This article is part of a series of contributions from students studying at the University of Sydney Business School as they explore important conversations around the future of business.

COVID-19 has permanently changed the way we live and work: businesses that fail to invest in employee upskilling will struggle in the new digitalised world of work. 

Even before the pandemic, employee upskilling was a crucial area of change: by 2030 14% of the global workforce would have needed to acquire new skills. COVID-19 has accelerated this obligation, with 78% of surveyed CEOs in Australia reporting the lack of key skills in employees as one of the top threats to business growth.

Organisations will need to enhance employee skills in four key areas: digital capabilities, cognitive abilities, emotional skills, and empathy.

A PwC survey shows almost half of CFOs plan to make remote work a permanent option for employees. Organisations will need to set up technological infrastructure and support programs to assist employees working virtually. Employees will need to build their technological knowledge and skills so they can operate effectively in a virtual, digital environment.

Artificial Intelligence and automation will have a large impact on the world of work. Employees will see themselves working in integrated human and technology teams. To be able to work effectively in a digitalised environment, employees will need to be equipped with technology and data skills, such as data analytical and visualisation skills, and applied machine learning. However, companies will also want to address the inequality and digital divide, as those without digital skills and access to technology will be at risk of unemployment and isolation.

Although technology is likely to replace workers in routine tasks, employees will still be responsible for decision making and will need to complete higher level tasks and analysis requiring creativity, innovation, and critical thinking. For example, AI can help to identify customer trend preferences, but employees must know how to use that information to produce meaningful insights supporting decision making and business strategies.

Soft skills are competencies machines cannot replicate. Strong interpersonal and communications skills will be even more important in maintaining relationships as employees shift to a more permanent remote work setting. Organisations will need to provide support to assist employees in developing emotional skills and self-confidence.

Empathy will also be a valued leadership skill as this pandemic has made employees and employers realise the importance of achieving a work-life balance for mental wellbeing. It is crucial for leaders to respond to employee needs with compassion.

Governments and businesses will need to collaborate to prepare the labour force for a new working environment and bridge the digital divide between groups as the post-pandemic world of work becomes more digitalised.

This is part of a series of insights related to Coronavirus (COVID-19) and its impact on business.

Clara is a student in the Master of Management (CEMS) program at the University of Sydney Business School.

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