Upskilling & Reskilling: How can the ‘new ways of working’ help?

According to the 2020 Future of Jobs Report recently released by the World Economic Forum, the skills shortages suffered by many companies will increase as the skills demanded by employers are expected to continue to change over the next five years. Specifically, the report estimates that one out of every two workers worldwide will have to go through a more or less intense reskilling process to remain employable. 

In other words, the challenge workers, companies, and governments face in this area is getting bigger. And this makes it increasingly necessary and urgent for every one of the actors involved to assume our share of responsibility and face in a coordinated way a challenge in which we all have a lot at stake: the “reskilling revolution.”

In a different vein, this same report also reveals that, compared to other years, employers expect to rely more on informal learning than formal learning when giving their workers opportunities to improve their skills or acquire new capacities. (94% of employers expect their employees to develop these new skills on the job, up from 65% in 2018).

Therefore, on the one hand, the need for reskilling and upskilling affects an increasing proportion of the workforce. On the other hand, day to day work becomes the primary source for acquiring new skills. 

In this scenario, I wonder to what extent the so-called ‘new ways of working’ can help companies that adopt them (and the people who work for those companies) to successfully face the challenges and opportunities posed by the reskilling revolution. Especially to overcome the main obstacles that prevent workers from acquiring the new capacities they need.

This idea stems from the answers companies participating in our study on ‘Spanish companies & the reskilling revolution’ gave us when we asked them about the factors that make it difficult for their workers to acquire the new capacities they require from them.

Among other factors, they mentioned the lack of interest of managers, the lack of incentives for reskilling and upskilling, the fear of workers to recognize their limitations, the lack of support from their direct supervisors, and their ignorance of the learning resources available to them.

But still, two factors stood out from the rest, on which the companies participating in the study were practically unanimous (> 90%):

1. the lack of sense of urgency of its workers

2. their lack of orientation to learning.

It was not a big surprise to us. In another study we conducted in 2019 on ‘Spanish workers facing automation,’ we had observed a negative relationship between the intensity with which surveyed workers prepared for the changes their work could experience in the future and the time they were working for the same company.

The longer their years of service, the less interested they were in anticipating future changes and preparing for those changes.

These data paint a worrying scenario. On the one hand, most companies feel one of the main obstacles to reskilling and upskilling their employees is that workers do not see this as an urgent matter, nor are they oriented towards learning goals. On the other hand, it seems companies do little to prevent their people’s curiosity and interest in learning from fading as they complete years of service in the organization.

It gives the feeling we are trapped in a kind of vicious cycle. How can we get out of it?

A radical solution could be to replace employees who do not have these attributes with others who do. That is, looking for new workers who are curious and have an interest in learning new things. Of course, this is a questionable course of action. Apart from the interference that such a measure can generate in the operations of the company and the cost of carrying it out, there is the question of how ethical it is to fire workers who have lost interest in learning when the company has done little or nothing to prevent it.

In any case, and even if we discard this first course of action, what companies should be more concerned about in these turbulent times is ensuring that the new employees they hire have that curiosity and that orientation to continuous learning.

Companies participating in our study on the reskilling revolution in Spain suggested one alternative course of action when we asked them about which kind of initiatives are the most effective in facilitating the reskilling and upskilling of their employees.

Specifically, among the activities companies consider most effective for this purpose, they mention two types of initiatives that can help generate among their workers that sense of urgency and that orientation to learning many companies say they are missing:

  • Actions aimed at creating awareness among their workers about the changes the environment is experiencing
  • Actions aimed at helping them become aware of their level of employability.

They did not tell us about the specific actions they had in mind. But we can imagine talks, readings, discussion groups, projects, initiatives that expose workers to new realities, etc. We can even imagine the most creative of those employers hiring headhunters to include their employees in real-life recruiting processes so they can gain awareness of their employability.

However, perhaps there is a third way.

I cannot help thinking to what extent workers could not also acquire that sense of urgency and that orientation to learning in their day-to-day work, just as they develop other types of skills and capacities.

In particular, I wonder if working according to the so-called ‘new ways of working’ (project work, network organizations, agile methods, independent work platforms, virtual teams, internal talent markets, etc.) could be helpful for this end. More even than any awareness talk or training session…

The general belief is that for a company to operate according to these types of working methods, it needs employees of a specific kind. New ways of working require creative people capable of managing complex situations under uncertainty. Employees that perform their jobs with a high level of autonomy and, at the same time, are great team players. People aware of themselves, curious, attentive to the changes that occur in their environment. People open to new challenges, new ideas, new people. Also, these new ways of working require a different kind of leader. Leaders capable of creating and maintaining a work context in which that type of employee can thrive.

Logic tells us that the first thing to do should be to get people with these abilities and then adopt these new working methods. However, as there is evidence of the power methods and systems have to transform employee behavior, I wonder if experiencing these new ways of working could provoke in employees that sense of urgency and that orientation to learning employers often miss. In other words, I wonder if these ‘new ways of working’ could function as a ‘burning platform’ that moves those workers to action.

Consider, for example, the possibility that employees work on projects where they have to collaborate with freelancers or other external experts. Perhaps they would realize how much these professionals invest in their training and learning. (The Freelance Forward 2020 report prepared by UpWork and Edelman reveals that, on average, 59% of freelancers have participated in training and professional updating actions in the last six months, compared to 36% of employed workers). And perhaps they would also realize to what extent these freelancers increasingly represent serious competition for them.

Consider, for example, the company decides to implement an internal talent market. That is a platform where the company’s demand for capacities (projects that require specific skills and offer specific development opportunities) meets the interests, knowledge, and skill sets of people who seek to manage their career and develop professionally. In some way, it would lead employees to experience a supply-demand dynamic similar to that experienced by those freelancers we talked about before, for whom continuous learning is a matter of competitiveness in the market of talent.

Consider, for example, the company goes one step further and decides to foster a culture of freedom and responsibility. Imagine that, as Netflix does, the company decides to establish the ‘keeper test’ by which every person in charge of a team must periodically ask themself: “For which of the people on my team, if they received an offer from the competition, would I be willing to fight to stay?”. So, team members who do not pass this “test” are invited to leave the company…

Consider what would happen if we did all this in our company. Would we get people in our organization to realize how fast and deep the world of work is changing and how important it is they never stop learning?

An article by
Santi Garcia