How to help employees learn new skills amid a crisis

Despite years of warnings, the skills gap is on the rise — not just in the United States, but around the world. The PwC Talent Trends 2019 report found that 79 percent of CEOs worldwide “are concerned that a lack of essential skills in their workforce is threatening the future growth of their organization,” compared to 53 percent in 2012.

The Society for Human Resource Management, in a survey of 20,000 U.S.-based members, found (pdf) that the skills shortage is “a top concern that needs to be addressed.” Three-quarters of HR professionals who are having difficulty recruiting “say there is a shortage of skills in candidates for job openings.”

As Laurent Probst and Christian Scharff, partners with PwC Luxembourg, have reported in s+b, upskilling is crucial. The drive to build new skills for a new world, to expand the capabilities of existing employees, “can take place at the level of a company, an industry, or a community.”

In our work, we’ve found that even the most well-intentioned upskilling programs are often hampered by a challenge many executives are unprepared for: motivating employees to learn. It seems an unlikely problem — which is why it often catches business leaders by surprise. After all, millions of employees want to learn on the job. In a Gallup survey, 59 percent of millennials, as well as 44 percent of gen Xers and 41 percent of baby boomers, said opportunities to learn and grow are extremely important to them when considering a job.

But there’s a difference between wanting to learn and making it happen. And numerous factors can sap a worker’s motivation to develop new skills.

Bror Saxberg, vice president of learning science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, says four central factors prevent workers from being motivated to learn: They don’t value what they’re learning or how they’re learning it, they don’t believe they can master the skills, they blame environmental circumstances (“I just don’t have time to learn”), and they struggle with negative emotional states that distract them from learning.

We’ve found that businesses can help employees overcome these obstacles and feel motivated to make learning a part of their everyday work. We recommend three key steps — all of which can be done while employees are working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

End command and control. For far too long, workplace learning has revolved around compliance training. Organizations have told employees what to learn, and when to learn it. As a result, all too often workers have come to think of workplace learning as a dreaded responsibility rather than as an exciting opportunity.

In this new era, as organizations determine where their skill gaps lie, some business leaders are tempted to assign their employees the task of learning specific new skills. But we’ve found that workers are much more motivated to engage in learning opportunities when they’re instead given free rein to choose what to learn.

Workers are much more motivated to engage in learning opportunities when they’re given free rein to choose what to learn.

For example, a business might push everyone in its marketing team to learn more data analysis. But a member of the team might have a fascination with edge computing, and instead become an expert in that, which can be of great benefit to the company.

It’s certainly fine, and even helpful, for businesses to tell employees which skills the organization needs and expects to need in the coming years. We’ve found that most employees choose from among those skills because they want to be of maximal use to their employers. Still, it’s important to leave these decisions up to each individual.

A 2019 survey from peer-coaching platform Imperative found that workers want to feel “fulfilled” more than they want to feel “engaged.” And 68 percent of respondents believe “the primary responsibility for fulfillment lies with the individual.” When employees choose their own learning paths, they align their development to their personal sense of fulfillment.

We also encourage companies to let employees choose when they spend time learning. That’s particularly important now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has led millions of people to shift their work schedules while also caring for loved ones.

Teach employees how to learn. Many workers dread learning — and question their own ability to learn — due to their early experiences with schooling. As kids, many of us never learned how to learn. David Blake, founder of lifelong learning platform Degreed, says he figured out how to get good grades as a child, but was a terrible learner because he had no passion for learning or sense of curiosity, and placed little value in what he was taught. “The education system incentivizes people to master test taking, not how to learn,” he says.

Unfortunately, businesses have largely maintained these same problems, with most of the learning opportunities built around lectures or online programs that have workers click through and answer a few test questions. Workers are still too rarely given opportunities to go put those new skills to use, and then come back and improve.

We’ve found that a four-stage “learning loop” works best. First, the learner studies a skill through videos, online courses, articles, TED Talks, or access to peers who have expertise in a subject. Then, the learner practices the skill; demonstrates the skill to a trusted expert, and gets feedback; and finally, considers that feedback and how to do a better job the next time. The learner then repeats the process by studying the aspects of the skill that need improvement. The loop continues until the skill is mastered.

Schedule time for reflection through peer coaching. In the midst of a busy day, finding time for learning can feel like a burden. With so many tasks to handle, workers naturally put off that learning for a time when their workload might be lighter — and such times come along rarely.

At our companies, we do something different. We ask people to put blocks of time into their schedules for reflection. We want them to take time to consider their career progress and what they need to learn in order to build their professional futures. Doing this helps get them focused and excited for learning.

This process is most powerful when done in pairs, through peer coaching (pdf). Unlike peer learning, peer coaching is not about one employee learning a skill from another. Instead, two employees discuss their goals and futures, and help each other develop plans. For example, these plans may include “I’ll learn to become excellent at giving presentations,” or “I’ll learn the latest techniques to improve the security of cloud computing.” The two employees then hold each other accountable to seeing those plans through.

This process also leads employees to hone skills such as empathy, listening, and communication. These were traditionally called “soft skills.” But we call them “power skills.” LinkedIn found that 57 percent of senior leaders now believe that these kinds of skills are even more important than traditional “hard skills.” As an added, crucial benefit, peer coaching can also help reduce stress, which is on the rise in the current environment.

When these steps are taken, we find that the obstacles to learning are largely overcome. Workers come to believe that they can master even difficult skills, have time to learn, and feel better about each workday. Development becomes a central part of what each day is about. And the business’s skills gap, at last, begins to shrink.