The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the learning industry and likely will for the foreseeable future. Travel and gathering restrictions will eventually ease, but individuals will continue to wrestle with their own comfort levels regarding when they should go back to the office or attend classes, conferences and programs.
For some organizations, the pandemic may simply be too much to overcome. Unquestionably, there are sectors of the economy more affected than others. For those of us fortunate enough to work for businesses that are sustaining (or, in some cases, thriving), the pandemic offers opportunities to expand the level of influence of the learning function within our companies.
Our experience through the pandemic at equipment and tool rental company Sunbelt Rentals probably mirrors that of many other organizations. There was the initial shock of just how great of an impact the virus would have on the company and the larger economy. A task force was formed to direct the company’s actions around operational changes required to safely meet the needs of our teammates, our customers and our communities. After which, immediate action was needed to evaluate and create policies and procedures, providing an opportunity for our Talent Development and Education team to support those efforts.
Early stages of the pandemic
A common complaint for many in the learning field is that engaging our teams is sometimes an afterthought. Products or processes are complete (or close to complete) before the learning team is brought to the table.
During the pandemic, this was bound to happen. Critical decisions were being made swiftly to address complex operational challenges. Our audience of 15,000-plus across North America needed answers as to how the company would adapt. Typically, change must be implemented by first answering the question of “why” — but not in this case.
During the early stages, our team simply needed to determine in which areas we could provide the most comprehensive performance support materials in a limited amount of time. For learning veterans, the ability to craft solutions on tight timelines is nothing new. Delivering in these areas offered a reminder to our business partners of the positive impact of well-designed materials on the ability to change behavior.
Delivering after the initial shock
It was also at this time that we began to reimagine the effects we could have by not only supporting our teammates through the crisis, but also positioning them for even greater success coming out of it.
Before the pandemic struck, we were poised to implement a comprehensive new onboarding program for teammates in the spring. With fewer new teammates to onboard, we were forced to adapt. Again, capitalizing on experience with short timelines, we repurposed the onboarding materials for existing teammates to sharpen their skills and be better prepared to mentor their new co-workers in the future.
In keeping with our goal to develop existing talent, we rapidly developed new, critical content on supporting and leading a team through crisis; engaging customers in trying circumstances; and navigating the operational changes the company implemented.
We delivered 111 virtual instructor-led (or VILT) sessions on these topics over the course of eight weeks to 4,125 teammates between April and May. These numbers were even more impressive when you consider that VILT was not previously a component of our delivery strategy.
By and large, our teammates operate in branches made up of 10 to 100 individuals that service, deliver and rent equipment to job sites and other locations across assigned territories — in other words, circumstances that wouldn’t typically lend themselves to VILT participation.
Delivering on such a large scale to the business in a short amount of time was a testament to the team’s ability to analyze the needs of our audience.
Whereas answering the question of “why” was less important earlier during the pandemic, learners were now in position to select opportunities that appealed to them. These sessions were not mandatory, but participation numbers showed that our team was onto something.
Expanding our reach and influence
Embracing the challenge of virtual delivery to our distributed audience has not gone unnoticed. As restrictions on travel persist, more and more teams across the organization have been forced to host events like town halls virtually. Our delivery team now teaches a class on using WebEx and Microsoft Teams to leaders across the organization to prepare them to meet that need.
Building on our earlier success with VILT sessions, we were challenged with reimagining some of our core safety training through virtual delivery. We looked at two instructor-led courses and redesigned one for 100 percent VILT delivery and the other as a standalone e-learning module.
The early feedback on both courses has been positive. The learner experience was considered heavily during the analysis phase for both courses, resulting in the use of features such as poll questions and allowing for adequate breaks for participants in the VILT course.
It is important to note that we have decided not to “lift and shift” ILT in its current form to virtual delivery. Instead, we have chosen to embrace the movement to virtual by designing specifically for that delivery mode. This represents a departure from our existing learning strategy but, nevertheless, continues to show a willingness to flex to the demands of our environment.
Along with our proven ability to execute quickly, carefully identify the needs of our audience, and craft new solutions for maximum reach and impact, we feel prepared to handle whatever this pandemic has left to throw at us.