Coaching Is Key to Making Virtual Learning ‘Stick’

By Dave Zielinski May 3, 2021

​When the pandemic hit last year, H&R Block had to quickly convert the classroom training and onboarding processes it had relied on for years to virtual delivery. It had to pivot yet again when the IRS extended the typical April 15 tax-filing deadline that the company had built new-hire training schedules around.

The lessons H&R Block and other companies learned from those rapid conversions are being applied in 2021 as corporate learning leaders review the successes and failures of virtual delivery. In many cases, going virtual resulted in positive learning outcomes and welcome cost savings; in others, virtual education fell short of expectations due to a lack of follow-up coaching and practice to reinforce newly learned skills.

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Lessons from Moving Learning Online

H&R Block partnered with learning vendor Inkling to help transfer 74 hours of in-person instruction online for approximately 30,000 new tax professionals across 12,000 locations. The conversion featured a multimodal approach with delivery methods including virtual instructor-led learning, podcasts, videos and online self-study content. Inkling provides clients with a Netflix-like learning library designed to help users easily find the custom content they need.

"When you change your delivery method to virtual, it not only changes the way you develop content but how you need to train instructors," said Steve Guidroz, vice president of human resources for H&R Block, during the recent virtual Spring HR Technology Conference & Exposition. "We had seasoned instructors, but it would be the first time they taught our basic income tax course virtually. So we had to quickly upskill them for this new scenario."

H&R Block gauged the success of going virtual by how quickly it was able to hire and get new tax preparers up to speed, on learning delivery cost savings and on the initiative's impact on the environment.

"We saved $1.6 million in instructor labor costs by leveraging the power of virtual and achieving scale," Guidroz said. "Our previous in-person classes had an average of seven students per class from the local area. We were able to increase that to 30 people per class in our virtual classes since we had people attending from across the country."

Converting tax training materials from print to digital also served a corporate goal to aid the environment. "We reduced our paper consumption by 144 acres of tree farm forest since we're no longer printing documents for in-person training," Guidroz said.

That shift also made it easier and more cost-effective to update or modify regularly changing tax information. "The printed word can sometimes be obsolete by the time it's printed," he said.

Doug Dillard, a learning content developer for Shaw Industries, a flooring manufacturer in Dalton, Ga., also helped his organization move all of its in-person instruction online during the pandemic. Dillard and colleagues used a content-authoring tool from vendor eLearning Brothers to help create self-paced online learning. The company also used Google Meet, Adobe Connect and GoToTraining conferencing technologies to deliver virtual instructor-led learning.

Dillard used eLearning Brothers' course templates, high-resolution images and vector graphics to create learning modules and training videos that modeled various work scenarios. "We are continuing to offer most of our in-person learning online due to social distancing needs and limited class size requirements," Dillard said.

Don't Skimp on Follow-Up Coaching

While virtual learning delivered on its own can boost employee skill or knowledge, recent research has found that without follow-up coaching or skills practice, the impact of that learning can quickly dissipate.

A 2021 study of learning and development professionals by research and advisory firm Gartner, titled Boosting the Impact of Virtual Learning, found that when compared to virtual learning alone, employees were 1.5 times more likely to apply a newly learned skill when they received both virtual learning and coaching together on the skill.

Coaching helps employees better transfer what they learn through virtual training to the job because it helps contextualize teaching that may feel generic and apply it to employees' particular circumstances or tasks, the Gartner study found.

While the idea of post-training coaching sounds good in theory, the study also acknowledges challenges faced by busy managers in finding time to deliver such coaching. The study found some organizations try to ease that managerial burden by using other connections in an employee's network to serve as coaches as well. The learning function at IBM Corp., for example, facilitates those types of connections for employees through a technology platform called CoachMe.

Employees can use the platform to search by skill set for IBM colleagues throughout the company who can share their expertise and help teach them new skills. IBM employees are invited to volunteer as coaches on the platform.

Such platforms also can help employees re-establish connections with peers that weakened or disappeared during the pandemic because of remote work. The Gartner study found that facilitating such connections not only is good for employee well-being but establishing such relationships in a development context also can enable improved skills application.

Employees who reported their team members as effective at developing each other have a 65 percent higher likelihood of applying skills acquired through virtual learning, the Gartner study found.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.



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