In January 2020, I believed that we would see a shift away from the classroom in our design of blended learning programs — programs that have both on-demand content and social interaction in a classroom — toward delivering learning entirely online. The idea that learning is a thing that happens at a certain place and time did not seem right anymore.

What I could not have predicted is a global pandemic that would accelerate this transformation and that many of us would move into virtual work in the space of weeks.

It is an interesting time to work in learning; our audience is suddenly remote from us and from each other. Any reluctance to dive into virtual tools has been swept aside by necessity. Considering this seismic shift, we need to reconsider how we deliver learning solutions to remote workers and, as workplaces reopen, to office-based workers as well.

To that end, here are four key factors for learning and development (L&D) leaders to consider:

1. Motivating Autonomous Workers to Become Autonomous Learners

The pattern of learning follows the pattern of working.

The distance between our work life and personal life has reduced, which has required that employees have the flexibility and autonomy to manage their own tasks and their own working patterns around their home lives. This autonomy must extend into control over how, where and when they access your learning and manage their career development.

For some time, L&D has been gradually moving away from centrally-mandated training and toward enabling and supporting the self-directed learner. Just as the digital transformation curve has been accelerated by the global pandemic, so, too, has the shift from training pushed by the organization toward learning pulled, on demand, by the employee.

To remain valuable to our workforce, we need to offer learning opportunities that are relevant to their role, easily accessed from anywhere and directly applicable in their work.

2. Letting Go of Event-based Learning

We have all attended engaging and exciting face-to-face learning events, where we leave the event feeling that we have taken part in a transformational experience, and the teacher or trainer, seeing our reaction, believes the same. The problem with this approach — which I call a “sheep dip” — is the idea that we “dip” learners into a classroom and then send them on their way. Without sufficient time to pause, apply and reflect on what they learned, they will quickly forget it.

Now, a global pandemic has shut the classroom doors, presenting an opportunity to look for new alternatives to this default option for training. If the classroom is removed, so is the need to deliver a great deal of content in a compressed period of time. Virtual training sessions can be short and regular rather than long, one-off events. This loosening of pressure provides an opportunity for new learning designs, whether they’re fully online or incorporate some classroom elements when the workplace reopens.

For example, could a tightly scheduled two-day classroom course become a two-week virtual program? In this format, learners would have the opportunity to pause and reflect on what the learn, and speakers would have sufficient time to analyze how each learner is progressing and then tailor the program to his or her needs. It is a richer experience that’s better suited to a flexible workforce.

3. Connecting Your Learners to Your Brand and to Each Other

Organizations need, now more than ever, employees who are connected — connected to their employer, connected to their line manager and connected to each other. This consideration is important when switching priorities from classroom training to digital learning solutions, which are often not social by nature.

We can learn a great deal from how other disciplines, like communications and digital marketing, create and nurture social online communities. Specifically, there are three simple tactics we can use here:

Consider L&D’s Role in Knowledge Management

Most organizations have access to a shared digital space. L&D can turn it into a shared common space by adding links to corporate social media, intranets and company websites.

Create Expected Rituals and Patterns

If you can create regular habits for your learners, they can begin to follow these rituals and incorporate them into their daily lives. Something as simple as a weekly newsletter containing company updates and good news stories from peers and colleagues will help your learners connect with their employer.

Promote Interaction and Dialogue

Setting an expectation of reactions and contributions can create the sense of belonging and support that many employees need.

4. Moving to a Hybrid Learning Strategy

As workplaces reopen and companies move toward flexible working models, learning and development strategies will adapt as well. Working from anywhere will become the norm, whether it means working from the office, from the home or from regional hubs. Working from anywhere means learning from anywhere — yet it should not lead to a poor experience for colleagues in the office or anywhere else.

Traditional classroom solutions prioritize the face-to-face learner. Though colleagues sometimes dial in, the participants in the room receive the facilitator’s full attention. In virtual training, the remote audience uses whatever interactive tools, polls and Q&A chats that the virtual platform allows.

Now, we are designing for a hybrid workforce, with solutions that can flex to fit the needs of both in-person and remote audiences. We can describe this model as hybrid learning — where the provision of a quality learning experience is delivered to any location, and learners can choose their mode of access to content, subject matter experts (SMEs) and peers.

The workplace has changed, and L&D needs to change as well. With optimism, we can view these changes as an opportunity to design learning solutions that are more effective, more relevant and more equitable for all.

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