Use COVID-19 Downtime to Upskill for Digital

Seven techniques to harness agile learning techniques to reskill and upskill employees for digital transformation.

Due to COVID-19 business shifts, one organization experienced an imbalance of resources across the company. With underutilized employees in customer service roles and overextended employees in remote service delivery, the executive team created an internal job board to match employees in slow parts of the business with experienced employees in other parts of the business that required more digital skills.

The experienced employee helped guide and train the newer employee, who was also offered a curriculum of on-demand training modules. Facing a similar challenge, another organization set up “ask an expert” forums to assist employees who were backfilling colleagues. 

Both organizations accomplished two goals. They were able to shift employees to where they were most needed in the short term, but more importantly, the employees gained valuable and high-demand digital skills.

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“Conditions during the COVID-19 crisis are harsh on learning and render traditional training nearly impossible,” says Graham Waller, Distinguished VP Analyst, Gartner. “Executive leaders can harness modern just-in-time remote microlearning to enable the upskilling opportunities they identify as supporting their COVID-19 recovery business objectives.”

How can organizations effectively future-proof employees, while also preparing for digital transformation? Be creative and be realistic.

Executives can focus on seven approaches for both upskilling and reskilling their current talent pool. Keep in mind when planning for learning opportunities that while some employees will have more downtime, others will be overwhelmed with family and home stresses, or — in certain industries and areas — stretched thin in their own job already. Take this into account when considering upskilling and reskilling plans. 

1. Give employees explicit permission to learn

Employees will often hesitate to spend working time on training. This is normally considered secondary activity and is rarely prioritized by managers. Now employees are working from home with even more distractions like kids who are distance learning or worries about at-risk family members. 

Executives need to repeatedly and clearly state that it’s okay to take time to learn new skills and that employees have explicit permission (and encouragement) to do so. Further, leaders should ensure that managers connect employees with opportunities to learn and set aside designated “development days” or scheduled times for training modules. 

2. Take a learner-centric approach 

Employees have a lot on their plates right now, which means executives must be extremely clear about the goals of each training module and ensure that employees who don’t have time will not be penalized or pressured. For employees who do have extra time, frequent check-ins will ensure they understand how to prioritize learning with other tasks and can make continuous adjustments to align with business goals. 

3.Emphasize on-demand consumable microlearning

If executives want employees to prioritize learning new skills, they need to make sure it’s easy and convenient to do so. Focus on short, easy-to-digest learning content with optional deeper dives. Learning marketplaces can be a good option for organizations that are smaller or new to modern learning; many offer training for high-demand digital-era skills via free courses for a limited time. 

Read more: Manage Employee Stress With Flexibility and Transparency

4. Repurpose existing internal corporate training programs

This is a good time to rethink existing training programs for the current employee experience. For example, take longer courses and break them down into short, consumable bites. If your organization has relationships with external learning platforms like LinkedIn Learning, Degreed or Coursera, search for modules and learning pathways that focus on digital-era skills and highlight those for employees. 

5. Blend content, coaching and experiential learning 

Experiential learning won’t look quite the same in a remote context, but find opportunities for pairing experienced employees with those less experienced. Take advantage of virtual platforms to schedule group training or have less-experienced employees shadow a mentor’s meetings to observe them in action applying the skills.

Encourage employees with skill sets in high-demand areas to moderate a panel or lead a virtual module. Record all of these sessions to create a playback library for self-guided learning.

6. Cultivate learning communities of practice 

Social learning, like chat boards or online interactive learning events, enable employees to share experiences and create a community in which they can support and teach each other. Highly skilled employees can help foster skills and offer practical help when most needed. For employees who are looking to develop digital skills, social learning offers a support system to gain confidence in new skills, which in turn helps the employee to deepen learning. 

7. Embed microlearning in the flow of value 

The goal should be to make reskilling and upskilling so easy the learner can consume it in their regular flow of work and immediately use it to help them achieve an outcome. This often means adding bite-sized (and highly relevant) learning opportunities into everyday meetings. 

For example, a 5-minute learning video on how to make remote meetings more engaging should be added to regularly scheduled meetings and manager one-on-ones. For larger business priorities like cost optimization or setting up a remote service delivery capability, weave learning into the overall flow of the project meetings and combine it with coaching from experienced employees. 

Gartner clients can read the full research Flip COVID-19 Downtime Into a Strategic Reskilling Opportunity  by Graham Waller. Gartner clients can also visit the Gartner COVID-19 Resource Center to learn more.

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