The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a series of ongoing changes for the workplace, and companies continue to make big pivots in their plans as a result.

Salesforce, for instance, changed its return to the office plans from the end of 2020 through at least July 2021, allowing all employees to work from home for another 10 months. Epic Systems pivoted its return-to-the-office plans, too.

Corporate learning and development (L&D) professionals are grappling with the constant change, too. With the prospect of a return to the office looming, L&D leaders will need to develop hybrid learning plans with the expectation that employees will be split between in-office and remote. In some ways, that's like it's always been but never quite at this scale and complexity.

“The challenge for L&D, ironically enough, is to further develop their own skills,” said Charlie Chung, vice president of business development and solutions consulting for online learning platform provider NovoEd, based in San Francisco. “In addition to what they were before, they now have to be part-futurist, part-CIO and part-design thinker in order to help their organizations build the skills their employees need for the future.”

The Challenges of Hybrid Learning

Hybrid learning design will become more important than ever, according to Chung, and L&D professionals must combine the flexibility of self-paced online training and resources with highly engaging live experiences. “This mode has the promise of achieving a new level of efficiency and effectiveness in learning programs,” he said.

There are several challenges in utilizing this modality:

  • Determining how much of the learning experience requires live interactions. With the rise of social and collaborative learning technologies, there can be a great deal of interaction online. “Instructional and learning experience designers need to really think through where a live facilitator-led discussion is truly crucial,” Chung said. “It is easy to err on the side of too much live interaction." Other consequences include webinar fatigue, numerous sessions, scheduling challenges and facilitator time and expense.
  • Designing a hybrid program often requires redesigning the learning program. In simple applications of hybrid or blended programs, learners are asked to review materials on their own as pre-work for the live sessions. “To truly maximize effectiveness and to leverage a new generation of learning platforms, there are many more possibilities for learners to apply, practice, share and give feedback to each other asynchronously,” Chung said. “Therefore, feedback should be considered in the design of these courses. Considerations for deliberate practice and reinforcement should be incorporated into the design. Thus, the subject matter expert can no longer be the instructional design expert, as there are now too many design possibilities for online and hybrid programs.”
  • Maintaining engagement and persistence. Hybrid programs by definition are executed in sequence over time and those that are meant to replace a traditional one- or two-day workshop will need to be implemented over several weeks. This is where, Chung said, today’s busy working environment works against the L&D developer, as drop-off rates are a severe problem. This, in fact, is the biggest challenge in teaching deep skills online. “This is a challenge that needs to be tackled on a number of fronts, including reinforcing the importance of the program, a badge or certification, gamification, behavioral triggers, etc.” Chung said.

Related Article: L&D Best Practices for Your Newly Remote Workforce

Rebuild from the Ground Up

One challenge of learning in a hybrid organization is ensuring equality of access and quality of learning provided, according to Ian Cook, vice president of people solutions at Vancouver, BC-based Visier, which provides a people analytics platform.

“Anyone who has surveyed in-class learners vs. those who observed the same class online knows that simply ‘streaming’ the in-class delivery is not effective,” Cook said. “Specifically for interpersonal or managerial skills, the type of interaction and practice that can be set up and managed in-person takes more time, thought and individual focus when the same learning is provided virtually.”

Cook said he found many learning organizations over the last three months working out not how to repeat in-person classes online but rather how to create the same depth and complexity of outcome through a remote delivery model. “This means re-building the program content from the ground up,” he added.

Don't Just Recreate the Classroom Online

Katy Tynan, principal analyst at Forrester, said her research firm believes there will be a durable shift to a larger percentage of remote work even after the pandemic fades. “As such, organizations need to be thinking about delivering learning experiences through technology for the long haul,” she said.

When transitioning to technology-enabled learning, L&D needs to focus on the science of how we learn differently in that modality vs. a classroom. Attention spans are different. 

“Content needs to be chunked and more interactivity is necessary vs. old-school click through Power Point approaches,” she said. “Because of the rapid nature of the shift to digital learning, many companies simply tried to recreate the classroom experience through virtual instructor-led programs or video versions of classes. That’s not an effective solution and in most cases there is a lot of heavy lifting to be done in order to re-architect learning content.”

Content players such as Skillsoft, Harvard Business Publishing and LinkedIn Learning can be great tools, Tynan said, but still require significant effort to create learning paths and curate content so learners don’t get lost in an overwhelming sea of options with no direction.

Build Manager Capability

L&D leaders that shift to a hybrid learning model need to focus on enabling leaders and people managers to effectively lead and support their teams, Cook said. Whether their people are working remotely, partially in the office or fully on a production line, Cook added, the quality of management is critical.

“They need to deepen the understanding, range of skills and intentional nature of people management practices that are used daily by their managers,” Cook said. “L&D leaders need to focus on how they are building this enablement and how they are proving that it is making a difference.”

Related Article: 6 Learning and Development Practices for a Distributed Workforce

Learning Opportunities

Train for Skills and Capability, Not Jobs

The business model and associated organizational model has radically changed for many organizations, Cook said. This year, some individuals have found themselves switching to completely different roles, with the changes taking days, not months. Organizations learned that agile and empowered teams could drive a rate of change that they did not think was possible, according to Cook. 

Training for new skills can be costly, of course. Amazon spent $700 million to upskill about a third of its workforce, according to a McKinsey report in July.

“Every organization that was successful (driving change) wants to hold on to this agility and potentially increase it,” Cook said. “This means training for skills and capability, aligned to business goals, instead of training for jobs and functions. If the lifecycle of a specific role will be 18 to 36 months then it makes no sense to orient learning programs toward specific career paths or specific jobs."

Rather, learning needs to be broken into skill areas that align to business needs and taught in chunks aligned to specific challenges, projects or work programs that the business has underway.

Related Article: Top Skills and Traits of a Chief Learning Officer

Connect Learning to Business Outcomes

Building analytic capabilities required to connect learning activities to business outcomes is another crucial aspect of making a hybrid learning model successful, Cook said. Often, this has been done on a one-off basis for high profile or expensive programs but now the L&D function needs to track all activity and be able to understand which components move the needle. 

“They need to know what is getting used and what is going stale, and they need to be able to quickly update or change content or delivery approaches in order to respond,” Cook said. “This cycle needs to be fast. It is no longer OK to run L&D on an annual cycle of asking managers what they think they need. These decisions need to be much more informed by data and much more deeply connected to the current business goals.”

To take one example, learning and engagement need to be linked. Building that strong connection between learning and engagement flows through the relationship between the manager and their team members, according to Tynan. Learning organizations place a strong emphasis on development both for upskilling and for retention, and managers need support in order to effectively work with their teams to define and manage career development plans and resources. 

“In organizations where learning infrastructure is not in place and/or managers are not well supported, engagement scores may be low for indicators such as career growth opportunities, which can ultimately result in lack of retention,” Tynan said. “HCM (human capital management) solutions are evolving to better integrate all of these elements together for a more seamless view of the data throughout the talent lifecycle but without thoughtful integration, it can be challenging to have visibility into skill and workforce development for planning.”

The good news for L&D leaders who were ahead of the curve maturity-wise in their programs pre-pandemic is these sudden, massive shifts shouldn’t be overwhelming.

Those that had underinvested in — or had not effectively rolled out — a comprehensive digital learning strategy were behind the curve in making the shift to blended learning and sophisticated e-learning. They have to play “catch-up, both in terms of spending on the technology, and conversion of the content so that it can be effectively delivered in that modality,” Tynan said.