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Five workplace culture tips for 2021

December 22, 2020
By Jennifer Roynon

Photo: (BillionPhotos.com/Adobe Stock

Throughout history, people have been a source of innovation and advancement — their skills the impetus for economic growth.

Today, however, multiple factors — including COVID-19, technological developments and business and operating model innovation — have contributed to market shifts that are redefining industries.

Make no mistake, the past year was a tough one. 2020 started with a global pandemic, compelling workplaces across the country to work remotely with minimal interruption in services.

IBM was one of these companies, transitioning almost seamlessly to a temporary work-from-home culture.


But in speaking with clients, other organizations have not had this same experience. For them and many others, 2020 was about survival.

Towards recovery

The question now is, how do we recover from the emotional and economic devastation of the past year?

In a virtual panel discussion last month, IBM convened leaders to discuss one of the first steps, “Getting Canadians Back to Work: Upskilling and reskilling for a post-pandemic economy.”

Panelists agreed that this year, Canada was in the midst of its greatest recession since the great depression. And while professional, science and technical industries have seen an increase in employment, many other sectors — particularly those in the food service industry — continue to see a steady decline.

Lekan Olawoye, founder of the Black Professionals in Tech Network (BPTN), noted that many of the inequities amplified by the pandemic may serve as a unique opportunity to equalize the playing field.

If there’s one thing that COVID-19 has made clear, it’s that there is a need for digital education and digital transformation across sectors, and that need is not going away any time soon.

Closing the skills gap

As small businesses, non-profits and other decision-makers begin to adopt digital platforms to stay in business, we are noticing that those without a traditional computer science degree are adopting a digital skillset, fundamentally altering the way we think about education outside the classroom.

COVID-19 has accelerated the need to address this. Hiring and training are no longer the only answers.

The time it takes to close a skills gap through traditional training has increased by more than 10 times in the past four years, jumping from three days to 36 days.

As we’ve seen this year, the labour force has a significant impact on national and regional economic vitality. Without skilled workers, organizations struggle to innovate, grow their businesses and create new jobs.

A region’s economic competitiveness and value proposition can suffer severely after a decline in the skills of the workforce. Regional economies lacking sufficient quantities of skilled workers struggle to retain and recruit industries that provide high-skilled and high-paying jobs.

Skills of the future

So, what skills matter most? And what should leaders begin modelling?

Surveying executives, we’ve found that hiring managers are looking for a blend of both digital and soft skills, sometimes called behavioural skills.

These are held by individuals who can communicate effectively, apply problem-solving and critical-thinking skills to drive innovation using new technologies, and draw and act on insights from vast amounts of data.

There are also calls for creativity and empathy, an ability to change course quickly, and a propensity to seek out personal growth.

Sometimes these skills come naturally, but more often than not, they don’t.

Five culture strategies

Here are five key recommendations that Canadian business leaders should consider instilling into their corporate culture as they strategize for the new year, and ensure they have a competitive and strong workforce that is ready to learn, ready to act and ready to succeed.

  1. Adopt continuous learning: Partner with businesses that offer micro-credentials, digital forms of certification for employees to upskill, reskill and adopt lifelong learning with or without a traditional degree.
  2. Design with intention: Collaborate with non-profits to create programs designed to help disproportionately impacted populations’ (racialized communities, women, veterans) return to the workforce.
  3. Consider long-term partnerships: Work with school boards and advocate for P-TECH schools, or consider becoming an affiliated industry partner of an existing school to help students understand how their learning relates to the jobs of the future.
  4. Prioritize soft skillsEncourage critical thinking, problem solving and conflict resolution as a means of preparing employees to learn hard technical skills and technology that may not exist yet.
  5. Fill the network gap: Hire people outside of your network and take steps to diversify your community.


Jennifer Roynon is a corporate social responsibility lead with IBM Canada in Toronto.

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