Festival of Work 2021: highlights from day one

People Management runs down the key takeaways from the first morning of the virtual conference – from agility to resilience

Agility and flexibility are key for the future of work post pandemic

Agility and flexibility are the skills that will be important to HR professionals in the future of work, delegates have been told. 

“The biggest word I can use right now is agility”, said Maria Stevenson, head of learning and development at First Central (pictured bottom). “We've really had to adapt what information an individual needs to join the company and give them the best start.”

Stevenson added that offices need “bitesize learning” following the pandemic in order to keep people engaged and make learning organic, and said the use of different media such as polls, surveys, breakout rooms and team-building digital animations can produce a “smorgasbord of activity” which offers as much guidance as possible up front.

And Patrick Hull, vice president for HR Future of Work at Unilever (pictured top right), added that there was an opportunity to “reinvent the workplace” following the pandemic. Office workers had proven they can work from home but are now “crying out” for more flexibility, he said, while new employment models offer different ways for firms to allocate people to projects and access talent.

“We've all seen the challenges people have had with mental health, with caring for children or sick relatives,” Hull said, “People are also realising, ‘why can't I have more flexibility in terms of how I work, and not just where I work’.”

Predictable markets are a thing of the past, and businesses need resilience

The pandemic has put the world of work into an almost constant state of unpredictability, said Katherine Templer Lewis, futurist and creative scientist, making resilience the key to success. “We need to be able to thrive in unpredictability,” she said.

“Research shows that 93 per cent of HR professionals think workforce resilience is a top priority for HR leadership teams,” Lewis added, arguing resilience would also help tackle dropping productivity levels.

Resilient businesses needed to be able to adapt quickly to changes in the environment, be flexible rather than strong, and have a culture of wellbeing, said Lewis. But, creating a wellbeing ethos becomes “much harder” when teams are not connected physically.

“It’s harder to keep the businesses core purpose together and keep the needs and beliefs alive when everyone is scattered, but that sense of cohesion in the workplace has become incredibly important during the pandemic,” she said. “That’s what underpins wellbeing, which directly feeds into ROI and productivity.

“People are infinitely resilient, it is wired into the human brain but we need to be enabled and we need to be supported,” she added.

Business leaders need to have a global mindset

Leaders need to adopt new mindsets around how their businesses are perceived globally, delegates attending the afternoon keynote session were told. 

Allyson Stewart-Allen, CEO of International Marketing Partners, emphasised the importance of leaders understanding how their organisation is represented on a global scale. She said businesses must realise that "we have got a new microscope" because everything now is out there, whether that is a Glassdoor review or social media posts.

Therefore, investing in "corporate diplomacy and global leadership skills" can have a real positive impact, from inspiring and motivating others to building trust and engagement with a broad range of stakeholders as well as boosting the brand reputation.

David Villa-Clarke, founder of social mobility charity Aleto Foundation, added that it is also about looking at the next generation of leaders. “Young people are already agile and adaptable," he said, and there is a change in attitudes towards work.

But business leaders need to provide them with the "opportunity to display their leadership skills" and HR professionals need to be proactive in ensuring employees, particularly those with ethnic minority or low socio-economic backgrounds, feel comfortable in their workplaces to take the opportunities that could forge their career path.