We’ve all faced enormous challenges over the course of this year. The world is still in the midst of a pandemic. Various global economies have entered recessions. Entire industries have stalled. Workplaces changed completely – perhaps forever – as employees adapted to remote and hybrid working, practically overnight.

These are disruptive changes that we’ve all felt no matter our job title or industry and as a result, the UK’s skills gap is widening. In 2020, British businesses spent a record £6.6 billion on plugging the nation’s skills gap, up £2.2 billion from 2019. But with change and disruption comes opportunity: the world is undergoing a fundamental workforce evolution. It’s not simply in how we adapt to new fluid and hybrid workstyles; it’s also in how we regard work and its significance on a personal level.

HP’s Workforce Evolution Study – which surveyed over 6,000 office workers across various industries from UK, US, France, Germany, Spain and Italy – reveals the majority of office workers are eager to use this disruption to take control of their careers, with a renewed emphasis on reskilling. In the UK, 60 per cent agreed that learning new skills is essential to remaining competitive in their industry – with 35 per cent looking to boost their tech knowledge and 31 per cent honing leadership skills. We’re putting reskilling at the heart of our strategy, but what is an employee to do if they don’t feel supported by their employer? And how can we, as leaders within the technology industry, build a more cohesive and productive work culture that allows employees to understand the challenges they face, communicate those challenges, and then acquire the resources and skills necessary to overcome them. There is never going to be a right or wrong answer, however from my experience, here is what I believe can be done to ensure an employee’s growth is supported and businesses are proactively helping to close the skills gap.

Identifying the need for reskilling

Firstly, upskilling should be continuous and for everyone no matter the job. It is important for employers, however, to continually identify the need for reskilling and to encourage the emerging class of empowered employees to continue building new skills – both hard and soft. Companies that don’t prioritise these efforts could face considerable short and long-term risks, particularly when it comes to employee retention and unlocking growth.

The events of last year proved that rapid change can occur unexpectedly, emphasising the need for business leaders to future-proof their companies. As we aim to rebuild workforces, somewhat impacted by the pandemic, it’s beneficial for businesses to take a people-first approach and recognise the benefits of reskilling or upskilling their staff, both for the business and the individual employee.

In the past year, many companies have experienced a drop in sales in areas that were once very prosperous for their business, and so amply staffed. However, they’ve also likely seen a growth in a different, potentially unexpected area, where they were not as well resourced. So, they’re left with an unevenly resourced, and skilled, workforce. This surplus in staff can and should be re-skilled in the growing function until things return to normal, or perhaps permanently as businesses reshape themselves for the future, reducing the need for redundancies and external hires, whilst showing that you value your current employees.

Furthermore, as businesses begin to rebuild structures, efforts may turn to completely new areas such as technology, which are now considered imperative to securing long-term growth. These might be untapped areas of interest for your current workforce. If budgets remain tight, it may be impractical to hire externally to fulfil the gaps, but your existing workforce could not only be perfectly capable of rising to something new but demonstrate the desire to learn. Reskilling current workforces in new areas allows leaders the chance to retain talent within the business, whilst employees feel they are growing and progressing in their careers.

The pandemic has highlighted the need to help employees maintain physical, social, and temporary boundaries as they navigate this new normal and heightened level of work-life fluidity. Business leaders should ensure their employees are equipped with the physical tools and the mental space to recognise and address challenges on their own. Then, collectively, we should consider reorienting our long-held social constructs around work – such as the ‘ideal worker’ or ‘always on’ mentality – that could unintentionally contribute to burnout and decreased productivity. In addition to the short to home-working, many people are currently navigating the challenge of integrating childcare or elder-care responsibilities during regular work hours. What does this mean in terms of reskilling? I would suggest that it means that helping employees to train in soft skills is just as vital as technical skills.

How employers can meet this moment

Having identified the need for reskilling, now comes the challenge of putting it into practice. And what a challenge it is. Employee training and coaching methods have been going through their own transformation in recent years. Some businesses continue to ignore this, making the mistake of investing millions into traditional training programmes that are too often outdated and quickly forgotten. Such training methods can be ineffective and poorly designed, and more importantly, fail to lead the way for employees to apply the lessons learnt into real-world activities. If so, these methods fail to make a difference, having ignored the principles of human learning. According to the ‘Forgetting Curve’ theory developed by 19th century psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, humans ‘forget’ 50 per cent of the information presented to them within an hour, and 70 per cent within 24 hours.

Online quizzes have sustained and entertained many teams during the past year, but effective valuable training involves presenting employees with relevant, timely information that will enable them to drive new behaviours and boost productivity. It is important for business leaders to understand the core principles of learning something new, including having a structured training schedule that will fit into employees’ workflow and providing the support and encouragement employees will need in order to have the confidence to implement their new skills into their day-to-day.

Today, training is often successful if less classroom-based and more self-led. The digital transformation and last year’s accelerated shift to hybrid working presents employers with an opportunity to do things differently. For example, we encourage our employees to take a self-led approach and use ‘Brain Candy’, a digital self-learning platform that enables people to create their own learning paths based on where they want their career to go. Employees can engage with a wide range of resources including TED Talks, articles and book recommendations which will help them build the soft and hard skills needed for their job (or the job they want). In this method, employees are not limited to resources only relating to their role, and in fact are encouraged to reach out of their comfort zone, resulting in a naturally evolving, organic approach to training. People on the same learning paths share the latest material so Brain Candy stays fresh and relevant.

A one-size-fits all approach to training is not effective in today’s workforce. Training systems should be personalised and businesses should encourage employees to do what’s right for them, to go at their own pace and recognise that everyone will have a different timeline depending on their career.

Above all, upskilling should be embedded into a company’s values and viewed as part of a business’ overall growth-mindset, so employees are encouraged and provided with the appropriate resources to think ‘How can I do this better? How can I continue to improve every day?’. Not only will they build upon the skills required for their individual role, but employees can also be inspired to add another skillset, outside of their remit. There is always scope for everyone to do that little bit more as both roles and individuals evolve and for sure, nothing stands still.

What we need to know now

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a rapid digital transformation, creating a need for everything to be connected overnight. Digital has driven the world through the pandemic, and it is here to stay. It is therefore important for everyone to have digital awareness in their skillset and to understand what digital means for them, regardless of their age and job role. Supporting reskilling also means establishing effective channels for digital communication, so employees can stay connected and learn from one another.

Even before the crisis, 87 per cent of executives said they noticed skill gaps in their workforce, which reinforces the need for technical reskilling. The study found that half of UK employees are currently learning new skills such as IT and tech support, team management or digital literacy – all on their own. There is no better time for employers to give these efforts a boost. In today’s workforce, all employees should strive to have at least basic digital training.

Time management is another skill that has proven its worth. With the shift to remote working, time management has become a crucial part of an employee’s day-to-day schedule, as they seek to build effective and productive routines within their new hybrid work environments. It’s become clear that employees respond better when time management is taught as a skill rather than a rigid structure imposed on employees, or you run the risk of frustration and even burnout. A company that helps businesses optimise their calendars and time, found a significant increase in “fragmented time” the short 15- to 30-minute windows between meetings, due to remote work. Employers could encourage employees to use their fragmented time for mental breaks or to take care of personal tasks. Disconnecting from work is crucial not only for well-being but also for helping your employees stay engaged and interested in the work they do.

At a base level, if employees do not have the company support, bandwidth nor mental fortitude to complete their day-to-day tasks, it will be that much more challenging for them to achieve longer-term goals, like technical reskilling. The aforementioned HP Workforce Evolution Study found that office workers around the UK are longing to learn new types of soft and social skills – more than half expect their bosses to provide resources on how to perform their jobs and communicate with their coworkers while working remotely. However, 26 per cent of UK respondents had not received any training or guidance from their employers to assist with the transition to the new way of working.

The challenges we face are immense, but we should recognise the strides workers have made toward reskilling themselves to meet those challenges. They can’t do it alone. Working together, we can ensure they are able to reskill successfully and remain a vital part of the agile workforce – in the face of this crisis or whatever challenge comes next.