I have seen the future, and I want to tell you about it.
For the last few years, I have been one of many researching, identifying, and sharing approaches to ready our workforce for the future. As a learning and development (L&D) professional, my passion drives me toward encouraging and empowering our workforce to take control over their future by preparing for it today. The L&D models created for this future are sound in design, and the requisite skills are practical, human-centered, and intuitive in their approach.
The date for when the future of work would arrive has been shrouded in ambiguity. It is simply referred to as "the future." Estimates by many I have engaged with ranged from 10 to 15 years—and for some, as little as five—but no one could forecast the exact date our future predictions would come to fruition. No one predicted it would happen in a matter of days. No one predicted the entire world would evolve on the same timeline, but we have. We are experiencing a collective global disaster that has catapulted us years into the future, accelerating the state of remote work.
The future is now, literally.
Future of Learning
Learning and development is a cornerstone strategy used to prepare our workforce for the future. The debate has been ongoing over the most effective modalities for learning: instructor-led, virtual-led, eLearning, hybrid, etc. Some have argued that we are using a 20th-century model (instructor-led, classroom-based learning) for 21st-century learners. The call-to-action has pushed the L&D industry toward expeditiously exploring opportunities to evolve. In learning (as in nature), evolution is gradual. The abrupt shift in our work lives compressed an evolution of years to a matter of days.
Over the last few months, my focus of research included predictions of the ways L&D would need to evolve in the next five years to meet the needs of our learners. The underlying needs of learners illustrated a move away from a fixed, top-down learning model toward a shared community of practice and other significant changes:
The pivot and transformation accelerant for L&D does not stop here. Speed, not perfection, is what our learners need, along with performance and workflow support, not training. Now, more than ever before, our learners will be relying on one another for support. It is our responsibility to help them develop and maintain connections with people and information, encouraging networked learning. Now is our time to execute all of the theories, methodologies, and approaches we've been studying.
Workplace learning is the new UI/UX testing. Now is the time to innovate and apply new technologies—and to mine existing content repositories across our organizations to facilitate workplace learning. Now is the time to dismantle the barriers to content access and ease of navigation and create environments that make learning easier and quicker by putting the content within the flow of work for the learner. We need to remove as many "number of clicks" it takes for our learners as possible, enabling them to access the information required quickly.
Now is our time to practice empathy, put ourselves in the shoes of our learners, and ask, "what do they need to know and how can we get them access as quickly and easily as possible?" For example, frontline medical teams are too overwhelmed to access the Learning Management Systems (LMS) where, historically, training information may be stored. They can, however, plug earbuds into their smartphone and listen to audio for their need-to-know information—so we pivot to podcasts.
We are learning that simply lifting and shifting instructor-led classroom sessions into virtual-based online sessions is not enough. We have gone from “Zoom excitement” to “Zoom exhaustion” in a matter of weeks. Virtual learning needs to be creative, collaborative, and supportive—and let’s not forget the importance of pedagogy with behavioral, emotional, and cognitive components in learning initiatives. The more inspired and engaged learners are, the stronger the learning experience.
We have gone from “Zoom excitement” to “Zoom exhaustion” in a matter of weeks.
– Keith Keating
These caveats are not new. We did not know we would need to take years of theory and apply it overnight. Admittedly, some of our current attempts are clunky, but we are learning and evolving quickly, and we will get there. We’ve sustained, after all, a shock to our learning ecosystem.
Our new reality marks an experiential shift for our learners. Their learning must focus on their needs—not our nice-to-haves. The result will be a model of lean learning. The future of learning is now.
Remote Work Is Here to Stay
Until now, only a percentage of organizations recognized the power and value of remote workers. Besides the cost savings associated with less space required for the organizations, there are benefits to the worker. For me, I struggle with productivity in a typical open-office environment, and my quality of work suffers. I find myself easily distracted by noise and office politics. The anxiety associated with the fear of interruption adds significant time to any project completion. Working remotely allows me to inhabit an environment of my choice, resulting in increased productivity, personal well-being, and a more distributed work-life balance. We, the advocates for remote work, have believed for some time in breaking the chains that bound us to a physical workspace, asserting that work is what you do, not where you go.
My reality is now a shared reality with the world. Overnight, millions of workers were thrust into remote work. The transformation has been neither perfect nor easy—many without the luxury of preparation, proper physical space, or necessary technology—but the world is adjusting. What had previously been a glacial process of corporate transformation—both in recognizing the value of remote work and creating the infrastructure to support it—has been achieved in a matter of days. Managers are developing trust and establishing the necessary communication cadence with their employees to increase their level of comfortability (both of which are requirements for successful remote work relationships). Organizations that previously questioned the possibility of remote work are experiencing firsthand the value as productivity continues.
The outcome is clear: Remote work does work—and not just for the future, but for today.
We Are Witnessing True Agility in Action
Business models have changed overnight and continue to evolve rapidly not only to meet the needs of customers but—where possible—of a population under siege by a pandemic. Auto manufacturers are producing ventilators and safety gear, fast-food franchises are leveraging their supply chain to deliver school lunches, and beer manufacturers are producing hand sanitizer.
The agility of these organizations in pivoting from their business models of just two months ago so quickly and successfully is unprecedented. If I had predicted these billion-dollar organizations would transition to 100% remote work and change their business models in an accelerated manner in a matter of days, you would not have believed me. We are seeing the future of work manifest before us.
For many years, futurists have shared the goal of having agile, adaptable employees who are ready to meet any future organizational need—our workforce can do it, and they are. We have long advocated against defining talent by jobs or job titles but rather by skills. Overnight, the shift has occurred. "Not my job" (three of the most dangerous words in any organization for employees to utter) has fallen by the wayside as everyone works together. From training classroom faculty to teach online, reskilling airline staff to volunteer at hospitals, or leveraging internal skill sets and expertise to shift production from one product line to another, the examples of our nimble, innovative capacity are bountiful. The adaptability our workforce is demonstrating at this moment is breathtaking and beautiful.
The future of work is now. No, it is not the full future we predicted, where robots and technology augment our tasks—that vision will take more time to develop. The state of the workforce we see now is all about the human side, where higher-order cognitive skills like empathy are imperative, enabling us to connect with and understand one another. Our problem-solving capabilities, our creativity, and a growth mindset reinforce our resiliency and ability to face adversity and critical change successfully.
Future of Us
Our world turned virtual overnight when we became the hosts to an invisible contagion. Separation became the key to safety yet, amid our isolation, we share a connection. We are networked, even hyper-networked, and we are experiencing this unprecedented disaster collectively as a global community. Physical barriers are omnipresent, but virtual walls are crumbling as we extend compassion beyond our small circles and into the world.
Our efforts are not perfect. We could do better, but given our lack of preparation time, we are experimenting daily. Some of these experiments will fail. There is no single solution for our current situation, no prior model to leverage. After all, the novelty of "novel virus" reminds us this is a new, never-before-experienced situation we are navigating.
In our drastically changed landscape, we see the future: remote work, organizational agility, networked learning, and hyper-connectivity among people. It may not have arrived as we predicted, with years of the gradual transformation of robots taking control of the world. Instead, we face a stealthy and silent accelerator that divided our world physically but united us virtually. With it came fear, volatility, and uncertainty, but in the end, it is our humanity that enables us to prevail. Empathy, creativity, and problem-solving are the skills of the future, the capabilities of today, and the powers that make us resilient and irreplaceable.