Has COVID pushed us toward a new era of work? Of all the painful effects of it, might it push us to a world in which success at work is judged by merit rather than status? Amidst a great employment reshuffling and a shortage of talented laborers, employers are updating their hiring standards, and employees have greater autonomy to choose and design their careers.

The Wall Street Journal recently published a thought-provoking article about workers who are making the jump from blue-collar jobs to tech positions without a college degree. The article shares the story of Alexis Ayala, a 27-year-old who lost his retail job during the pandemic. He found replacement work as a door-to-door cable TV salesman, which he did not enjoy. Ayala heard, through a personal connection, about a technology business development opening at Okta, Inc. The company hired him, then provided on-the-job training and continuous learning opportunities that gave him the skills he needed to be successful in his new role.

Proximity, a trend spotted across industries that brings the production and provision of goods and services closer to where they are needed in time and space, can also be applied to deliver skills to workers—and workers to jobs—faster than previous generations have seen in their lifetimes. Let’s explore how employers can leverage hiring learning trends to meet their needs and propel forward in the future of work.

Proximity in hiring & staffing

Today’s job candidates are accustomed to the speed and efficiency of using smartphones for almost everything. It can be difficult for enterprise software and company architecture to keep up.

Employers who focus on incorporating proximity into the candidate and employee experience have the best chance of attracting the right talent—how can you make the experience faster for the candidate? Is there red tape you can remove in the hiring process? Have you identified the skills (rather than the degree requirements) that are essential for the job? Could these skills be taught on-the-job once you’ve established a culture fit?

Unifi hires staffing for airports, an industry with a very high attrition rate. Chief Strategy Officer Ying McPherson recommends a hands-on, hands-off approach: Focus on company values and location values to find a match. Be clear and up-front about what the job entails—use quick 10- to 20-second videos to let candidates and new hires know what is expected of them. Then, rely on local, regional vetting and allow for some creative flexibility, because a one-size-fits-all model may not apply for every job and location.

Proximity in employee education

While attracting and hiring the right talent has become more challenging in an employee-powered labor market, there are some trends in education that companies can capitalize on to prepare and upskill their existing workforce. If you survived the many pandemic-driven talent losses, there’s a good chance that your remaining employees are some of your best and most loyal. You’ll want to focus on gaining more insights about them, through data, to find out what new hires and potential employees will need to succeed. You’ll also want to provide opportunities for them to advance their skills and career.

Outside of the office, in classrooms around the world, digital technologies have enabled transformation in the learning experience. Advances in one-to-one computing and bandwidth access have made it possible for more people to increase efficiency and engagement in learning.

Companies can apply these progressions to their own learning and development programs by setting aside time for employees to work on their skills, encouraging peers to share and learn from each other, and offering fast-paced, digital training programs to keep employees engaged.

Looking to the future of work

For employees with and without four-year college degrees, the recruitment playing field has changed. According to the WSJ article, more than 10% of Americans in low-paying roles in warehouses, manufacturing, hospitality, and other hourly positions made a switch between August 2020 and March 2022. The current scales have tipped in favor of the worker, and today many have their choice of job opportunities.

It’s too soon to say for certain whether this is only a post-crisis reshuffling, or if employees will remain so highly valued and well-treated for the long-term future. Keith Ferrazzi, executive team coach and author of the newly released book Competing in the New World of World, explains that the future of work will be written by an ongoing dialogue between employees and employers. Proximity tools, such as data and analytics, remote chat, and crowdsourcing solutions, make it possible for workers at all levels to contribute ideas around strategy. Organizations that facilitate and learn from those conversations will be the ones best positioned to win in the future of work.


At Outthinker, we believe that there is great wisdom and opportunity in giving workers who, for reasons other than their potential, do not have as high a level of formal education as jobs have typically required. Both employers, through hiring and training, and employees, through autonomy and education, have a chance to leverage proximity trends to transform the future of work. With reformed hiring practices and a focus on training and development, we can move to a world in which people work based on true merit rather than on the badge of a diploma.

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels