The traditional conveyor belt of high school, college, work, and retirement had started to break down well before COVID-19 came along. The pandemic has just accelerated its demise, pushing almost every job further into the digital space and making it more urgent for workers to upgrade their skills.

In this environment, the old divide between the worlds of learning and work is crumbling. It’s become imperative for companies and their employees to think of learning and skills development as a constant process rather than the one-and-done event it used to be.

Fears that robots and AI will take over jobs are more than likely overblown as there will always be a need for people, but employers do need to support their pool of workers in developing the new skills that are crucial to keeping pace with the digital transformation. If they don’t, the risk is that employees will leave, become disillusioned, or get stuck in their comfort zone, all of which could ultimately drag down a business’s performance.

Just getting started

Digital transformation is more than just a buzzword. It is transforming industries and the nature of work. And it’s only just getting started.

The World Economic Forum’s latest Future of Jobs report found that 84% of employers are set to rapidly digitalize working processes, including a significant expansion of remote working.

2019 study by IBM found that up to 120 million workers in the world’s 12 biggest economies may need to be retrained or reskilled as a result of AI and automation. It found that only 41% of CEOs said they had the people, skills, and resources required to execute their business strategies.

Companies can’t just throw employees into new roles overnight and expect immediate results. They need to invest in training and take a systematic approach to reskill and upskilling their workforce. The process of change — as with anything involving humans — is often a messy one. It’s the employers’ role to manage that change as well as possible and to give employees a long-term line of sight into their future opportunities, skills requirements, and roles.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

The first step in that process is for companies to map out how they see their own needs evolving beyond the pandemic and what that means for the technology and job roles the business will need in order to thrive. They should communicate that vision to employees and give them the resources and development opportunities to grow into new roles. Seek their input too so they feel some ownership of the inevitable changes.

Without communication, support, and patience, employees can easily become overwhelmed by a flood of new demands that they don’t have the ability to handle. And that can lead to emotional paralysis that isn’t good for the employee or the organization.

Companies have a tendency to prioritize fast deliverables, viewing a thorough change management process as something that slows things down. But this is a case where the tortoise wins the race.

Employees can’t be passive riders in this process. The onus is also on them to learn about the direction their employer is heading in and how they can position themselves to take advantage. It’s not clear that workers are doing enough to help themselves in this regard. The WEF report found that only 42% of employees are taking advantage of employer-supported education and retraining opportunities.

Benefits of creating a skills map

Employees can start by creating a skills map to help them visualize their abilities — both acquired and natural — and how those can be developed to meet the new demands in the coming years.

Journaling can be an excellent tool for helping employees to understand their current skillset and passions and how to leverage those qualities to stretch into new roles. They can also turn to a wide array of publicly available resources such as personality tests and assessments of industry and digital skills to learn where they have gaps and how to fill them.

It’s clear that the status quo isn’t an option either for companies or employees. Workers need to become more agile and take the initiative to learn and apply new skills in order to widen their opportunities. For their part, employers need to put systems in place that encourage that initiative and provide individuals with pathways to the digital jobs of tomorrow.