How two agencies are approaching employee training in a hybrid work setting

Agencies are thinking about ways to boost employee engagement in a hybrid workforce, with more interactions and shorter learning sessions.

As federal employees face an inflection point for the future of hybrid work, some chief learning officers are thinking about the next steps for what a hybrid setting will mean for employee training.

Hybrid work environments, often called distributed teams, with employees collaborating across different physical locations, have continued since the start of the pandemic. Keeping employees engaged in those settings can be challenging, though, especially when it comes to federal training and learning sessions, managed by agencies’ chief learning officers.

“Running a 40-hour in-person class is not the same when you transition it to a virtual delivery,” Joellen Jarrett, chief learning officer and director of organizational effectiveness for the Small Business Administration, said July 21 at an ACT-IAC event. “Having someone sit for 40 hours and stare at a screen with no interaction, no whiteboard [and] no ability to do anything besides listen, does not promote learning from an adult learning perspective.”

Avoiding burnout, improving productivity and helping employees feel included are all goals that chief learning officers are trying to implement for hybrid training and learning sessions. Jarrett said her agency works to make the sessions more interactive for employees.

“We’ve really tried hard to make sure we are building in that motivation piece, that engagement piece, [by providing] opportunities for them to poll, whiteboard or even bring folks back together to reengage in the learning, so that we keep it alive in their minds, and it doesn’t just become an event,” she said.

The efforts to improve hybrid learning and training for federal employees comes as many agencies confront a critical point for how to engage their workers. The Partnership for Public Service, together with the Boston Consulting Group, recently released the annual rankings for the 2021 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government, which showed the steepest year-over-year decline in the rankings’ history for employee engagement and satisfaction.

“Agencies scored only 40.1 on the question that asked whether ‘the results of this survey will be used to make my agency a better place to work,’ a 2.8 point drop from 2020 and the lowest scoring question on the survey overall … indicating lower employee confidence in the willingness of agency leaders to take responsive actions when employees provide their feedback,” the Partnership wrote in its findings.

Trying to continuously get feedback from employees is a challenge of its own, but the input is essential for making decisions, Jarrett said.

“Survey fatigue is real. It does happen. There have been so many well-meant surveys out, because we need employees to plug in and give us feedback on lots of different things with regard to future work,” she said.

Employees are more likely to take a survey if they feel strongly, whether that’s positively or negatively, said LaJuan Bryan-Beveridge, chief learning officer at the Department of Commerce. A lot of voices in the middle get left out, meaning agencies could get skewed survey results. But she said creating employee communities and regularly holding conversations are additional ways to gather feedback.

“We’re going through a shift and change, just like the employees are going through a shift and change. Trying to define what their needs are and meet them at the individual level can be a challenge,” Bryan-Beveridge said at the ACT-IAC event. “That’s why we create these communities, so that we can have these conversations. I had three employee communities to talk about policies [and] new initiatives, just to hear their voices.”

To add to the feedback, Jarrett said she has incorporated additional questions in employee surveys to ask how they learn best in training sessions.

“Surprisingly, face-to-face [interaction] is not at the top of the list,” she said. Rather, the more important piece is having interactions in the first place.

In the training community, one key challenge was also encouraging employees to take the time out of their days to go to training and focus on professional development. To alleviate the issue, Jarrett said she tried to include more shorter sessions.

“The biggest impediment to engagement has been the workload,” Jarrett said. “We have continued to try to do things like reducing the amount of time, focusing more on ‘micro-engagements’ and giving people some more ‘just-in-time’ options, so that we can mitigate the [idea that] ‘I don’t have time to learn,’” Jarrett said.

With hybrid work settings now very common for agencies, technology can also be an asset to employee engagement, Bryan-Beveridge said, by increasing and encouraging communication.

“We do have some positives about being in a hybrid environment,” she said. “We’re looking at the federal coaching program, for example. [Technology] gave them an opportunity to increase the number of people that they were able to train because it was virtual.”

Additionally, many federal employees tend to favor job opportunities that include maximum telework. At a July 21 hearing for the government operations subcommittee of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, management officials from the Biden administration said telework has increased employee engagement.

“A key lesson from recent years is that workplace flexibility, such as telework, remote work and hybrid work schedules help ensure federal operations continue in the face of disruptions and improve employee engagement and morale,” said Kiran Ahuja, director of the Office of Personnel Management.

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