Back to Basics: 10 lessons for virtual L&D for 2021

The Top Tools for Learning 2020 survey took place at an unprecedented time following a period of lockdown where remote working was the norm, so the lists provide a unique look into how learning is being enabled and supported in these difficult times. In my analysis I provided some observations and brief thoughts on what this means for the “new normal” – but in this article I want to take it a step further.

Although in the months ahead businesses expect 40-50% of their staff to return to the office, it is likely they will be asked to avoid group meetings and limit face-to-face social interaction, so this will mean L&D will largely remain a virtual function. So what does being a “virtual L&D function” actually mean and what tools do you need to fulfil this function?

An article in CMS Wire, 6 Learning and Development Practices for a Distributed Workforce, makes this important point:

“Effective virtual L&D does not have to involve expensive AI tools, adaptive learning features or immersive VR environment”

In other words, there is no need for shiny new learning platforms, rather it will be more about making good and effective use of the tools you already have in house. As we can see from this year’s Top Tools it is enterprise collaboration platforms and web meeting tools that have come to the fore with office tools and even email high on the list too.  So here are 10 things a virtual L&D function can learn from 2020 to take them into 2021 and beyond.

  1. Keep it short – Live virtual training has clearly taken off this year – out of necessity –  as L&D scrambled to deliver their offerings online. But many workers ended up with “Zoom fatigue” as they spent many hours in their day moving from web meeting to web training and back to web meeting. So, if there is a pressing need for a live virtual training session, then keep it short and sweet and as engaging as possible. But first consider whether it is really the best way to train your people. There are many other options as I’ll mention below
  2. Keep it simple – In order to be responsive to organisational needs, it’ll also be important to keep things as simple as possible. So rather than creating sophisticated e-courses, the focus should be on creating resources quickly and in simple formats – using standard Office tools like Word and PowerPoint, in fact. There’s so much you can do with them and they are very familiar tools. The Keep it short rule also applies here too, ie. short resources not long-winded courses!
  3. Remember that the oldies are the goodies! – Don’t overlook email – the original distance learning format. It is as an easy way to deliver targeted  training – and as the Top Tools list have shown it’s back in fashion!
  4. Support social learning – If people are going to have limited face-to-face interaction – whether they are at WFH or in the workplace itself – then they will need to feel connected online and have fruitful conversations and discussions. This doesn’t just apply to training, of course,  but in their everyday interactions with one another as part of their daily work. So there is a great opportunity to work with managers and their teams to help them get more out of their enterprise collaboration platforms, and this of course will enable you to …
  5. Help people learn from their daily work – The workplace is normally a vibrant learning environment, but even when work takes place remotely this can still be the case. It might just take a bit more effort for people to recognise the learning moments and experiences they have had that day, so you can help them (and their managers) take the time to reflect on, share and discuss what learning experiences they are having in their new working lives.
  6. Think continuous learning – For virtual L&D it’s also going to be important to remember that their role is not just to provide one-off training -but to support the continuous learning needs of their people. That doesn’t mean continuously training them of course, rather it means helping them to learn something new every day – so that over time the small nuggets of information will build into a large body of knowledge – without them even realising it!.
  7. Keep it flexible – WFH has given many people a new freedom that they have not enjoyed before; ie the autonomy to carry out their jobs in the way that suits them. They will want to retain as much of this autonomy as possible as they return to the workplace, and they certainly will not want to return to a regimented approach to training; they will want to continue to learn in their own ways. So this doesn’t mean personalising learning FOR them, but supporting them to do more things for themselves.
  8. Promote personal learning – It will therefore also be important to empower individuals to make decisions about their own professional goals and how they can address them themselves – rather than applying a one-size-fits-all approach to company training. Remember Dan Pink’s words in Drive:

“Human beings have an innate drive to be autonomous, self-determined and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives. The opposite of autonomy is control. And since they sit at different poles of the behavioral compass, they point us to different destinations. Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.”

  1. Open up learning opportunities – Rather than keeping all your “learning initiatives” locked up in your LMS or other closed platform, open up access to a full range of learning opportunities – internal/external, formal/informal, individual/social, etc. Aggregate them on a learning portal and provide appropriate signposts and navigation for those who need help to find things of relevance and value.
  2. See the big picture – Finally, it is now very clear that organisational learning and development is underpinned by a mix – or ecosystem of inter-related tools and platforms  – as the diagram below shows. Of course, you won’t need to have all these tools  – just some of the basic/key ones will provide you with all you need to function effectively as a virtual L&D. So what are they – and how can you get the most out of them? I am currently preparing a new resource –  Back to Basics: A Practical Resource for virtual L&D – where you can find out more.

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Jane Hart

Jane Hart helps organisations and learning professionals modernise their approaches to workplace learning - through public workshops and bespoke consultancy. She is the Editor of the Modern Workplace Learning Magazine, and is the author of a number of books including Modern Workplace Learning 2020 as well as the resource for individuals How to become a modern Learner. Jane was the 2018 recipient of the ATD Distinguished Contribution to Talent Development award. You can contact Jane at