Closing the capability gap in the time of COVID-19

Building capabilities that influence workforce behaviours for the long term has never been straightforward, and the pandemic has made it far more difficult. Some organizations, on the other hand, have discovered ways to thrive in recovery and beyond.

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Sullivan Mcdermott

Partner, Singapore

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The COVID-19 problem has served as a reminder to business executives that a more capable workforce results in more resilient businesses. Even before the epidemic, enterprises faced the dizzying speed of change and the ever-present possibility that today’s best-performing firms would be defeated tomorrow. Against this backdrop, the virus and its shocks have demonstrated how an organization’s workforce’s capabilities and mindsets create a basis for resilience and successful adaptation. 

Unfortunately, the traditional method of corporate training had been shattered long before the pandemic. Despite massive sums spent on a variety of capability-building programs, the results appear to be patchy at best. According to one survey, US corporations spend more than $150 billion per year on employee development, but the vast majority of this money does not produce the desired benefits. Indeed, according to the capabilities of this study, only one in every four senior managers considers capability investment “important to business outcomes.”

This is not to imply that there haven’t been any successes in developing capabilities to effect behavioural change. Historically, only a few institutions have had high levels of success. These initiatives typically emphasize in-person, hands-on learning with real-world business situations or competitive simulations. Unfortunately, because of remote-working and physical-distance restrictions, the pandemic forced a halt to such gold-standard projects. Leaders that realize the need to alter their workforces face a new and daunting task. This unexpected turn in the road is requiring businesses to rapidly innovate in their capability-building approach. The consequences will persist long after the pandemic is over. 

That could explain why business leaders are increasingly calling for a new type of capability building that works in today’s virtual environments and focuses not just on learning but also on achieving the behavioural change that comes from the day-to-day application of new learning and skills across broad segments of the workforce. That is both the holy grail of behavioural change and the ultimate foundation for resilient business operations. 

Based on a series of case studies from the epidemic, this essay examines some of the promising measures we’ve seen organizations adopt to handle the challenge posed by the COVID-19 problem. Significantly, many of these technologies go beyond simply addressing the issues raised by remote working. Today’s cutting-edge approaches to capability development are also introducing new methods for ensuring that employees put their acquired abilities to use on a regular basis. While we are still in the early stages of this workforce upskilling revolution, it is obvious that there are opportunities to apply the science of learning and behavioural change in real-world business contexts within the limits provided by COVID-19. Companies that have embraced these technologies have achieved long-term behavioural change through high-quality capability development in a remote world. 

The lessons learned from these initiatives indicate three areas where critical activity should be focused as businesses attempt to recover. For starters, more workers than ever before require new skills, but the capacity to develop these talents through in-person interactions will be limited. As a result, digital delivery will need to grow quickly to fill the void. Second, given the physical and psychological gaps created by the epidemic, businesses require new tools and techniques to engage and encourage learners to modify their behaviours. Finally, the track record for sustaining behavioural change is dismal. In a setting of physical separation and isolation, it will be important to adopt novel reinforcement strategies that are both simple and robust. 

Evolve Digital Delivery to Develop Remote Capabilities

Many firms now incorporate online training into their learning journeys, but few would call such programs successful. Online learning has long been considered a poor cousin to the gold-standard in-person and on-the-job capability-building programs, typically consisting of static videos, “try again” exams, and pass/fail metrics. 

However, in the world of COVID-19, in-person and on-the-job capability development has become far more challenging. The COVID-19 epidemic, like so many other business activities, has increased the need to adapt and innovate with digital tools. 

Given the new reality of economic pressure resulting in tighter budgets and the requirement for remote working in many areas, digital capability building will become the principal professional-development opportunity for many employees in the post-COVID-19 timeframe. As a result, the bar for digital programming efficacy has risen dramatically. Traditional passive and digital learning experiences simply will not suffice. Instead, remote-learning experiences must provide employees with the abilities they require while also encouraging persistent use of those new talents so that behaviour’s—and ultimately performance—improve. 

This new challenge was accepted by one North American animal-health provider. When COVID-19 put a halt to all in-person gatherings, management shifted its focus to digital capability development for the entire enterprise. The company sought to help all employees understand what it would take for the organization to successfully tackle business recovery in a timely and efficient manner. To that aim, top management was asked to make a decision: what capabilities do our staff require? One school of thought proposed creating a bespoke capability-building program for each job type with the goal of developing technical knowledge. Another strategy was to focus on the essential mindsets and behaviour’s that every employee must have in order to do their job well. With cost and time constraints as well as a long-term focus on lasting change, the organization chose the latter method, relying on a single at-scale digital program cantered on a set of key target skills and associated behaviour’s. 

The Organization built their Playbook around Five Key Elements

Putting money into the fundamentals The first step taken by management was to shift away from its previous emphasis on developing personnel expertise and technical prowess. Instead, the leadership concluded that a foundational set of behaviour’s was more vital (for example, all employees need to understand how to deliver feedback effectively and what a good implementation plan looks like). Each employee learned how to prioritize their job systematically on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. This contained a useful but basic matrix that staff could use to classify their work, as well as practical recommendations like 15-minute calendar holds per day to help them manage themselves. The company has gently impacted the entire business by boosting capabilities in these core areas. 

Digital is being positioned as the major means of capability development. The organization established the assumption that developing digital skills would be the first formal step for any employee looking to develop and expand their capabilities. Each digital program on offer had a unified story line that was fascinating and consistent from lesson to session. Rather than simply memorizing concepts, students were required to put them into practice. Instead of designing a decent milestone plan, for example, users were asked to study a sample milestone plan and give important comments for improvement. Following the establishment of the foundation through the digital program, employees were invited to access a library of extra resources generated by the organization’s executives to reinforce each principle and provide contextual examples from the company itself. 

Setting priorities from the top down Nobody was spared from the digital-learning path. One weekly senior-team meeting started with a scorecard that displayed team and individual completion rates, including those for C-suite executives. The goal was not to shame, but to encourage by demonstrating that everyone was on the same journey. This resulted in increased buy-in and accountability. At the end of six months, 93 percent of the company’s employees had participated in the digital course and were on target to finish it by the end of the year. Every employee was expected to devote 30 minutes to an hour per week to capability development. Some managers even schedule weekly work sessions for their staff to stop what they’re doing and focus on the learning process. 

Not content exams, but those that enforce behavioural change. To encourage participation, completion statistics were tracked, but success was recognized only when genuine improvements in behaviour could be noticed. Even if 95 percent of employees completed the “having effective meetings” module, but managers perceived no increase in meeting quality, that module was not considered completed. Completing a digital skill-building program is meaningless if employees are not doing anything differently. To do this, all team members were given standardized checklists that they used on a weekly basis to assess their teams’ performance against expectations. Weekly meetings now include talks about specific strengths and areas for improvement, as well as quantitative data to help keep the main points in mind.

Creating a transformation culture with nearly the entire organization embarking on the same journey, the digital program served as a sort of backbone, or consistent foundation. Despite substantial market shifts and workplace turmoil, employees relied on a core set of expectations, terminology, and target behaviours. The organization incorporated the new terminology into everyday discourse and even produced customized videoconferencing backgrounds with course terms. Employees may have been confident that there was a road to advancement ahead of them. 

Finally, this organization embraced the challenge of COVID-19 and used it as an opportunity to up its game in terms of capability creation in general. In fact, there was one silver lining to this incident. Scalability is an obvious advantage of high-quality remote capability creation over in-person alternatives. A well-executed remote program can reach broad areas of even the most dispersed workforce. The value of driving the proper kinds of behaviour’s among midlevel and frontline leader’s skyrockets in a remote-working environment. At the same time, we can’t expect changes in behaviour and skills to spread through the business as quickly as they did before. Newly lean and remote workforces will necessitate new capabilities for every employee. Next-generation digital programs can address this demand at scale in a cost-effective manner. 

In Virtual Workshops, you may Bridge both Physical and Psychological Distances

One universal aspect of the coronavirus issue is the decrease in in-person connections, which has left many executives wondering how to attain the same intimacy and calibre of cross-functional dialogue, problem resolution, and behavioural change—without sitting across the table. It is not sufficient to just “cut and paste” in-person events into online ones. Content developed for in-person events is not always well adapted to virtual forms, and good remote meeting facilitation is not a common ability. Still, the demand is as acute as ever, so some organizations have gone back to the drawing board and approached the problem from the ground up. What does a successful remote capability-building program look like? What are the most critical components of such an effort? 

Collaboration in a remote-working setting is challenging in many ways. Along with the material, virtual training must emphasize technological proficiency and problem resolution. Training on business-case building at one multinational industrial corporation required small teams to synthesize raw data, access a whiteboard-style collaborative website, and collaborate through videoconference to value an initiative. As a result, participants not only acquired the essential components of a business case, but they also enhanced their capacity to cooperate digitally. We believe that businesses that use this approach to successful virtual training—and mix it with safe, high-impact in-person experiences—will see a multiplier effect in the impact and longevity of altered behaviour’s. 

There is even evidence that virtual environments can provide experiences that are comparable to or better than traditional in-person training. Our study with learners over the last six months demonstrates that a well-designed virtual program may match or even outperform in-person offerings in terms of efficacy. Indeed, 87 percent of learners who participated in newly tailored virtual experiences agreed that they were at least as effective as in-person events. Virtual workshops can be useful tools for organizations as they recover from the pandemic (exhibit). 

The experience of one South American multinational logistics company teaches us how to maximize the effectiveness of virtual workshops. Prior to the pandemic, the organization was planning a two-year full-scale business restructuring. A key component of the project was ensuring that staff had the skills and capabilities needed to enable a successful transformation. 

Then came COVID-19. It would have been easy to put off the shift as economic and health concerns mounted. Instead, the group opted to adopt a long-term approach to the business and proceed. Business leaders recognized that they would need to quickly shift their intended approach to capability building from in-person to virtual learning. Three of the guiding concepts they used to build and conduct virtual workshops were as follows: 

Choose interaction over content. When training sessions fail, the traditional post-mortem report concludes that “death by PowerPoint” occurred. More than ever, the quality of facilitation and breadth of discussion, rather than any unique material on a slide, determine the success or failure of a remote-learning experience. One full-day in-person training, for example, reduced the number of slides used from approximately 80 to approximately 20. The majority of the time was spent in small groups, where participants explored thought starters that assisted them in co-creating critical insights. Employees’ experiences were improved as a result of the engagement and debate. 

Take advantage of technology. Rather than apologizing for the technology up front, the company embraced it and created excitement among participants. Facilitators, for example, insisted on everyone participating in video and made significant use of smaller, intimate breakouts. Because the organization had never utilized videoconferencing previously, this training gave finance analysts the opportunity to observe their business colleagues for the first time, forging new connections. Individuals who had been on phone calls for years suddenly had the opportunity to spend hours together learning, laughing, and chatting in a secure setting. Effective virtual programs can tear down silos that have been built up over time in just a few days, influencing how employees communicate and connect even after the workshop is done. 

Make your leadership clear. Because in-person workshops are difficult to organize, leadership engagement in traditional workshops is either non-existent or very limited. This strategy will not work with newly lean remote workforces that are fatigued, worried, and seeking leadership. Virtual workshops can help to bridge the leadership-employee gap more efficiently. Because there was no need for travel, the organization was able to obtain multiple hour-long blocks of time with the CEO and other senior officials to talk face-to-face with employees and participate in the program. “I chatted with my boss’s boss more today than I have in the last two years combined,” said one of the company’s buyers. 

Innovate with New Reinforcements to keep Behavioural Improvements Going

Creating reinforcements to keep behavioural changes going has never been easy. The commonly held belief has been that just delivering a capability-building program results in changed behaviour. However, this connection is not supported. Prior to COVID-19, managers relied on informal feedback loops with office colleagues as a partial fix for this absence of reinforcement mechanisms. Such contacts were by no means exhaustive, but they did serve to bridge the gap to some extent. 

Remote working has eliminated this and other techniques to encourage changes in mindsets and behaviour’s. The good news is that the science behind changing mindsets and behaviour’s is informative, and some businesses have leveraged these insights to develop reinforcement systems tailored to remote-working contexts. Although it is still early in the process, preliminary results have been promising. 

The guiding concepts for long-term behavioural change are as relevant today as they were before the pandemic. Managers must establish clear change expectations, and staff must be encouraged and guided to achieve those objectives. There are two basic and well-proven ways to aid in this effort: direct association and enforcing both positive and negative consequences. In this case, direct association involves relating desired behaviour’s to actual business outcomes that are meaningful to employees. Similarly, positive and negative consequences give real-time course corrections to keep behavioural change on track. 

Many businesses have begun to experiment with novel applications of direct association and consequence enforcement. Although it is too early to draw firm conclusions from these efforts, their successes and failures in providing vital reinforcement to behavioural-change programs demonstrate both their promise and their flaws. 

After COVID-19 disrupted an in-person capability-building program, one telecom operator actively pursued reinforcement through direct association. With that option out of the question, the leadership team rapidly adapted and organized a series of virtual seminars created specifically for that format. To reinforce the information, they established employee-led “lunch and learn” events to link desired behaviour’s to the overall performance goals of the firm. Each 45-minute session focused on a specific topic that germinated from the formal workshop, was entirely discussion-based, and was closely related to events or efforts taking place that week. With few slides and no senior leaders present, the team created an approachable setting. An open and engaging dialogue helps to reduce the gap between classroom knowledge, employee behaviour, and real-time business consequences. After two months of lunch meetings, 94 percent of employees agreed with the statement, “I am getting the assistance I need to build my capabilities to manage or be a member of a remote team.” 

Some businesses have pushed for even more innovation through highly personalized, real-time “nudges”—both good and negative. The front end of a capability-building effort at a large industrial manufacturer in North America was a mobile application. Managers could use the app to send personalised nudges to staff with exciting teasers of what they would learn, goals and encouragement for the week, and positive reinforcement when programming was completed ahead of schedule, rather than just providing the content. When a manager notices that an employee is not demonstrating expected behaviour’s, he or she can easily assign further programming and provide direct feedback. This gave tailored reinforcement to all employees, from those working remotely from home to those on the production floor. 

Others have seen their efforts fall flat when they diverge from a tried-and-true strategy. A huge Japanese bank insisted on using a no customized, automated email campaign to send weekly messages to staff with rolled-up statistics and a reminder of responsibilities to be accomplished the following week. These generic emails lacked explicit and reinforceable consequences. Furthermore, they failed to create explicit behavioural-change expectations or connect them to larger business goals. Employee behaviour quickly returns to normal.

While the quest to develop capabilities has become more difficult in the remote-working world of COVID-19, the need to develop a more capable workforce has never been higher. In the long run, organizations that are willing to use this strategic lever have shown that they can improve their digital programming, invest in high-quality virtual workshops, and design formal reinforcement programs that will help them get back on their feet and be more resilient in the long run.


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