When the pandemic first hit, workplaces instantly changed. Business leaders and employees at all levels immediately had to adjust the way they worked.

Overnight, business leaders found themselves responsible for managing fully remote workforces and employees had to maintain productivity in less-than-ideal working conditions at home or at other remote locations.

As the pandemic continues to impact how and where people work, many employees have grown used to working from home, but several challenges remain.

Adjusting to the New World of Working

In a global study conducted by SAP, Qualtrics, and Mind Share Partners, close to 66% of people reported higher stress levels since the outbreak began. In addition, remote workers are 30% more likely to say their mental health has declined, compared to those still employed in any other setting.

In a recent episode of Think Tank radio, “The Work from Home Revolution,” HR experts from Deloitte and SAP SuccessFactors discussed the work-from-home employee experience and the rise of two key trends among remote workforces: an ongoing struggle to adjust and a desire for more training.

Jonathan Pearce, a consulting principal who leads Deloitte’s Workforce Strategy practice, says the way remote employees feel about working from home has changed as the impacts of the pandemic continue to be felt.

“It started with, ‘This is very difficult.’ It was an adjustment period. [Then] we got into the summer and it was, ‘Virtual work is great. It’s fantastic!’ Eighty percent of workers didn’t want to go back full-time into the office, no matter what happened with the pandemic. [When] we got to the fall, I don’t know if it was people thinking about kids going back to school or it was dragging on too long, but all of a sudden it was, ‘Virtual work is terrible. It’s too stressful.’ Preferences have been shifting around a lot,” Pearce explains.

The fluctuating response to the new world of work isn’t surprising to Dimitar Niklev, the EMEA North Human Experience Management marketing lead at SAP. “This pandemic has completely transformed the employee experience,” he says.

Many work-from-home employees have been catapulted onto a steep learning curve when it comes to technology. Some may have stumbled through the process without the necessary supports in place from management or IT, perhaps using new – and possibly less secure technology – just to get the job done. In fact, the work-from-home reality is that 59% of employees felt more cyber secure when they were working in an office compared to at home.

The drastic technology transition has left many work-from-home employees wanting more – not just from their organizations, but from themselves – and that has ignited a desire to learn new skills.

“Employees are very eager to reskill,” Niklev observes. “We recently surveyed over 1,500 full-time employees around the world, and three-quarters of them are more motivated to improve their technical and professional skills as a result of COVID-19.”

The New World of Working Demands New Skills

The 2020 Deloitte Human Capital Trends report shows that business leaders also recognize the need to upskill their workforce. Deloitte surveyed nearly 9,000 business and HR leaders in 119 countries, and approximately 53% of respondents said that between half and all their workforce will need to change their skills and capabilities in the next three years.

It’s a massive undertaking that many agree is critical, but preparation is lacking. In fact, according to Deloitte’s report, 74% of organizations say reskilling the workforce is important or very important for their success over the next 12 to 18 months, but only 10% say they are very ready to address this trend.

Trying to Manage the Skills Shortage

The Deloitte report shows that businesses are indeed struggling to navigate the fast-changing skills landscape, and the radio show panelists tend to agree.

“Companies need a lot more education on how they need to handle this new world of working,” according to Niklev. “In some cases, training programs are actually being overlooked at a time where they have never been more critical, despite employee motivation to reskill.”

Learning adjustments are to be expected, according to Dr. Autumn Krauss, principal scientist on the SAP SuccessFactors HR Research team. She says many corporate training leaders had to instantly switch focus as the pandemic spread.

“Of course, they were putting out fires initially. All those in-person learnings needed to go remote and, admittedly, a lot of learning budgets got slashed – the discretionary, development programs – and [they] focused more on compliance-based needs when it came to learning because policies were changing or things along those lines. So, I can see the downside of that going forward as it relates to trying to shift to online learning.”

Niklev sees some downsides as well and believes virtual learning is not the best approach. With so much time spent online these days, he says employees need a more personal approach.

“Organizations need to look beyond just online courses,” Niklev points out. “They need to pair employees. They need to set up coaching and mentoring. And, really, that needs to become a key part of upskilling and reskilling.”

Being “Always On” Turns Employees Off

The always-connected corporate culture is an obstacle for learning and other areas, such as innovation and onboarding new employees.

Niklev continues, “With digital programs, there is also the lack of social interactions with colleagues. That can pose a big challenge for new joiners to feel comfortable to ask questions to their colleagues. That is something that is very much facilitated in an office environment with on-the-fly learning.”

Pearce echoes Niklev’s concerns, saying that opportunities for innovation are also lost simply because employees can’t interact with people from other areas of the business.

“What has happened is a sort of concentration of those interactions amongst teams around work outputs – very much a sort of productivity push,” says Pearce, “But what’s been lost is the broader networks across the enterprise that actually sometimes do spur the innovation.”

Technology doesn’t simply alter the social and innovative aspects of work. According to Dr. Krauss, it can also alter the corporate culture and present a psychological paradox.

It’s a cultural issue; it’s not a technology issue,” explains Krauss. “We have three psychological needs at work that technology can serve for us. It can make us be more autonomous, which is a good thing. It can make us be more productive; again, a good thing. And it can increase social connectivity if employed in certain ways. The paradox is that even though it can create all those things, it also can hinder those exact things, too: make us feel less autonomous, less productive, and less connected.      The real challenge for organizations is to figure out how to create those conditions where work technology facilitates those psychological needs rather than hinders them.”

The Silver Lining: Building a New Future of Work, Together

While there is an expectation that organizations should do more to address technology training and other skill shortages in the workforce, employees seem to understand that they play an important role with their willingness to upskill.

The Deloitte survey of global business and HR leaders revealed that both businesses and individuals need to take responsibility for workforce development. When respondents were asked to select the top two entities that should be primarily responsible for workforce development, organizations topped the list at 73%, followed by individuals at 54%. Educational institutions were a distant third at only 19%.

According to the report, “What is needed is a worker development approach that considers both the dynamic nature of jobs and the equally dynamic potential of people to reinvent themselves.”

Participants in the Think Tank radio show agree that reskilling today’s remote workforce is a shared responsibility.

“I see a great upside, as I see the democratization of learning and development,” says Krauss. “What we know about good leadership, good culture, and what employees want from their experience, we just have to apply that going forward. These concepts have been around. They’ve just increased in intensity.”

Pearce adds, “We have to forget some of the things that have become the habits of how we work, the habits of how we build culture, and the habits of how we lead. We have to learn new ways of working. That’s going to be a challenge for organizations and for each of us as leaders and team members.”

Pearce goes on to say, “I think what we’re seeing now is some really creative thinking about not just how we react but how we can build a new future of work in terms of the way work gets done, where we get it done, how we get it done, who works together, and how we collaborate. I think that’s really exciting and a new frontier. If anything, it’s the silver lining of what’s been a very difficult year.”

Niklev sees a silver lining to the struggles as well, saying, “People actually have enjoyed some of the benefits of working from home and it has been identified as a talent magnet for the future, so I think we would never go back to a world where you can’t work from home at all. I think the future is here, and I think it’s here to stay.”

Ready to learn more? Listen to the “Work-from-Home Revolution” radio show to hear the full discussion or visit our dedicated page for building skills and agility with individualized learning and development.

Kim Lessley is global director of Solution Marketing at SAP.