Staying Relevant
Newsweek|October 15, 2021
The pandemic is quickly making some skills obsolete, but there are strategies for coping, a new survey shows
BORIS GROYSBERG and KATHERINE CONNOLLY BADEN

SKILL OBSOLESCENCE IS SOMETHING we all experience. When was the last time you had to read a paper map? Or balance a checkbook? Or dial a rotary phone? But just as the experience of the pandemic has spurred sweeping changes in other aspects of our lives, it has affected this too, expediting the pace at which some professional skills become out of date by more than 70 percent.

That is one of the central findings of a new survey of over 3,000 executives that we conducted in partnership with The Official Board, a global directory of medium and large companies. While the respondents were largely C-suite types, the insights and takeaways are applicable to any employee trying to maintain relevance at work during these challenging times.

The goal of this global survey was to find out how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the rate at which executives’ skill became obsolete. Thirty percent of the 3,026 respondents were based in the U.S., with the remainder representing 120 countries from every continent except Antarctica. Respondents represented 53 key functions, such as CEO, CFO and CIO, and 86 industries (primarily banking, insurance, financial services, consulting and telecommunications).

We designed the survey to include only a few quantitative questions, so that executives could focus on qualitative answers, providing advice and insights. Most of those surveyed—84 percent— offered text responses that elaborated on their quantitative estimates. These comments told a more complex and complete story about skill obsolescence and acquisition, particularly in regard to communication. Executives also shared strategies they found helpful in keeping their skills relevant.

The survey asked two simple questions of respondents:

On average, what percentage of your skills became obsolete or outdated during the pandemic?

On average, what percentage of your skills became obsolete or outdated on a yearly basis before the pandemic?

We compared the mean responses for each question and found that the perceived rate of skill obsolescence increased by 71.7 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In their comments, some executives emphasized the acquisition of new skills over the obsolescence of others. Others challenged the notion of skill obsolescence and reported their “obsolete” skills were not truly outdated because they either served as the foundation for newer skills or would be useful again once the pandemic was over. Generally, executives talked about the pandemic as an opportunity to improve old skills and acquire new ones.

Many executives said their existing face-to-face skills were inadequate for managing people digitally. A business services executive in the U.S. said, “Any skill that was required or heightened from face-to-face interactions was reduced or made obsolete during the pandemic. Virtual interactions are not the same as in-person interactions, whether casual or formal.”

Others said their existing time management skills or risk assessment and mitigation skills had become obsolete. Some said their technology skills were made obsolete by the quick rate of change of technological solutions that enabled people to work from home.

Meanwhile, an executive in the Hong Kong service industry saw the challenge in terms of skill acquisition instead of obsolescence: “During the pandemic, we needed to arrange remote work, remote sales and remote training, which required us to change the existing working process in a short amount of time. I needed new skills to manage remote staff and remote clients to create new business opportunities.”

Many executives told us some skills went obsolete and others were learned in the transition to a new digital way of conducting business.

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