Updated: Jul 8, 2020
More than ever, workforces are moving toward a more remote-friendly culture. It’s unprecedented in the history of what we think of as “work,” so lots of employees and managers have a tough time adjusting to this brave new world. At Mindspace, we’re in a unique position to provide guidance on this topic. Since we make our living building digital onboarding and training programs for our clients, we already think about how to help learners succeed without the aid of a live facilitator, manager, or even colleagues being in the same room.
The principles we use to build custom onboarding programs for modern learners can apply to training remote workers.
Accept the truths
Working remotely comes with a number of benefits and drawbacks. It's naive to assume that you can simply flip a policy switch, tell everyone it’s okay to work remotely, and expect that everything will stay the same. Before you apply any tactical techniques to train remote employees, you must acknowledge and accept the truths (both good and bad) that come with working remotely.
Let’s assess 3 key truths that you as an employer need to understand before you create a training strategy for remote employees:
Truth 1: Working remotely can be really lonely.
Managers and leaders are tasked with moving business objectives forward. Remote employees on your team might be aware of what they need to do to aid in the accomplishment of that goal, but they’re on an island when they’re remote. Even if you lead or manage one remote employee, he or she probably feels isolated from time to time. Feelings of isolation can reduce performance, and it’s no secret that some people can become quite depressed without appropriate opportunities for socialization.
Truth 2: Business priorities will not always be top of mind.
Remote employees who work from home, simply due to the environment they’re in, will not be able to focus exclusively on the business at all times. Distractions will happen, kids will need lunch, or laundry might need folding. When you can’t control the work environment, it’s natural to be skeptical of employees’ level of focus on their jobs. However, keep in mind that employees working in an office environment find times to take mental breaks throughout the day, too. The behavior just looks a bit different. Instead of folding laundry, they might visit with a co-worker in the break room for 10 minutes. Accept this truth and it may just lead to an opportunity to build trust between you and your remote employees (we'll discuss this later).
Truth 3: Not all set ups are equal.
There’s a good chance your remote employees received a laptop and a mug when they got hired. Yay. Not a lot of forethought often goes into what kind of tech remote workers might need to enhance their work environment. Additional flat screens for extended desktops, wireless keyboards, and even ergonomic chairs are a few of the variables that most employers don’t think to provide their remote workers. The tradeoff is that some remote employees won’t be able to source this equipment on their own. Performance, therefore, often suffers because their work environment isn’t optimized. Unlike a traditional office environment where everyone has access to the same types of tools, remote workers are often left to fend for themselves and supplement their company-issued laptop with personal equipment. If this is a reality for your remote workforce, you need to be sensitive to it.
Build a strategy around the truths
Once you’re aware of the truths remote workers face on a daily basis, you can start to think of a training strategy that is crafted around their unique needs. Applying the following training strategy tips can build significant brand affinity and engagement in the minds of remote employees from their first day on the job.
Here’s 3 hot tips for building a training strategy around the truths remote workers face:
Hot tip 1: Build regular and consistent digital check-ins into your training strategy.
If you’re onboarding a new remote employee, schedule 10-15 minute check-ins with them after they complete between 45 minutes to an hour of digital training or onboarding work. Use whichever virtual meeting platform your organization supports (Zoom, Meet, etc.), but make it face-to-face. Consistency is key here, especially for new employees.
If you’re developing a training strategy for seasoned employees, the same principle applies. Give them space to engage with the training content on their own, but make sure it is regularly discussed either in a team-based virtual meeting or one-on-one with you.
You also need to inject some emotion into these meetings. Discussing business objectives is bland. Break big goals into small milestones and celebrate reaching them together with your remote employees during the virtual check-ins. Help them see how their efforts contribute to the team’s progress.
Finally, leave room during these check-ins for welfare feedback. Ask remote employees how they’re feeling and if they need anything from you. When there’s consistent social engagement, a clear understanding of the value they provide, and an outlet for discussing their feelings, remote employees will be better equipped to deal with the loneliness of being outside of the office.
Hot tip 2: Schedule and support periods of unproductive time.
For new employees, this will probably come as a surprise, but it honors and acknowledges the realities of their work environment.
If you want to make unproductive time feel like more of an extension of training or onboarding, make this time part of their training plan. Have them complete an online module, conduct their virtual follow up call with you, and then suggest things that the remote worker can do after the call to unwind during the next 10 minutes. Send them on an outdoor scavenger hunt for some fresh air, challenge them to complete a small task they’ve been putting off, etc. Make it fun, but make sure they know it’s an opportunity to refresh their brain.
This same principle applies to current remote employees. Bake these scheduled unproductive times into their training experiences and even encourage them to document how they spend their unproductive time in something like a digital word cloud that you can pull up from time to time during weekly Zoom calls.
The key here is to accept and acknowledge the fact that remote workers need brain breaks just like the rest of us, and it’s okay to take them in moderation. We recommend 10 minutes for every hour of pure focused time spent in front of the screen.
Hot tip 3: Don’t skimp on the equipment.
This one may fall outside of training’s purview, per se, but it’s worth advocating for on behalf of remote workers. Remember that all employees form a perception of your organization based on their experiences with the brand, leadership, and their colleagues. Brand perception is especially critical when it comes to onboarding or training remote employees as they don’t have the same opportunities to connect on a social level with leadership or their coworkers.
For remote workers, the physical equipment they’re provided to help them set up their workspace can be a huge morale booster or detractor.
From an onboarding perspective, imagine how much cache the brand would get in the mind of a new employee if their first training assignment was to “go shopping” (perhaps on an internal company portal) for a new desk, two flat screen monitors, an ergonomic chair, and a wireless keyboard.
Compare that to the old “here’s your laptop and mug” experience. Which remote employee is more likely to have a positive perception of the brand from day one?
Again, this might be a lot to ask of training managers, but training isn’t just about teaching skills. It’s important for training leaders to help remote workers experience the brand outside of coursework.
Helping them achieve an optimal set up for their remote workspace is a novel way to boost their engagement with the brand, and you might just see an uptick in performance when the right equipment is in place.
Audit coursework for the remote audience
Let’s say you’ve provided the resources for remote workers to set up a killer workspace, instituted scheduled virtual check-ins to break up digital coursework, and given the green light for remote workers to enjoy brief periods of unproductive time. What’s next when it comes to training your remote workforce?
You don’t have to look too far for opportunities. In fact, look back at that last paragraph. “Digital coursework” is a monstrously ambiguous term. It could be sloppy PowerPoint files converted to PDFs and force-fed to remote workers under the guise of training, or it could be highly interactive, gamified, and mobile-friendly micro learnings that remote workers WANT to take.
If you want to know what’s next when training a remote workforce, you need to take a step back and evaluate your training content.
You need to think about how it’s presented to a remote audience and how it feels for remote workers to engage with it. To do this, you must adopt the mindset of a remote worker and think about their perceptions of the training content given their “truths.”
Here are just a few things to consider and actions to take when auditing your current training content for remote employees:
Does your training content set clear expectations for the learner and lay out their options for communicating with leadership if they have questions?
If yes, good for you!
If no, include this messaging on the front end of any training you deliver to remote workers. Let them know that you’ve designed their training strategy so that they’ll be able to check in with you virtually after each chunk of focused training time and then they’ll be encouraged to take a brain break after that.
Does your training content foster discussion between remote workers and their managers and/or remote workers and their colleagues?
If yes, you’re on the right path!
If no, rework your content so it prompts critical thinking and asks participants to jot down their thoughts for discussion. Converting your training content from having a dictatorial, “because I said so” tone and massaging the messaging to generate discussion creates an excuse for follow up conversations. It also helps remote employees feel more engaged and valued because they will feel like their thoughts and input are encouraged.
Does your training content come in all shapes and sizes? In the absence of something like a cohesive, gamified experience, is there variety in how you’re delivering the content?
If yes, well done!
If no, take that bloated PowerPoint and add some variety. Easy-to-use authoring tools like Rise allow you to create responsive elearnings with interactive components that far exceed the experience of clicking through a slide deck. Video-based content, presented in short 90-second segments, can be much more palatable than reading through 30 slides. There are plenty of polling and quiz platforms out there, too. Mentimeter, for example, has both. Add some spice and variety to how your content is presented. Your remote employees with thank you for it.
One step at a time
Successfully training remote workers isn't something you're going to accomplish overnight. As we've shown, there's a lot to consider that's far beyond the training content itself. There are certainly many other things you can do beyond what we've addressed here, but getting inside the mind of a remote worker is the first major step.
If you feel like your organization already has that figured out, move to the content audit piece. If you have both of these major pieces covered, you can take the next step in facilitating a well-trained remote workforce...but we'll save those next tips for another blog.