By Nikolas Kairinos, Founder and CEO, Soffos
For quite some time now, workplace learning and development (L&D) has been on the backburner. With the COVID-19 pandemic quickly becoming a dominating presence in most organizations, business leaders have had a lot to consider. Whether this has meant navigating furloughs, changes to business propositions, or getting to grips with new working from home setups, attention to professional development was naturally put to one side.
On the whole, businesses have dealt well with the adjustments. So successful have working from home practices been, that business leaders worldwide have been engaged in discussion as to whether they should continue even after the pandemic no longer poses a risk to public health. In fact, a staggering 82% of companies are set to maintain a partial work-from-home structure in the aftermath of the crisis, a recent Gartner report has revealed.
Having now become accustomed to the new business as usual, HR leaders will be considering ways to extend progress to the matter of employee management, performance and training strategies. And even at the best of times, with staff members each requiring unique support to progress in their role, this can be a mammoth task.
Long before the onset of the pandemic, when notions of large-scale digital transformation were nothing but a distant dream, more than half of HR leaders were already having some trouble priming their staff for the digital era. But now more than ever, the workforce needs to upskill. The nature of our jobs is changing year on year, and the issue is now becoming chronic.
If anything, the coronavirus has exposed a looming skills gap that existed before the pandemic ever reared its head. The use of technology as part of our day-to-day at work has increased to such a magnitude that fresh commitments of time and resource are required from all businesses to ensure that professionals have the skills they need to perform the jobs of the future.
With this in mind, how can HR managers plug the skills gap, and better support their staff so that they can thrive in the digital era?
Creating a people-centric HR strategy
The public health crisis has encouraged firms to invest in the tools needed to make remote collaboration possible. Not only have businesses learned that a deft combination of software and hardware makes virtual teamwork possible, but also that, in many ways, it offers a better alternative to in-office working.
But while early evidence of productivity gains is a positive development, business' growing reliance on digital solutions has exposed gaps when it comes to ensuring that staff are satisfied with their professional development and future career prospects.
Workplace learning, for instance, has emerged as one of the hardest-hit business activities on a global scale, with roughly one-half of in person programs cancelled or postponed in North America according to McKinsey. Worse yet, in some parts of Asia and Europe, the figure is closer to 100%.
As new recruits are onboarded and existing employees settle into newly established routines, it is paramount that HR leaders return their focus to supporting their professional and personal development. Having offered a critical business support function in times of difficulty, HR teams should now strive to be a strategic contributor to employee wellbeing and success. The focus must now be on monitoring performance, building strong relationships and delivering valuable knowledge that will help workers excel in their roles. In doing so, I would encourage HR professionals to explore people-centric technologies that can cater to employees' individual needs.
Scheduling regular check-ins with staff over a preferred virtual platform, whether that is Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Skype, is a habit that many business leaders have already adopted. But as video conferencing fatigue sets in, the future of the workplace will hardly be stilted in endless Zoom calls. So, business leaders must look further afield to new innovations as they develop long-term L&D strategies.
Immersive virtual environments that can be created through augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), for instance, will soon reign supreme as businesses explore solutions that can deliver more engaging training experiences. So too will sophisticated platforms able to curate learning programs for individual employees. Those tasked with upskilling the workforce should therefore also look to solutions powered by technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), which can develop L&D initiatives tailored to the individual learning style, preferences, motivations and challenges of each employee.
Looking to the future: developing soft skills
As we enter a new era of digitization, it is important to help employees build the hard skills needed to adapt: analytical and data-centred capabilities are amongst those that will be in increasing demand in the years ahead.
But we cannot let a strong focus on technical upskilling mean that equally important "soft skills" become side-lined. The truth is, the term "soft skills" is a bit of a misnomer, and as automation becomes more prevalent in the workforce, they will only become more crucial.
Generally speaking, the processes that are easiest to complete – data-focused and repetitive tasks – are the easiest to automate. In the near future, these responsibilities will be delegated to machines, who will take on much of the grunt-work. The same cannot be said, however, for soft skills.
Soft skills are the essential interpersonal skills that can make or break a business' ability to get things done. Recruiters and businesses will soon gravitate towards a broader set of qualities as they search for people to work alongside the technology. Skills such as analytical thinking and innovation, complex problem-solving, communication and leadership will all be in hot demand. To this end, HR strategists would do well to nurture these skills in their employees going forward.
A good first step would be to conduct a training needs assessment and determine which abilities employees need or want to progress in their roles. Ask members of staff which areas they would like to develop, whether this is honing their skills as a leader, or working on their active listening skills. Of course, this can be completed virtually with little fuss, and training staff can conduct their online classrooms using videoconferencing software.
In the near future, these sessions might take the form of moderated VR classrooms, or even without the oversight of humans at all. Natural language tutor bots capable of bestowing knowledge and understanding through simple conversation will soon be on hand to plug any professional skills gaps. Businesses should therefore look to investing some of their resource in this technology to aid L&D.
Ultimately, there is much to be optimistic about. Recent research by Fountech.ai has revealed that the majority (54%) of firms have become more open to embracing tech in the wake of the pandemic. I am confident that businesses will continue to invest strategically in progressive toolsets, thereby ensuring that employees are primed to thrive in an increasingly automated workplace.