In 2020, businesses were forced to abandon many of their strategic plans due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon after the virus made headlines worldwide, the focus became preventing the spread of the virus through the workforce, adjusting product and service distribution and delivery methods, and managing customer needs in a new environment of social distancing.

One of the initiatives that received little, if any, attention was employee development. For many organizations, training and development expenses were reduced and eliminated in some cases. Additionally, the demand on HR significantly increased as attention was directed toward safety protocols, COVID sick leave, furloughs, and layoffs. There was little time for traditional training and development in the immediacy of the tragedy unfolding one year ago.

With the vaccine rollout well underway in 2021, leaders are eyeing recovery with the goal of not only reaching 2019 performance levels but exceeding them. According to a LinkedIn Learning Report, one critical strategy to a successful recovery is to reprioritize employee professional development, which 94% of employees believe to be a reason for staying at a company longer.

HR professionals are clued into the opportunities presented with a comprehensive employee development program and are making it one of their top priorities. According to a March 2021 Harvard Business Review article by Robyn Forman Pollack and Dina Perreault, “training ranks second on CHROs’ priority lists, after hiring, but more than 55% of middle-market CHROs tell us their training and development capability is either weak or extremely weak…”

The fact that employee development is critical to job satisfaction yet underutilized presents an enormous opportunity for HR teams. An investment in programs that continuously promote learning opportunities for current employees, whether onsite or remote, can yield significant returns in engagement and retention. Here are ideas for reviving your employee development program in 2021.

Establish a Company-Wide Cross-Training Initiative

During the past 12 months, employees were expected to wear many hats to adapt to a reduction in the workforce, or in some cases increased demand, and to cover for sick coworkers. This left many employees with multiple layers of responsibility and added stress on top of the crisis.

The pandemic highlighted the need for ongoing cross-training so that critical functions are not wholly dependent on one individual. When an employee goes on medical leave, for example, and at least one team member knows how to handle that person’s main tasks, there’s no loss in continuity. When teams are properly cross-trained, your business becomes more sustainable and ready to face future challenges.

Work with department heads to identify critical tasks for each area of the business and pair team members for cross-training sessions. Consider implementing a quarterly rotation plan where colleagues spend a half or full-day working in the roles they’ve cross-trained for.

Cross-training not only helps the organization respond to emergencies but also aids in succession planning. For example, allowing junior managers to train for a week in the role of the district manager can allow you to gauge which employees perform best in that role. This will help identify the areas the employee should grow professionally to move into that role in the future and what skills they will need to develop.

Cross-training programs support emergency management where key employees are unavailable and allow flexibility to move star employees to critical growth initiatives and have team members ready to fill in the gap. There is also the benefit of improved critical thinking. When workers understand the larger picture of their role within a team and organization, they have greater insight into why the work they perform is important, how it connects with other initiatives, and where process improvements can be made.

Address the Growing Skills Gap

Even before the health crisis struck, organizations were facing a skills gap. In a February 2020 McKinsey survey, nearly nine in ten executives reported their organizations faced critical skills gaps, either at the time or expected gaps to develop within five years. The gap in skills covers a broad range of business areas – but comes up short mainly in data analytics, IT management, and executive management. Mathematical and advanced data-analysis skills are predicted to be the most prominent professional gaps within the next five years.

How can HR professionals stay on top of (and avoid) this crisis within their organizations? Working with executives and managers to identify the skills gaps that must be filled to reach overall organizational goals is crucial. Consider where current skills gaps exist now and explore what will be needed in the coming years to fulfill the company’s long-term plans.

You might also look outside your company for guidance.

  • Competitive intelligence can help identify skills your team may be missing. Read through posted job descriptions for similar positions within your organization. Are there skills listed that you are not currently considering in your recruiting and training that align with your company values and current needs?
  • An HR consultant can conduct a skills gap analysis on your behalf. An outside third party can conduct research and make recommendations from an objective viewpoint. That can be helpful if you expect internal biases to affect the accuracy of the analysis or acceptance of the findings.

Once you have identified the current or expected gaps, you can adjust training and development programs to upskill and reskill your workforce where needed.

  • Upskilling: Upskilling involves education and training to advance an employee’s current skill level within their current job.
  • Reskilling: Reskilling involves going outside an employee’s current skill set to learn new skills, ones that might be used in a different job or role within the organization. Reskilling will become more important as automation, and digital transformation disrupt traditional jobs.

Taking time to identify skills gaps and build sustainable employee upskilling or reskilling programs can prepare teams to be future-ready and drive business growth.

Embrace Soft Skills Learning

It can be tempting to overlook the fact that the technical skills required for a specific job are not the only skills needed for success in that job. The reason is technical skills are easier to measure and impact. If an employee’s Excel skills are lacking, for example, you can think of a few ways to solve that problem. You might sign them up for an online Excel class or partner them with an employee with excellent spreadsheet skills. But understanding steps to take to improve an employee’s creativity or resilience, for example, is not as intuitive.

Soft skills are critical assets for employees because they demand mastering qualities that involve interpersonal strength and effectiveness, qualities that directly impact performance. According to recent research by iCIMS, “ninety-four percent of recruiting professionals believe an employee with stronger soft skills has a better chance of being promoted to a leadership position than an employee with more years of experience but weaker soft skills.”

Some of the soft skills to consider include:

  • Communications and presentation skills
  • Conflict management and resolution
  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking
  • Curiosity
  • Flexibility
  • Leadership
  • Problem-solving
  • Resilience
  • Teamwork
  • Time management

Mindfulness is a popular term these days, but you might not have considered the role it can play in the workplace. Mindfulness is a practice that supports all other soft skills by changing how you relate to your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. An individual who demonstrates the ability to exercise mindfulness in a professional setting has a higher success rate in practicing many of the in-demand soft skills.

Mindfulness involves more awareness and curiosity and less reactive judgment. Mindful practice can assuage stress and anxiety and improve sleep. For that reason, some companies offer subscriptions to applications such as Calm or Headspace to encourage mindfulness and support employee mental wellbeing.

Organizations that support soft skills training post-COVID may find it easier to adapt to the professional landscape changes that have occurred due to the pandemic. Embracing soft skills development will improve employee performance and productivity and prepare them for what’s next.

Encourage Professional Certifications

An essential part of employee development is nurturing each worker’s unique passions and curiosity. Supporting professional certifications that align with the employee’s interests will show your investment in them as a professional and earn a measure of loyalty.

While the particular certification should align with the employee’s role within your company, you can think outside the immediate job function or beyond required recertifications such as those for CPAs or financial planners. Maybe a project management certification would be of interest to a staff CPA looking to take on a strategic project or prepare for a promotion.

Review each department and list a few certifications that will allow employees to increase knowledge and gain skills that will positively affect that department’s performance. But then let each manager explore options with their team members. You’ll want complete buy-in on the plan from both employees and their managers. Don’t forget to build certification expenses into your budget and related goals into the employee review process.

Measure the Impact of Employee Development

The best way to support an ongoing employee development program within your organization is to measure and report outcomes. Often, organizations overlook the importance of measuring the impact of training, but these data points will quantify a training program’s effectiveness and validate its expense.

At the tactical level, employee development metrics are made up of class-specific measurements like completion rates, assessment results, and adherence to an established timeline. Compare this data among individual employees and between departments and recognize teams performing well and offer support for underperforming teams.

At the strategic level, you should measure the organizational impact of your employee development program. Understanding behavioral changes and outcomes will require a combination of quantitative and qualitative data.

Quantitative data can be gathered from department managers and include those overarching goals established for the development program, such as productivity, absenteeism, turnover, customer satisfaction, and cost savings.

Get a sense of the impact of training programs through anecdotal data gathered in interviews with trainees, managers, and executives. This type of qualitative research can help you determine how the program is perceived and whether it drives business performance as expected. It can also help identify where employees are most struggling, allowing you to make adjustments to training programs.

To help manage a robust training and development program, you can use a learning management system (LMS) to deploy, manage, and measure outcomes. An LMS houses all of your eLearning courses, including videos, presentations, and instructor-led training, and allows each team member to log in and take classes and assessments on their schedule. It can be a time-saver, automating administrative tasks like email notifications and providing data visualization of your most important metrics.

Measuring the effectiveness of your training will allow you to make continuous improvements resulting in a better training experience for your employees and better ROI.

Create a Learning Culture

Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic created significant challenges for employee development challenges HR leaders are looking to overcome this year. Organizations that adopt a growth mindset and invest in building a sustainable learning culture for their teams are the ones who will ultimately create a future-ready workforce for the new normal and achieve success in 2021 and beyond.

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