virtual learning

Learning at work when working from home

For many people, 2020 will be the year that they worked from home for the first time. But it’s not just working from home – it’s doing so during a pandemic.

It comes with its own set of challenges for all of us, but it can be especially difficult for younger workers – those just starting out in their careers. In an office, they will do at least some of their learning by osmosis – picking things up from colleagues, overhearing conversations or catching a quick coffee with a line manager. 

At The Social Element, we’ve been running training and learning programmes for entry-level employees for many years, as our business was built on a virtual working model. These are some of the things we do to keep our teams engaged and learning, and I hope that they’re useful to other organisations, too. 

  • Accommodate different learning styles

We all learn best in different ways. And the combination of our learning styles can have a big impact on how much we’re really taking in. 

For example, a visual, auditory and social learner may love – and learn from – interactive and visually engaging team webinars.  However, a visual and auditory learner who is much better at processing information alone would be better with a video they can watch when it suits them.

Some people learn best with practical experience – and if they’re social learners, buddy systems and roleplaying could be especially helpful here – while others are more likely to learn if they are given space to observe and study (by shadowing another team member, for example).

An effective training programme will incorporate elements that suit all styles of learning. A great programme goes a step further, and personalises learning and development to each employee.  

One of the most important things is that you create a culture that understands and embraces different forms of learning, rather than spending too much time trying to make square pegs fit into round holes. 

  • Use peer learning, coaching and mentoring 

Distributed workforces lend themselves well to peer learning – including coaching and mentoring. For example, The Social Element team is spread around the world, which exposes everyone to a huge diversity of experience and knowledge. By removing geographical barriers that come with office working, you can access talent from all over the world in a way you couldn’t do if you relied on physical contact. People can learn from others with totally different viewpoints, experience and skills.

For example, we are developing a mentoring programme between people from different locations and different parts of the business. This is separate from the line management structure, and lets mentors and mentees learn from each other and can create connections that they might miss out on without the programme. It’s easy to do that online – and often easier to find time for senior leaders to mentor than it would be if it was done face-to-face. 

You can also take advantage of the diversity of experience (and not just work-related experience) by asking agency experts to present webinars outside of their jobs. For example, our technical solutions director gave our team a presentation on gender and language which was a great success.

  • The right technology is crucial

There are lots of options for learning management systems – build your own, or buy one off the shelf. These can incorporate different learning styles, and different formats such as written documents, videos and webinars. 

When you’re training in an online environment, it’s really important to have bite-sized content so you learn continually in small chunks. We’ve found that all-day training courses – and those that feature heavy use of PowerPoint – really don’t work well with virtual working. It can be hard enough for people to stay engaged on video calls as it is. Attention spans are too short, and some people need interaction with each other to learn effectively.

Having a Slack or MS Teams channel for Q&As is also a great idea for those people who are more socially inclined, and want to talk around their learning. 

We’re heavy users of project management software, too, which lets the teams collaborate on projects and share information so they can learn from each other. And of course, we’re all using video conferencing like Zoom and Hangouts. 

Finally, build-in time for technical issues. Don’t schedule an hour’s learning in an hour’s slot. 

  • Create opportunities for live interaction

Social learners need to bounce ideas off other people. It’s easy to do that in an office, but online, it can feel like you’re bugging someone if you need to ping them a message every time you have a question. It’s harder to have a spontaneous connection. So you have to work harder at creating those genuine human connections. 

We encourage people to talk to each other by introducing some structure to it.

For example, we might ask people to schedule a 20-minute conversation with someone they don’t tend to interact with a lot on the team. It can help to establish lines of communication and aids learning.

Live interaction is important, and made easier with video calls and IM, but it can be hard to loop in people in different timezones. Recording webinars that they miss is one thing, but if they regularly miss out on team chats it can be much harder. If you set up informal team chats try to hit time zones when everyone can join the conversation as it happens. 

  • Buddying and shadowing

In an office environment, you might have a buddy or shadow system for new starters, and you can replicate this online. We have three stages for a new starter: formal training; then a period of shadowing someone where the starter watches someone doing their job, using screenshares, video calls and chat; and then a period of buddying, where they are watched by someone who can help them learn as they work. 

  • Build in social breaks

When we get together in person, we all say that we love it – we get an energy from it. But often it’s not the training itself, but the human interaction and social time that you have around the training that gives us that energy. We try to replicate that online, but encouraging people to chat about non-work issues, so they can build good working relationships with each other and get to know each other. 

In an ideal world, even in a virtual working world, we’d all have some face-to-face time. We try to encourage our teams to meet in person when possible, even if it’s just for coffee and a chat. While we can’t do that at the moment, there are ways we can mimic the learning by osmosis that goes on in an office environment. It just requires a bit more proactivity and outreach, combined with a culture that actively supports learning, both formal and informal.

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