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Research Review: COVID-19 and the Challenge of Digital Work

As children, we all wondered what life in the digital future would entail. Media like The Jetsons, Back to the Future, and Star Trek made some pretty big promises, but we’ve been let down in more than a few areas. Yet, in recent years, corporate training and the learning technology that supports it has reached warp speed. Furthermore, the nature of work itself has seen rapid, fundamental changes in a short few months due to COVID-19.

In some cases, those changes may amount to “progress”, but many of the business transformations accelerated by sudden changes to business operations are far from a leap forward. Within months, many across the world have adjusted to distance and digital learning– ready or not. And, for many industries, it was the “not” that truly left them hurting.

So, now what?

Evaluating a Work-from-home Standard

Use your training budget to make skill building a key strategic lever for adapting to the next normal.

A recent Brandon Hall Group Career Development Study indicates that the future of training is now, regardless of readiness or willingness to accept it. Strikingly, more than 75% of organizations say at least half their employees are working remotely; which climbs to more than 80% for businesses with more than 5,000 employees. Moreover, the percentage of organizations with at least half of their employees working from home will be more than twice as much as before the pandemic. Though there is quite a bit of contention on the effect of working from home on productivity, an experiment published in Harvards Quarterly Journal of Economics found that employees were 12-22% more productive while working from home.

In other words, our “new normal” has overwhelmingly pivoted the way Americans work, and this has left industry grappling to keep up without falling even more behind. Surprisingly, organizations are most acutely focusing on talent acquisition (sourcing, interviewing, onboarding), which has historically been ranked as less important. This is because, as the pandemic continues, organizations are beginning to anticipate longer-term needs. Moreover, some roles have suddenly become obsolete, which calls for a complete overhaul in terms of skills and organizational structure.

Employee Development in the Age of Digital Learning

More than 75% of organizations say at least half their employees are working remotely.

A business transformation involving entire departments, function, or roles will inevitably require extensive cross-training and reskilling; which is problematic when organizations can’t rely on traditional instructor-led training. During the 2008 financial crisis, training was forced to the back burner in many industries, but time proved that to be short-sighted. Ideally, that mistake is something organizations can learn from this time around. Research from McKinsey has since shown that “if companies cut their learning budgets now, they’re only delaying their investment, not netting a saving—especially since the current crisis will require a larger skill shift than the 2008 financial crisis did.” Now is hardly the time to skimp on training, as the very jobs themselves are changing so rapidly in definition and scope. As Agrawal from McKinsey aptly explained:

Use your training budget to make skill building a key strategic lever for adapting to the next normal. Don’t waste two to three years and forego the efficiency and resilience you could develop now. What you can and should do is focus on the resilience of your learning ecosystem: make it both more digital (including in-sync digital components to replace in-person ones) and more accessible to your employees. Finally, leverage the ready-made learning journeys and objects of external partners.

What kind of training? We are only beginning to grapple with the enormity of it. Gena Cox, PhD noted that employee support will need to come in three major categories:

  • Personal support—related to the safety and well-being of employees, among other things
  • Job support—related to the nature of the work itself, work location, pay, supervision/management, work teams, etc.
  • Strategic alignment—related to the clarity of business direction, change management, customer focus, etc.

How to Move Forward with Digital Work

The operation changes we’ve seen as a result of COVID-19 likely won’t go away any time soon. Brandon Hall’s recent study noted that “Overall, 76% of organizations say use of digital learning will remain stable as the pandemic eases; only 11% say live ILT will return to pre-pandemic levels.” Training your critical workforce for their new roles, responsibilities, and way-of-work life has never been more crucial. Even seasoned employees in may need onboarding to perform a job they’ve done their whole careers — even if their exact role may not have changed. COVID-19 has uncovered a need for business skills most didn’t even imagine would be necessary, and it has forced that need to the forefront of corporate training overnight.