Learning and development programs have long been critical components for retaining employees. Still, last year’s switch to remote work had some HR professionals worried.

Would workers really engage with virtual training or would they merely “show up” to meet their educational requirement? How could remote programs improve information retention and skill development, and even enrich employees’ personal lives?

Three organizations, with different challenges in play, took three different approaches —microlearning, tapping internal expertise and offering innovative live sessions — to fundamentally re-envision their training programs.

Providence: Focusing on the micro

At Providence, a multi-state health system based in Renton, WA., past regulatory and compliance training offered no way to determine if remote employees were retaining the information.

“We were teaching quality content, but the learning wasn’t sticking,” said Darci Hall, Providence’s vice president and chief learning officer. “It was a check-the-box approach to learning.”

Providence’s remote caregivers would spend 90 minutes watching online regulatory and compliance-training content. Still, there was no meaningful way to measure how effective the training was.

“We knew we had to take a completely different approach to [learning and development] that would increase engagement and productivity, reduce attrition, and attract and onboard top talent,” Hall said.

The solution was to take a microlearning approach provided by Qstream. The platform, available on mobile devices or computers, sends periodic alerts to learners, letting them immediately engage with the training. Using a gamification approach, the microlearning sessions break down complex compliance content into job-relevant challenges, Hall says.

Participation takes just a few minutes and learners get immediate feedback on how they did, with an explanation of the correct answer to reinforce key concepts.

“Learning is now quick and simplified, and caregivers appreciate the ability to choose when they want to learn,” Hall said. People like the challenge, she added, and “even say it is fun to use.”

In addition, team leaders can check real-time data on an individual and team basis. They can see proficiency levels, Hall says, which lets them coach and communicate with team members to address any misunderstandings about certain compliance topics.

With Providence’s 50 hospitals, 800 clinics and hundreds of thousands of caregivers, “in-person learning simply isn’t an option anymore,” she said.

Why does microlearning work? Price Kerfoot, M.D., Qstream’s co-founder, says long-term retention comes from segmenting information into small packets, reinforcing it in spaced intervals over time, and then testing people to practice memory retrieval and encode it in their brains so it is more effectively retained.

Effective microlearning can be applied to other areas where information retention is critical, he added. These include sales product knowledge, employee onboarding, talent development and message alignment.

RoseRyan: Sharing insider knowledge

RoseRyan, an accounting and financial-services consulting firm based in Campbell, Calif., faced its own training challenge when the pandemic shut down in-person training opportunities. Since most people worked from home or at a client’s site, technical skills training went online. However, soft-skills development needed a different approach.

“My clients expect me and my consultants to hit the ground running,” said founder Kathy Ryan.

That meant the company needed to find safe ways to convey both technical and soft skills efficiently, she adds.

Ryan notes that the online-only format presented an opportunity to formalize helping people with on-the-job training by tapping into their colleague’s expertise, wherever they were located.

Now, networking groups with a mix of people with different skill sets and levels, tenure at the company and clients meet monthly online. Discussion topics are driven by participants, Ryan says, allowing them to ask questions, gain insights from others and make deeper connections with their colleagues.

“We also created what we call ‘pods,’ in which we have a senior consultant project-managing others to help provide needed training and get jobs done,” she explained. “Our pod managers also focus on teaching our consultants important skills along the way.”

As a result, people talk with their colleagues about how they handled an issue in the past. They still can take online courses provided by the company and outside e-learning providers. The only requirement, Ryan says, is that they split their training time between technical skills and soft skills, such as project management, time management and communication skills.

Mainstay: Development of the ‘whole self’

Adrienne Barnard, senior vice president of HR for Boston-based Mainstay, a software startup focused on communications in higher education, decided to ramp up the firm’s training approach during the pandemic.

“We don’t just want to give our employees opportunities to grow work-related skills,” she said. “We want them to feel they can not only bring their whole selves to work, but they can also grow that self at work too.”

To make training more meaningful and engaging beyond skill development, Barnard turned to another Boston-based company, Electives, to provide live online training sessions that can be customized for one company or offered to multiple companies through “pod classes.”

“We have offered engagement programs around How to be Anti-Racist, Productivity and Happiness, The True Story of Emancipation, and wellbeing, particularly around mental health and burnout. We have also offered skill-based classes like Gender Dynamics in Negotiations for our female employees and Practicing Ego Suspension and Building Trust for our whole team,” Barnard said.

The company is offering one Electives-provided program per quarter, as well as additional department-level, skill-based sessions that department leaders can choose in 2022, she says.

“In a remote-first environment, enabling people to come together outside of work projects and get to share knowledge with cross-functional peers — or even peers they don’t typically engage with in work settings — is a great way to foster trust, relationships and open communications at work,” Barnard explained. “Specifically, our anti-racism panel [session] kick-started important conversations that we were then able to bring back into work and that our BIPOC [employee resources group] was able to work from to continue to their internal work and programming.”

Electives cofounder Jason Lavender says the most popular classes traditionally have been diversity and inclusion-related such as The True Story of Emancipation in the U.S., Gender and Gender Identity, and Understanding Implicit Bias. Manager training has also topped the list, with topics such as Difficult Conversations, Giving and Receiving Feedback, Authentic Storytelling and Persuasion and Influence.

And, he added, “As of late, we are seeing a lot of demand for mental health and well-being classes like How to Talk about Mental Health, Resilience in a Global Pandemic, The Psychology of Happiness and others.”

For Barnard, offering employees interesting programs has been key to improving engagement.

“We saw our engagement scores increase dramatically — 11 points — at the end of 2020. This was buoyed specifically by our focus and actions related to DEI and providing space for open communications,” she said.

“Learning at work doesn’t have to be the classical model of learning at work,” Barnard observed. “You can just be learning something and happen to also be at work.”

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