This piece was originally published in Forbes HR Resources Council.
The recent uptick in Covid-19 cases is an unwelcome reminder that the pandemic is far from over in many places, but in the United States specifically. Return-to-the-office dates have been pushed back for many, and it seems that the remote work lifestyle is here to stay. As people settle into a more permanent at-home scenario, it's clear just how esoteric learning and teaching methods really are—for everyone.
In schools, when in-person learning methods were upended and replaced with virtual techniques, teachers and students underwent a difficult transition. At work, remote learning and development efforts have been equally as difficult. The shockwave of the shift in L&D programs can be felt across a company. Employees crave learning and personal development: According to Deloitte's 2019 Global Human Capital Trends report, workers today rank learning opportunities as one of the top reasons for taking a job. L&D is crucial in retaining employees and preventing disengagement, and yet these budgets are historically some of the first to be downsized during an economic downturn.
Learning as a function of work has never been more important as companies and their employees need to be prepared for a difficult, post-pandemic business environment. What's more, the persistent need to reskill or upskill workforces hasn't gone away — instead, it has become more urgent. Workplaces are changing rapidly, and companies must learn how to match their workers' skills to new roles and activities. And in the midst of uncertainty and new work realities, we need to lean into new approaches to learning that keep employees engaged.
Opportunity Is Key
Earlier in my career, when I was a sixth-grade teacher, I always made homework optional. The idea was that if my students expected to learn something, they'd have to put in the work. I could teach them anything, but I couldn't make them learn anything. I think this same approach should be used at work. Employers cannot force their workers to learn, but it is their responsibility to provide them with the opportunity to do so.
Thankfully, providing opportunities doesn't have to be a laborious or expensive process — a key consideration as budgets are in flux. And now that teams aren't in person, learning should be presented a little differently. Managers can host regular meetings with their direct reports, either over the phone or via videoconference, and can use this time to learn more about their team members' personal and career goals. Using this knowledge, managers make concrete recommendations on how they can pursue these interests on their own (here's the optional homework part). For example, offer to connect them with another employee who has similar goals or past experience in a field that they are looking to pursue. Or direct them toward credible resources or reading materials that are available through your company's LMS, like relevant TED Talks or webinars.
Placing the responsibility to learn on the individuals forces them to decide two things: what they are interested in and how they learn best. Some employees might find they prefer formal learning methods that mimic school classrooms while others might retain more information through experiential teaching methods. A one-size-fits-all approach to learning doesn't exist. Instead, the focus should be on making sure opportunities to learn are always present.
Embrace Unstructured Learning From Afar
Effective learning doesn't only occur in the "teacher delivering information to student" format. And in the current crisis, it's no longer a viable option.
While structured learning methods require instruction and follow specially designed learning programs and curriculums, unstructured learning methods are more free-form. They assume that self-directed knowledge-sharing is constantly happening via person-to-person interactions and conversations.
Back when we worked from physical offices, it was easier to engage in this kind of informal learning. By simply conversing with co-workers in the office, employees could share knowledge. Or, through regular networking events or coffee dates, people could learn through discussions and shared experiences.
But now that teams are disparately located, all of this has changed. In-person conversations have been moved over to video conference calls, Slack or smartphones. This makes it more challenging to encourage unstructured learning, but not impossible: Look for the ways employees seek out human connection and capitalize on them. For example, before a team meeting, ask your employees to listen to a podcast that discusses an ongoing issue in your company's industry, or take a course to understand unconscious bias in the workplace. Then use part of the meeting to discuss everyone's thoughts.
Managers Should Take A Cue From Social Media Influencers
In response to Covid-19's negative and fast-acting effects on today's business landscape, many companies are becoming flatter. They're looking to remove unnecessary red tape and speed up decision-making by making their leadership structures less rigid. When job titles mean less, teams become more nimble and empowered, and therefore can react to change more quickly.
What's more, flattening leadership teams is an effective and less expensive way to boost L&D initiatives. By asking more employees to operate with influence, companies can create more effective learning opportunities. In fact, one study found that the five most influential people in a workforce are able to reach double the amount of people a five-person leadership team can.
Begin by locating internal influencers. These employees demonstrate leadership capabilities or certain skill sets — technical, soft or otherwise — that are lacking from much of a workforce. Companies need to locate these individuals and invest in them: Ask them to mentor up-and-coming employees or set up virtual shadowing sessions where they discuss their job responsibilities and team goals with new hires.
Right now, deciding to invest some time and money into employees' learning is the more difficult decision — but it's overall the better one. By investing in workers' personal development, companies are setting themselves up for a more loyal and engaged workforce that's willing to work through the difficult conditions in the current moment.
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