If we learned anything from the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and the stay-at-home orders that ensued, its that any organization that wants to build a strong, resilient team capable of dealing with a given unforeseen crisis, will need to invest in its greatest asset, its people, and build flexible, agile capacity that can quickly adapt and overcome.
Hesitate and you may join the growing unprecedented number of corporate bankruptcies falling victim to the crisis. In the US alone, chapter 11 filings rose 26% in the first half of 2020. That represents roughly 3,600 businesses.
In response, Governments around the globe are intervening like never before. Last April, the International Monetary Fund noted that so far, mitigating the impacts of the current crisis has cost governments 3.3 trillion, or roughly 50% more than all the stimulus spending it undertook to face the global financial crisis.
Adaptation has always been a critical component of survival. Now it’s more important than ever for organizations to take this idea to heart. Perhaps nothing in recent history compares to the swift and sudden shift teams have had to make practically overnight than the shutdowns resulting from the coronavirus outbreak.
Initially, there were a lot of fears and anxiety surrounding what nonessential organizations would face. Employees were told to work remotely, to stay home and protect themselves and avoid contact with others. Many of these same employees were not prepared for it. They didn’t know what to make of it and worried about what the next few months would look like. Would they keep their jobs? Would loved ones be safe?
Now, though, many of these same organizations and their employees around the world are discovering that this way of working remotely and under such conditions can actually be a benefit in the long run. A recent PwC US CFO Pulse Survey confirmed that ”…54% of CFOs plan to make remote work a permanent option”.
The relentless pace of automation and its consequent impacts on our work environments have been observed for some time. So, this is nothing new. It’s been anticipated, but now there’s been a shove rather than a nudge in that direction. It was anticipated that eventually, a large portion of the global workforce would have to acquire new skills or change their career path in the next decade.
A study by McKinsey Global Institute in 2019 predicted that nearly 375 million workers, accounting for approximately 14 percent of the entire global workforce, would have to make some kind of change like this.
In that study, though, they weren’t anticipating a global pandemic but rather the impact automation and artificial intelligence would have on various industries.
What is aggravating the environment is that nearly 9 out of 10 executives say they are struggling with employee skill gaps. Fewer than half had any idea about how to solve the problem.
A More Urgent, Pressing Matter
“It’s about retooling the workforce, helping employees develop new skills and increase those skills to fit new business models that will result from the wake of this global pandemic”.
COVID-19 blasted into 2020 and completely changed everything. What may have seemed like a distant problem for many executives and business leaders suddenly fell right in their lap.
This sense of urgency and necessity has forced many organizations to make rapid and firm adjustments simply to survive. For those unwilling or unable to adapt, survival becomes a more tepid reality.
Many workers across most industries are now experiencing some intensely rapid changes to the working conditions they once knew. You have to discover new ways of doing things and develop skills that had never been as crucial before as they are now.
All of this has a lot more to do than just working remotely. It is also bigger than the artificial intelligence or automation challenge so many executives have expressed concerns about in the past.
It’s about retooling the workforce, helping employees develop new skills and increase those skills to fit new business models that will result from the wake of this global pandemic.
J.P. Morgan anticipates that it could take between 10 and 12 years before the U.S. employment levels return to what they were pre-COVID-19. This highlights just how important reskilling will be.
Focusing on Change
Few people enjoy change. Most will readily admit they like things the way they are, especially if they have a good handle on things.
When people are comfortable, when things are going well enough, change can be unsettling. It is an extremely stressful circumstance. It can cause anxiety, panic, fear, doubt, and much frustration.
When a person has been working for the same organization for five, 10, 20 years or even longer, and things have progressed in the same direction at the same pace during their entire career, sudden, cataclysmic shifts can cause them to lose their footing.
Some manage to find a sense of balance, relearn skills relatively quickly, but how many are just treading water hoping and waiting for the end of the stay-at-home orders and the pandemic? In most likelihood, many.
That’s why it becomes incumbent upon executives and business leaders to develop plans to increase cognitive abilities and help employees increase their digital skills. It is also necessary to address social and emotional skills as well as the impact circumstances like this may have on those valued employees.
It is the time for organizations to begin investing in new learning skills. Regardless of the financial pain, an organization is facing right now in the wake of COVID-19 and the shutdowns, they have a responsibility to the future of the organization to invest in reskilling their employees.
It’s a muscle. Like any muscle in the body, it requires exercise, pushing the body beyond its limits, and that’s what develops strength. Muscle only grows when the existing muscle tears. It causes pain. Yet, out of that difficulty the most forward thinking and resilient ones will endure.
There are several steps business leaders can take to help their team members become more adaptive and better equipped thanks to new skills.
Remote Working Is Nothing New
Increasing numbers of workers have become experienced with remote work. This has been happening for more than a decade. In the United States, during the Great Recession of 2008, some organizations were encouraging employees to work remotely for one or two days per week.
This was in response to skyrocketing oil prices which was affecting electrical and heating costs. By reducing the number of days an office was open, organizations were able to trim some of those electrical and heating expenses.
When life began to return to normal, though, those remote working days phased out. Now, a Gartner CFO study found that three quarters of Chief Financial Officers are now planning to make at least 5 percent of their on-site employees permanent remote positions. That is the direct result of COVID-19.
Where some of these employees were forced to learn quickly as they discovered the remote work environment, more critical training will help establish a smoother transition and a better model.
Instead of scrambling to set up video chat meetings, employees will be more empowered to strengthen and enhance customer relationships using available technologies.
The learning curve can be steep for some, but when forced due to external factors like the coronavirus, strong leaders are able to guide their teams. Managers and supervisors have been forced to figure out the most effective ways to manage their teams remotely as well.
Now that organizations are starting to see the green light to return to some semblance of normalcy, those that are looking forward have begun to realize that returning to the workplace for everyone might not be necessary.
There are critical and noncritical skills that people need for business growth. Some of those noncritical skills may not be “nonessential” to the organization, but could be performed on a remote basis.
In some situations, an employee who is performing one set of skills may be tasked to learn something completely new in this post COVID-19 business environment. It should obviously be related to their previous skills, but expand the possibilities of what they can perform.
Adopting Fully Digitized Approaches
No longer do organizations have to solely rely on in-person conferences and training seminars. What COVID-19 has taught many business leaders is the value and benefit of live video training sessions as well as meetings.
While these may not be optimal in all circumstances, it’s a great alternative to in-person meetings. By capitalizing on distance learning, organizations can more cost-effectively provide training opportunities for their team members, even at more convenient times of the day or week.
Mastering New Trends
In order to strengthen the reskilling of employees post COVID-19, those responsible for training (Chief Learning Officers (CLO’s)) will need to focus on a few key, but new, trends.
First, it’s about the ‘distance economy.’
This distance economy is nothing new. It has been growing for the past couple of decades, especially with the advances of the Internet. Training leaders need to find new ways for key employees to do certain jobs.
In certain cases, some jobs may no longer be relevant, but the employees that used to do them are invaluable. That’s where the focus needs to shift; providing new opportunities for these valued individuals.
For example, most people usually made appointments either in person or by phone, whether it’s for a health care appointment, an automobile repair, or something similar. Now, more appointments are being made online.
And, in some countries, doctors are turning to advanced technologies using smartphones and tablets to conduct initial consultations remotely. This may have a direct impact on medication prescription and other medical consultations as well.
As such, doctors need to relearn some of their skill sets to best capitalize on these changes.
Second, there is an imbalance with supply and demand.
When you’re talking about talent, there’s a gap between supply and demand. More consumers are shifting to online shopping, or e-commerce. That’s making traditional brick-and-mortar retail jobs scarcer, yet the demand for employees to fill in the gap for these e-commerce operations are growing.
Part of this involves the “gig economy.” For those employees who need to develop these new skills, without adequate training the learning curve could be nearly insurmountable for them. It becomes incumbent upon organizations to help their employees make the necessary adjustments through reskilling sessions.
Third, supply chains will shift.
Production of various products has also undergone tremendous change in recent years. Amazon has become incredibly successful at becoming the world’s largest retailer. They open up distribution centers in highly populated areas so they can deliver goods at a rapid rate.
Producers are also seeing the value in moving production facilities closer to their points of sale. This is completely altering the supply chain. Strategic industries are being enticed to return to their home countries, receiving financial incentives to do so. This will boost domestic value chains for some key industries, including pharmaceuticals.
Let’s Talk About Reskilling
For organizations dedicated to growth and staying ahead of the curve for the future, reskilling is necessary. There are several steps you’ll need to take in order to be successful when reskilling your valued team members.
First, identify the skills your organization most depends on right now.
In the aftermath of this global pandemic, as your organization has managed to survive a shut down for nearly two months, what kind of skills were most critical to that?
Some of your team members, leaders, and other employees will have contributed significantly to not just the survival, but ability for your organization to thrive going forward. Based on what they’ve been able to offer, identify what it is that made them excel.
Discover the skills that set them apart from others and that’s something you’ll want to teach and train the rest of your employees to follow.
Second, strengthen current employee skills for the new business model.
As you undoubtedly have a new business model in place in light of COVID-19, you’ll want to have a set of skills that an employee possesses that will be beneficial, no matter how the future of their specific role may change.
The most important crucial skills in our modern economy include social and emotional skills (being able to handle and adapt to the changes in business operations), digital, the ability to think creatively and more cognitively, and that essential ability to adapt.
The best way to reskill team members for these four sets of skills is through digital means. Give them the opportunity to go at their own pace and avoid the temptation to have it tailored to each individual. In other words, the training should be somewhat generic and applicable to as many people as possible.
Third, close critical skill gaps.
Once you begin identifying the skills your organization needs most, you will be able to recognize the current skill gaps. This will involve a deeper dive into your strategic workforce plan.
Look forward a year to a year and a half and determine what skills most people on your team will need or at least need strengthening in. For example, some organizations have discovered the advantages virtual selling can offer, especially against more traditional competition.
If your team doesn’t possess the virtual selling skills it needs to thrive, that’s one of those gaps you should address in the coming months.
Fourth, test often and as quickly as you can.
When you invest in reskilling, you will be able to identify and address the skill gaps, especially those caused by technological change. Even if these efforts ultimately seem to be unsuccessful, you will be grateful for the process because it will better prepare your entire workforce and help identify other skill gaps.
The bottom line is this: when you do launch reskilling efforts, don’t give up on them. Don’t give up just because a societal circumstance like a global pandemic and the ensuing shutdowns comes to an end. Keep going.
As you keep building institutional learning, you will be able to discover what works best and what falls short.
Fifth, get small.
This doesn’t mean your organization has to downsize, but it’s best to start thinking like a smaller organization. That’s because smaller organizations have an easier time making adjustments or rapid changes.
Larger organizations have access to more resources, sure, but smaller organizations are agile. They can make bold moves more quickly.
Smaller organizations also have a tendency to possess a clearer view, especially when it comes to those vital skill gaps. When you think small, get small.
Finally, invest in your learning budgets.
It’s going to be tempting to slash training budgets, especially right now but that’s the last thing you should do. Overall training investments tend to drop once economies get back to normal.
An organization should focus on keeping their training budgets not just at pre-coronavirus levels but increase them. Training is an ongoing thing, so even if you spend properly for the next two or three years, don’t fall for the temptation to let it drop when it seems the worst is behind you.
Take advantage of the learning opportunities and growth you can give your employees. Let those new skills take root.
Every crisis can either destroy or provide opportunity for growth. One of the critical components of success in the wake of these crises is workforce capabilities.
When you invest in reskilling, you put your organization in the right position to excel and come out on top, no matter what happens in the economy or world around you.
Joseph is a senior advisor at the Senate of Canada. Joseph enjoys writing, blogging and teaching. You can follow Joseph via Twitter @josephsoares.