Learning on the job when working from home

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The first day in a new office can be disorientating. To help new employees find their way about, US-based customer relationship management provider Salesforce allocates them a ‘trailguide’ to help them learn the basics.

“The bathrooms are here, the kitchen is there, these are the regular lunch restaurants we use – all of that useful information that your manager may not think to cover,” says Terri Moloney, senior director for employee success.

But for most of this year, many of those starting new jobs have already known their way around their workplace, as they also live there. So companies, including Salesforce, have been adapting their support for those who join while working from home, providing alternatives to face-to-face chats with colleagues. Like the mass adoption of homeworking, some of these changes look likely to remain long after Covid-19 has been tamed.

One issue for new homeworkers is getting to know colleagues without meeting them. “It’s a real challenge in the current circumstances where people are all working remotely to get relationships built up,” says Moloney.

Salesforce has adapted its trailguide scheme, which involves a member of staff who is not a manager getting in touch with a new hire regularly over their first 90 days. They still cover some of the same ground, including organisational structure, when meeting remotely.

But the company has taken advantage of the fact that they are not in the same location to adapt the scheme. Managers used to choose trailguides who worked in the same office as the new hire, but now select people doing a similar job, in some cases in another country.

Moloney says Salesforce is likely to retain this when offices reopen, as someone in a similar role is likely to be a better mentor. “The trailguide concept has been elevated a level in the virtual world to become a key piece of new hires’ onboarding [induction process],” she says.

Something similar has happened with Salesforce’s regular events for new employees, held twice a month to coincide with the company’s employment start dates. It has combined those run by individual country offices into pan-European events, allowing them to be broader.

The company has a virtual training programme, Trailhead, which includes less formal material such as troubleshooting techniques provided by staff and collated and published by a global team. To provide an alternative way to question colleagues, it uses internal messaging and collaboration system Chatter, with a recently expanded ‘new hires’ community page and hundreds of other groups. “That’s another way of sharing information, tips and hints,” says Moloney.

Buddy system

Software automation provider Puppet has had an advantage this year in helping new hires working from home: it started six years ago. A consultant advising the company on dealing with staff based outside its headquarters in Portland in the US recommended organising new employees into cohorts based on three broad time-zones.

Those joining the company spend their first week on the Puppet Start scheme, which allocates them a ‘buddy’. A quarter of the company’s staff already worked remotely full-time before the pandemic, but like Salesforce, it has used the fact that everyone is working this way to allocate buddies across national boundaries.

It’s a real challenge in the current circumstances where people are all working remotely to get relationships built up
Terri Moloney, Salesforce

As well as tweaking what it already had in place, the company has added troubleshooting conversations for new employees with human resources after 30, 60 and 90 days. For the end of the year, it is planning virtual social events for groups of around 20 to 30 people, which might involve an online escape room or a class on making cocktails.

“They don’t totally emulate what an in-office or in-person party would feel like, but they are still really special and give employees a fun opportunity to connect with each other,” says Laura Nichols, Puppet’s director for global workplace services.

Virtual first

Some companies are planning for most work to take place remotely in future, including US-based file host service operator Dropbox, which in October announced its intention to go ‘virtual-first’.

“We had some reservations about a hybrid model because you get two very different employee experiences that could result in issues with inclusion or inequities with respect to performance or career trajectory,” says its global head of channels, Simon Aldous. With most people working remotely, new starters doing likewise will be included in the conversation, he adds.

Dropbox runs a two-day initial induction, held virtually since the start of the pandemic, followed by training and networking events over the first 90 days. It has also set up virtual ways to build relationships such as CoffeeBox, designed to recreate chats with colleagues in coffee shops.

“We randomly assign a Zoom room with four other Dropboxers to casually connect,” says Aldous. The company has also run more open forums and ‘at home’ chats with its leaders.

It also plans to turn existing office space it rents in San Francisco, Seattle, Austin and Dublin into Dropbox Studios, designed for collaboration such as team meetings and group events and with no desks for individual working. In other countries, it will use on-demand facilities to host these. When this is possible again, the studios will be used for new employees to meet their manager during their induction period.

Online training

Online training services may have filled some of the gaps in helping people get used to new jobs during the pandemic. US-based digital learning provider Skillsoft saw a 351% increase in accesses to its Percipio courses between March and October, and a 258% increase in hours spent on the system.

Agata Nowakowska, the company’s vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), says that some customers have extended their licences, including to cover all staff. It offers courses on how to work effectively from home, but some customers have used its services to help move staff to new roles, with customer Deutsche Telekom using it to help retrain shop-based employees.

But it is hard for any formal training to emulate the way in which offices can work as informal classrooms where recent employees learn from those around them, particularly if they are new to the job as well as the employer. “70% of learning is on the job,” says Garry Goldman, head of learning and development for Colchester-based business software provider Access Group.

To help digitise such peer-to-peer learning, Access encourages its expert staff to create bite-sized morsels of learning, using its own eCreator product. “It’s like sharing that informal conversation,” says Goldman. “You can capture that tacit knowledge.” Staff can also set up game-style quizzes using its Gamebrain product to test colleagues’ knowledge, with several hundred in place.

Get people to have virtual coffees using Teams, Zoom or whatever their preferred tool is. That plays a massive part in employee education
Garry Goldman, Access Group

It can become difficult to navigate a mass of in-house generated training material. Access Group uses its learning management system to create plans for specific individuals and has recommendation lists created by staff. In the future, it plans to generate automatic recommendations based on training people have already found useful.

Goldman, who has specialised in workplace learning for nearly two decades for several blue-chip companies, says learning from home is “fundamentally different” than what takes place in a workplace. This is partly because spontaneous conversations are much harder, although some have moved to chat functions in applications including Microsoft Teams and Slack.

To take this further, he says organisations should encourage social learning. “Get people to have virtual coffees using Teams, Zoom or whatever their preferred tool is,” he says. “That does play a massive part in an employee’s education.”

Catching up over coffee

Katya Linossi, chief executive of London-based workplace software supplier ClearPeople, is another fan of beverage-based virtual meetings. She runs half-hour digital coffee catch-ups twice a week with her senior leadership team, designed for informal interaction and quick questions and answers, and thinks this is a good model for new starters to use. “It’s become part of the rhythm of the business,” she says.

She reckons that some of the most interesting on-the-job training takes place during “water-cooler moments”, where people overhear or chat to colleagues they have no usual reason to interact with. “We can’t recreate all of them, but we can replicate them to some extent,” says Linossi. One way is to set up taskforces that involve people from a range of departments working towards a particular outcome, partly to encourage ideas to circulate more widely.

ClearPeople also runs hour-long knowledge-sharing sessions which all staff are encouraged to join, covering how a project went or a hot topic. The company used to encourage attendance by laying on beers and drinks for those in the office, but had already made them available through Microsoft Teams as well. It is moving all of its formal meetings to Teams-first, so that those who continue to work remotely post-Covid do not feel left out.

For specific questions, ClearPeople runs a company-wide ‘ask anything’ service using Microsoft’s Yammer chat software. Linossi says it has proved useful to encourage a few key people to monitor questions, either to answer themselves or pass them to those who can. In time, she thinks this will become self-sustaining. “It’s a bit like social media. If you see people answering, you get drawn in,” she says. The company also uses its own Atlas software to manage a list of frequently answered questions.

Linossi says that technology can be used to share knowledge more widely, which should particularly help introverted people who can feel uncomfortable asking questions face-to-face. It can also help share decisions across the organisation as well as allow meetings to be recorded and transcripted.

But there are still some things that work best face-to-face. In May, ClearPeople decided staff will continue to work from home permanently, but like Dropbox it will retain a physical office for collaborative and creative activities.

“There are some things that it’s easier to do without thinking about,” Linossi says. “When you’re going digital, you need to think a lot more and plan a lot more.” Doing so itself requires training on the likes of running online meetings, including ways to get all participants engaged and ready to contribute.

Despite the range of digital communications methods, which she thinks have made the company more effective and agile, Linossi says there are some things that don’t work when working from home: “It’s the general random chit-chat I miss the most.”

While there is a lot that employers can do to help new members of staff learn a job while working from home, it looks likely that learning about their colleagues will still work best when they are in the same room.

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