Reskilling your workforce in times of COVID-19

The Guinness Book of World Records states one of the most resilient lifeforms we know, the Deinococcus radiodurans bacterium. It can adapt to changes in its environment including extreme temperatures, vacuum, acid and even radiation levels 1,500 times greater than what would kill a human. How can this bacterium survive such extreme changes? Its secret lies in its ability to learn and subsequent adapt. What can we, as organisations, learn from this bacterium and the proved essence of learning in times of COVID-19?
This article provides you with simple steps to maintain focus on organisational learning and workforce reskilling while successfully steering your organisation through COVID-19. Be like the bacteria. Learn, adapt and survive COVID-19.

The rise of a global pandemic and a new way of working
Since the first COVID-19 (or coronavirus) case in China, our lives have changed drastically. As the outbreak has become a pandemic with global impact, uncertainty is increasing rapidly as organisations and their workforce are entering the "new normal". In times of crisis leaders' first instinct is to put on hold all but the basics for securing daily operations. Workforce learning programs, in most cases, being the first thing to be cancelled. However, looking at the changes already brought by COVID-19 and the expected permanent change of daily operations it is essential for organisational survival to invest in their learning programs. But how will you accomplish this amid a crisis? And how can you maintain focus on reskilling the workforce while at the same time keeping the focus on what is crucial for business survival? And how will you manage it all from a distance?

Reskilling the workforce in times of COVID-19
Investing in and continuing learning programs to reskill employees in times of crisis is challenging. The economic uncertainty associated with the pandemic is putting pressure on global sales, revenue and cash flows. It is, therefore, more than logical that leaders tend to cancel programs that do not seem to have a direct link with revenue increases or cost savings. The arguments behind the cancellation are mainly based on the short-term goal of stamping the bleeding instead of letting the wound heal, making it stronger. The eagerness for a quick fix often seduces leaders to cut investments in workforce reskilling without taking into account possible higher costs of education, talent recruitment or even missed business opportunities in the future.
Even in the situations where there is the motivation to continue learning programs, social distancing is making it almost impossible to do this in the classical form. Organized presentations or classroom sessions are challenging or even off-limits. So, to make organisational learning and workforce reskilling point on the agenda during the crisis it must fit the current environment and organisational capabilities.
Despite the high degree of uncertainty COVID-19 brings, one thing is certain. The disruptive changes caused by the pandemic are mostly permanent and go beyond remote working. Therefore, to not only stay afloat during the crisis but to be successful in the post-pandemic era, organisations must re-evaluate their added value, business model and skill their employees accordingly. This not only positively impacts the organisation in the short run but strengthening this organisational muscle will also make the organisation resilient for future disruptions.

Designing a COVID-19 appropriate learning programme
Considering the current environment, changes and economic pressures, learning programs must meet several conditions to be kept on the agenda.

Online learning programs
First, social distancing makes classical forms, like classroom sessions, challenging. Besides, working from home is still the norm in most organisations, so make sure learning programs are available and accessible from home or other distant locations. An online e-learning environment on a secure server makes this possible.

Blended self-employed learning programs
Secondly, learning programs should not require major investments due to economic pressures. Neither in cost nor time. Self-employed learning programs in which employees themselves decide when they learn and at what pace ensures that the development of skills can take place in between essential business activities without the expense of essential time. Employees are responsible for their journey, allowing them to extract knowledge and develop their skills when the business and activities demand it. By providing blended learning options online using e-learning, in-depth masterclasses and assignments employees cannot only extract knowledge but test their newly developed skills as well. Without having to invest in expensive trainers and tutors.

Ready- and tailor-made learning programs
Third, the learning programs must be easy in use. This applies both to the organisation that implements the learning program and to the employee who follows or uses the program. For the organisation, it is important that the learning program is easy to implement, consists of 'bite-sized' components and can be adapted to the organisational wishes and needs. In addition, it is important for the employee that the learning program is intuitively designed and thus easy in use. Implementing a web-based learning program consisting of individual building blocks, each with a similar structure ensures user-friendliness for both organisation and employee. For the organisation, this means a modular program consisting of different building blocks that can be arranged to organisational need and is easy to implement without having to make internal process adjustments. While for the employee it means that the system is easy to use and provides overview and insight into the learning progress and performance.

Defining the conditions is the first step. But to make sure that your organisation thrives in the post-pandemic era, skills must be built. But how do you determine what skills should be developed or what the learning needs are in order to adapt your organisation to the "new normal"? How do you translate observed changes and trends into needed skills for your employees? We provide you with three steps you can take to determine learning needs.

1. Rapidly identify relevant trends and translate them into your business model
As organisations determine which course to take, the current environment will first have to be analysed. Have there been any changes in the environment of the organisation or that of important stakeholders? If so, what is the impact of these changes on your organisation and in which areas? And how will you have to adjust your business model to keep adding value?

Take restaurants, for example. Social distancing, being an observed trend, is impacting restaurants. The social distancing makes it more challenging for restaurants to have guests eating in. Impacting their amount of served guests per night, thus their sales and revenue. The impact is such that the current business model in which guest eat at the restaurant is no longer tenable. Restaurants have to adjust this part of the business model to survive. A possible adjustment might be a delivery service that delivers meals to the customer's front door.

2. Identify workforce skills critical to your adjusted business model and determine the skills gap
Once you have translated the relevant trends into an adjusted business model, it is important to determine which knowledge and skills are critical to make your adjusted business model a success. After identifying this you should determine whether the knowledge and skills needed are present in the organisation. Most likely the adjustment will cause new business activities for your employees, which means they will need new knowledge and skills to successfully execute them. When you identified the required skills and existing skills of your workforce you can determine the so-called 'skills gap'. The skills gap refers to the difference between the skills required for the new business activities and skills your employees possess at the moment.

Let's take the restaurants as an example again. The restaurant has adjusted its business model by delivering meals to its customers' front door. This adjustment involves a change in business activities or in this case, added business activities, namely the delivering or transportation of meals from the restaurant to the customer's home. The restaurant might decide to do this by car, which means that its employees must be able to drive a car for the business model to be successful. If your employees have never driven a car, then you can speak of a skills gap. To be able to perform their new business activity, the restaurant's employees must learn how to drive a car.

3. Implement modular learning programs to close the critical skills gap
When you have identified the critical skills gap you can select relevant content for the workforce's learning programs. However, there may be differences between different employees. Some employees may have more knowledge or better skill compared to others. In that case, it is inefficient to educate and train better-skilled employees in the same way as the lesser skilled employees. It is a waste of scarce time and expenses during these times of crisis. Therefore, it is essential to develop personal learning journeys for each employee. One way of achieving that is by setting up a modular learning program consisting of different 'building blocks' which can be put together according to personal needs.

Back to the restaurant, where two employees require upskilling. Both employees are unable to drive a car, but employee A has already begun with driving lessons where employee B has never even touched a car. It is inefficient to provide both employees with a complete driving lesson package consisting of 30 lessons if employee A only needs 10 more before getting his driver's licence. By tailoring the learning program consisting of standard building blocks (parking skills, highway driving, etc.) to the personal needs of both employees the restaurant saves investments in both costs as time.

4. Start learning, test immediately in practice and adjust where needed
Finally, when you have personalized the learning program to employees' needs, the learning program can be implemented. Employees can start learning independently and applying improved skills in practice. Here it is important to get an overview of the learning progress and gain insight into the performance in practice. Based on these insights you can steer the skills development where needed and adjust the learning program effectively.

At the restaurant, both employees have their driver's licence. They are both making long nights delivering meals to customers. But the delivery service is such a success you will need a larger van to drive the meals around town. Based on this insight in performance, the restaurant manager can steer the learning program of one of his employees. Employee A will be trained to drive a van as an additional skill to the previous car driving skill. By analysing the performance and what is needed for business's success the restaurant can rapidly adjust to the ever-changing environment.

The changes brought by COVID-19 may not be radioactive, as in the case of the Deinococcus Radiodurans, yet they have a major impact on global industries. Practically all organisations are feeling the pressure and uncertainties caused by the recent changes. Most of which will remain in some form. To be successful not only during this challenging period but especially post-pandemic, organisations will have to apply the same principle as the bacteria. Analyse the changes, determine their impact, learn and reskill to adapt and successfully survive in the new normal.

The Next Organization offers a 360 Corona Pressure Cooker to help the organisation through the corona crisis and prepare for the post-pandemic era. Based on the discussions, we developed a pressure cooker, in which we help companies anticipate the consequences of the changes caused by the pandemic. We discuss relevant trends and developments and together we create scenarios in which people emerge stronger post-pandemic.

Interested in this pressure cooker? Feel free to contact us to discuss your wishes and possibilities.

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