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New research reveals that pandemic has accelerated digital training and upskilling: 40% of workers used the pandemic to improve their digital skills, while 77% are ready to learn new skills or completely re-train. Read on to discover the top five things you need to know about digital upskilling – and how you can create a culture of learning in the wake of COVID-19.

Read on to discover:


The pandemic has triggered seven years worth of digital transformation in the space of a few months, according to research from McKinsey.

Back in July 2020, when companies were forced to respond to new and rapidly accelerating challenges every day, McKinsey surveyed nearly 900 C-level executives and senior managers to assess the impact of COVID-19 – and whether leaders expected to be able to weather the pandemic. 

Most of the survey respondents were pessimistic, estimating that it would take them more than a year to adapt to remote working. In reality, it only took them an average of 11 days. 

When asked why they hadn’t implemented these changes before the crisis, just over half of executives and senior managers replied that digital transformation “[wasn’t] a top business priority” before the pandemic. Some suggested that the required changes were seen as “too big a shock” to established ways of working – a perceived barrier that has been holding businesses back from digital transformation for several years.

If nothing else, the pandemic has forced even the most cautious laggards to finally take the plunge. In fact, 79% of executives increased their budgets for digital transformation in response to COVID-19, according to Twilio. More and more companies are investing in digital upskilling solutions, leading to online learning platforms seeing a significant uptick in usage over the last year. 

As a result, some companies are reporting that COVID-19 has accelerated digital upskilling. This week, we’ll be diving into recent research on the impact of the pandemic on the world of business, giving you the lowdown on everything you need to know about digital upskilling in the wake of COVID-19.


Data deep-dive: COVID-19 and digital upskilling programme

Back in January-February 2021, PwC conducted one of the largest-ever surveys of the global workforce to determine how the pandemic has affected digital upskilling. Thousands of workers across the world participated in the survey (32,500 respondents from 19 countries, to be precise), and the data was published in a detailed report in March 2021. 

Here’s what the PwC’s report reveals:

  • COVID-19 has accelerated digital upskilling: 40% of workers used the pandemic to improve their digital skills; 77% are ready to learn new skills or completely re-train, while 49% are focused on building entrepreneurial skills in order to set up their own business
  • Many believe that the pandemic has changed the way we work forever: 48% of workers believe “traditional employment won't be around in the future”; 72% say they prefer a mixture of in-person and remote working; only 9% want to go back to working in an office full-time
  • People are worried about the future: 39% believe their job will be obsolete within 5 years; 60% are worried that automation is putting many jobs at risk

Worryingly, the report also reveals unequal access to career and training opportunities. In fact, according to PwC, half of the global workforce is missing out on career opportunities due to some form of bias

  • 50% of workers say they’ve faced discrimination at work which led to them missing out on career advancement or training
  • 13% report missing out on opportunities as a result of ethnicity
  • 14% have experienced discrimination on the grounds of gender, with women twice as likely to report gender discrimination as men
  • 13% report discrimination on the basis of class
  • While 46% of people with postgraduate degrees say their employer gives them many opportunities to improve their digital skills, just 28% of people with school-leaver qualifications say the same

If these patterns persist, the report cautions, upskilling may actually increase social inequality, rather than combat it.

“Government and business leaders need to work together to intensify efforts to ensure people in the most at-risk industries and groups get the opportunities they need,” says Bhushan Sethi, Joint Global Leader of PwC’s People and Organization Practice. “Automation and technological disruption are inevitable, but we can control whether its negative effects are managed or not.”

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Our top five tips on digital upskilling

Digital upskilling is the new normal – and if you don’t commit to upskilling your workforce, your organization will surely suffer the effects. So what do you need to know to avoid missing out?

Here are our top five tips:

1) Remember: upskilling isn’t just about tech

An important part of digital upskilling has nothing to do with tech. Of course, you need to equip your employees with the right tools and learning platforms to tackle digital transformation. But you can’t just launch a fancy new digital platform and hope for the best – you need to focus on the human element of upskilling, too.

Alongside digital skills, PwC recommends that organizations teach “soft” skills through workshops or scenario-based learning modules. This might include topics like “design thinking”, “agile project management”, or “ethics and inclusion”. By introducing employees to new ways of thinking about old problems, you can encourage better problem-solving, collaboration, and decision-making – all of which are necessary skills in a company-wide upskilling effort.

2) Take a more holistic approach to upskilling

PwC recommends “encouraging a citizen-led approach to innovation” – this could be rephrased as empowering people to take charge of their own learning. 

For this “citizen-led” strategy to work, you need to make sure you provide employees with opportunities to apply their new skills to their daily jobs. By allowing people to try solving old problems in new ways, you can also empower them to tackle future challenges head-on – and encourage them to keep learning on the job.

It’s a more holistic approach to upskilling, which will benefit your company in the long run. Incorporating new technologies into daily tasks can help create a new digital mindset across your organization, and being open to better ways of working will ultimately propel the business toward a culture of continuous learning.

3) Motivate employees on-the-ground

Direct supervisors should incentivize and motivate their teams by showing that they value a culture of learning. One way to do this is by encouraging employees to take up courses that interest them – and help them take charge of their learning.

Second, it’s important to carve out time for learning. For instance, an employee who is already working late to stay on top of their current responsibilities probably won’t have the time or energy to learn a new skill. In that case, it’s the managers’ job to help reassign projects or rebalance work so that everyone on the team has enough bandwidth to continue upskilling.

Third, managers should make time to reflect as a team on what’s successful, and how employees can apply what they’ve learned to new projects. Don’t forget to acknowledge their achievements and celebrate milestones on their learning journey! 

Finally, managers can lead by example, and participate in learning programs themselves. They can even act as “change agents” by talking with their teams about what courses they’ve taken, what they’ve learned, and how upskilling has enabled them to tackle new challenges at work.

4) Make sure learners are properly supported – and engaged

Research shows that engaged workers perform better. In one survey from Gallup, highly engaged businesses reported a 41% reduction in absenteeism and a 17% increase in productivity. 

Upskilling can be a powerful tool in engaging employees – if you get it right. In one survey from PwC, 86% of executives said that digital upskilling programs have improved employee engagement and performance. 

But to create an effective upskilling strategy, leaders first need to understand the needs of their employees: what motivates them, what drains them, and what empowers them. And a concerted effort has to be made in supporting people in their learning – especially now that so many people are working from home.

“Savvy leaders who value and nurture their workforce’s innate talents, ability to learn, and desire to do good work will have a great chance of boosting their business and retaining and attracting talent,” PwC’s Carol Stubbings and Nicole Wakefield write in Strategy+Business. “They will beat the skills gap.”

5) Use upskilling to recruit – and keep – top talent 

Effective learning programs can help you retain top-performing employees by encouraging personal development, and opening new career paths for them within the company. But you can also use upskilling to attract (and keep) new talent. 

PwC’s report shows that 77% of workers are ready to learn new skills or completely re-train. However, only one in three workers feel that their current employer is offering them the opportunity to upskill. Another global survey found that 86% of office workers wished their employer offered opportunities to acquire new skills (reskilling), while 83% wished their employer gave them more opportunities to enhance their current skills (upskilling). 

In short: learning can be a valuable recruiting tool. And if you don’t offer employees the opportunity to upskill, they might not stick around. In fact, over a third of employees would leave their current employer if not offered training to learn new skills.


BONUS: Here’s why you don’t want to miss out on digital upskilling…

In a recent study on digital disruption, Dr. Gerald C. Kane, Anh Nguyen Phillips, Jonathan Copulsky, and Rich Nanda (co-authors of The Technology Fallacy, pub. MIT Press 2019) – emphasize that “the companies that [will] emerge stronger from the crisis [will be] those that innovate through it, using the current crisis as an opportunity to digitally transform their company.” 

We’re inclined to agree. In fact, research from McKinsey suggests that companies who invest in new digital technologies during the pandemic are twice as likely to report outsized revenue growth as their peers. 

It’s not too late to get started on digital upskilling in your organization. But the longer you wait, the more time your competitors have to get a head start.


Partnering with Circus Street

As a global online learning business, we partner with global organizations to develop tailored learning programs that help them build their marketing capabilities. And we believe in modern learning methods that ensure responsiveness becomes ingrained individuals. 

Online learning increases productivity, accelerates the learning process by 15%, while simultaneously reducing training costs and time taken off for learning by 20%. 

Overall, the result is an education solution that results in your teams having the confidence, understanding, and ability to succeed in a technology-driven world. 

“Their program is exceptional, the content is fantastic, and it really drives greater knowledge and confidence in all aspects of digital”

– Jo Earl, Head of Global Marketing Excellence at Sanofi 


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