The Importance of Upskilling Remote and Hybrid Staff

Alison Anderson  |  Jun 22, 2022

In a tight jobs market, the most effective and inexpensive way to attract and retain remote employees is to upskill them for the careers they really want.

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Australia’s talent is worth cultivating. Combine a national skills shortage with a tight employment market – the jobless rate of 3.9% is at an almost 50-year low – and there’s never been better reasons to look after precious staff. Smart organisations are making professional development a major lure to attract and retain staff, with upskilling of current skill sets – and reskilling for new ones – as a building block to bridge knowledge gaps. 

But what works best when upskilling employees, particularly when they’re remote? And, in the new hybrid workplace, is there anything left to learn about working remotely itself?

Why Is Professional Development so Important to Remote Staff?

In a competitive market where remote work is commonplace in job listings, it’s hard to cut through. Upskilling not only strengthens and empowers staff in their individual careers, it demonstrates that the organisation cares to do so.

Consulting companies are urging organisations to make training and mentorship a key component of their employee value proposition (EVP). “It’s a shift in mindset,” says Dr Ben Hamer, Future of Work head at PwC. “It's not about thinking how to keep people as long as possible in the role or in the organisation. It’s about how to create career pathways internally that enable those people to have five completely different jobs within the company, rather than them thinking they need to go elsewhere to get those skills and experiences.”

A 2018 LinkedIn Workplace Learning Report, published long before the pandemic ramped up job mobility, showed a whopping 94% of employees would stay at a company longer if it invested in a professional development plan. “The reality is one of the primary reasons people leave organisations is they haven’t had any career opportunities or career growth,” says Jonathan Reyes, work futurist and vice president of North America at workforce intelligence platform Reejig

SEE ALSO: How to Nurture Career Growth While Working From Anywhere

Why Is Upskilling Remote Staff Critical for Your Business?

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report found that by 2025, half of the global workforce will require reskilling due to the increasing reliance on technology. Not only that, but technology will displace up to 85 million jobs – some jobs done by humans now will not exist in three years’ time. 

The silver lining? Technology will create 97 million new roles, so it doesn't need to be feared. In fact, Deloitte has found organisations with a strong learning culture are 92% more likely to develop innovative products and processes, 52% more productive, 56% more likely to be the first to market, and 17% more profitable than peers. Their engagement and retention rates are also 30–50% higher. 

That can only be a positive when you take the financial impact of rehiring into consideration. Even conservative estimates of the cost of replacing a staff member is around a third of their annual income. “When you invest in an individual, you’re extending not just their tenure, but increasing their engagement with the organisation,” says Reyes.

SEE ALSO: 8 Business Trends to Watch for in the New Financial Year

What Works When Training Remote Staff?

According to Torunn Dahl, head of talent, learning and inclusion at Deloitte, it’s useful to set clear criteria, then decide case-by-case which training should be online and which is better in-person. “Key considerations might be whether the objective of the learning is to build relationships and networks, upskill technically, learn by doing, develop behaviours and cultural values,” she says.

Professor Claire Macken, formerly future of learning director at RMIT Online, argues the core elements of learning remain the same whatever its delivery, but that remote training poses unique challenges. “We know it’s exhausting to be online for full days – It's not always productive,” she says. “People are very good at disengaging online in ways they wouldn’t if they were in the office.”

If the model is self-serve and on-demand, Macken recommends serving information in palatable “chunks". For example, research suggests videos run for no longer than 10 – or even six – minutes. Macken likes pre-recorded components of 20 minutes max, plus time for reflection and virtual collaboration. “You might say, “We just went through this concept: tell me how you’d apply that in your everyday work?’ From a psychological perspective, adults can't learn by just absorbing information from a lecture-type environment.” 

She’s no fan of quizzes either, where trainees need to score high before advancing. “Quizzes are often used as a proxy for assessment but you want people to consider the material, to apply the principles to their own situation or a case study.”

SEE ALSO: How To Make Conference Calls More Productive

What Works in Live Virtual Training?

Macken, Executive Dean Academic and Students RMIT Vietnam, always looks at live virtual training through a lens of inclusivity: does it account for various time zones? Are any attendees uncomfortable sharing their home circumstances, or in areas of poor connectivity? “And do you really need to schedule training at 8.30am when people are trying to get kids to school?”

She urges facilitators to be “super-explicit" about expectations prior to the session. “Be clear about the agenda, how long it will run, timing of the breaks – everything.” Are pre-reads required? Are cameras on or off? What’s the etiquette when asking questions? “Different cultures have different ways of engaging, where people wait to be invited to speak,” says Macken. 

It’s hard to stay engaged for a full day online, so sessions can be split across days, and breaks extended longer than they would for in-person training. Breakout rooms offer a way for people to engage differently with the content and encourage networking.

Macken says the biggest challenges lie in “hybrid training” – sessions with a mix of face-to-face and remote attendees. “It’s extremely hard to engage online and in-person,” she says. “Your natural default is to speak to the people in the room, so the people online become second-class citizens.” Her practical solutions include finding a way for remote attendees to hear what’s being said by in-person participants to encourage a mix of in-person and virtual communication, having a second facilitator focus on online learners, and preparing in advance how you’ll divide people into breakout groups.

Can Mentorship Programs Work Remotely?

Again, Macken says it’s important to predetermine the rules of engagement with business mentoring: what’s the purpose and the regularity of meetings? What are the boundaries of what can be discussed? Shadowing, even though technologically easy, needs to be handled particularly sensitively. “When people shadow online, it’s an odd presence,” says Macken. “Their role needs to be clearly articulated: are they welcome to join the conversation, or take notes? Certainly they should have the camera on if everyone else’s is.”

What About Training Remote Workers in How to Work Remotely?

During the pandemic, many people learned about remote working on the fly, believing “back to normal” – as in back inside an office – would return at any moment. So few companies ever trained staff in virtual communication or how to collaborate well online or innovate in a remote setting.

With “work from anywhere” established as an ongoing norm, now is the time to not only resource the physical tech and equipment needed for hybrid work but there is also the opportunity to invest in training in how to work remotely effectively, so your team has all the practical guidelines and information they need to help them perform at their best. These could be short, effective sessions such as “How to create an ergonomic workspace when WFA” or “How to communicate effectively when working remotely”. In short, whatever they need for wherever their workday takes place.

Then there’s training in social and emotional intelligence, needed wherever mental health and wellbeing issues can be shielded behind a screen. “Invest in leaders and managers and their skills and capabilities to be able to have those conversations with employees,” says PwC’s Ben Hamer. “It’s to be able to be more human-centred, but to also understand where their people might need help.”

By coupling a focus on career development with practical and emotional support for your remote and hybrid employees, you will create an investment that is sure to pay dividends in an engaged, productive and loyal team.

SEE ALSO: The Demand for Soft Skills in the Workplace