The fallout of COVID-19 has been significant for companies as HR teams scrambled to cope with the implications for their people and business models. As the dust has settled, life has needed to go on with the business facing new challenges, whether that is an increase in demand or figuring out new ways to keep things running.
To do it, HR leaders are having to encourage their current workforces to adopt a different mindset, one centered on flexibility and what’s best for the business as well as themselves. COVID has created a great deal of uncertainty, but problems can be mitigated through encouraging an open mind and creating meaningful discourse around career mapping and reskilling.
Reskilling or upskilling is something you hear a lot about these days. The focus for the current workforce typically falls into one of a few areas:
- Preparing people for the challenges of tomorrow
- Making people more flexible to deal with the current situation
- Helping employees create new paths forward
Doing something that creates any one of these things as a result is a win-win for both people and the organization, but executing it is easier said than done. Rhonda Hall, VP of HR and Organizational Development for University Federal Credit Union reminds us, it’s important to keep in mind that effective reskilling and career mapping is a journey, not an exercise.
“When HR folks are talking about reskilling employees, the main focus should be two-fold: what serves the employee best and what serves the business best,” Hall said. “It is the careful balance of these two things that will ultimately result in success for all. Skewed too heavily toward the business, and you end up with a disgruntled employee. Skewed too much toward the employee, and you end up with roles and people in roles that the business can’t support long term. When walking the reskilling balance beam, be up front that reskilling isn’t a “one and done” experience. It should be gradual, with levels in mind, and iterative.”
The Keys to Career Mapping
Patience is indeed a necessity in effective career mapping. The fact is, employees are dealing with a lot right now, from the uncertainty around the economy to the ongoing stress around health hazards and social issues. To keep them engaged in thinking about their future within the organization, the career mapping and reskilling conversation has to be personal and transparent.
“Each reskilling event for each organization, for each position, is customized and could be any or all three of these (the bullets listed above), at any time,” Hall said. “If people think of this as a linear path, they will be frustrated. If thought of in a cyclical manner though, satisfaction is possible. For me, transparency is the key. An organization has to be willing to be transparent, to tell it like it is, help people understand what that means for them, and then together, through two-way dialogue design a path that works for that role and that employee, and they may be different for different roles and people.”
HR professionals can likely guess the impact of not doing this. It’s likely that without some engagement and improvement to the employee experience in how they’re growth and path forward is discussed, HR teams are going to have to spend a lot of time on recruitment and talent acquisition when things to return to something resembling normal.
“COVID has rocked our worlds,” Hall said. “Employees are being asked and given opportunities to flex their mental skills like never before. Shame on the company that doesn’t take the time to learn how that experience was for each employee.”
Hall suggests that companies should be looking forward to the individual dialogues that career mapping creates. The questions they should look for answers to include things like:
- What did you like and not like about shifting to support another area?
- Did you feel prepared to be successful at the beginning?
- How did you learn the new role, processes and systems?
- What about 30 days and 90 days into it, did you find that you did enjoy certain parts of the work? Which parts?
- What fears did you have coming into that new/expanded role? What about now, what fears do you have now that you’ve been there for 4 months?
- What else interests you? Where else would you like to learn more?
An organization that takes the time to learn what that experience was like for their employee, how they handled the change, and where they see themselves now and in the future is an organization that will increase their employee engagement and in the end have more satisfied employees. But Hall warns, this process is not entirely down to HR.
“The caution I have, is that this isn’t HR’s role, this is Leadership’s role,” Hall said. “Leadership should be skilled and trained by HR to be ready to have these conversations, and to be able to create a report out of what they learned to be consumed across the leadership team with HR at the table. It is in this manner that we as leaders grow to better understand our employees’ passion, strengths and opportunities.”
Career mapping conversations aren’t always comfortable, requiring a patient and empathetic approach that puts the employee at the center to help them see the possibilities.
“Enter into the conversation with a desire to understand what the experience has been like for that employee,” Hall said. “It’s the basic ‘seek first to understand’ approach that will make this conversation most effective. Approach with admiration, empathy and be inquisitive. Don’t judge their experience or their reaction to their experience, but hear it, honor it, and learn from it. If you listen deeply, beyond what is said, but also to what’s not said, you as an HR person will learn so much more and will be best poised to help that employee through this and future transitions.”
Building Business Resilience
For some businesses, coping with COVID-19 has meant re-evaluating their operational models. Supply chains have been disrupted and the budget to dip into the talent pool for a solution eroded. Even for those who have seen business boom or had little impact on what they do, it’s made clear the risk of not examining operational effectiveness and preparing for the unforeseeable.
A report from McKinsey & Company has taken a closer look at the talent landscape following the impact of COVID-19 and relays a message of needing to reskill and upskill the workforce to deliver on post pandemic business models.
For all the talk of automation, AI and remote work disrupting the workforce coming into 2020, it’s been a human factor (Coronavirus) that actually did change the way we do things and in the end it’s the human factors that are going deliver results in the future. Companies need to invest time into developing talent strategies which develop the digital capabilities of their people, along with their cognitive and soft skills to create a workforce that is adaptable and capable of rising to future challenges.
“Developing a digitally ready workforce requires assessing your company’s current talent in terms of both hard and soft skills. You also need to understand their passion for learning and curiosity,” writes Yoland Lau for Forbes. “Support continuous, ongoing learning within your team, and help individuals develop the best personal learning pathway. Developing digitally ready talent isn’t a one-size-fits-all journey.”
As of right now, there is something of a talent supply and demand imbalance. Gig economy workers, for example, may need to find work in related industries but under different conditions. Think of an Uber driver turning to something like Shipt or Amazon for example. More and more consumers are turning to e-commerce, meaning there may not be as much need in sectors such as retail or even hospitality and already we’ve seen stories of hospitality workers turning to things such as senior care as a new avenue of opportunity. That adjustment, however, takes a significant amount of reskilling and training for them to be effective.
It’s possible that some jobs which were offshored in recent decades may be brought closer to the point of sale in an effort to increase the effectiveness of supply chains. The automotive and manufacturing industries have already been on an automation journey for some time, but developing a digitally capable workforce closer to home is needed in order to make that new business model work.
The Learning Investment
Businesses have been ramping up their investment in developing a learning ecosystem, an environment where a variety of learning tools help drive employee development. At this stage, budgets dedicated to learning should not only be protected, but further increased to sufficiently meet the needs associated with the development of new business models.
As organizations identify the skills their new models rely on, they then have to tailor learning journeys that will help their people tackle the challenges the organization faces. Those critical skill gaps may not be easy to bridge, so, as the McKinsey report emphasized, be prepared to test different strategies and develop iterations.
Amazon, for example, recently partnered with Merit America, a non-profit dedicated to helping middle skill workers chart a path toward skilled technology careers. It’s part of its Career Choice initiative which aims to help prepare hourly employees for career opportunities in tech fields. Amazon employees can now take advantage of Merit America’s training programs, which pair job-focused online learning with career coaching and mentorship.
“The mass displacement of workers that has resulted from the pandemic represents an unprecedented opportunity — and responsibility — to reimagine training and hiring, and ensure that the most vulnerable Americans don’t get left behind,” said Rebecca Taber, Founder and co-CEO of Merit America. “This program reflects Amazon’s commitment to investing in its people — in ways that can not only close critical near-term skill gaps, but also create opportunities for their employees in the long term.”