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Adaptability: The Critical Skill for the Future of Work



The world of work is changing at an unprecedented pace. New technologies are emerging daily that disrupt entire industries and create new types of jobs seemingly overnight. Globalization connects organizations and workers across borders like never before. Social and environmental issues take on increasing importance. To successfully navigate this rapidly shifting landscape, organizations need leaders and workers who possess one key attribute above all others - adaptability.


Today we will explore why adaptability has become the critical skill for the future of work, how it can be developed in organizations, and provide practical examples of its importance across different industries.


What is Adaptability and Why is it Important?


Adaptability refers to the ability to adjust one's behavior, thinking, or feelings in response to changing circumstances, demands, or environments (Pulakos, et al., 2000). For organizations and workers, adaptability reflects an underlying mindset of flexibility, resilience, and openness to new ways of working and new possibilities for value creation. There are several factors that make adaptability the defining skill of the modern workforce:


  • Rapid Technological Change - New digital technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain, and virtual/augmented reality are transforming the nature of work and entire industries at an astonishing rate. Workers must continually adapt their skills to keep pace with these innovations or risk obsolescence (World Economic Forum, 2020).

  • Volatile Business Environments - Increased competition, political disruptions, supply chain issues, shifting consumer preferences, and unpredictable events like pandemics create constant change and uncertainty for organizations. Workers must be prepared to pivot quickly as priorities and strategies adjust (Neely, et al., 2012).

  • Globalized Markets - The ability to collaborate effectively across cultures, time zones, and borders is imperative as businesses operate on a global scale like never before. Successful organizations foster culturally adaptive mindsets that embrace diversity and nuanced perspectives (Briscoe & Schuler, 2004).

  • Societal Shifts - Rising issues like climate change, social inequity, sustainability, and well-being demand new approaches and creative solutions from organizations. Adaptable workers can comfortably navigate rapidly evolving societal expectations and stakeholder priorities (Stokes, et al., 2020).


The chaotic landscape of work today requires continuous adaptation to thrive in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world. Organizations need workers who can think on their feet, embrace unfamiliar situations, and learn new skills quickly - the essence of adaptability.


Developing Adaptability in Organizations


While individual adaptability is important, true success comes from developing it organization-wide. Three key strategies can help build an adaptive culture and workforce:


1. Promote Lifelong Learning


  • Provide Growth Opportunities - Offer formal/informal training, mentorship, project rotations, and new challenges to continually stretch employees' capabilities (Bersin, 2018).

  • Encourage Self-Driven Learning - Cultivate curiosity and experimentation by subsidizing online courses/certificates, memberships, conferences (PwC, 2020).

  • Reward Adaptive Mindsets - Recognize and incentivize those open to new skills, feedback, and uncomfortable situations through performance evaluation and career advancement.

2. Foster Psychological Safety


  • Listen Without Judgment - Leaders model openness by actively soliciting diverse opinions and concerns in a non-threatening manner (Edmondson, 2019).

  • Encourage Constructive Debate - Promote respectful discourse of alternative viewpoints to surface blindspots and jointly develop better solutions.

  • Learn from Failure - Normalize setbacks and mistakes as opportunities for growth through transparent reflection on lessons learned.

3. Build Structural Flexibility


  • Enable Cross-Functional Collaboration - Break down silos through virtual/physical spaces that bring different expertise together dynamically.

  • Experiment with Work Models - Pilot results-focused flexible/remote arrangements, autonomous team structures open to change and iteration.

  • Continuously Reevaluate Needs - Adapt roles, processes, technologies in real-time as business objectives and capabilities evolve through agility frameworks like scrum and design thinking.

By focusing on these three pillars, organizations embed adaptability into their culture and set their workforce up to thrive amid perpetual change. The following examples illustrate its real-world impact across different sectors.


Adaptability in Action: Industry Examples


Manufacturing - Danfoss


The Danish industrial manufacturer Danfoss faced disruptions from new technologies and globalization. To enhance adaptability, it launched an "Adaptability Academy" training all 40,000+ employees annually on skills like Agile project management, data analytics, and cross-cultural communication. Danfoss also crowdsources ideas from frontline workers through an internal website and incubates high-potential initiatives. As a result, Danfoss doubled revenues from 2007-2021 while diversifying into new digital product lines and expanding to new markets more agilely than competitors (Harvard Business Review, 2022).


Consulting - Deloitte


Global consulting firm Deloitte implements an "Always Learning" philosophy to continuously upskill its 300,000+ workforce. Its Learning Management System provides anytime access to 10,000+ courses developed internally/externally, supplemented through self-directed projects, mentoring circles, and conferences. Additionally, 70% of Deloitte's leaders are veterans of other functions/industries, lending diverse problem-solving capabilities. By fostering a learning mindset company-wide, Deloitte seamlessly adapted to remote work during COVID and the increasing demand for digital/AI services (Wall Street Journal, 2021).


Healthcare - Kaiser Permanente


As consumer demands shifted to virtual care and preventative wellness, healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente became one of the first to pilot telehealth services and wellness coaching. Psychologically safe work environments enabled clinicians to freely pilot innovations, even if unsuccessful, without reprisal. Cross-functional care teams including pharmacists, social workers, nutritionists emerged naturally through this flexibility. Now around 80% of Kaiser's 10 million patients utilize telehealth, saving both costs and enabling more proactive care delivery adapted to changing lifestyles (McKinsey & Company, 2020).


Non-Profit - United Way


During the pandemic, community support non-profit United Way had to adapt traditional in-person volunteer and fundraising models virtually overnight. Previously siloed teams collaborated using design thinking to ideate new digital engagement strategies for donors, volunteers, and beneficiaries. Field officers received ongoing training in public speaking, social media storytelling, and data analytics to effectively navigate this new landscape. As a result, United Way reimagined its entire operating model to better serve vulnerable communities through a crisis in a highly adaptive way (Harvard Business Review, 2021).


Conclusion


The hyper-disrupted world of work today demands unprecedented levels of adaptability from organizations and individuals. Those able to continuously learn, embrace flexible thinking and new possibilities, withstand change and failure, and collaborate fluidly across boundaries will emerge as leaders. Although disruptive, constant change also presents endless opportunities for growth and innovation. By cultivating adaptability as a core competence through learning, flexibility, and psychological safety, organizations like Danfoss, Deloitte, Kaiser Permanente and United Way have navigated uncertainty successfully. The future undoubtedly holds even more volatility, creativity, and potential. For workers and leadership equipped with adaptive mindsets and toolkits, that future remains bright.


References


 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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