Seemingly overnight changes in learning and development (L&D) models because of the COVID-19 pandemic threw many organizations into the deep end of the innovation pool. Many were able to pivot and keep training programs alive, but many are still struggling.

As COVID-19 continues to wax and wane, what happens now? Should L&D go back to the classroom? Or has the industry been handed a gift disguised as a crisis? Cloaked in the chaos is an opportunity to re-evaluate traditional systems. Practitioners can pause. Review. Research. Rethink. Innovate.

At Pierce County, Wash. — an organization of about 3,500 employees — our training division took advantage of this gift to redesign the entire organization’s L&D strategy, delivery, content creation and authoring tools. COVID-19 required the organizational development and training (ODT) division to pivot from an exclusively in-person, instructor-led training (ILT) model to all virtual, with both asynchronous and synchronous components.

While the work was done expeditiously, there was the unexpected opportunity to review our current curriculum, research best methods and modality and innovate with a growth mindset. Courses evolved to combine components of independent learning (pre-work) and virtual instructor-led training (VILT). Working together, these components allowed space for neurodiversity and all learning styles. Independent learning allowed time for learners to self-reflect, take notes and absorb information in new ways. The VILT synchronous portions allowed for an even deeper dive into the course material as employees entered the virtual room with a foundational knowledge base.

While chaos and pressures swirled around the division, our decision to pause and reflect had significant positive outcomes. Our internal research found that employees had a 53% improvement in knowledge, skills and abilities. They also demonstrated a 96% retention rate of information within 14 days of the course.

Our ODT division also began using new modalities and authoring tools to enhance the learner experience. Asynchronous learning moved from initial fillable PDFs to Articulate 360 software and LinkedIn Learning courses. Both programs integrated with the organization’s existing learning management system (LMS), Workday, to create a seamless process. Articulate 360 provided a new and interactive way to engage learners with the ability to insert media, “chunk” information and check for knowledge activities like quizzes, matching activities or decision-making scenarios. LinkedIn Learning augmented foundational learning to be reviewed before VILT sessions.

Synchronous learning showed that 46% of Pierce County employees experienced higher rates of inclusion, self-reflection, deeper understanding and practical application of the material. The biggest contributing factor was the use of breakout rooms. Attendees repeatedly reported higher levels of inclusion and engagement during the breakout room sessions. This method of content delivery and group exercise embraced neurodiversity and provided the space for full engagement. Zoom also provided closed captioning options for those needing the resource — a tool not used in most traditional classrooms.

However, the greatest gift the organization received is equity. Virtual learning removed many barriers to training attendance. Most notable was the accessibility of training. Without the barriers of drive time, time off-site in a central classroom and a full day synchronous training, more employees were able to participate in trainings.

Asynchronous training allowed for just-in-time learning while in the flow of work, increasing practical application. Synchronous training was shortened to combat Zoom fatigue and made taking time for learning more feasible. Employees had the flexibility to attend courses via computer, laptop, tablets and smart phones. Our research showed that course attendance rates increased by 28%, and training satisfaction rates increased by 33%.

Where does an organization’s role in remote learning stand? Organizations continue to open and close based on COVID-19 case rates and spikes. L&D has strategic decisions to make while the future remains ambiguous. Nothing is certain at this point in L&D history. Maybe this is the gift of great pause that the industry has needed. As novelist Margaret Drabble once said: “When nothing is sure, everything is possible.”

Now is the best time to innovate, be creative and practice a growth mindset. Is your organization’s strategy working? Why or why not? Keep what works and toss what no longer serves. There is no playbook. Each company’s needs are unique. Pierce County intends to stay in a virtual environment through 2022 with beta tests of small classes in person. It may work. It may not. The gift of uncertainty has led to some of the best L&D innovation that the organization has seen in years.

Moving forward, practitioners can embrace the chaos and challenge traditional L&D strategies. John F. Kennedy once said: “There is nothing more certain and unchanging than uncertainty and change.”

Change is inevitable and will remain, so a growth mindset and creativity are the important tools. The COVID-19 changes might be just what the industry needed — a gift of time and innovation.