The pandemic may not have massively affected the issue, but it hasn’t improved it either. In fact, the situation is set to get worse, which means we have to act now to build talent, diversify skills and encourage the right behaviours.
The Covid response
Like other business heads, quality leaders and their teams have been adapting to working without commuting and being in a traditional office space. This has brought a host of challenges:
- Remote management - people managers have had to put more effort into bringing teams together and have invested in specific training in managing teams remotely
- Flexible working - the pandemic has blurred lots of edges, so there’s now a balance of activity across the standard working day as well as at times perceived to be ‘out of office’ hours
- New staff - organisations have had to adapt induction processes to new joiners during the pandemic, taking account of limited or no face-to-face interaction, which can affect a new team member’s sense of belonging
- Digital vs human interaction – while most organisations have significantly improved their IT, they have had to go above and beyond equipment needs to deal with the human side of their, often global, workforce. Online meetings have made interactions more formal, so engagement activities such as social events in the working day are helping to bring back informalities
- New ways of working – organisations have recently developed new working practices out of necessity rather than choice, which has left many managers struggling to lead remote teams and processes effectively. However, quality management can help internal customers to think and behave differently and to adopt new approaches
Longer term pandemic impacts
Employers have noted an evolving shift in their employees’ desire for a greater work-life balance, more flexibility around when they work, and reduced hours. This is likely to make resource planning a challenge and will mean having to reorganise work.
On top of this, employers are concerned about retaining their people once the coronavirus crisis dies down, especially those staff who have put their ambitions on hold. Restructuring has also reduced options for career development in some companies. A key consideration in these circumstances is actively managing talent to avoid losing it (for example, transferring quality management skills to other functions).
However, it isn’t all doom and gloom as the pandemic may well increase interest in working in quality management. Who would have thought that roles such as audit, which were once entirely physical, would now be carried out remotely?
Professional quality services
Employers involved in consulting, conformity, test and inspection services recognise that client expectations have also changed. Many have been able to provide more value through travel time saved and enhanced services such as blended, risk-based assessments. In some sectors, clients have welcomed this trend and regulators have supported it, but in others more conservative regulators have struggled to adapt.
Game keepers and poachers
Sectors like infrastructure, in which skills are in high demand, have been hit by Brexit and a drastic fall in the number of available EU workers. Covid-19 has also knocked some parts of the supply chain, which have seen quality professionals:
- On furlough and unable to work
- Filling shortfalls elsewhere and working on contract, at the expense of their professional development
- Actively moving from contract to permanent roles, within and outside of the profession
This churn of quality professionals is made more difficult where there is no standardised definition or expectation of competence. In some situations customer requirements include experience and skills which are not available within their supply chains and they are being forced to increase their own levels of supplier oversight.
Attitude is king
The ongoing lack of quality skills is forcing some employers to recruit on the basis of attitudes because they recognise that people’s capacity and motivation to adapt and develop are even more important than skills and experience. This is leading to a “relaxation” in recruitment entry requirements and more emphasis on induction, initial training and continuous development.
The long game
The UK government has left it to industry to build future quality skills, which means we need to come together to agree and action a clear plan that focuses on:
- Building a compelling career brand - quality management is too often perceived as an old person’s profession. This is reinforced by job specifications that require 15 years’ experience. We need to promote quality as an attractive career, and support profile-raising initiatives such as the CQI’s International Quality Awards
- Establishing a clear career path – employers in various sectors have developed apprentice and graduate entry schemes and have been fine-tuning their approach. A key learning point has been the importance of providing apprentices and graduates with a sufficient level of support. When employers get this right and give their trainees wide experience and job rotation (6 months being about right), they develop the interest, commitment and skills of their people
- Embracing ‘transients’ - employers also need to seize the opportunity to broaden skills outside the quality function by welcoming the ‘transient’ quality professional (ie who goes onto other functions and roles rather than having a life-long career in quality management)
- Providing learning opportunities – many employers now offer short online learning solutions for quality professionals and others in the organisation and in their supply chain. This offer can also be expanded through other types of training, such as shadowing experienced team members and remote coaching
Quality 4.0 in no way diminishes the role of people and the skills involved in assuring quality. Indeed, giving people the skills to apply digital tools and to tell data-driven stories will be an essential part of ensuring quality in the factory of the future. Across many industries, the companies that win in the 2020s will be those that use digital to redefine the meaning of quality excellence, repurpose skillsets and adapt their behaviours in the workplace.
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