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COVID - 19 Pandemic: Accelerating the Future of Work


Who would have thought the future we anticipated a decade away will become a norm of today?

The Future of Work can mean many things. I have participated in and listened to future of work conversations over the last few years. Evangelists of the Future of Work and researchers have delivered keynotes and published reports respectively actively over the last 5 years. They sort to create awareness and sensitise us about the hurricane of hurricanes about to hit our careers, lifestyles, workplaces and our economy.

As defined in several reports, the future of work is:

“Automation, digital platforms, and other innovations are changing the fundamental nature of work”, accordingly to McKinsey

“Automation, advanced manufacturing, AI, and the shift to e-commerce are dramatically changing the number and nature of work”, according to Quartz

These definitions are coined based on a backward trend analysis of what the implications of these technologies according to the 4th Industrial Revolution will have on our workplace, lifestyles, and economies at scale. These leave conflicting information from various experts allowing for plenty of room for debate around what impact automation technology like artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will have on jobs, skills, and wages.

According the Future of Jobs Report published by the World Economic Forum in January 2016, “Disruptive changes to business models will have a profound impact on the employment landscape over the coming years. Many of the major drivers of transformation currently affecting global industries are expected to have a significant impact on jobs, ranging from significant job creation to job displacement, and from heightened labour productivity to widening skills gaps. In many industries and countries, the most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist 10 or even five years ago, and the pace of change is set to accelerate.

By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.1 In such a rapidly evolving employment landscape, the ability to anticipate and prepare for future skills requirements, job content and the aggregate effect on employment is increasingly critical for businesses, governments and individuals in order to fully seize the opportunities presented by these trends—and to mitigate undesirable outcomes”

Beyond these conversations was the need for an implementation of framework that will keep governments running, businesses in continuity, people in their jobs, academic institutions becoming more agile in their response to industry human capital demands and most importantly, people realising that they are not prepared for the future.

Did COVID-19 Accelerate the Future of Work?

The sudden emergence of the Novel Coronavirus a.k.a COVID-19 identified the need that enterprises including governments must increase corporate resilience and help ensure community well-being by embracing virtual collaboration tools and practices.

Adopting social distancing, partial and total lockdown in almost all countries affected, has forced organizations and government agencies to perform all work virtually in response to the spread of the virus. What does this mean for businesses? How will organization continue to work and create value in this new environment? Will this be a short-term anomaly or a long-term trend?

Although some companies already had a Work from Home Policy in place, managing a large scale of remote employees and that too in such urgency can be overwhelming. This change may have come to stay and as Socrates rightly said, "The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”

The success of this new normal will be dependent on the governments, industry, academia and people.

The Role of Government

In June 2019, the International Labour Organization’s 187 member States adopted the ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work, calling on the Organization to pursue with unrelenting vigour its constitutional mandate for social justice by further developing its human centred approach to the future of work, which puts workers’ rights and the needs, aspirations and rights of all people at the heart of economic, social and environmental policies

Less than a year later, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19 ) has plunged the world into a crisis of unprecedented scope and scale that has made the imperatives set out in the Centenary Declaration even more urgent as the international community engages in a collective endeavour to tackle the devastating human impact of the pandemic.

While restoring global health remains the uppermost priority, it cannot be denied that the strict measures required have caused massive economic and social shocks. With the prolongation of lockdown, quarantine, physical distancing and other isolation measures to suppress transmission of the virus, the global economy is sliding into a recession. As supply chains disintegrate, whole sectors collapse and enterprises close, more and more workers face the prospect of unemployment and loss of their incomes and livelihoods, while many micro- and small enterprises are on the verge of bankruptcy. 

First, only by balancing support for enterprises, on the one hand, with support for workers and their families, on the other, will governments be able to address properly the crisis’ human dimension. Governments must tailor their support packages so as to save businesses and jobs, prevent layoffs, protect incomes and leave no one behind. It is necessary to focus on all those who work – including the self-employed, own-account workers and “gig workers” – whether in the formal or informal economy, whether paid or unpaid, and of course also on those who have no way of supporting themselves.

Secondly, the urgency of the crisis and the immediate need for action must not serve as a pretext for jettisoning the normative framework. International labour standards, together with the Decent Work Agenda and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development , provide a strong basis for efforts at the national level to “build back better”. These international instruments form an integral part of a broader human rights agenda for recovery.



The Role of Businesses

Employers will expand their involvement in the lives of their employees by increasing mental health support, expanding health care coverage, and providing financial health support during and after the pandemic.

A recent Gartner survey revealed that 32% of organizations are replacing full-time employees with contingent workers as a cost-saving measure. Utilizing more gig workers provides employers with greater workforce management flexibility. However, HR will also need to consider how performance management systems apply to contingent workers as well as questions around whether contingent workers will be eligible for the same benefits as their full-time peers.

Leaders are redefining what critical means to include: employees in critical strategic roles, employees with critical skills and employees in critical workflow roles.

“Separating critical skills from critical roles shifts the focus to coaching employees to develop skills that potentially open multiple avenues for them, rather than focusing on preparing for a specific next role,” said Emily Rose McRae, director in the Gartner HR practice.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, some employees have formed more connected relationships, while others have moved into roles that are increasingly task-oriented.
Understanding how to engage task workers in the team culture and creating a culture of inclusiveness is now even more important.

To deliver on employee experience, HR will need to facilitate partnerships across the organization while working with managers to help employees navigate the different norms and expectations associated with these shifts.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, 55% of organizational redesigns were focused on streamlining roles, supply chains, and workflows to increase efficiency. Unfortunately, this path has created fragile systems, prompting organizations to prioritize resilience as equally important as efficiency.

According to the World Economic Forum’s “The Future of Jobs Report: 2018,” “By 2022, no less than 54% of all employees will require significant re- and upskilling.” With the rapid rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, automation has already impacted numerous organizations across industries, and it’s predicted to impact more in the future.

As employees fear their job security is dwindling and organizations fear their employees don’t have the skills needed to sustain the business, it is imperative that more organizations take an active role in their employees’ professional development by upskilling employees for the future of work.

According to human resources writer Suzanne Lucas, the cost of replacing an employee can be as high as 150% of that person’s annual salary, hence training current employees is a cost-efficient alternative. Josh Squires, Director of Enterprise Solutions at Docebo, says agility is one such skill that can help employees better navigate the future of work. “Things are changing so quickly, so rapidly that you really have to adapt quickly, and so having that agility as a part of our DNA and a part of your framework, from my perspective, is important,” he shares. “You have to be willing to pivot quickly.” L&D professionals can help set employees up for success by integrating learning agility tactics into the onboarding process.

Providing more varied, adaptive and flexible careers and learning plans for employees will help them gain the cross-functional knowledge and training necessary for more flexible organizations.


The Role of Higher Education

As entire new industries are created and traditional ones expand and contract significantly, the skills needed to keep up are evolving at a faster rate than ever before. Educators and higher education leaders must approach skills competency with a flexible growth mindset that will serve students well across the global, knowledge-based economy – and throughout their careers.

The Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data, released in June 2017, correlated areas of study with incomes at one year, three years and five years after graduation. Higher incomes are associated with traditional subjects such as medicine and dentistry, engineering and technology, law and banking. Universities take pride and market their wares on the basis of the high salaries of their graduates and, while focusing on traditional careers bolsters performance on LEO, is there a danger of looking backwards when talking of employment? Should universities be focusing on producing graduates for traditional jobs?

Much of the work graduates used to do is being digitised away – that is true even in medicine and engineering, and certainly in banking and the law. Roles for which university had been a preparation are thinning out, and few are able to rely on having a “job for life” in a secure profession or corporation. 

There is an undeniable need to train the next generation in emerging digital competencies and to be fluent in designing, developing or employing technology responsibly. At the same time, 21st-century students must learn how to approach problems from many perspectives, cultivate and exploit creativity, engage in complex communication, and leverage critical thinking.

With a future of work that is constantly evolving, these non-automatable “human” skills are foundational, and will only increase in value as automation becomes more mainstream.

Public-private partnerships focused on higher educational attainment and workforce development are a long-term investment in a vibrant economic future. Higher education is unique in its power to catalyse social mobility, serving to bridge social, economic, racial, and geographic divides like no other force. As job markets constantly evolve, it is clear that the future demands a system of higher education that is as dynamic and adaptable as the technologies around which our society now revolves.


Bridging the Gap

Through my work at the Hacklab Foundation, we have been innovating on new models to bridge the gap between industry and academia, by upskilling students before they graduate through extracurricular activities, such as our Remote Internship Program, National Digital Skills Training Programme in partnership with IBM.

The Hacklab Foundation is an international non-profit organization headquartered in Ghana with focus on preparing the youth for future digital jobs through technology education and skills development. We achieve this through bootcamps, hackathons, mentorship and coaching, internships, digital skills training and job placement.
           
Since our inception in 2015, we have directly impacted over 10,000 people, organized hackathons, robotics and coding bootcamps for kids between the ages of 7yrs - 13yrs, supported 500+ women in tech, 300+ youth were placed in jobs and 250+ youth were placed in internships. Through our partnership with IBM, we launched the Ghana National Digital Skills Training Program in November 2018, with a goal to reach a 100,000 people by 2021

We believe that creating an equal platform for everyone, irrespective of race, gender, social class, and physical limitations will allow for a fair chance to compete for the same opportunity. This has been at the core of our initiatives.

Our role in accelerating the future of work has become more important now more than ever as 95% of global learners are currently at home, with a majority struggling to adapt to new ways of learning, and the less marginalised, still facing challenges such as access to affordable internet connectivity and even more importantly computer devices at home.

While we are still debating the subject of whether digital education guarantees quality education, we are doing our best to reach the masses who may have access but lack direction, to guide them to building the right capability and connecting them to up to 300 remote internships and jobs already negotiated for.

Preparing for the New Normal - Are We Ready?

Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Technologies said “Technology now allows people to connect anytime, anywhere, to anyone in the world, from almost any device. This is dramatically changing the way people work, facilitating 24/7 collaboration with colleagues who are dispersed across time zones, countries, and continents.

We must embrace our new normal, ready or not! It is time to rethink practicalizing the abstract conversations we have been having over the last 5 years regarding the Future of Work, 4th Industrial Revolution, and our new emerging work colleagues - Robots and AI.

Time to live and walk the talk!


About the Author

Foster Awintiti Akugri is the Founder & President of the Hacklab Foundation. He is currently the Incubator Manager for the Stanbic Bank Incubator Ghana (SBIncubator Ghana), an initiative of Stanbic Bank Ghana Limited, a member of the Standard Bank Group.

He was the youngest participant at the World Economic Forum’s 48th Annual Meeting, Davos, Switzerland in 2018. He also serves as a member of the Malaika Coalition, a committee mandated by the Africa Regional Strategy Group of the World Economic Forum to work on the Africa 4.0 Initiative. He also serves on the Africa Growth Platform Working Group and was part of the team that lead the Digital Campaign Launch of the Platform during the World Economic Forum on Africa - Cape Town in September 2019.

He was listed among 30 under 30 Future of Ghana Pioneers Class of 2019. Also named Atlantic Dialogues Emerging Leader Class of 2019 by the Policy Center for the Global South, Morocco. In 2019, he was also named amongst Top 100 Most Influential Young Ghanaians and Top 4 Most Influential Young Ghanaians in Science & Technology by Avance Media. He also received the President's Outstanding Youth Prize in Science and Technology in 2019 by the Millennium Excellence Foundation. In 2020, He was listed amongst Top 50 Young CEOs in Ghana by Avance Media.

He is a public speaker focusing on leadership, technology, entrepreneurship, smart industries, ecosystem development, digital transformation, education, youth engagement models and Concept of the African Dream. He is a 2x TEDx Speaker and has delivered over 40 keynotes. 


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