Reskilling: inspiring workers for a digital future

Encouraging people to go on the reskilling journey is far from straightforward – despite the necessity of adapting to the changes currently coursing through the world of work.

Indeed, the World Economic Forum suggests that nearly half of us will experience some kind of skills-based disruption in 2023. Data from BCG suggests that companies are beginning to recognize the importance of this, with around 1.5% of annual budgets going toward reskilling initiatives.

Changing behavior

Much of this investment has gone into technology platforms and learning programs, however, with little real evidence that actual employee behaviors have changed in any meaningful way. For reskilling initiatives to work, it’s vital that we better understand how and why people engage in reskilling.

A team of behavioral scientists from MoreThanNow and Vodafone created an experiment to understand what effective engagement might look like. They found that when leaders spoke plainly about the importance of keeping their skills relevant in a digital future, more people took action. Most leaders usually talk about reskilling as a way for personal growth or to meet company goals, but a direct and clear message has a stronger impact.

The research involved 800 Vodafone employees from different parts of the world. The aim was to find the best way to get people interested and engaged in the company’s program for change. The researchers examined four different ways to introduce the program:

  • Personal growth: You'll invest in your career and succeed in a digital future.
  • Company strategy: You'll help turn Vodafone into a tech company for the digital age.
  • Enjoyable learning: You'll find joy in learning as you discover new skills every day.
  • Career relevance and security: You'll develop skills for the digital future.

Often, when we try and engage people in change, we typically use the first two messages when discussing reskilling. However, the study found that the fourth message, which emphasized career relevance and security, had the most positive impact on how people felt about reskilling for tech-related roles.

Open to change

Those who received this message were, on average, 4.7% more open to exploring new career opportunities and 4.9% more likely to consider reskilling compared to those who heard the other messages. Even though these percentages may seem small, they are statistically meaningful, and the language change is both cost-free and scalable.

A 4.7% change probably doesn’t sound like a great deal, but when companies are investing millions of dollars in reskilling, this can add up to a considerable amount, especially when the change is achieved by nothing more than a change in language.

It’s also worth noting that the research also found that people who received the “career relevancy” message were also around 15% more likely to actively explore reskilling opportunities via the company learning platform.

Getting the message right

The researchers believe that by framing the message in terms of what might be lost if employees don’t reskill, they tap into our hard-wired desire to avoid losses in life. After all, behavioral research has shown that we’re far more affected by the potential of losing money than we are by the prospect of gaining it.

They provide several tips to help ensure that the need for change is communicated effectively:

  • Establish the context: People must be fully aware of the potential impact new technology is likely to have on their careers. While scaremongering isn’t to be recommended, there needs to be honesty and transparency in how change is communicated. This will likely involve showcasing how technology will be used to augment their work so that people don’t get paralyzed by fear but rather encouraged to act.
  • Make the message relevant: The best way to do this is via specific examples that employees can relate to. If possible, these messages should be personalized to people’s specific circumstances. They should discuss how new technologies will impact their specific work area and what the likely changes will mean for them and their team.
  • Keep it real: Often, when we discuss new technology, it can seem like science fiction that’s far off in the future. Discussions must be framed in the here and now so that it’s not seen as nice to have but rather a vital process to ensure that people are equipped for the future. When framing the message, try to outline a clear pathway so that people know what happens when they complete the reskilling.

While it’s hard to know the precise ways in which technology will impact the workplace, the need to update our skills in order to adapt seems inevitable. This research provides some valuable pointers to ensure that employees are brought along for the ride rather than left in the wake of technological disruption.