January 2021
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Learning and Development: Shaping Our New Reality

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Our workplaces underwent significant transformations in 2020. Working remotely became the “new normal” for many professionals—especially for those of us in learning and development. The pandemic forced us to rethink where, when, with whom, and how we work. Almost overnight.

As contact restrictions and social distancing became natural components of our daily lives, those of us who had not yet embraced online learning and videoconferencing technologies had to find a way to adapt. Although some may think that workplace learning became a secondary priority, learning and development gained salience during those initially uncertain times. Think for a moment how those employees, supervisors, and managers who became remote workers figured out what to do.

Content and delivery methods changed yet our roles did not. Learning and development professionals remained as critical for business success as ever before while experiencing similar challenges as other remote workers. We became facilitators and role models more than ever before. And, now, we need to figure out where to go from here.

Let’s meet Cynthia and Clyde.

Cynthia is an L&D manager for BeepBeep Service. She celebrated five years in her role in February 2020. Cynthia is recognized for her in-person training delivery skills and her unique ability to connect with her participants. She follows the standard training designs; however, she adapts each session to the needs of her group and often uses breakout groups. Her sessions usually last eight hours, and she is proud of keeping everyone engaged until the end. She dabbles in using technology yet resists shifting to online learning even though the business is moving toward a blended learning model.

Clyde is an L&D manager for Jupi-Tech. He joined the learning and development team after three years as a customer service supervisor. Clyde always wanted to work in learning and development and jumped at the opportunity of doing so when the department requested subject matter experts for a massive system rollout. What at first seemed to be a temporary assignment became Clyde’s new role. Even though he works remotely most of the time, he is well-known throughout the company. His background in customer service was just what the department needed for its transition into blended learning.

In March 2020, both companies asked their employees to work from home and, today, still most of them are. Many struggled with issues such as adequate workspace, internet access, and children’s schoolwork. Others welcomed the change as an experiment because it was going to last a short period of time.

Learning and development was suddenly responsible for training all employees to use videoconferencing platforms and for addressing issues such as data security, working from home rules and regulations, priority setting, and remote meeting management. Instead of gradually transitioning into a blended learning model, learning and development suddenly went completely online.

Cynthia was not expecting such an abrupt transition. At first, she used the existing design and materials for her time and meeting management trainings. She struggled to upload the presentations into the company’s videoconferencing platform; her assistant converted the files of materials into PDF format. She wore her full uniform for her first virtual session just as she did for her in-person sessions. She was disappointed when many participants logged in late. Most of them did not stay for the entire four-hour session, and several wore T-shirts and shorts.

Instead, Clyde welcomed the change. He was used to working remotely, so using videoconferencing tools was natural for him. He created user-friendly presentations and materials for his trainings. He divided the otherwise four-hour sessions into two separate two-hour sessions to accommodate for the different needs of participants. He wore a nice T-shirt and jeans to deliver his sessions and was unfazed when someone logged in late or left early.

What adjustments did you have to make to continue working in 2020? Was your experience more like Cynthia’s or Clyde’s? What did you do then and what would you do differently now?

Cynthia quickly figured out that she had to change her approach. She did not have much time to become proficient in the use of technology and, with the assistance of other colleagues, mastered the basics enough to customize her trainings to suit the new business reality. She even gathered feedback from her audiences and acted upon items such as needing to be less formal, having shorter sessions, and delivering simpler presentations because everyone had access to different tools at home.

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Clyde’s participants valued his flexibility and his initiative to shorten sessions into more manageable content. However, they also acknowledged that what, at first, seemed to be flexibility in scheduling became a barrier because unexpected entrances and exits interrupted the flow of the learning process and derailed meeting learning objectives. Although Clyde’s attire conveyed flexibility and adaptation, later it portrayed an unacceptable level of informality.

Cynthia and Clyde faced different challenges during their department’s transition. They struggled to fulfill their responsibilities within their interpretations of what could be done. Although both were able to meet short-term needs, their adjustments were not sufficient to meet long-term needs.

Everyone expected the emergency to be temporary, yet it has not been that way. Nobody thought that our ways of working would be transformed in such a way that the future of learning and development today looks totally different from the past.

Here are some recommendations to start the new year.

• Regardless of where you are working from, your attire and grooming matters. Find a balance between formal and casual so that participants perceive you as an approachable expert.

• Prepare a space without visual distractions to deliver virtual sessions. Blank walls are better than pictures and certainly better than artificial backgrounds that transmit intermittent images.

• Test the illumination of your space before your session begins. Avoid unflattering shadows.

• Install videoconferencing applications on your computer as well as on your cellphone. Get a tripod for stability in case you need to use your cellphone.

• Ensure that all electronic tools are fully charged in case of a power interruption.

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• Invest in multiple sources for Wi-Fi. You never know when a carrier will shut down because of user overload.

• Review how you designed and delivered trainings in-person. What can you continue doing, need to start doing, and must stop doing? For example, are those breakout groups effective or do they become gripe sessions?

• Attention spans are getting shorter. Modify your expectations of how much content you can deliver and how many exercises they can complete in the allotted time. Stay focused on what’s essential for participants to acquire the skills they need and toss everything that is “nice to have.”

• Be ready to talk and tell them how to do X more rather than to allow them to discover it by themselves. Participants want your quick answers and your expertise. The internet is there for everything else.

• Spend more time offline getting to know your audiences so that you can find out what is the best way to connect with them. Be willing to change your usual working hours whenever your company allows you to do so to meet your participants’ needs.

• Expect participants to need to ask questions after the session ends and they put in practice what they learned. Make arrangements for them to contact you later within company policies.

• Anticipate that, regardless of how much many of your participants would like to return to in-person trainings again, they will still be exhausted emotionally when they return. Therefore, they will need to readjust to being physically present again just like they had to learn to be physically distant in 2020.

The storm has not passed. This is our new reality. Even if we are working from home, we are still working. Therefore, we must still come across as experts and role models to others by dressing and speaking appropriately, adapting and redesigning our products, and being proficient technology users.

It is up to us, learning and development professionals, to facilitate the transition into remote work and shaping our new reality.

About the Author

Wanda Piña-Ramírez is an action-driven, strategic management and executive consultant with a proven track record of contributing to the bottom line in companies spanning from multinational corporations to small businesses located in Puerto Rico, the continental United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Her innovative, energetic, and open-minded consulting style is an asset when dealing with ambiguity and challenging business situations. As the longest-serving member of AON Puerto Rico’s Mejores Patronos (Best Employers) Committee, she has firsthand knowledge of industries as diverse as restaurants, insurance, medical laboratories, pharmaceuticals, hospitality, professional associations, hospitals, banking, pharmacy information systems, general information processing, refrigeration, medical devices, and building materials. Wanda is certified as a coach from the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras, as a practitioner in neurolinguistic programming and applied kinesiology by the International NLP Trainers Association, as a human resources administrator by the Escuela Avanzada de Administración de Recursos Humanos y Legislación Laboral de Puerto Rico, and as a legal intercessor for cases of domestic violence and aggression in Puerto Rico. She is a frequent guest on radio and television programs, where she brings together the legal and business components of talent development and human resources management, tackling such topics as business metrics, labor law, sexual harassment, and domestic violence. Wanda also contributes her expert opinion on the latest issues affecting today’s workforce to news outlets and other forums such as professional associations, business groups, and nonprofit organizations.

Wanda is a partner in the Human Factor Consulting Group, senior consultant for AON, and subject matter expert, program facilitator, and program translator for SHRM specializing in Latin America. This Certified DDI Facilitator is field editor for ATD Links and co-author with Norma Dávila of Effective Onboarding (ATD Press, 2018), Cutting Through the Noise: The Right Employee Engagement Strategies for You (ASTD Press, 2013) and Passing the Torch: A Guide to the Succession Planning Process (ATD Press, 2015), as well as of articles in TD, T&D, The Public Manager, and multiple blogs. She has presented at ATD’s International Conference & Exposition, SHRM’s Talent Management Conference, SHRM’s Conference Preview Workshops, ATD’s México Summit, and Ellevate, among others.

About the Author

Norma Dávila is a certified career development strategist who guides clients through targeted introspection and self-assessments to identify strengths and interests before embarking on career changes. Her approach to career coaching positions her clients to gain the self-confidence to present themselves as the best candidate during job interviews. Norma, a certified resume writer by PARW/CC, adapts her advice to best suit client professional experience and aspirations. A firm believer in the value of networks, she steers them to optimize every personal or virtual opportunity to connect with others. A natural talent developer, Norma focuses her practice on entry-level and midcareer professionals across the entire employee life cycle, and has supported employees from industries including banking, technology, telecommunications, pharmaceutical, medical devices, dairy products, aerospace manufacturing, retail sales, risk management, automotive sales, energy, waste management, and funeral services. She is recognized for communicating complex ideas in easy-to-understand terms to all audiences and introducing concrete examples to which they can relate. Norma specializes in designing and delivering learning experiences that lay the groundwork to acquire and strengthen competencies and skills on topics such as team development, business writing, customer service, performance management, employee communications, and transition management. She is a Society for Human Resource Management Senior Certified Professional, and has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Yale University and master’s and doctoral degrees in psychology from the University of Chicago.

Norma is a partner in the Human Factor Consulting Group, senior consultant for AON, and subject matter expert, program facilitator, and program translator for SHRM specializing in Latin America. This Certified DDI Facilitator is field editor for ATD Links and co-author with Wanda Piña-Ramírez of Effective Onboarding (ATD Press, 2018), Cutting Through the Noise: The Right Employee Engagement Strategies for You (ASTD Press, 2013) and Passing the Torch: A Guide to the Succession Planning Process (ATD Press, 2015) as well as of articles in TD, T&D, The Public Manager, and multiple blogs. She has presented at ATD’s International Conference & Exposition, SHRM’s Talent Management Conference, SHRM’s Conference Preview Workshops, ATD’s México Summit, and Ellevate, among others.

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