The Impact of COVID: Is Global Upskilling Enough?
Feature Story – By Krista Gerhard
‘Normal’ will look and feel differently than it did in 2019
By this point, we’re all tired of reading about the impact of COVID-19 on this or that. Most people are looking for the day when COVID-19 is firmly in the rearview mirror and we can resume some semblance of normalcy. However, “normal” will look and feel different than it did in 2019, especially in the world of life sciences.
In the past year, this pandemic has disrupted the way our industry runs, collaborates, engages with internal and external customers and learns. Across the globe, organizations were forced to modify their traditional ways of working to maintain performance during these uncertain times.
Given the significant investment in restructuring the way we work over the past year, its more than likely that the temporary changes adopted in response to the pandemic will become permanent. In this article we take a closer look specifically at the impact of COVID on the race to upskill field teams and what is needed to ensure long-term success.
Permanent Solutions to Temporary Problems
It’s no secret that all customer-facing field teams (commercial and medical) have been working to adjust to a semi-virtual world. Medical offices and institutions have restricted access, reducing engagements or meetings to only those that are essential, timely and relevant.
As a result, field team members have been forced to make significant changes to their daily routines, where casual office drop-ins, weekly face-to-face clinical discussions or peerto-peer educational opportunities are harder to get than an N95 mask or a roll of toilet paper in March 2020.
In early 2020, we were hopeful that the effects of COVID would be temporary and that all we would need to do is give field teams the skills they need to “weather the storm.” For almost a year, learning & development (L&D) professionals across the globe have worked to develop solutions to enable their teams to adjust to the new normal.
Many conducted extensive needs analyses to better understand what COVID related challenges were preventing field teams from executing on their expected role responsibilities. Once the challenges were identified and prioritized, L&D worked tirelessly to deconstruct the motivation, knowledge and skills required to overcome those challenges and define which capabilities from existing models would remain, become obsolete, or need to evolve.
It was clear that simply layering new tech-related skills into an existing capability model is not enough. We must also leverage relevant traditional capabilities and transfer them to the new world in which our field teams are engaging.
Now in 2021, most of life sciences is in full swing, implementing a variety of new learning solutions designed to reskill or upskill commercial and medical field teams. It has been, and will continue to be, a monumental effort for which L&D teams around the world should be proud.
However, upskilling is only one step in preparing field teams for the future. Leaders believe that COVID has forever changed the customer engagement model. As such, the roles and responsibilities of field teams and their leadership will need to evolve to support the expected hybrid selling environment of virtual and in-person interactions. In addition to refining the “job descriptions” and associated capabilities needed for success, the key performance indicators (KPIs) used to evaluate performance will also need to be revised.
In the years “BC” (Before COVID), for example, field reps were expected to complete a certain number of office visits and product details per week. That was a core metric or KPI that factored heavily into evaluating a rep’s performance. Now, in the much more restrictive environment that is likely to continue after COVID, traditional metrics surrounding reach and frequency are going to be less relevant. As such, a range of questions will need to be answered to further support the evolution of the customer engagement model, including:
- What are field teams expected to do?
- How should their performance be evaluated?
- What goals and metrics are reasonable for teams to meet?
- What capabilities are required for success?
- What education and development is needed to impart the necessary knowledge and skills?
By itself, L&D cannot update engagement models, redefine roles and answer all of these questions. Addressing the challenge will require a collaborative effort between L&D, as well as human resources and corporate leadership.
Upskilling, reskilling, hiring or restructuring will only get organizations so far if expectations and metrics are not also aligned to the new ways of engagement. Within forward-thinking companies, initiatives are already underway to anticipate the future and prepare for it. However, they are not the norm yet.
As a strategic partner, L&D can function as the bridge or liaison to field leadership, brand and commercial operations to ensure field teams are truly set up to succeed in the future with the right capabilities, learning pathways and, most importantly, KPIs for field teams operating in the new hybrid engagement model.
Krista Gerhard is a partner at Salience Learning. Email her at