Last March, when massive numbers of employees shifted from working in offices to working from home (WFH) due to the COVID-19 pandemic, traditional, classroom-based training stopped — yet business operations clearly had to continue. This scenario forced a number of changes — quickly.
Organizations had to set up an infrastructure to serve remotely working employees. They had to establish new procedures and work routines. And, the shift to digital, remote training, which had been beginning to gather speed, was accelerated at a breathtaking rate.
Remote Learning Successes
In an almost instinctive way, organizations recognized that employees’ roles and responsibilities would experience frequent, if not constant, change. As a result, organizations needed to devote a lot of energy and effort toward enabling reskilling and upskilling — all via remote learning. This shift brought to the fore microlearning: the delivery of bite-sized portions of learning that employees could easily and quickly absorb, adopt and apply.
The progress and results of such training programs are commendable. In fact, that they’ve worked well, nearly from the outset, lends further credence to the view that many employees who now WFH will continue to operate in that mode post-pandemic — 40%, according to the Boston Consulting Group, which also predicts that another 25% will work in an assortment of hybrid models.
The Role of the Team Leader
But before training professionals give ourselves too many virtual high 5s, let’s recognize a critical group that has been overlooked in this training transition: team leaders, the first line of management that oversees as much as 80% of an organization’s workforce. If employees are the ones doing the work, team leaders are the ones responsible for making sure it is done right.
Even in the best of times, team leaders handle a wide range of tasks; deal with changing priorities; drive toward corporate goals, develop the knowledge, skills and performance of team members; and more. Since the start of the pandemic, that list of tasks has become longer and more complicated, often with the addition of entirely new responsibilities.
For many in this role, it’s their first as a manager, and many of them were placed into the role because they were strong individual performers — not because they had management skills or experience to draw on. Few people are naturally gifted managers with an innate ability to teach and coach.
Before COVID-19, they managed teams of people who were clustered together, constantly interacting and receiving and giving instantaneous feedback. They had the ability to literally see if a team member was having a hard time. Now, things are different.
We have all the makings of a business disaster: We’ve placed so much attention and expended so much energy to enable employees to be effective in a remote work environment without an equal (or greater) level to empower their managers to perform with confidence in that same environment.
How Training Can Help
These team leaders need to be trained to be effective managers of teams that operate in a work-from-anywhere world. As a result, the substance and style of what and how they’re trained must be aligned with the nature of that world, which includes being able to participate in training anywhere and at any time.
Even today, there are reports that employees who have been working from home for months have a sense of isolation, of disconnectedness — not feeling like they’re part of a team. They also continue to need frequent, open, bidirectional communications, especially with their team leaders. Understanding and handling shifting goals and deadlines requires support and compassion from their managers.
These needs don’t fall under training on company policies or processes. Meeting these employees’ needs is all about being a teacher and a coach, about being empathetic. We need training modules on these topics that leaders can consume in the flow of work to ensure that WFH works. And, it is not an “either/or.” Along with soft skills training, organizations have to help employees develop hard skills for the remote work setting.
Artificial intelligence can help with both — as long as there’s an employee performance management platform that draws on data streams within the enterprise. With a data-derived, 360-degree view of a team leader’s performance, organizations can deliver learning activities in the right way, at the right time to serve the needs of the right person in a highly personalized manner. Then, they can create assessments, including learning engagement, completion and post-learning measurement. Finally, showing team leaders in real time how they are doing — that is, how well they’re putting their training to use — enables them to take swift action to correct their management approach.
And, because they’re trained better, they perform better. Which means their teams perform better, and the business can excel — even in a WFH world.