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Learning and development in the age of COVID-19

June 4, 2020
By Brian Kreissl

Photo: (BillionPhotos.com/Adobe Stock

The current COVID-19 crisis has shifted learning and development to the back burner for many organizations.

With the very survival of many businesses in question, the general feeling is there are more important concerns to worry about right now.

For those companies that are still providing learning and development, the focus has shifted to e-learning and training delivered via videoconferencing, with the subject matter of learning focusing on mandatory compliance-based training, occupational health and safety and skills and competencies necessary to be successful in the current climate.

With so many employees working from home, many workers and their managers need to be trained for the realities of working remotely.


For those in essential industries and in frontline health-care and long-term care roles, the focus shifts to infection control and appropriate strategies for risk management and maintaining health, safety and wellness.

Many organizations have no doubt put things like leadership development, coaching and mentoring programs on hold while they focus on skills and competencies that are needed to adapt to current realities.

Managers need to be trained to focus on results rather than direct supervision, and employees often need to be trained on the realities of working from home and specific tools and technologies to support the virtual workplace.

Part of the problem with this approach is we don’t know exactly how long the current situation will continue. Employees also need to be trained and developed with the long-term future in mind — or at least their eventual return to the workplace.

Another issue is that a great deal of training simply consists of delivering a PowerPoint presentation online using a tool like WebEx, Zoom or Microsoft Teams. This is often referred to as virtual instructor-led training in a live, synchronous environment.

While I am a big fan of these tools for conducting online meetings and facilitating simple training programs, they aren’t necessarily suitable for all types of learning. But what type of delivery mode works best?

Delivery mode of learning

One of the benefits of e-learning is its asynchronous nature and the fact it can be completed at an appropriate time and place according to the learner’s schedule. This type of learning incorporates sound, video, testing and discussion forums and can be tracked.

Virtual instructor-led training, on the other hand, works for more interaction, instruction that is more informational and focused on one-way delivery of information or learning that is more like a meeting than a training program. One of the problems with this type of online learning is that full day sessions can be boring and may result in poor retention of learning.

Blended learning (with both online and traditional in-class components) might be a partial solution, although that could be difficult in the current environment.

On the other hand, e-learning or virtual instructor-led training could be supplemented with reading, exercises and on-the-job learning.

This type of blended learning is often used for cohort-type learning programs, where a group of learners completes a formal program together. In that case, employers may need to shift some of the in-class components to a virtual environment for the time being.

This is true at least for longer-term programs that are currently ongoing, although others may need to be put on hold. Another option is continuing with one-on-one coaching and mentoring sessions over the phone or through videoconferencing.

It is also true that as more learning is conducted online, HR and learning and development practitioners will need to acquire e-learning development and online facilitation skills.

Changing expectations among learners will also dictate that online learning needs to be more polished, fun and exciting. Instructional design knowledge and skills will therefore become increasingly important.

Subject matter of learning

Many employers are currently thinking about the eventual return to work. Part of this planning process involves determining if business will be conducted differently as part of the “new normal.”

Several commenters have mentioned that COVID-19 has accelerated certain changes in the workplace that were already underway such as the increasing popularity of telework, more business being conducted online and a greater degree of automation.

For that reason, the subject matter of learning will likely shift towards skills and competencies needed to facilitate those trends.

For the foreseeable future, a great deal of learning will need to focus on the skills and competencies needed for the return to work and transitioning to the new normal in the workplace.

Brian Kreissl is a product development manager with Thomson Reuters in Toronto. He looks after HR, payroll, OH&S, records retention and Triform. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com or (416) 609-5886. For more information, visit https://store.thomsonreuters.ca/en-ca/home.

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