As 2020 comes to an end, businesses are considering how to return to work in 2021. Remote work has steadily increased throughout the last decade, and the challenges of 2020 brought on by COVID-19 have offered new opportunities to assess what remote employees can and cannot accomplish successfully, including their learning and development (L&D). The answer, of course, is complicated and unique for each business, lending itself to a spectrum of possibilities, including hybrid solutions that allow employees to choose between working in the office and working remotely.

The amount of remote work in hybrid solutions can vary greatly, from once day per week to alternating weeks in and out of the office. These asynchronous schedules can be challenging for learning and development programs and may result, for some employees, in a lack of inclusion in the workplace culture or issues with career advancement. The “virtual-first” model is one hybrid solution that can address these inequities and provide more consistent and needs-based training.

What Is “Virtual First”?

A virtual-first strategy, like other hybrid strategies, combines both remote and on-site work but depends on which type of work fits each environment. The strategy is simple: Employees continue to work remotely most of the time, either at home or in co-working spaces, depending on their preference. This approach offers advantages such as flexible relocation and improved work-life balance.

In a virtual-first workplace, office “hubs” or “studios” are used exclusively for highly collaborative work, social events, synchronous training, team building and leadership training. The needs of teams and departments determine when they schedule events and meetings at the hub.

The Virtual-first Model in Practice

Dropbox is one company using a virtual-first strategy to respond to the needs of its business and employees, according to CNN. Its employees will continue to work remotely while it converts its offices into “Dropbox Studios,” where employees will meet for collaboration when needed.

The necessity of physical distance in 2020 has shown many businesses that remote work can be successful. The virtual-first model uses in-person meetings and collaborations only to fill critical performance gaps that aren’t served well remotely.

Putting Learners First

Virtual-first strategies can offer several advantages for learning and development professionals. A deliberate focus on using community spaces for specific in-person activities can simplify and focus on using the best method for the type of training and the learners’ needs.

For example:

    • Businesses can reconfigure studio or hub spaces specifically for instructor-led training (ILT), blended learning and mentoring rather than competing for conference room space. Organizations can also deliver training on soft skills, best taught through role-playing and mentoring, in the collaborative, in-person studio space.
    • Organizations can deliver asynchronous, knowledge-based training that requires reading, practice or just-in-time microlearning remotely using games or eLearning.

Preparing to Become a Virtual-first Workplace

What should L&D professionals consider when their business decides to move to a virtual-first model?

    • What is your learning and development vision? Be sure to consider learners’ needs in the context of the virtual-first structure, especially if working remotely is still new for many of them. Which types of training best meet the learners’ needs: on-site training in the studio space or remote learning through eLearning or virtual instructor-led training (VILT)? Just because you have a space for in-person training doesn’t mean that it is the best solution. It may even reduce productivity for remote employees.
    • Consider the most adaptive and scalable layouts for on-site spaces to accommodate training, coaching and leadership development. What equipment will you need? How many employees will be on site for each event? Can you easily reconfigure your existing physical spaces to support your on-site strategy?
    • Consider the best remote training strategy for employees working at home. Will most employees still keep regular hours, or will you need to focus on asynchronous virtual learning?

Whichever model your business chooses for going back to work, make sure your remote employees and managers have the support they need. Use this free tool, “Working from Home: A Guide for Success” (from Core Axis), to support your company’s success.

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