Why distance learning holds the key for business survival during Covid-19

19 Jun 2020 By Simon Tindall

Organisations need to bolster their employees’ skills to prepare for future challenges, says Simon Tindall

A recent report from The Open University (OU) found that as many as five million employees expect the pandemic to significantly change the skills required for their job roles.

Covid-19 has indiscriminately transformed industries, organisations and workplaces throughout the UK. For one and all, the disruption has been unparalleled in its significance and for many employers the challenges of managing an exclusively remote workforce have been unimaginable.  

However, while the way in which employers have dealt with these struggles varies from one to the next, the current situation appears to have presented a unique opportunity to all business leaders, regardless of size or sector. 

Driven out of concern for their future employability and the potential depreciation of their value to businesses, the UK has seen a boom in corporate distance learning, with a quarter of employees having taken on additional learning opportunities since lockdown began.

Significantly, this means that employers can harness the agility of adaptable, skills-hungry workforces to prepare their organisations for present and future challenges. So not only can organisations guard against the challenges of the present-day situation, but it means they are able to think longer term, consider how they see their sector evolving as a result of the recent tumult and prepare their employees with the relevant skill sets. 

Firstly then, through training, organisations can provide their employees with the skill sets required to negotiate the challenges posed by lockdown. For instance, employers can enrol their employees on online courses that hasten their progress with digital technologies, which are crucial to working productively while at home. 

Given the stark rise in appetite for professional development, assigning employees with relevant modules that will bolster an organisation’s overall skills pool means that employers have the rare opportunity to quickly boost their agility, which could prove invaluable in such an uncertain economic environment.

Secondly, the fact that employees are keen to prove the adaptability of their skill sets also gives employers the chance to think beyond the immediate. Although the dust is yet to settle, many leaders will have learned a great deal about their respective sectors and industries through this crisis. Consequently, ambitious organisations will harness the enthusiasm for distance learning to consider not only how they will survive in the ‘new normal’, but how to thrive in it too. They will identify the skills that will play crucial roles in the coming years and seize the opportunity provided by remote and flexible working to cultivate these skills now. Once the challenges of lockdown and social distancing are overcome, these leaders will be the ones with teams primed to capitalise on a post-Covid landscape. 

The fact that there’s such an appetite for self-driven development is undeniably a positive thing for employers. However, leaders still face the challenge of engaging the 75 per cent – those who don’t fall into the skills-hungry demographic

Doing so is not always a straightforward task, but using platforms that offer badged or certified courses can provide an extra level of incentivisation. While courses and content remain free, the acquisition of knowledge becomes tangible, thus offering a far clearer return on investment for those who might not traditionally see value in their own training. On our online learning platform, the courses that frequently see the best retention rates are those that offer badges upon completion, suggesting that if employers are able to engage those previously reticent to learning with certified courses, they’re likely to see strong results.

However, this retraining boom isn’t just about skills. In fact, the OU’s data also points towards a correlation between learning and loyalty. Specifically, the fact that retention can be boosted by providing employees with meaningful opportunities to showcase their organisational value. 

That said, employers can’t just stand back and encourage their teams to learn for the sake of learning. According to the OU’s findings, 28 per cent of employees said that they need more direction from their employers (rising to 38 per cent among younger team members). What’s clear then is that employers need to engage in the learning journey, pinpointing what their people can do to secure skill sets with a long-term value. Only then will they be able to reap the dividends in terms of employee loyalty and engagement.

It’s impossible to deny that the uncertainty brought about by Covid-19 has left many employers feeling destabilised. In such times, it’s all too easy to put training and development on the back burner. However, for the organisations looking to bounce back strongly from this crisis, the challenge is to invest in a stronger, more resilient workforce that is capable of tackling today’s and tomorrow’s difficulties. 

Simon Tindall is head of skills and innovation at The Open University

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