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PHOTO: Element5 Digital

With millions of American workers now forced to do their jobs entirely from home, most organizations have had to find new ways of doing old tasks virtually. That includes learning and development (L&D), which while as important as ever, have traditionally relied on a lot of face-to-face instruction and training that is currently not possible.

But ensuring L&D programs remain effective when delivered solely online involves a lot more than just putting trainers and employees on camera. It may require a whole new approach to training.

“You can’t just take an in-person program and deliver it virtually,” explained Sari Wilde, managing vice president of Gartner’s HR practice. “To make it work, you may need to rethink the content, facilitator, delivery approach, and possibly even change expectations for learning objectives.”

Wilde oversees the Gartner analysts who produce research for heads of learning and development programs and their teams, focusing on learning, development and leadership best practices. She says the current virtual L&D environment should not be viewed as a temporary fix to training program disruptions, but a new permanent way of delivering training.

According to Gartner research, “84% of L&D functions have canceled in-person trainings due to COVID-19, and 83% of L&D functions have decided to shift in-person training to virtual,” Wilde said. “While many organizations have already been steadily increasing their virtual training, the pandemic has accelerated that transition. Interestingly, many L&D leaders don’t believe they will ever go back to in-person training.”

Focus on Wellness Needs as Well as Skills Development

That is certainly the case at New York City-based Omnicom Health Group. As the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, New York City- area organizations were forced to go virtual early on. Omnicom is a network of medical communication agencies that focus on different aspects of marketing within the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries, including communications to healthcare providers, patients and others.

“We’ve transitioned to facilitating all of our courses virtually,” explained Rachelle Ades, senior learning and development specialist at Omnicom. “Our team has gotten in upskilled in leveraging the WebEx Training platform, which has enabled us to keep training interactive even though virtual, as the platform has many interactivity tools including breakout group functions. We’ve also pivoted our approach to offer more resources specifically relevant to our current situation — such as facilitator led, as well as on-demand courses on managing uncertainty, leading teams virtually, stress management and more.”

In pre-pandemic times, Ades and her team focused on learning and development that supported career growth and learning opportunities available to the agency network, including live courses and programs, as well as on-demand learning. Whether the employee is an information technology professional or serves in some other capacity, Ades said learning programs need to always be tailored to the job role, easily accessible for the modern learner and should have interactive and social components.

“Most adult learning isn’t through formal learning, but learning through others and learning on the job,” Ades stressed.

Most importantly, for learning and development programs to be effective and popular in this new environment, they must address employee wellness as much as skills development.

“We’ve received a lot of positive feedback that the content we’re offering and our ability to pivot to virtual is very much appreciated through this time,” Ades said. “We’ve been getting great results, as we’ve been getting many people attending the classes offered. This has also enabled us to expand to wider audiences outside of the New York City area.”

“Our roles are still super important now, and showing that we’re here to support employees through resources and topics most relevant to coping and thriving through this challenging reality is what will really make the difference,” Ades said.

Related Article: How HR Supports Professional Development in the Workplace

Keep L&D Efforts Short, Easy-to-Use, Interactive and Fun

Managers can take certain steps to help ensure the success of new virtual workplace practices, including learning and development. Workplace consultant Larry Wolff, founder and CEO at Wolff Strategy Partners, said managers should have weekly video chats with all reports, when they can discuss how L&D efforts are going. Managers should also help make the experience fun.

“It’s important to keep people engaged,” Wolff recently wrote in “Executive Tips for the Remote Work Environment.” “Share funny stories about telecommuting. Let people laugh — just like they do in the office. And keep people focused on the business goals too.”

Beyond that, what should organizations do to make virtual L&D succeed?

According to Wilde, in moving training and development to virtual platforms, leading organizations consider the following:

Session Length: “It’s hard to participate actively in a virtual training for the same length of time you would sit in-person. It’s important to significantly shorten or spread out training so that participants can focus and absorb the learning in a virtual setting,” Wilde explained.

Platform: “Don’t ask participants to learn a new platform. Ensure that it’s easy to use and determine whether the training can be done asynchronously, or whether participants have to be on the platform at the same time,” Wilde said.

Material: “Ensure learning objectives are clear, and there are compelling ways to keep learners engaged throughout the session through stories, page design and interactivity,” Wilde said.

Interactivity: “This is often one the most important components in a traditional development program. Leading organizations are finding clever ways to create interactivity in a virtual environment — through polling, small group chats, diagnostics, video and ice breakers to make training feel more personal,” Wilde said.