With COVID cases again on the rise and the world bracing itself for months more of strict social distancing measures, for many, the remote working environment is here to stay. While the first priority during the pandemic has been crisis response and emphasising the importance of health and safety, over time, naturally attentions have turned to work and education.
On the whole, employees and management staff worldwide have adapted well to the changes. Indeed, many have found that they are happier and even more productive as a result of flexible working practices, able to fit more in to their busy schedules while maintaining an improved work-life balance.
So much so, in fact, that many professionals have expressed the desire for remote working to continue on long after the pandemic has ceased, supplemented by some face-to-face time in the office. But as workers shun the office in favour of remote working practices, the virtualization of the workplace has presented fresh problems.
Staff training & development suffering
One issue that has arisen from the mass working from home experiment has been the issue of employee planning, management, performance and training strategies. Amidst the Zoom meetings and the remote gatherings, workplace learning has been an often-neglected prospect.
It’s true that even at the best of times, HR managers have a hard task on their hands ensuring that staff are equipped with the skills they need to navigate an increasingly digital landscape.
Long before the onset of COVID-19, when thoughts of large-scale digital transformation projects seemed like nothing but a pipe dream, more than 50% of HR leaders were already struggling to prep their staff for the road ahead.
But now, the skills gap is more evident than ever. Against the backdrop of COVID-19, the matter of workplace learning has been a worldwide issue; a recent study by McKinsey has shown that this has emerged as one of the earliest and hardest-hit business activities throughout the pandemic, with roughly one-half of in-person programs cancelled or postponed in North America.
Perhaps even more troublingly, in parts of Asia and Europe, the figure is closer to 100%. As such, HR leaders are now left without any choice but to adapt to the current climate – and quickly.
Plugging the skills gap with digital solutions
To ensure that staff development doesn’t come to a screeching halt, HR managers should be quick to embrace digital solutions for learning and development (L&D) initiatives at the same pace as general working from home protocols.
Understandably, business leaders might have put their plans for staff training on the backburner whilst social distancing restrictions persisted. But now that businesses have settled back into the swing of things, investment in people-first digital transformation strategies should be back at the top of the agenda.
It is encouraging therefore that most businesses are becoming keener to embrace new technology that can help to bolster their operations. Indeed, a noteworthy 54% of UK businesses surveyed by Fountech.ai stated that their organization has become more open when it comes to implementing tech since the onset of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, almost half (45%) said that their business is planning to implement one or more technologies that utilize artificial intelligence (AI) within the next 12 months.
So, with further investment set to be pumped into newly digitized workforces in the coming months and years, I would encourage HR managers to give some careful consideration as to what kinds of tech they should be looking towards in order to support their employees.
For example, videoconferencing and online communication software are likely to remain key trends going forward, but businesses would do well to think outside of the box for their L&D.
High-end moderated virtual classrooms, virtual reality (VR) training sessions, and natural language processing (NLP) bots might all be areas of potential investment for companies looking to really personalize the learning experience of their employees. Not only can these training endeavours be delivered remotely, but they can be accessed on demand, avoiding the typical one-size-fits all approach of en-masse training sessions.
Additionally, business leaders could really benefit from putting intelligent data analytics to good use. By utilising virtual questionnaires, online projects and courses, and even Zoom catch-ups, managers will be able to tactfully assess the performance of their employees.
In this way, it will be easy to determine how staff are finding any changes to their role, or coping with the new normal, offering ample opportunities to upskill along the way.
Rethinking soft skills
Although COVID-19 has caused problems for traditional L&D procedures and classroom-led initiatives, business leaders should generally see this as an opportunity to reassess the skills gap in line with the future of the jobs market.
Conventional insight would suggest that employees need to boost their digital skills when thinking ahead to the future of the workplace. And indeed, this is true enough, with data analysts and specialists in artificial intelligence, big data, and digital marketing all topping the list of roles in increasing demand, according to a report from the World Economic Forum.
But in reality, the skills required to carry out jobs in the future will be much wider-ranging in their scope. Ultimately, there will come a point in time when all of the technology has been built, and what is actually required from the workforce is the people to work with this technology; employees who can apply their well-honed leadership and critical thinking expertise.
With such focus on digitization in recent years, the term ‘soft skills’ has become a bit of a misnomer. Generally speaking, the processes that are the easiest to complete – often the most repetitive and labour-intensive tasks – are also the easiest to automate.
The same cannot be said for so-called ‘soft-skills’, as these qualities are often the most difficult to cultivate, and also the trickiest to replicate with automation, which might leave some HR leaders scratching their head.
Assessing training needs
A good first step when it comes to meeting the skills gap would therefore be to begin with a training needs assessment which determines the skills an employee might need or want to develop.
Whether this is building on their leadership skills, or working on their ability to communicate effectively with stakeholders, this can be done by investing in platforms that focus on team-building, active listening and critical thinking.
At the moment, these skills are often best taught by professionals who embody these qualities themselves, but in the future, are likely to be delivered on digital platforms, too.
All in all, HR managers would do well to reframe the challenges posed by COVID-19 as a fruitful learning opportunity; when it comes to workplace L&D, it is clear that traditional methods will no longer suffice.
It is now time for digital offerings to lead the charge, which will re-invigorate the capabilities of a new cohort of home workers, and ensure that employees are well-prepped for the digital era.
About the author
This article has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Nikolas Kairinos, CEO and founder of Soffos, the world’s first AI-powered KnowledgeBot. He also founded Fountech.ai, a company which is driving innovation in the AI sector and helping consumers, businesses and governments understand how this technology is making the world a better place.
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