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Remote Work Fueled the Rise of Learning Experience and Digital Learning

June 21, 2021 Learning and Development
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By Sarah Fister Gale

The mass exodus out of the office and into remote work due to COVID-19 left corporate learning and development leaders in a vacuum. The instructor-led courses, onboarding sessions and in-person events they built their calendars around were indefinitely put on hold, and newly remote workers and frontline staff were clamoring for new ways to learn.

Two things occurred right away, said Stacey Dietsch, a partner in management consulting firm McKinsey’s People and Organizational Performance group. The first was an assessment of every piece of content that was delivered in person to determine what could be put on hold and what had to be converted to digital delivery. The second was to identify what new skills people needed to be productive in the new virtual environment.

That skills reassessment included the corporate learning team. “We saw a lot of reskilling of L&D professionals this year,” Dietsch said. 

Instructors and designers used to coordinating live classroom events had to learn how to teach in a digital setting. Learning executives had to relearn how to assess learner needs through the lens of a pandemic-driven workplace. And the learners themselves, often an afterthought in how training and development decisions were made, found themselves in the center of the action. Learning experience, long held out as a goal of corporate learning and development programs, moved to the top of the agenda.

Learning Experience Takes Hold

“At first, employers just needed a way to keep everyone engaged,” said David Perring, director of research at the Fosway Group, an HR analyst firm in the UK, of the early days of the pandemic.

But what ended up happening was a massive shift in how companies develop the skills and capabilities of their people. Fosway research found 94% of L&D professionals changed their learning priorities and L&D strategy in response to the pandemic, with two in three making significant changes to what they do and how they do it.

For many, that meant spending more time and money delivering digital content to meet learners needs. But not all online learning was successful, Perring said. Generic off-the-shelf courses had lower rates of adoption. “Most people found it didn’t provide a stimulating experience,” he said.

As employee experience became a greater concern for employers during the pandemic, learning experience became a focal point. Employees were suffering from "Zoom fatigue" brought on by large group training events. “When workers are always online, adding an hour-long Zoom class can be exhausting,” he said.

The content that was most well received included videos, curated content and microlearning. Perring suggested the best approaches combine self-paced curated content for knowledge accumulation with limited small group live events to encourage collaboration, demonstration and practice.

“The challenge is to help people find the content they want, to stay motivated, and to make the experience feel human even when it’s not face to face,” he said.

Related Article: Learning Technology's Growth and What It Means

Going Mobile to Meet the Needs of Essential Learners

Of course, not every organization was able to move employees to a remote learning model. The obstacles were equally difficult for organizations where workers had to stay on the job, said JD Dillon, chief learning architect for Axonify, a Waterloo, Canada-based learning experience platform (LXP) that caters to front-line workers. These employees had to rapidly learn how to operate in a masked and socially distanced environment where displays needed to change, equipment needed constant cleaning, and customers had new needs. 

Traditionally, these skills would have been taught via shared computers in a break room or small group discussions between shift changes. “That didn’t work anymore,” Dillon said. 

For many of these organizations, the solution was to go mobile and provide workers with training via apps on their smartphones. Dillon said Axonify saw mobile engagement rates on their learning platform spike in the last year.

The reasons were clear. Mobile learning addressed the need for just-in-time, socially distanced training. It also gave employers a more agile way to push new content to busy employees. Using mobile devices, employees are able to access small chunks of information within the flow of work rather than setting aside an hour in the break room to complete an entire lesson, he said. It made learning easier and less time consuming.

But it did require a culture change. Managers historically don’t want employees using their phones while on the floor, but in the pandemic there were few other options, Dillon said. Some managers remained hesitant, but the tides shifted when Walmart announced that it planned to give 740,000 employees free smartphones to improve worker productivity.

“When Walmart did it, it changed the way employers thought about device use,” he said.

Related Article: Learning Experience Platforms Chart an Alternative Path to Skill Development

Some In-Person, Some Remote, Mostly Hybrid

Now that employees are returning to work, companies have to decide what the new normal of workplace learning will look like. Most experts agree that companies won’t return entirely to the way things were. “The return to learning will reflect the return to work,” Dietsch said. “It will be a hybrid environment.”

In the later half of the pandemic, Dietsch saw a lot of companies adopting learning experience platforms to provide a more user-centric learning experience at the point of need. “Employers wanted to make content easy to navigate in a time when people were craving learning,” she said, adding that she expects the trend to continue.

The key now is figuring out what learning should remain in a fully digital environment and what should returned to in-person models. Dietsch said some of the answers might be surprising. For example, many companies discovered that live virtual events allow dispersed cohorts of employees to engage and collaborate in ways that otherwise would never happen. It also provided greater access to experts who can dial-in for an hour rather than flying in for the day. 

But onboarding, apprenticeships and on-the-job training still work best in a face-to-face setting, Dietsch said. “These are the areas of learning that suffered most in the pandemic,” she said.

Creating opportunities for new employees to engage with colleagues and to learn from their peers is expected to be a top priority as organizations figure out what the new normal workplace is going to be. What is certain to stick, whether it's hybrid or in-person? The importance of an engaging, employee-centric learning experience.

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