By Xinyun Peng, Dr. Nicole Wang-Trexler and Dr. Kyle Peck
COVID-19 has disrupted and changed organizations around the world in many ways. The pandemic has seen organization after organization engage in working from home due to the lockdown and shelter-in-place orders. Now, more than ever, the learning & development (L&D) professionals play a pivotal role in transitioning and in envisioning and implementing changes within their organizations, and may be even more likely to undergo profound shifts, since these companies are directly or indirectly involved in combating or responding to COVID-19.
For these reasons, LTEN and Penn State University (PSU) have embarked on a joint research collaboration, “Learning Agility: The Impacts and Effects of COVID-19,” to gain deeper understanding of:
- How the pandemic has accelerated the demand for agility in life sciences learning and education.
- What new best practices have emerged.
- How our field may look and function as we move forward.
As the first phase of this research, we conducted semi-structured interviews with 12 seasoned professionals to gather insights on organizational changes during this tumultuous time. These professionals, whose experience ranged from 10 years to more than 30 years, held director or c-suite L&D positions in pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device organizations. They provided macro-level as well as micro-level observations and perceptions about how what they experienced as COVID-related restrictions were emerging differed from what they had experienced in previous months and years.
This article summarizes the key themes synthesized from these interviews, which are currently guiding a broader survey of professionals in our field. Some of the themes that emerged were common across those interviewed, while others applied to several, but not all.
Many professionals in our field were working remotely before COVID hit, and for these people and organizations, little has changed in this respect. However, professionals whose organizations were more traditional faced several challenges.
Despite the challenges described below, many interviewees expressed positive attitudes toward the outcome of the transition to working remotely. Their teams adapted to the new mode of working and became as productive as, if not more productive than, they were before the pandemic. The challenges they described and the solutions they adopted to cope with the overall changes are documented below.
- Digital competency. This issue rose to the top of the list, and one interviewee’s answer seemed to exemplify the situation reported by most. He reported that the organization encompassed three or four generations of employees, with technology abilities that are all over the board: some are technology savvy while others struggle. Those who struggle are usually people who have been working in traditional ways for decades.Employees now need to rely on technologies and must be capable of doing a least low-level technical trouble shooting. To function as a remote member of a team and to assist remote customers, “self-learning skills” must now be added to their job responsibilities. Now, although using Zoom or other video conferencing software has becomes common, some personnel remained uncomfortable with working while on camera.
- Work-life balance. Some participants mentioned that some of their employees who are working at home share that space with other family members who have their own work to do and lives to live. This has resulted in difficulties identifying an appropriate “work-life balance,” in which the work gets done and the needs of family members are met.
- Rapid turnaround cycle. Everything changed from face-to-face to working remotely in a very short timeframe. This created a tremendous amount of pressure as there was no time to evolve as might have been the case with slower-moving circumstances.
- Physical interaction among colleagues. Some participants also discussed how they miss the daily personal interactions with their colleagues, and that their colleagues have also reported missing face-to-face contact with each other.
Share Your Experiences!
These initial insights shared in this article served primarily as a foundation. Moving forward, our research team seeks to gather more insights from you, our LTEN members, through a survey based on these observations. By participating this benchmarking study, you will be able to compare your organization with L&D peers around the country in the areas of organizational leadership, HR strategies, organizational development, innovation and how L&D might reshape the field’s future. LTEN will use this information to guide member organizations as they move into an increasingly agile learning future.
To deal with these changes, participants reacted rapidly to face the problems.
- To combat the changing needs for technology use and troubleshooting, additional training with technology was initiated. Some participants mentioned that they had specific sessions to coach colleagues on how to interact with technologies they adopted due to COVID and had sessions to teach people how to properly manage and participate in online video meetings.
- To address the reduced access to clients, client support systems were modified or created. Some participants mentioned that they adjusted the way they support clients to suit the virtual working environment based on the feedback they received from their clients.
- To address emotional and health-related needs, some participants mentioned that their organizations created different types of wellness programs to make sure their employees are also prioritizing their physical and mental health during the pandemic, and to support their belief that wellness is crucial to employee productivity.
- To overcome the drop-in communication that may have been lost in the absence of “water cooler conversations” and other person-to-person exchanges, efforts were made to create constant communications and rapport building. Participants reported creating different approaches to supplement communication with team members, to make them feel connected and valued. One participant even created a “weird hat Friday” to maintain the personal relationship with their colleagues.
For some people, working from home worked better than working in the office. Here are the commonalities some participants addressed:
- Increased productivity. Interviewees reported hearing that working from home fit employees’ schedules better and resulted in fewer interruptions from colleagues, significantly increasing efficiency.
- Less commuting time. Similarly, some reps who needed to drive long distances to see clients enjoyed the new virtual situation where they could have more frequent interactions with clients, while investing less time.
- More customers reached. The most fortunate result for trainers and sales representatives was that they were able to reach out to customers in new ways that they were unable to beforehand. Several participants mentioned that they now have “lunch hours” with doctors and nurses as a group to demonstrate their new products and/or services
- Increased respect for the team and team members. Participants addressed how impressed they are with their teams and colleagues, in particular with the speed at which they switched everything from live to virtual, and one participant described the new sense of pride she felt in her team.
Learning and Development
Faced with several learning-related challenges within a short period time, L&D professionals developed solutions rapidly.
- Decreased learning performance and engagement. In a virtual learning environment, many reported that it took much longer to deliver content to learners and that it was more difficult to know how much they had learned. These difficulties may be attributed to changes in the design of training content, new modes of content delivery and the lack of real time feedback from the learners. They also reported that when learning online, it is harder to keep learners focused, engaged and feeling they are “at the right place.”
- Weak evaluation process. One of the biggest challenges, whether in virtual settings or face-to-face sessions, is understanding the degree to which learning outcomes have been achieved by individual learners.
- New hire onboarding training. Because new employees hired during COVID are unable to come to the company headquarters to receive onboarding orientation, trainers were faced with the need to determine new ways to generate strong commitment to the organization, without the traditional “visit to HQ” and meetings with corporate leaders.
- Insufficient soft/power-skills. Another equally important challenge was the need to teach employees new skills that they would use for virtual selling or training. Sales representatives and trainers need to know not only how the platforms work but also how to make effective use of those platforms. These skills could be as “trivial” as, for example, reading clues verbally during video conferencing. The decrease of physical interactions between clients and trainers or salespersons was reported to have affected the quality of services. Clients would easily feel disconnected.
- To curate training content based on the changes, some organization developed a whole new curriculum of virtual engagement for sales representatives who used to need to see customers in-person. For instance, one interviewee mentioned partnering with marketing and medical organizations to develop training content regarding business acumen and clinical documents. Another interviewee talked about how they adapted their emotional intelligence training, leadership training, and other less tangible skills.
- To ease some of the disadvantages of virtual learning, some organizations leveraged emerging technology. Many participants addressed their adoption of new technologies to help their learners with learning performance and engagement. One participant mentioned that the adoption of virtual reality (VR) prior to COVID has helped his organization dramatically with soft skills training.
- To make the materials more digestible, they broke down the curriculum into small pieces, and produced a more highly curated personal learning experience for learners.
- To support newly hired employees or those who had difficulties in adapting to new platforms, designers walked through the entire process of doing virtual sessions, live, along with the trainees.
- To make virtual learning more effective, some have lengthened the overall training program, but are employing shorter sessions. They made the training program longer than the live version (to provide more detail) but also incorporated more breaks and spanned more days (to allow learners to handle other things in real life).
- To compensate for gaps in in-house skill sets, organizations sought help from LTEN and suppliers to help them make the transition to virtual training smoothly.
All participants were very certain that nothing major would change in the near future prompting a return to prior modes of operation, and expressed that they expected to continue working remotely until the beginning of next year. However, they are uncertain about what the future will entail in three to five years. They are speculating that a new mode of working/training/learning will emerge, delivered via a mix of live and virtual solutions. They also pointed out that the future of the field will be determined by the market – for example whether more customers are comfortable with live or virtual solutions.
Technological support is still in need, at least for the immediate future, even though employees gradually shifted from feeling forced to learn new technologies to feeling comfortable learning them. Some interviewees expressed their wish to have more “true tech people” on their teams, or to have a more comprehensive all-in-one platform that has all the tools they need for the virtual working environment. At the same time, participants pointed out a strong need for future employees who demonstrate strong digital competencies and the ability to work effectively remotely.
As COVID-19 became a global pandemic, organizations faced numerous challenges and were restricted by limited time to adapt to an increasingly virtual learning environment while supporting a diverse base of existing employees with a broad range of skills. In some organizations, L&D professionals lacked adequate background in designing learning materials for online environments and had been simply moving what they used to teach in classroom to online distribution, without adjustments. Sales departments and management needed to consider building selling models for virtual environments as well, and leadership had to rethink commercial models, organizational structures, operational models, and more.
In short, a new, agile, working mode that is effective and efficient is needed and appears to be emerging, but most organizations are still in a “discovery phase” at this early stage of their need-driven evolution.
However, participants were satisfied with how they and their organizations had handled the shift from live to virtual delivery methods, overall.
This success is due to the resilience and learning agility that reside in life sciences L&D professionals, who increased their workload to guarantee everything would move to virtual as quickly as possible, learned how to navigate through the adoption of new technologies, increased their learners’ learning performance and learning engagement, sought ways to stay in touch with colleagues to create momentum and maintain relationships and enhanced communication with their leadership, demonstrating their value in transforming their organizations.
Xinyun Peng (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Dr. Nicole Wang-Trexler (email@example.com) are graduate research fellows at The Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Kyle Peck is Professor Emeritus at The Pennsylvania State University.