How to Upskill Workers When You Cannot be Face-to-Face

Posted by Lisa Kenney on Jun 5, 2020 12:28:10 PM

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Spoiler Alert:  This blog will not be about which web-based platform is the best investment or the best digital products in the marketplace.  This blog will be about LEARNING, and how, even though today it may be delivered in different ways than we are accustomed to, learning should not take a back seat in the workplace.  In fact, how workers are trained and upskilled today will require great leaps in creativity, innovation, and change management along with strong practices of human interfacing that you may have left to chance before.  So read on …

We all know how much has changed, and the future is still unknown.  What we do know is that virtual learning, once an experimental option for high tech offices, has become a new reality.  Industry week recently cited, “[Virtual learning] will fundamentally change the work environment in manufacturing and help accelerate a trend towards lights-out facilities.”  It’s likely to be this way for the foreseeable future.    

As long as employee retention and satisfaction continue to be linked with the learning opportunities people are provided at work, we will need to find innovative ways to not only cross train to help get products out the door, but also to use training as a way to show employees how much the organization values them.  Case in point: “My company provides me learning opportunities,” continues to rank in the top 3 reasons employees stay with their current employers.

Once you agree with this concept – that the need and desire to learn hasn’t changed – you begin to see the importance of exploring new methods to deliver that learning.  IMEC is currently facing this as a learning provider.  Many of the manufacturing companies we work with are, as of this date, either unable or reluctant to allow outsiders to enter their facilities, and if they do, the requirements for socially distanced classrooms and teaching behind a face mask provide special challenges to even the most experienced classroom facilitator.  In a recent poll among IMEC trainers, we agreed that we miss employees’ body language and eye contact to tell us if they are getting the message.  We miss the small signals that tell us they need a break.  We miss impromptu questions and ideas as the group learns a new topic and begins to, in the moment, mentally apply it and ask questions. 

Fortunately, some of the newest virtual learning platforms can help.  They provide tools like annotation, polling and chat rooms.  They give us cameras and microphones for immediate access into people’s homes-turned-offices.  What they don’t give us are assurances that everyone is following along, no one is drifting off to multi-task, and learners are motivated to put the new learning into practice. 

We hope you’ll use these simple tips to assure that any type of virtual learning you undertake has an opportunity for success: 

  • Keep the learning bite-sized.
  • Provide opportunities for immediate application.
  • Follow up, follow up, follow up.
Keep the learning bite-sized

Because I’m a teacher at heart, I talk to trainers and facilitators all the time.  I’ve heard of highly paid consultants who have purchased expensive cameras and performed extensive lighting do-overs in their kitchens so that they can deliver the exact same 8-hours of learning they used to, via web cam.  Okay, expensive recipe for disaster in my mind.  Think of the old adage: first, consider your audience.  Virtual fatigue is a real thing, and anyone who has had to sit through even two hours of webinars knows what I mean.  Consider instead, breaking the learning into small chunks.  IMEC is ready to provide a series of short, burst of learning, called Micro-Courses, each lasting no longer than 10-20 minutes.  They include the key ingredients for sustaining a learner’s attention:  interactive quizzes, multiple choice options and provocative case studies.  Because they are short, bite-sized nuggets, they don’t exhaust the learner, but they provide valuable self-insights to help learners move forward. 

Identify Ways to Immediately Apply the Learning

When learners can immediately apply what they’ve learned, the chances of that learning “sticking” is greatly increased.  This is where some pre-planning must come into play.  Before you even select the training topic, answer this question, “As a result of this learning, the trainee will be able to …” Complete the sentence.  Try to keep your scope to no more than 3-5 bullet points – these become the learning objectives and can help you select the type of training best suited.    

Another great question you can ask as you plan is, “What will success look like?”  When you know where you’re headed, you can begin to think of real-world practical experiences you want the learner to be able to do as a result of the training.  For example, if your learners need to provide better customer service, you can ask that they participate in a short, virtual learning module, then shadow an all-star performer and observe how he/she handles difficult customer situations.  Perhaps the learner should write up a few notes or keep a journal of this experience (writing helps secure the new information in the learner’s brain).  You can then sit down with the new performer and discuss what he/she experienced, and specifically, what steps he/she will take on the next service call to improve. 

What if your learner needs to be stronger at leading team meetings?  This is an easy one.  After the short course on better meeting management, sit down with the learner and help him/her plan the upcoming meeting.  Provide support and encouragement for the spaces where the learner feels unsure.  And, or course, guide that learner to feel even more successful when he takes on next week’s challenge on his own.

Follow-up, Follow-up, Follow-up

I state “follow-up” three times, not because I’m trying to increase my blog word count, but because it’s so important!  In fact, follow up takes place at three distinct junctures in the learning process: before, during, and after the learning event.

Follow-up Before

This happens once you know that a learner has signed up for the virtual class.  What are your expectations?  What are the learner’s?  Why was this course selected in the first place?  What do you both want to be able to DO as a result of the learning experience?  Share your ideas and ask the learner for theirs.  This will create buy-in and encourage the learner.  They’ll know that you are tuned into their success.  When does the learner plan to undertake this self-study experience and what will he/she do as a result?

Follow-up During

This happens immediately after the learner has participated in the training.  Now, because this is a virtual session, you should put it on your calendar too.  Telephone the learner and ask how it went.  What did he learn?  What are his first and immediate take-aways?  Was this time well spent?  How can you help the learner apply the learning?  Now that she’s participated in the course, she may have some new ideas and insights into how she can do just that.

Follow-up After

And finally, this happens as you work with the learner to implement the learning.  Provide support without removing the responsibility to do the job on their own.  Make sure you assist by removing any obstacles and providing all the necessary resources the learner will need.  Encourage the learner as they try new things that may be outside of their current comfort zone. 

Actually, when you take these steps, you’ll assure a better learning experience regardless of whether or not the learning takes place the “old” way, in the classroom, or in what will likely become one of the more typical ways we learn together, moving forward.   

Virtual classroom is a wonderful way to deliver training.  We’re not saying it’s the only or even the right solution.  But if you need to give it a try, and you follow these simple guidelines, you’re bound to set your learners, and yourself, up for success!


Need assistance or have a question? Get quick help from the experts on the Illinois Manufacturing Helpline.

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Lisa Kenney

Written by Lisa Kenney

Topics: employee engagement, leadership, workforce skills, Workforce Development, COVID-19

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