It's an unfortunate reality during the COVID-19 pandemic, as with economic downturns past: talent development and training departments are likely to be subject to budget cuts and downsizing.
"History tells us that training is a line item that gets sought," Dale Rose, president and co-founder of California-based consulting firm 3D Group, told HR Dive in an interview. "It's a familiar path."
But the trend is not necessarily a universal one, and Rose and others who spoke to HR Dive have worked with employers that take a different view. The difference between the current economic moment and that of the late 2000s recession, so goes the thinking, is that the underlying structure of the economy isn't being impacted by COVID-19. "The one thing we do know is that this isn't permanent," Rose said.
Layoffs, furloughs and other cuts are taking up a lot of energy for organizations, Bob Ryan, executive advisor at Shields Meneley Partners in Chicago, said in an interview, but employers need to prepare for when the script flips. That means a certain percentage of staff should dedicate themselves to outlining the organization's future, and "a part of [that percentage] needs to be L&D people," he said.
As L&D professionals go into meetings with executives — in some cases to literally advocate for their department's continued existence — their pitch cannot be to simply return to business as usual, Ryan said; "This is the time to be creative and show the CEO, CFO and CHRO that L&D is important, but it's going to change." Top companies, he continued, are opting to increase, not decrease, investment in talent after the pandemic.
"I believe the conversation with business leaders needs to start and end with how learning supports business strategy and outcomes," Chris Holmes, director of global learning and development at Booz Allen Hamilton, told HR Dive in an emailed statement. "If learning is integrated as a part of a shared outcome, then the need to 'advocate' for training investment can be a very different conversation."
L&D departments can also appeal to their role in shaping the organization's future competitiveness. "The competitive advantage that companies have coming out of this is going to depend on their talent," Cat Ward, managing director of JFFLabs, a division of workforce and education nonprofit Jobs for the Future, told HR Dive in an interview. "We're moving into a pretty fluid environment here."
Distance learning provides a way forward
It's simple enough to say that talent development will be important, but how L&D professionals keep it top of mind during and after the pandemic will differ. Ryan described practitioners at one manufacturing industry client who took matters into their own hands by making reopening-oriented training videos with their phone cameras. L&D teams elsewhere have held Zoom calls to step back and brainstorm solutions for assisting workforces that may have moved to remote status during the pandemic.
Some teams will struggle with a learning environment that is more digital. "There's the chance for disinvestment in workplace learning, and a lot of that is due to the fact that a lot of learning at work hasn't been digital-first in nature," Ward said. "If you want your business to be competitive, you need to be preparing your workforce for these changes."
But digital transition can be an advantage for L&D teams, particularly those at employers that had not embraced digital transformation before the pandemic, according to Rose. "Maybe there are benefits to someone sitting at their home office; maybe they have more time," he said. "The opportunity of the moment is to embrace distance learning."
At Booz Allen Hamilton, employees are actually consuming more learning content, and they are particularly focusing on content covering how to work and lead effectively in a virtual environment, Holmes said.
One understated impact of the movement to online learning post-pandemic is that it could level the playing field for talent development. In his own experience doing online presentations with clients, Ryan said he's seeing high levels of participation and engagement from learners. "I can look at 20 to 30 people as I'm leading the meeting, and it's just easier to manage."
Employers will still need to deal with some hurdles when it comes to online learning, Ward said, particularly ensuring all workers have access to a reliable internet connection and other necessary technology. Front-line and middle-skill employees will also need to be included: "It's a business advantage that your entire workforce is able to keep their skill sets fresh and stay competitive," Ward added.
It will also be difficult for talent professionals to advocate for internship programs, many of which have been cancelled or otherwise rolled back during the pandemic. But online delivery can help here, too, Ward said. Companies like Microsoft have opted to turn their internships into digital experiences, and the tech giant has said that this move will influence its approach to internships well into the future.
Virtual reality and augmented reality, previously used by globally spread, remote-based organizations to disseminate training programs, could also help navigate a situation in which on-site operations are suspended. Ward said she's aware of companies that have considered sending sanitized VR headsets to employees so that they can train at home.
Reopening as a blueprint
COVID-19 may not be the disruption L&D teams anticipated, but it is nonetheless a reminder that the field's future may lie in preparing organizations to adapt to massive change.
"The way we work has completely changed," Rose said. As organizations look to reopen in an environment of social distancing and disease prevention, L&D could emerge in a highly visible role that supports all employees. "Caring for my people has always been important, but that's more important now. If they're going to be effective in their work, I need to be tending to them more than I might normally."
This care can take many forms, from facilitating how employees should reorganize their schedules to literally helping them move from point A to point B within a facility.
Soft skills training is a particular area of emphasis for companies that moved remote. "I think that has just gotten really ratcheted up here," Ward said. Workers and managers will need assistance adapting to phone-based and web-based communication, especially if they are used to an environment that is dependent on face-to-face communication. Even the subtler act of reading the body language of team members will require adjustment, Ward noted.
In some ways, moving to a remote basis can create a new standard for work itself. "It's a different way of setting goals," Ward said. "There's much more of a premium on execution … and that is going to require even more communication."
The pandemic is not just a chance for L&D departments to prove that their programs have a return on investment; workers are watching, too, and evaluating the responses that employers put forward.
"Remember that employees will remember and value the choices that companies make," Rose said.