zig  zag crosswalk, people  walking  in opposite  directions
PHOTO: Jack Finnigan

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored both the adaptability and opportunities for system improvements, including in the workplace. Organizations across the board made significant changes since last year. Some may now feel like surviving the shift online and retaining a functioning workforce is enough progress. But one year out, it’s time to move from recovery mode toward the type of sustainable success that only comes through hard realizations and work.

In spring 2020, business leaders encountered something unexpected in the transition to a virtual environment: the need to provide emotional support. Fearing for the mental wellbeing of employees due to burnout or the stressors of such an unusual remote work scenario, leaders quickly adjusted their management styles to accommodate the blurring lines between professional and personal life. Now, as virtual workplaces look to become the new normal for many organizations, leaders have been prioritizing so-called “soft” skills at the same level as strategic or technical skills.

As we enter spring 2021, business leaders say they also need more traditional resource support: budget and human capital. Budget comes as no surprise as organizations look to rebuild or add permanence to temporary stopgaps enacted last year. But the shift in priorities forced by the pandemic points to pressing needs that go beyond mere headcount, including gaps in employee skills, employee diversity and leadership capabilities.

A Different Scenario for Solving for Skills

Many of the skill gaps are to be expected. Workers from industries heavily impacted by COVID-19 have moved to new roles in growth industries, while other workers took advantage of lockdowns to examine their career paths and change course. Changing technologies have spurred new needs for development and support, and demand is increasing.

In the past, organizations would have relied heavily on talent acquisition to address skill gaps. But with nearly 4.5 million people pushed out or leaving the workforce last year and the exodus predicted to continue, the talent pool is shrinking and competition growing more fierce. As a result, there’s no guarantee the available workforce will have the specific skills organizations seek.

It’s not just solving for short-term needs, either. Organizations are discovering they need to apply lessons learned during the pandemic to identify and promote the kinds of skills that will help them adapt to future crises. Visionary organizations are therefore looking to solve the problem primarily through internal talent development, rather than talent acquisition.

Typically, learning and development (L&D) opportunities were prioritized for executives and senior managers, given the costs associated with offsite training. But with the shift to online services due to the pandemic, there’s a greater democratization of L&D opportunities. Better yet, the online environment offers the ability to easily scale L&D efforts so organizations can place a larger number of high-potential performers on the path to career development and potential leadership.

While many organizations are exploring these options, many still need to make the mental adjustment and find the right L&D solution. Yet even within organizations with good intent and commitment to move forward, there may be issues around how people are identified, encouraged and approved to take advantage of these opportunities. And it relates to a lagging change in the workplace: approaches to diversity.

Related Article: Boost Organizational Resilience by Expanding Your Knowledge of Employee Skills

Addressing the Catch-22 of DEI Efforts

After the murder of George Floyd and the global resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there were renewed calls and commitments to address societal diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) issues. Many corporations joined the conversation, but some have fallen silent as they grapple with what it takes to truly make good on their promises.

The recruitment pool for diverse leaders is even smaller than the general candidate pool. And most organizations lack “development equity” — equal access to career-enhancing L&D opportunities to those diverse populations already within their organizations. So, the next step in workplace evolution here is a big one: a cultural shift in the way some organizations think and act when it comes to developing their internal pools of diverse talent.

It means addressing unconscious biases about candidate selection for L&D and sponsorship opportunities and instituting objective processes. It means doing the hard work of holding themselves accountable and measuring progress toward DEI goals. It also means being proactive about supporting women and people of color who might have been marginalized in the office and now risk anonymity in a virtual work environment.

Some organizations are tackling pieces of the puzzle, but the puzzle includes the whole of an organization’s future outlook, including changes in communication and culture. To evolve in this area, organizations must break the cycle where diverse employees believe the only opportunities for recognition and/or advancement come from moving to another organization, thus torpedoing any true DEI progress.

Related Article: It's Time to Change Our Thinking About Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

Strategic Shift in the Leadership Suite

Profound organizational change comes from the top — we all know this. While CEOs and CFOs drove much of the business transformation needed for survival last year, the organizational transformations that need to follow are something else entirely.

Organizations have long recognized the capability of HR professionals to help drive change. Now they’re acknowledging just how critical HR capabilities are in positioning companies for the future. To thrive, organizations must give HR leaders an outsized voice at the executive table, because they have the experience and expertise that touches every aspect of the needed changes:

  • Assessing talent needs and determining the appropriate recruitment and development balance.
  • Deploying high-quality online learning resources to expand the range of impactful development opportunities available to diverse talent at every organizational level.
  • Examining L&D and succession practices for unconscious bias and inequity.
  • Establishing a framework for confirming culture, particularly when new employees are onboarded without the benefit of casual interaction with colleagues.
  • Providing wellbeing support and resources for employees and leaders to ensure the healthy functioning of their organizations.
  • Providing an outlet for honest, ongoing feedback.

Elevating HR to strategic driver also confirms a commitment to creating a workplace environment that acknowledges the importance of employees. If employees aren’t supported and allowed to progress, the organization will never evolve.

Related Article: Moving Forward With Grit and Growth Mindset

Our Workplaces Are at a Crossroads: Which Direction Will You Choose?

Despite its challenges, 2020 showed what organizations could achieve with determination and common goals. But the workplace is now at a crossroads. One year after the onset of COVID-19, everyone wants to define and settle into our next normal as quickly as possible.

There’s a tremendous opportunity at this juncture, however, to be strategic about effecting change. The next steps in our workplace evolution are to figure out not only what worked in the midst of last year’s roiling change but how to build upon the good and root out legacy issues that hamper progress toward the truly evolved workplace of tomorrow.