Are You Ready for What Comes Next?

Are You Ready for What Comes Next?

By Gerry Valentine

Business is all about being ready for what comes next. As we head towards what we hope will be the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are eager for a return to normal. But the pandemic has had a drastic impact on how we work—in how companies operate, and on what skills will be critical in the future. Now is the time to get ready.


Adaptations That Are Here to Stay

A year ago, many of us quickly pivoted to virtual working arrangements—video conferencing became the standard, core business processes were re-tooled for automation, and companies adopted new technologies to make remote work possible. We found innovative ways to collaborate from afar, often with little or no loss in productivity, and some companies have done exceedingly well.  

This is remarkable because, in the past, many leaders have questioned the viability of remote work, fearing a loss of control and productivity. Now we know that virtual work can bring distinct advantages. Employees value the increased flexibility and family time. Companies are re-assessing the need for large offices, as they look to the cost efficiencies to be gained by making work-from-home permanent, particularly in expensive urban areas like New York City. For example, JPMorgan just announced that it will only need office capacity for 60% of employees post-pandemic. Work-from-home can also include work-from-anywhere, so employees no longer need to reside within commuting distance; potentially even allowing them to live in a different state from their employer.

These shifts have already had a dramatic impact on real estate values in New York City. Residential markets immediately outside of the city have skyrocketed since the pandemic, while commercial real estate in Manhattan has dropped precipitously. But virtual work is just one of many COVID-19 adaptations that are here to stay.


Accelerating Change

There’s a different way to look at the disruption caused by the pandemic: It has accelerated change that has been under way for years. In my recent book—The Thriving Mindset: Tools for Empowerment In a Disruptive World—I examine the “Four Forces of Change” that have been driving an evolution in both business and society:

  • Advanced Computerization—Computers are rapidly becoming smaller, faster, and more integral to daily life than ever before.
  • Artificial Intelligence—Computers are not only getting better, they’re getting smarter and taking over tasks that were once considered uniquely human, like interpreting medical tests and increasingly sophisticated robots.
  • Mass Interconnectivity—People are more interconnected than ever before. There are now 4.66 billion internet users; that means almost 60% of humanity is now able to connect with each other in just a few keystrokes.
  • A shrinking world—Mass interconnectivity has made the world a much smaller place. Geographic barriers are collapsing, as people around the world can now connect and collaborate.

Companies leveraged these Forces of Change to adapt to COVID. The virtual collaboration tools that became foundational are enabled by Advanced Computerization and Mass Interconnectivity. The FDA recently authorized an Artificial Intelligence-Enabled medical device to screen for COVID. Some companies have experimented with AI-enabled robots to interface with patients at COVID facilities, and reduce risks for healthcare workers. Work-from-home (and work-from-anywhere) will cause geographic barriers to further collapse, and accelerate the Shrinking World.

As adaptations to COVID become permanent, the evolution in business will further accelerate, and thus lead to even more disruption as we emerge from the pandemic.


A More Complex Work Environment That Will Require More Sophisticated “Thinking” Skills

There has also been an unanticipated result from a world that’s become more computerized: an increase in demand for sophisticated “thinking” skills—skills that are uniquely human. These include Critical Thinking, Adaptability, Communication, and Social Intelligence. You can think of this as analogous to the 1980s and 1990s, when factory automation displaced manufacturing jobs, but created a demand for highly-educated knowledge workers. Now increased computerization is moving demand further up the food chain to these sophisticated thinking skills.

Here’s an indicator of the need: Although most people believe a STEM education leads to higher income, the data shows that liberal arts graduates out-earn their STEM counter parts by age 40. That’s because higher-paying positions in management tend to emphasize the sophisticated thinking skills that a liberal arts education hones.

The post-COVID work world will include a further acceleration of demand for sophisticated thinking skills, and especially at top leadership levels.  It will be more automated, computerized and interconnected than ever before; we will work in virtual teams that will often be spread across geography; and workers will bring with them the psychological stress wrought by the pandemic. We are going to need leaders with the critical thinking skills and adaptability to navigate this new environment; the communication expertise to engage, inspire, and direct teams that are virtual and geographically distributed; and the social intelligence to empathize with workers still struggling through personal trauma. 


To Succeed in What Comes Next, Adopt a Mindset of Continuous Learning

 For years I’ve advised leaders who are navigating disruption triggered by the Four Forces of Change, and many of them have quietly confided that they long for a simpler time, perhaps one that is less technology-driven. My response is always the same: The simpler time will not return. If anything, the future will be more complex and disruptive. That’s because, throughout human history, once the genie of new knowledge has been released, there’s no returning it to the bottle. The productive response to disruption is to embrace a mindset of curiosity and continuous learning. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating, and it will likely take years to fully comprehend the impact. However, the pandemic has also released new knowledge from the bottle—new ways to work and collaborate, new technological solutions, and new business possibilities. This is a time to look to the future with a mindset of curiosity and continuous learning. That is the best way to hone the sophisticated and uniquely human thinking skills necessary for navigating what will come next.


Gerry Valentine inspires people to build resilience, overcome setbacks, and understand that adversity can be a source of opportunity. He is an executive coach and public speaker, and author of a new book, The Thriving Mindset—Tools for Empowerment in a Disruptive World.  With 27+ years of Fortune 100 leadership experience, he is a trusted advisor to corporate executives, entrepreneurs, and high-performance individuals of all kinds.