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How can businesses Covid-proof their HR strategies?

Image credit: Fizkes/Dreamstime

An unprecedented move to digital working is making a skills gap that existed long before the Covid-19 pandemic more prominent than ever. HR strategists need to put person-centred tech at the heart of their plans and stress-test their strategies in line with the emerging skills of the future.

Over the past seven months or so, as the workforce upped sticks and fled the office in favour of remote working practices, this might have left HR managers scratching their heads. Even at the best of times, producing thorough learning and development strategies that ensure staff have the skills they need to navigate an increasingly digital future can be a tricky task. But now, against the backdrop of Covid-19, matters have only been complicated further.

Even before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 50 per cent of HR leaders in a US survey admitted that they were struggling to prime their staff for the road ahead. At the time, any thoughts about widespread digital transformation could be placed to one side, with most organisations feeling safe in the knowledge that they had months, or even years to prepare.

But now that social-distancing measures have brought these plans forward several years, Covid has dramatically changed the game. Worryingly, however, this unprecedented move to digital also means that the skills gap that existed long before the pandemic ever came to be is likely to be more prominent than ever.

With large sections of the workforce continuing to work from home into the new year, the drive to deliver personal growth and upskilling opportunities has taken a back seat. Indeed, workplace learning has been one of the hardest-hit business activities throughout the pandemic, with roughly one-half of in-person programs cancelled or postponed in North America.

HR managers must now take the time to reassess the skills that staff need to thrive in the changing job market, and redouble their investment in human capital.

It is encouraging to note that in the aftermath of the pandemic, companies have become more enthusiastic when it comes to embracing new technology. Significantly, recent research from Fountech.ai found that 54 per cent of UK businesses have become more open to adopting tech to bolster their operations since the onset of the pandemic. Meanwhile, a further 45 per cent state that their business is planning to implement one or more technologies utilising artificial intelligence (AI) in the next 12 months.

As they do, I would urge HR strategists to put person-centred tech at the heart of their plans. As the current trends for digital transformation err towards collaboration and connectivity, this is likely to remain a key focus in the months and years to come. Consequently, business leaders would do well to reconsider how well their software fits the needs of their employees, and whether they could stand to invest in newer, more appropriate offerings going forward.

Data analytics, too, can be a source of great insight to HR departments looking to personalise their learning and development plans. HR managers can assess employee performance and potential areas for improvement by conducting virtual assessments, or offering online courses, for example. In this way, they will be able to glean a greater awareness as to how staff are coping with any changes to their role, and where improvements can be made.

A hidden benefit of increased digitisation is the underlying power of technology to democratise access to high-quality and personalised learning. This is particularly important given the variation in skill investment that we can expect within, and between, businesses.

The Social Mobility Commission’s 2019 Adult Skills Gap report notes that larger companies with better developed HR strategies generally prioritise better qualified workers in senior positions for skills investment. It highlights that almost twice as many people in managerial, professional and associate professional occupations have access to training (30 per cent), compared with those in intermediate (16 per cent) or routine and manual occupations (18 per cent).

It is clear that many employees are still losing out on valuable learning experiences, and we must work harder to bridge this divide. Not only must businesses ensure that access to reskilling and upskilling opportunities is universal, but it is also important to ensure that the right tools are being leveraged to effectively deliver training in these areas.

The rise of online resources has made it easier and cheaper to enable access to effective resources, with programmes and courses available to develop proficiencies ranging from computer programming to successful negotiation practices. Companies ought to bear this in mind as they determine which resources might be best placed to support staff at different levels, of diverse skillsets, and with varying career aspirations.

As automation gradually becomes a larger presence in the workforce, taking on the more resource-intensive and repetitive tasks, this will naturally have a knock-on effect on the skills required from workers. Although conventional wisdom would have it that hard technical skills will always be in demand, as technology progresses businesses will also increasingly be looking to individuals to develop qualities such as their leadership and critical thinking acumen – in essence, characteristics that a machine cannot master.

To do so, organisations should conduct a skills audit to determine which qualities their employees need and want to enhance going forward. The next step would then be to invest in the technology to make this happen –virtual reality software, high-end moderated online classes, and even natural language processing bots that can conduct Q&A sessions with employees will be fertile ground.

As we move forward into a new workplace environment, HR practitioners must stress-test their strategies in line with the demand for the skills of the future. Ultimately, this will mean investing in the right digital solutions, and looking to upskill employees on a much broader level. Positively, the coronavirus pandemic has presented the perfect opportunity to make this a reality.

Nikolas Kairinos is chief executive officer and founder of Soffos and founder of think tank Fountech.ai.

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