Workforce and Skills

Humanity, innovation and radical progress in the post-COVID world

We need wholly new approaches to rebuilding trust and recoupling social and economic progress. Here are three priorities for leaders to consider.

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When mobs erupt, like the one that descended on the US Capitol in early January, I’m reminded of the Hemingway character who said he went bankrupt “gradually, then suddenly.” It’s not easy to predict breaking points, the moment when a crowd becomes lethal, when a pandemic overwhelms a healthcare system or when historical norms need significant change.

The shock of a tipping point can help us reevaluate systemic challenges that have been steadily accumulating—in today’s case, for more than a decade. Economic disparities, social imbalances, digital divides, information asymmetries and market failures all have been undermining long-held paradigms about progress. The COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated and accentuated these forces. 

I’ve written recently about information-, incentive- and reporting-based solutions to our systemic challenges. Reappraising the underpinnings of our market systems, while rebuilding trust, is a necessary condition for recoupling social and economic progress—but it’s not sufficient. We also need to tackle, directly, the human dimension of system change, so that many more people can engage productively and inclusively in economic life, take advantage of escalated opportunities and fulfil their potential.

Human connections

The paradigm shift of remote work and learning, while far from perfect, has been a remarkably effective feature of the pandemic response. But consider the research of University of Chicago professors Jonathan Dingel and Brent Neiman. They estimated in a June paper that close to 40% of jobs in the US could be performed remotely, that individuals with lower incomes were less likely to be able to work from home, and that the percentage of jobs with remote potential was lower in poorer countries than it was in many developed parts of the world. Add to that recent PwC and UNICEF-Generation Unlimited findings that about one-third of all students around the world were unable to access remote learning when COVID-19 shut down in-person schooling; not surprisingly, less developed countries were hardest hit. 

Such asymmetries, while unfortunate, are nothing new; they reflect a dramatic mismatch between the demands of the digital economy and the skills of today’s workforce. Recent research by PwC and the World Economic Forum shows that addressing those mismatches would boost productivity, employment and incomes around the world. The benefits would be particularly significant in populous countries with large skills gaps such as India, China and the US, and smaller, though still meaningful, in nations like Germany, which has long invested in skills training.

Jobs, jobs, jobs: where leadership is needed to prepare people for a brighter future


of CEOs are concerned about the availability of key skills


of workers will require up to six months of reskilling by 2025

But closing the skills gap by 2030 could create

5.3 million new jobs globally

US$6.5 trillion added to global GDP

Those gains could be game changers for individuals who feel left behind or inhibited from jumping into opportunities by the fast pace of change. Also benefitting: governments and economies stretching to repair the damage done by the pandemic, jump-start recovery, come to grips with surging debt loads and find the fuel needed for investments for future readiness. And that’s not all. “Upskilling” or “reskilling” employees to enable their full participation in the workplace means creating more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that pull people along and catalyse deeper connections between humanity and the economic marketplace. 

Innovative leadership

Even if, as appears likely, the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines takes longer than we would like, it ultimately should help forge more tangible connections between humanity and the fruits of progress in a way that affirms both the nobility of science and business, and our capacity to achieve a shared endeavor. My hope is that we can extend the spirit of innovation forged amid the crisis to expand the human opportunities before us. Here are three priorities for demonstrating leadership and innovation on the road ahead, which should result in us doing things radically differently, as opposed to just incrementally better:

Elevating ecosystems. Recent mass experiments in remote learning, painful though they have been at times, are also yielding valuable insights about what can and can’t be digitised. And just as the digitisation of commerce and information flows upended and blurred boundaries between industries, the digitisation of learning models portends significant disruption in the years ahead. It’s shocking that a third of all children were unable to continue learning when COVID-19 shut schools because they lacked an internet connection. As the educational establishment, government, civil society and business begin working together in new ways, we’ll be reimagining the ecosystem that prepares people for the future and creates opportunities for the supply of talent to meet an increasing demand for such talent.  

Business—which has been at the forefront of creating valuable, digital platforms and ecosystems—has a crucial role to play in driving innovation in the delivery of learning, the credentialing of employees, and the redefinition of interfaces with traditional “suppliers” of graduates. The business communities around the world have obligations to connect with, support and enable leaders in governments, communities and the educational establishment striving to reinvent learning. Examples to watch include Singapore and Luxembourg, which are experimenting with upskilling models that bring together people, business and educators to encourage, and financially support, lifelong learning. 

We also can take inspiration from history. In the late 19th century, industrial pioneers spurred the creation of brick-and-mortar universities such as Cornell, McGill, Stanford, and the University of Chicago that modernised higher education. Our ecosystem of innovation, characterised by technology, platform solutions and new collaborative models, will look completely different from that of the past, but it should be no less transformational, as we seek to democratise leading-edge skill development. 

Embracing interdependencies. Beyond sharper technical capabilities, the post-COVID world also demands enhanced leadership skills. Leaders need to be comfortable not just with persistently higher levels of ambiguity and uncertainty (neither of which is anything new), but with interdependencies on a grand scale. We’re living in a more multipolar world than we were a year ago. Countries, communities and companies can’t afford to pick a single side as they did in the Cold War. 

That context matters profoundly for leaders as they address education and skills (your ecosystem had better be global, because talent surely is), technology and privacy (there’s no single set of rules), healthcare (as the last year has reminded us) and just about everything else in the external environment. Recognising these interdependencies will make more possible the achievement of global aspirations, from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to net-zero climate priorities. As these interdependencies stretch our leadership capacity, they also should help us empathise with the growth and skill development that society is demanding of everyone. Our own humanity, in other words, can help us be more humane. That certainly seems a worthy aspiration and one that needs even more attention as we emerge from the human tragedy of COVID-19 over the past year, towards the brighter future we are looking for in 2021 and beyond.

Measuring outcomes. Measurement and outcomes are an oft-cited piece of the skills challenge: How do we better map the evolving job landscape, forecast future skills demand, establish employment quality indicators, and determine whether skill-building is translating into productivity and wealth gains that are fairly shared? Business leaders have much to contribute: they know better than anyone what scarce skills drive the most value in their business, and they also have experience stretching to measure performance attributes that are difficult to quantify, while incentivising the right behaviors to achieve the desired outcomes. Net promoter scores are a proxy for loyalty; employee engagement scores map to workplace health; net present values serve as proxies for the future. Isn’t it time for new measures of success, not only in education and job creation but also as we measure any country’s or company’s progress and comparability—both to its peers and to the expectations of broad, sometimes polarising, groups of stakeholders?

What’s more, business is starting to engage in a serious effort to clarify and elevate the importance of less traditional metrics, including non-financial ones. As corporate leaders work with standard setters and policy-makers to drive alignment on global standards and to establish the larger system of infrastructure needed for the new world, business should keep the human dimension, particularly the fostering of 21st-century capabilities, front and centre. The reinvention of reporting and the reappraisal of what it takes to equip people for our evolving world should not be siloed efforts. 

Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, Harvard Business Review published an article entitled “A time to lead with purpose and humanity,” by Hubert Joly, a global business leader who has held roles as the CEO of Best Buy and a senior leader at Vivendi. The sentiment was right then, and, I think, even more right now. As science helps restore global health, a broader leadership imperative lies before us, to restore the health of society, our institutions, our organisations and their connections with people, including the most disaffected. Leaders who bring a spirit of innovation to educational ecosystems, global interdependencies, and human outcomes will create momentum that propels society forward, with humanity.

Read more articles by Robert E. Moritz on strategy+business.

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Robert E. Moritz

Robert E. Moritz

Chairman, PricewaterhouseCoopers International Limited

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