Looking forward, let’s not go backwards. The COVID-19 pandemic showed us something critical: When it comes to training and development, we could do better, and many organizations did.
Now, we have a unique opportunity to use what talent development teams learned during the pandemic to keep building on equity-promoting practices and strive to meet people where they are — which now may be all over the world, due to the massive decentralization of the workplace driven by COVID-19. The past two years, along with pandemic-related challenges, illuminated large-scale social injustices requiring new ways of working, learning, communicating and understanding.
During the pandemic, online eLearning libraries saw tremendous growth as companies struggled to support newly remote employees, and keep them engaged. Live, instructor-led training (ILT) courses that had been delivered in person pre-pandemic were hurriedly adapted to live virtual instructor-led training (VILT), by both internal learning teams and external vendors alike. New models of live, human-powered online development exploded. What’s the one thing all these learning experiences have in common? They can be accessed from anywhere at relatively low cost, leveling the playing field for employees everywhere, regardless of seniority.
Just because we may be going back to the office doesn’t mean we should go back to old training approaches and content; in fact, they are largely biased or irrelevant now, or incomplete, at best. Here are some of the best, mutually reinforcing practices in the pursuit of equitable talent development for all.
1. Promote efficiency without sacrificing quality: In many organizations, training is now something that happens for an hour weekly with a broad cross-section of the organization —through virtual sessions or workshops — rather than an annual two-day off-site training for a select group. The total number of training hours may be similar, but in the live online model they are delivered in smaller, regular increments, without the time and travel commitment for in-person, classroom-based training. This means more continuous, “bite-sized” learning throughout the work week, when it fits people’s schedules best, and when they’re focused on learning, not socializing. Indeed, researchers who have studied learning across decades have demonstrated that spacing out study sessions over a period of time improves long-term memory.
2. Make diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training continuous — and built into broader offerings by design: The more continuous type of learning seen today is especially powerful when it comes to DEI training, which is something that needs to be practiced over time. Social change happens continuously, so talent and leadership development related to social change should be no different. Moreover, while we believe there continues to be a role for standalone DEI training — such as raising awareness of and combating bias and microaggressions — it can be even more powerful to weave such content into the core training curriculum (such as how to lead a meeting inclusively) and even into performance-related conversations. This will integrate DEI-related thinking into broader skill and career development programs, and prepare people to consider DEI and what they are doing to promote all professional roles and stages.
3. Make it personal: With wide-ranging virtual and other training delivery options, there is unprecedented opportunity for more personalized learning, and to focus on the “whole person.” The idea is to give everyone the same foundation — such as in the first weeks of a training program — but then offer electives that are personalized to individual needs. Learning leaders may determine foundational content, then managers and team members can decide the focus of personalized content together, to ensure mutually beneficial learning, including a focus on mental health and wellness, where appropriate. A more personalized approach not only gets people what they need but is more equitable in meeting people where they are and not taking a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t take individual situations into account, especially those from traditionally underserved groups.
4. Provide diverse learning experiences — with equity-learning as your North Star: As you consider new learning experiences to offer, think about how best to promote equity on every level: geography, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic and parental status, sexual orientation, differently abled, religion and other factors. It can be about ensuring everyone has access to effective technology (like tablets) for learning and development (L&D), and quiet spaces in which to learn (or at least access to headphones to promote focus). It can be about providing written and/or asynchronous materials such as learning guides for those who can’t make a meeting due to their time zone, child care responsibilities or good access to Wi-Fi. And let’s not forget those who aren’t digital natives and would prefer to limit their screen time and learn new skills through more traditional methods. Whatever it is, the goal is to make it about equity-by-design, and assess and refine your cross-functional practices continuously to ensure that remains the case across teams and departments.
5. Measure impact at the individual level: Past measures of training impact often focused on group learning and outcomes, which may overlook those facing specific personal challenges, such as low access to resources. Introversion, too, can make some types of group learning difficult and certainly Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is prevalent across people of all ages and backgrounds and impacts learning. So it’s important to measure the impact of learning/development person by person, and focus strongly on those who need extra support or follow up, to ensure that no one has to struggle alone or feel misunderstood or unsupported in their quest to improve their skills.
6. Harness the power of virtual delivery for leadership and management development: While online learning has been around for a while now, its use has been largely circumscribed, with application to specific skills like learning to code or communicate in writing. But the pandemic helped broaden the scope of virtual learning to leadership and management capabilities. This has been important for increasing equity, as it has leveled the playing field for those from a wider variety of backgrounds, and reduces the affinity bias represented by things like the mentorship and advancement opportunities that arise from playing golf with your manager — who happens to look a lot like you, or belongs to the same club. So, as a learning leader, think about how you can create accessible virtual options for leadership development, and pursue them fully.
7. Make it social and inclusive: Through virtual training and development options, people have the opportunity to engage and learn alongside a wider cross-section of people than they’d normally see, and to share their challenges and triumphs together, boosting motivation, empathy and impact. It has been proven for decades (and we are certainly seeing it more now with the student population that could not attend classes for long periods of time due to COVID-19) that the social elements of learning are extremely powerful.
The bottom line here is that things have changed when it comes to learning and talent development. Before you head back to the office, think twice about rushing back to the old models of ILT. Ensuring equal access and opportunity for all means that we need to take inherent biases and inequity out of the equation. Continuous learning and frequent reinforcement are critical to the thing that we’re all seeking: lasting, effective growth and change.