The future of work isn’t what it used to be. Conversations about preparing for the future of work are not new, but they are now very different. For years, companies have grappled with the need to arm workers with relevant skills and adapt to technological change. But the pandemic has not only forced remote working, but it has also exposed, and deepened, the skills gap and accelerated the pace of digital transformation moving forward. In this context, it’s not enough for business leaders to think about reacting to the crisis or striving for the next normal — we need a shift toward “unlearning” and a reimagined future of work. That involves understanding the root and depth of change, rethinking belief systems and overcoming what is holding companies back in order to create and innovate with new resolve and impact.
Turning an ‘uh-oh’ moment into an ‘aha’ moment
There are two kinds of turning points that typically spark change in traditional organizations. One is the “aha” moment — business leaders see an opportunity and move in a new direction to take advantage of it. The second is the “uh-oh” moment, in which companies must change course in reaction to a crisis. The pandemic was an example of the latter. In response to a health emergency and the world shutting down, companies had to urgently transition to remote work and find new ways of supporting customers and employees. Shifts that seemed impossible before became a reality virtually overnight, with no time for politics or inertia to get in the way.
According to Salesforce’s Global Stakeholder Series Research: Future of Work, Now — a survey from more than 20,000 people around the world — 63% say companies will be more resilient to crisis post-COVID. It shouldn’t take a pandemic for leaders to realize they may be holding on to biases, standards and mental models that no longer serve the business. But this moment of transformation is an opportunity to rethink old ways of operating. Instead of racing to get back to “normal,” wise business leaders and employees alike will challenge themselves to reimagine existing mindsets and systems in order to tap new opportunities and become more agile going forward. This involves more than the latest training and technology — it means unlearning entrenched beliefs and models in order to rebuild better.
What unlearning looks like
Unlearning is a mindset. In his TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson, the late British author and creativity expert, tells the story of a 6-year-old girl who told her teacher she was drawing a picture of God. “But nobody knows what God looks like,” the teacher told her. The girl responded: “They will in a minute.” When we were children, no one instilled limits on our imagination, and anything seemed possible. In the Salesforce survey, more than 90% of respondents said that creativity, collaboration and empathy would be important skills over the next six months. These soft skills were plentiful when we were young, but over time were replaced with linear thinking, hierarchical models and a focus on self-preservation.
Unlearning involves letting go of old paradigms to allow new ones to flourish — essentially rebooting our minds and organizations. Adapting to this moment is not just about mastering the latest digital tools. Instead, the first step is letting go of the programming that gets in the way of our natural curiosity and creativity. As we head into a new economy, rebuilding on outdated foundations doesn’t make sense, and we don’t yet know what we don’t know. The wisest option is to cultivate a mindset that can think in a fresh way about what comes next, then develop the skills and roles the future calls for.
Areas ripe for unlearning
Since unlearning is an ethos, it can apply to any aspect of an organization. Here are some concrete examples:
- Redefining how you measure success. Most companies track employee performance based on out-of-date metrics. In marketing, that could mean measuring page views rather than how a customer feels as a result of a campaign. In customer service, it could be analyzing call time rather than relationship quality. In the business as a whole, it could be focusing just on quarterly profits rather than impact on all stakeholders. Unlearning can entail reimagining what the business values and establishing new ways to measure success.
- Thinking beyond your industry. Established players in a variety of sectors, from retail to entertainment, often struggle because they can’t think outside the box of how they’ve always operated. Changing course requires unlearning what made them successful in the past and thinking more like a startup. For example, Brinker International, which owns the Chili’s and Maggiano’s Little Italy restaurant chains, launched a new brand, It’s Just Wings, in an exclusive delivery partnership with DoorDash in June 2019. After previously being resistant to the idea, the company realized it had to unlearn just being a restaurateur and embrace what it takes to succeed in a digital world. While many eateries are struggling to survive during the pandemic, Brinker became its own ghost kitchen with digital sales having grown from $140 million in the 2018 fiscal year to $567 million in 2020.
- Preparing for automation. Millions of workers are at risk of being displaced due to automation in coming years. According to the Salesforce survey, two-thirds of people say they lack in-demand skills and wish they had access to free technical training. Employees and employers who accept that this change is coming and unlearn their existing roles will be in a better position to succeed. Automation can most easily replace repetitive tasks, but new roles will be in demand: Someone has to train bots, recognize opportunities to deploy them, and more. Individuals can look for opportunities to prepare themselves for these jobs, while companies can establish cross-functional groups to identify the jobs of the future and upskill or reskill workers to fill them.
A fresh canvas
The first step in unlearning is recognizing that old models aren’t working and change is necessary. The pandemic gave many of us a jolt in that direction, but it’s still on us to accept reality and have the courage to break down old systems rather than digging our heels in out of fear. It’s impossible to predict what tools and processes we’ll need in tomorrow’s novel economy, but we can’t move in the right direction without a fresh canvas. Instead of just reacting, unlearning can be the foundation for reimagining.