Q&A: How to Optimize Learning and Development for a Remote Workplace


Organisations around the world are still experiencing culture shock as they transition from traditional to digital learning and development programs. The pandemic, which forced people to work remotely from home, accelerated the need to further revolutionize L&D. In addition, the ensuing labor shortage has made learning and development a tool for both recruiting and retention, along with its common purpose of onboarding and passing on knowledge and skills.

The challenges sound overwhelming, but HR leaders are taking the changes in stride and easing employees into the new world of L&D. Recently, Nicole Stead, Global Digital Learning Lead, Learning & Organisation Development, at the Heineken Company, talked with HREN about how to confront the challenges of this new world order with grace and an eye on the future.

Q&A with a Promoter of Lifelong Learning

Stead will be presenting the session, “Fireside Chat with Nicole Stead: The Heineken L&D Journey Explored” on Nov. 2 as part of the HR Exchange Live: Corporate Learning EMEA online event. Discover her firsthand experience learning from mistakes and achieving success amid uncertainty and change:

HREN: What is the biggest challenge facing those implementing learning and development strategies?

NS: One of the biggest challenges we see at the moment is really more related to the fact that we’ve had to move to hybrid work. We would be able to go and ask questions of colleagues at the water filter or coffee machine or we would be able to seek out advice from managers very easily by knocking at their door or going to their desk. We were able to learn much more informally through context. That is no longer a luxury we have. We really have to find moments to get that.

Thinking about what we’re doing right now. We’re talking in a virtual meeting, which we had to arrange a week in advance. Think about what that means from a learning experience perspective. When you consume content as a learner, it is only part of the bigger picture. There has to be some kind of transfer experience to make that learning meaningful. I think that’s the thing that we miss the most now.

The question is how do we now bridge that gap? We look at virtual collaboration tools and virtual classrooms. Still, there’s a lot to be said about how we create space and opportunities for collaborating, even in virtual environments, without having to make it purposeful. I think bringing the more informal learning aspect into day-to-day life, even in the virtual world, is something that we need to focus on going forward. Let’s face it, hybrid or remote working is here to stay and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

Another big challenge is how to better utilize data to make meaningful insights and therefore turn insights into action. We are so fortunate that we have data available to us. Ten years ago, the only learning and development data we had were happy sheets and satisfaction scores. We’ve always had this problem around how to evaluate and how to show change in behavior. How do we really show learning has actually taken place? We now have so many data points available to us. Yet, we still struggle to make connections between the data and actual meaningful analytics. It’s untapped and we need to get better at it.

Should You Move to One Global Learning Platform?

HREN: What are some common mistakes you wish you had avoided when transitioning from traditional to digital learning?

NS: There have been many mistakes. There are many things that we could have done better and differently. One thing that sticks out a lot for me is when we at Heineken decided to stop using multiple, fragmented, local learning initiatives and platforms. In a company of 85,000 people, it meant there was a lot of local learning happening.

We said we need to leverage our scale. We need to make the learning we’re offering more consistent and harmonized. We offered only one global digital learning platform to all our operating companies.But we were forgetting about the local nuances and the context in which those operating companies thrive. We talk about local cultures and language. Even things like data privacy and data laws in local markets are huge considerations when deploying a global learning technology solution. What we could have spent more time on is understanding that by giving what we were giving we were also taking away something in terms of freedom.

There will always be pros and cons to a global approach versus a local one. Understanding that a bit more and understanding where our operating companies sit and what the risks were for them may have actually helped us in the long run to speed up the usage of the global platform in some of those markets.

How L&D Can Attract Top Talent

HREN: How can you use your L&D programs in recruiting and retention?

NS: It’s a question that we are looking more closely at now, particularly because we see the war for talent is only getting greater and more difficult and more of a challenge. Indeed, learning is a big element of not just how we onboard our people and help to instill the cultural, behavioral, and strategic elements of our organisation into the working lives of the people who join us. We also see part of the recruitment when we look at the employee value proposition. Many people who are looking for new jobs are looking for assurance that they are coming to a place, where they will be nurtured and developed.

When we say [learning is] part of recruitment, it’s not just onboarding. It’s also conversations that we have with the people we recruit about what’s available to them from a development and career management perspective. The same goes for retention. If we are not able to show that we are actively committed to developing our people, we know the consequences. There were many signals when we look at previous data from before launching our big learning initiatives in the last three years. If you look at exit interview survey data, for example, you see there was a big concern around the fact that we didn’t have enough development opportunities available to our people.

We used that data to improve and change our whole outlook and practices around learning, which has helped us to get where we are today. This is something now that we constantly monitor in exit interviews. We have seen improvements there and also with regard to engagement survey data as well. We ask the question, “Do I have the right tools and development opportunities to do my job?” We have seen big increases year on year since four years ago, when we launched all our bigger learning technology initiatives.

Look to the Future

HREN: What trends do you see on the horizon? What are Heineken’s future L&D goals?

NS: I think the biggest area, where we need to boost our energy and focus, is creating the space for learning in context or learning in the flow of work. How do we ensure people are able to do their jobs effectively, even with a lack of ability to easily reach out to colleagues? How do we close that gap now?

We are looking more toward performance support tools like chatbots and virtual assistants to support the knowledge or skill acquisition process when learning new tasks or new systems or learning how to use new technologies, etc. Also, we will look at collaboration tools. How do we create environments, whether it be through virtual reality or augmented reality? I don’t want to sound like we live in some sort of robotic era because we’ve been talking about these things for years and nothing has really come of it. But I think now is the time to think about how to start using these tools to better bring people together.

I think about a conversation I had with Microsoft about its new technology Microsoft Viva. One of the key insights I remember discussing is that during COVID, people’s productivity increased exponentially, according to the company’s data. We can question what productivity actually means because that can be interpreted differently across different organizations or people for that matter.

What Microsoft has said is that it has seen the biggest decrease since COVID in innovation. Why? Innovation often does take place with people through connections, brainstorming, and ideating. These are things we cannot do in a vacuum or using things like Microsoft Teams and Zoom calls. We really need to focus our understanding on what we need to bring to the virtual environment that we had in the physical space. How can we bridge that gap?

For us at Heineken, the data aspect will be extremely important, too. What does the data mean and how can it lend to improving the learning experience across the organization?

HREN: Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers? If so, what?

NS: My favorite quote is from Henry Ford: ‘Anyone who stops learning is old whether at 20 or 80.’ I am really passionate about lifelong learning, and I hold dear that quote because it is true. You’re never too old to learn.

Register to attend the 2021 Corporate Learning EMEA event to participate in Stead’s session and others.

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