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  • Writer's pictureKim Webster

The Learning Lag on Suddenly Remote Teams (And What Their Leaders Can Do About It)

As so many teams are moving from an office to 100% remote, there are a myriad of ways managers and leaders are adapting to make their new context work, from learning to use Zoom, to increasing their 1:1 check ins, to moving their accountability systems online.

One area that might be overlooked by leaders in this transition is the impact that moving fully remote will have on professional development, learning, and institutional knowledge.

It is widely understood that most professional learning takes place on the job, whether through coaching and mentoring or by doing actual work. The 70/20/10 rule (used across sectors in professional learning and leadership development strategy) says 70% of learning takes place on the job, 20% is through informal or social learning, and 10% is formal through training courses or programs. On remote teams, where there are fewer potential mentoring and coaching moments and greatly reduced informal, on the job peer supports, there is a risk of drastically reducing both the 20% social learning and key supports for the 70% on the job learning. That is a big loss for employees on newly remote teams.

Without the day-to-day casual office interactions & informal connections, it becomes more difficult for remote colleagues to reach out to their peers for small questions, to hear what they are working on, or seek informal mentoring or advice. A small question they might bring up when they bumped into a peer in the hallway does not warrant scheduling a special check in, so they don't bother asking it. If a company has an existing mentoring program that remains intact as a team moves remote, that helps. But even in that case, there are countless informal interactions and discussions between colleagues that cease to exist when there is no shared office space.

Because of this void, newly remote employees may feel they have only two choices when they face a challenge - to either solve a problem on their own or to bring it to their supervisor at their next formal check in, skipping over the steps of first leveraging their peers and other colleagues for support.

This shift can create a learning lag on newly remote teams.

An absence of informal peer learning and mentoring opportunities can have serious consequences, including:

  • Wasted time from "reinventing the wheel" because teammates are unaware of other best practices or institutional knowledge.

  • Overloaded managers becoming a bottleneck when all of their direct reports rely more heavily on their 1:1 support.

  • Dip in morale of remote staff who are feeling isolated from their peers while experiencing limited learning opportunities.

  • Eventually, a lack of internally developed leaders ready to step in and fill your organization's leadership needs of the future.

Leaders of newly remote teams must invest in strategies to support informal learning on remote teams.

To sustain informal learning across distances, remote teams need supports that they did not need in an office environment. Thankfully, there are some low cost, high impact ways for leaders to bolster informal and peer-led learning on remote teams. Some examples include shared virtual resource libraries, functional area or cohort based Slack channels, or virtual lunch and learns.

One strategy I'd like to highlight is starting a Virtual Learning Community. This is like a mastermind group, coaching circle or community of practice that is internal to your organization. It is a space for a cohort of peers to connect, problem solve, collaborate and learn together. Remote participants love this strategy because they often feel isolated and crave the opportunity to learn from and collaborate with others doing similar work.

Here are a few pointers on how to go about establishing a Virtual Learning Community:

  1. Identify Membership - Select a cohort of individuals doing the same role or working at the same level with very similar functions (e.g. managers, frontline staff, etc). Avoid uncomfortable power dynamics by not having supervisors in the same cohort as their direct reports. Keep it to a manageable number - 20 people maximum.

  2. Figure out a meeting schedule - I recommend setting up monthly recurring meeting to start out, and adjust the frequency as needed. One hour per month is a manageable commitment for most employees.

  3. Establish shared ownership - The cohort members themselves are the leaders and owners of the Virtual Learning Community. This may take support at the outset by helping the group establish roles and systems to manage the agenda topics and meeting facilitation. Get out of the way and let the group lead as quickly as possible - this will allow for more leadership opportunities, growth and buy-in from the cohort.

  4. Set up a collaborative environment - A Virtual Learning Community is a space for peers to help each other learn and problem solve. Agree upon norms and processes that lend themselves to discussion and openness. Consider things like requiring all participants to turn on their video to build connections, or banning slide presentations or call recordings so people feel more relaxed, connected and open in the call.

  5. Keep it flexible and relevant - Agenda topics should be generated by the group. This can be done in advance via a quarterly survey or a shared, running topic list. Be sure to Incorporate flexibility in the agenda for tackling timely, relevant issues or dilemmas. And consider making participation in the Virtual Learning Community meetings optional so those who attend are there by choice and invested in learning.

  6. Don't let it replace formal learning - This informal Virtual Learning Community should supplement, not replace, formal coaching from a supervisor and professional development trainings or workshops. Consider it a combination of peer mentoring to support the 20% of learning that is social and informal, and peer-led scaffolding to support the 70% of learning that takes place on the job.

The benefits to launching a Virtual Learning Community on a remote team are many.

It is a very cost effective way to provide informal learning and professional development to a cohort of remote peers. It can be launched and managed completely internally in just a few hours a month, or with the short term support of a facilitator to get it off the ground. It uses existing video conferencing and collaboration technology versus investing in a new system. And it also helps the bottom line by leveraging and sharing institutional knowledge and helping employees avoid wasted time on reinventing the wheel.

A Virtual Learning Community can help your managers' workload by creating another layer of support and learning partners for their direct reports. It provides a peer-led, safe space for participants to ask informal questions or get input on dilemmas they are facing, which can sometimes be enough to resolve the issue before escalating it to their manager.

Finally, it grows leaders. In addition to providing a space for learning from peers within functional areas, a Virtual Learning Community offers built in leadership opportunities which will help grow your bench of internal leaders.

Organizational leaders, as you continue to manage this massive transition to remote work, consider the Virtual Learning Community as a strategy to address your newly remote team's learning lag.


About Kim Webster:

I am a facilitator & coach helping to increase leadership capacity and impact of emerging leaders and teams in purpose-driven companies and organizations. If you need support launching a virtual learning community, improving your team's remote meetings, facilitating a high impact virtual session, or seek individual leadership coaching, please contact me at or on LinkedIn.

I am currently offering FREE 30 minute consultations on remote working - click here to schedule a consultation!

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