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6 Learning and Development Practices for a Distributed Workforce

August 13, 2020 Learning and Development
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By Sarah Fister Gale

The forced transition to remote work has put a strain on employee learning and development. Managers and employees need a whole new set of remote skills and, just at the moment they need them, they can’t be taught in a classroom or through casual interactions on the job.

The workforce needs virtual training. It's past time for whoever is in charge of learning and talent development – whether that's the chief learning officer, learning and development team or an individual manager or operations leader – to get on board.

“Remote workers have said that they want more training and they feel like their employers are slow in delivering it,” says Aris Apostolopoulos, senior content writer and researcher for Talent LMS, a learning management system software company. A recent TalentLMS survey found 67 percent of remote workers say they need more work-related training. And if their companies won’t provide it, they will find it on their own. Most expect that training to be virtual via online classes, mobile apps or webinars.

“They want a variety of content – and not just around hard skills,” Apostolopoulos said. They are equally interested in soft skills during the pandemic, as they try to figure out how to manage teams, communicate effectively and provide useful feedback in a remote work environment.

These demands are putting pressure on business leaders to rapidly adapt their current training for a virtual environment or acquire a library of content that will meet their needs.

Related Article: L&D Best Practices for Your Newly Remote Workforce

Back to Training Basics

The good news is that effective virtual learning and development does not have to involve expensive artificial intelligence tools, adaptive learning features or immersive virtual reality environments, although it can. The current generation of learning solutions offers a host of new technologies designed to make learning more engaging and relevant along with vast libraries of content to choose from.

Even if you have the budget for the most sophisticated options, the most important factor is whether the learning will help employees improve their performance, says Darren Murph, head of remote for GitLab, an open source DevOps platform development company. “It’s easy to try to do too much too soon,” he said.

His suggestion: Start with the basics. Gitlab has always had a fully remote workforce and recently many clients have reached out to Murph for advice on how to manage and train their newly remote workers. “They are realizing they need to teach their leaders how to lead in a pandemic,” he said.

Murph points them to Gitlab’s Remote Work Foundation, which offers a free certification program to train people in remote-first workplace practices. The self-directed content uses simple Google forms, remote work guides, graphics and quizzes to develop key skills in remote subject areas including asynchronous communication, hosting remote meetings and communicating effectively through text. Learners who pass all 10 quizzes receive certification.

The simple format and self-paced environment makes the content easy to iterate and widely accessible to anyone. Murph noted that 400 interns in South Africa completed the program this summer and are now interning virtually at companies around the world. That kind of rapid iteration is always beneficial but in a pandemic it’s critical, he said.

Related Article: How to Encourage Digital Literacy

Make the Learning Meaningful

Other experts argue that broadly applicable e-learning content can only go so far. “Even if you have a library of courses through an LMS, it’s only valuable if it is relevant to your company,” said Diane Gayeski, professor of strategic communications at Ithaca College's Park School of Communications.

Many generic courses teach big picture lessons that won’t apply to a company or team, she said. In those cases, users will learn the minimum they need to to pass a class, all the while thinking it doesn't apply to them.

That doesn’t mean content libraries aren’t useful. But Gayeski encouraged learning leaders to follow up with additional live virtual discussions so employees can ask questions, tell their own stories and share feedback to make the learning more impactful. “The added interaction will make the learning more valuable,” she said. 

There are a number of options for companies that have the resources to invest in a high-tech solution. Some learning software platforms now use artificial intelligence and machine learning to provide adaptive learning options tailored to an individual learner's identified needs and consumption behavior. The rise of learning experience platforms, or LXPs, enables custom learning pathways that meld organizational needs with individual career development opportunities. In addition to in-depth courses, most content libraries now also include microlearning, small chunks of content that can be consumed in the moment they're needed. 

But before acquiring any new learning technology or library of content, Gayeski urged companies to conduct a needs analysis to identify relevant training needs, and assess which needs are permanent and which are temporary due to the pandemic. If temporary, a simple Zoom discussion with a Q&A might be enough to bridge the gap, she said. But if the pandemic caused a permanent change in how employees work or engage with clients or suppliers, it may be worth investing more resources to build or buy custom content to meet their new learning needs.

Related Article: Top Features for Learning Management Systems

How to Excel at Remote Learning

Whether building or buying content and technology for remote learning, Gayeski, Murph and Apostolopoulos offered these tips on getting it right:

1. Focus on content before technology

It doesn’t matter how immersive or adaptive a learning platform is, if it doesn’t improve performance it's a waste of money. To avoid making the wrong technology investment, first determine what employees want to learn and what skill gaps are causing problems in the workflow, Gayeski said. Then choose a content platform or learning environment that will meet their needs.

2. Make it short and engaging

Anyone who has ever sat through an hours-long Zoom meeting knows the curse of video fatigue. The same is true of virtual learning, Apostolopoulos said. Choose short self-paced modules and keep live learning sessions brief with lots of opportunities for questions to avoid learning burnout.

3. Train your trainers

Before launching company-wide virtual learning events, train your trainers on how to teach via Zoom, Slack, Google Hangouts or any other work platforms you use, Apostolopoulos said. That will make them more effective learning leaders and make it easier to engage the rest of the team.

4. Be specific

A generic leadership course is a great place to start but if you want learners to engage with the company, some of the content has to be specific to the company's culture and customers, Gayeski said. If you don’t have the resources to build a course from scratch, consider adding case studies, anecdotes or follow-up meetings to make it more authentic.

5. Hurry up

“You don’t have two years to build all-new curriculum,” Murph said. Focus on what content can be delivered immediately, then gather feedback from users on how it can be improved. It's better to be quick and iterative than to spend months perfecting something that people need right away, he added.

6. Have SMEs coach on the fly

Ask subject matter experts to act as on-the-clock mentors so employees can call them during specific hours to get real time help, Gayeski said. By giving them short shifts throughout the week, you can spread corporate knowledge without forcing the best performers to become full-time trainers.

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