Since the outbreak of Covid, we have seen the world changing at a rapid rate and notably, the way we work is another area that is undergoing a huge transformation. Although changes were initially enforced by circumstances, the majority of companies have now accepted this change and are actively encouraging their office workers to operate from home to some degree - now referred to as hybrid working. Many employees have warmly embraced this new way of working too, as it allows them to work flexibly and leaves them with more time to focus on family, health, hobbies and wellbeing. It can also help companies cut office rental costs and improve their performance thanks to happier staff who are working more effectively.
This radical change doesn’t arrive without challenges to overcome, however. The initial concerns for HR were centred around productivity and staff wellbeing, but with productivity seemingly in hand the focus must now switch to adapting learning and development programmes which have, to an extent, been sidelined or deprioritised. Most importantly, HR must place more focus on improving soft skills, as staff will have limited opportunities to develop these due to having less contact time with their colleagues. This creates a need for HR departments to find alternative means for employees to learn these key skills that were previously picked up through daily office life, introducing fresh challenges into the L&D landscape – and these challenges are brought into even sharper focus when considering how to develop new graduate employees, leaders of the future and the onboarding of new employees at any level.
What Does the Changing Workforce Look Like?
During multiple national lockdowns, employers and employees alike became used to this new status quo and with restrictions now lifting, they are essentially faced with a choice between making a full return to the office, sticking with remote working or adopting a hybrid model. In a 2020 survey, 45% of remote-working staff said they are working more than they were at the office, while 97% want to continue working this way at least part of the time. This presents an interesting conundrum for business, as even if there is a desire to have staff back in the office, any employers who resist this new shift to remote working risk losing their top performers to competitors that have adopted a more flexible approach.
In all likelihood we can expect most companies to settle into a hybrid model that offers their staff flexibility and reduces the risk of infection spreading; this change is highlighted by online remote-working services, such as Zoom, adapting their offerings to offer more flexible options for business users. Although we can safely say that hybrid working is the most likely outcome however, it’s not entirely clear how this will look in reality. Each company and their individual staff members are different, so they will need to find ways of working that suit them, with no defined standard and a range of nuanced factors contributing to the pattern they will eventually settle into. It will be fascinating to observe how this landscape evolves over the coming months and years and to see which companies lead innovation in this area.
What Does the “New Normal” Mean for L&D?
While the focus during the past year and a half has been maintaining efficiencies and supporting isolated staff members, most companies already have some idea about the formation of their workforce moving forwards. However, at this stage not enough focus is being placed on how training will be conducted. The two key aspects that must be considered here are technical (hard) skills and soft (power) skills – the latter of these could be described as “human” skills that will prove valuable in any workplace, such as emotional intelligence, critical thinking, problem solving and communication. These skills enable employees to fit in at the workplace, cooperate effectively with their colleagues and clients and perform well in tasks for which they already possess the technical skills.
Technical skills training is unlikely to face significant changes in the near future, as the majority of technical training is conducted via online training courses – indeed, with the workforce commuting less on average they may actually find they have more time for training, leading to improvements in this area for some companies.
Soft skills development, on the other hand, will be a much more challenging issue to overcome. Traditionally employees develop these skills through workplace interactions rather than formal training. If workers are only averaging two days a week at the office though, how will they manage to develop these skills in the same way? That’s 60% less contact time than they would have previously been accustomed to, with the rest of the time spent working alone from home and interacting via online communication tools instead – so, it’s realistic to assume that many employees’ soft skills will deteriorate, at a time when these skills are considered more important than ever. This is a particular issue with new graduate workers – as early as 2018, almost three quarters of employers were expressing concerns that these incoming staff weren’t gaining the needed soft skills in education and were therefore expected to start learning them once they became immersed in the work environment
How Should L&D React?
While the shift towards hybrid working may not present significant changes in the short term for improving technical skills training, a clear gap emerges when it comes to developing employees’ soft skills. To fill this gap, companies must refocus L&D to prioritise these skills, identifying new opportunities for their workers to develop them and building clear strategies that place the same level of emphasis on soft skills as existing learning provisions do for technical skills.
Achieving this is easier said than done. It will require some out-of-the-box thinking as, unlike their technical counterparts, soft skills can’t be easily embedded through a theoretical approach and can only be learned through real-world practise. Businesses must therefore start embracing methods such as experiential learning, which will give far better results due to the applied nature of the learning. It is therefore essential to companies’ survival and success that they find new ways to develop their staff’s soft skills. Looking beyond the negative effects of soft skills gaps, there is also lots to be positive about. Soft skills training has been shown to offer as much as 256% ROI thanks to a 12% rise in team productivity and retention, so companies that commit to development in this area won’t just avoid losses in productivity, they’ll be well positioned to gain from it as well.