It’s a tough time to be an SME. Uncertainty in the marketplace and government-imposed restrictions have prompted 180-degree pivots for many employers, while falling revenues are hitting most businesses hard.  

With so much in flux, seemingly non-critical areas like learning and development (L&D) are often the first to suffer – but this could be detrimental to your business. For SMEs looking to pivot or recommunicate their offering at this time, prioritising the upskilling of your team in key areas is crucial to helping you meet customer needs and adapt to new requirements within your industry.

Investing in L&D is also an important step in keeping your staff engaged, according to Michael Avern, consultant trainer at NatWest Mentor. “There will be some employees who will feel left by the wayside, expected to continue their work alone and unseen – but if you can really demonstrate that you are investing in your people, that will encourage them to stay motivated and engaged,” he explains.

So, what steps should you take to make sure your L&D priorities are right for the current environment?

1. Align skills with business objectives

When it comes to identifying which skills programmes are most relevant to your business, Josh Winfield of NatWest Business Builder recommends starting by refreshing your business’s vision and goals.  

“Understand truly where the focus of the business will be throughout the rest of 2020 into 2021, and then apply that to your team,” says Winfield. “Any areas that lack experience, as well as gaps in skills and awareness that are important for regaining and maintaining business stability, will be your immediate L&D requirements.”

An example of an immediate priority would be developing agile practices across the business. “A great tool to get started with this is the Business Model Canvas – a one-page overview of your entire business model – that allows you to keep track of your customer, operations and finances and see how each one impacts the other in a single view, thus identifying where changes are needed quickly,” says Winfield.

2. Consult your team

It may seem obvious, but your first port of call to identify the skills you need should be talking to your employees – whether over email, phone or anonymously through a survey. 

“Anonymous surveys – in particular if you can show that they truly are anonymous – will ensure that you get very honest feedback from your staff,” says Avern. “In some cases, it might make for difficult reading, but it will help you get to the heart of the areas you really need to develop.”

One-on-one meetings with members of your team can also be a good place to start. “It’s about asking your staff the right questions – and this should start with ‘what can we do to help you?’. It’s about creating an environment to encourage them to speak out,” Avern adds.

“You can also hold group problem-solving clinics where people discuss the issues that they are facing and the areas in which they are interested in developing. Hearing their colleagues discuss their needs in an open forum can encourage more people to speak out.”

3. Build a list of internal champions

L&D doesn’t have to be expensive. Avern recommends employers look at the skills they already have in-house. “As business priorities continue to shift, identify people internally who possess skills and experience in areas you are looking to develop, and consider whether they can be redeployed to share their insight with the rest of your team,” he explains. “Don’t be afraid to try new things when it comes to L&D – its important to be flexible and always think of what the art of the possible is.”

As business priorities continue to shift, identify people internally who possess skills and experience in areas you are looking to develop, and consider whether they can be redeployed to share their insight with the rest of your team

Michael Avern, consultant trainer, NatWest Mentor

4. Remember soft skills

Much has been made of the need for new and improved tech skills to facilitate remote working, but the current crisis has also emphasised the importance of ‘human’ skills within the workforce, according to Lizzie Crowley, skills policy adviser at the CIPD. 

Crowley was part of the task force behind the creation of the new Skills Builder Universal Framework – a resource designed to give employers a structured way to record the skills their workforce has developed, such as listening, problem-solving and leadership, to help ascertain what skills gaps their organisations face. 

This emphasis on human skills was important, says Crowley, as they were essential in helping “individuals and businesses to be resilient in the face of change, whether it’s something as unsettling as this current environment or other crises”.

5. Find ways to make it personable

It’s the million-dollar question for software developers the world over: how to make remote working feel – less remote? Behavioural scientist at CoachHub, Rosie Evans, believes digital coaching could be an answer. 

“While in-person meetings are paused, the challenge for employers is in safeguarding their employees’ well-being through their L&D offering, as well as maintaining engagement and commitment,” she says. “Providing access to services like digital coaching is scientifically proven to build hope, engagement, resilience and optimism, while reducing stress, anxiety and depression – and increasing performance and productivity.”

6. Treat online training differently

Businesses shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that their existing training programmes can just be transferred online, says Avern. “Length is an issue – if a training session is longer than an hour and a half, people will disengage and you’ll be losing both the impact and the value for money. Try and keep your sessions concise and focused.

“At the same time, training via platforms like Zoom should never be just a PowerPoint presentation – it should be interactive and encourage discussion. You can make the most of features such as virtual breakout rooms to help with this.”

7. One size does not fit all

For chartered accountants Haines Watts, communication is at the heart of its new remote L&D strategy. “We reviewed all residential training modules and agreed to put virtual sessions in place of them,” says Emma Storer, group people manager. “For some this meant shorter sessions virtually, where we checked in with participants, while others were replaced with group coaching and virtual development sessions. Understanding the needs of all those impacted by the pandemic, so that we can factor this in when looking at new ways of delivering L&D, has been critical.”

8. Check out free resources

Whether you have specific L&D needs or are just looking to keep your workforce tuned into new industry trends, there’s a wealth of information available to help SMEs. 

“NatWest Business Builder is designed to support SMEs from idea-stage right the way through to established businesses looking or needing to change their business model,” explains Winfield. 

“Our digital learning portal is chock full of modules to help entrepreneurs cover a wide range of topics. These include practical elements like how to validate their customer or analyse market trends, through to keeping finances in check and overcoming fears, barriers and anxieties. It’s free, can be accessed anytime from anywhere, and is available to all employers.”

Through the NatWest Mentor service, we are offering access to MentorLive for free. This is an online compliance management system where you'll find a range of employment law, HR and health & safety tools, templates, policies and guidance to support you in protecting your people and business from the effects of coronavirus. We can support you in managing jobs and the impact on your business operations and the health, safety and well-being of your people. Please click here  to register for MentorLive. Mentor services may incur a cost.

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