By Mary Herrmann

We are living in a world filled with seemingly endless media coverage about uncertain and unprecedented times. The workplace is no exception. As the ambiguity surrounding the coronavirus rages on, companies are tirelessly strategizing the best way to communicate change to employees while maintaining morale and engagement from a distance and upholding a nurturing corporate culture.

But, as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.

One of the loudest actions a company can take to indicate positive, forward-looking progress is a commitment to learning & development. Why? Because L&D is an investment in your people. It’s a clear sign that your organization is looking to the future; a future that includes the individuals currently working for you. It’s a stronger signal, carrying far more weight, than any verbal reassurances or letters from the CEO (though those are obviously necessary and play an important part in change messaging and culture).

Having said that, these are, in fact, unprecedented times and some companies have reigned in – or simply put off – learning and development initiatives during COVID-19.  Every organization is different and we’re all finding our way through to the other side. But as we find ourselves in a potentially better decision-making position than we were in Q2, it’s important that we closely examine the decisions we make about investing in our people. And it’s during this examination that we find that cutting back on L&D directly contradicts most organizations’ strategic objectives and can harm culture.

What We Know for Sure

As global markets continue to adjust to the fluctuating environment, it has created a lot of questions. When will we return to standard operations? What will “standard” even look like? How can we adjust in the meantime? How can we just maintain? These and countless other questions keep C-Suite executives awake at night but in a sea of uncertainty, there are three things that remain certain: There will be a next normal, your organization will still need employees, and the cost to hire, onboard, and train a new employee will still cost more than retaining a current one. So, while reducing some budget line items may be necessary, continued investment in employee development simply makes sense.

Your people crave development now more than ever and your ability to deliver impactful, creative learning opportunities during this stressful time can help to bring employees back to the table.

 Barriers and Benefits of L&D During COVID-19

As with any initiative, it’s important to examine the barriers and benefits of reinvigorating your learning & development programs, especially during a pandemic. Your analysis will be different from others’ but what’s important is to conduct an internal examination of your current environment and organizational objectives to determine the best route for your workforce. Here are some considerations to get you started:

Barriers

  • Opportunity costs – During the first stages of the outbreak, many teams refocused efforts on maintaining minimum viable levels of operation, productivity, etc. For most companies, this meant focusing efforts on doing the bare minimum and pausing non-urgent initiatives. Today, with most teams operating in the current environment for a few months, it might be time to restart some of your L&D initiatives. Work with fellow internal leaders to identify what the opportunity costs will be to reinvigorate these programs. Which parts of the workforce have more capacity for training? How will operations be impacted? What are the most important priorities for development at this point in time?
  • Technology challenges – No doubt, COVID-19 has imposed significant changes on the way we work and communicate, but here’s a positive way to view it: It has forcibly equipped us with the power and knowledge to overcome the challenges of working remotely with comparative ease. In the last few months, businesses have exponentially increased their tech savvy to the degree that most operations are now conducted virtually. Restructuring L&D programs to accommodate this shift has already taken place and continues to evolve. While key elements of in-person team interaction may be lost for now, the technologies available today can amplify virtual connectedness more than ever before. Plus, the alternative is no interaction or learning at all and that’s hardly an alternative.
  • Financial costs – As with any investment, there’s a financial cost associated with L&D and as many budgets tighten, it might seem more complicated to achieve the same output. However, virtual versus in-person facilitation is often more cost-effective and can achieve comparable results with the right curriculum and resources.
  • Added stress for some employees – Some employees might still feel overwhelmed with the state of the things and new training might seem like just “one more thing” added to the list of stressors. This is to be expected and can be accommodated through making participation voluntary and delivering skills-based training (I delve into this more in a bit).

Benefits

  • Improve morale and overall engagement – You’re likely well aware of the benefits of a motivated, engaged workforce and there is a direct correlation to learning and development. Countless surveys have revealed that companies with top-rated employee development programs also show higher levels of employee morale and engagement.
  • Boost creativity and problem-solving – Studies show that adding variety to day-to-day workloads can positively impact creativity and problem-solving skills. This can help to produce better solutions to existing problems and prepare teams to address future challenges with a positive problem/solution orientation.
  • Opportunities for professional development – Professional stagnation is a common root cause in employee dissatisfaction and the effects of COVID-19 have left many professionals feeling like their careers and potential for advancement are indefinitely paused. Investing in your employees’ development during challenging times will not only boost morale by providing the opportunity to further develop certain skill sets; it can foster a more positive long-term outlook and a culture that values curiosity and learning.
  • Breaking up the monotony – If there was ever a time that felt like the movie “Groundhog Day,” it’s now. As monotonous as daily commutes, watercooler conversations, and lunch routines might have seemed pre-COVID, they’ve likely taken on a sense of nostalgia at this point. Reintroducing learning programs into daily operations can provide a reprieve from the day-to-day routines that, when conducted from home with few opportunities for novelty, have likely started to weigh on your people.
  • Maintain progress on L&D initiatives – While some initiatives might fall by the wayside this year, you can still maintain some progress on your L&D programs – arguably some of the most important initiatives in any organization.

Tips for Reinvigorating Your L&D Initiatives

As you reinvigorate your learning and development programs, there are a few things you can do to ease the transition:

  • Establish a COVID-19 L&D plan & budget – Examine your environment, set realistic goals, and involve leaders who will support the new L&D plan. Include individual contributors in initial discussions to gain better insight and perspective into your workforce’s needs. Identify top learning deliverables that are both relevant and important during COVID-19 but don’t forget to include a fun, interactive element. Configure your approach to incorporate a variety of L&D program styles into the mix to maximize your ROI.
  • Make it interactive and peer-driven – People learn best through experience, so even in a virtual environment, your L&D curriculums should include interactive elements. And leveraging the power of flipped learning can help to capitalize on available time and solidify learnings at a faster rate.
  • Consider making participation voluntary at first – This will allow those who can and want to participate to do so while signaling to everyone that L&D is ramping back up. This will also give you a good read on how much interest there is among your workforce.
  • Focus on relevant learning deliverables – From presentation skills to storytelling, there is no shortage of learning areas that are hyper-relevant in today’s environment. By helping your people develop key skills they use every day, you can mitigate the perception that training is just another to-do on the list.
  • Keep it light – To ensure a successful program, keep the trainings “light” in terms of content, requirements, etc. Once you achieve some momentum and determine the level of interest within your workforce, you can introduce progressively involved trainings as you go.
  • Integrate recognition into the mix – At a time when employee recognition is at its lowest, it should be a cornerstone of your L&D programs. Not only is recognition shown to improve morale, it can substantially improve participation, engagement and culture.

Every business, thought leader, and publication is making statements about the current state of things, but those sentiments can only take you so far. Action is the key differentiator. In a world filled with many words, your employees are listening to your actions. What actions are your employees hearing?