Remote workforces offer tremendous advantages, but those far-flung workers come with some challenges as well. Recent research from VitalSmarts confirms what we've likely suspected for some time: Remote employees feel left out and even ganged up upon. But co-located employees frequently feel disconnected, too. Today's epidemic of loneliness in the workplace can trigger emotional withdrawal and other unproductive behaviors. So, how do we reach employees who crave connection but clearly aren't experiencing it?
The good news is that the learning and development function is in a powerful position to help create connections, because learning offers many benefits beyond the specified skill or knowledge acquired. Learning:
- Introduces new perspectives;
- Builds mental muscle that can be deployed toward other tasks and additional learning;
- Inspires interest and combats boredom; and
- Forges connections between and among people.
Read that last point carefully. This idea presents a new and potentially necessary focus for L&D professionals. When learning is thoughtfully deployed with the intention of creating greater connectivity among individuals and teams, the outcomes can go beyond overt skills and knowledge gains to also include engagement, relationship building and overall wellness.
So, how can L&D functions – already stretched to the limit and challenged continually to do more with less – fit in one more priority or focus area? They can't. But what they can do is to make some small adjustments to what's already happening so that the additional outcome – connection – is amplified and achieved. Here's how to do it.
Social learning is based upon connections among individuals going about their lives in work and play. We all learn powerfully and naturally through observation, instruction and conversation – both IRL (in real life) and virtually. So, enhance learning and build bridges by shifting from traditional methods to more social learning approaches. Set the expectation that employees will learn from each other. Create the time and the space to make this happen. Managers can offer loose structures and suggestions while encouraging initiative and ownership within the team.
Cohorting – or congregating people together for a learning experience – has traditionally been a function of scheduling convenience. But we can engineer more than learning if we're more intentional about how we convene groups. For instance, running a “program” (whatever form it might take) for two teams that have historically struggled to collaborate can deliver instructional outcomes and improved relationships, increased empathy and more positive interactions. Intentionally combining individuals who are co-located and remote promotes understanding and increases everyone's feeling of belonging… while also building new skills
Just as with cohorts, we can take a more intentional approach to encouraging specific interactions and connections one-on-one. Rather than leaving it to self-selection or chance, consider the group and its dynamics in advance. Who knows who? Who gets along well with whom? Who might be feeling marginalized? Who needs support? With this in mind, you can assign learning partners, mentors, peer coaches and other relevant roles to drive learning outcomes while at the same time building interpersonal connections and human outcomes as well.
Tap remote resources
It's true: One of the reasons remote workers feel left out is because they are! L&D professionals – who are frequently centrally located – typically tap local resources for help and support as they develop and deliver learning initiatives. We frequently build with those who are co-located in mind and then tweak it for everyone else. Try turning the tables. Seek out remote workers as learning points of contact. Recruit them as SMEs. Ask them to take on the role of facilitator. Actively engaging them offers a broader organizational perspective and brings these individuals more fully into the team and organization.
Loneliness, lack of connection and disengagement are major challenges – but not for organizations that know how to build bridges while building a vibrant, skilled workforce.