The future of work is unfolding before us. Digitalization, remote work, employee empowerment, and workforce diversity are historically high and the economy is thriving. Similarly, higher education is also undergoing a modern renovation as more online courses, virtual study groups, and digital learning management systems are incorporated into instructional design.
Both industries are on a clear and quick path through the fourth industrial revolution and toward the dynamics of contemporary collaboration…but are they on the same path?
As operational models are updated to allow autonomy, schedule flexibility, and location independence for workers, self-management becomes an essential skill for any professional. Certainly, university students have the expectation to be in control of their own time, tasks, and energy during their academic tenure, and frequently have opportunities to practice. But, is that skill being actively discussed and trained in courses?
The role of education traditionally has been to prepare students for the rigors and expectations of their future workplaces, but are they also equipping them for professional opportunities that don’t have workplaces?
With 63 percent of businesses utilizing a virtual workforce in some capacity, the opportunities for graduates to obtain a remote job are becoming increasingly common. If education is only designed with colocated environments in mind, the current academic experience of a graduate may be incomplete and could put them at a disadvantage when entering the workforce.
Roberta Sawatzky MA, CPHR, SHRM-SCP, from the Okanagan School of Business at Okanagan College gives her insights: “Work is changing. Not just the creation of new types of jobs, but also the way work is conducted. The speed of change also calls for an updated skillset, calling for workers to quickly adapt, to learn new approaches to challenges, to think more critically, and to collaborate with people they may never meet face to face.”
So, what new skills should be taught to prepare workers to participate in virtual teams? Surprisingly, the answer does not relate to technology.
Earlier this year, Sawatzky published a study that investigated the most crucial skills for remote workers, and found that the most critical competencies were based on emotional intelligence, including:
Tammy Bjelland, CEO of Workplaceless, a learning and development company specializing in remote work and distributed companies, validates Sawatzky’s research. “The current and future job landscape will favor transferable skills like communication, collaboration, critical thinking,” she says. “These are not new skillsets, but the presentation and application of these transferable skills will adapt according to the changes experienced by the job market.”
In light of this prioritization of soft skills, how can educators and trainers help prepare the incoming workforce for the future of business? Sawatzky and Bjelland make the following recommendations to their peers:
1. Prioritize communication
In virtual collaboration, all information is exchanged, products developed, and growth planned by people typing and talking to each other. Nonverbal language or environmental cues are worthless. So, a worker’s professionalism and value depends on how well they can articulate their ideas and requests. Not being able to write a motivating proposal, prove productivity with consistent status updates, or confidently ask a troubleshooting question during a group meeting could isolate a worker from the resources they need to fulfill their role.
2. Practice virtual teamwork
Without the convenience of a coworker being nearby, synchronous collaboration in distributed teams shifts from frequent, spontaneous interactions to intermittent, scheduled conversations. Then, asynchronous feedback and information sharing is exchanged in between. This may shed a different light on how the quintessential study group of campus life are formed and managed.
3. Promote Autonomy
In progressive companies, traditional management structures are being replaced with self-managing workers while leadership plays a supportive role. Therefore, personal accountability, organization, and scheduling become the responsibility of each individual, not their department. Honing one’s self-disclipline is crucial to the development of their remote career. (In other words, you may be able to procrastinate and pull an all-nighter for a few projects a semester, but the sustainability of a job demands better work-life structure.)
Making a few tweaks to a syllabus to incorporate these lessons may be simple enough, but here’s the catch: this is one circumstance where the adage “those who can’t do, teach” does not apply. In order to be an expert on the future of work, educators need to understand the nuances and dynamics of virtual collaboration first-hand.
So, Sawatzky invites: “As educators and trainers, we need to be involved in the virtual workforce, actually experiencing what this work context is like. Then, we need to keep foremost in our minds the competencies for success in that world, and build them into learning outcomes which will then inform assignments and assessments.”
The business world is steadily going remote. Sounds like it’s time for the education world to follow suit.
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