September 05, 2022
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Greater flexibility, better work-life balance, time savings thanks to not having to commute into the office anymore, workations… Remote work has brought positive changes to the lives of many, and the merits and benefits of working remotely for employees and companies alike have been shown by many studies and surveys. However, there are also some drawbacks, one of which is the negative impact remote work has on professional learning and development.
A big part of the learning process in the workplace happens through watching and interacting with more experienced coworkers and picking up how they do things. Especially when starting a new position or when getting your first-ever job, this type of informal learning is invaluable. With the shift to remote work, learning from colleagues and through in-office interactions has decreased significantly. The OECD estimates that informal learning has decreased by 25% during the pandemic due to shutdowns and working from home.
In order to compensate for this loss of informal learning opportunities, employers have to rethink and improve their learning and development offering to make it suitable for remote work. But what does learning and development look like in remote teams? What are possible pitfalls and, more importantly, how can they be avoided?
Learning and development, often referred to as L&D for short, is the generic term for all professional training initiatives offered by a company. The purpose of L&D is to equip employees with the skills and knowledge they need to carry out their tasks in the best possible way, keep advancing in their career and, ultimately, help the company grow.
It’s not just about onboarding and on-the-job training, but about providing a continuous learning experience for team members. Since L&D directly concerns employees, it’s part of any HR department’s core responsibilities. Usually, it is embedded in the company’s overall talent management strategy.
Employee training and development consists of different components which are traditionally classified in a 70-20-10 framework. According to this framework, 70% of learning comes from on-the-job learning, 20% is learning from others, and only 10% is down to formal training events.
Although formal training only makes up for a small part of the overall learning experience, L&D programs can take on many different forms. For instance, organizations can arrange in-person training sessions for their teams, develop a mentorship program or give their employees access to online classes. L&D initiatives can either be aimed at upskilling employees for better performance or at reskilling them to enable them to take on a new role within the organization.
The Deloitte 2019 Global Human Capital Trends survey found learning to be the top-rated human capital challenge, with 86% of respondents claiming that they considered learning and development as an important or even very important issue. So, where does this increased awareness and importance placed on learning in the workplace come from?
There are many reasons why L&D is important for organizations of any size. First and foremost, learning opportunities play a major role in attracting new talent. In a large-scale survey conducted via LinkedIn, 19% of respondents rated the opportunity to learn and grow as the most inspiring thing about work. Similarly, the inability to learn and grow constituted a major reason for 20% of respondents to leave their jobs.
Referring to the same survey results, Global Industry Analyst, Josh Bersin, states that “employees who spend time at work learning are 47% less likely to be stressed, 39% more likely to feel productive and successful, 23% more ready to take on additional responsibilities, and 21% more likely to feel confident and happy”.
In a nutshell, if managed properly, L&D opportunities can be a major contributor to:
Employee experience and engagement
Performance and quality of work
Employee happiness and motivation
What’s more, learning and development schemes can help bridge identified skills gaps in a business’s workforce and are therefore also part of strategic workforce planning. In this sense, L&D can even be seen as a crucial step for businesses to prepare themselves for the future.
With the sudden shift to remote work due to the pandemic, HR teams all over the globe had to acknowledge that their well-practiced processes didn’t work in a remote set-up. Remote recruiting, onboarding and performance management is different than with an in-office workforce, and it’s the same with employee learning and development.
Creating a remote employee learning and development program comes with a whole new set of challenges. Different time zones in globally distributed teams make it hard to near impossible to carry out live training sessions with Q&A opportunities. Then there are the many distractions employees are exposed to when working remotely, which can have a disruptive impact on the flow of a training session and make it hard for employees to follow and internalize what’s being conveyed on the course.
In addition to possible distractions, technical issues could lead to employees being left behind during scheduled training sessions, for example when introducing a new tool or software. The fact that managers have less control over remote employees also means that it’s harder to actually track the progress the employee is making in the chosen L&D program. And similar to the usual workload, remote employees may find it hard to manage learning properly and efficiently.
Not to forget that working remotely limits the choice of possible learning options, especially during the onboarding process. A big part of on-the-job learning usually happens through osmosis, i.e. picking things up just by listening and by simply being exposed to other workers and being able to raise questions at any moment. In remote work environments, this type of learning on the job is not possible, as shown by research conducted by the Leeds University Business School.
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We’ve already mentioned that there are fundamental differences between remote and in-person learning. So, how does learning and development work in remote environments?
Remote training and development programs can either be self-paced, live instructor-led (i.e. synchronous) or pre-recorded instructor-led (i.e. asynchronous). Within these categories, there are many different virtual learning methods and formats companies can implement for their remote teams. These include:
Live training sessions and webinars via a scheduled video call
MOOCs and other online learning courses
Recorded training sessions that are uploaded and stored on the company system for replay
In order to give employees the chance to recreate a virtual version of in-person learning, it’s further possible to set up:
Remote mentorship programs for leadership roles and succession planning
Buddy systems for new employees
Troubleshooting conversations with HR
Open forums and community pages for new hires
If you think all it takes to set up an L&D program for your remote team is giving them access to a list of MOOCs they can follow, you should think again. There are many different aspects companies need to consider if they want to succeed in setting up remote employee training programs. Here are some best practices regarding learning and development for remote workers.
One key ingredient for a successful L&D strategy for remote workers is variety. If you want your learning and development program to be an incentive for workers to stay at your company, you need to offer a variety of different programs and learning opportunities. Remember that people have different preferences when it comes to their learning methods and techniques and will therefore prefer different course formats.
Therefore, make sure to offer both self-paced and instructor-led training so that people can choose the method that works best for them. For globally distributed teams, it’s vital to follow a blended learning approach and include both synchronous and asynchronous learning elements. Having a mix of online classes, quizzes and other learning material will further ensure that employees have a great learning experience and prevent programs from becoming boring.
Providing a variety of different learning inputs is one thing, but making sure the material is interesting and engaging is a totally different story. So, you have a 2-hour recording of a training session which explains a new tool that could be a big help for your employees in their daily work. But unless the training session is captivating and interesting, it’s unlikely employees will absorb what’s being explained. Most likely, they will struggle to keep focused and engaged, and zone out after 30 minutes. No matter what online learning material you work with, make sure it’s interesting.
We've probably all experienced it at some point in our lives. We’ve heard a presentation, read a handbook or watched a tutorial, and at first, it all seems perfectly logical and clear. But when talking about it, there suddenly are a million questions emerging from the conversation.
That’s the reason why remote employee training programs should give employees the chance to connect and converse with their colleagues. This could be a forum or chat space especially dedicated to the company’s L&D initiatives, or you could make it a part of the company’s virtual team building activities. Learning through osmosis may not be possible in remote work environments, but employees can still share their knowledge and learn collaboratively.
Keeping track of your team’s learning progress is important in several regards. First of all, well-developed L&D programs that will improve employee retention come at a certain cost, so you want to make sure that the money you invested isn’t wasted.
Second, knowing that their learning progress is being watched could be the motivation employees need to really get into the learning flow and achieve their goals. Remember that not all remote employees find it easy to set targets and work towards them without supervision. Third, the only way to find out where improvement is needed is by surveying participation rates, outcomes and other key indicators.
Even the best remote training and development programs are useless if employees aren’t aware of what’s on offer. Provide employees with detailed information on what training, online classes and other learning options are available and also inform them about career development for remote workers.
Include L&D in your employee handbook, send out emails advertising the latest programs and post about it on your company’s social media to make sure everyone knows about the available learning opportunities. Whenever you advertise learning and development initiatives for your remote team, remember to provide all the information, such as who the training is for and when employees need to register.
Learning is vital in all aspects of life. We have to keep learning in order to keep evolving. The same applies to professional learning. Employees who want to advance in their professional career need to learn new skills and, at the same time, a company needs its workforce to develop new skills so that future leadership roles can be filled. Not to forget that employees with higher and broader qualifications are essential for business growth.
In short, L&D is not just a strategy or a program developed by your HR department, but it should be an integral part of your company culture. Incentivize and reward learning in your company and emphasize the importance of professional development for remote employees on all levels and across all stages of the employee lifecycle.
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