Article: Employees need to be skilled in their ability to anticipate change: Fidelma Butler, Zendesk

Learning & Development

Employees need to be skilled in their ability to anticipate change: Fidelma Butler, Zendesk

The post-COVID era offers a great opportunity for L&D professionals to prove that they can be agile, proactive, forward-focused and commercial-minded professionals, believes Fidelma Butler, Vice President - Talent & Organization Development at Zendesk.
Employees need to be skilled in their ability to anticipate change: Fidelma Butler, Zendesk

More than ever, businesses are witnessing an accelerated need to nurture lifelong learning mindsets and boost digital, analytical, and technical skills. Companies that continue to invest in training and offer learning opportunities for their talent will emerge as winners on the other side of this crisis.

What are these new workplace learning paradigms that COVID-19 has pushed into the spotlight – from learning to staying relevant? What does the role of L&D leaders looks like in the era of the pandemic and beyond it? How can they build resilience for enduring learning and form an improved learning culture in their organizations?

In an exclusive interaction with People Matters, Fidelma Butler, Vice President - Talent & Organization Development at Zendesk, sheds light on these questions and the changing face of learning.

Here are a few excerpts from the interview-

The pandemic has also brought back the importance of reskilling and upskilling of resources as part of the larger business transformation in the wake of the crisis. What do you think are some of the trends around reskilling and upskilling post-COVID-19?

Given the rapidly evolving and changing technologies, reskilling and upskilling was already in the limelight even before the pandemic struck. Back in 2017, a report from McKinsey Global Institute suggested that as many as 375 million workers—or 14 percent of the global workforce—would have to switch occupations or acquire new skills by 2030 because of automation and artificial intelligence. The pandemic has accelerated this and L&D professionals need to rise to the challenge of reskilling and upskilling. 

First, with the growth of virtual interaction, leadership skills like agility, feedback-giving, and remote engagement are much more important. These are not ‘soft’ skills! These are the make or break skills that a leader needs as table stakes in our post-COVID-19 world, and they need to be upskilled in order to deliver. At Zendesk, we have launched anytime feedback capabilities to drive an always-on feedback culture. 

Second, an organization needs to be able to proactively determine the critical skills it needs, assess whether it has these, find them externally if it doesn't, and upskill/reskill existing employees accordingly. Priority needs to be given to critical skills that enable crucial workflows and processes, as organizations must be both resilient and efficient.

I anticipate greater use of contingent workforces in the future, and people with certain key skills adopting freelance-style ‘portfolio careers’. 

Finally, 2020 has proven that change is part and parcel of a modern professional life. Employees need to be skilled in their ability to anticipate change, respond to it, face it with resilience, and thrive in uncertainty. But for that to happen, organizations need to provide the enabling psychologically-safe structures and resources, and first and foremost, treat their employees as people.

How is the role of L&D professionals changing? 

Learning and Development has been evolving significantly, especially in the last 15 years, as the focus has shifted from a technology-led approach to a technology-enabled approach.

Now, the pandemic also plays a pivotal role in the journey. In fact, the post-COVID era offers a great opportunity for L&D professionals to prove that they can be agile, proactive, forward-focused, and commercial-minded professionals.

Previously, the main focus of L&D was mostly on large-scale, in-person programming that remained broadly consistent year-on-year. However, given the current circumstances, L&D professionals need to continually assess the skills needed by the organization and to then align learning priorities accordingly. They also shouldn't be beholden to water-tight budgets, pre-planned a year in advance. Rather, they need to maintain relationships with external providers to be able to pivot and add programming in response to changing business needs. For example, this summer at Zendesk, we quickly introduced a four-module learning series for leaders in conjunction with Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley on the topics of leading in a VUCA world. 

The L&D function has also often taken on the challenge of educating employees on societal issues. The COVID-19 crisis and focus on racial justice have brought systemic inequities that already existed in the forefront. Though we hear that we are all facing the same storm, the truth is that we are all traveling in different boats and weathering the storm in our own ways. At Zendesk, we have launched an Allyship Toolkit on our learning platform, The Lab. These materials provide employees with the resources to be more aware of equity, conscious inclusion, unconscious bias, and to learn strategies to promote allyship in the workplace.

Companies that continue to invest in training and offer learning opportunities for their talent will emerge as winners on the other side of this crisis. What are some of the L&D initiatives initiated by Zendesk in this pandemic?

At Zendesk, we invested in setting up ‘The Lab’, which is our learning platform powered by Degreed. The Lab helps employees access trainings and resources from anywhere and easily share content with their teams and peers. It helps to build and expand their knowledge base through exploration and experimentation with new topics. Employees can also access essential and recommended professional development activities on the platform. 

Additionally, we have enabled ‘Anytime Feedback’ capabilities to drive an always-on feedback culture, via Workday and a Slack integration. This has been really successful in enabling regular feedback amongst employees in real-time, rather than on a timeline mandated by the organization.

The pandemic also highlights the need to reskill and upskill workers towards stronger data science skills, a better understanding of artificial intelligence, and to expand digital literacy overall. What is Zendesk doing in that direction?

The pandemic has only accelerated the trend toward reskilling and upskilling workers, including the areas of agile leadership, data science, and digital literacy. As a software company, these skills are core to running our business so internally we focus efforts on making sure our teams always have access to the tools and training to be effective and successful at their jobs - in spite of becoming a distributed workforce and enduring a global pandemic. 

Outside of Zendesk, we are committed to helping the communities where we live and work, and a big part of that commitment involves supporting digital literacy.

In fact, the goal of our foundation, the Zendesk Neighbor Foundation, is to engage with the people around us and provide support to organizations committed to local neighborhood improvement. In particular, we focus on addressing poverty and homelessness, health care, education, gender equality, workforce development, and technical literacy. 

This has come to life even further during the pandemic through our Tech for Good program. By giving away Zendesk products — and skilled employees to help implement them — Tech for Good allows nonprofits to maximize their resources. Using our software, community organizations are better able to track volunteers and donations, release emergency response resources, and give clients personalized help. 

As talent leaders reimagine workplace learning, what are some of the non-negotiables for improving learning culture in their organizations?

The last year has shown us that it is more important now than ever to foster a learning culture within organizations. Formal learning needs to be more informal; bite-sized and in real-time. Employees are so busy reacting to the change around them, keeping the organization humming, and managing their own well-being. Taking large chunks of time out for formal learning over video conferencing is unrealistic. Rather, L&D professionals need to provide more agile, constant learning opportunities - incorporating feedback into everyday life, facilitating peer learning, gamification, and ‘ah-ha’ moments in daily life.

L&D professionals need to upskill themselves in tools that support asynchronous learning, peer learning, and virtual learning and intentionally enable this sort of learning opportunity. 

Finally, new hiring onboarding in a virtual-first capacity is particularly challenging, especially when it comes to culture. Organizations need to reimagine this experience to ensure it is engaging, informative, and lays the foundation for a learning culture for that person’s future with the organization.

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Topics: Learning & Development, #ReimagineLearning

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