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Interview: How can we dispel the misconceptions of digital learning?

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As on-site training options become viable once more, it might be tempting to simply revert to pre-pandemic arrangements. In an interview with TrainingZone, Alison Smith, senior director for research experts Gartner HR, talks about the misguided notions that employees are unable to learn and develop skills in a virtual setting.

5th Jan 2022
Editor TrainingZone
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We all know how hard the switch to remote working has been, but it has also prompted innovations and approaches that will hopefully remain long after the pandemic ends. Alison Smith, senior director for research experts Gartner HR, discusses the impact on training, and advises on what organisations can do better to ensure that their L&D strategy is effective for all.

How has the pandemic impacted learning experiences for employees? 

Alison: The shift to remote working at the dawn of the pandemic was arguably the biggest moment for the workplace in a generation. It inspired new ways of thinking around things like productivity, flexibility, wellness, and culture, which has transformed the workplace forever. 

Our research in June 2020 – as covered in Training Zone – showed that 84 per cent of companies had moved learning to virtual platforms to minimise disruption to learning. However, the problem that we highlighted back then was that these programmes were not designed for success in virtual environments, nor did they consider the new skills required. 

As a result, it has been a difficult 18 months for employees on the learning and development front with many struggling to reap the same benefits from virtual training programmes.

Do you think employees can learn effectively in the virtual world? 

Alison: As on-site training options become viable once more, it might be tempting to simply revert to pre-pandemic arrangements. However, doing so would overlook many of the benefits of virtual learning including reaching more employees, offering more flexible programmes, and reducing cost. 

There are widespread perceptions that employees are unable to learn and develop skills as effectively in a virtual setting. The failure of many businesses to adapt L&D programmes during the pandemic bolstered those arguments. However, such ideas are both misguided and unhelpful.

As a society, we are becoming increasingly accustomed to virtualisation because of new technologies – we can interact, research, shop, and game online, and it would be remiss to think we cannot learn online too. Many younger ‘digital-native’ employees may prefer virtual learning and excel in using digital tools.    

Instead of reverting to what they know, leaders should focus on optimising their virtual learning strategies.

How can organisations enhance their virtual training/learning to support employee development? 

Alison: There are several approaches that businesses can take to improve the effectiveness of virtual learning – one key consideration is how programmes can be tailored to virtual environments. 

For example, in an in-person setting, a trainer can engage people by asking questions or providing practice exercises. However, that same session delivered online could result in digital fatigue or distractions. Businesses could consider breaking down learning into smaller sessions or setting up virtual exercises. 

Another important consideration is how to reinforce lessons delivered online. Leaders should ensure that all virtual training is accompanied by check-ins from a manager or peer, including personalised coaching on how to leverage the acquired skills and objectives to encourage prioritisation. 

Businesses should take an experimental approach to virtual learning, capturing feedback and using it enhance their offerings. Digital technologies will open new opportunities for virtual learning and companies need to continue to evolve their offerings.”

What are the challenges facing businesses now in facilitating virtual learning in a hybrid work environment? 

Alison: The biggest challenge in managing a hybrid learning experience will be supporting both in-person and virtual participants and creating equity in the experience. 

Many businesses are applying hybrid work principles to learning delivery — in other words, providing training accessed virtually and in person by employees within the same session. The danger is that remote participants often miss visual clues and side conversations and do not receive the same quality of experience. 

Businesses could take a number of approaches to address this including: a) selecting a delivery method based on the objectives of the training; b) shifting the learning channel based on the content in question; or c) redesigning learning programmes to support remote engagement i.e., buddying up a remote attendee or increasing Q&A breakouts. 

In a hybrid work environment, businesses need to create awareness of potential inequities between in-person and remote employees and adapt offerings to support the remote experience.

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