Suneet Dua is chief product officer at PwC US. Views are the author's own.
The pandemic put virtual meetings and collaboration tools in the spotlight, pushing employees unfamiliar with these platforms to build new skills to get their work done. But organizations quickly realized there were more important skills needed to not only maintain business continuity across a remote workforce, but to prepare employees to weather and thrive in the next disruption.
The ability to adapt, pivot and work differently was essential for sustaining productivity and service levels — even as head counts were frozen or reduced. While many employees easily acclimated to remote work, others had difficulty adjusting. Those who struggled needed digital skills training and coursework that encouraged innovation and creativity in decision-making and problem-solving. Companies realized that greater mental flexibility, and the capacity to change ways of working on the fly, are better predictors of success in the face of unexpected disruptions.
If companies are going to recover and drive growth through 2021, they’ll need to upskill their workforces. Indeed, three of the top four priorities for human resources executives are tied to upskilling, according to a recent PwC survey of HR leaders. More than 40% said their organizations should accelerate digital tool adoption, while 37% said they need to invest in tools that support innovation and collaboration for virtual teams. About one-third of HR executives want to offer employees options for developing new skills.
Lessons from the pandemic are prompting companies to rethink how they empower employees to become sharper thinkers. To succeed during challenging times, organizations need to teach their staff to use new digital tools, understand and apply agile program management, and develop the soft skills needed for leadership and change management.
How remote work inspired automation ideas
The pandemic forced some operational adjustments and behavior changes, revealing pain points around an underskilled workforce that weren't obvious before. When asked about the most enduring trends to come out of the pandemic, 78% of CEOs said remote collaboration, while 76% said automation, according to PwC.
This intense and unexpected period of change prompted many people to reexamine how they use their time and what impacts their productivity. For many, automation has become an attractive alternative to time-intensive tasks. During the pandemic, workers who spent large amounts of time on repetitive tasks, like generating reports and developing digital marketing campaigns, have become more aware of the need for data automation tools. These needs are evident across other functional areas and industries.
Supply chain and logistics group workers, for instance, could leverage agile project management skills or automations instead of relying on shared services to develop specialized technology. A retailer might use data visualization tools to analyze unexpected changes in store sales and traffic patterns to align staffing schedules with the busiest shopping times. That same data could be used to help reduce labor costs, shorten lines at the register and improve the customer experience.
Applying grit — and upskilling — to get long-term gains
As executive leadership teams create their post-pandemic business models, they’re putting greater focus on flexibility and dynamic workforce planning. Those plans account for health, economic and societal factors, and take into consideration clear feedback from employees on how they want to work.
Executives also recognize that investments in digital tools can help cultivate resilience and deepen their organization’s commitment to agility and continuous learning. Embed the innovations you developed during the global crisis and fold them into your workplace’s leading practices and work going forward. Continue looking for ways to keep building a culture of learning that leads to innovation that can scale. All of that can be done with upskilling.
Upskilling can also help companies build a richly talented workforce with more grit, resilience and determination to handle unexpected challenges. That means cultivating an ability to solve unexpected challenges creatively and quickly.
Intellectual nimbleness, and an ability to analyze data in new ways, can empower people to make better decisions, solve complex problems with more confidence and bring more creativity to everything they do on the job and in their personal lives. Upskilling opportunities allow employees to acquire new digital skills that can improve their current work, but can also prepare them to stretch and grow into future roles.
Upskilling: the recruiting differentiator
Upskilling can also result in a more fulfilling employee experience.
More than three-quarters of workers say they are ready to learn new skills or completely retrain in order to stay competitive and advance in their careers, according to a 2021 PwC survey. However, only 40% of people said they were able to upskill during the pandemic, which underscores the growing demand for new training opportunities.
Upskilling is so valuable to job candidates that more than one-third of respondents in a PwC Future of Recruiting survey say they would be willing to take a pay cut in order to learn new skills. After salary and benefits, it was the most important factor in deciding whether to take a new job.
It’s important for recruiters to articulate and quantify upskilling offerings, highlight them in offer packages, and demonstrate why they’re a differentiator and core piece of the overall value proposition.
Preparing for future disruption
The pandemic brought a new sense of urgency to the case for upskilling by exposing weaknesses that could present a systemic risk to growth, competitiveness and an ability to adapt when the next disruption occurs. Companies that don’t act swiftly and with conviction risk falling behind.
Managers can help their teams put their new skills to work by approaching challenges in a newly analytical way, proactively identifying new projects to flex critical thinking, and measuring productivity gains. Taking time to celebrate wins helps demonstrate why this work is important and draws direct connections between personal wins and corporate growth goals.
More digital literacy and mental flexibility across the workforce can help transform the organization at scale, create a culture of continuous learning and put the company in a stronger competitive position when the next disruption occurs.