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Carpe Diem! Coronavirus and the Great Upskilling Opportunity

Learning to play the banjo. Brushing up on your second or third language. Trying new recipes from all those cookbooks gathering dust. These and countless other examples are the kind of learning people are undertaking from home during this time of COVID-19 coronavirus social distancing. 

Even with more entertainment options than ever—from endless television streaming to second- generation board games, and much more—humans have a very strong desire to learn, both to improve themselves and as boredom relief valve. And we don’t stop being human in this way while at work. 

The Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity 

Research by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) has consistently found that promoting a strong organizational learning culture correlates to stronger market performance, increased employee engagement, and importantly—especially during times like this—stronger organizational agility.  

Leading organizations have been following the steps to build a learning culture outlined in i4cp’s Strategic Guide to Building a Learning Culture, developed in partnership with Upskill America. 

But even in organizations with the strongest learning cultures, one element is often missing to take full advantage: time. There is a tension between short-terms goals and productivity and the time needed to learn new skills for use in the future. This tension ebbs and flows for each individual throughout the year, but the scarcest commodity in the equation is constant, as all activity—administrative, creative, learning, and more requires time. 

For some, the current COVID-19 coronavirus period means they are busier than ever. Some are on the front lines, helping to fight the disease or coordinate the efforts of others. Some have needed to shift how they work while still working—akin to upgrading their car while driving down the highway. And leaders are generally working overtime to support all of these efforts, while also supporting their other group of employees: those who suddenly have lots of time on their hands (but have not been laid off or furloughed).  

With the first few weeks of adjustment now past, many organizations have a massive opportunity in front of them: upskilling. This is fortunate given technology trends demanding significant upskilling and reskilling today or just around the corner from the rapid increase in the use of advanced work automation including AI, machine learning, robotics, etc. In 2019 i4cp found a significant capability gap (knowledge, skills, etc.) due to these technologies looming for many organizations, with only 16% of survey participants indicating their organizations have focused upskilling/reskilling programs to close this capability gap. 

While the benefits of and need for upskilling are easy to understand, finding the time to do something about it has been a challenge. Now, whether employees have 30%, 50%, or all of their time available, they can use this COVID-19 period to gain new knowledge and skills and set up both themselves and their organizations for a prosperous future. In short, the time afforded for some employees to focus on upskilling is an important silver lining to the otherwise awful cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Learning and Development Can be Heroes 

Everyone can be a hero at work at some point: CFOs and accountants during a financial crisis, IT professionals during a data hack, and maintenance staff during a plumbing fiasco. While some savvy managers might jump on upskilling opportunities for their team members, the more impactful approach will be for learning and development professionals to step up and be heroes to their organizations.  

i4cp has created many resources on upskilling (see Soft Skills Upskilling Planning Guide, Rotation Programs as Upskilling Strategies, Digital Upskilling at Scale, and more), but here are some considerations specific to the current COVID-19 time period:

  • Cross-training. A great way to promote upskilling and reskilling is to leverage the people with the desired skills as teachers or coaches, as it not only leads to skill transfer but can often further sharpen the skills of the expert. Doing this within social distancing constraints can be a challenge, but many demonstrations can be done with six feet of space between participants, and others can be conducted over video calls.
  • User-generated content. Subject matter experts can record procedure steps or their expert commentary on a topic using their smartphone, and then post that to the relevant LMS, LXP, or other learning or collaboration platform. Such videos can then be consumed as learners have time, asynchronously and thus at no risk from person-to-person proximity. (See also Is the Coronavirus Driving User-Generated Learning Content?)
  • Lunch-n-Learns. A tried-and-true approach to informally sharing knowledge, the lunch-n-learn meeting can continue even with social distancing. If in-person, take a page from the White House’s press conferences and have attendees sit several seats a part in the audience. Or for employees working remotely, gather on your favorite video conferencing platform, encourage attendees to bring their lunch (stay on mute!), and have presentations, panels, or open discussions as appropriate to the topic.
  • E-Learning from the LMS or LXP. While poor-quality content is one reason for low utilization rates for self-paced e-learning, the biggest reason is employees simply lacking time. Enter COVID-19, and some employees now have the time to explore all that your learning management system (LMS) or learning experience platform (LXP) has to offer. Organizations that have already created individual development plans (IDPs) and curated learning paths will be ahead of those who are now scrambling to do so. One place to start for many is a focus on remote work, virtual leadership, and the technologies increasingly in use to support these trends—see LinkedIn Learning’s set of 16 free programs on these topics.
  • Virtual Classroom Training. Organizations that have already created virtual classroom programs or converted several instructor-led programs (ILT) to be virtual instructor-led (vILT), will be ahead here as well. While formal training is a small percentage of the learning that occurs at most organizations, it can be particularly important for upskilling or reskilling when the need is to provide new baseline skills or teach a cohort of learners some adjacent skills to what they already know. Many organizations have already looked at their classroom training portfolio and prioritized which programs their instructional designers and trainers should redesign and then deliver leveraging their virtual classroom platform. This is also a great opportunity to re-evaluate lengthy formal training programs and determine if some of that content doesn’t not be delivered synchronously (live with other participants and an instructor) at all, and could instead of provided as e-Learning modules, performance support materials, etc. 

Politician Rahm Emanuel once said “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Organizations that can do so should marshal resources creatively during this unprecedented time, with learning and development professionals leading the way to focus on upskilling wherever possible. Those that do will not only see the direct benefits of added skills, but also long-range effects in the forms of engagement, employee retention, and overall strengthening and reinforcement of the learning culture boost.

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Thomas Stone
Tom is a Senior Research Analyst at i4cp, with over two decades of experience as a writer, researcher, and speaker in the learning and development and broader human capital industry. He is also author of multiple books, including co-authoring Interact and Engage! 75+ Activities for Virtual Training, Meetings, and Webinars (second edition from ATD Press, 2022).