Companies will have to offer flexibility and chances for workers to "reskill" in new fields.

There was once a day when executives could rely heavily on their human resources professionals to manage personnel, achieving their goals with simple changes completed gradually. 

With a globalized economy that moves in real-time and, now, a pandemic that has upended longstanding assumptions, those times are firmly in the past, according to new research by Deloitte. 

The consulting firm in December released its Global Human Capital Trends report, an annual survey that crystallizes how executives are thinking about the future of work and the challenge of equipping their teams when the times of “surviving” COVID-19 give way to questions of “thriving.”  

Art Mazor

Art Mazor, the firm’s Atlanta-based global HR transformation leader, said the makeup of the survey audience itself is indicative of a steady trend: While 11 years ago it was nearly all HR professionals, for the first time this year, a majority (56 percent) of the 3,600 respondents from 96 countries were business representatives (including 233 CEOs). 

Over the last two decades, executives have grown less worried about prices and processes and more about people, he said.  

“Workforce requirements and the need to have the best possible talent are top of mind for every C-suite executive and their respective teams. It’s not just an HR thing: If you want to run an organization, you need people, and those people need to be motivated, engaged and activated toward a common purpose and a shared set of values,” he said.  

But in a competitive world of near-full employment, followed by the COVID-19 crisis that disrupted the status quo and drove the adoption of new technologies, companies have been forced to embrace speed and adaptability as key tenets of transformation, Mr. Mazor said.  

But that doesn’t happen “organically” and companies aren’t ready: Indeed, while 72 percent of respondents said “the ability of their people to adapt, reskill and assume new roles”  would be essential to navigating future disruptions, only 17 percent said they were “very ready” to empower their workers with these skills.  

The pandemic revealed that companies need to be intentional about offering flexibility to workers, both to help them achieve balance between work and personal life, and also allowing them to try on new roles and upgrade their skills.  

Long before the pandemic, people tended to take on roles that dovetailed well with their education and expertise. While this develops sector-specific knowledge, it doesn’t breed versatility.  

Companies are now using “cross-functional teams” to get people out of their silos and experiment with new roles on their own terms.  

“We’re now forcing folks to be exposed to challenges they don’t normally work on in their day-to-day life, but not forcing them to do it in ways that are dictated by the company,” Mr. Mazor said.  

A similar shift is happening with location: COVID-19 led to wholesale adoption of remote-work technologies in professional fields, but it also revealed some of their limits. The question is how much will be discarded when health regulations don’t require distancing.  

“We believe that it is going to be lasting, yet the word ‘hybrid’ is coming up a lot with very large organizations,” Mr. Mazor said.  

The pandemic has shown that many things can be achieved outside the office, he said, even with the tradeoffs of losing social interaction and serendipity. And seven out of 10 executives said shifting to remote work improved well-being at their companies.  

“The real question we see organizations working to answer is, what’s the ‘should be’ for each of these types of work,” Mr. Mazor said.  

One consequence for global companies, he said, will be facing broader competition for talent across a wider geographical range, though that could also create opportunities for expanding their teams without being wedded to either a certain location or the old way of doing things.  

“This is not just a state-to-state thing in the U.S., this is a global talent question that a lot of organizations are wrestling with right now, with optimism,” Mr. Mazor said.  

Read more insights from the report here or download it here 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...