As the coronavirus pandemic caught businesses everywhere off guard and workers were sent home to work remotely, many showed great resilience and the ability to cope with an unexpected situation. Some, however, were negatively impacted by the large pivot toward remote work. While some businesses can actually thrive in such an environment, others face decreased productivity and the risk that workers will lose some of their effectiveness.

With so much time being spent away from the office, even employees who diligently work to the best of their abilities may suffer dwindling skill levels from being out of practice in the traditional work environment. After a year-plus, many workers around the country have gotten comfortable doing their jobs from home, but at what cost?

"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," says Baron Christopher Hanson at SmartBrief.1 "The bottom line is that WFH (working from home) 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."

He goes on to say that business leaders should assess the "pandemic-disrupted proficiency" of employees and create an ecosystem of learning partners to help implement new skills that are important to their current business models, which may be different now from what they were pre-pandemic.

Why Employee Skills May Have Slipped

There are several reasons why some employees may have suffered skill depletion. Being out of practice from performing duties in person is the major one. The less you do something, and the further back in time it was when you last did it, the less likely you are to be as proficient as you once were. Other factors may include distractions at home, a lack of supervision and face to face interactions, and possibly a lack of access to key information or equipment.

How to Tell if Skills Have Slipped

You'll generally be able to tell if employees' skills have slipped when other team members become unable to do their work as effectively as a result, or if you notice tasks aren't being completed or aren't being completed well. You'll likely begin to hear more complaints from staff. Once you start looking at who is responsible for the task in question, you can start getting an idea, though it's important not to rush to judgment. There might be more to the story than meets the eye.

"Prior to the pandemic, most leaders might have reflexively zeroed in on the underperformer as the primary unit of analysis and presumed the problem was the result of insufficient skills, lack of initiative, commitment, and/or a poor attitude,” explains Ron Carucci at Harvard Business Review.2 "While these often play some role in underperformance, they rarely account for all of it. That’s why focusing on the underperformance vs. the underperformer leads to better problem solving. This is especially true today when a myriad of new factors could be contributing to the issue."

What can you do about it?

One possible solution is to convert back to a normal, in-person work environment, but this will obviously depend on safety, current guidelines/restrictions as the state of the pandemic shifts, and employees' willingness to return to in-person work. Not everyone will be comfortable going back, so if you require a return to the office, you may find yourself shorthanded.

Think about providing an incentive to return to the office or provide a gradual return such as two days per week at first. Employees may still be slow to return to ideal skill levels, so consider investing in on-the-job refresher courses.

As Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel Corporation said, “There are only two ways a manager can impact an employee’s output: motivation and training.  If you are not training, then you are neglecting half the job.”  Look into implementing learning programs that employees can utilize whether they're working in-person or remotely. Provide online training, including one-on-one for individual skills and/or group training sessions such as time management, strategic problem solving, or internal communications, even if it needs to happen via Zoom. iSpring offers a guide for training remote workers that can give you a starting point.3 It involves using a learning management system, delivering learning materials, virtual classrooms, and tracking results.

You can also consider "reskilling" and training employees on entirely new skills or for different roles in the company altogether, whether it’s sales, marketing, tech, public relations, and others. In some cases, this might be a good time to hit the reset button and see if an employee is matched to the best position for their abilities. Some may excel in different areas than what they've been focused on.

Don't write off remote work as a lost cause if you find that skills are being impacted. Look at the problem areas, determine solutions that can improve the situation, and see if learning programs can help get staff back on track.

Be sure company goals, such as sales goals, are the main focus, and that training programs are aligned with them. Have leadership help guide programs and get everyone on the right track in their respective departments. Build a vibrant and fun learning culture, and your business’s productivity should increase.

1. https://www.smartbrief.com/original/2021/03/how-ceos-and-hr-can-overcome-pandemic-sabbatical-effect

2. https://hbr.org/2020/05/how-to-manage-an-employee-whos-struggling-to-work-remotely

3. https://www.ispringsolutions.com/blog/how-to-train-remote-employees