Organisations around the world have been forced to adapt to new work practices quickly since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies such as supermarket chains and delivery services, for example, couldn’t possibly hire fast enough to meet the sudden surge in business. At the same time, companies in other industries such as hospitality and travel have seen a drastic decline in business. Despite interventions like the UK Government's furlough scheme, the economic impact of the pandemic has caused a surge in unemployment and workforce restructuring. While some organisations still had to make the difficult decision to reduce their workforce, others such as PayPal made ‘no-layoff’ pledges to help keep people working during the first few months of the pandemic. As a result, we’ve seen wider adoption of rapid redeployment, the immediate shift of a group of workers from one function to another to accommodate evolving business needs.

capturing untapped skills through rapid redeployment

As we move into the next phase of pandemic-related business changes, companies that are embracing the phenomenon of rapid redeployment are realising they already have talent with untapped skills. Many are looking to better understand these skills so they can tap into them if business needs shift again. HR and business leaders are asking, ’What if we could capture what we’ve learned?’ ‘What if this discovery of hidden skills and talent could be more systematic and less accidental?’ ’What if we could enable more people to discover and use their whole skill set at work?’

When it comes to this challenge of capturing the skill sets of your workforce, we see one factor that can help large organisations know their people better: new opportunities for visibility. As employees work with new teams, either permanently or on a project basis, they are essentially starting again in many ways and establishing who they are and what they do. If employees can be freed from restrictive job descriptions, especially as part of a project team, they can shine by bringing their full capabilities and redefining who they are and what they can accomplish.

Opportunities for internal visibility are sometimes available through formal stretch assignments or project teams. More often, they’re showing up in less formal ways as employees comb their internal networks to figure out how to get work done smarter and faster. One company we know had only a week to publish a new 50-page safety guideline manual and distribute it to their field team. They pulled together a team of their project managers, writers and even individuals with graphic design experience – all of whom sat outside their corporate communications team – to support the effort. They did this through scrappy mining of their internal networks, a brilliant idea born out of sheer necessity.

Our advice? Help your employees build, secure and take advantage of these internal networks.

internal networking then and now

The art of forming a strong internal network has been around for a long time but has evolved over the years. Michael Watkins, author of the essential onboarding guide, ‘The First 90 Days,’ coined the phrase ‘inboarding’ to refer to the support that organizations give people transferring internally. In a 2016 article in Harvard Business Review, he pointed out how most companies pay attention to onboarding new hires from the outside but take a ‘sink or swim’ attitude with internal transfers. To mitigate the risk of failure of these internal transfers, he suggests matching support to the nature of the challenge faced by the internal move, including navigating politics and conflicts.

Internal networks can help companies spark more collaboration across teams, leading to better ideas and innovation. As this need for innovation accelerated due to COVID-19, internal networking became less about seeking promotions and more about finding a way to get the work done. In the process, many companies threw aside rules and standard processes, aligning for a short time period behind a common mission. This led to many internal networks and connections forming out of necessity. These have proven valuable to many companies to not only work under stressful, emergency conditions, but also enable new pathways of learning and engagement for employees, helping to upskill and reskill within the flow of the business. For companies to rapidly redeploy workers from one function to another, they’ve had to rapidly reskill them. 

the importance of internal networks for upskilling and reskilling

The learning and development field commonly quotes research from the Center for Creative Leadership on the 70/20/10 model, showing that most learning happens ‘through challenging experiences and assignments.’ Given the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen many people take on responsibilities outside their job descriptions. This has led to an exponential amount of learning happening in organisations. And learning, whatever form it takes, is more important than ever. With one-third of jobs expected to be replaced by automation in the next decade, any opportunity for employees to upskill and reskill, especially while also performing tasks to keep the business moving forward, is golden and valuable.

Companies with strong internal networks can also help reduce turnover and keep people engaged in the company. A study from Personnel Psychology found that individuals with a stronger internal (versus external) network were more likely to stay with their employer in two years. The opposite was also true: those with a stronger external network were more likely to leave. While much has shifted since this study and employee retention may not be the highest concern of companies experiencing drastic change right now, many organisations still face retention risks for important roles or hard-to-find skill sets. Keeping people networked internally will be key to accomplishing the new business goals coming out of COVID-19 and moving forward.

Finally, internal networking can create points of connection when many work-from-home employees feel disconnected from the company and from each other. While virtual happy hours and team yoga classes have helped people stay connected, forming strong pathways to new network contacts within an organisation can help create sustainable connections. Well-networked employees will not only feel connected to the company but also feel like they’re in-the-know when new information is at a premium.  

supporting new internal networks

If your company has found these points of connection to be helpful, there are a few simple things you can do to encourage the formation of more of these internal networks.

First, consider having fun and using virtual team-building tools. Airbnb created virtual experiences that enable people from different parts of the organisation to interact as they learn about a new topic. Team scavenger hunts can be done using virtual connectivity tools and breakout rooms (and many ideas are available by just searching the term ‘virtual scavenger hunt’). While it may be tempting to pit intact teams against each other in these virtual competitions, try forming teams that are cross-functional to help people expand their relationships and internal networks.

Another factor to consider in creating more networking connections in your organisation is to show all employees how to network. Introverts tend to need more specific direction and guidance when it comes to exactly how to network or connect with colleagues. Consider supplying templates for emails for initial outreach or sample agendas for virtual meetings to help those for whom networking might not come naturally.

Finally, consider using technology to enable stronger internal networks. This technology should be available to all employees, regardless of level or location, to democratise the connections across your organisation. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and work-from-home connectivity needs, Randstad RiseSmart has developed an internal social network to show employees potential connections based on their role and their skills. Using tools like this will help employees see new paths to people who may help them with their internal career aspirations or simply help them view their company from a different perspective. Providing some structure and agenda for these networking meetings will help ensure they survive a busy employee’s crowded calendar.

Finding new paths for networking and collaboration now can help your employees feel connected. It can also empower them to gain visibility into areas outside their job descriptions where they may have value – helping them reskill and upskill in the process. Enabling these connections across the company can help you invite new thinking and innovation. Given the amount of uncertainty now in the business world, innovation will be a key factor in driving long-term success at your company.

jeanne schad.

talent solutions and strategy practice leader

02 November 2020

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