Viren Patel, Corporate Director at The Open University

The impact of COVID-19 is being felt by businesses around the world. Leaders are navigating a broad range of interrelated issues that span from keeping their employees and customers safe, to shoring-up income and liquidity, reorienting operations and navigating complex Government support programmes.

Indeed, according to our latest study, UK organisations anticipate that it will take 18 months to fully recover from the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent social distancing measures. SMEs are expected to regain their pre-COVID status in 15 months, with larger organisations trailing behind by a further six months.

These figures represent the stark reality for many businesses, who are fast realising the long-term impacts of this global emergency. But there is some optimism to be found in the benefits that staff learning and development can bring as lockdown eases.

Life after coronavirus

There are plenty of predictions available which discuss what ‘the new normal’ will look like when the pandemic is over. Businesses are likely, for example, to continue facilitating more remote working even after social distancing requirements are relaxed, promoting a more flexible way of doing business and reducing expenditure on office space.

Skills are a big topic of discussion too. Many experts believe that, as well as the fiscal uncertainty brought about by a difficult economic climate, the skills gap, where there are not enough qualified workers to meet organisations’ changing needs, is likely to increase.

Indeed, our study showed that around three in ten (33%) organisations plan to let go of furloughed workers or make other redundancies as pressures to recover mount, this in turn is creating further weaknesses in organisations’ workforces.

However, while these predictions seem likely to come to pass, in most cases, these trends aren’t new, they are just no longer nascent. COVID-19 is simply accelerating business challenges. And this means that the solutions to these issues aren’t new either.

A focus on staff development

Existing solutions can solve new problems – none more so than in the area of employee learning and development.

In an attempt to get to grips with socially-distanced, digitally-delivered business models, we found that two thirds (67%) of organisations report that learning opportunities have been crucial to their workforce remaining agile throughout the pandemic. Furthermore, one in five (22%) have embraced technology to meet new business challenges and are now looking for the skills to harness them effectively. As a result, 40 per cent of leaders expect to rely on their employees’ digital capabilities more heavily than before as they adjust to the challenges brought about by the pandemic.

However, at The Open University, we believe that education has always been an important way to guard against skills shortages. Indeed, ‘buying in’ new skills can be expensive and short termist, while developing talent in-house is a more robust and sustainable solution – maximising the potential of the workforce and reskilling and upskilling for the future.

Investing in work-based training, which allows workers to earn while they learn, will help organisations to bridge the divide between the skills available in the labour market and the skills they need, allowing them to focus on stability and growth in the future. Simply put, better learning and development will result in more agile, loyal, motivated, and productive workforces that are fully equipped to rise to new challenges and drive organisations forward as they recover from the fallout of COVID-19.

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Employers face a tough road ahead. But there is light at the end of the tunnel for those who are able to prioritise staff development, incentivisation and education during such an uncertain time. Indeed, it is these businesses who stand the best chance of not just recovering, but returning post-pandemic stronger than ever.

Viren Patel, Corporate Director at The Open University

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