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Martin Couzins

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Stepping up: the manager’s role in optimising virtual team learning

Empowering managers to deliver better virtual team learning.

It’s a commonly held view that managers are the key to helping their teams learn and develop. It's also widely accepted that managers are not good at doing this, which links to the idea that people leave their manager, not their job. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest this is the case.

The Covid-19 pandemic has put managers under the spotlight. They, along with their teams, have seen significant disruption to working practices, as well as experiencing the various effects of the virus on individuals, colleagues, family and friends. Managers have been required to steer teams through the crisis and beyond, to help teammates work remotely, communicate effectively from afar and to stay well. As change and disruption accelerate, organisations will continue to require managers to ensure teams have the right skills to do their jobs effectively. In addition, managers will themselves be required to develop the skills to lead teams remotely.

Clearly, managers have more agency as they are tasked with getting work done through a crisis. By looking at our pre-Covid-19 data, however, we can see that virtual managers were already working in ways that are congruent with working and learning from home.

Virtual team learning is a huge challenge for organisations and for managers. Research from LinkedIn Learning bears this out. It says the number one challenge facing learning and development (L&D) professionals right now is getting managers to make learning a priority for their teams.

The research, which quizzed 2,932 managers, 1,675 L&D professionals and 2,000 learners, suggests that managers are rising to the task of being learning enablers, with 68% of L&D managers saying that managers are actively promoting more learning resources to their teams than before the Covid-19 pandemic.

If managers are going to be critical of the effectiveness of remote teams, then it would be wise to understand what we know about managers as learning enablers. We have dug into Emerald Works’ research of L&D professionals and managers to see what the data is telling us. What insights can we draw on to help managers optimise virtual team learning?

Manager learning preferences

When interrogating data it is useful to have a question to help extract insights or to have an assumption to test. In this instance, one question might be: would it be useful to know the learning preferences of virtual managers? If managers have similar preferences to those the organisation is looking to promote, then it might be reasonable to assume this would be helpful for L&D teams.

We have segmented our learner intelligence research to show the learning preferences of 4,590 managers who either work remotely or in an office. The data shows a number of things:

1. They value manager input into learning

Whether working remotely or in an office, managers value the support of their own managers. The data shows 80% of virtual managers prefer the support of their managers compared with 75% of office-based managers.

2. They value multi-channel/multi-format delivery

The research discovered that 46% of virtual managers use online performance tools (versus 41% office managers), 32% use external blogs and news feeds (versus 27% of office based managers), 34% use video clips and podcasts (versus 29% of office base managers) and 65% use internal company guidance and documents (versus 58% of office based managers).

3. Mobile is key

Our survey revealed that 65% of virtual managers want to be able to access resources on a mobile device, versus 60% of office-based managers. Interestingly, virtual managers are keener on accessing resources at the point of need (66%) than office-based managers (57%). Overall, virtual managers feel that they receive learning that is directly relevant to their current role (73%), versus 65% of office-based managers.

So, from the perspective of the learning team, the data suggests that virtual managers display the preferences that they would be looking for. This might be a reason why, according to the LinkedIn Learning research, managers are actively promoting learning to their teams. In the virtual working environment, managers are displaying the learning preferences that organisations would like to see in their teams.

What is it about the virtual environment that drives these behaviours in managers? It is worth noting that managers themselves appreciate the support of their managers as well as favouring collaborative ways of working. If they like to work in these ways, then it would follow that they would extend this approach to their team. Being virtual, rather than in-person, managers understand they will need to adopt different approaches to learning and communication.

This data suggests that virtual managers are more comfortable than their office-based counterparts at accessing learning at the point of need. They want to receive learning resources across multiple channels and formats.

Barriers to optimising virtual team learning

So, the data suggests virtual managers are keen to learn the ways organisations would like all employees to learn, and that are now required with so many of them working from home. Is L&D pushing at an open door when it comes to supporting managers to help develop their teams?

Our research suggests that L&D teams see managers in a different light. Data from our annual Learning Health Check shows that more than a quarter of L&D leaders (28%) report a reluctance by managers to encourage new ways of learning and working as extremely concerning. This is compared with 3% in top performing companies. (These are the top-performing 10% of our data sample. Their learning strategies consistently achieve excellent results in terms of their organisation’s growth, transformation, profitability, and productivity. We therefore use them as a benchmark/gold standard).

More alarming is that learning teams are failing to support managers as learning enablers, with only 22% reporting that they equip managers with resources, so their teams get the most out of learning, compared with 76% in top performing companies. Added to this, only 28% of L&D leaders report that they develop managers to be line coaches, compared with 94% in top performing companies.

More generally, L&D teams are failing to understand how employees learn, with only 19% of L&D leaders reporting that they are proactive in understanding how their people learn what they need to do their job, compared with 76% in top performing companies. This has a knock-on effect on learning design as 79% of L&D leaders highlight that they do not involve employees in the design of the most appropriate learning approach, compared with 29% for top performers.

Steps to success

Our data shows that there are steps learning teams can take to ensure learning has impact. Learning Health Check data shows high impact learning companies take the following steps:

At a strategic level

  • They assign board level accountability for organisational learning.
  • Business leaders recognise that learning interventions are aligned with the overall business plan.
  • All stakeholders share L&D’s vision for organisational learning.
  • L&D work with senior management to agree business metrics or KPIs for measuring learning impact.

At a tactical level

  • L&D actively encourage people to collaborate in building knowledge resources.
  • Staff know how to work together to productively connect and share knowledge.
  • L&D develop challenging and stretch tasks to embed learning in behavior.
  • L&D recommend learning resources based on individual performance.
  • People have easy access to job aids.
  • Learning goals and outcomes are discussed with individuals before they start.

Supporting managers better

Clearly, managers have more agency as they are tasked with getting work done through a crisis. By looking at our pre-Covid-19 data, however, we can see that virtual managers were already working in ways that are congruent with working and learning from home. The data suggests that learning teams were not picking up on this.

If, as the data suggests, managers are keen to learn in more collaborative ways, at the point of need, and using multi-format, multi-channel delivery, then L&D is well placed to support managers in supporting their teams. Maybe the commonly held view that managers are the problem when it comes to supporting learning is just that, a view. Our data would suggest the reality is quite different.

Interested in this topic? Read How can learners practise soft skills in a virtual world?

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