6 min read

Succession Planning With a Remote Workforce

By Ryan Eudy on Apr 8, 2021 2:30:00 PM

Topics: Leadership
Succession Planning With a Remote Workforce - ej4 Blog

The COVID-19 pandemic brought many managers and HR professionals to two important realizations. First, the importance of having a succession plan has become crystal clear, especially where jobs were cut, people fell ill, and everyone was working from home. Second, even companies that already took succession planning seriously still struggled when training for development derailed.


Succession planning with a remote workforce is a whole new ballgame.

Even before the pandemic, far too few companies adequately prepared their employees to advance. Deloitte’s annual Global Human Capital Trends study found, back in 2018, that roughly 47% of businesses were using outdated programs for employee development. That study was done a full two years before the pandemic created the massive remote workforce we have today.

Which means that staying on top of succession planning requires a serious re-thinking of the organization and the ways in which it develops talent in a post-pandemic world.


Creating a Succession Plan

In some ways, succession planning with a remote workforce is not so different from traditional succession planning when it comes to overarching goals.

A typical succession plan looks at various roles in the company, and who the logical people are to fill the shoes of those in the roles. Those people will require appropriate training so that they are ready to take on the new roles, if and when needed. When organizations lack clarity about such a plan, it can put operations into a tailspin.

Plotting out that plan and implementing it are skills in their own right. We’ve previously identified the five critical elements to successful succession plans:

  • Identify your company’s essential positions. If there is already a plan in place, make sure these positions are still the same.
  • Decide which skills are needed to do the job. Clearly defined job descriptions are a definite advantage, so making sure those are in place is the first step. Be sure to include competencies that might not be part of the role as it was originally defined, but that you’ve decided are necessary going forward.
  • Match candidates with appropriate positions. Internal candidates have the advantage of being familiar with the organization and its operations. They also have a proven track record, which an outside candidate would not.
  • Be transparent. Make sure team leaders and managers are aware of the strategic succession plan. Their input and opinions can prove valuable.
  • Commit to developmental training. Once the plan is in place, follow through by getting candidates ready with leadership training and courses in the specific skills they may need.

While the steps don’t change, how they are done does. We’ve seen that every step after step 1 needs to change with the shift to a WFH environment. Sometimes those shifts are small, but sometimes they are large.


Post-Pandemic, New Leadership and Managerial Skills Are Needed

More traditional succession planning comes with a fair amount of development of future managers and leaders, but even with good development programs, existing training might not be enough.
Pause for a second and think: What skills do managers need nowadays that they didn’t back in 2019?

Here’s a quick list of possibilities:

  • Managing a remote workforce
  • Working with online collaboration tools
  • Performing a “mental health” check-in on remote employees
  • Zoom meeting etiquette
  • Planning and strategizing when there is a great deal of uncertainty

Some of these skills might be obsolete if COVID-19 is successfully managed, but many will stay with us as long as companies are adopting WFH policies.

Even when employees are not working from home—essential employees, for example—managers will need to be up on new skills:

  • Enforcing COVID-19 cleaning and disinfecting procedures
  • Noticing signs of illness in employees
  • Enforcing local mandates (in a friendly way) with employees and customers
  • Scheduling staggered shifts, especially if someone needs to quarantine

This means that any development training needs to be updated when reviewing your succession plans. Assessment might change, too; employees who already have some of these skills might be better candidates for leadership than they were a few years ago.


Discovering (and Checking on) New HiPos Will be Different

Your HiPos are the employees who consistently demonstrate their potential and abilities, and so are poised to take over new leadership roles when needed. Once an employee is tapped as a candidate in the succession plan, an assessment of their skills will show what additional training is needed.

How do you assess your HiPos and identify your future leaders? In the past, this usually included formal assessments taken at a testing center, together with 360-degree surveys. Have those methods of assessment changed? Or been put on pause? Can they be done remotely? Who will manage them? These questions need to be answered so that proper assessment is not disrupted.

Managers also need to be aware that not everyone reacts the same to a WFH environment, including your HiPos. Continue to do assessments and look for cross-functional skills, but also be alert for signs of struggling and burnout. Learning how to do a “mental health check-in” with employees working from home is worthwhile.


Training Needs to be More Flexible and Agile

I was astounded by the number of companies that simply put their training programs on “indefinite hold” with the pandemic. It only took a few months for most to realize that they would need to find a way to continue critical training and development even as employees worked from home.

The issue was that, without people in the office, one-on-one training and job shadowing virtually disappeared overnight. A 2017 (pre-pandemic) survey by Statista found that 48.5% of companies worldwide use employee knowledge sharing on-the-job to train employees; roughly 28.5% used job shadowing. That means a lot of training evaporated. Furthermore, many classroom-style trainings were either canceled or went virtual, as did workshops and conferences.

Training HiPos, or any employees, for new roles must use technology in new ways to get the necessary information across. Online training videos, for example, can make necessary training materials available to employees, no matter where they work. They also have the added benefit of being available any time—an important feature considering how schedules have been impacted by work-life balance considerations when working from home.

Tracking employee progress will be important, too. When everyone was working in an office, it was much easier to get visibility into everyone’s participation in training. Not so when working from home. This is where video paired with a Learning Management System (LMS) comes in handy.

Take our LMS, Thinkzoom. It can track which videos employees have watched, how far they have watched them, and how many times they have watched them. It can also provide follow-up quizzes to ensure understanding and retention. Finally, it empowers HR to lay out a whole course of study for employees, so they can pursue learning at their own pace while still being appropriately guided toward a goal.

Thinkzoom also comes with a recording tool at no additional charge. You can convert some of your leader-led or job shadowing training to online videos and reach a broader audience. This includes people working remotely and in multiple brick-and-mortar locations in any country or timezone. 


Preparing for the Future

In regard to succession planning, it’s worth noting that the WFH environment brings some advantages along with the challenges. For example, it may no longer be necessary for an employee to relocate in order to work at company headquarters. Work schedule flexibility can make it easier for a remote worker to take on a different position. And some people may demonstrate better work product, more dedication, or new leadership potential when working from home.

These are all good things to keep in mind because no one really knows which jobs will stay remote and which will eventually move back into the office. That uncertainty can be unsettling. Succession planning, by definition, is forward-thinking; the pandemic can put pressure on us to focus a little too much on day-to-day survival. It’s time to restart your plan for succession and developmental training.

Creating a succession plan—or updating an outdated one—should be a top priority for all businesses. Using ej4’s resources can help you get it done, and get your people ready just in case.


Additional Resources


Ryan Eudy

Written by Ryan Eudy

Since joining ej4 in 2005, Ryan has operated in every facet of the business. It is this experience that Ryan utilizes to manage ej4’s daily operations. Ryan offers innovative solutions and has a unique understanding of matching client needs with the right performance improvement tools to change targeted behaviors.

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