preparing for a post-Brexit workforce

For some, Brexit is the spring of hope; for others the winter of despair. For most of us, however, it’s the season of uncertainty. No-one really knows how Brexit will play out, or even if it will happen at all. Our inability to predict the course of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU leaves business in an invidious position, unable to plan ahead for the strategic challenges that they will face in each possible eventuality.

Earlier this month a member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, Jonathan Haskel, warned that this uncertainty would hit business investment “for years”. But while most Brexit jeremiads tend to focus on the direct financial costs, we believe that there is a much more urgent and, potentially, far-reaching consequence for businesses: their human capital.

One of the red lines that has caused to much friction in the Brexit negotiations is the EU’s principle of the free movement of people. It’s now clear that any Brexit settlement will vastly complicate businesses’ ability to recruit from EU member states – a huge pool of skills and talent that we’ll quickly have to learn how to live without. So, how can businesses prepare for a post-Brexit workforce?

Tackling the skills crisis

Talent is perhaps the key challenge of the next decade for British businesses in every sector. Every advanced economy around the world faces the same crisis, with the rapid adoption of new technologies demanding a commensurate increase in advanced technical skills. If there is – as some argue – a “Brexit dividend”, enterprises will be unable to seize the opportunity if they don’t have the talent to implement digital transformation projects and compete with other businesses on the world stage. This isn’t a problem looming on the horizon, or one that’s dependent on the final Brexit outcome; it’s here and now. Organisations have long been painfully aware of the skills deficit they face – or ought to be. Some pre-Brexit studies suggested that as many as 43 per cent of technical applicants lack the necessary skills for the positions to which they are applying, figures which are matched in the public sector. Businesses cannot blame Brexit for their failure to tackle the skills crisis. Every month of “wait and see” sees businesses fall further behind their international competitors. They need to tackle this challenge head on, without waiting to see what sort of deal Britain can extract from its former partners in Europe.

Learning that’s fit for the future

That’s why every forward-looking organisation should be investing in training and education. Many businesses will claim that they’re already doing this, but the truth is that these programmes are rarely fit for the modern world. Technology is evolving with such bewildering speed that traditional training courses rapidly become outdated. Moreover, traditional ways of “linear” workplace education, which require employees to sit through a series of formal sessions or to complete training modules, do not fit the expectations of younger workers. There is a need to place adaptability or continuous learning at the core of the workplace of the future – to keep pace with technological change and business disruption. Learning needs to be tailored to each individual and delivered in the way that each worker finds most effective and convenient. This is often misunderstood to mean that training must be delivered via different media, such as online and mobile. While this should be part of modern training regime, far more important is that learning is delivered at the point of need. This “performance-adjacent” learning focuses on providing employees with access to the exact information or guidance that they need in any given situation – for example, by embedding training modules (and reminders) within the software applications that they use in their day-to-day work.

Investing in employees

Another common mistake is to see training merely as a means to improve existing employees’ skillsets. Important as that is, businesses that adopt effective, continuous training programmes make themselves much more desirable for candidates – especially Millennials and Generation Z – who expect their employers to provide ample opportunities for personal development and education. When it comes to talent, it’s very much a seller’s market, with demand for intelligent, capable and ambitious employees far outstripping supply. Providing meaningful and relevant training is one of the best ways of enhancing the employer brand, and making your company stand out from the competition.

AI – an opportunity, not a threat

If you believe the headlines about AI replacing workers, you might think that investing in training is a waste of money. In reality automation, AI and machine learning are driving demand for a new type of worker – one who is less concerned with repetitive, manual tasks and instead combines the creativity and strategic thinking to make the most of these new technologies. A recent report from McKinsey estimates that fewer than 5 per cent of occupations can be entirely automated using current technology. The challenge for businesses is to work out where AI and automation can add the most value to employees’ activities. For the foreseeable future, these technologies will actually augment humans rather than replace them, enabling employers to create more exciting, involving and rewarding roles for their workers.

The same technologies can be used to improve workplace training by personalising learning experiences, delivering real-time feedback, and monitoring how well an employee is using their newly-learned skills to establish the training’s effectiveness.

In such turbulent times, businesses need the wisdom to differentiate between the things they cannot change, and those they can. Forget Brexit: the best thing that any company can do today is to invest in its workforce, and ensure that they provide training that is fit for the future – whatever that future holds.


Interested in developing sustainable workforces? We recommend the Talent Management and Leadership Development Summit 2019.