While virtual learning and development (L&D) methods were certainly in evidence before lockdown, sheer necessity left most companies with little choice other than to come on board. So, whatever the industry, it’s clear we have now passed the point of no return.
Face-to-face learning is creeping back in for some skills, but from now on it is normally going to be used alongside virtual methods in a hybrid programme.
The exact blend of the old and the new will depend on the requirements and culture of the company concerned. And, whatever the combination, the success of a programme will hinge on making correct decisions on issues like technology, content and engagement.
Laura Walker, senior consultant at training and learning provider Hemsley Fraser, says: “The trick is to realise that a hybrid learning journey is not the same as a hybrid event, and is about having the right mix of elements and processes for the journey. It’s all about making the right use of times, places and individuals, and about measuring effectiveness, efficiency and what the experience is like.”
At one end of the scale, some companies find they merely need access to virtual classrooms via existing video conferencing systems like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. At the other, firms are investing in bespoke services provided by a learning management system (LMS) either on a stand-alone basis, as a bolt-on to an HR system or by partnering with external organisations.
Guy Ellis, managing director of training company GenZ Insight, says: “Many of the video-conferencing systems can offer breakout rooms, screen sharing and whiteboarding, and are typically used for one-off training sessions. The key difference is that an LMS is a repository for training that has already happened.
“If you’re delivering ad hoc training, investing in an LMS may be a waste of time. But if you’re looking to provide an ongoing programme of L&D, it will enable you to store and replicate and give you enormous flexibility to deliver to your staff at a time and place that is convenient to them, and from any device.”
Design architects Foster + Partners simply uses Teams. The fact that 300 of its 1,700 employees are based outside the UK makes some virtual interaction essential, but face-to-face training remains highly valued where possible, especially for the softer leadership and management skills, where body language is most important.
“Remote learning is more of a necessity than a nice to have”
Laggi Diamandi, head of L&D at the firm, says: “Remote learning is more of a necessity than a nice to have. It’s more restrictive as, unlike with face-to-face, the trainer can’t pick up on a signal that it’s time for someone to speak. The virtual environment is just two dimensional and you don’t get eye contact, off-piste conversations, gut feel or intuition.”
Branko Bjelobaba, managing director of insurance compliance consultancy Branko, also gets by on Teams and Zoom. “Many trainers I know are successfully taking the same approach, and I would only need a platform if I wanted to record modules so people could buy them and watch them in their own time.”
Caffè Nero, on the other hand, has found its stand-alone LMS key to retraining, motivating and engaging its 5,000 UK and 1,000 global staff since lockdown.
Andrea Cooper, group HR director at the coffee house chain, says: “It can provide an onboarding system that means new employees can be put on a learning pathway immediately, and there are valuable practical admin aspects, like people being able to put themselves up for training or to be invited.
“It gives us the ability to monitor our results and helps to analyse whether they are meeting business objectives, and it enables us to keep employees engaged by issuing badges as motivational rewards and by providing access to modules, practical demos, films and quizzes. People must feel the online experience is as good as face-to-face.”
Elaine Hunt, head of L&D at global financial services provider Apex Group, says her company’s stand-alone LMS is well worth the investment. It has been valuable for providing compliance and urgent learning information to the company’s 10,000 employees, to monitor their effectiveness and to build a library of different L&D topics.
She says: “It was important to have a stand-alone system, as we have quite an advanced way of rolling out learning programmes, and our HR systems don’t do that. It can build modular courses and extend to softer skills like time management, communicating under pressure, personal effectiveness, and setting goals and objectives.”
Case study: Hybrid L&D at RSA
Insurer RSA admits that remote and hybrid L&D has so many advantages that it will never revert to the pre-pandemic situation when it was the exception rather than the norm for its 5,200 UK staff.
Kate Heseltine, head of L&D, says: “It enables you to schedule training at times that suits larger numbers of people, to have larger class sizes and to avoid travel costs and the practicalities of finding rooms. It’s more cost-effective doing it virtually, and more time-efficient for the individual.”
An internal L&D poll conducted in June showed many employees wanted to be back in the classroom for highly-skilled-based courses.
Heseltine adds: “There will be a combination going forward and we are working on a pilot to get the balance right. It’s about not making assumptions about what employees want.”
There has been a switch in video conferencing provider from Webex to Teams since lockdown but the same pre-lockdown LMS run by Cornerstone is still being used. This houses learning resources for everything from leadership, business skills and personal effectiveness to insurance technical content and regular mandatory e-learning.
Similarly, most external virtual suppliers are the same firms that formerly provided face-to-face L&D.
Getting it right
Selecting the right provider is crucial, and most experts stress the importance of asking for references from their existing clients and talking to these. Awards provided by industry bodies can also provide useful quality hallmarks.
Ellis says: “The priority should be the quality of content. The take-up for an LMS is typically 20%, but if you engage people properly it can be as high as 60%. So, you need appropriate content delivered in a tone of voice and way that suits your staff.”
Experts stress that dropping in workshop material designed to be delivered face-to-face does not work in a virtual setting.
Nic Girvan, learning director at training consultancy PDT Global, says: “Virtual and remote learning is delivered in a shorter session timeframe, and a full day is too much. When designing learning interventions for hybrid and remote solutions, you need to chunk the topics and work out what can be signposted compared to what needs instructor facilitation.
“Hybrid and remote learning design means you can get more out of your trainer’s specialist experience, rather than have them as mere slide voice-overs. Use remote learning resources to deliver the basic and introductory generic content and then use your live virtual session to bring the content to life with discussion, lived experiences, stories and breakout groups.”
It is also important not to design in isolation, adds Girvan, and bring together trainers and digital learning designers to build pathways. The remote modules should build on the live virtual sessions, and the live virtual session should have the same creativity as the remote modules.
Because adults only learn about things that interest them, it is important to explain why an event is relevant, and to entice employees with interesting facts and nuggets, possibly using brief videos to whet appetites.
Finally, however engaging and useful the content you have designed, never underestimate the importance of role modelling.
Walker says: “Employees will study what their colleagues do rather than say, so if senior leaders aren’t themselves learning, nothing is going to happen.”
The full article of the above first appeared in the July/August 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.