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How CEOs and HR can overcome the “pandemic sabbatical effect”

The rushed shift to working from home during the pandemic has left many companies neglectful of skill sets -- and HR and C-suite leaders alike must be ready to retrain, reskill and upskill their employees after the pandemic ends.

7 min read


How CEOs and HR can overcome the "pandemic sabbatical effect"


Since the pandemic engulfed our local lives and global workplaces a year ago, executive leaders and senior managers have had to shoulder, cajole and ultimately adapt to the most bizarre non-wartime changes to workplace normality, operations and career progress in recent history.

Almost overnight, hundreds of millions of people had to begin working remotely from home over the internet, far removed from their commercial real estate, communal workspaces and regular networking places. While many professionals are pivoting and prospering brilliantly, other great people are out of work or have “COVID-retired” from their businesses entirely.

Nearing the one-year mark, many senior executives and managers still lie awake wondering how to keep their isolated employees motivated, engaged and performing at peaks of perfection.

The mounting problem is a potential shift in critical human resource sharpness or top-of-game dexterity that may have dulled or atrophied during this year of working so differently. In many cases, this wave of workplace apathy may come back to bite, sting and potentially become disastrous after COVID-19.

SmartBrief contributor Dana Theus argued in 2017 “most people are not prepared for the job they have when they begin it.”  What I am arguing today in 2021 is that too many employees may not be prepared for the job they have once they return to it.

What’s not being talked about (and perhaps budgeted for or prioritized enough) is the degree to which some critical employee skills — hard and soft — have degenerated based on what I’m calling the “pandemic sabbatical effect.”

As two general examples –– and with your own workplace and industry in mind –– once-busy commercial chefs and kitchen crews have not been on their feet cooking for hours day and night, physically preparing and serving hundreds of patrons at their regular pace or environment. Airline pilots have not been flying and landing their planes as much as they did pre-pandemic. Reports of fundamental errors both in the air and on the ground have increased.

The result is a subtle fogginess, or loss of regular on-the-job proficiencies, combined with a lack of “steel sharpening steel” that’s normally maintained by working in-person with peers and co-workers. The bottom line is that WFH has surely softened the performance levels of some key roles –– be it in the heat of the kitchen, the altitude of the cockpit or somewhere else within your own organization.

What every C-suite and business leader must do now is assess the pandemic-disrupted proficiency of each potentially atrophied role on your payroll, then create an ecosystem of learning partners who can help implement any new employee skills that are now critical to your pivoted, post-pandemic business model –– especially given that a portion of your employees may continue working remotely.

To be clear, “going soft” is not simply about employees staying safe at home or being forced to work, communicate and produce deliverables mostly via the internet. We’ve all been inspired by organizations and people who’ve pivoted brilliantly under the circumstances. Sadly, not all roles or business models have been so fortunate.

Your own “pandemic sabbatical effect” can be determined by how dormant or altered any workforce role has become, or how far removed certain employees types have been from their pre-pandemic on-the-job training or in-action skill sets.

Looking into my mirror, this road warrior has not booked travel, packed a bag, put on a suit and tie, hustled to the airport for a 6 a.m. flight or even networked at an industry event in-person for almost a year. Waking up in my own bed, cooking healthy meals from scratch, reading and writing new books, and seeing my lovely wife so often has been both an alternative universe and a blessing. However, like many overnight Zoom or FaceTime experts who strangely miss the sting of airport security lines and overly talkative seatmates, some of my road warrior proficiencies have surely gone soft.

Even though it’s not your employees’ faults, it’s the mutual responsibility of your C-suite to take action and for employees to embrace brushing up. Pending your own internal HR analysis, it’s time for identified roles to perhaps return to their respective “flight simulators” or test kitchens to either retrain, reskill or upskill after they return to regular workplace conditions.

As Scott Clark wrote in August 2020: “Reskilling refers to learning initiatives that teach employees new skills that prepare them to move to a new job within a business. Upskilling improves an employee’s existing skillset and adds to their capabilities and knowledge. Businesses upskill employees to give them greater responsibility and prepare them to take on more senior roles.”

Since the pandemic began, 42% of companies have increased reskilling and upskilling, Davis writes, citing a TalentLMS study.

As McKinsey reported in May 2020: “The coronavirus pandemic has made this question more urgent. Workers across industries must figure out how they can adapt to rapidly changing conditions, and companies have to learn how to match those workers to new roles and activities.”

As the containment phase of the crisis gradually recedes and people return to commercial workplaces and skyscrapers, every CEO, chief financial officer and chief learning officer will be faced with their own workforce’s pandemic sabbatical hangover.

I’m not suggesting this applies to your rock-star employees who have pivoted brilliantly and overperformed during pandemic conditions. These employees are your workforce heroes, who deserve a standing ovation and a sunny vacation with fruity cocktails.

However, with so many types of employees and experienced experts separated from their traditional workplaces, C-suite leadership and HR departments should strongly consider doubling-down on retraining, reskilling and upskilling efforts accordingly – carefully focusing on identified roles and critical skill sets that have been on pandemic sabbatical for too long. 

As Theus posited then, “underfunding training in middle management is particularly short-sighted because younger workers, who are quickly becoming the beating hearts of our organizations, highly value opportunities to grow and improve themselves on the job.”

The thesis here is that leaders of any organization, large or small, must rethink training budgets to make skills improvement a key strategic lever for adapting to the next normal. In practice, this could include intensive workshops, distance-economy training, peer-reviewed talent assessments and the core post-pandemic dexterities that will best serve your organization’s business model going forward.

Theus concluded in 2017 that “enthusiasm ensures that the company’s training and coaching investments directed at middle managers provide immediate returns in the form of performance and productivity.”

I agree with her argument even more so today –– for all levels of employment –– adding that more proactive retraining, disciplined reskilling and motivating upskilling initiatives and budgets will be “the next normal,” even after this crisis passes.

The first major step for any CEO and HR expert is to identify granularly if the “pandemic sabbatical effect” has crept into any workforce roles on your watch. Then, implement tailored learning journeys that close each critical skill gap and excite your workforce.


Baron Christopher Hanson is the principal and lead counselor at RedBaron Consulting. A former rugby player, as well as a Harvard graduate and expert on business turnarounds and post-COVID strategy, he has written for Harvard Business Review and SmartBrief considerably, including features in Forbes, SHRM, NBC News and hundreds of other publications and blogs. Hanson can be reached for weekly or monthly consulting, coaching, and intensive study or writing engagements via or over Twitter @RBC_ThinkTank.

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