Though much remains uncertain as we emerge from the pandemic, one thing is clear: The hybrid work model is here to stay. Our executive poll shows that next to zero businesses are fully going back to in-person work or fully staying remote, which means the vast majority will end up somewhere in between.
We know this is a daunting shift. Hybrid work won’t only transform your organization’s talent strategy, employee experience, and management styles, but comes with adoption of new technologies and a spotlight on the ever-widening skills gap. Yet despite these challenges, hybrid work also presents new opportunities—and with the right tools, frameworks, and support, organizations can seize them. A focus on upskilling your organization’s workforce can help you successfully adapt to the new, hybrid working world.
In what follows, we’ll walk you through the process of upskilling in a hybrid work environment. To aid in this task, we will define upskilling, demonstrate how organizations can apply it in a hybrid model, discuss common challenges and best practices, and examine how approaches differ among varying employee groups.
In our 2019 research, “The Upskilling Crisis,” 56% of companies described their skills gap as moderate to severe before the pandemic upended the way we work. Now, employees and their managers are faced not only with utilizing an increasing number of new systems, technologies, processes and data sources, but doing so in a new working culture.
It’s more important than ever that employees think independently and at a higher level, enabling them to reorient their focus around more strategic tasks, to make choices that boost output and productivity, and ultimately to drive revenue growth through improved experiences. This, in a nutshell, is where upskilling comes in.
But what do we mean by upskilling? How does it differ from skilling and reskilling? A quick primer:
When someone joins a company or enters a new role, they often lack fundamental knowledge, understanding, or specific skills. Skilling approaches are aimed at helping people become proficient with a competency or set of competencies. This might entail, for example, a newly hired manufacturing worker learning how to operate specialized equipment on the factory floor, or a new professional services worker learn the company’s time management system.
In a hybrid environment, skilling may occur in-person or virtually. In either case, ensure people have the opportunity to ask questions live, ideally during the first time they’re practicing the new skill.
In today’s fast-paced business environment, processes, tools, technologies, and operations frequently change. When this happens, an organization’s workforce needs to become proficient in the new ways of working. Reskilling aims to maintain proficiency as the business changes. For example, when a bank adopts a new loan origination system, its employees have to be “reskilled” to use the new system effectively.
In a hybrid work model, you may be reskilling employees both in-person and virtually at the same time. The best results come when their experience is as equal as possible, which may require extra steps like setting up office hours for virtual participants that mimic the one-on-one consultation sessions that often happen organically in person.
Often, companies have an opportunity to create significantly better business results and improved resiliency without changing systems or processes. Upskilling aims to elevate people beyond being adequately proficient at a skill to higher-order performance—where they can think critically about their work, appraise results, and design solutions to problems. The benefit for the business is that upskilled employees provide greater performance, flexibility, and innovation.
In other words, upskilling is not necessarily about adopting a new technology or process change, or even about teaching flexibility, creativity, or innovation skills directly. It is, however, about bringing people to a higher level of skill in the context of their role performance, empowering them to think critically, design new initiatives, optimize processes, and drive additional value.
In a hybrid working model, upskilling is the hardest to accomplish virtually, as it needs more human connection, time, and emotional intelligence than the other types of skilling. Upskilling employees may necessitate purposeful in-person interactions, in both structured and unstructured settings, though learnings can then be applied in either virtual or on-site work.
Organizations tend to run into some common issues as they begin their upskilling journey—all of which can be exacerbated by the shift to hybrid working. Here are some of the pitfalls we see most often and how to solve them:
Too often, organizations start with the skills, attitudes, and knowledge their people need to learn, instead of identifying what business results they want to create and what behaviors are needed to get them there. By using a combination of qualitative and quantitative assessments—from employee and customer surveys to extensive data analysis—we help executives answer these questions first so they can better design, assess, and continuously improve their learning programs.
An IT group, for instance, recently came to us because its managers were struggling to be effective in a remote environment. Together, we helped the group identify the actual business problem, which was a lack of engagement and productivity among the company’s IT workforce. We helped them realize the skills these managers were missing, namely more effective coaching and leadership.
To do this, we spent time with the company’s leaders to define their vision for improved employee engagement and productivity, assessing the current and future state of the team, and collecting information from employees about what qualities they’d like to see in a manager. From there, we helped prioritize various aspects of upskilling the managers that led to better employee engagement, identifying available learning programs and ensuring that the upskilling program went as planned.
Business leaders often get caught up investing in tools rather than the people who need to use them. For instance, our 2019 upskilling survey found that employee adoption is the biggest roadblock to implementing new employee enablement technologies – and yet 84 percent of respondents said they sometimes or never redesign the employee journey before onboarding new technology.
A human-centric design approach laying out specific employee and customer experiences can help shed light on the process of upskilling.
This is particularly important given the ways in which these experiences will continually change in adapting to hybrid work, and how the pandemic has exacerbated gaps in expectations between leadership and their teams.
This was the case for a healthcare provider’s revenue cycle management function. While shifting to a remote working environment was made possible by the organization’s technology capabilities, the biggest barrier to success had been the lack of trust: Managers lacked confidence that their teams could be as productive without in-person oversight. To be effective in this new way of working, their managers had to upskill to find new ways of engaging and understanding their employees’ productivity; their employees, meanwhile, had to upskill by becoming more self-reliant and independent.
The traditional and most commonly available training and workforce development approaches are focused on helping companies maintain an adequate level of proficiency. This entails a lot of memorization, one-off (or annual) training sessions, and, consequently, time spent on tasks that don’t necessarily add value.
By contrast, upskilling requires using new, experiential approaches for developing people – moving beyond basic knowledge to cultivate a workforce that can approach situations analytically, evaluate different approaches, and even create new ones based on their wisdom and experience.
Rather than spoon-feeding employees with rote training programs, effective upskilling creates a continuous learning loop by providing actionable knowledge such as structured practice, such as scenario-based learning and problem solving, and persistent refinement, such as coaching, self-evaluation, ongoing assessments and feedback. The shift to a hybrid environment—where there will be less in-person training, heightened uncertainty, and fatigue with virtual programming—underscores the need for such resilient learning practices.
Ultimately, it’s these practices that can empower business leaders to upskill their people in a hybrid environment. A customer care center we worked with, for instance, consistently observed long, inefficient, and unengaged calls with customers. Rather than being present with customers’ issues, agents were preoccupied with remembering how to handle various matters or sifting through complex reference materials.
To fix it, we worked with the client to pilot a new learning approach that gave their agents actionable knowledge accessible in real time—in office or at home—eliminating the need for memorization. This freed their attention so that they could be focused and present with the customers – and paved the way for an estimated $5M in savings due to reductions in handle time, repeat calls, and training time.
Overall training expenditures have been dropping since 2017. Leaders are often hesitant to spend on such programs, which tend to be perceived as being costly to build, maintain, and measure. However, it costs an average of 3.5x more hire a new employee compared to upskilling an existing one.
By its very nature, upskilling is role- and level-specific, which means approaches differ among employee groups. To demonstrate these differences, we offer examples of various approaches and compare upskilling needs and challenges for three different groups.
The need: Learning to problem-solve. Front-office workers need to access information quickly and comfortably to deliver a superior customer experience. If they’re too busy remembering information or steps, they won’t be present in connecting with customers to problem-solve, especially if they’re toggling between in-person and digital experiences. Back-office workers also need to understand how their often repetitive tasks fit into the overall process and goals of the business, including how to operate across siloes. In a hybrid work setting, the goal is to keep self-motivation and resourcefulness high while minimizing mistakes.
The answer: Scenario-based learning programs. Rather than relying on detailed reference guides, these workers benefit from interactive trainings focused on problem-solving. Rather than giving them the information, it’s about giving the tools to find the information. Identify several problems for them to solve—individually or as a group—and 9 times out of 10 they’ll figure out how to use the tools better than if you showed them a step-by-step process. This type of upskilling helps process-oriented workers lead to problem-solving fluidly in the moment, both on their own and across siloes, which is paramount in a hybrid model that still has many “unknowns.”
The need: Helping others learn by leading, not doing. Mid-level managers need to transition from effective doers—which was likely what got them promoted in the first place—to effective people managers. Executives, on the other hand, need to support these managers in this transition. Both groups require an upskilling approach that prioritizes learning over training—where, as leaders, they can serve as an employee’s sounding board and coach. The need for empathy and vulnerability at this level is extremely important, especially in moments where everyone is facing “crisis fatigue.”
The answer: Resilient learning techniques. For employees looking to become people managers, training approaches are often ineffective. Rather than prescriptive lessons, they need to learn through on-the-spot coaching and continuous feedback from above and below them. Most importantly, they need time to make the switch from doer to manager, or manager to executive. Leaders need to be willing to hear feedback from others and model a vulnerability in responding to that feedback.
The need: Evolving skills with technology advancements. If they’re going to avoid their expertise becoming outdated or surpassed, knowledge workers must see learning as an ongoing practice. Similarly, skilled workers must reskill and upskill to keep up on new technologies: In 2019, 60% of such employees believed to some extent that their current skill set would become outdated in the next 3-5 years.
The answer: Give time for training—and application of it. Organizations need to give these workers the time and space to actually learn new skills, which means protecting time for knowledge workers to learn and giving them the workspaces and resources to try out new ideas and skills. Skilled workers must understand the “why” in upskilling: Why will it make my life easier? My job better? My work more productive? Will it increase my longevity as routine work becomes more automated?
Upskilling is not easy for most organizations. With 43% of managers telling us in 2019 they don’t know how to upskill or reskill their employees, this leaves a hefty burden on organizations to apply more wide-scale upskilling through structured programs. Hybrid work adds yet another layer of complexity to this already challenging endeavor. But it also underscores the importance of leveling up your workforce to adapt in changing situations.
To get started, executives can start thinking about the following:
While this list is based on decades of experience in helping organizations navigate change and upskill their talent, we understand it’s a mindset shift that can require significant organizational change. Our advice? Focus on one area of the business to start—for instance, your most underperforming unit or a group that’s really hungry for change. Then scale the effort beyond a pilot, building on your successes.
Now is the time to ensure your organization is approaching upskilling in the right way to drive the business results you need. And lay the groundwork for a vibrant post-pandemic future.