Total Talent | Supporting and reskilling a distributed workforce

Chris Milligan

With widespread furloughing occurring and a number of workers having to switch industries and job roles, reskilling your workforce is becoming an increasing priority for business leaders. Reskilling can take several forms, learning new skills to move into new career opportunities, or developing existing skills further so people can do their job better. Both will prove invaluable at the current time and for many years to come. 

Rapid changes incoming

Indeed, we are moving into uncharted territory and although current-day challenges are necessitating short-term, immediate responses, business leaders should still pay mind to the longer term. Senior executives are all in agreement that upskilling and reskilling is vital. It is an urgent business priority, with 66% of executives placing it in their top ten priorities and 30% in their top five. The accelerating pace of change and move towards digitisation is driving this – and the percentages have likely increased given the widespread digital transformation and remote work shift that’s happened recently.

Current day aside, tech-driven change is still incoming and 54% of workers will require reskilling by 2022. Therefore, organisations cannot afford to put reskilling and capability building on hold. If anything, it must be sped-up – as Ginni Rometty, executive chairman of IBM states. She says that, because of widespread disruption occurring today, not every individual is going to return to the same jobs that they had months ago. Their jobs will have changed or may not exist any more. Workers are going to have to be reskilled quickly now, ready for when business ramps-up again. 

This is an approach that Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell has been taking. Even though it has announced plans to slash its operating costs by $9 billion, it is still prioritising its digital upskilling programme. It believes that remote learning offers a way to keep productivity on-track during this uncertain time. 2,000 workers are currently engaged in the programme.

Setting priorities

In an era of tightening budgets, however, reskilling must be laser-focused on business and worker priorities. Business leaders must zero in on the skills that are essential to business operations and give workers the opportunity to build the skills they need to do their work. Likewise, reskilling programmes should consider individual aspirations, where people want to be in 3,5 and 10 years’ time. In combining business priorities with individual career goals, then finding the common ground for reskilling, organisations can help their workers develop fulfilling lifelong careers. 

A further benefit comes with greater skills visibility – hiring managers will be able to quickly spot skills gaps and where critical coverage and cross-skilling is needed. If, for example, a worker was to fall ill suddenly or leave the organisation, with cross-skilling, there will be people available to plug the gap. 

Skills mobilisation 

Skills mobilisation ties closely with reskilling as it offers the potential to build on existing skills and develop new ones. Especially during a time where some business areas and industries aren’t as in-demand, workers can be mobilised into alternative roles and projects in areas that are in high demand. This also empowers workers to build skills needed to remain relevant and provides them with the agility to transition quickly into another role if needed. BCG Research has found that most people are willing to learn new skills to qualify for new jobs. 

Conversely, the World Economic Forum suggests that such an approach will help leaders to balance their short-term crisis measures against their long-term objectives, and build trust between an employer and their workers. 

Making the most of existing talent

Because reskilling also enables workers to do their existing jobs better, it can help organisations to find more capacity within their current talent pool. This is especially helpful given that a number of organisations including Microsoft and JP Morgan are temporarily pausing their recruitment. Again, for workers who find themselves in a low-demand area, their employers can use this time to reskill them either on-the-job as part of a redeployment or stretch assignment, or through a learning programme. This will increase the overall productivity and skills utilisation across the existing workforce. 

The shift in how we learn

It’s worth mentioning that the way organisations approach learning is changing. We’re transitioning to people-driven learning, where each individual owns their development and the reskilling opportunities that they engage with. 

Reskilling your workforce goes beyond a formal learning programme. A top-down approach to upskilling can often lack engagement in a distributed environment, with more successful programmes tailored to individual workers. And there are a myriad of options to suit every type of learner, from accredited pathways and online courses, to on-the-job learning, secondments and stretch assignments. 

What skills people need now

Given the distributed nature of many workforces (the majority at the moment are remote, and may continue to be for the foreseeable), starting with a view of the skills of your workforce is essential. Not every line or hiring manager will fully understand all the skills that their workers have or wish to build. Taking stock of skills at the beginning will give the holistic overview needed to inform and target a reskilling programme. Additionally, external factors such as the rise of automation or market uncertainty, can also influence an individual’s reskilling choices. 

Degreed user data pre, and during the global shutdown (December 2019 and January 2020 compared with February and March 2020), unsurprisingly highlights an uptake in transferable skills showing a significant rise in Microsoft Excel, Leadership, and Communication upskilling – up 4%, 5%, and 15% respectively. Conversely, ‘hard’ skills are trending downwards at the moment, with Python, Java and Machine Learning showing significant decreases (of 20%, 27% and 37%). However, this is likely a passing trend caused by current challenges and won’t reflect longer-term upskilling patterns. 

Looking long-term

Rapidly evolving times are reinforcing the link that has to be made between business outcomes and skill-building. Learning is now part of the business, directly connected to the success of a long-term business strategy. Now is not the time to pause your reskilling efforts but rather, do the opposite. It is an opportune time to focus your people on building the skills they need to succeed now and in the coming years. Because their skills will drive your organisation’s future, helping you use your talent as a competitive differentiator, navigate uncertain times and take advantage of new opportunities. 

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