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COVID-19 Reset & Recovery: Implications for Learning & Development

As the COVID-19 crisis begins to abate, organizations must start to shift their focus from managing the immediate crisis to considering how it will shape the future of the world of work. This shift involves reimagining how functions such as learning and development (L&D) will look as we enter the “new normal.” Generally valuable skills such as agility and resilience have catapulted to the forefront as imperatives for employees to develop as they prepare for inevitable future disruptions. The challenge for organizations lies in how to approach L&D in a way that successfully leverages this new reality while creating meaningful and effective opportunities for learning in a more virtual world.

Prior to COVID-19, organizations had already begun to implement e-learning strategies such as cloud-based learning, augmented reality, and the use of AI. Although a general shift toward digital and virtual learning methods already existed, many L&D programs focusing on soft skills (e.g., communication, presentation, negotiation) still relied heavily on in-person modules or a hybrid of in-person and digital learning. Even organizations that once lagged in adopting digital and virtual learning delivery methods have been forced to quickly make the shift. Adopting these changes is crucial to all organizations to ensure they can capitalize on this opportunity to develop their employees while incorporating elements such as self-directed and just-in-time learning.

As with most other aspects of human capital, L&D will adjust according to the times. This simple truth has been highlighted through various trend shifts such as the digital transformation brought on by what the World Economic Forum has termed the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” The COVID-19 crisis, although different in terms of overall effects, is another example of a catalyst for change in the L&D world. A Gallup review of virtual learning during the pandemic found a high level of participation in remote education coupled with an increasingly individualized focus for L&D based on each employee’s unique needs.1

As a result of more personalized digital learning experiences, we anticipate seeing employees using more personal agency, taking ownership of the skills they want to acquire, and seeing how those skills map to where they want to take their career. From an organizational perspective, we expect to see an increase in the extent to which digital learning is used, as it is less susceptible to disruption in the face of change.

Developing agility and resilience

Many organizations have been required to quickly pivot their focus, transforming their business to provide value in the current climate. From clothing manufacturers retooling their factories to produce masks and gowns to distilleries and breweries using raw materials to produce hand sanitizer, these initiatives started with a few people who demonstrated agility in thinking and execution. In our conversation with numerous thought leaders in L&D, human capital experts, and chief learning officers, one development focus consistently ranked at the top: the ability for individuals and organizations to develop agility and resilience. By accepting that disruptions are an inevitable part of business, instead of living in a culture of fear, risk avoidance, and survival at any cost, organizations can lead change while simultaneously motivating employees to learn new skills to be effective regardless of future situations.

One recent study found that stability is the most important factor in creating agility. Rather than agile teams or agile leaders, it is leaders creating a strong foundation that encourages resilience and agility, the study found. Employees adjust to change far more easily when they can rely on a calm base to work from. It is important for leaders to remove fear, allowing employees to be less distracted and focus on their performance. Developing strong leaders that can communicate processes, clear up confusion, and reassure employees allows an organization to stay competitive even in uncertain times.2

In a study by The Conference Board, 80 percent of participants reported a preference for working on tasks for which they were forced to learn new things.3 This response shows that employees may have an active affinity for lifelong learning and a desire to grow as a proactive—instead of reactive—measure. To facilitate a culture of opportunities for active learning, it is important for organizations to provide employees with the proper tools and resources to not only succeed in their current roles, but to build the skills necessary for future growth and the ability to quickly adapt to change. Future-skilling employees means helping them develop agile, resilient, and adaptive problem-solving skills; make effective decisions; and correctly prioritize and execute what needs to be done in changing situations.4 Armed with such skills, employees will thrive in a 21st-century workplace that demands a high level of adaptability in an ever-changing environment.

Balancing developmental and performance needs

While traits such as agility and resilience are especially important during uncertain times, an organization’s developmental needs must be considered within the backdrop of the rising performance difficulties. Months into the pandemic, workers are still under immense pressure. Work anxieties such as contracting COVID-19, receiving a pay cut, and job loss are plaguing the minds of employees, with 88 percent of 1,000 UK workers in a recent LHH survey reporting impacts on morale due to these stressors. These stress impacts aren’t limited to one particular employee population, as 93 percent of 300 surveyed HR decision makers report feeling they are under more pressure than ever before.5 This creates a difficult challenge for learning professionals, as they must carefully balance developmental and performance needs.

The importance of learning modules and platforms

As a post-COVID-19 world of work begins to come into view, learning opportunities will be even more crucial as organizations realize a greater sense of urgency to prepare their leaders and employees for the future. As a result, the role of digital learning modules, platforms, and analytics also rises in prominence; these features help collate and track learner progress, visualize skill acquisition, and identify known gaps. A variety of learning management systems and learning experience platforms already provide rudimentary metrics, along with personalized learning recommendations. Learning modules can provide career development opportunities tailored to fit an employee’s career phase. Organizations thus have an opportunity to reskill or upskill employees whose daily tasks may soon become less valuable or automated.

Many companies are finding success with pairing badging with their learning management platforms. Badges are credentials employees earn for short skills courses.6 One HR professional at a large global professional services firm told us the firm has found that badging both incentivizes learning, by providing a salient long-term indicator of skill, and allows for skill tracking within the organization. The organization also found that employees create their own informal study groups to prep for badge tests, further promoting a culture of learning within the organization. Badges can then be used to personalize learning and help guide an employee through more learning modules within the learning management system. This cataloging of skills has the added benefit of showing employees what skill masteries they need for potential career paths, allowing them to take ownership of their own development.

Training and development for new hires

With the rapid changes brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, functions that onboard new hires have been required to rethink their operations in the new normal. For existing processes such as the initial training and development of new hires to be effective, companies will need to build programs based on a future-proof L&D approach.7 This means anticipating what skills new employees will need to develop for continued success in the organization. Additionally, as a result of shifting to a largely remote workforce, the initial training process of new hires has become an even more crucial aspect of ensuring employees are prepared for what will be required of them.8

Initial training of new hires as part of a remote workforce must go beyond attending virtual training sessions and reviewing a digital company handbook. New employees should be provided with multiple opportunities to familiarize themselves not only with their job expectations and necessary digital skills, but also with the organizational culture and relationships between team members and coworkers. One company, ServiceNow, uses a six-hour training session for new hires on their first day that includes built-in opportunities for connecting with other employees.9 Companies should also consider adopting a structured, more continuous process for initial training that allows new hires to learn about the company, their roles, and necessary skills at their own pace within the first few weeks of their start date.

A significant portion of training should also include a focus on ensuring new hires feel comfortable using the technology necessary to fulfill the requirements of their jobs successfully. Technological aptitude is a crucial factor in the new world of work and thus should be appropriately reflected in initial training. Additionally, companies should take the time to identify and map out the skill sets that will best equip new hires to drive value within the company. The skills new hires learn and develop in their initial training should be valuable and transferrable regardless of how that position may change and develop as the post-COVID-19 world of work sets in.10 Future disruptions are inevitable, and the better prepared employees are to handle them from the beginning, the more they can benefit the organization through their overall performance and resilience.

Zappos: Using organizational structure to promote learning

Organizations with a culture of learning are uniquely positioned to thrive as our work environment continues to change. Zappos, the online shoe and clothing retailer, leverages its organizational structure to promote learning by organizing work in fluid project teams and giving “Zapponians” some agency over their selection of teams and workstreams. The Role Marketplace platform allows employees to align necessary skill upgrades with what personally interests them.11 This structure promotes a level of self-directed learning at scale while also achieving business objectives. As needs and interests shift, employees can move to other project teams and learn new skills. As a result of this fluidity in learning new skills, employees are better prepared to deal with disruptions with business acumen and technical expertise as they become multiskilled, our research shows.12

AT&T: Charting your own career path

AI, automation, and machine learning are rapidly reshaping the job market. According to a report published by Dell Technologies, 85 percent of the jobs that will exist by 2030 have not yet been invented.13 Continuous shifts in technology require that jobs and skills be updated regularly. In turn, employees must be ready to actively train and reskill to fit current and future organizational needs. AT&T, a global telecommunications company, deployed a personal learning experience platform that enables employees to search jobs by competency and measure the progress of their own skills and learning. Additionally, employees have access to a career intelligence tool that provides an understanding of hiring trends as well as skills needed for jobs that align with specific career interests and goals. These tools allow employees to gain a broader view of the opportunities available to them while also fostering a feeling of ownership over their own career plans and pathways.14

Kaiser Permanente: Driving collaborative learning with social channels

Many organizations have established collaboration channels their employees use as part of their day-to-day work activities. Kaiser Permanente, a health care company, sought ways to increase sharing of information and best practices across regions. The company’s learning approach, commonly known today as “learning in the flow,” uses those existing channels to enhance learning and helps solve the challenge of making sure the organization can provide the right learning at the right time for the right people.15 Kaiser Permanente also developed The Learning Forum, which offers 15- to 30-minute interactive learning sessions across various topics such as diversity, innovation, and desktop technical skills. Using The Learning Forum, the company was able to recreate a virtual conference experience. In addition to participating in live sessions and exploring a virtual collection of learning opportunities, employees can share their own thoughts in follow-up group discussions.

The future of learning is personal and adaptable

In a post-COVID-19 world, we anticipate L&D efforts will center around two main themes:

  1. Learning will be personal and targeted to individuals looking to align themselves with the skills desired by the marketplace. It is no secret that many employees are feeling anxious about what the future will look like. In fact, a Gallup Panel survey found that fewer than 4 in 10 employees feel “very confident that they will be able to continue to meet the requirements of their job successfully should the outbreak continue,” making L&D a crucial aspect of supporting employees.16 Advances in educational technology will not only improve the quality of learning but also the type of content that a learner interacts with.
  2. Learning opportunities will be focused on adaptability, agility, and resilience, all of which are highly transferable skills of increasing importance. Organizations can play a significant role in lifting up their employees through L&D. Showing an active interest in employee growth can help employees view their personal development positively while also creating a positive impact on the organization. These learning opportunities should start from initial training and development, continuing through the full employee life cycle.

By adopting these tenets of personalization and adaptability, your organization can maintain a competitive edge even in uncertain times.

Endnotes

  1. Vibhas Ratanjee, “3 Ways to Continue Employee Development When Budgets Are Cut,” Gallup, April 30, 2020.
  2. Elaine Pulakos, Tracy Kantrowitz, and Benjamin Schneider, “What Leads to Organizational Agility? It's Not What You Think,” Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research 71, no. 4 (2019): 305–320.
  3. Rebecca L. Ray et al., DNA of Engagement: How Organizations Can Foster Employee Ownership of Engagement, The Conference Board, February 2017.
  4. Amy Lui Abel and Sherlin Nair, Future-Skilling Your Workforce: Leveraging People Strategies for Developing Future Capabilities, The Conference Board, August 2015.
  5. Workers Facing Redundancy Let Down by Lack of Employer Support,” LHH, June 25, 2020.
  6. To learn more about how companies are using alternative credentials such as badges, see: Deb Cohen and Robin Erickson, Different in Degree: Closing the Talent Gap with Alternative Credentials, The Conference Board, June 2020.
  7. Gloria Tam, “Reimagining Workplace Learning during COVID-19,” Chief Learning Officer, March 30, 2020.
  8. Lin Grensing-Pophal, “COVID-19 and the ‘New Normal’ of Training,” HR Daily Advisor, June 9, 2020.
  9. Roy Maurer, “Virtual Onboarding of Remote Workers More Important Than Ever,” SHRM, April 2020.
  10. Sapana Agrawal et al., “To Emerge Stronger from the COVID-19 crisis, Companies Should Start Reskilling Their Workforces Now,” McKinsey & Company, May 7, 2020.
  11. Ethan Bernstein and John Bunch, “The Zappos Holacracy Experiment,” Harvard Business Review (podcast), July 28, 2016.
  12. Abel and Nair, Future-Skilling Your Workforce.
  13. The Next Era of Human-Machine Partnerships,” Institute for the Future for Dell Technologies, 2017.
  14. DNA of Engagement 2018 Case Studies: AT&T,” The Conference Board, February 2018.
  15. Abel and Nair, Future-Skilling Your Workforce.
  16. Coronavirus Pandemic,” Gallup Panel, 2020.
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Nabeel Ahmad, EdD

Senior Researcher
The Conference Board


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