About one year ago, employers of all shapes, sizes and industries rushed to remote work as they responded to a worsening pandemic.
Today, some of the most recognizable brands that sent workers home are allowing them to stay there — in some cases, permanently. Take streaming platform Spotify, whose workers will be able to choose whether they work from home, an office or both beginning this summer. Another high-profile technology firm, Google, opted for a less casual approach, granting "hybrid" scheduling privileges to a select few roles and reportedly restricting where such workers may live in relation to their assigned offices.
Such announcements are at least partially a response to demands from workers. A PwC study of 1,200 U.S. office workers in January found more than half wanted to work remotely three days per week or more. From the employer's perspective, hybrid workforce models can also "provide agility and resilience, help drive competitive differentiation and contain costs," according to an August 2020 report by consulting firm Gartner.
Still, remote work and telework proved more challenging for certain categories of workers than others in the past year. An October 2020 survey of U.S. adults by Pew Research Center found that younger workers in particular were more likely to face barriers to productivity while remote. More than 53% of workers ages to 18 and 29 in the survey said it was difficult to feel motivated since the beginning of the pandemic, and more than one-third of workers ages 18 to 49 said it was difficult for them to complete their work without interruptions.
Learning and development will continue to be an important component of how organizations respond to these challenges and others posed by a hybrid work environment, according to Charlie Chung, vice president of business development at online learning provider NovoEd. In an interview with HR Dive, Chung said the training needed to ensure a smooth transition to hybrid work is "similar" to the kind previously employed for remote work transitions, but it is also "intensified."
3 training focus areas
Chung identified three areas of training that can guide learning and development programs for hybrid workforces. The first deals with the perspective of the individual employee. Training that covers concepts such as mindfulness are key for leaders and managers at this stage, Chung said. Similarly, topics such as productivity and well-being are "becoming much more salient" in remote work settings, he added.
Well-being has been particularly cited as a priority for organizations this year. In Deloitte's 2021 Human Capital Trends report, authors from the firm argued for incorporating well-being directly into the design of work itself, including for remote work arrangements.
Individuals working together
The nature of digital collaboration, in which workers communicate via screen rather than in person, means employees will need to be able convey ideas effectively through slideshows and similar presentations; "storytelling is becoming absolutely critical," Chung said.
On a more practical level, Chung noted that procedures for team meetings may be especially difficult. Before the pandemic, teams may have operated with one or two team members remote with the rest working in an office. The pandemic put many teams "on an equal playing field," he said. Hybrid work setups, however, could lead to a variety of combinations of on-site and remote employees.
"It's a challenging dynamic to deal with," Chung said. "Human behavior is such that it's hard to focus on more than one thing at a time."
Teams may seek technical solutions to improve their meeting procedures, he added, but others have suggested a change in mindset. A September 2020 Boston Consulting Group (BCG) report posited that team meetings could be conducted as if all team members are working remotely. "That way, members working from home would not miss out on side conversations and the dynamics of the meeting in the conference room," the report's authors said. "And everyone would be visible at full size on the screen, instead of being thumbnail-size figures in a cavernous conference room."
Individuals and the larger organization
Organizations are "particularly keen" to ensure that their values are transmitted when employees are physically less connected with their organization and their co-workers, Chung said. The lack of in-person contact felt at many organizations during the pandemic has raised the profile of onboarding, which "used to be thought of as table stakes," he added. In a hybrid work environment, onboarding is more strategic, and not just used to push information to new hires.
Similarly, managers and supervisors need to be good coaches. That's because supervisors are conveying most, if not all, of an organization's values in a hybrid work environment. "In the past, your supervisor or manager might have been 70% of your connection to the company," Chung said. "Now, maybe it's 90%."
But coaching can also help employees maintain performance, develop their skills and stay engaged in their work, Chung said. NovoEd, he added, sees a need for remote-enabled organizations to push coaching skills even further down into their ranks.
Analysts in the BCG report also included coaching in a list of important skills for managers operating in a hybrid work environment, alongside online communication, engagement, emotional intelligence and building community.
In some cases, camaraderie may literally come in the form of cheering on co-workers: BCG pointed to the example of a large insurer whose managers created virtual team sessions in which agents encouraged one another during phone and video sales calls. "They dance on screen, clap, and video high-five when a colleague completes a sale," per the report. "They can also raise their hand and talk privately with their team leader to obtain just-in-time coaching."
The 'bad news'
Engagement is likely to be the number one issue facing hybrid work teams when it comes to learning and development. "The bad news is that it is hard to get, capture and keep people's attention," Chung said, noting the challenges of having training compete with an employee's other open tabs, including company chat rooms.
He noted that organizations may be able to address the problem through "an extreme focus" on user experience that is clear and simple for learners. Another solution may be to focus on team-based rather than "solo-based" learning to create accountability and curiosity. Some learning formats even allow workers to receive notifications when a team member comments on their assignment or offers feedback. "It's the same kind of mechanic as social media notifications," Chung said.
It also may be important to ensure that learning programs are not too formal, he added; "If you've got a glossy video with music and someone wearing formal wear, that can be less effective than someone at a desk telling you about their challenges." Allowing learners to talk informally about a subject in groups can actually work better in some cases.
"Learning sciences support that more informal approach," Chung said. "If we can make this a more campfire style session, we can actually dive deeper and be more personal."
Organizations can form their own approach to mixing and matching solutions, he continued. Some may include discussion-based learning as well as self-guided content in the form of live or recorded webinars, as well as more formal online training sessions. "Flexibility in training design has got to follow flexibility in workplace arrangement," Chung said.