virtually every business decision in the modern age. And now, we are transitioning from the information age to the collaboration age. There has long been a friction between emerging technologies helping companies work more efficiently and people’s concerns about the future of their jobs. According to World Economic Forum, an estimated 75 million jobs may be disrupted by machines and automation over the next five years. In fact, it’s rare to go a day without another organisation announcing how the use of AI is transforming business. However, it’s important to remember that every technological revolution so far in history has seen the number of jobs increase. The question is will you be ready for the jobs of tomorrow?

“A shift in mindset is required to thrive in the current era and this cannot be achieve at an academic level, social latitude or political sphere but at a personal level.”
― Nicky Verd

Reskilling Is The Future; The Future Is Reskilling

Companies need to rapidly create programs on emerging topics and educate at scale. Reskilling is a significant challenge, but the answers are known. There are also early examples of how it can succeed. This problem is also an opportunity of the tallest order. The private sector can lead, in partnership with consultants, academia and governments. If organisations invest and treat this like the strategic priority it is, then the reskilling opportunity can create a future that matches each digital job of tomorrow, with a skilled worker ready to contribute.

The time when companies are struggling to stay afloat may not seem to be the perfect time for employee upskilling and reskilling, but the exact opposite is true. It is a misconception that during tough times employees need to do what they have to, with the skills they have, and not seek to broaden their skillset. We’ve already seen the major changes on the economic landscape and, with them, the demand for new and innovative approaches to mobilising existing talent.

As digital transformation accelerates, there has never been more pressure to adapt to new consumer buying patterns. By reskilling, you give yourself and your employees the opportunity to prepare themselves and their jobs for the future. The shift to a “learning-for-life” mindset enables you and your employees to embrace technological innovation and avoid job displacement. So, how can you employ and encourage reskilling at your organisation?

“A world full of technological advancements but without a single caring heart,

is more dead than alive.”

― Abhijit Naskar

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