A growing understanding that the “new normal” of work includes all-remote and hybrid work environments offers learning leaders a chance to shape the future at their organizations.

Prior to 2020, many organizations relied on face-to-face instruction for onboarding and other training, though they might have been following a long-term plan to move some of that training online. That changed virtually overnight, when COVID-19 forced a quick shift to online learning and working.

Now, as offices begin to reopen, many organizations are grappling with decisions on what to retain from the pandemic period, where to revert to pre-COVID norms, and where to forge new approaches.

No going back

“The pandemic allowed us to speed up virtual adaptation of our training,” Allstate education, strategy and operations director Edward Brice told Learning Leader Alliance (LLA) members at a February online forum.

“I don’t think anything, for us anyway, is truly going to ‘revert back.’ The world has changed,” said Suzi Dunford, the senior vice president for learning and talent development at First Citizens Bank. To adjust to the new reality of dispersed teams and integrate the newly developed virtual training into her organization, she said they need to “figure out how we augment what we knew before with what we know now and move forward.”

Karen Kocher, Microsoft’s global general manager for talent and learning experiences, agreed—adding that Microsoft is continuing to think about where to adapt further, balancing the benefits of moving some training online with the reality that employees are “screen-weary” and struggling to balance work and home life.

These three learning leaders are far from alone in understanding that the “new normal” looks a whole lot different from what work was like pre-COVID. A recent Harvard Business School survey found that 81% of the 1,500 respondents—workers who had been working from home between March 2020 and March 2021—either want to remain fully remote or work a hybrid schedule, working a few days a week onsite and other days remotely.

Implications for learning leadership

For learning leaders, the embrace of fully remote or hybrid obviously means figuring out how to design the best training strategy for their new work reality. The implications extend beyond learning, though, since remote work represents a significant change in culture.

In addition to creating an appropriate training strategy, the new reality requires a different mindset as well as updated tools and skills for communicating and collaborating with team members and colleagues across the organization. Learning and development (L&D) teams can lead in each of these areas.

Blended training for hybrid teams

During the pandemic, Microsoft “built some excellent, durable virtual learning capabilities,” Kocher said. And, rather than pivot back to classroom-based, face-to-face instruction, they’re excited about the opportunity “to figure out what is the best blend of all of this for each of the high-priority activities that we take on.”

They’re not the only ones.

For hundreds of First Security Bank employees, going to training used to mean getting on an airplane, Dunford said. Now, leaders have realized that “we don’t have to spend that money and take people out of market”—away from work—for multiple days of training and travel.

Dunford anticipates allowing employees to choose where and how to do their training, which will mean preparing both in-person and virtual options for much or all of their training.

And, with Allstate recognizing that many elements of the new online training work as well as—or better than—their previous approach, “what was 100% in-person might be only 10% in person” moving forward, Brice said.

Learning leaders will be instrumental in determining whether their organizations fully embrace online and virtual training; choose to create some training in-person, some using synchronous virtual instruction, and some using asynchronous online tools; or offer employees a choice—which means creating the same training in two or more formats. Factors to weigh include:

  • How many learners the organization serves and where they are
  • Whether instructors can effectively conduct virtual synchronous training
  • Employees’ preferences
  • Type and amount of training needed

Hybrid work requires a different mindset

Creating hybrid or remote work practices that improve employee productivity and meet employees’ needs requires flexibility around both time and place, according to Lynda Gratton, founder of HSM, a consultancy focused on the future of work.

Conventional offices operate on the principle that everyone is in the same workspace during the same hours each day. But when organizations suddenly moved to remote work, not only were workers dispersed geographically, many were no longer able to work the same hours: While juggling childcare and other responsibilities, many employees found it impossible to stick to a 9-to-5 schedule.

Managers realized that “many employees can work productively anywhere, anytime.” And many employees realized that they preferred the flexibility to integrate work into their lives or, crucially, balance their personal and family needs with workplace responsibilities.

In fact, a GitLab survey of 3,900 remote workers conducted in early 2021 found that more than half would leave an onsite job for a remote role—and one in three would leave their current jobs if their organizations required them to return to the office full-time.

Succeeding in this new hybrid world requires relinquishing the assumption that everyone’s available at the same time and instead embracing an asynchronous approach to collaboration and “remote-first” principles, the GitLab Remote Playbook advises. This means:

  • Modeling remote-first by ensuring that leaders work remotely and “face time” at the office is not prized
  • Thoroughly documenting all aspects of company culture and practice
  • Properly equipping, empowering, and educating the entire team
  • Mastering asynchronous workflows, including replacing meetings with asynchronous communication and collaboration channels—and not expecting instantaneous responses

Managing remote & hybrid teams demands new skills & tools

Some leadership skills essential to productive remote and hybrid work are obvious: Clear communication that conveys information to others who lack context; ability to work and problem-solve independently as well as collaborate asynchronously—and the ability to coach others to do so.

Others are less obvious: Empathy and ability to anticipate and relate to—and help resolve—challenges from dispersed employees and team members; emphasis on transparency in work and planning; ability to respond to incoming feedback from workers and peers.

L&D leaders can have an enormous impact on the success of their hybrid workplace by helping peers across the organization develop these skills. They can also guide the choice of collaboration tools, helping to break down “silos” by encouraging adoption of a single suite of tools throughout an organization, and ensure that proper training and support are in place.

As leaders in implementing collaboration tools and training managers and teams in how to use them effectively, learning leaders can head off one of the biggest potential drawbacks of a remote or hybrid workplace: The real or perceived loss of cohesiveness and connection among teammates and colleagues.

In addition to tools needed to do or track work and progress, learning leaders should advocate for social tools and events and “leaders should formally organize informal communication,” striving for “an atmosphere where team members all over the globe feel comfortable reaching out to anyone to talk about topics unrelated to work,” according to the GitLab Remote Playbook.

To get started, learning leaders might leverage leadership opportunities by:

  • Engaging with employees, using surveys and interviews to understand what the people in their organizations need and want
  • Investing in coordination and collaboration tools; train the L&D team first; and model the new behavior by using the new tools
  • Thinking about how to optimize workflows for the remote work environment rather than trying to fit in-person norms into the new reality
  • Creating informal work and non-work related communication channels and events, like coffee chats, social “events” online, and AMA—ask me anything—events where team members or cross-functional groups can ask questions on a of the host

Network with learning leaders

Learning leaders around the world are facing some of the same challenges as their organizations define new norms for working, collaborating, learning, and socializing in the post-COVID reality. Learn from your peers!

The Learning Leaders Alliance is a vendor-neutral global community for learning leaders who want to stay ahead of the curve and for aspiring leaders wanting to build their skillsets. The Learning Guild’s Alliance Membership package includes access to exclusive digital events and content curated for today’s modern learning leader, as well as opportunities to attend in-person learning leadership events held around the globe. See the details here.