May 27, 2020 | by Ying Zhou

Employee involvement and skill development during the pandemic

We’ve launched a 12-week email series for employers on work and wellbeing during – and after – the pandemic. Each short email is packed with the latest analysis and evidence-informed approaches to measure and maintain your team’s wellbeing, and offer different options for a safe, healthy, and resilient organisation.

As part of the series, we bring together leading academics and business analysts to dig in the data and share their insights on possible solutions that could work for different organisations.

Employee involvement and skill development

Involvement in workplace decision-making is important for two main reasons:

  • It satisfies the basic human desire for control and independence. People have three fundamental psychological needs: competence, autonomy and relatedness. As work is one of the key life arenas in which these needs are expressed, individuals who are able to exercise greater control over their work enjoy better health and wellbeing.
  • Employee involvement also benefits organisational performance. When employees are encouraged to take initiative over their work and participate in wider organisational decision-making, they show higher levels of work motivation, commitment and skill development.

The importance of informal learning

Skill development can be either formal or informal. Traditionally, research has mainly focused on formal skill development via employer-provided training. However, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of informal learning. There is often a considerable gap between the possession of formal knowledge and the capacity for effective work performance, as a large amount of practical expertise such as problem-solving skills and technical know-hows are acquired through self-learning, experience on the job and the sharing of knowledge among co-workers. Our research* based on data from 28 European countries shows that employee involvement is particularly strongly related to the prevalence of informal learning. Employee involvement, on its own, accounts for a quarter of the variance in informal learning in Europe.

Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic 

During the pandemic, the importance of informal learning is likely to grow. Employer-funded training often declines during economic downturns due to the constraints of financial resources. Under this context, informal learning becomes more important for maintaining and updating one’s skills. Working from home generally increases individuals’ job autonomy which creates excellent opportunities for self-directed learning. Instead of attending externally-imposed courses, individuals can set their own goals and choose learning materials based on their personal preferences and aspirations.

The benefits of keeping up with informal learning during the pandemic are multi-fold:

  • In the short term, it helps to create a regular daily routine and minimises the feeling of unproductive time during the lockdown.
  • Learning also leads to enhanced confidence and self-esteem which can positively influence other family members.
  • In the long term, higher levels of skills can increase job security and employability, which is especially important when economic recession is on the way.

The pandemic is likely to have a far-reaching impact on the economy and society. From an individual’s perspective, engaging in self-directed learning to strengthen one’s core capabilities is probably one of the best ways to prepare for the uncertain future.

What can employers do?

Although recessions create tempting conditions to cut training budgets, research shows that increasing training investments in times of economic crisis can actually be a smart move. Cross-national comparative research on the impact of the 2008 Great Recession** found that while training provision declined in the UK, Ireland and most East European countries after the recession, it remained unchanged in the Scandinavian countries and even increased in Germany and Belgium. Economic recessions reduce the opportunity cost of training because lost productivity is less of a concern when market demand is slack.

If time and resources allow, investing in staff development helps employers hold onto a skilled labour force and enjoy a head start when the economy recovers. In contrast, cyclical firing, hiring and re-training can be both costly and demoralising. The COVID-19 crisis is a good time to reflect on the lessons learned from the past and come up with more effective strategies to deal with the challenges ahead.

*Gallie D, Zhou Y. (2020). ‘Employee Involvement, Work Engagement and Skill Development in Europe’ (forthcoming). Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

**Dieckhoff, M. (2013). Continuing Training in Times of Economic Crisis. In Gallie D (ed) Economic Crisis, Quality of Work and Social Integration. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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