Illustration by Justin Tran

Work Culture

Can remote work change on-the-job training for the better?


Published on May 12, 2022

When Sally Lunn decided to grow her design team at Super Duper Studios, the full-service digital branding studio she co-founded, she knew that training a junior designer remotely would be difficult. “Designing is two things: emotional and technical,” she says. “That means that in order to train someone well, you need to be able to build an interpersonal relationship so that you can be on the same page, and you need to get your trainee up to speed quickly. Both of these things can feel impossible when you’re not in the same physical space.”

Given the restrictions that most organizations had to operate under as a result of the pandemic, remote training was Sally’s only real option—and the journey was not without its challenges. “For a junior designer, there are so many factors at play when you’re trying to learn the ropes,” says Sally. “You’re trying to fight the clock, embody another person’s style, learn new programs, and learn what the client wants. It can be emotionally devastating when you learn that you need to undo the last five hours of work you put into something, which can happen a lot when your manager isn't there to course-correct.”

After one attempt to train a junior designer remotely, Sally wasn’t convinced it would work. “I decided it wasn’t worth it. There were too many communication breakdowns. I realized that when I’m training, my description of the choices I’m making is so unique and so personal. It felt pretty impossible to be able to pass the torch without building that in-person relationship. ” For a while, she put her prospects to grow the team on hold and scaled back the amount of work the agency was taking on, until she realized things needed to change. “I couldn’t keep going that way, and I couldn’t afford to keep saying no to good work because we didn’t have the resources,” she says. “I had to bring someone in, and I had to learn how to train them well.” 

Getting to this place required a shift in perspective, and it’s a shift many employers have had to undergo over the last two years. Prior to the pandemic, on-the-job learning looked a certain way. Training could be intensive, coaching could be in-person, and e-learning was often auxiliary. Of course, things are different today. Almost everything is done online, and we know now that if we wait for the perfect training conditions to strike, we could be waiting forever. Most managers have accepted that they must adapt to a remote-first environment. So what’s shifted and what should we keep in mind going forward?

Studies on remote learning suggest that it takes up to 40 to 60% less employee time than in-person learning

A tale of two trainings

Kurt, an account executive who wished to be identified by his first name only, recently started his second new job in less than a year. He was hoping the online training experience for his new role would be different than the one he’d endured only months before.

His first experience with remote training was less than stellar for a number of reasons. “I’m a positive person who approaches most challenges by trying to solve them myself and keep my head down, but I think that ended up being a negative at the first company I joined during the pandemic,” he says. “I needed more structure, and I didn’t feel that [the company] adapted well to having a remote-only learning environment.” By the time he left the role, Kurt felt frustrated by the lack of accountability on both ends: he felt he wasn’t given enough guidelines for how to succeed in the role, and he also felt that the organization failed at getting him up to speed in a way that would allow him to thrive. He also felt that he was on the hook to make his own experience a good one, without any guidance on how exactly to make that happen.

Thankfully, things took a turn for the better when he found a new role at a software company. Though this company also had a completely remote training program, it was better planned and easier to complete. “They were really keen to identify and help smooth over any challenges I was facing, and they also provided me with a well-structured training plan that made it really clear what I was expected to have completed and by when. This meant that I wasn’t wasting time learning things that weren’t relevant and I was building up my knowledge in a logical way.”

Studies on remote learning suggest that it takes up 40 to 60% less employee time than in-person learning and can increase knowledge retention by up to 60%. These numbers are encouraging, but building a supportive remote environment isn’t as simple as copy-and-pasting the in-person plan into an online format. Kurt’s two experiences shine a light on the fact that online training works best when it’s accompanied by a thoughtful structure, a clear set of expectations, and frequent check-ins to make sure the material is resonating.

Personal preference plays a key role

Though Kurt eventually had a more encouraging experience with online training, he still notes that he misses the days of in-person training. “In my role,” he says, “I often find ‘micro-learning’ to be really effective, where I see something while observing a colleague or in the course of doing my own job that I can ask about in the moment or shortly thereafter.” While this isn’t impossible to do virtually, Kurt finds that the opportunities are much more sporadic. “When you’re in the office, you can ask a question and get an answer right away.”

And herein lies one of the many nuances of the great online versus in-person learning debate: many of the differences in what works better depend on the person, the role they’re training for, and the stage of career that person is in.

For Diana Wright, who works for a Toronto-based digital marketing agency, starting a new job remotely was a great opportunity to engage in the kind of learning she prefers. “I’m a very visual person, and training this way allowed me to take better, more precise notes. I also felt like I had more time on my own in my home to let information sink in than I might have felt in an office environment."

She also liked that online learning meant that there was often a written record for the information she needed to know that she could easily refer back to. “I liked having responses to my questions in the form of Slack messages, because verbal instructions are harder for me to remember.” 

25% of all professional jobs in North America will be fully remote by the end of 2022

Samantha, who recently completed 13 mandatory online courses for a new job, felt similarly about doing it remotely. “I have social anxiety that tends to flare up in class settings, and I find it very distracting to learn in person sometimes. Learning remotely, I was able to go at my own pace without facing any pressure to answer questions if I wasn't feeling confident enough to answer them.”

But for people who feel more energized by an in-person learning setting, online learning can feel like a slog. This was true for Meghan, who works for a Toronto-based fintech company and recently completed a remote learning program to build up some skills she felt she was missing for her product marketing role. “I found it pretty exhausting to finish my 9-5 and then sit in the same spot for another couple of hours, and it was hard to build rapport with people I was only talking to over Slack and Zoom.”

She adds that, in the past, the key to successful learning has always been one-on-one time. “Having the opportunity to ask questions, go over concepts I didn't understand, or just chat informally is important to me. I didn’t really feel like I had that opportunity here, and it’s also more intimidating to participate and speak up when you're in a mega Zoom room with 80 other people.”

As with most work experiences, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach that addresses the needs of every employee. For those who crave one-on-one interaction, it can be difficult to bridge that gap. But it’s also an interesting challenge to consider: in a remote setting, how can managers and training facilitators make the experience feel more personal? While there may be no proxy for in-person interaction, leveraging the technology we do have—like setting Zoom office hours, chatting on Slack channels, or creating tutorials on Dropbox Capture—can add some warmth and familiarity to the experience.

Intentionality goes a long way While Sally Lunn wasn’t initially convinced that training could be done well remotely, her thinking has changed dramatically over the past year. “I was a full-tilt believer that the environment really mattered for this kind of work. If you couldn’t do it in person, you couldn’t really do it at all,” she says. 

Today, however, she‘s singing a different tune. Though she’s used a hybrid model to test out her studio’s current training plan, the agency is preparing to transition to 90% remote by the fall—and Sally isn’t alone in this plan. Forbes recently reported that 25% of all professional jobs in North America will be fully remote by the end of 2022, citing increased employee productivity and improved mental health as data that’s helped employers make this decision.  

As for Sally, she’s optimistic about how a full pivot to remote training will pan out. "I've learned that if I'm really intentional with the process, it's easier to eventually slink into the distance and let people do their own thing. It just takes some reimagining and a lot of communication."

And while there will always be compromises to make—namely that building rapport and getting up to speed can take longer in a remote setting—there are also upsides that Sally hadn’t considered before. She’s now more explicit about teaching organization tools up front so that there’s less room for error, and she’s finding that not all of her assumptions about in-person training turned out to be true. “The illusion that the physical workspace provided was that because we are together, we are bonded. But proximity is not a bond. We can do higher-quality work with the right tools and with dedicated time to focus.”

Being able to separate the ideas of good training and building rapport has been an important distinction for Sally to make. Team building is still a huge priority, but Sally is looking for ways to make that happen outside of the day-to-day work setting. “We can be intentional about creating these bonding activities that build trust, and we can set aside time for that early on so that we can work when it’s time to work.”