Adopting new ways of working in the shadow of a pandemic

David Thomson, head of external affairs, Association for Project Management (APM), discusses how firms are adapting in light of unprecedented challenges and explores new ways of working post-pandemic

The project profession – which Association for Project Management (APM) is the chartered body for – is usually at the heart of any major change project whether public or private. So, it’s no surprise to see our members involved in a lot of the coronavirus response efforts. These range from the immediate – like the emergency construction of the Nightingale hospitals – replicated around Britain – and delivered at breath-taking speed by an unusual coalition of military and NHS project management expertise (with support from many private sectors contractors); the immense effort in switching millions to universal credit at a breakneck pace, to the more long term tasks like the planning of the hunt to find a vaccine for the virus, a task which is creating a usual and dynamic collaboration of scientists and others across a wide range of organisations. As one former permanent secretary Sir Leigh Lewis recently wrote in Civil Service World: “All over government, people are being asked to deliver the totally impossible at unimaginable speed”. Such sentiments can be replicated across the voluntary and private sectors as well.

But this is creating new ways of working – more agile, more collaborative and using by necessity remote working. Many millions have had to learn new skills and organisations have adapted at pace. For many project professionals, this is what they are well versed in doing – even if the scale and timescales are unprecedented.

At APM we had embarked on a year-long investigation into the sort of future challenges we need to be ready for: whether it was automation, AI, climate change or the challenges of an ageing society. We launched a series of papers – the last of which was about skills. The timings couldn’t have been more appropriate – as the paper looks at all the new challenges, skills and attributes that will be needed for the modern adaptive professional.

The Future of Work and Skills

The paper titled The Future of Work and Skills sets out to address challenges posed by a rapidly changing world. The paper covers the significant and dramatic changes in working practices caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Project professionals need to be at the forefront of planning and delivering successful change to achieve social and economic benefits for the future. In recent weeks, we have seen the world transform at an astonishing pace… Identifying the skills that will help projects succeed in this volatile and uncertain world will be vital in helping the profession fulfil its purpose and support organisations of all types to address change, whether it is climate change, technology or immediate issues like the current pandemic.

Digital transformation and the fourth industrial revolution, the climate crisis, longer human lifespans: the powerful dynamics of change and complexity which have been explored by APM’s Projecting the Future series will drive profound changes in the nature of work in the years ahead – although this has dramatically accelerated in the past two months. The skills needed to succeed are changing significantly – and they could make professional project skills more highly-valued than ever before.

Learning new skills

As the best organisations in every sector recognise, having the right skills (in the broadest definition) is a pre-requisite of success. At a policy level, they are recognised as critical drivers of both organisational and national productivity and economic performance, yet the UK faces substantial problems related to skills. As the influential Industrial Strategy Council stated in its 2020 report: “The UK is facing an unprecedented skills challenge, with most UK companies reporting skills shortages and 40% of the workforce having skills significantly mismatched with their jobs.”

In many ways, the last 20-30 years have seen work transformed. The years ahead could see even more rapid change in how work is carried out. Factors like globalisation and the rise of virtual teams (now dramatically brought to the fore by coronavirus, changing employment relationships, flexible organisational structures, open innovation models, more diverse workforces, and changing corporate cultures will all have an impact on the skillsets expected of tomorrow’s professionals. Work is often increasingly complex, carried out in uncertain and unpredictable environments like now, and that demands different behaviours and skills from leaders including project professionals.

When the lockdown begins to lessen, which let us hope will be as soon as safely possible, we hope that the successes and failures will show a clear route map back to those organisations that were well organised and have the vision, skills and capacity to adapt at speed against immense pressure and deadlines to deliver.

But now is the time for others to think and plan for the next stage – which will be about how we get the economy and society back on track as quickly as possible once safe to do so. And use the new skills we have all learned along the way.

We will need a sustained and imaginative collective effort to rebuild our economy, our social fabric and mental health (the latter should not be forgotten in the economic focus for recovery), and we hope and believe project management and skills must be at the heart of this effort.

 

For further information and to download Projecting the Future: The Future of Work and Skills visit https://www.apm.org.uk/

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