Sharpening employees’ tools on a tight budget

As firms weigh up the benefits of flexible working and employees decide whether to stay remote, there is one thing they both agree on: reskilling must be a priority, discovers Emma Greedy .

In the past year, a quarter (24%) of the UK’s workforce have started learning new skills to guard against coronavirus job uncertainty, according to The Open University. And attempting to aid economic recovery, the UK government has launched the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, a scheme that offers every UK adult access to a flexible loan for higher-level education.

Recurring national lockdowns over the past 12 months have left businesses reeling. While the furlough scheme offered some solace, budgets are under greater scrutiny to protect viability. According to BBC News, pandemic restrictions meant the economy shrunk by 9.9% in 2020, and ONS figures show the increase in the UK’s redundancy rate was faster than during the 2008 to 2009 economic downturn.

COVID-19 has left an indelible mark on the world of work and driven demand among employees for more freedom and flexibility. And, as Martyn Dicker, director of people at UNICEF UK, points out, this means HR must be swift to adapt. He says: “As we quickly re-imagine the future of work, we should plan how to identify and support new learning needs.” 

With remote and hybrid working becoming the norm for many, Dicker thinks HR needs to strengthen its support for remote management, resilience, wellbeing and work-life balance, networking and creative collaboration.

He says protecting, or even growing learning and development budgets will be key to supporting the changing needs of the workplace. 

“It will help to ensure workforces are productive, competent and confident, and that their wellbeing is maintained,” he says. “People professionals will now have to step up and show how creative they can be to support the development needs of the UK’s workforce.”


Be prepared

Lucy Pearce, commercial director at HR consultancy, Advo Group, says the COVID-19 pandemic has shown people that the future is not promised. “Unfortunately, over the past year a lot of employees lost their jobs and quickly found that if they only had a specific skillset for one trade, they weren’t able to find a new role very easily.”

The pandemic has meant the job market is extremely unpredictable and Pearce says people now wish they had acknowledged the importance of regularly learning new skills.

“Employees now want to make sure that they have a robust skillset to protect themselves and their careers,” she says. “Should something like this happen again in the future, no one wants to feel as unprepared as they did during this pandemic.” 

Lucy Becque, chief people officer at Coventry Building Society, says the pandemic forced many businesses to work differently – something which has only been possible through employees embracing new challenges. 

“The past 12 months has ignited the belief that we’re capable of things individually and collectively that we may not have thought possible previously,” she says.

“With fewer limitations, development has become more about what spikes your curiosity or nurtures your ambition.” 

Nurturing this curiosity and ambition can benefit employees by offering new ways of learning, and at a fraction of the price of in-person development, adds Becque.

“HR’s role in fostering employee development in the post-pandemic world centres on constantly communicating what’s available, curating great content and sharing the achievements of those employees who embrace development,” she says. 

Upskilling is now a key part of how HR can support career progression, and to dismiss it would also mean dismissing the wellbeing of staff, argues Pearce.

“Post-pandemic, wellbeing has been moved to the top of HR’s agenda, and if HR teams do not provide employees with the right materials to learn new skills, they’ll be disregarding their workers’ future wellbeing.

Actively giving employees the opportunity to grow their skillset may become one of the most sought-after employee benefits.

“Employers who provide staff with the opportunity to upskill on the job will become a job-seeker’s dream post-pandemic,” she says.

“Going forward, employees will question whether or not an employer can provide them with enough opportunities to learn new skills. The pandemic has meant employees will now think outside of their roles and departments when it comes to upskilling, and employers are going to have to provide this.”


Making the most of resources

Although L&D budgets have tightened, it does not necessarily mean that employers are risking downgrading the skills opportunities offered to staff. In fact, it could be the opposite.

Sabby Gill, chief executive of recruitment company Thomas International, thinks sometimes the best forms of learning are free.
He says: “Upskilling, while a critical part of any development plan, doesn’t have to mean spending thousands on training courses. 

“In fact, it can be as simple as identifying where you have a strong bank of knowledge in departments across the company and developing an insight-sharing programme open to all those who need upskilling and are keen to learn more.”

Gill says dedicated seminars or even informal sessions, such as ‘lunch and learns’, where employees can have one-to-ones with more experienced members of the team, are also an option. He adds: “After the shocking year we’ve all had, what better way to bring teams back together than to have them teach one another new skills that will serve them later on in their career?” 

Ashleigh Otter, vice-president of people and operations at online library service Perlego, agrees with Gill on the cost-effectiveness of internal mentoring.

“There will always be some people within your company that already have the skills that others want to learn, so having those people coach others and train parts of the workforce, lends itself to absolutely everyone,” she says. 

External mentoring is an option too, and though it may seem more costly than internal, Otter suggests partnering with another business to avoid excessive cost.

“We’ve partnered with Like Minded Females (LMF) to have senior female members of our team mentor members of theirs, and vice versa junior female team members are being mentored by seniors at LMF,” she explains. 

Mandy Matthews, HR director at BPP Education Group similarly promotes mentoring and reverse mentoring, secondments, apprenticeship opportunities, buddying and job shadowing within her organisation. Resource sharing is also critical.

She says: “Making regular use of internal resources and subject matter experts in the business to deliver bite-sized learning sessions, is also key to in-house upskilling.” 

L&D teams should be carefully curating learning so that employees can quickly find resources when they need them, she adds. As an example, creating a variety of online curriculums for different job families with a mixture of targeted online learning, TED talks, research papers and relevant activities that can be used to support a training programme or individual development. 

Perlego also advocates this type of resource-sharing and uses a platform called Ocean as a type of internal Wiki to build learning hubs of useful articles, podcasts and videos.

The nature of the pandemic demanded everyone unite and work together to get through lockdowns, the loss of loved ones and the uncertainty of what lay ahead. This may also be how businesses can best upskill the workforce post-pandemic and prepare for what lies ahead.


This piece appears in the May/June 2021 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe now to get all the latest issues delivered to your desk.