Companies are adapting their learning and assessment strategies to meet the ever-changing needs of the post-pandemic workforce.
By Simon Kent
Identifying and developing high-potential employees is always a challenge. Doing it in a pandemic introduces another layer of difficulty since the usual process of bringing people together to assess existing skills and learn new ones has been impossible.
Lizzie Crowley, senior skills adviser at the CIPD, explains that according to the research, the pandemic came at a time when improving people management capabilities was a top priority for organisations. Unfortunately, companies weren’t necessarily geared up to deliver.
“The pandemic has underscored the importance of being able to learn, adapt, and continuously improve, with many organisations forced to redeploy, upskill, or reskill staff,” she says.
As in other aspects of business and HR, the pandemic has forced a rethink, demanding businesses to assess and train employees anytime, anywhere. Now more than ever, organisations need to “create an environment that embeds learning into the way people work,” Crowley says.
According to Robin Hoyle, head of learning and development at Huthwaite International, the physical training room cannot simply be swapped for a virtual one. “Organisations have recognised that trying to simply replicate a day in the classroom via Zoom is not a great experience for those in attendance or those expected to deliver these sessions,” he says. “To combat this, short, focused, interactive sessions making use of breakout rooms and supported by digital assets delivered before and between the sessions have been successful.”
This mixed media approach has been taken by Serco in the assessment and selection of graduates for their business. When COVID-19 shut down the usual in-person programme, the company worked with Aon’s Assessment Solutions to build an online alternative. Jane Crane, Serco’s talent acquisition director, says this approach gave the organisation great insight into their candidates’ skills and abilities.
“A lot of the graduates hadn’t experienced anything like our virtual assessments, but everyone got fully immersed in them,” she says, detailing how graduates who passed an initial artificial intelligence-based video interview went on to take part in an assessment centre with an escape room, a fact-finding task, and an interview. “We were able to replicate the buzz that comes with a face-to-face meeting by using a two-way video interviewing environment.
“It wasn’t something we’d ever previously done, yet we achieved everything we set out to do—from creating videos and a website that reflected the experiences of our current graduates to having a marketing campaign that focused on inclusion and communicated our values,” adds Crane.
Elva Ainsworth, CEO at Talent Innovations, further notes how some aspects of training and development have been challenged and rethought. “Beliefs we used to have about what works are now seriously debunked,” she says. Ainsworth says current circumstances prove that 360 debriefs don’t have to be face-to-face to be successful, and coaching can be powerful in a virtual environment.
She does note that new coaching skills have had to be developed to overcome the online boundaries of video tools such as Zoom. “They are best when they are specially designed and organised into intense short periods, but they do work,” she says.
Organisations have been forced to shift their assessment and development delivery models, but they have also seen a shift in required skills. Kate Temple-Brown, client director of The Opportunity Group, notes that whilst there may be many candidates available for a business, the vast majority do not have the relevant skills for open roles, creating a need for learning solutions.
“Development and more specifically digital upskilling has been highlighted as a key skill for new and existing employees in nearly every sector and company,” says Temple-Brown. “We now look to L&D professionals to partner with development consultancies or platforms that can roll out learning virtually to support employees as they work from home or are furloughed as well as using development to upskill their new hires.”
Crowley says that before COVID hit, succession planning had been identified by organisations as a top priority to ensure their businesses were future-fit—and it remains critical in today’s economy as well. This is another area where the planning process can continue even when leaders and teams aren’t in the same room.
“When thinking specifically about senior managers, organisations will need to assess who holds business-critical roles and whether they can identify a small pool of people who could take over the responsibilities of those senior managers if the need arises,” says Crowley. “The pandemic is only likely to have focused minds on this issue even more and made organisations more prepared and proactive.”
“Developing people is difficult if we do not have visibility of their day-to-day engagement with colleagues, customers, and partners,” agrees Huthwaite’s Hoyle. “However, the use of digital tools and virtual technologies provides additional rather than fewer opportunities to observe behaviour and performance.”
To make this work, Hoyle says organisations need to be certain to define the skills required and observe employees to assess their ability in those areas. This can still be done remotely, even by observing behaviour during Zoom meetings.
“One great opportunity provided by rapid change and uncertain times is to recognise those who have been quick to adapt and capable of applying their skills and behaviours to novel situations,” he notes. “This is talent management gold dust—a massive laboratory to help organisations identify those with transferable skills and, most importantly, the ability to learn, adapt, and deal with uncertainty.”
Rapid change and uncertain times affect everyone, not least those charged with delivering effective learning and development programmes within organisations. This is a challenge the CIPD has also noted in its Learning and Skills at Work 2020 report.
“The pandemic has highlighted the need to reskill and upskill within L&D functions,” says Crowley. “Our report showed that many organisations lack the roles and skills needed to deliver digital learning, with most in-house L&D roles being dominated by face-to-face trainers.”
As the hybrid workforce emerges over the next few months, training and development professionals will need to be on the ball in order to ensure the skills a business needs are ready and accessible whenever and wherever they are required.