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COVID-19 crisis: start reskilling your workforce now

Six steps leaders can take to ensure that their employees are equipped with the skills critical to their recovery business models.

Imagine a crisis that forces your company’s employees to change the way they work almost over-night. Despite initial fears that the pressure would be too great, you discover that this new way of working could be a blueprint for the long term. That’s what leaders of many companies around the globe are finding as they respond to the COVID-19 crisis by reskilling their workforce.

Reskilling workforce: the response of one company

Consider the experience of one pharma company with more than 10,000 sales reps. In February, it switched from an offline model to a 100 percent remote-working one. As the containment phase of the crisis gradually recedes, you might expect remote working to fade as well. However, the company now plans to make a 30 percent-online–70 percent-offline working model permanent, thus leveraging the freshly developed skills of its sales reps.

Even before the current crisis, changing technologies and new ways of working were disrupting jobs and the skills employees need to do them.

Reskilling workforce not that new

In 2017, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that as many as 375 million workers—or 14 percent of the global workforce—would have to switch occupations or acquire new skills by 2030 because of automation and artificial intelligence. In a recent McKinsey Global Survey, 87 percent of executives said they were experiencing skill gaps in the workforce or expected them within a few years. But less than half of respondents had a clear sense of how to address the problem.

The coronavirus pandemic has made this question more urgent. Workers across industries must figure out how they can adapt to rapidly changing conditions, and companies have to learn how to match those workers to new roles and activities. This dynamic is about more than remote working— or the role of automation and AI.

It’s about how leaders can reskill and upskill the workforce to deliver new business models in the post-pandemic era. To meet this challenge, companies should craft a talent strategy that develops employees’ critical digital and cognitive capabilities, their social and emotional skills, and their adaptability and resilience.

Now is the time for companies to double down on their learning budgets and commit to reskilling. Developing this muscle will also strengthen companies for future disruptions.

This article offers six steps leaders can take to ensure that their employees are equipped with the skills critical to their recovery business models.

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Current trends are accelerating the need to reskill the workforce

Remote working was gaining currency before the crisis, but the pandemic has shown that telecom-muting is here to stay. A recent Gartner CFO survey revealed that almost three in four CFOs plan to “shift at least 5 percent of previously on-site employees to permanently remote positions post-COVID-19.” Although many employees “learned by doing” during the first phase of the crisis or received “quick and dirty” training, continued remote working will probably keep posing an upskilling challenge. For example, sales forces will have to shift from setting up video meetings to managing customer relationships effectively in remote settings.Companies also face a learning curve as managers figure out how to lead their teams virtually as they build social capital and how to maintain cohesion without the benefit of informal coffee, lunch, or corridor chats.

As companies contemplate returning to the workplace, a new set of skills is also likely to emerge for the transition.During the Ebola crisis, for example, a company operating in West Africa set a goal of rapidly improving its post-crisis performance. It executed a large-scale skill strategy that made the return

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to the physical workplace smoother, introduced new skills and training that boosted performance, and, last but not least, worked to create a more deeply engaged workforce. The company distinguished between critical and noncritical skills for the return and, realizing that its workforce lacked flexibility, moved to upskill people in adjacent skill areas. For instance, truck drivers learned how to be excavator operators. This approach yielded multiple benefits for the organization. The learning landscape has changed in ways that will foster teaching new skills to employees, wherever they may be. COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of fully digitized approaches to re-create the best of in-person learning through live video and social sharing. This transformation makes it pos-sible to scale learning efforts in a more cost-effective way and permits greater personalization for learners—and in turn greater effectiveness. Three skilling trends are likely to speed up after the crisis endsChief learning officers (CLOs) can renew their learn-ing organizations by building digital training programs and creating an ecosystem of learning partners to produce and deliver digital content rapidly to a broad base of employees. To do so they will have to master three trends.New skills for the ‘distance economy’ The crisis has accelerated the levels of digitization to help reduce avoidable physical interactions. This has meant finding ways to reinvent work and, in some cases, a partial disruption of jobs and changes in the way workers perform them.For example, the UK healthcare system has seen years of digital evolution take place within weeks. In 2019, less than 1 percent of appointments took place via video link, with the vast majority in person. Now, doctors assess 100 percent of patients by phone, with only about 7 percent proceeding to face- to-face consultations. This shift has meant that clinicians must learn how to do effective and safe remote diagnoses. Discussions are now moving to ways of locking in this progress after the pandemic. A similar pattern is emerging globally for tech-based medical care. In Indonesia, where there are four doctors per 10,000 people (compared with 42 per 10,000 in Germany, according to the World Bank), telehealth firms have long been trying to close the gap. The COVID-19 crisis is consolidating this trend as Indonesia’s government turns to these firms to deliver remote consultations and to get medications prescribed and delivered.Other sectors have had to train the workforce in new skills as they repurposed their operations to battle the pandemic. For example, consumer banks needed to increase employee cross-training in specific services as demand for mortgage-refinance applications surged. Banks also had to train employees in empathy as they helped distressed clients use digital tools and new products and services.COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of fully digitized approaches to re-create the best of in-person learning through live video and social sharing.3To emerge stronger from the COVID-19 crisis, companies should start reskilling their workforces nowImbalances in talent supply and demandCOVID-19 has changed not only how people work but also how they shop and eat, as well as basic patterns of movement and travel. In this way, the pandemic is setting up what could be lasting employment-landscape shifts that could require the large-scale reskilling of new workers. For example, the pandemic has accelerated the trend toward e-commerce rather than brick-and-mortar sales. Early indications from China show that new customers—specifically, people aged 36 and older and residents of smaller, less prosperous cities—have begun to shop online in greater numbers through the crisis. In Europe, 13 percent of consumers said in early April that they were planning to browse the sites of online e-tailers for the first time. In a virtual roundtable held in March, many executives based in China shared their expectation that consumers will now move even more quickly to e-commerce.In the United States, the retail and hospitality- and-food-service sectors account for 42 percent of vulnerable jobs, while some sectors, such as groceries, are hiring two million to three million additional workers. In the United States, Uber introduced Work Hub, saying it is a way for gig-economy drivers to find work, whether internally or at other companies (such as CareGuide, Domino’s, and Shipt) that are hiring during the crisis. Digital talent-marketplace platforms are allowing companies to bridge the supply–demand mismatch, serving as the connection between companies that are hiring and workers who will need some degree of reskilling. McKinsey has provided research on the US job market to Talent Exchange, which opened on April 6 and within two weeks had 600,000 open jobs on the platform. Changes to supply chains With sourcing and production moving closer to end users, the crisis could trigger a restructuring of supply chains. As companies localize or regionalize them, that will shift which skills are needed and where.Global companies may move production closer to the point of sale. Japan’s automakers and South Korea’s electronics players may accelerate the diversification of the manufacturing footprint beyond China. In France, President Emanuel Macron has confirmed a pre-crisis program to relocate strategic industries back home. As a consequence, some core strategic or automatable activities will probably be onshored in the next 12 to 18 months to build up domestic value chains for critical products and industries, like food and pharmaceuticals.In some cases, these changes may require relocating activities to other countries. Companies may pick up talent locally (through talent exchanges, for instance) but then will have to get new employees up to speed on their new roles. This is a reskilling challenge—but not one inside the walls of a company

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