The media has been buzzing with reports of the ‘Great Resignation.’ COVID-19 has certainly changed the way many Americans think about work. Another consequence of the pandemic has been a seismic shift in how we think about workplace learning. This was the subject of a fascinating discussion of a new report The New Landscape of Workplace Learning: Employers and Workers Managing the Digital Transition, co-authored by Rashid Mosley, Tova Sanders, and Sean Gallagher, the executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy.

Tracy Burns, CEO of the Northeast HR Association and two members of our Human Resources Management faculty, Bonnie Bystrek, Chief People Officer of Virtual, Inc., and Carlos Echalar, Chief Human Resources Officer at CDM Smith shared their perspectives on some of the key takeaways in the report.

The competition for talent

“COVID-19 has accelerated the digital transformation of working and learning and amplified the war for talent. Talent development and talent acquisition are top priorities as organizations respond to growth demands.”

Sean Gallagher: Our interviews overwhelmingly suggested that talent-related issues are at the top of employers’ strategic agendas – a theme consistent with the quantitative insights emerging from sources such as Deloitte’s recent 2021 CEO priorities survey. What are you experiencing in your organization?

Bonnie Bystrek: The phrase ‘a war for talent’ really spoke to me! A couple of years ago if we posted a job, we would get hundreds of applications, but now there are far fewer applicants for positions at all levels. The shift to remote work has both positives and negatives from a talent acquisition perspective. The positive is that we are able to recruit talent wherever they happen to live; the flipside is that we’re competing for talent with companies based outside the Boston area.

Investing in skill development

“As a result of the competitive talent market and the urgent need for up-skilling, investments in employee learning appear to be growing – reversing the trend from prior to the pandemic. In many cases the pendulum has swung back toward emphasizing “building” as much as buying talent. Learning investments are now seen as a key competitive differentiator and vehicle for employee engagement and retention.”

Rashid Mosley: We found in our research that organizations are really thinking about how investment in employee learning is now seen as a key competitive differentiator. And for many employees, the expectation is that their employer will invest in their career growth.

Carlos Echalar: We’ve certainly found ourselves in a dynamic environment! My organization decided that training was not going to be a victim of pandemic-triggered cost cutting. Instead, we decided to double down on our commitment to workplace learning. In the hiring process, we talk about our learning development programs and that we hire for careers not jobs. That message resonates in the competition for talent.

Bonnie Bystrek: I agree. The whole employee development piece has become central to our thinking. We’re exploring a wide range of options to deliver skill training, including experiential learning. We giving employees stretch assignments where they can apply new knowledge or skills.

Emphasizing both soft skills and digital capabilities

“Leadership development/soft skills and digital capabilities are very often the top learning investment and content priorities across all levels of organizations.”

Tracy Burns: The pandemic — and all its consequences for the way we work — has underlined the importance of what used to be called soft skills. Things like executive presence, understanding how to navigate organizational politics and build internal coalitions – skills which require face-to-face interaction. I worry about how we will prepare the next generation of leaders in a remote work environment.

Carlos Echalar: In designing our training programs, we think not only about hard skills required to be a great leader, but also the importance of emotional intelligence. At the same time, we recognize the impact of digital transformation on workplace learning. The skill sets that were written into job descriptions in 2018 are now 28% irrelevant. How do you start thinking about what you need for today and what you’ll need for tomorrow? Skill development relating, for example, to artificial intelligence and digital analytics. Clients are also getting savvier, they now expect employees to be versed in these digital literacies.

Tracy Burns: One of the things that comes to mind as I’m listening to this conversation relates to the many employees who are not tech savvy. What about them? Who is going to be left behind in this digital transformation and what will be the impact on them? How can workplace learning address these challenges?

The shift to online learning and its impact on employee engagement

“Like work itself, a significant share of workplace learning has shifted online, accelerating a trend that was decades in the making. Experiments with digital learning are revealing an opportunity to broaden workforce learning participation, and for greater cost efficiency.”

Sean Gallagher: In our interviews with HR leaders, it was interesting to hear more of an openness to online training, but also concern about whether this sort of training would really engage employees.

Carlos Echalar: Engagement is certainly a challenge! We’ve created communities of practice to make employees feel more involved in the learning process. It takes time, but people are getting into learning, they are beginning to understand that it’s a different world and they need new skills.

Bonnie Bystrek: For a professional services organization where employees are billable, that makes it a lot more challenging for people to allocate time for learning development and training. You have to be creative and flexible and look at development in different buckets. It’s not all face-t-face classroom learning and it’s not all virtual. It has to be a blend that is both convenient and impactful.

Carlos Echalar: Employees recognize that they need to invest in themselves. To move to the next project or job, they need new skillsets. With managers helping to guide and facilitate the learning, and the company providing the tools, we’ve seen an increasing level of employee engagement.

To access The New Landscape of Workplace Learning: Employers and Workers Managing the Digital Transition, visit the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy website – click here.

Posted by Carl Zangerl, Faculty