COVID-19 as a catalyst for closing the digital skills gap

The novel coronavirus forced the banking industry to move almost entire workforces to remote work environments and to close many branch offices. At the same time, banks have had to respond to a wave of customer calls from individuals worried about making their payments and businesses looking to secure loans and government funding to try to survive the pandemic.

To meet this demand for help, some banks have had to staff up rapidly. Across the industry, employees have had to quickly familiarize themselves with new digital tools – like virtual meetings and online chat tools – that have become their primary means to engage with customers during these uncertain times.

Like many other industries, this shift has forced banks to assess the digital competency of their teams. According to the research report Future of Work in Banking, nearly three-quarters of financial services executives surveyed believe there is either a moderate or significant skills gap at their company.

Many financial services executives see a digital skills gap in their workforces as the greatest risk to innovation and digital transformation (58 percent), customer experience (53 percent) and ability to meet growth targets (44 percent). Banks that use COVID-19 as a driver to address the digital skills gap will be better positioned to succeed in the future.

Prioritizing employee training

Despite the awareness of a significant skills gap in the areas of analytics and technology at all levels of banking, few institutions have programs in place to address these needs. That said, many banking executives expect to deploy strategies like internal training and re-skilling, hiring from competitors or partnering with a solution provider to help address the skills gap.

Yet training current employees or hiring to fill gaps is easier said than done. Executives recognize some of these challenges, with more than half saying they are worried about the ability of current employees to learn new skills. Other challenges include finding the funding for training and reskilling, and incentives for employees to learn.

To build a successful employee training program, banks must map employee skills to both short-term and long-term demands. For instance, in the short term, training can focus on enabling workers to better engage with customers in today’s contactless environment, helping them meet today’s expectations around digital customer service and remote advisory. This type of training is typically classified as “micro-skilling,” which expands an employee’s skill sets without fundamentally changing the nature of their job roles.

In the longer term, most banks see a future focused less on branches and more on digital banking. However, the industry is still only in the early stages of leveraging new technologies. In fact, the vast majority of banks do not use the cloud or robotic process automation much, if at all, and more than half make little to no use of chatbots.

As banks start to adopt more advanced technologies, they need employees who can augment the work of machines with digital skills and valuable human skills, like creativity and problem-solving. Efforts in reskilling are needed from the front office to the back office to ensure transformation occurs across the entire enterprise.

Business leaders and HR will need to identify skills that should be included in upskilling efforts. They will also need to identify future roles and reskill employees accordingly for those jobs. Processes need to be re-imagined in order to ensure both employee engagement and customer experiences are met and exceeded through all channels.

Reconfigure team structures and incentives

COVID-19 underlined just how critical it is for banks to be able to adjust operations quickly using agile approaches to working. An agile model requires teams to be small – five to 10 members – and focused on a specific goal, like new product development and business continuity. These teams must operate with clear objectives and an understanding of who is responsible for what. Organizing teams in this model can make it easier for leaders to identify what specific skill sets are needed from their employees.

As banks adjust job roles to meet today’s challenges, banks also need to re-evaluate employee performance-management and incentive structures. Banks should emphasize the importance of skills development and how it factors into overall career trajectories.

Digital transformation requires new skills, new ways of engagement and new ways of utilizing technologies. The organizations that embrace these imperatives and partner with their employees will succeed. Establishing a training and reskilling program will make banks and their employees more resilient to future disruptions.

Monica Hovsepian is global senior industry strategist, financial services, at OpenText.

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