As workplace demands continue to evolve due to COVID-19, HR leadersÂ share best practices for growing employee skills.
By Marta Chmielowicz
There is no arguing that 2020 has been a challengingÂ year for business. From switching to remote workÂ seemingly overnight to making ends meet in an economicÂ downturn, organizations have had to be agile, adaptable,Â and innovative to stay afloat. And employees areÂ feeling the impact: Workers across industries are beingÂ asked to adjust to rapidly changing conditions in anÂ uncertain climate, often facing furloughs, shifting jobÂ requirements, and entirely new modes of work.
While the transition to todayâs new normal is stillÂ evolving, the business world has been on the brink ofÂ massive disruption long before the current crisis. A 2017Â report from the McKinsey Global Institute estimated thatÂ as many as 375 million workers would have to changeÂ occupations by 2030 in response to the development ofÂ artificial intelligence (AI) and other smart technologies.
Indeed, a February 2020 McKinsey survey confirmed thatÂ 87 percent of executives were already experiencing skillsÂ gaps or expected them within a few years, but less thanÂ half knew how to address the problem.
The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated this trend.Â To meet the challenge, HR leaders will need to reskillÂ and upskill their workforce to operate in new waysÂ post-pandemic and prepare for a future of even greaterÂ disruption. âOrganizations have accelerated theirÂ digital transformation strategies to adapt to the remoteÂ world of work,â says Ike Bennion, product marketingÂ specialist at Cornerstone OnDemand. âBusinessesÂ have found they arenât able to find talent quickly orÂ efficiently, and as a result, started to focus on reskillingÂ their current workforce. The renewed focus on buildingÂ talent adaptability and providing more learning andÂ development resources on demand has allowed workersÂ to build new skills and thus expand their capabilities.â
One critical element of a post-COVID reskilling strategyÂ has been preparing employees to work remotely.Â Research shows that telecommuting is here to stay:Â A Gartner Inc. survey revealed that 74 percent ofÂ organizations will move at least 5 percent of theirÂ previously on-site workers to permanently remoteÂ positions, and a quarter will move at least 20 percent toÂ permanent remote positions. Although many employeesÂ were forced to learn by necessity how to be productiveÂ in a remote workplace, continued remote work trainingÂ will be a critical component of learning initiatives goingÂ forward.
For example, Amber C. Kennelly, CHRO of insuranceÂ company HUB International, says that one of herÂ organizationâs areas of focus is training managers to leadÂ virtually. âWe quickly began training managers on newÂ skills critical in a virtual work environment, includingÂ building a communications cadence and how to keep theirÂ teams engaged in a virtual setting. We did this by creatingÂ several Percipio channels for our managersââVirtual TeamÂ Technologyâ and âVirtual Teamingâ,â she says.
Additionally, HUB International developed a COVID-19Â toolkit and resource center to offer support to talentÂ acquisition professionals who needed to transition toÂ virtual onboarding and training, as well as client-facingÂ employees who shifted from consulting with clientsÂ and service teams in-person to building connectionsÂ using virtual tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, andÂ GoToMeeting.
Some organizations are going one step further,Â completely restructuring job roles and transitioningÂ employees whose positions have become obsoleteÂ to other parts of the business. âThereâs a need toÂ retool employees and examine the ways that they canÂ contribute value to the organization despite the factÂ that their primary focus has shifted or dried up,â saysÂ Rhiannon Staples, HR expert and chief marketing officerÂ at Hibob.
For example, at Hibob, many marketing professionalsÂ who historically worked on events needed to shift focusÂ after quarantine restrictions limited travel and socialÂ contact. On the recruitment side, attention has shiftedÂ away from hiring new employees to taking recruitersâÂ skill sets and repurposing them for the needs of theÂ organization today.
Healthcare solution provider Alegeus experienced aÂ similar transformation, pivoting its office assistantÂ employees to other parts of the business when officesÂ closed. Rather than entirely eliminating the role, AnnaÂ Lyons, senior vice president of human capital, embracedÂ the opportunity as a career jumping point and placed theÂ two office assistants into new analyst positions.
But ensuring that such transitions are successful requiresÂ two major strategies: effective workforce remodelingÂ and a solid learning and development program. IT andÂ software company Globant has led the charge on bothÂ accounts, leveraging a proprietary tool called Albertha toÂ identify the existing skills within its workforce, compareÂ gaps against demand, and develop learning strategies toÂ reinforce key skills.
According to Chief Talent and Diversity Officer MercedesÂ MacPherson, the company launched a âGlobantÂ Universityâ program to arm its employees with the skillsÂ they needed to transition into new growth opportunitiesÂ across projects and industries.
âKnowing the skills that were most in demand, weÂ created several career learning tracks to match thoseÂ much-needed skills,â she explains. âWe also tookÂ advantage of much of our internal expertise andÂ experience to create curated content for these learningÂ tracks and mentor others.â
All of these organizations demonstrate how critical itÂ is for talent leaders to invest in their current workforceÂ and prepare them for the present and future of work.Â Companies that wish to do the same and remainÂ competitive in todayâs high-pressure climate shouldÂ consider the following best practices when mappingÂ talent needs and deploying their resources.
Step One: Evaluate Business Needs
To effectively leverage talent, organizations should firstÂ understand the core needs of the business and howÂ the operating model has changed as a result of theÂ pandemic.
âDuring COVID-19, companies had to weigh complicatedÂ scenarios to quickly pivot and adapt their workforceÂ to respond to changing business conditions,â says JillÂ Popelka, president of SAP SuccessFactors. âWorkforceÂ planning will be critically important as they look towardsÂ recovery, which includes managing how to returnÂ employees to the office, changing supply and demand,Â among other factors driven by legislation and publicÂ health. Workforce modeling can help plan for severalÂ âwhat ifâ scenarios so companies have the preparednessÂ to act quickly and decisively to unexpected changes.â
Cornerstone OnDemandâs Bennion suggests that HRÂ leaders start by asking themselves three questions:
- What has changed about the market?
- What was the organizationâs competitive advantageÂ compared to its competitors?
- What inputs to that unique advantage have changed inÂ the current business climate?
Once they have determined their key strengths andÂ priorities, organizations can better understand whatÂ they need to optimize their talent strategy to remain onÂ topâwhether it is cost, employee experience, or businessÂ model. From there, they can evaluate their existingÂ inventory of tools and resources and create a plan thatÂ reevaluates the use of physical spaces, people, andÂ technology to deliver value.
âLeading organizations are focusing on their coreÂ business and aligning employees around the work thatÂ best preserves the business,â says Ian Cook, vice presidentÂ of people solutions at Visier. âInstead of reacting toÂ changes in demand, organizations need to spend moreÂ time forecasting likely future scenarios and then identifyÂ how many people are needed to match that demand.Â An example of this is when a business reviews all of itsÂ furloughed employees and pinpoints which groups orÂ individuals need to come back in first or second waves asÂ demand increases. Organizations should also prioritizeÂ deploying people with the broadest skill sets and mostÂ proven ability to adapt and respond effectively toÂ changing demand.â
Companies should also use this auditing period toÂ assess the specific responsibilities and requirementsÂ of key roles. According to Bennion, HR leaders shouldÂ deconstruct each role, thinking critically about the roleâsÂ component parts and the skills needed to perform itÂ well. They should specify the exact ways that these rolesÂ will contribute value to the business and reimagine howÂ the day-to-day responsibilities will change as the worldÂ recovers from the impact of the pandemic. For example,Â a company that is shifting from in-store sales to homeÂ deliveries may find that employees with tech or logisticsÂ experience are more critical than before. They can thenÂ rebuild each role with consideration for their currentÂ employeesâ relevant skill sets and develop interventionsÂ to fill any skills gaps.
Lyons says a short-term hiring freeze can be beneficialÂ as companies go through this evaluation process. âSinceÂ the beginning of the pandemic, Alegeus leadership hasÂ worked hard to make preemptive moves to protect andÂ scale the business. This includes short-term defensive andÂ offensive plays, as well as long-term strategic investmentsÂ to ensure we come out stronger. One of the key short-termÂ defensive moves we made was to implement aÂ hiring freeze. This decision provided our leadership teamÂ an opportunity to reassess the criticality of roles in thisÂ new environment and whether open roles could be filledÂ by an internal resource versus hiring externally.â
Step 2: Assess Current Talent
As companies decide on strategies that will propel theirÂ business forward in the post-COVID reality, they need toÂ leverage data-driven techniques to map out the skill setsÂ of their existing talent pool.
âThat requires some assessment of the employeeÂ skill set, and when the assessmentâs complete, reallyÂ understanding what the strengths and weaknesses areÂ that lend themselves to the new scope of work for theÂ employeeâbeing able to identify how to educate themÂ to close that skills gap,â explains Staples.
Self-assessments can be a powerful starting point toÂ drive conversations about employeesâ particular skills,Â attributes, and preferences, but Staples says that theyÂ need to be backed up to a centralized system of recordÂ that employers can use to collect employee performanceÂ insights from across the organization. She recommendsÂ that HR leaders distribute an employee feedback surveyÂ that asks workers to rate their strengths and weaknessesÂ on a scale of one to five across a number of areas that areÂ relevant to a potential new role. While these responsesÂ may not be strictly factual, they can give managersÂ valuable insight into which employees may be a good fitÂ for other functions in the business.
This self-reported feedback should then be compared toÂ external performance reports where peers and managersÂ have the opportunity to provide feedback, such as theÂ nine-box matrix or 360-degree assessments. But BennionÂ offers a word of caution: âOrganizations need to reevaluateÂ the effectiveness of 360 performance reviewsÂ to be more job- or skill-related. This can help scale aÂ more data-driven landscape of current talent in theÂ organization. A talent framework equipped with AI canÂ do this with less administrative burden and with a higherÂ degree of accuracy from more input sources.â
HR leaders should not shy away from technology if theyÂ want to ensure an accurate reading of their employeesâÂ capabilities. For example, Cook recommends vendorsÂ like SkyHive that have the capability to extrapolateÂ employeesâ skills from a resume or the skills required for aÂ role from the job description.
âSkills detection remains complex and fairly basic inÂ its maturity,â he explains. âHowever, we now have theÂ technology and knowledge to run this process throughÂ software rather than relying on employees to hand-enterÂ their skills and have managers agree or disagree.â
Testing technologies that leverage gamification can alsoÂ be a useful tool for evaluating employee capabilities, butÂ Cook emphasizes that for this approach to be effective,Â there must be total alignment between the test and theÂ work being done. Because such tests are more expensiveÂ per employee, they are best used for roles which requireÂ employees to have a detailed understanding of the skillsÂ needed to fulfill them.
No matter which assessment approach organizationsÂ choose, the data should be conglomerated into a singleÂ point of reference and used to guide conversations aboutÂ where an employee might have skills gaps that need toÂ be closed or strong attributes that could benefit them inÂ other parts of the business.
Step 3: Offer Learning Opportunities
Once HR leaders have a clear view into their businessÂ needs and available talent pool, they can introduceÂ reskilling initiatives and tailored learning journeys forÂ each individual role.
âUpskilling and reskilling is a critical piece to businessÂ continuity and growth,â says SAP SuccessFactorsâ Popelka.Â âTo effectively address it, we have to look at continuousÂ and relevant learning. It needs to be both practical andÂ applicable to the individual. For example, learning shouldÂ be integrated into our daily jobs using technologiesÂ like machine learning to nudge us to dive deeper intoÂ a specific skill or sign up for a relevant course. DrivingÂ a culture of continuous learning will not only provideÂ employees with the tools to thrive, it will prepareÂ organizations for long-term success and enable them toÂ keep up with the pace of change.â
Companies can increase the scale and effectiveness ofÂ these initiatives by delivering their training digitally,Â using tools like social sharing and live video sessions thatÂ recreate the best of in-person learning. Including a socialÂ element will maintain employee engagement and driveÂ greater motivation, productivity, and connection.
Charlie Chung, vice president of business developmentÂ and solutions consulting at NovoEd, says that programsÂ need to provide opportunities for authentic collaborationÂ and practice, giving employees an opportunity to applyÂ newly-learned skills and better retain information.
He also emphasizes that the depth and complexityÂ of training programs need to be proportional to theÂ skills they are trying to imbue. âFor example, if theÂ top priority is to ensure every employee meets yourÂ compliance requirements, then a simple, self-paced,Â video-based training course that is run on a standard LMSÂ is sufficient. On the other hand, if employees require aÂ deeper level of interaction for a diversity and inclusionÂ program, onboarding experience, or fast-track leadershipÂ development program, then a platform that simply servesÂ up a training video is not going to cut it,â he explains.
Step 4: Monitor Progress
As COVID-19 continues to affect peopleâs lives at workÂ and home, focusing on employee engagement isÂ absolutely criticalâparticularly if their roles are shifting.Â How can organizations ensure that employees areÂ content with their career development throughout thisÂ turbulent time?
1. Make employees feel valued. âThe fundamental driverÂ of retention and engagement has always been helpingÂ employees connect their work to the success of theÂ business, and then managing an ongoing conversationÂ about how this work helps employees progress towardÂ their personal goals,â says Cook.
Because the shift to remote work has reduced theÂ number of spontaneous check-ins at work where theseÂ conversations might ordinarily happen, leaders need toÂ be more proactive and transparent than ever.
Chung recommends three approaches leaders can take toÂ maximize engagement and energize employees for theÂ challenges ahead:
- In times of great change, emphasize what is stayingÂ the same: the organizationâs mission, its values, and theÂ ultimate goal of fulfilling the customerâs needs.
- Find ways to create and maintain narratives to connectÂ the new or changing roles to the mission and purpose ofÂ the organization, communicating the underlying need forÂ change.
- Cultivate a growth mindset through vocabulary, rewardÂ systems, and as a foundational paradigm in all of theÂ learning and development curriculum.
2. Be clear about goals. Transitioning to a new positionÂ can be a minefield of challenges at the best of times, butÂ the complexity becomes even greater in a distributedÂ workforce. Separation and lack of communication canÂ make employees feel unsupported and uncertain aboutÂ their responsibilities.
âWeâve talked to a lot of HR leaders and managersÂ about how theyâre handling this challenge, and time andÂ again the one consistent thing weâve heard is that lackÂ of visibility creates a vacuum in terms of understandingÂ what your employees might be working on,â says Staples.
âThe best way to solve that is to be very clear and directÂ with employees about the goals and objectives that youÂ hold them accountable to. Be very clear both in writingÂ and direct verbal communication, and have a mechanismÂ in place that affords the manager and the employee toÂ go back on some regular basis to assess progress againstÂ those goals and make sure theyâre staying on track.â
3. Measure satisfaction. Whether pre- or post-pandemic,Â employee satisfaction and retention metrics are missionÂ critical to ensuring that employees are transitioning wellÂ to their new roles. According to Staples, organizationsÂ should monitor these metrics by examining the companyâsÂ performance month-over-month and comparing it withÂ employee satisfaction data collected through surveys.
For example, Hibob sends out the same survey to itsÂ employees once a month and compares the monthlyÂ results to calculate its employee net promoter scoreÂ (ENPS) and identify trends. âIf we see that metric movingÂ in the wrong direction where ENPS is starting to decline,Â it helps us understand that we have to dig a little bitÂ deeperâoften times through surveys and often timesÂ through live conversations with team membersâto getÂ to the root of what might be underlying any negativeÂ responses that we perceived to the survey,â says Staples.
Companies cannot be resilient if their workforces arenâtâand helping employees adapt to the new business worldÂ post-COVID-19 is the first step to ensuring a successfulÂ recovery. Todayâs employees are the people who willÂ help organizations rebuild once the crisis is over, and HRÂ leaders need to make sure they invest in them so thatÂ when the time comes, the team is ready to build a newÂ future.