The thing about Covid-19 is that even though we are all entirely connected to the world and had news and opinions about it, most of us were somewhat surprised when we got sent home to work. Once the surprise passed, we were confident it would be only temporary.
That’s because even though there have been occurrences like this in history, this particular pandemic had a great degree of novelty given the circumstances and the way the world had evolved since the last similar global event (a century ago).
For organizations, this has probably been the toughest test. The L&D function, the essential supporter of any corporate change, had to remodel itself tremendously to become what companies needed it to be.
Helping employees adapt out of the office
The first step in the transformation of the L&D function was not about its own adaptation to the circumstances. In turn, instructional designers, trainers, and coaches were asked to come up – almost overnight – with comprehensive guides about managing oneself and one’s tasks when working from home.
With many factors that were still not very clear – such as information security, the IT infrastructure, and logistics – those materials were more or less informative but highly enthusiastic in their message that there is a positive side to the situation.
In the face of uncertainty, it was the best that could be done. Of course, many of the best practices listed in spring proved to be rather useful, and they acted as an excellent start for the construction of new workflows and procedures.
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Finding its new ways
Once everyone settled in the home office normal, learning specialists begun searching for ways to make their own ‘work from home’ function and bring value in the new context.
The first challenge was to take all that was already mapped out for 2020 and remove what had just become irrelevant (like in-office procedure workshops) or impossible (in-person conferences and team-buildings or classroom training).
The second challenge was a lot tougher because all the programs that were still essential (like onboarding) had to be completely transformed to fit not only the virtual format but the various needs of employees; they were now in very different circumstances despite their similar roles in the organization.
Time was not on the instructional designers’ side, so they had to quickly develop solutions and employ what technology was already available in the organization.
Taking down the structure to build something else
… that essentially did the same thing. When faced with turning a three-day in-person onboarding program into a viable virtual solution, learning specialists had to adapt to the new requirements. People could no longer be in the same (even online) spot at the same time as they had very different things to accommodate in their lives – homeschooling children, sharing spaces and even devices with spouses also working from home, having to operate with completely different resources than they were used to.
Since instructional designers were not in the habit of putting irrelevant information in courses even before the pandemic, the transformation of the programs was not as much about altering the content as about changing the presentation. Essential information became part of microlearning modules, while additional reading material was made available to participants.
Informal learning becoming widely acknowledged
This phenomenon was well underway since the younger generations were raised in a less formal educational system focused on personal curiosity and creativity. If you think about it, those first best practice guides for working from home that learning specialists everywhere drafted for their organizations were mostly the result of informal learning.
The only academic studies that were available at the time dealt with employee preference for such an arrangement and maybe economic considerations. Everything else was derived from common sense and the advice of work from home corporate pioneers, freelancers, and entrepreneurs.
Finding ourselves in unprecedented circumstances made getting information when and where we found it to be a necessity.
A greater focus on empathy and wellbeing
Regardless of how much of a positive spin we all try to put on things, the reality is very stressful for most, downright grim for others. That’s why it is paramount for organizations to think not only in terms of contingency plans but also take a real interest in their employees' wellbeing.
No ship will make it through such a storm without a crew that is given the support and care it needs.
It has probably never been a time when the support side of the L&D function was more important, and CFOs seem to understand this. Not only is there a visible emphasis on flexibility and adaptability for regular learning programs, but there is also a noticeable increase in interventions that have to do with stress management, personal development, and general wellbeing.
So far, L&D specialists needed to know their audience as attendees. Now they have to know them as people in order to demonstrate genuine empathy.
It’s been a rocky ride and it is not over yet. The L&D departments have had a difficult task, but due to the positive and creative frame of mind of most learning specialists, the transformations have all been helpful and positive.