The Big, But Little-Known, Reason Businesses Need to Keep Remote Work for Good

By Kelly Palmer, Chief Learning and Talent Officer, Degreed

Although the spread of the Delta variant has led some companies to delay their return-to-office plans, many are plowing ahead anyway, the New York Times reported recently. Perhaps most disappointing of all, only 8% of workers said their companies have adopted a permanent work-from-home policy.

I’ve written before about some of the crucial reasons businesses should embrace remote work for the long term, including the increase in productivity, innovation and collaboration that can result. But there’s also another major reason businesses need remote work more than ever, even after the Covid-19 pandemic finally comes to an end: It addresses the growing skills gap.

‘Skills canyon’

For years, businesses have been lamenting the skills gap. With technology developing at warp speed and disrupting industries on a daily basis, organizations constantly need new skills -- and employees who are constantly learning.

The pandemic has made this challenge even more pressing. Global operations shifted in profound ways. Supply chains revolutionized. Robots and AI took over tasks at the fastest pace ever. These developments show no sign of slowing down. In fact, experts expect automation to become an even bigger part of our lives and our work in the years ahead.

We’re heading from a “skills gap” to a “skills canyon,” Prudential Financial Vice Chair Rob Falzon told Yahoo. “You’re not going to be able to hire your way out of that problem.... You’re well-served to be investing in the skills of your employees.”

Work-from-home increases learning

How does remote work affect skill development? Rather than reducing the amount of time workers spend learning, the pandemic has substantially increased it.

This was clear from the beginning. Demand for online courses jumped exponentially in the first month of the pandemic, HR Dive reported. On LinkedIn alone, users watched nearly 8 million hours of courses in April 2020, double the amount in March and triple the amount in February.

The boost continued throughout the year. “From 2019 to 2020, the number of enterprise learners more than doubled, and the amount of learning has also increased by 58% more hours per learner,” a LinkedIn Learning survey found.

I speak regularly with organizations across the world. Many workers have told me that without having to sit in long commutes, let alone get dressed up to go to the office, they’ve found more time for learning. Many are also concerned about their role in the future workforce, and want to become indispensable to their organizations.

Making tools available

Although people are interested in developing new skills, organizations themselves haven’t been offering as many opportunities. In a survey by Degreed (where I work) 46% of workers worldwide, and 36% in the United States, said their employers reduced upskilling and reskilling opportunities during the pandemic. So it’s little surprise workers went looking for resources elsewhere online.

Why did organizations cut back? One likely reason is that they still too often equate learning with in-person lectures that employees are expected to sit through. Those could not happen during the pandemic. Businesses may migrate more of these lectures to the web, but that’s still not the best way of learning.

In writing The Expertise Economy, I delved into scientific research around how people learn best. I describe the learning loop, a four-stage process. First, the learner uses engaging material that teaches the skill -- anything from podcasts to books, videos and more. Then come practice, feedback, and reflection.

This process can absolutely happen, and even thrive, remotely. And when businesses are the ones providing curated learning materials to their employees, they’re able to lead workers toward the skills the organizations need most.

‘Power skills’

In creating any learning opportunities, it’s also important to keep in mind what the most valuable skills of the future are.

Sure, technological expertise is needed. In the Degreed survey, advanced IT and programming was named the number one most in demand skill. But seven of the top 10 are not technological; they’re cognitive and social. They include leadership and management, communication, initiative-taking, critical thinking, adaptability, continuous learning and more. These were once called “soft skills.” Now, I call them “power skills.” Machines will keep taking over more technical skills. But social and cognitive expertise will remain the purview of humans.

The solution is clear. Workers are ready to build new skills, and they want to do so remotely. In fact, 39% of workers say they might quit if their employer isn’t flexible about remote work. Businesses that provide both flexibility and learning resources will be in the strongest position to face the future -- and avoid the canyon.

Kelly Palmer is Chief Learning and Talent Officer at Degreed, an adviser and keynote speaker on the future of work, and co-author of The Expertise Economy.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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