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The Hidden Value of Adaptable Skills — How Employee Learning, Training and Development Can Build Workforce Resilience

The pandemic disrupted the workplace like little else in memory. Employers and employees were forced to scramble, rapidly adapting and changing the way they operate. As we emerge into the new way of working, what lessons did COVID-19 teach businesses about learning and development (L&D)? And how can HR professionals use these lessons to create a culture of learning that improves employee wellbeing and builds workforce resilience?

To most business leaders, the pandemic was both an object lesson and a crash course in adaptability. Traditional L&D, especially face to face and classroom based models of learning, were immediately rendered obsolete by office closures and social distancing measures. As with other facets of business, learning was forced online. But beyond just changing where learning took place, changes happened to how learning was delivered as well. The L&D needs of employees also changed rapidly. For example, people needed to learn how to onboard new employees digitally, create productive culture in dispersed teams, look after employee health and wellbeing and manage effectively in the remote environment.

In this article, we explore how fostering adaptable skills in their employees helped Canadian company, Sunwing Travel Group build agility and resilience in their workforce while navigating the new reality.

With insights from:

  • Deon Blyan, Director, Global Talent Development, Sunwing Travel Group
  • Lisa Stevens, Chief People Officer, Aon
  • Stacy Smithers, Head of Strategy, People Organization, Aon


An Agile Workforce is a Resilient Workforce

As the pandemic began to take hold, workers across North America were forced to change how they did their jobs. New roles and new responsibilities were just the beginning, and workforce agility became more important than ever.

Organizations needed to be able to quickly move employees into new roles to support changing business needs. Workforce agility will continue to be important as companies recover from the effects of the pandemic. With business needs evolving at pace, roles are becoming more fluid, while financial constraints mean organizations need to do more with less.



Aon’s 2020 Pulse Survey of HR professionals showed that 84 percent of HR leaders viewed workforce agility as either very or extremely important in their organizations. However, just 39 percent viewed their current workforce as very or extremely agile. The right L&D strategy can help address this agility gap.


‘How do we help people get better with embracing change?’

Lisa Stevens, Chief People Officer, Aon


Creating a Culture of Learning

Workforce resilience requires agility. Workforce agility requires employees to have the skills necessary to adapt to change. Employers that encourage a culture of learning create a sense of caring for employees that can drive professional wellbeing among the workforce.  With 94% of employees saying that they would stay at a company longer if it invested in their L&D[1], creating a learning culture is more important than ever when this moment in time is being cited as ‘The Great Resignation’.

Sunwing has transformed its approach to learning and development in recent years. By hiring a Chief People Officer three years ago, they signaled that traditional HR is evolving into a group more strategically focused as partners to the business. . This modernized department, renamed as People and Culture, carried out a learning needs assessment survey in late 2019, which shone a light on what annual engagement surveys had told the business in the past.


‘We had all this data from our learning needs assessment survey, and our previous annual engagement surveys. The results would consistently show, “I want more career development, I want more skills development.” So the feedback was clear, the voice of the employee was very clear.’

Deon Blyan, Director, Global Talent Development, Sunwing Travel Group


Taking those results to heart, Sunwing planned to implement a new L&D strategy at the start of 2020. When the pandemic upended their approach to delivering on those plans, Sunwing turned the disruption into an opportunity to build on and enhance their strategy.


‘When everything exploded, there were a number of weeks of just “we need to button everything up. We have an airline that needs to stop flying, we’ve got to close our hotels and offices. We have to keep the lights on and keep everything going.” But after all that business continuity activity, every single business leader said “What a great time to do some training - let’s use this time to train our people and refine our skills”’

Deon Blyan, Director, Global Talent Development, Sunwing Travel Group


The uncertainty caused by the pandemic created a problem for talent acquisition teams across all businesses. In fact, a 2021 Insight Report from the World Economic Forum suggested that COVID-19 accelerated the need to implement an ambitious global upskilling agenda[2]. With potential recruits reluctant to leave their jobs at such a turbulent time and 95 percent of talent acquisition leaders expecting volatile recruitment conditions to last for at least 24 months from January 2021[3], Sunwing made the decision to grow their internal talent pool.


‘Leaders say they have a need, they have a skills gap in the team, and they want to go out and find that in what I call the “talent ocean.” So you try to source that and buy the talent to bring in the skills your business wants. But that ocean is becoming more competitive, and great talent is more difficult to find. It takes more time, and people are anxious. We needed to create a talent pool within our organization, so sometimes we can say, “hey, let’s just look over here.” Rather than getting in the ship and sailing way out into the ocean, let’s just go into the swimming pool in our own backyard and say “hey, we’ve got someone on a development plan who’s been learning for over a year.”

Deon Blyan, Director, Global Talent Development, Sunwing Travel Group


The Talent Acquisition and Learning and Development teams sit together and collaborate with the people operations group in the People and Culture department at Sunwing, making it easier for them to identify the existence of skills gaps. Once these skills gaps were identified, the team put their new L&D plan into action. According to the World Economic Forum they were in good company, as more than 30 percent of global businesses accelerated their implementation of employee up-skilling and reskilling programs in response to COVID-19[4].

The Sunwing team deliberately changed the style of their training sessions, designing all sessions as either short 15 minute eLearning modules or 90 minute conversational facilitator led sessions on Microsoft Teams. Longer full-day training sessions were broken into smaller bite-sized sessions, and video was incorporated to combat the shorter concentration windows inherent in virtual learning.

In addition to reflecting Sunwing’s desire to support employee needs through a more human-centered approach to learning, there was an additional benefit. One of the historical barriers to skills development was that leaders did not want to lose a team member to learning and development for days at a time. By shortening training sessions, Sunwing found that business leaders were more likely to embrace the benefits of learning and development.


‘I want managers to get used to shorter training sessions. That way, when the business is really at high octane again and we announce our quarterly offerings of in-person or virtual learning, they won’t hesitate. They won’t say “I can’t afford to have Natalie away for a full day to go to this session.” She won’t need to be, it’s only 90 minutes. She can just log in through a link and it’s easy. I’ve tried to set that expectation in order to change the mindset.’

Deon Blyan, Director, Global Talent Development, Sunwing Travel Group


A final feature of Sunwing’s new L&D strategy was the acknowledgement that learning can take many shapes and forms. Learning isn’t restricted to classes and seminars. Tactics like job shadowing, or simply using time in regular meetings can offer a chance to educate teams, while sharing and embedding new skills.


‘I like to bring in a continuous learning model. We say learning isn’t just education. Sometimes it’s experience, sometimes it’s exposure and sometimes it’s the environment. Those are the ‘four Es.’ I think that helps leaders think about it differently. They realize that “oh, some of these monthly team meetings, there could be learning happening there too?” Or “If Natalie sat on the IT meeting rather than the marketing team meeting every other week, that could be valuable learning” because that’s exposure to what happens over there. It’s widening the frame a little, staying focused, but widening the frame that it isn’t just classroom learning. It’s truly just having conversations or being a fly on the wall in another department.’

Deon Blyan, Director, Global Talent Development, Sunwing Travel Group


By creating a company culture that values learning, facilitates collaboration and encourages innovation, Sunwing is cultivating an environment for employees’ professional and personal growth. The result is a multi-skilled, adaptable and resilient workforce that is fit for new and emerging models of work.


The Importance of Investing in Soft Skills

While traditional role-based skills training is essential in enabling employees to carry out their day-to-day work, what happens when those members of the workforce become managers or leaders? How do they develop the soft skills required of a leader?

The stress and anxiety created by the pandemic shone a much-needed light on employee mental health. At Aon, the focus has been on helping managers develop the nuanced skills that are a feature of excellent leadership on this issue. This has been a frequent topic of Aon’s “Art of Leadership” newsletter.


‘Managers of people really focused on soft skills. How to listen, how to help colleagues that aren’t able to come back to the workforce, as they're feeling challenged. How to deal with mental health issues. Resilience is an ongoing topic in that. It’s about getting leaders comfortable working in a new world where we have to put our colleagues first. We have to make sure that they feel comfortable. And a big piece of it is - how do we help leaders lean in when they are super-uncomfortable? Because they don't have the answers, and I think leaders are used to wanting to have the answers and not really wanting to show vulnerability. And this is all about getting vulnerable, getting curious, feeling comfortable just asking the question and not having the answer. Being transparent. So, that's been a huge hit with all of our leaders and yet, every edition, we get people just saying how important it's been for them in their journey, and how they're able to really apply it to their everyday leadership, which is fantastic.’

Stacy Smithers, Head of Strategy, People Organization, Aon


Soft skills are equally important at Sunwing, where investing in soft skill development is seen as an essential part of creating successful leaders.


‘We do sessions that are specific for leaders. We try to help them understand that those things are part of what it means to be a leader. It’s not just being inspiring and motivating and having long-term vision. It’s not just knowing how to articulate the company’s values and purpose. It’s also being inclusive, helping people feel like they belong. It’s understanding the spectrum of mental health, and having that emotional intelligence, knowing and keying in on when someone isn’t feeling good today. Knowing that’s okay, and understanding how to support that person.’

Deon Blyan, Director, Global Talent Development, Sunwing Travel Group


When reflecting on the experiences of Sunwing and Aon, it’s clear that skills development is an investment that’s worth making. Not only can organizations create a future pipeline of talent from within their own ranks, they can also enjoy high levels of job satisfaction, adaptability and wellbeing among their employees. These qualities all contribute to building a rising resilient organization.


Fostering Adaptable Skills - The Next Steps for People Leaders:

  • Use employee surveys, feedback and data to inform L&D strategy. Learn from each other.
  • Create a culture of continuous learning. Encourage innovation and don’t condemn failure. It’s how you build trust and adaptability.
  • Learning opportunities are everywhere, not only in classes and seminars.
  • Take account of the difference between digital and in-person skills training.
  • Develop soft skills in your leaders so they can help people adapt to change.


If you invest in the wellbeing of your people, they will invest in the wellbeing of your business.

[1] Workplace Learning Report 2019, LinkedIn Learning

[2] Insights Report 2021, World Economic Forum, January 2021

[3] An Essential Guide to Talent Acquisition Planning, Nelson Hall sponsored by IBM, January 2021

[4] Future of Jobs Report 2020, World Economic Forum, October 2020