Agile, Adaptable, and Innovative

As workplace demands continue to evolve due to COVID-19, HR leaders share best practices for growing employee skills.

By Marta Chmielowicz

There is no arguing that 2020 has been a challenging year for business. From switching to remote work seemingly overnight to making ends meet in an economic downturn, organizations have had to be agile, adaptable, and innovative to stay afloat. And employees are feeling the impact: Workers across industries are being asked to adjust to rapidly changing conditions in an uncertain climate, often facing furloughs, shifting job requirements, and entirely new modes of work.

While the transition to today’s new normal is still evolving, the business world has been on the brink of massive disruption long before the current crisis. A 2017 report from the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that as many as 375 million workers would have to change occupations by 2030 in response to the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and other smart technologies.

Indeed, a February 2020 McKinsey survey confirmed that 87 percent of executives were already experiencing skills gaps or expected them within a few years, but less than half knew how to address the problem.

The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated this trend. To meet the challenge, HR leaders will need to reskill and upskill their workforce to operate in new ways post-pandemic and prepare for a future of even greater disruption. “Organizations have accelerated their digital transformation strategies to adapt to the remote world of work,” says Ike Bennion, product marketing specialist at Cornerstone OnDemand. “Businesses have found they aren’t able to find talent quickly or efficiently, and as a result, started to focus on reskilling their current workforce. The renewed focus on building talent adaptability and providing more learning and development resources on demand has allowed workers to build new skills and thus expand their capabilities.”

One critical element of a post-COVID reskilling strategy has been preparing employees to work remotely. Research shows that telecommuting is here to stay: A Gartner Inc. survey revealed that 74 percent of organizations will move at least 5 percent of their previously on-site workers to permanently remote positions, and a quarter will move at least 20 percent to permanent remote positions. Although many employees were forced to learn by necessity how to be productive in a remote workplace, continued remote work training will be a critical component of learning initiatives going forward.

For example, Amber C. Kennelly, CHRO of insurance company HUB International, says that one of her organization’s areas of focus is training managers to lead virtually. “We quickly began training managers on new skills critical in a virtual work environment, including building a communications cadence and how to keep their teams engaged in a virtual setting. We did this by creating several Percipio channels for our managers—’Virtual Team Technology’ and ‘Virtual Teaming’,” she says.

Additionally, HUB International developed a COVID-19 toolkit and resource center to offer support to talent acquisition professionals who needed to transition to virtual onboarding and training, as well as client-facing employees who shifted from consulting with clients and service teams in-person to building connections using virtual tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and GoToMeeting.

Some organizations are going one step further, completely restructuring job roles and transitioning employees whose positions have become obsolete to other parts of the business. “There’s a need to retool employees and examine the ways that they can contribute value to the organization despite the fact that their primary focus has shifted or dried up,” says Rhiannon Staples, HR expert and chief marketing officer at Hibob.

For example, at Hibob, many marketing professionals who historically worked on events needed to shift focus after quarantine restrictions limited travel and social contact. On the recruitment side, attention has shifted away from hiring new employees to taking recruiters’ skill sets and repurposing them for the needs of the organization today.

Healthcare solution provider Alegeus experienced a similar transformation, pivoting its office assistant employees to other parts of the business when offices closed. Rather than entirely eliminating the role, Anna Lyons, senior vice president of human capital, embraced the opportunity as a career jumping point and placed the two office assistants into new analyst positions.

But ensuring that such transitions are successful requires two major strategies: effective workforce remodeling and a solid learning and development program. IT and software company Globant has led the charge on both accounts, leveraging a proprietary tool called Albertha to identify the existing skills within its workforce, compare gaps against demand, and develop learning strategies to reinforce key skills.

According to Chief Talent and Diversity Officer Mercedes MacPherson, the company launched a “Globant University” program to arm its employees with the skills they needed to transition into new growth opportunities across projects and industries.

“Knowing the skills that were most in demand, we created several career learning tracks to match those much-needed skills,” she explains. “We also took advantage of much of our internal expertise and experience to create curated content for these learning tracks and mentor others.”

All of these organizations demonstrate how critical it is for talent leaders to invest in their current workforce and prepare them for the present and future of work. Companies that wish to do the same and remain competitive in today’s high-pressure climate should consider the following best practices when mapping talent needs and deploying their resources.

Step One: Evaluate Business Needs

To effectively leverage talent, organizations should first understand the core needs of the business and how the operating model has changed as a result of the pandemic.

“During COVID-19, companies had to weigh complicated scenarios to quickly pivot and adapt their workforce to respond to changing business conditions,” says Jill Popelka, president of SAP SuccessFactors. “Workforce planning will be critically important as they look towards recovery, which includes managing how to return employees to the office, changing supply and demand, among other factors driven by legislation and public health. Workforce modeling can help plan for several ‘what if’ scenarios so companies have the preparedness to act quickly and decisively to unexpected changes.”

Cornerstone OnDemand’s Bennion suggests that HR leaders start by asking themselves three questions:

  • What has changed about the market?
  • What was the organization’s competitive advantage compared to its competitors?
  • What inputs to that unique advantage have changed in the current business climate?

Once they have determined their key strengths and priorities, organizations can better understand what they need to optimize their talent strategy to remain on top—whether it is cost, employee experience, or business model. From there, they can evaluate their existing inventory of tools and resources and create a plan that reevaluates the use of physical spaces, people, and technology to deliver value.

“Leading organizations are focusing on their core business and aligning employees around the work that best preserves the business,” says Ian Cook, vice president of people solutions at Visier. “Instead of reacting to changes in demand, organizations need to spend more time forecasting likely future scenarios and then identify how many people are needed to match that demand. An example of this is when a business reviews all of its furloughed employees and pinpoints which groups or individuals need to come back in first or second waves as demand increases. Organizations should also prioritize deploying people with the broadest skill sets and most proven ability to adapt and respond effectively to changing demand.”

Companies should also use this auditing period to assess the specific responsibilities and requirements of key roles. According to Bennion, HR leaders should deconstruct each role, thinking critically about the role’s component parts and the skills needed to perform it well. They should specify the exact ways that these roles will contribute value to the business and reimagine how the day-to-day responsibilities will change as the world recovers from the impact of the pandemic. For example, a company that is shifting from in-store sales to home deliveries may find that employees with tech or logistics experience are more critical than before. They can then rebuild each role with consideration for their current employees’ relevant skill sets and develop interventions to fill any skills gaps.

Lyons says a short-term hiring freeze can be beneficial as companies go through this evaluation process. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, Alegeus leadership has worked hard to make preemptive moves to protect and scale the business. This includes short-term defensive and offensive plays, as well as long-term strategic investments to ensure we come out stronger. One of the key short-term defensive moves we made was to implement a hiring freeze. This decision provided our leadership team an opportunity to reassess the criticality of roles in this new environment and whether open roles could be filled by an internal resource versus hiring externally.”

Step 2: Assess Current Talent

As companies decide on strategies that will propel their business forward in the post-COVID reality, they need to leverage data-driven techniques to map out the skill sets of their existing talent pool.

“That requires some assessment of the employee skill set, and when the assessment’s complete, really understanding what the strengths and weaknesses are that lend themselves to the new scope of work for the employee—being able to identify how to educate them to close that skills gap,” explains Staples.

Self-assessments can be a powerful starting point to drive conversations about employees’ particular skills, attributes, and preferences, but Staples says that they need to be backed up to a centralized system of record that employers can use to collect employee performance insights from across the organization. She recommends that HR leaders distribute an employee feedback survey that asks workers to rate their strengths and weaknesses on a scale of one to five across a number of areas that are relevant to a potential new role. While these responses may not be strictly factual, they can give managers valuable insight into which employees may be a good fit for other functions in the business.

This self-reported feedback should then be compared to external performance reports where peers and managers have the opportunity to provide feedback, such as the nine-box matrix or 360-degree assessments. But Bennion offers a word of caution: “Organizations need to reevaluate the effectiveness of 360 performance reviews to be more job- or skill-related. This can help scale a more data-driven landscape of current talent in the organization. A talent framework equipped with AI can do this with less administrative burden and with a higher degree of accuracy from more input sources.”

HR leaders should not shy away from technology if they want to ensure an accurate reading of their employees’ capabilities. For example, Cook recommends vendors like SkyHive that have the capability to extrapolate employees’ skills from a resume or the skills required for a role from the job description.

“Skills detection remains complex and fairly basic in its maturity,” he explains. “However, we now have the technology and knowledge to run this process through software rather than relying on employees to hand-enter their skills and have managers agree or disagree.”

Testing technologies that leverage gamification can also be a useful tool for evaluating employee capabilities, but Cook emphasizes that for this approach to be effective, there must be total alignment between the test and the work being done. Because such tests are more expensive per employee, they are best used for roles which require employees to have a detailed understanding of the skills needed to fulfill them.

No matter which assessment approach organizations choose, the data should be conglomerated into a single point of reference and used to guide conversations about where an employee might have skills gaps that need to be closed or strong attributes that could benefit them in other parts of the business.

Step 3: Offer Learning Opportunities

Once HR leaders have a clear view into their business needs and available talent pool, they can introduce reskilling initiatives and tailored learning journeys for each individual role.

“Upskilling and reskilling is a critical piece to business continuity and growth,” says SAP SuccessFactors’ Popelka. “To effectively address it, we have to look at continuous and relevant learning. It needs to be both practical and applicable to the individual. For example, learning should be integrated into our daily jobs using technologies like machine learning to nudge us to dive deeper into a specific skill or sign up for a relevant course. Driving a culture of continuous learning will not only provide employees with the tools to thrive, it will prepare organizations for long-term success and enable them to keep up with the pace of change.”

Companies can increase the scale and effectiveness of these initiatives by delivering their training digitally, using tools like social sharing and live video sessions that recreate the best of in-person learning. Including a social element will maintain employee engagement and drive greater motivation, productivity, and connection.

Charlie Chung, vice president of business development and solutions consulting at NovoEd, says that programs need to provide opportunities for authentic collaboration and practice, giving employees an opportunity to apply newly-learned skills and better retain information.

He also emphasizes that the depth and complexity of training programs need to be proportional to the skills they are trying to imbue. “For example, if the top priority is to ensure every employee meets your compliance requirements, then a simple, self-paced, video-based training course that is run on a standard LMS is sufficient. On the other hand, if employees require a deeper level of interaction for a diversity and inclusion program, onboarding experience, or fast-track leadership development program, then a platform that simply serves up a training video is not going to cut it,” he explains.

Step 4: Monitor Progress

As COVID-19 continues to affect people’s lives at work and home, focusing on employee engagement is absolutely critical—particularly if their roles are shifting. How can organizations ensure that employees are content with their career development throughout this turbulent time?

1. Make employees feel valued. “The fundamental driver of retention and engagement has always been helping employees connect their work to the success of the business, and then managing an ongoing conversation about how this work helps employees progress toward their personal goals,” says Cook.

Because the shift to remote work has reduced the number of spontaneous check-ins at work where these conversations might ordinarily happen, leaders need to be more proactive and transparent than ever.

Chung recommends three approaches leaders can take to maximize engagement and energize employees for the challenges ahead:

  • In times of great change, emphasize what is staying the same: the organization’s mission, its values, and the ultimate goal of fulfilling the customer’s needs.
  • Find ways to create and maintain narratives to connect the new or changing roles to the mission and purpose of the organization, communicating the underlying need for change.
  • Cultivate a growth mindset through vocabulary, reward systems, and as a foundational paradigm in all of the learning and development curriculum.

2. Be clear about goals. Transitioning to a new position can be a minefield of challenges at the best of times, but the complexity becomes even greater in a distributed workforce. Separation and lack of communication can make employees feel unsupported and uncertain about their responsibilities.

“We’ve talked to a lot of HR leaders and managers about how they’re handling this challenge, and time and again the one consistent thing we’ve heard is that lack of visibility creates a vacuum in terms of understanding what your employees might be working on,” says Staples.

“The best way to solve that is to be very clear and direct with employees about the goals and objectives that you hold them accountable to. Be very clear both in writing and direct verbal communication, and have a mechanism in place that affords the manager and the employee to go back on some regular basis to assess progress against those goals and make sure they’re staying on track.”

3. Measure satisfaction. Whether pre- or post-pandemic, employee satisfaction and retention metrics are mission critical to ensuring that employees are transitioning well to their new roles. According to Staples, organizations should monitor these metrics by examining the company’s performance month-over-month and comparing it with employee satisfaction data collected through surveys.

For example, Hibob sends out the same survey to its employees once a month and compares the monthly results to calculate its employee net promoter score (ENPS) and identify trends. “If we see that metric moving in the wrong direction where ENPS is starting to decline, it helps us understand that we have to dig a little bit deeper—often times through surveys and often times through live conversations with team members—to get to the root of what might be underlying any negative responses that we perceived to the survey,” says Staples.

Companies cannot be resilient if their workforces aren’t—and helping employees adapt to the new business world post-COVID-19 is the first step to ensuring a successful recovery. Today’s employees are the people who will help organizations rebuild once the crisis is over, and HR leaders need to make sure they invest in them so that when the time comes, the team is ready to build a new future.

Posted September 17, 2020 in Workforce Management

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