Employee Development Still Matters. Here’s How To Get It Right

6 August 2020

This time of year, early summer, my team usually gears up to attend the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) annual conference and expo. We affectionately call the conference the “center of the HR universe,” an electric atmosphere buzzing with best-practice conversations and industry talk. Last year more than 20,000 HR professionals attended 200 sessions, met with 600 exhibitors and listened to celebrity keynotes speakers like Martha Stewart and Brené Brown. But this year, SHRM is canceled, just like other major industry conferences.

While these cancelations are essential to public health and wellness, they also mean that employees are missing out on valuable professional growth opportunities. Here’s the good news: Conferences and networking events may be on hiatus, but with simple virtual solutions, your team’s professional development doesn’t have to be.

Why Professional Development Matters Now More Than Ever

In recent years, I’ve noted a growing reluctance for companies to invest in employee development, including conference attendance. I believe this reluctance is driven by the belief that shrinking employee tenure means any development costs beyond the most essential are a bad investment. Unfortunately, conference cancelations due to the pandemic make it even easier for companies to justify skipping over employee development. That’s a mistake.

In this unprecedented moment, we’re all facing uncharted territory. Strong connections are essential for sharing best practices and developing more flexible, nimble and resilient organizations. Here’s how to help your team build theirs with virtual networking, leadership training and industry best practices.

Virtual Professional Development Opportunities

1. Formalize mentorships within your company.

If your company has an ad hoc mentoring program, now is the time to take this to the next level. A structured approach improves employee buy-in, defines mentor/mentee relationship expectations and establishes a consistent communication cadence. HR may wish to take on the role of matchmaker, working with division leaders to pair up mentors/mentees and set recurring calendar invites for weekly or biweekly virtual “coffee dates” or check-ins.

Consider your program goals: Is mentorship about coaching young associates to sharpen a set of skills or strategic thinking? Is this a reverse mentorship, where junior employees are gaining leadership confidence by mentoring more senior employees? Mentor/mentee relationships can be all these things and more. Your mission is to provide enough structure to nurture the relationship without constraining possibilities for growth.

2. Establish virtual employee discussion groups.

Even as states reopen, employees may still be feeling the effects of stay-at-home orders and missing co-worker camaraderie. Virtual discussion groups meet this desire for strong connections and are an opportunity for best-practice conversations about topics like leadership, time management and productivity hacks. Employees may already do this informally, such as passing around the latest industry thought pieces via a long-running email chain.

Just like with mentoring, formalizing these discussion groups encourages participation and consistent engagement. Like a book club, discussion group participants choose an article (or article series) to read, sending out thought-starter questions in advance. A good starting point is business and management-focused publications, such as HBR, or industry-focused publications, such as HR Magazine. If this is a companywide initiative, establish cross-departmental groups for a wider range of perspectives and experiences. Cross-departmental groups also help employees build ties with co-workers they usually don’t interact with day-to-day and who they are even more disconnected from in a work-from-home world.

3. Organize an internal ‘industry conference.

Disappointed to be missing the big annual conference? Create your own. Choose a theme that’s relevant to your team’s learning needs, and assign topics. Depending on your team’s current workload, designate one morning or afternoon as the conference, and have team members lead mini sessions on key topics. For example, an HR team might look at remote work challenges, with topics such as virtual interview best practices, virtual onboarding and employee engagement, and return-to-work protocol.

Combine short presentations with guided Q&As. To simplify preparation, leverage existing conference resources where possible. SHRM, for example, is offering advanced digital exclusives to attendees who sign up for their 2021 conference. You could also explore big-picture topics like, “What’s next for the future of work?” and “Does the workplace still matter?”

4. Consider virtual leadership tools.

Virtual leadership tools and employee development platforms make it easier for organizations to offer impactful training anytime, anywhere, but are they worth the investment for your company? A variety of virtual options are available, from formal online courses to AI-powered apps with push notifications to remind participants about best practices. A lot goes into choosing a solution, from practical considerations such as price and licensing fees to platform content and ease of use. Effective solutions put the end user first by adapting to a range of learning styles and considering how users will integrate the tool into the natural rhythm of their workday.

Ready to test the waters? Start by conducting a needs analysis so everyone is on the same page about solution requirements and expectations, and then demo options with a pilot group before a wider company rollout. Compared with the other development opportunities on this list, a full-scale virtual tool rollout will have a much longer implementation timeline. Get this right, however, and you’ll be setting teams up for remote learning success no matter what the future holds.