The Coronavirus Pandemic Forces Dramatic Shift in Approach to Workforce Training

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Jun 11, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

Almost overnight, the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the nation dramatically changed the business world – forcing most employees to work from home, or requiring major modifications in order to remain open and serve basic needs.

This upheaval exposed significant weaknesses at many organizations, as they lacked the technology and systems to keep their workforces up-to-speed on the latest processes, procedures, and best practices. As they scrambled to adapt, keep their business operating and workers employed, a serious debate began to emerge. Should regular training continue, or should all focus be on ensuring that the business stays afloat during such an unprecedented time?

Training shouldn’t be an “either, or” decision. Those organizations adapting best to the “new norm” share one common attribute: They never stop training their workforces.

It’s all in the corporate mindset. These organizations do not consider learning as a one-time event that they need to complete, so working hours aren’t continually interrupted. Instead, they take a different approach, using learning on the job, in the moment, and in the flow of work to ensure optimal performance and excellent customer service. And they invest in technology that enables them to communicate with employees and provide the resources they need, no matter where they are located – in the field, on the frontlines, or working from home.

Traditional, classroom-based, in-person, and paper-based training methods simply don’t work in a fast-paced world in which we now live. These organizations are proving that their employees – and their customers – can benefit greatly from strategies that support learning journeys and continual learning that connect to clear business outcomes. In today’s constantly changing environment, organizations should not put a halt to capability-building initiatives designed to close critical skill gaps and reinvent business models.

The needs of a deskless workforce

As many employees transitioned from the corporate office to work-at-home and work-from-anywhere as a result of the coronavirus, organizations find themselves contending with a larger deskless workforce. And those without desk jobs either find themselves busier than ever because their work is essential, or they have excess downtime since their jobs cannot be done at home.

Essential workers – such as those in healthcare, manufacturing, utilities, biotech and pharmaceuticals, grocery stores, pharmacies, delivery services, and takeout restaurants – are still interacting with the public, and need to learn how to manage the risk of contracting or spreading the virus. It’s imperative that human resources teams provide these individuals with mission-critical information, including how to safeguard their health and that of their customers. Underscoring these efforts is public perception. Three-quarters of Americans say that businesses are responsible for protecting employees from the virus in the workplace and limiting the spread in the community.

Healthcare workers, in particular, need timely and specialized training to apply emerging best practices and new knowledge about the disease as they fight coronavirus.  Pharmaceutical companies and labs like Abbott are rapidly shifting focus and resources to develop and produce COVID-19 test kits, treatments, and, ultimately, vaccines to prevent coronavirus. Even manufacturers are being impacted, with companies like 3M, Honeywell, GE, GM, and U.S. Cotton stepping up to retool production lines and operations to build desperately needed items, such as ventilators, masks, plexiglass shields and swabs for test kits. All of these workforces rely on up-to-the-minute training that isn’t possible with traditional classes or paper binders, given the speed with which things are changing and the necessity to limit travel and in-person contact.

Workers whose jobs require them to be physically onsite – such as in retail, hospitality, and transportation – are on the other end of the spectrum. The pause in work has given their organizations a rare opportunity of time to provide learning to build critical new workforce skills without interrupting their regular job duties. By investing in upskilling and reskilling to develop skill sets that will be required in adjusted business models, organizations can help create a sense of purpose and security for employees, while they are at home. Additionally, learning opportunities that are tailored for each critical role during this downtime can demonstrate a caring attitude toward employees by enhancing their personal and professional development.

When employees are remote and dispersed, traditional methods of training, continuous learning, and communication won’t work. For example, if workers don’t have corporate email addresses, how can you send out information and ensure that important messages have been read? Or how can you create and edit new learning content as fast as necessary, so everyone remains informed and safe during rapidly evolving situations when you usually use large paper-based guides? And how can you deliver new training when you have always relied on instructor-led, in-person classroom training?

Creating a modern learning environment

The answers to these questions require a modern learning environment that leverages tools every employee is accustomed to using: mobile devices and digital content. No doubt every employee has a mobile device – such as a smartphone or a tablet – and they’re comfortable using them to search for information, read articles and stay informed with breaking news and instant communications, anytime, anywhere.

These tools offer organizations a fast, simple, and powerful way to deliver real-time information and mission-critical content directly to the right people, at the right time, without delay.

An effective, modern learning environment will:

  • Leverage mobile-first communications apps – Apps can be used to support on-demand learning at any time. Employees are put in the driver’s seat to learn new skills, or for those at home, to do training at their convenience, such as free time when meetings, homeschooling, or child care don’t take precedence. Leadership can communicate effectively with apps, which makes it easy to see real-time notices and respond. And apps enable HR and subject-matter experts to provide new content and updates to existing content immediately to ensure tasks are done correctly, even in fast-evolving situations.
  • Provide an organized structure for frontline workers – By putting all information in a single place, employees can easily discover answers to questions, do training in the flow of work, and see the latest updates. They will no longer have to search for content trapped in massive paper binders, PDFs, PowerPoint, or SharePoint document libraries. Instead, employees can quickly search for topics and easily find what they need. These capabilities give employees greater job satisfaction since they can ensure that they’re taking all safety precautions and helping customers in a timely manner.
  • Support feedback to help shape decision making – Communication is more important than ever, so modern learning solutions should support two-way communications that allow employees to be heard, ask questions, and learn at the appropriate pace. Usage metrics and content ratings and feedback offer insights into employee engagement, as well as what learning content is most effective and delivers the best business outcomes. Armed with this data, along with content recommendations, learning leaders can optimize learning content for their teams, and add interactive training and new content types to their training portfolios designed to enhance engagement and business impact.

The future of training

Several organizations are setting the foundation for the future of training by using mobile-first, modern learning apps to help their employees and customers during the pandemic. One national convenience store chain created a “Coronavirus Collection,” which makes available all quick reference guides around topics such as “handwashing basics” and best practices for COVID-19 customer interactions. Similarly, a multinational supermarket chain is using real-time notices to alert all employees about operational changes relative to the coronavirus. The chain also follows up with daily updates to keep store managers informed on policy changes and developments related to enhanced daily cleanliness and sanitation protocols across all stores and facilities, crowd control measures that limit the capacity of customers based on store size, and installed spacing guidelines for lines throughout the stores.

Many restaurant chains, which have had to suspend in-store dining, are quickly shifting business models and training their employees to operate “touchless” takeout, curbside pickup, “no contact” delivery operations and implementing new ways of ordering, such as enabling customers to more easily place larger “family size” orders for larger groups.

If “necessity is the mother of all invention,” the COVID-19 pandemic no doubt will accelerate massive digital transformation and adoption of modern tools. These digital solutions are mission-critical for businesses as they adapt in a crisis and pivot to survive since adjustments can mean the difference between staying open and ensuring employees keep their jobs, or having to close the business for good. These tools also will continue to pay off long into the future by giving organizations an opportunity to transform themselves and their operations and reskill and upskill workers to come out of the crisis stronger than before.

Providing your workforce with the information and training they need, on the job and within the flow of work ensures that they are better prepared to address customers’ needs and deliver a consistent experience. A higher quality level of service is more important than ever, as it is a reflection of your brand and how it responds to crisis. These efforts can put customers at ease, ensuring loyalty, and repeat business.

Modern learning solutions also provide an opportunity to achieve a culture of transparency, built on a foundation of real-time communications that inspire employee trust and loyalty, and shows that an organization is interested in investing in both professional and personal development.

The new normal resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing a sea change in how organizations approach training. Successful businesses will pivot, putting a greater focus on continual learning, supported by investments in remote, on-demand digital tools for the modern workforce.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.