Over the last three years, flexible and agile work models have been at the forefront of workplace disruption. Emboldened by work-from-home standards enforced during the pandemic, companies across numerous industries stopped requiring employees to be present at the office everyday. Now, many of these organizations are enjoying improved productivity and performance. But how does employee development fit into these new work scenarios?
Recognizing it’s time for large-scale change, more business leaders are willing to try new work methods, tools and solutions. With agility and flexibility at the heart of this ongoing workplace transformation, an increasing number of firms are now turning to flexible development strategies, so they can help members of their workforce realize their full potential.
With widespread talent shortages still posing recruitment obstacles, personal and professional development has become a strategic priority. But organizations that embed flexibility and adaptability into their development process will fare better at retaining people and equipping them for the future.
The Case for Flexible Development
Flexible employee development makes it possible to combine diverse learning methods that meet individual and organizational needs. This is gaining traction for several reasons:
1. More organizations are embracing inclusion as a core value. As a result, respect for individual needs and preferences is being reflected in business practices of all types. For development, this translates into personalized training and resources that accommodate diverse learning habits, skill requirements, and professional interests.
2. Key characteristics of the Industry 4.0 era include broader skill gaps, increasing automation, shifting workforce demographics, hybrid jobs and the rise of non-linear careers. A one-size-fits-all approach to employee development doesn’t address these factors.
Indeed, within modern work environments, rigid development paths are counterintuitive. They leave people feeling bored, disengaged, and ultimately excluded. In contrast, flexible learning options are the most effective way to enhance the value of every employee.
Ideas for Implementing Flexible Development
Over the last 12 months, we have been watching the various ways companies in different sectors are implementing flexible employee development, as well as its impact on talent acquisition, retention, and performance. Below are several noteworthy examples:
1. Design an EVP for Every Discipline
It’s easy to find companies that rely on a generic Employee Value Proposition (EVP) to recruit and retain top talent. But smart employers know this isn’t sufficient. Instead, define compelling career pathways and clearly communicate how employees actually grow and progress within your organization. Also, keep in mind that employee motivations often vary across different professional disciplines.
This was the strategy of Atom Bank – the UK’s first digital bank – during its campaign to hire more senior engineers to deliver core services. In the highly competitive tech talent market, a unique EVP enabled the business to stand out from the crowd and attract highly qualified people.
2. Build Depth Across Functional Roles
The ideal way to expand anyone’s capabilities is to challenge them to complete tasks and projects outside of their standard responsibilities. The objectives are twofold:
- Offer experiences that help individuals add desired skills that align with their career aspirations.
- Fill organizational talent gaps and ensure operational continuity.
In the beverage manufacturing industry, for example, Coca-Cola identified an HR staff member’s interest in manufacturing operations and created a hybrid HR/plant management role in response. The outcome was so successful, it became a catalyst for broader implementation. The company began moving more employees into different roles and establishing lines of progression for other career opportunities across the local business unit.
3. Offer Job Rotations and Stretch Assignments
Employees in similar functional areas can learn new skills by rotating jobs and tasks. This method is popular in food manufacturing. For instance, at Nomad Foods, plant managers encourage production workers to gain engineering skills so they can perform basic machine maintenance. Nomad says it not only helps people build new skills, but also improves cross-functional teamwork.
At more senior levels, stretch assignments are a highly effective way to help employees push the boundaries of their current role, so they can improve and expand their professional skills and become better prepared for next steps. In the tech industry, for example, organizations are challenging developers to step out of their comfort zone and take on project management and other client-facing responsibilities.
4. Support Academic Learning
Often, employers lose strong talent when younger workers resign to continue academic studies on a full-time basis. Employers are responding with a variety of attractive alternatives. For instance, some companies pay educational expenses for people who remain onboard. They may also reduce an employee’s work hours. And some employers are offering these options even if people are seeking qualifications that don’t directly relate to their current role.
Here’s how this is working at consumer goods retailer, Iceland. A recent job share arrangement made it possible for two staff members to work reduced hours, so one could return from maternity leave and another could continue university studies. Building flexibility like this into the employee experience demonstrates a serious commitment to employee wellbeing and ongoing development.
5. Emphasize Shared Leadership and Mutual Accountability
Shared leadership and accountability can help different divisions work together more effectively. With this approach, organizations assign common objectives to separate functions or business units, and then measure their collective impact. This enables division heads to gain important skills, knowledge, and experiences that help them become more agile leaders.
Nomad Foods firmly believes in encouraging different division heads to work together, while giving them flexibility in how they achieve mutual objectives. According to Nomad, expanding a leader’s influence in this way tends to drive employees’ overall willingness to take ownership and accountability for outcomes.
These examples are only some of the ways organizations are successfully introducing more flexibility into their employee development strategies. If you’re just starting to implement these methods, first try a limited test case or pilot program and evaluate its impact before committing to wide-scale change.
Regardless, it’s important to recognize that organizations are moving aggressively in this direction. So, the sooner you can identify flexible alternatives that will enhance your classic development offerings, the better.