Restructuring Professional Development in a Work-from-Home Economy
Dec 17, 2020
BY WILLIAM THALLEMER
Heraclitus once stated that “the only constant in life is change.”
As a change management specialist, I find that there are always opportunities to be innovative during times of great change. As a 15-year work-from-home employee, I have seen many people acquire a fondness for working from home during the COVID-19 event. Recently in my professional circles, we have discussed the real possibility that most employees will not want to return to the office space after working from home for so long due to this change event. As a result, L&D leaders will need to think about how they are going to alter their delivery of professional development for work-from-home employees.
REMOTE VERSUS WORK-FROM-HOME
One of the first things L&D leaders should understand is the difference between the terms “remote” and “work- from-home.” The term “remote” connotes a lonely, distant, and physically away-from-everything type of environment. This is cold and business-like, in terms of how employees might view being assigned this term. They may feel they are not a contributor or not valued as a team member and are viewed as just a number within the organization.
Conversely, the term “work-from-home” conjures up visions of productive employees who are fortunate enough to work from their happy and secure homes. It is warm and friendly, yet still assigns value and connectivity to the employee. I have always found that employees prefer to be assigned the term “work-from-home” rather than “remote.”
Some of the many benefits of working from home include fewer colleague-driven distractions, more work getting accomplished, and the elimination of the headaches and inconvenience of traveling to and from work. As far as professional development is concerned, the changing work environment provides either a new challenge for L&D leaders or an opportunity for innovation. Let’s look at the opportunity for innovation that transforms the current state to the future state.
CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR WORK-FROM-HOME L&D
In my work as an AMA facilitator, I hear from leadership participants that they oversee employees who complain that they don’t have enough time to complete the many required tasks for their current jobs, so they have very little time for professional development. Some have not identified career pathways for their next professional position, while others seem to be happy right where they are in organizational life, challenging L&D leaders with a variance of levels to professional development. Many employees are reluctant to advocate for their own development and the opportunities for mentoring, job shadowing, and upskilling are slim at best within organizations. The term “professional development” seems to have been assigned only to high-performing leadership programs within organizations.
The future of L&D should include some innovative approaches that engage employees and make efficient use of their newly discovered free time to help them develop professionally. You ask, “What extra free time?” With the reduction in lunch hours, colleague interruptions, and general workplace inefficiencies, there is extra time for employees to reflect and create an action plan for their professional development future.
The pathway for L&D leaders should include three stages: Reframe, Transition, and Encourage.
While working from home, employees can experience influences outside the organization daily that can frame their professional development choices. Influences such as social media, TV, radio, and the ambience of home can be used as leverage to gain some true insight into what drives them and where they want to go.
In the first stage, Reframe, reach out to the employee and ask him or her two questions: “What is your professional life passion?” and then “If you had all the time in the world, what would you professionally develop first?”
The object of this stage is to get employees to remove themselves from the current state—thinking about professional development—to the future state of what stokes their fire professionally.
When I facilitate the AMA course Expanding Your Influence: Understanding the Psychology of Persuasion, leaders learn about what is behind choices psychologically. When leaders address employee passion and what is psychologically behind those choices, they get a front-row view of the disconnect between current job skills/tasks-based professional development plans and employee passion. Too many L&D professionals equate passion with job skills/tasks, and that is shortsighted and superficial. When you identify an employee’s passion, you have a pathway to creating an engaged employee who can be self-directed toward professional development goals.
The second question helps you to prioritize where employees want to develop first. In another AMA course that I facilitate, Preparing for Leadership: What It Takes to Take the Lead, leaders take a self-assessment titled “What Followers Expect from Their Leaders.” I listen to leaders who lose employees because they do not understand what employees want from the people in charge. Leaders who do not know what employees want result in unengaged employees who lack passion for their jobs and career plans.
Employees’ feeling of disengagement can go straight back to their college years. Those who are looking to be engineers, doctors, and IT professionals find that colleges make them take two years of “core” classes that have nothing to do with their program choice. As a result, they are bored, unengaged, and frustrated. And we tend to do the same thing as colleges when we create professional development plans for employees.
To counter this disengagement, we must seek to find what pathway employees prioritize. Do they want to manage people? Do they want to be an individual contributor? Do they want to ascend into the traditional vertical of moving from manager, to supervisor, to VP, to SVP? Or do they want to be the best individual in the role they’re currently in? These are important questions that will help “reframe” how they feel about professional development and prioritize where they want to begin their journey.
In the new work-from-home world, the term “transition” is powerful because of the recent transition experience from a work-from-office to a work-from-home employee. If you are a smart L&D director, you have scheduled professional development for managers and employees on how to manage and function in a work-from-home environment. There are many differences between someone who works-from-office and someone who works-from-home, such as dress code, work schedule, mental and physical fitness, and work priorities.
For example, as a veteran of working from home, I have changed my schedule during the week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and then 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. I was extremely productive as I ran and did my mental exercises in the morning and began the day with amazing energy! This allowed me to have more balance in my life, which was one of my professional development goals.
In the Transition stage, you are transitioning from traditional professional development processes to more one-on-one conversations, FaceTime, and Zoom meetings where the plan becomes continuous instead by quarterly, biannually, or yearly. This transition applies to “how” you are coaching professional development. You are using continuous and meaningful conversations to create a fluid and active document that adapts to the engaged employee. As the L&D leader, you become a coach, encourager, and celebrator of all professional development achievements. Work-from- home employees are more likely to share and engage when you connect due to their semi-isolation from office humanity.
When I facilitate the AMA course Coaching: A Strategic Tool for Effective Leadership, I find that the five foundational skills— “Be an ethical, inspiring role model,” “Learn and embody the Platinum Rule,” “Build a culture of trust,” “Become an excellent listener,” and “Understand the nuances of having a dialogue”—strongly support the Transition stage.
The Platinum Rule is an offshoot of the Golden Rule, and it states, “Treat others as they want to be treated.” This is where active listening and discovering an employee’s passion and priorities come into play. Trust is everything in a relationship, and as you “coach” employees more and seek continued dialogue about professional development passion, you will develop a deeper level of trust with employees. This bleeds right into being an excellent listener. Conversely, the ability to create deep and meaningful dialogue is paramount to gaining and sustaining trust.
The Transition stage is a mindset that continues from the Reframe stage as both the L&D leader and employee are transitioning from the current state to the future state, driven by the employee’s passion and priorities. The work-from- home environment can give employees more “reflection” time concerning their future. L&D leaders should “coach” employees a little harder about defining their passion and priorities with their newly gained reflection time. Push them to think deeper about the reasons behind “why” this is their passion and “why” these are their priorities so that you gain a more true understanding about what drives their professional development needs.
When you are an ethical and inspiring role model, it sets you up for the final stage—encouragement through leading by example.
The third stage, Encourage, allows the L&D leader to support employees through failures or less-than- stellar performances and celebrate their wins and accomplishments. In a work-from-home environment, there are so many creative ways to celebrate with employees. Look around you these days—what type of creative celebrations do you see? People are having drive-by birthday celebrations, Zoom happy hours, emoji parties, and social media celebrations through Twitter and Facebook. Who would have thought that these would become a thing? Innovation can come from events such COVID-19.
In the Encourage stage, you can connect like-minded professional development employees and use the team- based approach to keep them motivated. For example, I see many people begin their fitness journey in a gym on January 1 as their New Year’s resolution. By February 1, I see less than half of them in the gym. Those who are still there are either self-directed or have found gym “buddies” who encourage each other when their motivation is waning. You can use this same strategy for work-from-home employees who share similar passions and priorities. The key for this stage is to use the work-from-home scenario as leverage for sustaining professional development engagement.
Events such as COVID-19 need to be truly viewed as innovative opportunities for L&D professionals. This innovation includes the relabeling of employees as “work-from-home,” and the reframing of the professional development world to include employee passions and priorities, the transitioning of variable work hours and how L&D leaders deliver professional development through continuous conversations, and the way L&D leaders sustain professional development through encouragement and team strategies.
As global episodic events such as COVID-19 occur in our lifetime, we should be agile enough to make changes on the fly. One of the astonishing parts of this event was how quickly it happened and how fast everyone had to transition to a new normal. In my years as a change management professional, I have found that the faster a change occurs, the faster people adopt it. The slower the change, the slower the adoption and weaker the sustainability of the change. Work on being a proactive leader during these times and not a reactionary who doesn’t see the opportunity for innovation and enhancing an ineffective process.
Until the next global innovation opportunity…be well and be ready!
About the Author: William Thallemer, PhD, formerly served as a VP of sales and has held other senior leadership positions. He has been facilitating leadership courses now for more than 15 years, and his greatest passion is developing new, mid-level, and senior leaders who coach and develop other leaders. He specializes in building high-performing teams.