Improving your skills game as part of the return to work strategy

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July 21, 2020


As we enter the next phase of the pandemic and restrictions ease, organizations are looking for answers on how to return to work effectively and how to adapt to the new shape of work. Many companies rightly believe the answer to emerging as strong as before – if not stronger – lies in skills and reskilling. That is, by focusing efforts on the workforce skills critical to a successful and resilient future, companies will be able to spur organizational agility and meet the rapidly evolving needs of the business and the market. An employer’s ability to reskill and upskill is hence the practical lens through which to measure progress on agility. 

Yet, organizations are finding it challenging to make timely decisions about whether to reskill, recruit, or outsource for a particular skill in the absence of good information. According to Mercer’s 2020 Global Talent Trends research, two in five HR leaders acknowledge they don’t know what skills they have in their workforce today and, just as concerning, only one in three are quantifying their skills gap against business objectives. So as employers plan the return to work, poor knowledge of their workers’ skills leaves many in a disadvantaged position: it is tough to make strategic, targeted and efficient workforce decisions in the dark. 

Reset around skills

Resetting around skills can fuel organizational capability. Skills are key to adaptability, a crucial consideration when only 45% of executives believe their workforce can adapt to the new world of work.

Skills and offering reskilling opportunities are also a vital part of the reward package that binds employees to the organization and energizes them. We know that thriving employees are four times more likely to experience a culture of learning and growth, and 78% of employees say they are ready to reskill. In the current pandemic-induced uncertainty, the most valuable currency an employer can provide to an employee is the opportunity to develop skills that lead to a sustained career and financial security for the employee and their family.

Data and tools fuel skills

To support this re-setting, employers are looking to advance skill-enabled career development and pay strategies. To execute on these strategies, data and technology are required.

  • More and more employers are delivering a consumer-grade career experience by strengthening their internal skills data that feed career software such as Fuel50 or Workday’s career module. The functionality of these powerful career pathing tools is maximized when employers possess and load robust skills data sets associated with their jobs and employees. Employers with comprehensive skills data not only benefit from the full breadth of system features, but they can be confident that informed decisions can be made regarding individual development and career growth choices.
  • Data sets can be strengthened by integrating information from assessments. This may become more important as the global pandemic shifts desired skillsets – the profile of sought-after candidates may evolve with a greater emphasis on, say, digital skills, virtual sales skills or propensity for remote working. Yet there is still some distance to travel on digital skills assessments, for example: companies still rely heavily on experience (87%) and interviews (75%) to hire digital talent, whereas only 27% use online assessments. Moving to skill assessments lets HR get more nuanced on who can do what today, and who can learn what tomorrow.
  • Other employers are applying innovative methods to consider data on skill supply and demand in their pay decisions.  Up to now, the pay-for-skills approach has been challenging to master due to lack of good information on both pay and skills: just 21% of organizations are focusing on embedding pay-for-skills into their rewards systems in 2020, compared to 32% in 2019. Few companies understand how to define and pay for skills at scale today. To remedy the situation, one large high tech company has begun to take into account supply and demand data – they are making pay decisions based on scarcity of the skill in the market, the criticality of the skill to the organization, and finally the skill proficiency level of that individual.

Prior to the pandemic, skills were in the spotlight featured in publication after publication as an area of focus for business and HR leaders. While COVID-19 has upended much about work, skills remain as relevant as ever – indeed they are essential to unlock the power of your people when you need them most.

Brian Fisher
by Brian Fisher

Career / Skills Framework Global Lead, Mercer