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Future of Work and Skills Survey 2021

The challenges that leaders face today are more significant and complex than they've been in generations. Our report reveals actions that leaders should make to prepare for the future of work.

Shaping the workforce of the future

The challenges business leaders face today are more significant and complex than they've been in generations. The Great Resignation is a well discussed phenomenon at this stage and burnout has become its own epidemic in its own right, now recognised by the World Health Organisation as an official disease. There is a widening mismatch between the job environment employees want and the one their organisations have. And that mismatch is growing.

What we saw as the COVID-19 unfolded was that some organisations showed a resilience to withstanding the impact of the pandemic better than others. In our 2021 Future of Work and Skills Survey, we questioned nearly 4,000 business and HR leaders. Our research shows that business leaders are anxious about digitisation. They express concern about understanding the consequences of replacing human work with technology, the impact of technological change on upskilling, and being able to communicate about these issues with stakeholders.

The top reasons for a lack of progress in these areas, and others, are cost pressures, lack of leadership capability, and organisational culture. These stumbling blocks highlight the importance of shoring up both the financial and the human capital elements of the tech equation. Business leaders and HR leaders are aligned on where they stand on workforce issues and how important various issues are to the future of work.

For organisations to thrive, they need to access their people's full potential and develop and execute new, dynamic strategies. Our research shows that organisations that had taken action consistently across six factors performed at or above their workforce targets over the last 12 months. What lessons can we take from that and what actions can business leaders take today to ensure they have a resilient and stable workforce? Let's further explore the key actions that leaders should make to prepare for the future of work.

Use data to plan deliberately

Planning is more important—and more difficult—than ever, as organisations face an increasingly uncertain future. Scenario-based planning, in which leaders imagine and anticipate their needs for multiple possible futures, is one way to be ready for whatever may come.

Dynamic planning builds responsiveness into plans, allowing the organisation to revisit strategies and reallocate funding based on changes in the market, the workforce and performance. Committing to both types of planning yields dividends and is more effective than doing just one, because doing both prepares leaders for the breadth of possibilities and gets them ready to be flexible.

But good planning requires the right leaders, behaviours, data, tools and incentives. Looking more broadly can be particularly beneficial in helping leaders build their forward-looking ability and putting organisations in a better position to thrive financially and otherwise.

Yet only 26% of organisations in our survey strongly agreed that they use a wide variety of external data sources and viewpoints in planning. Investing in data will help leaders avoid being caught off guard by the next disruption and will help them build their ability to be intentional rather than reactive in their strategies.

❛❛Only 26% of organisations strongly agreed that they use a wide variety of external data sources and viewpoints in planning.❜❜

Scenario-based planning and dynamic planning yield significant dividends

'Walk the talk' and activate culture

As firms accelerate their digital journeys and prepare for the future of work, they'll need to focus on their people and pull levers within their control to get the most out of them. Building trust in the organisation and the organisation's leadership is one of those levers.

Our research has demonstrated that people want to work for employers that show they care. They also want the organisations they work for to live up to their purpose, values and culture. It's heartening that in the current survey, almost 40% of leaders said trust between workers and their direct supervisors is very important. But returns on trust won't be fully realised until leaders step up and bring their purpose and values to life. Among other things, leaders should support mental and physical wellbeing, establish greater levels of internal and external transparency, and close gaps in workforce diversity and pay equity.

Leaders need to be consistent, making sure their actions match their words. Also, many workers are grappling with mental and physical health concerns because of the pandemic. And some are anxious about job security amid ongoing digitisation. To put employees at ease and retain them, leaders must institute supportive policies, open clear channels of communication, offer opportunities for upskilling to support their people's long-term employability, and show their commitment to having an inclusive organisational culture.

Taking these actions will require accountability. In our survey, only 27% of respondents strongly agreed that leaders in their organisation are held accountable for diversity and inclusion results. Leaders need meaningful incentives and consequences to encourage them to deliver on tomorrow's diversity and inclusion commitments.

❛❛Almost 40% of leaders said trust between workers and their direct supervisors is very important.❜❜

Only 30% of surveyed leaders strongly agreed they're doing what's necessary to build high levels of trust between workers and their direct supervisors

Base: All respondents (3,937).

Note: Percentages shown represent respondents selecting an 'agree' or 'important' option.

Source: PwC's Future of Work and Skills Survey.


Focus on management as much as measurement

Optimising productivity is about focusing on what you can control, and it's integral to overcoming challenges related to digitisation and automation. Our survey confirms what has been widely reported elsewhere: remote or hybrid work boosted productivity in most workplaces. In our survey, 57% of respondents said their organisation performed better against workforce performance and productivity targets over the past 12 months. Only 4% said their company performed significantly worse.

Given these findings, now is the time for leaders to build an environment that supports sustainable productivity rather than fret about monitoring employees. Being productive for a day or week is meaningless if that productivity comes at the expense of well-being. Giving workers flexibility to manage their work and home lives as they see fit and take time to rest, and supporting their diverse circumstances and needs, will help them to be healthy, mentally and physically. And this will make it more likely that they'll perform well in the long term.

❛❛57% of respondents said their organisation performed better against workforce performance and productivity targets over the past 12 months.❜❜

About 75% of leaders do not strongly agree that workload is manageable

Base: All respondents (3,937).

Note: Percentages shown represent respondents selecting an 'agree' option.

Source: PwC's Future of Work and Skills Survey.

Invest in systems and data to assess needs

Leaders know employees will need new skills to help their organisations flourish into the future. But the development of skills brings benefits beyond the realm of pure business. Employees who see their organisation investing in their long-term development will be more likely to trust leaders and feel happy and cared for—and therefore less likely to quit.

Yet the most significant struggle that leaders in our survey reported having in their upskilling efforts is in identifying the skills that workers will need in the future. The second- and third-most cited challenges for leaders have to do with using analytics to predict skills gaps. It's imperative that businesses make investments in systems that inventory and maintain an inventory of current skills and that support visualisation of gaps against future skills. These gaps can be mitigated with a range of measures, including general and targeted upskilling, targeted hiring and onboarding, enhanced on-the-job coaching, and the designing of career paths and succession plans that enable mobility and subsequently build new skills and experiences, enabling retention.

❛❛Only 26% of respondents strongly agreed they can identify the skills the organisation will need in the future due to technological change.❜❜

Barely one in four leaders can definitely identify skills they'll need in the future

Base: All respondents (3,937).

Note: Percentages shown represent respondents selecting an 'agree' option.

Source: PwC's Future of Work and Skills Survey.

Be transparent and collaborative

Digitisation will continue to be a top concern for leaders and a source of anxiety for workers. But the pandemic proved the importance of technology in engaging customers, creating new ways of working and even promoting productivity.

The best way to continue rolling out new technology solutions is with transparency and collaboration. Communication can even be personalised based on workforce segmentation. Different stakeholder personas, needs and preferences should be considered in messaging. Co-creation of technology solutions is also critical.

Get employees comfortable with being part of the solution, even looking for automation opportunities. Impress the point that transformation will be human-led and tech-enabled. Executives can reassure employees that where technological solutions will be brought in, the impact on humans will not be as calamitous as they might fear. And when jobs will be affected, leaders must handle that, too, with transparency and humanity – not only for workers' sake but because anxiety affects performance.

❛❛Only 21% of respondents strongly agreed they can identify the potential risks caused by decisions to replace human work with technology.❜❜

Less than one quarter of leaders are confident they know the potential risks of automating work

Base: All respondents (3,937).

Note: Percentages shown represent respondents selecting an 'agree' or 'important' option.

Source: PwC's Future of Work and Skills Survey.


Highlight the benefits of a diverse workforce

Given the many ways in which the pandemic highlighted the importance of organisational resilience and agility, it's alarming that only 28% of leaders strongly agreed they can rapidly adjust their workforce strategies. Disruption won't end with the pandemic, so it's important for businesses to use all of the tools at their disposal to best position themselves for the future.

Some organisations have a cultural preference for building versus borrowing talent or else have difficulty moving quickly. Even when thinking about how to make in-house only workers more agile, it's important to increase recruiting capabilities and internal mobility and redeployment. But there is value in having access to ready-to-go, vetted resources for when your needs shift.

Leaders looking to make their culture more open to contingent workers must build trust by sharing stories from elsewhere in the market or from their experience that demonstrate how contingent resources can help drive success. They also must emphasise some of the less obvious benefits of a different talent mix, such as the potential to reach more diverse workers and spark creativity with fresh ideas from outside the organisation.

All of this requires the business to develop, deploy and track a common workforce strategy framework. And it's essential that HR leaders and senior business executives be on the same page in this effort. Fewer than one-third of our survey respondents strongly agreed that the HR function is effective in developing and delivering their workforce strategy, and this number was even lower among non-HR leaders, at only 15%. HR and other business leaders have some work to do in.

❛❛Only 28% of leaders strongly agreed they can rapidly adjust their workforce strategies.❜❜

Far more human resources leaders than non-HR leaders think the HR function effectively delivers on workforce strategy

Base: All respondents (3,937); HR leaders (3,505); Non-HR leaders (431).

Note: HR leaders are defined as those answering 'yes' to the question: Is your current role part of your organisation's HR function? Non-HR leaders are defined as those answering 'no' to the same question. Percentages shown represent respondents selecting an 'agree' option.

Source: PwC's Future of Work and Skills Survey.

Actions to take now

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Build trust in the organisation

Our survey found that only 30% strongly agreed that their organisation builds high levels of trust between workers and their direct supervisors. Trust based working will be a cornerstone of the future of work. Without it, organisations will struggle to make hybrid or remote working work. Trust requires a clearly defined purpose and set of values that are reflected in the reality of the organisation. It also requires open and honest two way communication and feedback. Furthermore it necessitates letting go of outdated management practices focused on control and clock watching.

Icon: two striped plus signs.

Optimise workforce productivity and performance

In a hybrid working world productivity and performance can no longer be determined by visual cues. It should never have been determined that way, but in truth, many managers found it a more comfortable way to understand work effort. Productivity needs to be measured in terms of outputs and outcomes. Leaders need to identify what's really important, what will deliver real value for their organisation, customers and employees. At the same time, they need to consider the impact of workload on their teams to avoid burnout and negatively impacting work-life balance.

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Enable the skills of the future

Identifying the skills needed in the future was the second-biggest challenge cited by respondents to our survey, across all six no-regrets areas. In fact, even calling them skills of the future is a bit of a misnomer. Organisations need many of these skills now. You need to develop clear plans for digital and technical upskilling. However, you should not ignore leadership and people skills. The ability to lead and manage people in a manner that engenders trust and inspires performance will be more crucial than ever as our ways of working continue to rapidly evolve and our organisations grow even more complex.

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Prepare for and deploy technology with humans in mind

Organisations need to focus on protecting people not jobs. Roles will change, many that exist now will disappear and new jobs will appear in their place. Leaders need to identify the skills and capabilities their organisation will need to meet its short, medium and long term goals. They should be clear on the role technology will play. They then need to help their people to consider the bundle of skills they have, how those skills could transfer to other roles, and help them to upskill for the future.

Icon: two striped triangles.

Build ability to rapidly access and deploy talent

28% of HR leaders strongly agreed the HR function is effective at developing and delivering the workforce strategy, compared with only 15% of non-HR leaders. Both figures are stark and need to be addressed. HR leaders can't rely solely on traditional methods of attracting and contracting their workforce. Significant focus needs to be given to the nature of the workforce required to meet business needs. New contracting models should be explored and non traditional skill sets identified. This needs to include sourcing the types of skills and capabilities that will be required in the short-to-medium term, as well as those required now.

We are here to help you

We have been actively supporting our clients throughout the pandemic, and will continue to do so as and when they emerge from the crisis and seek to further embrace the future of work.

There is no one size fits all, but our understanding of the core challenges facing business and HR leaders, coupled with the insights and experience of our team leaves us well placed to help clients address the particular challenges they are facing, in a way that works for them.

We are ready to help you as you face the future. Contact us today.

Contact us

Gerard McDonough

Partner, PwC Ireland (Republic of)

Tel: +353 1 792 6170

Doone O'Doherty

Partner, PwC Ireland (Republic of)

Tel: +353 1 792 6593

David Keane

Director, PwC Ireland (Republic of)

Tel: +353 1 792 8253

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