In the late 6th century BCE, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus stated, “the only thing that is constant is change”, this is more relevant in the 21st century and the last two years than ever before. In any normal year change at home and in the workplace impacts people both individually and collectively, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this and imposed new problems and challenges that both organisations and individuals need to respond to. Hempsall (2021) identified that “adaptability is the key skill needed in a world where we don’t know what tomorrow’s challenges will bring”, and in 1869 when Charles Darwin talked about “survival of the fittest” Reed (2021) interpreted this to mean he was referring to those that had the greatest potential to adapt to their environment, rather than the strongest or fittest creatures or organisms.
Businesses and organisations which were already changing at a rapid pace have been forced by the pandemic to review the way they work, process, practices and even where employees work. Hancock & Schaninger (2022) outline that while in the past individuals could focus on completing their core tasks as assigned by the organisation, in the current uncertain and ever-changing environment this approach is no longer enough. According to McKinsey (2021) 375 million people may need to switch occupations and learn new skills before 2030. Supporting this the World Economic Forum’s “Future of Jobs Report 2020” estimated that around 40% of workers will require reskilling of six months or less, and 50% of the global workforce will need to reskill in the next five years, as the disruption of the economic impacts of the pandemic takes hold.
Planning the future of work and organisation design has always been important however Covid-19, and the changes that organisations were forced to make turned hypothetical futures into immediate reality, Schaninger (2022) states that “In this rapid pivot, organizations gathered key learnings with long-term potential to improve operating models, employee experience, productivity, and more”. As a result, individuals, leaders, and organisations need to create and embrace new adaptive ways of working. This was anticipated by Melissa Huntley, Head of Talent Management at Tableau Salesforce, who in 2020 highlighted the importance of adaptability “as customers and employees change rapidly, leaders need to stop their old models getting in the way” (Collins, 2020). Hempsall, (2021) identifying that “an adaptable approach involves actively taking control of oneself and one’s environment to make things happen”, building that “it involves a focus to bring about positive change and taking control of the situation with the information available at any point in-time”.
The pandemic has identified the importance and relevance of the physical dimension of work, where we work, and how work can be done. Research conducted by McKinsey (2021) on the future of work post pandemic identified that nine out of ten organisations will be combining an element of on-site and remote working. However, the same research recognises that most organisations do not have a detailed vision of what this hybrid approach looks like, with over 35% not having a vision or plan. De Smet et al. (2021) describe the process of returning to work as a “muscle” that organisations need to develop, rather than seeing the return to the workplace as a plan with a predictable timeline. An additional factor, is that the people returning to work in 2022 are not the same as those who left in March 2020, either personally or professionally. The 2021 Microsoft Work Trend Index identifies that the last two years has left a significant mark on the psyche of workers, of both their expectations of work, what they want out of it, and how work gets done.
Harfoush (2021) outlines that “burnout and anxiety are running high as employees return to the office after two years of shock, change and isolation”, it is important that organisations recognise this and create and embrace a new mindset, to support and engage their employees as they return to work. Researching this, Haas (2022) identifies five challenges that leaders and organisations need to understand and focus on to create the right environment, she calls them the “5C Challenges”, with the 5C’s being: communication, coordination, connection, creativity, and culture. As leaders navigate the complexity of supporting and engaging their teams in new working models, an openness and willingness to adapt and embrace new ways of thinking and working will provide organisations with a clear competitive advantage.
Research by McKinsey (2021) found that “adaptability is the critical success factor during periods of change, it allows us to be faster and better at learning and orients us towards the opportunities ahead, not just the challenges”. But what is adaptability? Reed (2021) states that “adaptability means being flexible and maintaining an optimistic attitude”, whilst Savackis (1997) says “adaptability means the quality of being able to change, without great difficulty, to fit new or unchanged circumstances”, both these definitions feel too simplistic.
The literature identifies that adaptability is about the environment, changes in the environment and how individuals approach and embrace these changes. It addresses the challenges of uncertainties of individuals and businesses and provides and approach which is flexible and based on learning or experience. This is described well by LTC Cojocar (2011):
“Adaptability is the ability to recognise changes in the environment, identify critical elements of a new situation, and trigger changes to meet new requirements. Adaptability is an effective change in behaviour in response to an altered situation”
Savickas (2013) believes that adaptivity is a trait-like characteristic that involves an individual’s readiness and willingness to change and use the resources around them. Savickas and Porfeli (2012) argue that ability to adapt can be measured in various ways including cognitive flexibility, proactivity, and the “big five personality traits”. This was supported in research by Rudolph, Lavigne and Zacher (2017) focusing on cognitive ability and personality traits as indicators of adaptability. Schmidt, Hunter et al. (1986 & 2004) identified that cognitive ability, and more specifically cognitive flexibility could be a measure of an individual’s readiness to adapt and argued that cognitive ability positively influences the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Studies by Bateman and Crant (1993) and Judge, Erez, et al. (2002) propose that the personality sub-traits of proactivity and self-esteem are indicators of adaptivity, and that people with these traits are more likely to succeed in a changing environment and successfully manage change and challenges.
Defining adaptability is not simple, McKinsey (2021) surveyed over 70 academic articles to define the strength in adaptability and identified three groups of characteristics; proactively managing physical, mental, and spiritual well-being; cultivating the habits of a lifelong learner; nurturing relationships and teams that promote well-being and learning. Literature identifies that it is an amalgam of behaviours (Tolentino et al. 2014), a strategy or approach (Savickas & Porfeli 2012), and even a mindset requiring a shift from structured thinking (Bingham 2021). What is clear is that adaptability is related to change, how change is managed and the ability of individuals to engage their awareness, resilience and proactivity built on previous experience to make decisions on a new way, approach, or process.
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