A woman standing outside a building and smiling. She is Diana Wu David.
Image: Diana Wu David

Managing change: A critical skill for the current and future workforce

23 Jan 2024

In conversation with Jenny Darmody, author Diana Wu David said that while tech comes with both benefits and challenges, some of the biggest hurdles for future workforces come from the people themselves.

The future of work topic has been discussed at length for so many years now that it can often sound like a redundant phrase. For almost as many years as this so-called future has been discussed, it has often been implied that this same future is “already here” or almost here.

One of the biggest tangible trends that was creeping into the global knowledge workforce – only to arrive at shocking speed via the Covid-19 pandemic – was an almost fully remote workforce. This has since opened the door to a lot of hybrid and flexible working set-ups at many companies, turning this trend from a future possibility to a present certainty.

So, as we look ahead to the next chapter of working life, what do leaders, managers and workers need to think about next? That question alone can create a bit of anxiety and fear for many. The mere idea of change is something that is difficult for humans to grasp.

Resisting change by default

Psychological resistance, also known as resistance to change, is a phenomenon often encountered in doctor-patient settings when patients are seen to resist a doctor’s suggestion to change certain behaviours, even if it will result in improved health. This idea that humans are hardwired to resist change has been central to the study of social psychology for a long time and can be seen in simple anecdotes of workers saying phrases like “that’s the way we’ve always done things”.

Change usually means new; change often means uncertainty and human brains crave certainty. In fact, a 2016 University College London study published in Nature Communications suggested participants who had a 50pc chance of receiving a small electric shock were more stressed than those who knew they were definitely going to be shocked.

So how does this resistance to change play into future workforces? The rapid evolution of emerging technologies and how quickly change is occurring within the workforce right now means the need to manage, adapt to and even embrace uncertainty and change could become the most valuable skill for every member of the future workforce.

Diana Wu David is a former Financial Times executive and author of Future Proof: Reinventing Work in an Age of Acceleration. In conversation with SiliconRepublic.com editor Jenny Darmody, she said keeping pace with exponential technology changes can be really difficult for human beings, who are traditionally very linear.

“I feel hugely optimistic about technology enabling remote work and enabling connection between people. But I also think that it’s putting a huge tax on individuals in terms of how we manage all that change,” she said.

“The biggest adaptation that they’re finding is developing the skills to scan and understand how to choose and apply new technologies to pain points and customer solutions in particular and sometimes employee solutions.”

The journey to change-readiness

Using the last few years alone as an example, Wu David pointed to the many emerging technologies that were sweeping through businesses. Currently generative AI is the one C-suite leaders are focused on, but there has also been blockchain, metaverse, Web3, automation, robotics and sensors to name a few.

Being able to adapt to these changes as an employee will be an important skill for current and future workers but in order to really stabilise the next generation of workers and ensure a culture of adaptability exists, leaders need to be aware of the psychological resistance to change and be prepared to address it head on with every change they bring in, both technological and otherwise.

‘We don’t do a great job of thinking about the secondary effects of technology implementation’

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Research published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2021 explored the challenges around organisational change. The research stated that while companies are under pressure to execute organisational change, literature suggests that two-thirds of change implementation efforts fail and one of the most critical failures centres around employees’ attitudes to change.

One of the key ways in which leaders can help alter attitudes to change is by showing justice and fairness in outcomes, rewards distribution, transparency about procedures and policies, and communication throughout the process.

Wu David added that when it comes to adapting to and embracing technological changes, which will only continue to grow in the future, showing an understanding of the outcomes of each change or implementation will help create a readiness for change that could act as somewhat of an antidote to psychological resistance.

“We don’t do a great job of thinking about the secondary effects of technology implementation. And as somebody who does foresight, that is something that I like to do when a company is thinking about implementing technology, to think, ‘OK, and if that happens, then what else happens after that?’ So to me, it depends on what outcomes we want,” she said.

“As working people, understanding that we can harness technology in order to do an even better job and really thinking through what it is that is our human value that we add is important.”

Changing attitudes, remaining human

Once humans start to rewire our attitude to change, Wu David said we can harness the power of other human-focused skills to unlock further potential, even in a world that is becoming more tech-focused.

“I think the skills like empathy and emotional intelligence and ingenuity will be what people pay us for, so we will not lose them because they will become an even more important part of our jobs,” she said.

“I think about it like a sports team. It’s the coach who uses data to figure out how to maximise the performance of their team, of the players in their team. But then there’s something about that human element where the coach can get a performance out of a player that is not statistically possible. And I feel like that’s the human element, or our ability to really understand another person, their motivations, their potential and possibilities. And that is where I see all of the soft skills really coming to the fore.”

When thinking about her ideal future working world, Wu David said it would be a workplace where people have a deep understanding of skills, competencies and characteristics as well as the environments that bring out the best in people. “Mercer, for instance, has done work where they have actually categorised skills versus cost of skills. [And] a company in China I tutor has done sentiment analysis to pair teachers with students, and even the students with each other in a video classroom to see who works best together.”

She said that these examples show the potential for how proper understanding of humans can help maximise their potential in a way that helps them deliver their best work through thoughtful change management, organisational design and human-focused leadership.

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic