From commuting to office banter, COVID-19 has put many of the activities that define the everyday employee experience on hold — not the least of them professional development. Whether your team is in its fifth month of remote work or starting to return gradually to the office, it’s unlikely that employees are packing a conference room to capacity to hear a guest speaker, or traveling to conferences and industry events.
Yet, employees join your company not just to perform a job but to gain new skills and experiences that will stay with them throughout their careers. To retain your top talent, employees have to see your company as a place they will continue to grow and develop — especially as the market responds to the surrounding uncertainty. In order to stay competitive, employers must empower their teams to evolve their skillsets, or risk a skill mismatch between in-house talent and their most in-demand roles.
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So, while standard avenues of learning and development (L&D) are on hold, how can you make sure your team still has access to high-impact growth opportunities? Here, the team at Flatiron School Enterprise share their tips on how to keep your team engaged through online training, whether in the midst of a pandemic or working with a distributed team.
Adapt to the Online Environment
This sounds obvious at the surface level, but it has often been overlooked in the fast shift to remote or online delivery. What works well in person — expert-led lectures, for example — may not resonate through a webcam, even with the most exciting content or speaker. When talking to your professional development provider, understand what they do to make the experience interactive.
Many video conference platforms offer features like polling for live feedback or breakout rooms for small discussions and practice exercises. Make the most of these opportunities to allow the participants to engage actively with their instructors, peers, and the training content. Another quick tip is to have music or a video playing while the attendees sign on. It can help to set the tone — and avoid the awkward silence as everyone joins the call.
Once you’ve planned how to facilitate live participation, add breaks to your schedule. Then, add some more. Participants need time to turn their cameras off, look away from their screens, and walk around. While you may sacrifice what feels like precious time, your participants will bring more energy to the active portions of training and walk away with a deeper understanding of the material. For longer trainings, we recommend one 10-minute break for every hour and a half of content.
Bring in Expert Instructors
There’s a certain magic in bringing a cohort of learners together with an instructor who is just as passionate about teaching as they are about their technical domain.
At Flatiron School, we are big believers in the power of instructors to bring content to life. While online learning libraries have tremendous value in scale and accessibility, we’ve found that there’s a certain magic in bringing a cohort of learners together with an instructor who is just as passionate about teaching as they are about their technical domain.
The ability to communicate both expertise and energy matters more than ever with online delivery. Whether preparing an employee-led lunch and learn or a months-long upskilling program, make sure your speakers or teachers are not only subject matter experts but experienced instructors as well.
Take Time for Games and Icebreakers
Beyond the content directly covered, L&D programs have tremendous potential to unlock employee creativity and to facilitate new relationships by disrupting employees’ typical routine. Dedicating time for interactive icebreakers, or even virtual games, helps make the most of this break from the norm. It communicates to participants that they are not only there to learn a skill, but to show up as their authentic selves.
One of our favorite icebreakers is also one of the simplest. We call it “Introduce Your Partner”. Start by splitting all of the participants into virtual breakout rooms of 2-3 people, where they’ll spend 5 minutes getting to know each other. They can cover basic questions like their role in the organization or hometown, but let conversation wander. When everyone returns to the group, each participant introduces their partner based on what they learned. It’s a great way to facilitate everyone actively speaking, without putting anyone on the spot to give a dreaded ‘fun fact’.
L&D programs have tremendous potential to unlock employee creativity and to facilitate new relationships by disrupting employees’ typical routine.
Especially when you have multiple teams or departments represented, these kinds of interactions are a great jumping off point for employees to get to know each other across internal silos. Take advantage of that, and it will pay dividends beyond the direct skills learned.
Communicate Your Desired Outcomes
If your company chooses to invest in formal professional development programs, you want to make sure employees get the most out of it. A lot can be done to set the framework for an engaging program, but ultimately, the success of your efforts depends on participants’ commitment. As employees often face increased distractions in an online setting, setting clear expectations is extremely important.
Before a participant joins their first class, communicate why your company chose to offer this training and, if applicable, why this individual was selected to take part in it. Demonstrate that this is a priority to the organization in action as well as speech. For example, allow deadlines to shift if needed to give employees time to attend class sessions. You want to create an environment where employees feel empowered to be fully engaged and present. It can also be helpful to provide a thought starter, focus question, or brief article ahead of time. By sharing a teaser in advance, employees arrive at the session already in the headspace of the topic and are more prepared to learn.
In addition, be transparent about how participants will be held accountable for what they learn. With asynchronous or self-paced training, you could choose to create a public scoreboard for employees to compete against one another. In other cases, participants may complete a final project to showcase their new skills. Laying out these details explicitly helps participants balance competing demands and ensures that both your company and employees have a direct line of sight to the desired outcome.
Prioritize Applicable, High Interest Skills
Finally, before charting out your training priorities, consider what topics or skill areas can have the most direct and immediate impact on both your business and individual employees’ work. Focusing on that overlap sets up your team to demonstrate alignment with business priorities, while also addressing the skills that employees most want to learn.
The more participants can envision the applications of what they learn, the more engaged they are likely to be in learning it. For one of Flatiron School’s upskilling programs, we designed a web scraping course for a top consulting firm to enable junior employees to automate manual research and data cleaning. When you see your required work hours drop from 40 to 4 to complete the same task, there’s a strong incentive to continue learning.
While online delivery introduces a unique set of considerations to professional development, when done thoughtfully, it can be a powerful tool for engaging your team and creating a learning culture across your organization. Take the time to adapt your best materials, invest in instructors, get to know each other, and set expectations. Your team will discover that learning can happen even in a virtual environment.
Founded in 2012, Flatiron School is an education leader in data science, software engineering, and cybersecurity, empowering individuals to transform their careers and break into tech’s most in-demand fields. At Flatiron School Enterprise, we partner with the world’s leading companies and universities to build high-impact learning experiences, creating teams that adapt even faster than the world around them.
This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, legal or tax advice. If you have any legal or tax questions regarding this content or related issues, then you should consult with your professional legal or tax advisor.