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The rise of the agile organisation

21 / 12 / 2020Fiona Doherty


Following on from last week's Breakfast News, the theme of which was "Lifting the Shadow", we want to delve deeper into the framework outlined at the event, devised for when considering the impact of Covid-19 on the world of work. This framework was provided by Nick Shaw, Occupational Psychologist, Future of Work commentator and Co-Founder of innovative assessment company, Spotted Zebra.


The agile organisation

Nick shared with us the view that Covid-19 has been an accelerating factor in a shift towards the agile organisation. He referenced that business agility is a hot topic, with a recent McKinsey survey of 2,500 business leaders showing that 75 percent of companies see organisational agility as a top-three priority.

Over the last 15 years, the best tech organisations have learned that success is delivered through agile teams - small, multi-disciplinary teams with a clearly defined purpose and close customer alignment.  

However, this thinking is no longer constrained to tech development and is not prevalent across functions and into key organisational factors such as management structures, business goals, and use of technology. This means that the agile organisation goes beyond flexible working, as described here by McKinsey:

"a network of teams within a people-centred culture that operates in rapid learning and fast decision cycles which are enabled by technology, and that is guided by a powerful common purpose to co-create value for all stakeholders."

Nick described how the move to the agile organisation was underway before the pandemic and is underpinned by four factors:


  1. The demand for innovation
    Top-down planning models are giving way to nimbler, customer-driven methods of agile working. Speed has become the new business currency.

  2. The war for talent
    As roles change and automation is introduced, the focus on talent has shifted towards the 'creative' or 'learning' worker. These workers flourish and feel more rewarded in agile teams where they are empowered to iterate quickly and own the outcome.

  3. The pace of disruptive technology
    Established industries are being commoditised, or replaced, through technology, innovation and new business models. This has been accelerated in recent years with the automation, AI and ‘No-Code’ revolutions.

  4. The rise of remote working
    With this comes a shift to focusing on outcomes rather than inputs. Employee empowerment and measuring outcomes align neatly with agile principles.

Nick noted that the pandemic has accelerated all four components of the agile organisation and led to a more urgent focus on the roles that can be assisted, or replaced, by technology. He drew the audience's attention to the sense that this is not just about this pandemic; it's also about future ones. To reduce business impact from similar deadly viruses in the future, he noted that roles that can be automated would be done so more quickly than anticipated. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) indicates that this will lead to the near-term elimination, or fundamental re-definition, of up to 50 million jobs in the US alone. 

Nick then went on to describe three critical implications for Talent Acquisition teams:


  1. More frequent and more urgent hiring
    Rapid iterations and fast reactions to opportunities will mean teams are powered up and powered down rapidly in response to strategic initiatives

  2. Quality of talent will be critical
    Organisations won't be able to carry underperforming staff on projects that have a short timeframe. Speed to competence will become the key metric, rather than time to hire.

  3. Soft skills will displace experience and expertise
    With the pace of innovation increasing, a company will no longer hire purely for expertise. As per the case of ING, individuals with the right soft skills and motivation to learn quickly and work collaboratively will need to be identified and retained.

Finally, Nick commented on the implications of the agile organisation in relation to the soft skills that individuals will need to flourish. He shared research from the McKinsey Global Institute which indicates that by 2030, there will be 33% fewer hours worked in roles that require physical, manual and basic cognitive skills; yet a 74% increase in roles that require social, emotional and technological skills.


What are the soft skills of the future?

Within his presentation, Nick Shaw remarked that educational systems and young people would need to focus on developing these soft skills that align with future needs. Nick concluded his session by noting that roles that will still exist in 10 years, and those that have been created will require the skills that are hardest to understand and incorporate into existing systems. These include critical thinking, adaptive learning, judgement, compassion and understanding. These are the skills that will need to be developed and recruited for with even greater focus and precision in the years ahead.

During his session, Stephen Isherwood (CEO of the ISE) reinforced this perspective on the changing emphasis that is being placed on soft skills.

Stephen shared with the audience the skills or strengths that ISE members are particularly looking to recruit for that will enable performance, irrespective of the exact nature of the role.

He noted the growth in focus of behavioural skills such as 'resilience', 'problem-solving' and 'interpersonal skills'.

Stephen also provided an insightful perspective of the gaps between what employers look for when hiring graduates and the capabilities of graduates, with particular (and unexpected) gaps highlighted in areas such as self-awareness and communication skills.  

Stephen concluded his session by reflecting on how the ISE research aligns with the latest World Economic Forum (WEF) perspective on the relative importance of skill groups for young people entering the workforce. The WEF data shows that critical thinking skills, problem-solving and self-management skills will become of paramount importance to successful workplace performance in the future. This is perhaps of no surprise, given the uncertainty about exactly what jobs will "look like" in the future. Both Nick and Stephen emphasised that we are starting to witness a shift in emphasis from employers towards skills that will apply to a spectrum of roles - and that will allow the individual to adapt to future roles or organisational changes whenever they occur.


What jobs will exist in the future?

During his reflections on the economic outlook for 2021 and beyond, our regular contributor Declan Curry (Business & Economics journalist and broadcaster) spoke on the accelerating impact that the pandemic has had on roles in the traditional high street. In particular with some of its more famous brand names collapsing and thousands of jobs being lost. Declan's perspective was that these businesses were struggling before Covid-19, and this just accelerated their demise. He said that many traditional high street businesses had weakened for many years by a lack of investment, too much debt, changing customer tastes and demands and a failure to keep up with technological advances.

Declan referred to the fact that we are living through the worst economic slump in 300 years, and that the UK economy will be around 11% smaller as we exit 2020 than it was 12 months ago.  The economic impact of Covid-19 has been unprecedented.

He said that the effects of the pandemic will be twice as significant as the credit crunch of a decade ago. However, Declan spoke about the positive short-term impact that the vaccine should start to have on jobs, as it will enable people to return to work in sectors such as the airline industry, retail and hospitality. 

Declan concluded his presentation by reflecting on the future industries and roles that he sees thriving post-pandemic, and that will provide opportunities for early careers talent. He reflected on three trends that will bring us prosperity in the future:


  • Rebuilding society and the economy to tackle climate change, which will offer opportunities for new jobs in developing clean energy, and build on, for example, the UK’s heritage in the car and engineering industry

  • IInvestment in technology, and roles that are centred on the increasingly critical requirement to capture data, interpret it and use it for machine learning. Also important will be the need to develop automation across many industries

  • Innovations in biology and medicine, where we use genetic advances to beat disease, improve healthcare and engage an ageing society

So what does all of this mean for young people entering the workforce?

The acceleration of the agile organisation, the changing nature of future roles and the soft skills that will be required for success has led to a very different work environment for young people to navigate as they leave education and join the workforce.

This was reflected on in the last two sessions of the morning. Firstly, Mike Hanbridge (Senior Consultant, Blackbridge) and Dasha Karzunina (Head of Research, Trendence) shared findings from a Trendence Graduate survey of over 41,500 students from over 140 Universities. These students were asked about the impact of the events of 2020, how they are now thinking about the labour market and the support they will need from employers in the future.

The research indicated that 79% of young people think that it will be tough to get a job in the following year, which is much higher than in previous years.

Dasha also shared findings that show that young people are increasingly focused on finding a job that allows flexible working and to work from home, with 69% saying they would like to work from home at least one day a week. The research also showed that there had been a sharp drop in the number of young people thinking about starting their own business. So the pandemic has accelerated the trend towards shorter-term, flexible work within the framework (and security) that an agile organisation can provide.

To enable this to happen successfully, Trendence research indicated that BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) students need more support with remote working, relocation support and financial advice. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are, however, reporting that they find virtual internships more valuable than in-person internships. This indicates that employers will need to think carefully, and in differentiated ways, about the support they provide to young people joining the workforce, not least because only 54% of students feel that universities are doing everything they can to support them during these times.  

Finally, the Trendence research showed that students are more proactive in interacting with digital ways of engaging with employers, and so using online platforms to provide this support is likely to be beneficial.

However, Mike noted that these strategies would need to be blended with the right levels of human support to ensure success. 


How will young people cope with the impact of the pandemic?

In the last presentation, we heard from Dr Linda Papadopoulos, leading psychologist, human behaviour expert, broadcaster, author and columnist who reflected on the medium-term impact of the pandemic. She commented on how Covid challenged people directly in terms of the three factors that are most impactful in terms of mental wellbeing:


  • It was a novel threat, one that we hadn't experienced before and that we were uncertain of how best to cope with, and which therefore creates a heightened sense of anxiety

  • It was an obvious threat to existence, given the severity of the virus and the infection rate

  • It created a great deal of uncertainty about when the pandemic would end, but also more broadly it showed that everything that creates familiarity or comfort in our world could be taken away very rapidly

The 'emerging adulthood' age group (18-24 years old) has been amongst the most severely impacted in relation to their mental health. Linda explained that the pandemic came at a time when people at this age are preparing to unleash themselves on the world, to explore new possibilities. Therefore they felt most blindsided by the pandemic.

Linda considered the characteristics of the 'emerging adulthood'. This is the time when young people start to establish independence, create a personal identity, develop stronger emotional stability, shape a career path, find intimacy and start becoming part of a wider community outside of their family network. 

Each of these things was put on hold or compromised by the pandemic, with severe consequences. Both losing one's job, and the threat of losing a job has been shown to more seriously impact the mental health of young people than other age groups. To compound the challenge, Linda shared research to show that this age group has been more severely impacted by the economic crisis, with one third of 18-24-year-olds who had been furloughed losing their jobs in comparison with one sixth of working-age adults.

Linda then turned to what employers and educators can do to mitigate these effects:


  • Not see change as unique, instead as inevitable. As a psychologist, Linda encouraged employers and educators to ensure that young people develop adaptability. She explained that this is so critical in enabling people to get through life and to respond positively to change and that we must enable young people to understand how they can continually evaluate their sense of control. She noted the importance of enabling individuals to focus on the elements of life that we can control in any given situation - to "control the controllables."
  • Linda also advocated the importance of managers and employers, creating an attitude of positivity through transparency and communication. She advised employers to ensure that they consistently and openly explain organisational change, showing how they are working through the factors that are impacting the company, and being clear about the role that each employee can personally play in strengthening the overall resilience of the company.
  • Finally, she advised individuals to stay in the present, to make sure that they are always focusing their attention on what's happening in the moment. Practically, we may not be able to change some of the significant factors impacting the workplace. Still, we can take care of the personal actions that will ensure that we stay safe, that we are well prepared and ready to take advantage of opportunities when they do arise in the future.

As our speakers each provided their perspective on how we can 'lift the shadow' following the pandemic, it was apparent that Covid-19 has accelerated trends or issues that were already present in society. Some of these have had a clear negative impact, economically and socially - most notably in terms of the impact on the wellbeing of young people.

However, it also became clear that there's a strong alignment with the opportunities that the pandemic has accelerated in the workplace and the implications for the next generation entering the workforce.

As employers and educators, we may not know the precise requirements of the role that a person will be doing in the future, or be able to describe the exact shape of the workforce or the working environment that will be provided.

The certainty that existed in more traditional, hierarchical organisations is no longer present. However, by communicating this and being transparent about the nature of change, we can enable young people to more successfully navigate through this challenge. By equipping them with the soft skills and coping mechanisms that they need to see this change for what it is, and to take advantage of the opportunities that change presents, we will be able to build a more resilient, future-oriented workforce.


Nick Shaw is an Occupational Psychologist, Future of Work commentator and Co-Founder of innovative assessment company, Spotted Zebra.

Nick Shaw