Higher take-up, better outcomes and significant cost savings have made online learning a success for a regional broadband provider.
When the first Covid-19 lockdown restrictions were introduced in the UK in March 2020, the immediate priority for Hull-based broadband provider KCOM was the same as for most other businesses – keeping staff and customers safe and vital services running.
But once employees had been set up to work from home and Covid-secure working practices were in place to allow engineers to keep building and maintaining KCOM’s fibre network, other challenges arose.
Among these was making sure employees could continue to take part in learning and development (L&D) activities that, pre-pandemic, would normally have been delivered in person by KCOM’s in-house L&D team.
“Until March 2020, almost all of our learning and development activities, from inductions to skills workshops and personal development sessions, took place in face-to-face settings, usually in off-site venues,” explained KCOM’s learning and development manager, Hayley Petfield.
“As well as the benefits of having everyone fully focused on learning without the distraction of their day-to-day work, running L&D sessions in person, away from the office, gave employees a chance to network with colleagues and made it easy for us to include activities based on experiential or group learning.
“So, when the first lockdown was announced our initial reaction was simply to postpone all the L&D events scheduled for the weeks ahead, thinking we would restart them when normal life had resumed.”
However, with the pandemic itself triggering new training needs almost immediately, it soon became clear that a different solution was required.
Learning and development consultant Bernice Casserly said: “KCOM’s leadership team wanted to make sure employees had all the support they needed, not just to adapt to new ways of working but also with other challenges such as juggling home and work commitments, the prospect of financial difficulties and other potential causes of stress such as isolation or bereavement.
“So, just a week after the first lockdown began, we held our first online learning session for managers, covering tips and advice to help them support their teams.”
With this session well-attended, others quickly followed, with feedback from each session used to improve and refine delivery techniques and content over time.
“We spent a lot of time researching the best way to facilitate online learning, attending webinars ourselves and talking to our contacts in the L&D world to find out what others were doing,” said Hayley.
“Within six weeks of the start of lockdown we moved our usual face-to-face induction and networking event online. We weren’t sure what to expect but I remember thinking afterwards ‘That was really good!’”
Bernice added: “It gave us the opportunity to deliver more content that we’d usually be able to – and the other great thing about taking it online is we can run it more frequently, so new starters don’t have to wait so long before attending an induction session.
“From there, it was a natural progression to move all our existing L&D offerings online, from our Manager Essentials modules, which we’ve adapted from a one-day workshop to three, two-hour sessions, to our leadership development courses, which we previously never could have imagined running as anything other than an in-person, off-site course.”
Feedback from employees who have taken part in online L&D sessions has been overwhelmingly positive. Take-up has increased too, in part because there is no longer any need for employees to spend valuable time travelling to attend courses.
And the switch to digital has also had a positive impact on KCOM’s bottom line, with significant cost savings made on travel, accommodation and training venue costs.
All this success means KCOM’s L&D team has no plans to return to old ways of working.
“As with the many other things the pandemic has affected, we’ve been on a real journey with this and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved,” said Hayley.
“Moving learning and development online means we’re able to deliver so much more for colleagues and the business – and along the way we’ve developed our own skills as L&D professionals, which is an added bonus.
“I would encourage any business to embrace online learning – there are just so many benefits waiting to be unlocked and having experienced them, we can’t imagine going back to how we used to do things.”
Top tips from Hayley and Bernice:
Get the group size right
“We found groups of 8-10 people worked best for providing plenty of different viewpoints and giving everyone a chance to get involved. With more than that there’s a risk people will switch off and be tempted to be distracted by other work.”
“To achieve the same levels of engagement as you can in person you need to be creative with your content – you can’t just take what you did before and deliver it online; you have to work harder at making it interactive. We always include a breakout activity where colleagues can put the theory they’ve learned into practice. And two hours online is a long time so we always schedule a proper break.”
Cameras need to be on
“Businesses vary in their use of technology and at the start of lockdown many KCOM employees preferred to keep their cameras off. It was quite a challenge to encourage them to switch them on, and we took a gentle approach to this, but we found people had a much better experience and said they enjoyed the courses more with their cameras on. It might seem like a small thing but it’s important.”
Presentation skills still matter – and the right equipment can help
“Just as in a live setting, your body language can affect how engaging – or not – you are, but online there are other things to think about too. You can’t afford the risk of people switching off because they can’t hear or see you properly so make sure your technology works well. Something as simple as a selfie light can make a real difference to the overall experience.”
Keep an open mind – and keep looking for ways to improve
“At the start of the pandemic we thought there were some courses we just couldn’t offer online. We were wrong about that, and it’s taught us not to rule anything out. Now, instead of thinking of online learning as the second-best option, we look at the opportunities it gives us to do everything we used to do, but in a different and better way.”