COVID-19 has had a mixed impact on learning and development for the workplace. On the one hand, people have become doubly interested in upskilling and retraining so as to retain their jobs, and governments are encouraging this with funding and resources. On the other hand, four months into the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies are feeling the pinch, and L&D is often marked as an easy target.
"The unfortunate reality for many companies is that as revenue takes a hit during this crisis, they look at cost-cutting and one of the line items that gets targeted most often is the L&D budget," said Aziza Sheerin, Regional Director of General Assembly in Singapore. "However, not investing in upskilling your workforce is a short-sighted error that has long-term repercussions for the business. Companies need to build their workforce for the future, and we are going to see companies who invest in their talent emerge on the other side of this crisis with a far greater competitive advantage."
Given the limited resources at companies' disposal now, how can the investment in talent be made to ensure the most efficient returns? The first step is to identify what skills are needed.
Start by closing the skill gaps that COVID-19 has surfaced
People Matters asked various educators for their take on what skills will be in demand going forward. While digital, deep technology skills—data science, AI, machine learning, and so on –will continue to command a premium as these fields advance, COVID-19 has surfaced various other skill gaps that will need filling both in the short term as people return to work, and later, beyond the pandemic.
Health and safety skills for the short term: Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has kindled increased demand for health and safety knowledge, especially pertaining to infection prevention and control. And certainly, these skills have applications not only for the period of the pandemic, but beyond. However, the demand for these skills is likely to be short-term and return to pre-pandemic levels once a treatment or vaccine is developed.
Digitization skills for the medium term: When countries around the world closed workplaces to prevent community spread, companies everywhere had to implement their business continuity plans on short notice. One of the skill gaps that emerged was in the transition to digital work. Melanie Weaver Barnett, Chief Executive Education Officer at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, told People Matters: "The lightning-fast changes associated with working in the COVID-19 pandemic have revealed vulnerabilities that make it clear organizations have significant gaps to fill in their capability sets. Some of these critical gaps appear in areas of supply chain resilience, digitization and leading virtual teams."
Digitization, she explained, encompasses just the digitization of transactions, but also of communication, sales, relationships, networks, management and more. Everything that might have been done physically, has had to be moved online, and this requires specialized knowledge that many companies have since found themselves lacking.
Virtual communication and leadership skills for the long term: Key commercial skills such as team management, cross-market leadership, or sales enablement continue to be important, but now with a twist: they have to be exercised in a virtual environment, with its impersonal atmosphere and accompanying difficulty in engaging the audience.
Nellie Wartoft, CEO of Tigerhall, highlighted management and sales as two of the areas that have typically relied on face-to-face interactions, but are now operating online. She said: "For example, how can we support managers in keeping their teams motivated and engaged now that in-person interactions are rare? How can we equip sales representatives with the skills to present, negotiate with clients and “read the room” effectively over a Zoom meeting?"
The evergreen skills of writing and speaking, for life: With so much of communication going online, we should not forget the fundamental skills of writing emails and giving presentations. Marvin Ang, Director of the British Council Professional Development Centre, points out that these skills are often overlooked as non-essential and so are least developed, even though everyone uses them daily. He shared these tips with People Matters:
"Up-skilling in email writing means learning techniques and strategies to get your thoughts across using clear, modern language. It means writing emails that are concise and get the right results, and it means polishing up your grammar.
"Up-skilling in [the area of presentations] can arm you with strategies for presenting in virtual environments, using effective presentation structures, telling a story and using other narrative devices. It can also help you leverage your body language and voice to create impact.
"These skills are not only essential, but also in high demand. They were in the past, they are today and will continue to be in the future."
Match the learning to individual needs and circumstances
To be effective, learning and development must meet two main criteria. Firstly, the people it is aimed at must find it personally useful, meaning that it must meet their needs and help them further their goals. Wartoft said: "The first step to make this adaptation is to shift from a top-down approach to a bottom-up culture of learning. This means thrusting our employees into the driving seat of their own learning and development. We’re referring to the people who are on the ground, who deal with clients everyday, who dedicate a majority of their time to helping a company reach its targets. Understanding their requirements and the challenges that they face will go a long way in enhancing employee engagement, plugging pressing skills gaps and implementing programmes that are actually relevant."
Secondly, it must be accessible to them, meaning that they must be allowed the time to undergo the training without having to make a trade-off in terms of their performance; they must be able to afford it on their existing resources, and with their employer's assistance where needed; and it must be in a format that can work within whatever constraints they face.
GA Singapore's Aziza pointed out that given the widely varying needs and resources of organizations and individuals, a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work: "L&D leaders need to work with business leaders to identify the skills that are going to be vital to their pandemic and post-pandemic business models, and provide resources for their employees to build those skills," she said.
The first two requirements for accessibility are heavily reliant on having organizational policies and culture that make room for L&D. The third is most frequently met today by providing employees with access to on-demand learning via virtual platforms—something that has become much more widespread during the COVID-19 period. Over the last few months, many educational institutions have successfully transitioned their courses to a virtual format, and some are developing entirely new courses based on the features and benefits of a virtual platform.
"With virtual options becoming available, it is more feasible than ever to access learning opportunities," said University of Michigan's Barnett. "The key, as always, is to ensure you are being effective with your reskilling/upskilling dollars, by engaging in high quality learning experiences that are designed with your outcomes in mind."
Some companies actively work with learning institutions to train their employees in the skills they need. For example, Amanda Gervay, Senior Vice President of Human Resources for Mastercard in Asia Pacific, shared that Mastercard has recently partnered with the National University of Singapore to expand its global tuition assistance program in the region. The idea is to let employees access subsidized courses in important functional areas such as data analytics and data science, machine learning, and cybersecurity. "For our early career talent in particular, we will continue to focus more on soft skills development in categories such as higher order cognitive thinking, emotional intelligence and social skills which are essential for preparing this group for the future of work," she added.
In other cases, certain needed skills and capabilities can also be developed through implementing a working model that drives specific behaviors. Joanne Kua, CEO of property developer KSK Group and Managing Director of KSK Land, told People Matters that her company adopted the Agile work culture from the software industry to make its traditional—and slower-paced—processes faster and more adaptable. "Mindsets need to be primed to handle major challenges, and for companies, having a culture that fosters and supports quick turnaround is imperative," she observed.
Ultimately, skilling in the post-COVID environment remains every bit as important, if not more important, given the gaps that the upheaval of the last few months has exposed. Even with resource constraints and competing priorities, companies should not be too quick to set L&D aside. Instead, a better solution would be to refine their approach to skilling, to more precisely identify the place where their needs and the needs of their employees intersect, and then develop more flexible solutions to meet both sets of needs together with the greatest return for their efforts.