learning and development

Building a Learning and Development Culture for Remote Employees

Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a series on Learning & Development. You can read the first post here.

In just over a decade, the number of Americans working remotely has increased 115%. The rising popularity of remote work among employees is due in large part to a favorable work/life balance. In fact, employees see monetary value in this balance. A study run by economists from Princeton and Harvard indicated that employees would be willing to sacrifice up to 8% of their wages to have work-from-home flexibility. And employees aren’t the only ones realizing the benefits. Employers are capitalizing on remote workforces.

From a hiring perspective, remote flexibility widens the talent pool, allowing employers to hire from more diverse backgrounds. Once employed, remote employees have been shown to be more productive than their onsite counterparts, and their retention rates are higher. As an added benefit, operating costs are lower for a remote workforce.

While there are numerous advantages to working remotely, there are challenges surrounding engagement and management. When managing onsite employees, it’s relatively easy to ensure that the members of your team have equal access to learning and professional development opportunities. With remote employees, ensuring this access is more difficult. A conscious effort needs to be made in order to guarantee the same opportunities – beginning with onboarding.

Onboarding onsite employees usually begins with an orientation and a discussion of expectations. This is often followed by hands-on practical job training. If possible, bring remote employees onsite for onboarding. Doing so can help standardize the onboarding process across all employees, and establish a personal connection.

If onsite training isn’t a possibility, you’ll likely have to rely more heavily on screen-sharing and video conferencing tools. A primary pain-point in remote working relationships is communication. Setting expectations early as to channels the team will use to communicate (both for training and daily communication) is important. Whether it is through email, text, or a company-wide messaging service (like Slack), both employees and managers should have the same expectations surrounding communication.

Once communication lines are established, provide training as you would for an onsite employee, and then allow the remote employee to work autonomously for a few hours. Remain available for questions throughout that time, but let the employee drive the work. After a few hours, collaboratively review what they’ve done, and offer assistance and recommendations as necessary. This onboarding process will set the tone for your future working relationship, so encourage questions and make yourself an available resource.

Once onboarding is successfully completed, it’s important to align expectations regarding check-ins and update meetings. Although casual in-person check-ins are not available to managers of remote employees the same way they are to onsite-employee managers, managers can set the expectation of scheduled video calls weekly or biweekly. These check-in calls can serve a twofold purpose: on the one hand, managers will be able to make sure their employees are accountable and supported. On the other, the remote employee has an outlet for questions or concerns, and a more casual way of connecting with the team.

As employment continues and formal learning opportunities are offered to the rest of the team, make sure all resources are accessible to your remote employees. Whether this is a live-stream of a speaker coming into the office or putting all interesting reading materials in a shared Box or Drive folder, informing and encouraging remote employees to engage with these resources is key.

One strategy for engaging remote employees for continuous learning and development is to assign more casual “homework assignments.” Offer readings or e-learning exercises, and allow remote employees to complete them at their own pace. This is a way to take advantage of the autonomy remote employees already successfully implement.

Although formal training programs are important, informal learning comprises up to 75% of total employee learning, and should be fostered. Creating a “virtual water cooler” can be a great way to engage remote employees and encourage peer relationships. These peer relationships bolster employee engagement while simultaneously providing a channel for collaboration.

Offering your remote employees learning and development opportunities, as well as informal ways to connect with peers, is a great way to foster employee engagement. It’s also a way to counteract an “out of sight, out of mind” philosophy when it comes time for raises and promotions.

A 2013 study indicated that although remote call-center employees were more productive than their onsite counterparts, they were at a disadvantage when it came to receiving performance-based raises and promotions. This is attributed to remote employees having less face-time with managers, as well as remote employees being less informed about opportunities for advancement. In order to counteract this, define metrics for performance-based raises and promotions. In establishing a formal evaluation process, remote employees will be judged based on the quality and breadth of their work, as opposed to intangible factors.

As remote work rises in popularity, access to learning and development will continue to be critical. In order for employers to fully realize the benefits of a remote workforce and avoid common pitfalls, they will need to make a conscious and consistent effort to democratize resources for all employees.

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