How to Foster Learning and Development in Distributed Teams

Learning and Development opportunities (or L&D) have become one of the key factors for top candidates to apply for an open position. Apart from top talent usually showing a growth mindset, L&D also represent a very practical and rational advantage. This could relate to staying up to date on the latest technologies, learning new and in-demand skills, or exploring interests outside one’s immediate responsibilities. L&D is an important aspect providing security in the ever-changing workplace and an important driver of career development. Plus, the growing pressures of competitive environments require employees to keep up to date in their fields just to succeed within their current roles. 

Why remote companies need to invest in Learning & Development

“Connection and personalization (…) makes up the ‘secret sauce’ for effective learning (and good remote work). Learners and remote employees alike risk disengagement in a virtual setting, given the perceived distance and need for self-direction and persistence to connect with others.” – Beth Rabbit, EdSurge

Luckily, Remote-Ready talent often comes with a high degree of independence and self-motivation as well as a strong growth mindset. Successful remote employees usually are highly proactive. They find sources to close their skill gaps, or quickly gather information to make decisions. Remote employees value L&D, so failing to deliver chances for professional development results in disengaged talent open to other opportunities.

L&D is a crucial factor when talent decides to accept an offer, because ambitious people prefer to be in control. Being in control of our own learning and development helps us navigate our choices in life and our careers. 

We see this characteristic especially with Millennials, who are still at the beginning of their emerging careers. 87% of millennials state that development is a key factor when deciding to accept a position.

Even so, remote-first companies have a tendency to neglect L&D. Why? At acework, we noticed remote companies often prefer to hire someone who has done almost the exact same job before. With access to a global talent pool, the chance to find someone ready to “hit the ground running” is much more likely than within the physical limits of an office location. 

This mentality is often carried into the organisation and becomes apparent in a lack of learning programs for career development. After all, it seems ‘easy’ to find the perfect fit in a new hire instead of developing necessary skills internally. This may be true in some cases, but in others L&D can prove to be the key resource to retain top talent and to uncover innovation potential within the organisation.

So what is Learning and Development?

Within an organization, learning and development usually is part of the larger field of Human Resources. Its aim is to improve and increase both group/team and individual skills and expertise. Successful L&D programs empower and support employees to reach their individual goals. These can relate directly to their job performance as well as their individual knowledge and skills for career development.

To be effective, learning and development has live across departments. HR must map requirements, identify skill gaps, and manage budgets. In addition, team leads do well to include L&D opportunities in their management style. This could mean identifying skill gaps in individual feedback sessions, or researching training programs relevant to their team’s challenges.

Why is L&D seemingly difficult to implement in remote-first organisations? 

L&D can be categorised in structured and unstructured, or formal and informal types of learning. Typical examples of structured learning programs are Online trainings and courses. For example, Workplaceless’ Remote Work Certifications (acework affiliate partner) provide specific courses for remote career developement, such as a remote management certification.

Unstructured learning often happens between colleagues. Whether it’s over lunch, or by working next to each other, colleagues learn by picking each others brains when needed. Studies show that an estimated 75% of total employee learning is informal. Successful learning organisations not only implement structured learning programs, they also foster inter-collegial, informal learning. 

While it is relatively easy to implement formal learning programs, unstructured learning opportunities must be planned for in remote environments. This works similarly to building spaces for company culture and personal relationships, like a water cooler channel on Slack.

Here are some of the best strategies for both structured and unstructured learning in remote teams 

Since everyone learns in different ways, it’s important to accommodate individual learning styles when developing your L&D programs. Therefore, a well-rounded includes different forms of formal as well as informal types of learning. 

Help Scout encourages formal learning, but lets employees choose what courses to complete 

Among a large array of options, Help Scout implemented a key L&D strategy: a Learn Something Stipend. It is a yearly budget of USD1,800 available to every employee. Rachel Baskerville, People Ops at Help Scout, says,

“This can be spent on either their career or personal development. It’s up to the individual how they’d like to spend this, but typically we see folks use it for conference tickets/travel/accommodation costs, as well as online courses, classes or workshops.” 

Check out our full interview about L&D at Help Scout with Rachel Baskerville here.  

Although not remote, product intelligence company Amplitude does a great job sharing about employees’ experience with their learning stipend. Adopting this in a remote company would give employees a great way to connect and share their knowledge. Learn how other companies set up their stipends here

Zappos created a formal learning program focused on soft skills

In 2008 Zappos created ZapposU, a department for employee learning and growth. It started with classes to improve soft skills such as ‘Project Culture and Communication’ or ‘Public Speaking’. By 2014 classes included ‘The Art of Storytelling’, ‘Intro to Social Media’, ‘Pimp My PowerPoint’, and ‘The Science of Happiness’. Classes are not only accessible for specific departments, so employees can expand their knowledge beyond their immediate field.  

Adspert’s ‘Lunch&Learn’ mixes structured and unstructured learning

lunch & learning can also be done remotely, just accommodate different time zones
Photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash

Another great example of a more casual way of learning is called “Lunch&Learn”, which facilitates learning from colleagues. It is a way to create a space for colleagues to discuss and share ideas. Usually it starts with a short presentation, but the majority of the time is used for discussion. Setting this as a “lunch meeting” creates an informal setting, therefore avoiding a potentially stressful environment. Teams across different time zones could adjust by offering options for coffee & cake, or after-work drinks. To implement this on a technical level, either Zoom or remo.co both provide options for presentation and discussion spaces.

Berlin-based hybrid (partly co-located, partly remote) company Adspert runs monthly lunch and learns for office- and remote team members. Instead of co-workers taking turns to present, Adspert invites external speakers to inspire the team with new perspectives. Our founder Angelina ran a session about remote team collaboration with them in late 2018. 

Learning on the job: Stretch Projects

buffers stretch projects are learning opportunities
Source: Buffer, all rights reserved.

A stretch project is an “assignment” undertaken by an employee stretching beyond their current knowledge base and comfort zone. Therefore, it naturally helps to expand their skills. This L&D approach creates a new professional challenge for employees and could even provide relevant results for the entire team.

The key to a successful stretch project is to accept potential mistakes and allow the person to fail. For many, this opportunity has the potential to accelerate their career. In addition, it boosts motivation and morale, so they’ll do their absolute best to seize the chance and succeed.

However, new responsibilities are also challenging and could even be scary. The best advice is to provide the employee with a support system and set realistic expectations. In addition, support them in breaking down the goal into smaller, achievable steps. This will make it easier for them to accept the project with confidence. To increase the chance of a successful outcome, confirm with the employee that the project aligns with their career goals. 

Leverage existing tools for learning groups, like Miro

Learning groups are a great way to implement diverse thinking in the workplace. In addition to expanding knowledge, learning groups also have the potential to foster remote employee relationships. Groups connect through similar interests, or a general drive to teach and/or learn from others. It’s important to incorporate L&D as close to the actual work as possible. Think about the tools you’re already using, that can be appropriated for a learning group. Messengers like Slack, but also project management tools and task-trackers can help to structure progress in a learning group. 

To connect, open brainstorming tools like Miro, Mural or Klaxoon support session documentation and idea development. These tools can also support you in running workshops, especially with larger groups. A specific tool to host structured virtual workshop is one of acework’s partners, Benji.

At acework we help companies to become ‘remote first’. We are always curious to learn from other companies on the path to more flexibility at work. Get in touch and let us know your ideas and best practices (hello@acework.io).

If you want to get into a remote career or are looking for a new opportunity, use our Candidate Sign-up to join acework.

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