Don’t let social distancing stop employee development

Published on: June 2020

Written by: Dave Ackley

This article was originally published by Glassdoor for Employers here.

As COVID-19 continues to spread, business leaders are laser-focused on safety. That means postponing or canceling travel, sending employees home to work remotely, and even closing their doors when no other options remain. We’re already seeing a spike in layoffs for companies that are losing too much revenue to keep all of their employees on payroll.

Although business will eventually return to normal — or at least some new version of normal — it could take over a year. When it does, leaders will face the reality of a tougher marketplace, more demanding clients, and the need to innovate relentlessly. Likewise, employees will have survived layoffs, illness, and disruptions at work. In order to prepare for the future, forward-thinking companies should double down on their investment in employee development by taking a significant chunk of development efforts virtual now to improve morale.

Offering remote learning opportunities, particularly when employees are isolated in their homes, demonstrates a tangible commitment to employee development that won’t go unnoticed. An overwhelming 94% of workers know how vital continued learning is for their careers, but nearly half (49%) say they don’t have time to do it at work (Source: LinkedIn, “2020 Workplace Learning Report”). By implementing virtual and digital learning while COVID-19 brings normal operations to a halt, leaders can invest in employees and lay the foundation for better retention and stronger operations at the same time.

Make Virtual Normal

Even as significant portions of the workforce perform their jobs from home, virtual learning remains a largely untapped opportunity. Remote development initiatives are an investment in your workforce that can keep people aligned despite the distance between them. These opportunities can also teach learners how to lead through uncertainty and change during difficult times.

Virtual learning can be amazing (just as in-person learning can) — but in ways that are perhaps surprising. It allows people to learn how they learn best: together. Virtual sessions allow for on-point, focused facilitation that can adapt to feedback in real time. They’re also asset-light and easy to schedule, meaning you don’t need to find a physical space or worry about having uncomfortable chairs. Besides this, using virtual classroom technology and other digital tools also helps people become more proficient in tech.

To create effective virtual learning programs, follow these key steps:

1. Start at the top. To normalize virtual learning, get your company leaders on board first. You’ll benefit from broader buy-in if the CEO and the rest of the executive team actively participate in (and preferably lead) some of your virtual learning programs and alignment or change initiatives. It will also help if these individuals leave their professional personas at the door and demonstrate relatable qualities such as vulnerability and authenticity. And because much of the learning will take place in the flow of work, having leaders as teachers will help enable, engage, and align people more effectively in moments of need.

2. Add interactive elements. If sitting through a lecture is challenging in person, it’s exponentially more difficult when your team is doing remote learning on the living room sofa. To hold people’s attention, limit presentations to 30 minutes or less and add interactive elements such as simulations, exercises, and practices. Engage people and offer immediate feedback based on their decisions to keep them interested.

3. Use data to target pivotal needs. This certainly applies not just to virtual learning, but also to any learning. In challenging times, however, less can be more. Virtual and digital learning allow you to target the most crucial needs for the day. And because virtual learning sessions are generally shorter than classroom workshops, they allow for greater focus on the concepts or skills that are useful in moments of need.

Tests or assessments can reveal where your people excel and where they need more practice. As people are working more remotely, collecting this data now is more critical than ever. It’s a means to improve and personalize the journey for people and make your virtual initiatives more effective.

4. Preserve a human touch. Virtual development can feel decidedly disconnected, particularly for first-time practitioners. The good news? It doesn’t have to. Lean on coaches and subject matter experts to lead virtual learning sessions, and offer virtual office hours that empower your team to go the extra mile and seek more information. Create portals with social features or, even better, use team collaboration tools such as Slack that allow people to ask questions, share content, and interact with one another instantly from any location.

5. Reimagine the experience. Implementing a virtual learning program doesn’t mean simply taking an analog program and digitizing it. Reimagine virtual experiences using design thinking, and employ digital experiences and tools when design and outcomes call for it.

Just consider exercises normally done with flip charts and sticky notes by teams in physical classrooms. These exercises can easily be done with common tools we use on our computers every day in ways that make team readouts even easier in the virtual classroom. Or, you could use digital crowdsourcing tools to instantly aggregate all teams’ work and make it better by allowing peers to rate that work and comment to identify agreed outcomes or better solutions to problems. By reimagining the experience, you won’t just have an effective session — you’ll also come away with an incredible amount of information that informs future successes.

Virtual learning and development initiatives can help busy employees better themselves whenever and wherever it’s convenient. This motivates them when morale would otherwise sink, particularly during stressful times when they’re working remotely and away from colleagues. Development opportunities are always important, but this pandemic should spur companies to implement these initiatives now while face-to-face learning is impractical. Those that do will reap the benefits long after we’ve emerged from this crisis situation.