While the growth in popularity of online learning has been steadily on the rise in the past decade, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated its widespread adoption across the table, be it schools, universities, or the workplace. In the workplace, the transition towards having remote work as part of the new norm is well on its way and is gaining increasing acceptance among employees and employers alike. This can be in part explained by the time and cost savings resulting from it for the organizations.
However, one of the more difficult aspects of transitioning online is the learning and development programs of organizations, since its results are not as immediate in comparison to other objectives fulfilled via virtual meetings. It takes months, if not years, for the learning to materialize as results - be it skills that enable the workforce to perform better or leadership skills that enable progress up the ladder. There are three key things to note while designing training modules for a geographically dispersed remote workforce.
For an employee who has always received training in the physical world, there could be initial apprehension towards the use of online tools and systems, especially if they are not used to utilizing technology in every sphere of their job roles. Hence, setting up a holistic online learning environment that is cognizant of the users’ level of understanding is essential.
Ensure that all participants have reliable means to access the tools and that the employees know what is expected of them. Organizations should put thought into the selection and design of tools that are intuitive to use. Your existing LMS system could be a starting point, but assess if it can handle the complexities of the new demands and if it can be seamlessly incorporated into other collaboration tools that might be required.
For instructor-led training sessions, feedback during the training sessions is crucial to instructors to manage their pace, and cut back or dive deeper into certain topics based on interest. Hence, incorporating it deliberately as a part of the agenda will ensure it is received timely.
Lastly, organizations should ensure that employees have had the requisite training on how to access and utilize this new learning environment, with the help of how-to videos and trouble-shooting videos. If possible, set up a dedicated help portal with FAQs and chat capabilities to resolve issues.
Employee aptitude to learning a new concept differs widely. In a physical setting, there would be communication and collaboration among learners, encouraging them to ask questions and clarify concepts. This peer-to-peer learning is disrupted in a virtual setting, where it takes extra effort to first get to know one’s peers and then interact with them informally on the training subject matter.
Team-based activities are also difficult to conduct online, adding to the time of completing a training task. Both these aspects are easily overlooked while designing the training content, and hence needs to be paid special focus. Organizations should ensure that there are adequate time slots and tool capabilities for peer interaction - for instance, encouraging participants to type into the chat window for questions and comments, and letting others answer them.
For team tasks, create smaller teams to make it easier for participants to interact and work effectively. This has to be supplemented by the right technology options to collaborate separately and added periods to tasks to ensure that the delays due to digital training are accommodated.
To keep up the long-term momentum of online learning, create comprehensive training paths that excite participants, though innovative means like gamification. Creating different communities of practice who act as custodians and ensure that there is enough excitement for learning in the workplace can go a long way in ensuring that employees can harness their potential in an uninhibited manner.
Restructure Training Sessions
However, not all corporate learning can be fully virtualized. While a majority of the content and skill-centric training sessions can be seamlessly moved online, training sessions centered on leadership and other interpersonal skills will be more difficult to transition. It is essential to understand the full implications for this for both the organization as well as the employee, so as not to incur an unnecessary cost in redesigning the program for digital.
Hence, the segregation of learning topics on a scale that describes the ease of virtual transition can be the way forward. For the training modules that have a very low impact, the minimal redesign would be required to accommodate the other factors for the ease of digital transition. For the ones harder to transition, organizations should take a critical look and perform a cost analysis on virtual versus physical sessions. If the benefits of the virtual far outweigh the physical (there could be multiple reasons for this - physical movement restrictions to the feasibility of travel), they should reassess the contents of these sessions, and overhaul them accordingly to fit the virtual classroom.
The Role of L&D
The role of L&D has broadened with the onset of virtual learning - there are added responsibilities placed on it to ensure that employees feel at ease with the new technologies, timelines, methods, and ways of interaction. L&D practitioners need to be on the lookout for new challenges that emerge from the workforce getting accustomed to this new learning method, and enable its normalization across the workforce.
Even for those organizations that will require employees to come back to office post the pandemic, virtual learning can result in mutual benefits, provided they are implemented right. This will mean adopting a blended learning approach, where the learning programs that can be easily migrated online are virtualized, and those that are related to interpersonal skills, as mentioned above, be made offline where needed. Irrespective of the direction an organization chooses to take, virtual learning is here to stay, and is becoming the industry norm. Thus, there is an overarching need to realign training goals and programs to bring in the digital-first approach, sooner rather than later.