Head of EMEA Degreed
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How to adapt your talent and learning strategy in uncertain times

Traditional planning strategies work in episodic cycles, but the Covid-19 situation has thrown all of that out of the window. L&D professionals must learn to adapt to a more fluid approach if they want to ensure they have the right talent and skills to tackle this crisis. 

21st May 2020
Head of EMEA Degreed
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illustration of teachers or trainers watering a plant made from lightbulbs - innovation and learning concept
iStock/Mykyta Dolmatov

It’s an understatement to say that the workforce has experienced significant upheaval in the last few months. From the sudden shift to remote work, to navigating issues like job displacement, uncertainty, and furloughs, the way we work has fundamentally changed. Some of those changes will remain for years, if not permanently, and necessitates a refresh of workforce, talent and learning strategies.

Building more resilience and agility into our workforces will be key. Our people strategies will have to pivot in response to market upturns and downturns.

We can look at this as an opportunity. Of course, overcoming immediate challenges is a priority, but we also need to look to the horizon and set a vision for coming years.

Adapting to new realities

Our workplaces are being reinvented. Talent and learning leaders must keep on top of changes including government legislation and guidelines, economic volatility, market demand, and worker needs. It’s time to prepare.

In the early stages of the crisis, many leaders understandably focused on immediate threats. Now we’re a few weeks in, the situation has developed. Recession is looming, there’s a potential rebound for some industries in the medium-term, a ramp-up in productivity once social distancing is eased, and a need to reimagine how we operate for the post-Covid era.

Organisations that succeed with this can quickly assert market dominance. In fact, 14% of companies across all sectors increase both growth and margins during downturns. Those with cash supplies capitalise through hiring top talent that may have been let go and acquiring other companies and their resources. As a result, competitive divergence often increases during recessions.

The need for workforce resilience and agility

Weeks ago, business leaders found themselves having to respond quickly to sudden external changes. This will become an ongoing trend as we understand the consequences of the many sudden changes that have occurred over this time. Building more resilience and agility into our workforces will be key. Our people strategies will have to pivot in response to market upturns and downturns.

Internal mobility will take on a new lens, as people shift from role-to-role based on a business’ needs and their career aspirations. Someone who used to work front-of-house at a retail bank may switch to working from a contact centre. Organisations that prioritise cross-departmental collaboration and knowledge sharing will be better prepared for future crisis situations. Workers can quickly move into high-demand roles if their existing one becomes redundant. Indeed, collaboration is needed on an industry-wide scale. Covid-19 is a global crisis that impacts all aspects of society. To move forward, organisations, sectors, and governments will need to share knowledge and resources.

Remote working remains

A major change for many office-based workers has been the shift to remote work. A quarter of workers expect that they will continue to remote work for at least half their week once the current crisis passes, and 12% see themselves working remotely for the entire week.

Leaders must increase the visibility of skills and develop a common framework for naming and measuring them in the organisation.

There will also be a change in how we measure a worker’s success and role fulfilment. There will be a shift from considering the hours worked to other forward-thinking metrics like customer satisfaction and leads generated.

Several other benefits will be realised. In a recent survey, seven out of 10 remote workers said they feel more empowered to make strategic decisions or pursue new business opportunities for their employer. Agility and responsiveness will also improve, with 72% of remote workers believing that their organisation is able to quickly adapt to change. Employers will also be able to draw from a wider talent pool as roles and projects are no longer location dependent.

Contingent talent pools will grow

Given the current uncertainty, it should come as little surprise that employers are increasingly considering contingent talent pools of contractors, freelancers and alumni to plug skills gaps. Amazon, Domino’s Pizza, and UPS are some of the organisations who are hiring temporary and freelance workers to fulfil upticks in demand. Future competitive advantage will come with retaining these workers and mobilising them into roles based on their experience and skills. This creates an on-demand workforce that can quickly respond to market needs, which is ideal for coping with an in-flux economy.

Prioritising skills utilisation

Many organisations, including those in the City of London, have implemented hiring freezes because of the uncertain outlook. Committing to fixed costs and headcount isn’t a popular move right now. Businesses and the economy will soon have to ramp-up again, however, once shutdown measures are eased, to make up for any losses. This means they must achieve more with less, making the most of every existing worker’s skills. To do this, leaders must increase the visibility of skills and develop a common framework for naming and measuring them in the organisation. The focus, then, will be on helping leaders better understand where each worker is best-placed based on their existing skills, developing new ones, and looking at their goals.

coronavirus hub

Digital transformation accelerated

The current state of play has forced many organisations to accelerate their transformation efforts and this will have a knock-on impact on digital skills development. There’s less time to upskill workers in the critical skills they will need to succeed in an all-digital environment. Social distancing measures may make in-person courses and seminars unviable. Learning leaders will have to consider new ways to rapidly build digital skills within their workforce, from virtual courses and learning pathways, to on-the-job upskilling and user-generated content.

Indeed, upskilling programmes must continue at pace, despite other business challenges, because if they grind to a halt then your organisation will suffer for several years to come. You’ll find yourself unable to take advantage of opportunities offered by incoming technology and hindered by a lack of the right skills in the workforce.

How to adapt your strategy

In the course of weeks, your talent and learning strategies must react to the situation as it unfolds. Then they will likely have to evolve again, and again, as it continues to change. This requires a shift from classical strategies with episodic planning cycles, to adaptive ones that can change to each circumstance. Leaders will have to develop a level of strategic ambidexterity, to constantly assess current affairs and implement multiple approaches to their strategy.

Right now, a good starting point is to look towards what you envision for the future. Lay out a path from your long-term business goals, to the mid-term and then to today. This will enable you to reverse-engineer your key milestones and benchmarks, without getting caught up in the detail of what’s happening today.

Interested in this topic? Read Learning transfer: why now is the time to change our learning strategies.

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