Adapt or die.

This Darwinian concept has evolved over the years to become an essential business mantra, and 2020 has shown us all how much training and customer education teams can achieve when they have their backs against the wall.

In conversation with some of my peers in customer education, I was excited to see how much we’ve learned as an industry as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the great adversity it has brought.

A Drive to Get Things Done

Mindi Gascho, director of customer education at Workiva, believes the pandemic has shown us how adaptable adult learners really are and what the education industry is capable of. “There are a lot of incredibly creative people in the industry, with high energy and motivation,” she says. “Educators are nurturers by nature, they educate and enrich, they know how to enlarge skill sets and competencies, and that’s what we have seen happen this year. Educators have rolled up their sleeves and made whatever needed to happen, happen.”

eLearning: A Shift in the Market

The other trend that Gascho notes is the increase in eLearning — a trend that many education professionals have discussed since the onset of the pandemic. “There are a lot of reasons for this boost,” Gascho says. “Maybe people have more time on their hands without the distractions of the office, or they may have had less meetings or gatherings. On the other side of the scale, they might have been desperate for a change in their working day, also known as the ‘not another Zoom call’ effect! Either way, we all have a new appreciation for how we serve content in a virtual environment. Some companies had a lot of virtual content and educational resources ready to push to these users, while others have had a lot of work to do.”

Daniel Quick, senior director of product experience at Thought Industries, believes this rise in eLearning is happening across the board, even in unlikely market verticals. Quick began the pandemic as head of customer education at Asana and saw enrollment increase by 20% when COVID-19 hit countries around the globe.

“We hadn’t done anything different at all,” says Quick. “This, for me, was an immediate indication of the uptake more widely. Customers were engaging more with their online academies, looking for solutions to deliver online training.”

Quick notes that this response didn’t just occur in the software industry or in technical training, either. “Even in market verticals where it makes more sense to deliver training face to face, like manufacturing, logistically and ethically, it was impossible to keep that going. There’s been a permanent shift in psychology, and I don’t see that going back.”

Saying “Goodbye” to Fear and “Hello” to a New Normal

Of course, in training and learning industries, the value of virtual training solutions is nothing new. Lee Berkman, enterprise account executive at CloudShare, notes that the pandemic has made the importance of virtual training clearer to organizations, not only in the context of COVID-19 but moving forward, too. “A lot of times, when organizations move into new technologies or begin to automate their processes, it can be more daunting thinking about the implementation than actually practically putting it into place,” Berkman says. “The old idiom ‘if it isn’t broken, why fix it?’ often comes from a place of fear and can hinder improvement.”

Berkman believes that the pandemic has pushed organizations to make changes and in doing so, opened their eyes to a new solution and way of doing things. “When things normalize, hopefully sooner rather than later, these tools won’t just fall by the wayside; they will be adopted in new ways. We have customers who have implemented virtual labs to fill a gap in training during the pandemic, who are already planning to utilize the technology side by side with face-to-face training, sales enablement or marketing events next year, even once the restrictions on in-person events are hopefully lifted.”

A Hybrid Model for Success

For many industry leaders, there’s no going back now that we’ve seen the benefits of virtual training. It’s clear that even if a vaccine were released tomorrow, we are experiencing permanently altered working and training structures. The “new normal” might be a remote workplace like our current reality, or it could be a mixed model with distributed teams or shared office use across the working week.

CloudShare’s enterprise sales manager Jon Allbin points out the productivity boost that organizations have benefitted from this year without the need for travel and on-site training. “No one is going to want to go back to travel costs, to negotiating delays, to trying to bring together disparate teams face to face,” Allbin says. “Everyone seems comfortable with the new model. Organizations who don’t commit to remote work will become the equivalent of trying to keep a horse and buggy in the age of the autonomous vehicle.”

Quick also believes things have changed for good. “Online training experiences are a healthy way to scale your training function in your organization,” he says. “That doesn’t stop just because we find a cure for the pandemic. A lot of companies that have invested in a virtual training solution[s] will find that investment continues to pay off post-pandemic by enabling the delivery of seamless training experiences around the world. While certain face-to-face learning experiences will come back slowly, such as personal growth sessions, brainstorming and workshops, [they] won’t take away from the momentum in the virtual training industry.”

A Catalyst for Change

For many organizations, before COVID-19, “learning experience” meant “face to face.” Then, overnight, educators and learning professionals around the globe raised the bar, and remote learning has continued to rise to the challenge, meeting the needs of varied market verticals, safeguarding both employees and customers, and delivering essential tools for business continuity and growth.

By demonstrating the immense reach that virtual training solutions can have, the pandemic has shown us how powerful the learning and development community can be — a strong message on which to build the ”new normal.”