Stephen De Kalb, Senior Marketing Consultant
As more and more organisations encourage employees to move from the 9-to-5 office environment to working anytime, from anywhere, two issues stand out for Human Resource professionals. Both have the potential to create major challenges - and opportunities - for learning professionals.
The first issue every organisation faces when letting employees work from home, cafe, beach or wherever is how best to stay in contact with people they can’t see every day. After all, the very term “remote” implies isolation, so HR’s first challenge is to communicate in order to quell any sense of lost connection that will sink the morale, and performance, of people no longer in a traditional workplace community.
Thankfully there are ways and means these days to help organisations stay in ready contact with remote employees. Some of these methods are old school, like catch-up telephone calls and coaching sessions, regular office visits and, of course, ubiquitous email. Other methods involve new and emerging technical tools proven to help keep remote workers “in the loop” and collaborating, such as Yammer, Skype, SharePoint, Office 365 Teams, intranet pages and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
The second challenge, however, can be more problematic because it’s not simply about staying in contact with in eodem loco workers, but how to ensure HR generally and L&D specifically understands - and meets - the specific, ongoing training needs of their work-anywhere employees. Just as with the need for vibrant communication, the training element is taking on strategic importance (as if it hadn’t previously!).
Rise and rise of the Virtual Classroom
The HR team’s ability to understand individual workers’ strengths, weaknesses and motivations can be seriously impaired by the tyranny of distance. So too can ensuring employees receive the continuous training and developmental programs they need, and at the same high level of quality they would if they were at arm’s reach.
Once again, just as with communications, modern technology is coming to the rescue.
The synchronous online learning environment, or Virtual Classroom (VC), has come a long way since the first training courses were broadcast by the University of Houston in 1953. Today’s Virtual Classroom environment is truly interactive, and individuals and groups can now communicate in real-time, not just with instructors but with each other as they engage in discussions, videos, presentations and all manner of live and recorded resources. In fact, there’s now growing evidence to show that live online training sessions can be as effective as face-to-face classroom training.
We know, because TP3 has had great success with developing and delivering training using the Virtual Classroom. We added VC-led courses to our large public schedule back in 2013, and have since delivered training virtually to thousands of individuals.
Our biggest growth has come from VC courses designed to meet the very specific and unique training needs of individual corporate and government clients. The popularity of “in-house” VC courses has grown exponentially as organisations in every industry sector - including technology, banking/finance, insurance, manufacturing, mining, government and retail - discover the commercial benefits of live, online corporate training using short (usually 90 minutes), need-specific sessions (such as mission-critical instruction on new or popular business applications) in which employees and teams anywhere learn and interact under the auspices of a TP3 professional instructor.
Tips, tricks and traps
From our Sydney headquarters TP3 has trained employees of clients such as Oracle, Toyota, Colliers, QBE, Cash Services, ANZ, Coles and Schweppes in Australia and overseas, from Singapore, USA, South America, UK and Europe to Japan and China.
Along the way we’ve learned a thing or two about how best to meet the challenges of time, corporate and cultural differences - and clients’ unique requirements - to exceed the expectations of both clients and learners. Here’s a quick guide to what we know works, and what doesn’t. To begin with, just as in classroom there’s a fair bit of preparation needed to train remote learners, which isn’t surprising given the different dynamics that occur when the facilitator and learners are no longer in the same room, eye-balling each other. To counter this, here are some suggestions:
- Firstly, while it may not be possible with a widespread corporate workforce, if possible connect with remote employees before any training intervention. They may be in another country and you may never ever meet them face to face but there’s real value to be had in getting to know how to stimulate discussion and boost participation later. Try connecting beforehand by email or phone, setting up a blog page for them to interact with you and other learners, and strive to guide them effortlessly through the process using notifications and reminders to help them remember, plan and prepare for their date with online training.
- Secondly, one of the biggest roadblocks HR faces when training remote learners is that facilitators haven’t always mastered the ins and outs of remote training technologies before show time. Just as in the classroom, corporate instructors are expected to know what they’re doing, and this includes how the learning technology is used. A word to the wise, or three words: practice, practice, practice.
- The same goes for course materials being used. Just because those materials might work in yesterday’s classroom, that doesn’t mean they are online ready today, so be prepared to re-purpose what you’ve got or even start over from scratch.
- Another tip is to keep online training sessions short, sharp and to the point. TP3’s VC courses typically run only 90 minutes in length, of which 60-70 minutes are dedicated to actual instruction. Smart use of polls, question-and-answer periods, breakout discussion and comfort breaks, as well as time devoted to general class administration and the carefully managed pace of discussion, can all add up to a comfortable yet effective online learning experience.
That said, it’s still critically important to remember that training may take more time with remote employees than with onsite ones, and sometimes it’s wise to let learners on the other side of the microphone or camera to learn at their own pace.
- Another thing: all too often online training sessions neglect the technology needs, abilities and limitations of the learners involved. This point goes back to what we mentioned earlier about getting to know your remote workers’ needs before jumping headlong into the virtual environment. Give them the tools they need to succeed in the Virtual Classroom and make certain they know how to use them. Also, that they understand where to go for help if they need it.
We can help
There are a great many more tips and traps we could share here, from ensuring online facilitators adhere to presentation best practices (avoiding “death by PowerPoint”) to the use of real-world educational best practices in the virtual world. Indeed, the judicious use of time-proven teaching techniques are more critical when learners aren’t in the same room, not less, and that leads to the need for HR leaders to hire facilitators with proven remote experience, perhaps even social networking skills.
And most important of all is the need for HR leaders to define, early in the piece, the criteria by which success or failure of remote training programs are determined. Answers to questions like “Do we want a few highly trained remote employees or a rapid roll-out of training that might, as a result, sacrifice some high-touch training elements?” are better articulated before remote training is implemented than after, when it can be all too little and too late.
I could go on but you catch my drift. Whether HR teams deliver corporate learning programs face-to-face or remotely, a fundamental rule applies: corporate training must deliver effective, sustained change that drives value to the organisation’s bottom line.
Sure, there are lots of hurdles for HR to clear when their learners are out of sight. However, the organisational benefits that manifest when HR creates an empowered, engaged remote workforce can, literally, change the organisation’s competitive landscape - now and well into the future.
Need assistance? Call us today on 1300 658 388 for expert help on how to design, develop, deliver and report on virtual classroom-enabled training for your remote employees.