This article is based on a recent webinar ‘Ready for the Next Normal? A New Blueprint for L&D Capabilities in a Virtual World’. Lead Consultant at LEO Learning, Patrick Thomas, talks us through three of the key capabilities L&D professionals need to build on to get ready for the next normal of workplace learning.
Shifting to virtual learning has been a reality for all organizations this year. So as we look to the ‘next normal’, what key capabilities do we as L&D professionals need to focus on building?
We’ve all learned by now that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, and we can’t simply translate live, in-person, or event-based training directly into the online world. And the same is true with online facilitation. When it comes to transforming face-to-face trainers into virtual facilitators, and as we adapt our learning design to the new experiences and needs of our learners, there are a number of ways we can expand and adjust our best practices.
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1) Prioritize Empathetic Learning Design
As the world of work continues to change, a key focus of capability building is adapting our learning design to meet the needs of our learners in their changed environments. In the same way we would make use of break-out groups, social interactions and informal chats in coffee breaks in face-to-face sessions, it’s important to also make space for these in virtual sessions.
But there’s more to it than giving everyone five minutes every hour on the hour to stretch their legs - though mind you, this is really important.
Our learners are no longer in the same space; we can’t expect them to have the same requirements. Everything from wavering internet connections to being distracted by the people they live with, facilitators need to be prepared to deal with faltering engagement that they wouldn’t encounter in-person. This comes down to empathetic design and delivery.
So, how can we be more empathetic in our design for virtual learning?
Be Understanding of Mental Wellbeing
A great example comes from a global financial services organization we work with that is adapting its leadership training to suit virtual delivery. Leadership teams there work under extreme time pressure generally. They come into these sessions in a state of heightened anxiety or stress.
So the organization introduced mindfulness and breathing exercises into the start of every session. Taking only five minutes out of the agenda, these breathing exercises created a clean break from any stress the participants are coming from. It adds a physical element to the session and enables the leaders to step into the session. These mindfulness moments enable the leaders to feel more relaxed, engaged, and ready to participate in the session ahead.
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Be Mindful of Lives Outside of Work and Learning
Empathy in design can be simpler than including breathing exercises into sessions. At its core, it focuses on accommodating your learners' particular needs. And caring for their mental health and overall well-being is part of that. For example, accommodating the need that some people may have to leave the call for various reasons, need to turn off their cameras, or go on mute to sort something out is a basic design consideration.
It’s important to be open about this flexibility at the beginning of the session. Put clear boundaries in place, and let your learners know what the process is for that—for example dropping a quick message in the chat if you need to pop out for a few minutes. You might also need to accept that your lesson plan may need to be shorter. You probably won’t get everything done that you would ideally want to, but that is because you are now working to the learners’ environment - not the other way around.
Keep reading: ‘3 Key Mindset Shifts for L&D Capabilities in 2021’
2) The Importance of Storytelling in Virtual Learning
Storytelling is a powerful tool for learning in any environment as our brains are naturally wired to learn through story. However, as many of us are working at a distance, stories become an increasingly important tool for emotional and intellectual engagement and connection.
Sharing Your Own Stories
We believe that it’s important to focus on authentic stories. This could be, for example, amusing anecdotes from within the organization, like the tale of a particularly awkward client meeting from years ago. Allowing others to learn from your experiences, especially if you can package it up in humor, can be incredibly valuable.
On top of this, sharing stories from your own career and experiences can help your audience open up and become more engaged in the learning. If they feel like they know you a little bit better, they’re more likely to relax into the session.
This authenticity can also come from User Generated Content (UGC), in the form of short videos, blog posts, or anecdotes shared into your learning system or even in the session itself. Focusing on authenticity in this way keeps your storytelling more relevant to your learners.
User-generated content can be a great way to increase engagement with your learning and encourage learners to invest time in the lessons beyond the virtual sessions you’re delivering.
Knowledge-sharing through stories can be an incredibly powerful tool. It brings people closer together and increases social engagement. Even better, people gravitate towards it anyway. Encouraging knowledge-sharing through UGC just formalizes the process and extends the reach beyond one-on-one conversations.
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3) Measuring the Impact of Learning
When we asked the webinar audience how 2020 has impacted their learning measurement strategies, 52% said they were maintaining it and 26% said theirs had improved. This is fantastic news in what has been an incredibly challenging year.
At the other end of the scale, 21% said that it had been put on the back burner. This is completely understandable in light of competing priorities and many L&D departments facing budget restrictions.
However, as we move forward, measuring the business impact of learning needs to become a key capability for L&D.
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Measurement Beyond Data
Learning measurement has changed over the last couple of years.
While proving learning ROI is important and hard data is a big part of that, for us, it’s often about collecting stories. In other words, capturing thoughts and experiences through surveys, polls, open questions, and anecdotes. Saving these stories and seeking them from managers in other departments can be a great way to gain executive buy-in if you lack the technology to luxuriate in vast quantities of data.
Testimonials and quotes from colleagues and management across your organization can be extremely valuable. Of course, the ideal situation is to have advanced learning analytics and perhaps a Learning Record Store (LRS) as a centralized focus for your data. But if you don’t have this, or are looking for buy-in for it, these stories can act as important evidence for the worth of your learning initiatives.