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Thriving after COVID-19: What skills do employees need?

Investing in four key skill sets can lay foundations for an organization’s success
Aurelie Feld

An expert in reskilling and upskilling who has led a training company, helps clients to structure capability building strategies and design blended learning programs.

Angelika

An expert in organizational and leadership development, helping clients diagnose their culture, manage change, and deliver business impact from restructuring and large-scale transformation

Kristina Störk

An expert in capability building, advises clients on how to build critical skills to prepare for the future of work.

Sandra Durth

McKinsey Academy leader in Europe, our entity for leadership development and capability building at scale; supports client transformations in the areas of skill assessment, right-skilling and skill strategy.

We know that COVID-19 changed the way we live and work overnight. What we don’t know is how the subsequent health and economic crises will evolve, and what mindset changes will arise.

One thing is certain, however: to emerge successfully from the current crisis, organizations will need to nurture their employees’ digital, cognitive, social and emotional, and adaptability and resilience skill sets.

Scale and urgency of change needed

Even before COVID-19, revolutions in technologies, consumer preferences, and business models were affecting the global workforce. The virus has accelerated and intensified this, and is forcing leaders to shift their organization’s crisis operations while fundamentally reimagining strategies and business models.

In fact, as early as 2017 a McKinsey Global Institute analysis estimated that 14 percent of the global workforce will need to be reskilled entirely, and 40 percent will need partial reskilling to continue with their current occupations (Exhibit 1). Corporate leaders surveyed by MGI indicated the need was urgent, with up to 70 percent of US and European executives talking about significant reskilling needs by 2020.

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LinkedIn’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report endorses this, revealing that 99 percent of learning and development executives believe if skill gaps are not closed in the next 3 to 5 years, customer experience and satisfaction will be affected as well as product development and delivery, and the company’s ability to innovate – resulting in an erosion of growth.

The LinkedIn report also cites that 57 percent of talent developers will focus on leadership and management skills, 42 percent on creative problem solving and design thinking skills and, 40 percent on communication skills.

The four key skill areas

As leaders manage COVID-19 recovery, they would do well to address weaknesses highlighted both before (e.g., McKinsey Global Institute 2017 analysis, Exhibit 2) and during the crisis, and develop their people across digital, cognitive, social and emotional, and adaptability and resilience skills, as follows:

1. Expand the ability to operate at pace in a fully digital environment

A degree of technological skill will be essential to each employee. Basic digital skills will enable them to feel comfortable and maintain seamless contact with their organization's ecosystem – clients, partners, suppliers, and public authorities. This skill will also give employees a basic understanding of critical technology, data concepts, and processes including data visualization, applied machine learning, and advanced analytics. For example, as a plant’s production lines are automated, a director of quality management will need to double down on tech skills to collect, analyse, and monitor production data.

2. Further develop cognitive skills for redesign and innovation

The new environment poses challenges requiring enhanced problem-solving skills, creativity, and innovation. The increase in remote work requires managers to demonstrate these skills in an increasingly autonomous environment. What skills will a procurement officer now need to help her company relocate production and rethink the supply chain? Creativity? Innovation? Problem-solving? An ability to manage big projects remotely?

3. Strengthen social and emotional skills to ensure effective collaboration, management, and self-expression

To maintain strong professional ties – despite distances – and create and grow client relationships, drive change, and support employees remotely, leaders will need advanced communication and interpersonal skills, including empathy. In the “distance economy,” a retail bank client advisor will have to cultivate social and emotional skills to develop – on a remote basis – the relationships he used to nurture in person.

4. Build adaptability and resilience to thrive during COVID-19 aftershocks and beyond

For critical employees to use today’s new experiences as a source of learning, they need support to build self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-reliance. Other areas to reinforce resilience include developing their ability to manage time, boundaries, and their own mental wellness. A cashier in a supermarket will need adaptability and resilience skills to become a customer service representative when her job becomes automated.

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Employees must be equipped to operate remotely, innovate, and adapt. Companies need talent strategies that focus on digital, cognitive, social and emotional, and adaptability and resilience skills; these are fundamental skills, irrespective of an employee’s role, and companies can consider them a “no-regret” investment.

As “new ways” of business become the norm, organizations that fail to sharpen their teeth on upskilling now will be limiting their potential to do so at scale in the future.

For further reading on the topic, please visit a related article, To emerge stronger from the crisis, companies should start reskilling their workforces now, which elaborates on key skills that will be necessary to an organization’s success.

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