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Why it's important to upskill your workforce

Just like performance reviews and policy management, filling skill gaps is the HR responsibility that never goes away. And as societal, business, or macroeconomic conditions change, HR professionals must reimagine the workforce of the future since the ground is constantly shifting beneath their feet. Today, the speed at which HR must enact upskilling initiatives so the company can be ready for the future of work, whatever it looks like, has only accelerated in a time of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.


Unfortunately, there’s no repeatable guide or blueprint for successful training, as every company’s needs differ at any given moment. Since March of 2020, e-commerce companies have scrambled to hire and upskill workers to improve performance and meet demand, while entities like utilities were already in the throes of reskilling – giving employees enhanced or more strategic responsibility as smart technology was introduced to do routine, manual tasks that previously commanded too much of workers’ time. Although the specifics and intensity of training efforts have varied from sector to sector, the COVID-19 crisis has forced companies’ hands. Reskilling and upskilling are no longer buzzwords just to talk about; they’re efforts that must be undertaken, and quickly at that.

Upskilling definition: Providing training to employees to improve performance in their current roles  

Reskilling definition: Training employees to take on a completely new position, particularly when business objectives have changed 

A host of qualitative and quantitative research shows that companies are waging a talent war, aggressively recruiting candidates with the same or similar skill sets. For some jobs, it might be cheaper, faster, and more effective to train existing employees to perform at a higher level – or in an entirely new role. But it’s not an either-or proposition. It’s essential to couple effective recruitment with a training strategy, since investing in your workforce improves retention, productivity, and innovation.  


Today, however, there’s more urgency. Committing to upskilling and reskilling can be the key to businesses surviving the COVID-19 crisis, thriving sooner after it lifts, as well as fueling the long-term stability and growth of an organization. The trick, however, is that now and well into the foreseeable future, HR professionals will be required to strike the right balance between hiring, training, and redundancies – every hour of every day.


As one HR professional puts it: In the past, HR always wanted a seat at the table; today, it not only has that seat, it’s in the hotseat.


Understanding organizational needs and being able to respond to them quickly will be the key not just to HR professionals’ careers, but the entire organizations around them. 

The path from remote work to upskilling and reskilling

Stop and think, for just a moment, how much business has changed in only a few months’ time. At the end of 2019, if any CHRO had walked into the CEO’s office and suggested the company immediately start planning for a future with a mostly remote workforce, they’d have been laughed out of the room, if not dismissed on the spot. Yet now, remote working is business as usual. It has even become the background against which other, newer social changes are unfolding.




The key learning, however, is that organizations proved more nimble and responsive than anyone thought. So, if everyone can transition to remote work and still be effective and efficient, surely an organization can train employees with new skills, quickly, to meet evolving business objectives. Delivering those new skills in a remote work environment will be a challenge, but also a necessity. And it’s important to bear in mind that "learning as you go" will be par for the course. Finding a balance isn’t static since adaptation happens faster now – on the fly, even – more than it ever has. 


Think of it this way: it took decades before mobile phones moved from cars to front pockets. Then the smartphone arrived. Today, a smartphone app or game can go viral, globally, in minutes.  


The HR function is seeing the same rapid change. A few decades ago, moving from paper records to computers was a slow grind; today, HR professionals have handed off their more routine work to AI systems or employee-accessed portals, and are now building elearning and workforce modeling strategies. HR needs upskilling along with everyone else, if the function is to align training goals with the needs of the company. A relevant, agile training strategy ready to deploy at any moment is the opportunity HR professionals now have with their seat at the table. 


Creating a workforce strategy

Explore tips on how to develop a workforce strategy to address your skills gap.

The future of work is here

The challenge for HR professionals isn’t simply identifying skill gaps and deciding whether to hire or train. It’s about quantifying the impact, reassessing, then quantifying again, followed by another reassessment. In a world where every decision is based on an ROI calculation, even a subjective one, it’s critical for HR to tie training initiatives to the immediate and long-term objectives of the business.



Another challenge is time – when and how can employees be trained? That’s especially tricky given that a typical employee has 14 minutes of free time on a weekly basis for training. So finding a way to add training to the workday while employees may be managing children learning at home with schools closed, makes it a more complicated question than whether to train or not to train. What’s more, any upskilling or reskilling initiative must align with a broader, strategic workforce plan. 

This means that some workers will be selected for developing new skills while others are left out. Employees are smart – they know what’s going on around them. That’s why new-skills initiatives must be accompanied by a robust communications plan so rumors – particularly about reductions in force (RIFs) – don’t spin out of control. Any reskilling or upskilling strategy must also be paired with a robust internal communications plan, also increasingly an area where HR is taking on increased responsibility. With broad, company-wide efforts, it’s critical to ensure everyone, whether they’re part of a reskilling effort or not, understands the bigger organizational objectives and how their jobs will be impacted.

Employee training obstacles and pitfalls

What-if scenarios are important to bear in mind as well, such as the possibility of retrained workers taking their new skills elsewhere – even to a competitor. Turnover is always a concern, even in normal times. While attrition can affect the ROI associated with a reskilling or upskilling effort, the alternative of not training to respond to the changing business climate would be far worse.


That’s why, again, it’s important to tie training directly to business results. One example: if the aim is to drive sales by training new salespeople, then measure for a sales uptick. Look for partners throughout the company who can draw on tools or locate stakeholders to help you measure the impact of your work. Worries about attrition or finding time, ultimately, amount to paralysis by analysis. Committing to upskilling and reskilling is, at face value, an issue of the company being able to compete or not. That’s why HR shouldn’t be viewed as an administrative entity, but one that can address deficiencies in the business head on.


Competing in the modern business climate requires reimagining the HR function as well as creating a culture of learning – you can’t have one without the other. This means, too, that a training effort requires HR professionals to have a clear strategy about who is given new skills and what they are expected to deliver in the future. Take into account how technology might change along the way, too, and might impact the efficacy of any training effort. Modern HR learning tools can help you reskill.


While the COVID-19 pandemic is a complicating factor, it’s important to think of upskilling as a key factor in long-term stability and growth of an organization so that it can pivot in the face of challenges large and small. COVID-19 accelerated trends already in place and highlighted what companies already knew: the organizations you’ll be hearing about as success stories in two or three years are the ones who actively committed to retraining their workforce for business challenges ahead. Because of the pandemic, companies just have to evolve at a faster pace. And to do that, both they and their employees need to be smarter. 


Upskill and reskill your workforce

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