Jobs and the Future of Work

3 ways to revolutionize workplace learning in the post-COVID economy

Laptops and notes on a table

A good learning and development strategy can help build better businesses. Image: Unsplash/Scott Graham

Kelly Palmer
Chief Learning & Talent Officer, Degreed
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Society & Future of Work

  • Half of all employees worldwide will need to be reskilled by 2025 and that's not including those out of employment.
  • Organizations should join the learning and development revolution in order to thrive post-pandemic.
  • Building strong cultures of continuous learning helps build successful businesses of the future.

Amid all the difficulties of the pandemic era, there have also been positive developments inside businesses that are helping lay the groundwork for the transformation of the workplace. One of the biggest involves how organizations face learning and development and, if businesses seize the opportunity, they can upskill and reskill employees at a faster pace than ever.

Quick action is needed. The skills necessary for businesses to succeed, and for economies to thrive, are in the midst of a revolution. As the World Economic Forum and PwC point out in their Upskilling for Joint Prosperity report: “Half of all employees around the world will need reskilling by 2025 – and that number does not include all the people who are currently not in employment.”

Even prior to the pandemic, they were pushing for a billion people to be upskilled this decade. And with technology automating even more jobs over the past two years, this need has only grown.

Over more than 15 years in the learning and development field, I’ve travelled across the world and seen the extent to which organizations have struggled to close skill gaps. Many organizations have continued with lecture-style workplace learning initiatives, in which large numbers of people crowded into rooms to listen to an instructor – an outdated mode of learning that, studies show, is not the most effective.

Put learning at the heart of a business

A lot of businesses have also kept the learning function siloed off as a subset of human resources, rather than making it a fundamental part of how the business is driven. Instead, learning and development leaders should have input on the company’s overall business strategy so they can ensure development is baked into all the decisions a company makes.

Here, the change during the pandemic has been stunning. In March 2020, only 24% of learning leaders worldwide said they had a seat at the executive table, a LinkedIn survey found. By June that year, the number had shot up to 62% and edged up to 63% a year later.

Percentage of L&D pros globally who agree that L&D has a seat at the executive table.
63% of learning and development professionals say they have a seat at the executive table. Image: LinkedIn

Businesses have also begun to embrace online learning, empowering employees to develop skills – wherever and whenever is best for them. As Training Industry reports, the pandemic finally helped break the traditional instructor-led training model. I too have seen a rise in self-directed and peer-to-peer learning, which employees have been able to engage in from home.

Now, organizations need to embrace these changes and speed up their efforts in this post-pandemic era. Here are three of the most important steps to take, all of which work just as well remotely as they do for in-office staff.

Let go of 'command and control'

It’s tempting for leaders to tell employees which skills they should learn, but this top-down approach doesn’t work. Numerous studies cited in the book I co-wrote, The Expertise Economy, show that people are more engaged in learning and have much better retention when they pursue skills that interest them.

Businesses should provide guidance about the skills they believe will be critical for both the company and individuals to succeed. These days, some of the most important are what I call “power skills”, formerly known as “soft skills”, which include things like communication, problem-solving, and empathy.

Employees should then assess their own skills against those deemed critical, and make decisions about which skill gaps they want to help close. This way, they personalize their development while also helping the organization. After all, workers want to build careers in which they’ll be seen as essential.

Track, recognize and reward

While giving employees the freedom to choose learning paths is important, businesses should keep tabs on who is learning what. At Degreed, we use our platform that offers development opportunities to employees, tracks what they’re choosing to learn, and provides data and analytics on how close the organization is to closing skill gaps.

I encourage managers to have regular career conversations with their employees and discuss their progress toward upskilling and reskilling goals. This can be very motivating for employees, and it shows that the company values learning.

Leaders should also praise and celebrate employees’ achievements in this area. Talk about these topics in team meetings and all-hands meetings as well. Some companies even tie salary increases to the development of new skills.

Optimize learning conditions

As many companies turn to hybrid arrangements, it’s helpful to use employees’ time at the office as an opportunity to have them engage in collaborative projects in which their new skills can be put to work. Fully-remote companies can organize virtual collaborations.

And since everyone needs uninterrupted time for individual learning, be sure workers have that no matter where they are. Have them block out some time for learning. Also, ensure that workers are not overburdened with too many assignments, an increasing problem amid staff shortages linked to the 'Great Resignation', which predicts a large number of people leaving their jobs after the pandemic ends. In one US survey, 52% of workers who said they have had to take on more work, and 30% are struggling to get work done.

Good communication is key. The more leaders talk about the importance of skill development, including what skills they themselves are developing, the more they build strong cultures of continuous learning. That goes a long way toward building the organizations of the future.

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