Brexit is a hot topic in the U.K. right now, and rightly so; it will potentially significantly affect the prosperity of the nation. There is much uncertainty about the whole project. Part of the difficulty is that we haven’t been down this path before, and predictions of what might happen vary wildly. Expert opinions are often dismissed, the flow of useful information is hindered and uncertainty increases. An evolutionary adaptation to focus on what we experience rather than what we know exacerbates this situation, as we dismiss the potential danger simply because it is not what we are presently experiencing. In some organizations, these circumstances have resulted in a lack of active planning for the range of possible Brexit outcomes.
So far, Brexit has had the effect of suppressing the British economy as a whole; the U.K.’s current growth rates are the lowest of the G7, and the government is apparently hoarding medicines and food as a precaution for a disorderly exit from the EU, according to the Financial Times’ economics editor, Chris Giles.
Fortunately, the L&D function has the potential to add real value in this situation by helping to reassure and bring confidence to employees and enhance the business’ responsiveness and agility. Here’s how.
1. Promote a Learning Culture.
Ambiguity and unpredictability are problematic for organizational planning. A learning culture focuses on the constant sharing of learning, perhaps through traditional “learning lunches” or perhaps online through wikis or messenger groups focused on specific challenges. A learning culture incorporates a willingness for people to take risks and a conscious reduction in any blame culture that exists. When the “people on the ground” proactively share skills and problem-solving for specific Brexit-induced difficulties, they can be enormously helpful to the organization. These activities encourage an outward-facing, responsive culture that will build competitiveness and, therefore, promote a learning culture.
2. Find out What Is Happening Inside and Outside the Organization.
L&D professionals often have strong networks outside their organization. The ambiguous nature of the current Brexit climate lends itself to using these networks, without fear of losing a competitive advantage, to find out how others are managing this challenge. Using your network in this way can help to answer questions such as these:
- What strategies are the companies in your supplier chain using?
- What do they see as the main challenges of Brexit?
- Is there something you can offer in your local geographic area or within your supply chain that would support your business?
- Do you need to start building up a visa application competence?
- Is your supply chain likely to be disrupted if Brexit is not smooth?
- Do you have people with the right skills to negotiate for access across borders?
Listen to the “fuzzy” signals – those hints that a specific area may become problematic – for example, an increase in customer requests for a less popular service, unusual customer complaints or supply chain disruption. Compile the data, search for trends and communicate early so that your organization has the opportunity to respond.
Listen to what your learners are saying. Carefully collate their responses and ensure that they are appropriately passed up the line. The employees participating in training sessions and other, wider interventions are likely to be the closest to customers and the processes impacted by Brexit. They may be the first to spot issues, and your central role can prove invaluable in ensuring that the organization is aware of the issues and that employees are aware of what you are doing. This approach can allow for a more flexible and agile response to the issues, which is likely to provide a competitive advantage.
3. Manage Ambiguity and Complexity.
This current Brexit challenge is a classic VUCA environment – that is, it is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. L&D professionals, with our skills in coaching and mentoring, are well placed to support individuals in the business who need help managing through this challenging time. The first task is to support leaders and managers in understanding the degree of ambiguity. Lines of questioning around what is known, what is probable and what is completely uncertain may help to reduce the scope of the ambiguity and support managers in identifying what they need to focus their attention on next.
Emotional support with resilience training and associated provisions ensure that you provide a focus on well-being. Encourage an onward resilience coaching approach for your line managers to develop resilience across the wider organization as the managers cascade their learning. A standard coaching approach such as the GROW (“goals,” “reality,” “opportunities” and “what next”) model can help focus managers and other employees on identifying challenges and opportunities. The process of discussing these issues, one-on-one and, perhaps more importantly, as a team, can allow for timely responses to the changing environment.
Ensure two-way flows of information to inform the organization, maintaining a clear and consistent transparent message about how it is responding to the situation.
4. Support the War for Talent.
The skills gap may be exacerbated by Brexit – if not through an exclusion of European Union citizens then by a continuation of their voting with their feet and leaving. Certainly, employment has remained ebullient, with full time employment higher than expected and productivity remaining stubbornly low. You can approach this challenge by:
- Conducting a training needs analysis for the restricted pool of applicants
- Using innovative design to bring employees up to productivity more quickly
- Promoting L&D to help build the employer brand
- Supporting the rush for apprentices, finding the best providers local to you and building a relationship with them
Overall, be sure that you stay alert and connected as the Brexit situation plays out. Of course, in the event of a second referendum, we will have a new set of issues to deal with. But in the meantime, your primary focus should be helping your organization to be alert and responsive to changes in the environment and supporting employees through the ambiguity and change.