Adaptability and the Future of Work

What Executives Need to Know About Creating Adaptable Organizations

Whether we’re talking about workplaces, the global workforce or employers—adaptability is central to the future of work. In new AESC research, adaptability skills climbed to the top of the list of attributes that executives feel are most critical for the post-pandemic environment.

Anu Madgavkar leads global research on labor markets and human capital as a partner of the McKinsey Global Institute. She recently spoke at an AESC global conference about McKinsey’s latest study on adaptability in the post-pandemic future of work. The findings include new information about the importance of adaptability as it applies to workplaces, the workforce and organizations.

Adaptable Workplaces

A recent Stanton Chase survey found adaptability and agility to be the greatest challenges facing CHROs, undeniably impacting and stifling workplace progress. As we look toward the future, organizations must seek to build an adaptable workplace for leaders, cultures and teams, effectively overcoming the major challenge. Stanton Chase offers several recommendations to create adaptable workplace environments. 

The first suggestion focuses on strengthening cross-functional relationships, ensuring a greater understanding of how everyone in the organization - from the C-suite to regional employees – implements change and adapts to the latest solutions and technologies. Additionally, to bring their organization into the now, HR teams should work to digitalize the organization and build resource hubs for cross-functional discussion and collaboration.

It is also important to note that an organization’s leader shapes the workplace and its culture. Therefore, it is crucial for an organization to retain adaptable leaders. 

EMA Partners describes a post-pandemic adaptable leader as someone who is conscious of their team’s work-life balance, attempts to connect with the teams and portrays an authentic attitude of positivity and understanding, and showcases an ability to navigate challenging and ambiguous times. 

Spencer Stuart has a similar definition of successful leadership in an ever-changing environment. Leaders who have the power to build an adaptable workplace and a thriving organization typically focus on clarity (maintaining a clear mission and vision), alignment (ensuring all employees have access to necessary resources to effectively do their jobs), vitality (provide employees with inspiration and motivation) and coherence (monitoring all business conditions to ensure everything is performing at its optimal level).

Workplaces are also changing as hybrid work evolves.  

Employers permanently adopting remote and hybrid models becomes more likely with the release of data showing that remote and hybrid work do not change productivity, and a growing percentage of workers demand the flexibility that remote and hybrid workplaces offer. These trends increase the likelihood that employers will permanently adopt remote and hybrid models. Plus, our study of 1,000-plus leaders across the globe found that most executives expect their organizations to adopt flexible work models for the foreseeable future across all industries. 

Remote and hybrid work is preferred by large numbers of workers. For example, among US-based workers in remote-capable jobs surveyed by Gallup, 32% prefer exclusively remote work, 59% prefer hybrid work, and only 9% prefer to work fully on-site. According to Gallup, requiring employees to work on-site against their preferences has a negative impact; those employees experience lower engagement and well-being and higher levels of burnout and intent to leave.

More than simply seeking a hybrid or remote model, workers want flexibility in where they work, when they work and to a great degree how they work. In that context Madgavkar expects adaptable, physical spaces to become more important, not less, with “a new design revolution on how workplaces will take shape in the future.” 

An Adaptable Workforce

The pandemic accelerated automation, digital transformation and the adoption of new tools and new ways of working, setting off alarm bells for classes of workers whose jobs are at risk of being disrupted by technology. 

Well before the pandemic accelerated digital transformation, analysts at Oxford Economics predicted that 20 Million manufacturing jobs could be replaced by robots by 2030. The World Economic Forum now predicts more than half of the world’s employees will need to reskill to adapt to the changing nature of work. 

“Across the board, whether it’s higher-end, knowledge-based, cognitive jobs or whether it’s jobs that actually require more physical sense and the ability to navigate a physical space, we are finding significant increases in the desire, the intent of business leaders to think about how we can deploy technology to get things done.” Madgavkar warns, “It’s safe to say that virtually everybody is going to have to learn to work with new technologies going forward.”

It’s a mistake to believe that workers will resist adapting or facing change. In a May 2019 podcast, Harvard Business School professor Joseph Fuller reported that in a global survey of lower income, middle-skill and manager-level workers, “Contrary to what bosses believe, many employees are excited about new technologies and willing to be trained in new skills. But they don’t always know what they need to learn or how to access and pay for it.”

And why not? Those workers who adapt and take risks are rewarded. New research by McKinsey Global Institute found a correlation between workers who make frequent, stretch moves and higher positions and pay. It presents upward mobility as a story about adaptability. 

“Those who’ve moved relatively frequently, and in each move took on jobs which were a big stretch—at least 30-35% different—those people have a much higher opportunity to move up the income ladder. It’s revealing that people need to take risks by moving into stretch jobs.”

What does that mean for employers? It’s an opportunity. 

According to Mercer, 98% of companies have significant skills shortages, and both HR and risk managers rank skills obsolescence as a top-10 risk. So upskilling and reskilling are not one-off solutions. They are core features of running a future-ready business.


Adaptability is becoming a survival skill for both individuals and organizations, with a profound impact on companies and economies. Organizations can and should raise their own and their workforce’s adaptability quotient. Some steps include: 

•    View people based on their potential and not what they’re already doing
•    Embed learning into day-to-day work
•    Increase internal mobility to engage people and promote retention

The balance of power has shifted, and top talent will find opportunities either with their current employer or elsewhere. Employers need to hone their ability to identify a person's potential to learn new skills and potential to change, then give that talent learning experiences and stretch opportunities.

“If you are not doing it well, there are organizations out there which are doing a better job of it. That's where the talent will flow.”
 – Anu Madgavkar, McKinsey Global Institute

Adaptability and Employers

“We don't want to just train skills, we want to train people to be able to be resilient, to be able to adapt, to be able to help to drive that change forward over time.”
-George Westerman, MIT Sloan senior lecturer and principal research scientist for workforce learning, September 1, 2020.

Enabling the global workforce to adapt is key to preparing for the future of work. “Change, adaptability and mobility are among the most important parts of how an economy builds human capital,” Madgavkar says. 

How do employers enable the workforce to adapt? “Our research shows that people who have the good fortune to work for companies which have positive, healthy organizational cultures are actually more adaptable,” Madgavkar says.

Cultures that foster adaptability and adaptable employees share some common features. Among them:

•    Commitment to learning and development
•    Opportunities for mobility
•    Respect for risk-taking
•    Rewarding people who stretch themselves

There may be a quiet struggle between the drive to retain and the need to retrain. “It's paradoxical,” Madgavkar says. “You retain people by actually creating mobility opportunities for them. These are the people who are the risk takers, but they're also the people willing to look for opportunities outside.”

Employers should create opportunities for employees, anyway. Madgavkar offers this perspective: “You're building human capital for the world.”

AESC members partner with organizations as trusted advisors to strengthen their leaders, teams and culture. Delivering a range of strategic solutions from executive and board search to assessment and culture alignment, AESC member executive search and leadership consulting firms help deliver the change organizations need to compete in the post-pandemic business climate.

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