Two Qualities Will Help Workers Face the Future: Agility and Resilience

First published by From Day One

As the economy emerges from the pandemic, a workforce wracked by layoffs, job stress and digital transformation will need to have a second wind. What can employers do to help? Industrial and organizational psychologist Marinus van Driel, Ph.D., associate partner in the Human Capital Solutions practice at Aon, the professional-services firm, believes that companies need to foster two important qualities in their workers: agility and resilience. From Day One talked with van Driel about what that looks like, both in theory and in practice. Excerpts:

In terms of their human capital, what are corporate leaders thinking about right now?

Organizations are taking a hard look at what things will look like once we get out of the pandemic, making sure they have people in the right places to progress their businesses forward. That's a very high-level response, but I think it rings true in every industry. If you're in manufacturing, you're thinking about how you're going to have the talent to keep manufacturing cardboard boxes. If you're in banking, how you're going to have the right software engineers or the data-science talent.

Another element is that we're seeing hugely elevated concerns around the career progression of women in the workforce–the likelihood of it being suppressed because of the pandemic.

We are also seeing that organizations are concerned that their employee value proposition (EVP) is not aligned to what employees actually want. Companies are actively seeking ways to ways to support individuals within their workforce to grow their careers, thereby adding to the employee value proposition and creating a more agile workforce. 

When people hear the term agile, they might think about the famous software-development process. Are you talking about agility in a broader way?

Yes, agility with a capital A is definitely a topic for most firms, but workforce agility in a bigger sense is about talent transformation, helping employees to get to the next step in their careers. That is, aligned to their own preferences and capabilities, but also in alignment with what the company needs. I'll share an example from the banking industry. A lot of banks right now are looking for programming staff, people who can do things like cloud native engineering, or they're looking for data scientists. Well, those skills exist at a premium in the open market.

So banks can go out there and recruit that talent, but at the same time, banks also have more traditional roles in terms of business analysts and quality-assurance analysts. Those jobs are changing for a variety of reasons. But these people have skills that can be sharpened to then move into these other roles. And as a consequence of that, their employers can make a small investment by identifying the people that have these skills adjacencies or have the capability to make that shift.

Yet is reskilling hard to sell–both to corporate leaders who might find it expensive, and to workers who might find it an insult to their current skills?

I would couch it as an investment in your employees. And your employees have a lot of institutional knowledge that can help propel your business forward–if they are just deployed in a different way. From a financial perspective, there's a huge business case around reskilling your employees. In the work that we've done, in one case we saved the client about $150 million. When you tally up all the costs of hiring new workers–recruiting, onboarding, training, the market premium, plus the costs of retrenching the previous roles [i.e., a permanent job elimination], you're ending up somewhere in the one-and-a-half to four-and-a-half times the retrenched employees’ annual salary. We've run the numbers on it.

Aon's Marinus van Driel: "What we've learned in our work with clients is that middle managers, in particular, are the glue that holds any kind of reskilling initiative together" (Photo courtesy of Aon)

What’s the key ingredient in making these kinds of transformations?

Ultimately, the common denominator to all of that is mindset. If employees have the mindset to make that shift, you can have an agile workforce. So one of the things that we preach a lot in our assessment practice is that mindset is forever and skills are temporary. If you have folks that are primed to learn, folks that are primed to adapt, and folks who that just generally curious–and have the baseline skills–you can move these folks in very interesting and impactful ways.

What’s your definition of workforce resilience? I tend to think of it as the opposite of burnout, when you just can’t get up off the ground.

Yes, it’s the ability to bounce back, but even beyond that it's the ability to thrive on change. A resilient workforce is a prerequisite to an agile workforce and agile decision-making to be truly activated throughout an organization. To foster resilience in your people, your approach to well-being needs to be employee-centric and aligned to the needs of your workforce, it needs to be well-communicated, and be within an environment at work that allows people to thrive in an ever-changing situation. At its core, there are three indicators of workforce resilience: a fundamental sense of security at work, a strong sense of belonging with the employer, and the adaptability and motivation you need to reach your full potential. 

Coming back to resilience, how do you foster those elements? How do you ensure that you support your employees that have very challenging home lives? The extent to which organizations can really and genuinely appreciate that, and meet people where they are, will allow them to retain the talent and move forward. For example, let's consider helping working parents. Organizations can provide assistance to working parents who work from home by allowing flexible schedules to accommodate their children's school schedules as well as work. Alternately, for employees who need to work onsite, organizations can offer tangible support for parents and their children. An example that comes to mind is a hospitality company that repurposed ballrooms as socially distanced e-learning venues for  children of their hotel employees.

If a company is doing its best to promote agility and resilience, what’s the best way to get that across to employees and prospective hires?

The more concrete you can be, the better off your firm will be. If employees know what their options are, and how to exercise them, then they will exercise them. But if they don't, they won’t. We’ve been having loads of conversations with firms about employee experience and EVP. Some firms feel like they have the basic building blocks that differentiate them as employers in the market. But for one reason or another, those messages haven't been coalesced in a unified message that can go out to employees, or to external talent.

I'm thinking about some of the firms in the hospitality world, an industry that was heavily impacted by the pandemic, and may not be as attractive to talent coming back in. So those firms have to totally reimagine their EVP and communicate that back out to the market. The other component is communicating your EVP to employees: Well, these are your career options. Now that you are remote, these are the things that you can continue to do within your career. Or if the expectation is for you to advance on a particular track, here are the developmental activities that are available to you. Firms should focus on ensuring every employee, including remote workers, knows equally what opportunities are available to them.   

In practical terms, who are the corporate leaders who can make this happen?

What we've learned in our work with clients is that middle managers, in particular, are the glue that holds any kind of reskilling initiative together. For one, they need to be able to have those coaching conversations with their team members in a very action-oriented way. And two, they need to be willing to let folks go [to different roles], because if they're not, it's just not going to happen.

You’ve written about how companies should update the “competency framework” of their employees. What are the key skills that need to be pushed up the priority list at this point?

Having a learning mindset, a willingness to adapt and adjust, being just generally curious. So we advocate for selecting for mindset and training for specific skills. I think having that intellectual curiosity about work and life in general is incredibly useful when you want employees to have the capability to reimagine themselves in the future.

Basically, people need to have the behavioral DNA to succeed in a professional environment and they need the technical skills to move into whatever the next area is. But the folks who do that the most effectively are the ones who don't look at it as a step backwards, but rather as an interesting challenge that they need to adapt and adjust to.

The other thing that is a little more proximal to the pandemic are competencies that enable successful remote working. As people are working more remotely, self-management is crucially important: being diligent about how you manage your day, your priorities, and your home life.  Another critical competency is effective communication: using all of your communication avenues  to maximal effect, including email, video calls, regular phone calls, internal communication channels, message boards, and so on.  Yet another critical competency, particularly for leaders, is goal setting. Setting goals for team members you don't see or talk to every day requires forethought, good communication, and a clear monitoring strategy.   

We’ve talked about the career journeys of workers in general, but what about your own?

I'll share the story of how I got into this field. When I was an undergrad, I was pre-med, very gung-ho to go into medicine. And somewhere along the way, I had a bit of a change of heart. I knew I wanted to help people, in one way or another. And then I had an internship with a Dutch grocery company at a U.S.-based operation in Greenville, S.C. My work during that internship was focused on developmental programs to enrich people's work lives. While I was working there, I had this lightbulb moment that as a working adult, one day in the not-too-distant future, I'll be spending a lot of time at work and would like to enjoy what I did for a living. I also realized that I could help others enjoy their work and careers. This seemed like a really neat thing to do, given my original premise for seeking a career that would be focused on helping others.

That was the naive, seed idea for me getting into industrial/organizational psychology–that I can help people have more fulfilling careers. Thankfully, I've been able to achieve this. What I've learned over the years as a practitioner is that you can really help people have amazing careers, particularly when a mindful, evidenced-based approach is taken. Bringing a layer of data to career discussions, whether at the individual or organizational level, is what I've really enjoyed. I like being a scientist in the service of enabling people to have more career options. I also like giving organizations clear recommendations about shaping their talent-management practices based on objective data. By doing this, it is possible to shape career-development programs to support individual employees to have amazing experiences at work. By pursuing my initial idea, I really have been able to help people have better careers. It has been a neat thing to start with such a simple idea and see it come to life in some astonishing ways. 

About the Author

Aon creates smart measurement solutions with valid and innovative online assessment products. Aon is globally the preferred partner for organisations who demand the best.

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