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Nigel Paine

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Going virtual: the impact of coronavirus on L&D and how to navigate through change

The coronavirus pandemic has put increased pressure on L&D to deliver with remote working.

We’re working in unprecedented times, and it’s creating all sorts of issues for L&D professionals. I was asked to join the panel for a US based webinar to help learning leaders cope with the new challenges they face. To my astonishment nearly 800 people tuned in. I would like to imagine that they all came because I was on the panel, but sadly they were there because the pressures they are facing and the ways they’re choosing to deal with it mean that many of them are struggling to do their jobs effectively.

L&D teams have to work out what capacity they have and what their priorities for delivery are. This might mean a radical switch from learning programmes to capacity building for online working.

The most important lesson that came out of the webinar was that no one faced unique challenges. It’s clear that very few people have it all worked out, and there were many individuals willing to help in an official or unofficial capacity. It is truly heartening that so many people (even if they are struggling right now) are willing to share what they know, create resources and generally be super helpful without expecting anything in return. However scary the present might feel, this fact should be taken away and cherished.

Another equally heartening acknowledgment is that there are many resources that can help, and more are being created every day. (I’m listing some of them at the end of this article). No one is trying to make money out of this, and individuals and companies are giving away their resources in a bid to help.

Learning leaders seem to be divided into three distinct camps at the moment.

  1. Batten down the hatches: Given the huge shift from face-to-face to online, some companies are cutting their costs and slimming or even obliterating their learning operation. People are losing their jobs and it is not clear when companies will begin recruiting again. Therefore, think about taking on some really talented people, temporarily, to ease the pressure on your L&D operation. It would be a fantastic service to our community if those companies struggling with capacity, hired good powerful knowledgeable individuals to share their knowledge and move forward faster and more effectively. There should be a site that offers those skills.
  2. Shifting online: other employers are putting enormous pressure on their L&D staff to not just get the existing face-to-face programmes online, but also help the entire workforce shift to virtual working, so there are people working frantically to lead on two fronts. Several individuals I have spoken to are almost at their wits end. They cannot prioritise and they do not want to let their employer down. Some key players have got to learn how to push back and do what is feasible, or everyone will get sick with overwork and stress.
  3. Ramp up the speed: others are struggling to build sufficient capacity and infrastructure to move large programmes online at almost the drop of a hat. The staff are not sure what tools are appropriate, what their options might be, and how they build a relationship with an IT operation that is already being stretched to capacity. Big companies are discovering that their existing infrastructure does not have enough cloud storage, or capacity to have large numbers of people working online using video, let alone running high bandwidth online programmes with two way video and support. They need help building the learning ecosystem in a way that is resilient and robust.

Five tips to address the key issues

Emerging from a number of conversations this last week, I would offer these five suggestions.

  1. Prioritise: L&D teams have to work out what capacity they have and what their priorities for delivery are. This might mean a radical switch from learning programmes to capacity building for online working. What they need to be clear about is that it is impossible to do everything simultaneously, however urgently it is needed. Be clear what is possible or not possible right now.
  2. Re-think your expectations: simply translating the face-to-face world into an online experience is inappropriate and ineffective. No one can sit staring at the screen for eight hours, or be expected to spend three hours on a videoconference. This way madness lies, or at least sickness and depression. Please look after your staff by developing new guidelines and ensure, for example, that people take decent breaks, they are encourage to get up walk around, as well as get out into the air on a regular basis.

    It is important to take a holistic approach.  Look after people’s physical and mental health as well as their technology needs. The solutions you come up with will be vital over the long term. Please do not be insensitive when allocating the workload. People generally are under a lot of pressure and they have parents, children and other responsibilities nagging at them. Also remember, as Nick Shackleton-Jones wisely pointed out, there are resources like books available. It does not all have to be online. Encouraging people to read offline or to write down their thoughts, individually, before sharing them online can enrich work, enhance the learning process and build in some flexibility.
  3. Ask for help: huge numbers of organisations, and individuals within them, are trying to make sense of what is going on at the moment. They are all at different stages of development, and by sharing challenges and potential solutions everyone rises together. No one should be grappling with really hard problems, and feel that theirs is a lonely, solitary task as a leader.

    There are any number of consultants (or laid off specialists) who would have expected to have been working flat out in some location and are now no longer at capacity. Bringing someone in to talk issues through and work on challenges together can be a wise investment. Having support for a few days can be massively productive and cost-effective.
  4. Go for what works, and not for perfection: often something that would appear to be ‘cobbled together’ but is offered quickly, can be more effective than putting anything through an extended development cycle. Co-create everything. Do not impose working environments on anybody. It is essential to negotiate with them – take stock, make alterations, be humble, listen and above all ask questions.
  5. Humanise: if your team is suddenly working remotely, please check in with them at least once a day, perhaps more often. Building time for social activity, and offering support is important. Check out who has elderly parents, young children and other links with vulnerable individuals. Understand that their mind is often full of many other issues. Be understanding, and be tolerant. Organisations will be judged on how they treated their staff during this crisis. L&D should be part of the solution not part of the problem.

Finally, remember that this is also a learning experience. You are breaking new ground, for your organisation and perhaps personally. Remember that you are helping build the future. Nothing will ever be quite the same when we eventually go back to something approaching normality. You are a pioneer at the cutting edge, and very few people get that opportunity in their entire working careers.

Some useful resources

There are so many resources, but this is a very small selection but they may be helpful.

Please share more in the comments below. 

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