Catalyst | Dexterity
With the right technology on our side, and
taking a people-centred approach as we go,
it’s time to enter the age of dexterity.
Words: Clare Grist Taylor
Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has become famous
for his very particular views on crisis management: “You never
let a serious crisis go to waste,” he said. “And what I mean by that,
it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
By any objective standard, the COVID-19 global pandemic has been a
crisis. It has certainly meant seismic shifts in the way we work, whether
that’s remote working, virtual hiring or an even greater emphasis on the
need for digital skills. We’ve all done things we thought we could never
For talent leaders, it has been a challenge which brings in its wake a host
of opportunities to reimagine work and to build true organisational
resilience by looking to a workforce ready and able to navigate an age of
uncertainty. And not just to survive. As leaders shift from the short-term
‘respond’ phase of the crisis to longer-term recovery, there’s growing
evidence that thriving is at the heart of many an organisational strategy.
An experiment in changing
It’s clear, though, that none of this is going to be easy. The pandemic is
scarily open-ended: until we can rely on a much-needed vaccine, even
the world’s best epidemiologists seem hard pressed to predict, with any
accuracy, exactly how and where the pandemic might continue to strike.
We’re simultaneously more than aware that the economic, social and
cultural impacts of the virus are already significant and dramatic. And
these impacts are being felt in different ways in different sectors. Compare,
for example, the talent challenges of the travel and tourism industry with
the continuing growth of a thriving pharma and life sciences sector.
Alain Proietti, talent lead at Danish healthcare company Novo Nordisk,
speaks for many when he describes the past few months as “the biggest
ever world experiment in changing workplace practices”. It’s a view
mirrored by a recent article from Ravin Jesuthasan and colleagues
published in Harvard Business Review, who emphasise that the
pandemic’s impact is “fundamentally altering what work is performed
and how we perform it”.
And this is not just a matter of those heroic clothing and fashion
companies who turned their hands to producing personal protective
equipment (PPE). It’s about nothing less than an extraordinary
opportunity to rethink work, deploying work, skills and talent more
flexibly than ever before.
I’m seeing a real
move away from a
culture of people
needing to change
Could it be that the crisis has provided the impetus for us to reimagine
talent beyond the job description and traditional hierarchies, structures
and workplaces? The gauntlet has been thrown down: the resilience we
need in this unprecedented age of uncertainty can only come from making
the most of the talent available to us – however and wherever it comes
from. With the right tech on our side, and taking a people-centred approach
as we go, it’s time to enter the age of dexterity.
Dexterity: the new agile
As COVID-19 hit, David Denyer, a professor at Cranfield School of
Management, brought 20 years’ worth of research into risk and resilience
to bear in an article that asks how organisations can improve their chances
of weathering a “high-velocity crisis”. Denyer identifies two sets of
opposing approaches that leaders tend to adopt in crisis situations:
defensive vs progressive and consistent vs flexible.
He argues that successful organisational resilience strategies require
leaders to adopt elements of all four approaches, with the balance shifting
as the crisis develops. But they must avoid at all costs the “threat-rigidity
effect” – the tendency to retrench into defensive mode so far that their
organisations lose their capability to adapt to new opportunities. “Waiting
out the storm” is not a viable option.
There’s plenty of evidence that the talent community is tackling this
challenge head on, building on response-phase crisis management by
embracing progressive, flexible strategies to build longer-term resilience.
Graeme Marshall, head of talent acquisition at energy tech company
Baker Hughes, has a neat shorthand for the strategic workforce planning
which underpins so much of the dexterity agenda: his company “buys,
borrows and grows” talent as the demands of the business change.
With ‘buying’ less on the agenda as the business has retrenched, COVID
has provided the opportunity to take stock, to create the internal fitness
they know they’re going to need when the time comes to scale up again.
On the ‘borrow’ side, Marshall’s contingent workforce programme lead
creates the policies, manages the data and runs a cross-functional steering
committee which brings together all relevant departments – HR, sourcing
and procurement, legal – to compete in the contingent market.
Redeployment has always been a reality for a company based on shifting
product lines across regions and projects, and the learning team has
deployed a suite of new tools to keep skills up to date, to keep the ‘grow’
side of the equation in balance.
Add in the realisation that remote working is a very real option for teams
that need physical meeting space rather than permanent offices, and
that the pandemic has had the perhaps unexpected effect of breaking
down traditional hierarchies, with senior executives travelling less and
engaging with staff more, and the groundwork for a flexible future looks
to be in place.
For Noel Brown, senior director for global talent attraction and acquisition
at Thermo Fisher Scientific, the crisis has been an evolution rather than
a revolution, maximising the company’s total talent philosophy at a time
when key areas of the business – on the frontline of testing, personal
protective equipment, and the development and production of vaccines,
antivirals and treatments – have been rapidly expanding (see p9).
Internal talent has been their starting point. Brown has a dedicated
internal talent team and mobility systems that have created an internal
market for jobs and career development.
have been able
Internal first also seems to be a strategy of choice for companies in
retrenchment as a result of the virus, or with a more stable workforce
adapting to the realities of mass remote working.
Katie Calhoun, Alexander Mann Solutions’ head of client services, has
seen this with a client in the travel industry, for whom large-scale
redundancy is in the offing and, for the foreseeable future, businesscritical
hiring will be internal only for the most part. Not knowing exactly
where those redundancies will hit requires considerable dexterity,
redeploying, reskilling and upskilling
talent to fill gaps as they arise. Models that
include resource augmentation are likely
to be needed, as well as contingent workers,
during the transition period, to allow for
more flexibility, should the pandemic
result in a second wave of redundancies.
Although this situation is not optimal, it
does provide new avenues through which
Calhoun can support her client. For her,
the crisis has “accelerated opportunities
for existing staff, and shone a light on the
need for succession planning and
internal mobility”. As the company
works through recovery and rebuilding,
these are strategies that will build
resilience for the future.
Other companies have traded a
commitment to no redundancies for
changes in working practices – including
redeployment and changes to roles and
functions. Michelle Hainsworth, global
head of client services at Alexander Mann
Solutions, sees clients looking beyond
traditional job descriptions, reskilling
and redeploying talent to create nimbler
teams as they enter the next phase of the pandemic – while preparing
for potential aftershocks.
“I’m seeing a real move away from a culture of people needing to change
employer to progress their careers,” she says. “We’re definitely in the
era of internal headhunting and internal first.” The trend is towards
transferable skills, encouraging people to view their roles in more
Widening the talent pool
Dexterity is also about viewing your talent pool in new ways. Alain Proietti
at Novo Nordisk knows that great talent is sitting all over the world. These
people have employment choices. “If we’re too rigid in our approach, they
have options to go elsewhere,” he warns. His bosses may have raised their
eyebrows when Proietti employed a manager based in Finland a couple
of years ago, but the relationship has worked, and he perceives that COVID
has already changed attitudes to geographical talent boundaries.
In their article, Jesuthasan and colleagues also reference what they
call “cross-industry talent exchanges” – sharing employees between
high- and low-demand sectors, equivalent of a sports team player loan.
It’s also not surprising that, with sectors hit in different ways,
companies experiencing growth are attracting talent from outside
their usual talent pool.
At Thermo Fisher Scientific, Noel Brown has seen an increase in candidates
from outside the life sciences sector. “Life science companies have
inevitably been in the news during the pandemic, so our reach has
broadened in ways we couldn’t otherwise pay for,” he explains. “Add in
retrenchment elsewhere, and we’ve been attracting several thousand
candidates for a single marketing role. Curiosity has led to engagement.”
These more open and flexible approaches to talent are not, of course,
without their own challenges. While many people are happy to engage
with these new opportunities, others may feel threatened or abandoned.
Flexible, remote working has been a revelation for many, while others
crave a return to the office. Many have, and will, lose their livelihoods,
while ‘flexibility’ for others translates to increased workloads and
pressure. Another thing we’ve definitely learned in recent months is that
dexterity also needs to have a human face.
Insight from Deloitte suggests that companies at the cutting edge of
“future of work practices” are likely to be well-positioned to meet the
challenges of the pandemic – and beyond. It anticipates digital-savvy
organisations made up of many types of worker and partners based
anywhere in the world. As automation
bites, agile-minded humans will focus
more on innovation, creativity and
problem-solving. Workplaces will
blend physical and virtual
environments. Organisations will
“value adaptability over procedure”.
Crucially, this vision of our brave
new world also speaks to some very
human talent challenges:
• the need for continuous learning
to support upskilling and
address continuing talent
• the need to deliver a “consistent
employer identity” to all types
of employee, contractor and
• the need for “personalised”
experiences to “empower people
to be their best, balanced selves”.
been a resilience
baptism of fire
A focus on learning
The need for continuous learning and upskilling is far from a new idea in
talent management, and the pandemic has only accelerated the need to
equip people to meet the challenges they’re facing. Witness, for example,
the changing face of management training to deal with mass remote
working, or training to support redeployment.
Client and customer-facing organisations are also facing a complete
rethink when it comes to handling customer relationships. It has been a
disruptive time for sales and business-development functions, which
have traditionally carried out business face to face. Cultural differences
can impact here too; for example, the personal touch has always been
seen as essential for selling into the Italian medical profession. Lawyers
and business consultants have had to operate without those relationshipbuilding
lunches and networking events. Using multiple channels to
interact with the external world is now a reality – and people need to be
supported to adjust.
Cultures of learning will be a crucial underpinning for any dexterity-led
organisation in future.
Communication, culture and
There is plenty of evidence that organisations have been able to muster
considerable reserves of humanity during the pandemic. Calhoun talks
of “more kindness, caring and empathy” with “communication and care”
at the core. There’s been plenty of intentionality in this space: managers
checking in more regularly, daily company-wide coffee and chat sessions,
shared Spotify playlists, even virtual meditation. Seeing our most senior
colleagues communicating from their homes has created an unprecedented
And, by and large, cutting people some slack and deploying more trust
and compassion seems to have been repaid, with productivity and
engagement holding up. The question now is: how can that people-centred
focus be retained and enhanced? Is it sustainable?
Mutual life insurance, pensions and investments company Royal London’s
initial response to the crisis led to 98% of its workforce operating remotely
within six days of lockdown, even in roles that had previously never been
performed this way.
For Victoria Wilson, head of people experience, this initial phase was all
about providing practical help for staff as they moved to new ways of
working (including a dedicated intranet site, toolkits to support remote
working and support for all people leaders), while maintaining great
service for their customers, keeping communication channels open and
sustaining a sense of community. As a result, some customer satisfaction
metrics have never been higher and engagement is strong.
Now, the challenge is to build on this momentum: “From a peopleexperience
perspective, it’s important that our colleagues feel supported
to continue to balance work and personal commitments,” says Wilson.
“Providing true flexibility about where, when and how our people work
is key to our future success.”
She is in no doubt that the company’s strong sense of values has been an
asset. “The ‘spirit of Royal London’ is at the heart of our organisation,”
she says. “We put our culture and our people’s health and wellbeing at
the core of everything we do.”
Proietti similarly aspires to a more ‘flex-able’ organisation, where people
work in a way that maximises their engagement and happiness as well as
their productivity. But these kinds of hybrid model, with some staff
working remotely and others in the office, need careful thought. New
norms about flexible working must be clear and implemented equably
Proietti gives the example of a recent meeting where some participants
were back in the office and others still working remotely. Inevitably, the
remote workers felt they were missing out on the informal chat that’s
part of face-to-face interaction. Now, all meetings are conducted via
screens to level the playing field.
Consistent and fair approaches to people who work in different ways will
be essential. In any hybrid remote office-based model, for example, there’ll
need to be even more of a focus on outputs. Harnessing the trust and
humanity we’ve shown in crisis is a good starting point.
Partnership and preference
In a recent article, Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi looked at how best
to motivate employees remotely. While, overall, their research suggests
that people might be less motivated when working from home, a key factor
relates to how much choice people have when it comes to where and how
they work. Being able to express a preference, have some agency, matters.
At Royal London, Wilson is clear that the company’s future workplace
strategy will be based around a partnership with its staff. She is using
tools such as continuous engagement surveys and return-to-workplace
working groups to plot a way through to the new reality. This sense of
partnership and preference is part of Royal London’s goal to be an
“inclusive, responsible and fulfilling” place to work.
More widely, it seems almost impossible that organisations will be able
to ignore a wealth of survey data suggesting that flexibility is popular with
a large percentage of the workforce. A more balanced approach between
remote working and the interpersonal interaction most people want –
some, if not all, of the time – looks likely. It could be that dexterity also
means the decline of the one-size-fits-all workplace, with all that implies.
Cranfield’s Denyer defines organisational resilience as “an ability to
anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to and learn from challenges
and disruptions in order to survive and prosper”. The COVID-19 pandemic
has been a resilience baptism of fire. When we ask ourselves “what next?”,
we need to mind what we’ve learned, double down on those opportunities
to change and reimagine the workplace in terms of the dexterity we all
need to face an uncertain future.