Several people of different ethnic backgrounds communicate with a woman from HR for online employee training
iStock/Oleksandra Klestova

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When the Japanese government declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19 in April 2020, HR departments around the country were left scrambling. April is the season when new recruits in Japan start work, but the government’s recommendations against commuting and gathering in large groups meant that long-planned training programs had to be canceled, postponed, or hastily moved online.

Even now, more than a year and a half into the pandemic, HR professionals often struggle to plan and manage online employee training for the remote-work era.

Shota Nakano, who heads GLOBIS’s online corporate training, believes now is the time for companies to rethink employee education. He shared his thoughts with GLOBIS Insights on trends in online employee training and the crucial points to keep in mind for designing and implementing a successful program.

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How to Tailor Online Training to a Pandemic World

GLOBIS Insights: How has the pandemic changed your clients’ training needs?

Shota Nakano: To be honest, even before COVID-19, we’d been receiving an increasing number of inquiries about making training available online. Some major companies were promoting remote work ahead of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics to deal with anticipated restrictions on public transit. Then last April, when Japan’s state of emergency started, both new and existing clients started asking for help in new ways.

In the past, online training was rarely part of the discussion unless we suggested it. Now it’s automatically one of the options.

Insights: So most companies are investing in online employee training programs?

Nakano: It’s just a feeling, but I’d say that company responses to employee development during the pandemic have been split 2-6-2. That means 20% made a quick decision to move training online, 60% delayed for a while before biting the bullet, and the remaining 20% scrapped training altogether. Often the cancelations have been to save money, since revenues have fallen for many businesses because of COVID-19.

It can be a hard decision to spend money on online training during a downturn. But we can learn from history. Some believe companies that invested in human resource development during the global financial crisis from 2008 to 2010 did better during the subsequent recovery than those that didn’t invest. Even if you reduce your headcount, it makes sense to develop your employees’ core competencies.

How to Bring the Face-to-Face Benefits Online

Insights: How about the quality of learning delivered by online employee training? Many people still think face-to-face training is the best method. They seem to see online programs as a second-rate alternative.

Nakano: That’s true if you try to replicate face-to-face methods online. But in-person and online training have different strengths, and it’s important to design your program with this in mind. If you do that, you can create something that encourages participants to think for themselves and produce output that improves their practical abilities. GLOBIS has been developing online training for more than six years, and this is exactly the kind of know-how we put into our programs.

Insights: Can you give us some examples?

Nakano: Well, in face-to-face training, often a few people do most of the talking. The instructor asks a question, participants raise their hands, and the person designated by the instructor answers.

Online, we use functions like chat and “agree/disagree” buttons. So for instance, we’ll ask everyone to respond to a question in the chat window. That creates more opportunities for output than you’d get in an in-person session. The instructor can pick up on the most interesting responses and say, “Ms. So-and-so, please elaborate on your point.” Then the instructor can ask participants to use the “agree/disagree” button to evaluate the explanation. By taking steps like this to deepen the discussion, it’s possible to create a more inclusive place for learning.

We’re also changing our facilitation style to be more online oriented. In order to keep participants focused, we ask questions in small increments to try and maximize the number of interactive exchanges, and we make use of visuals like slides.

Since it can be more difficult to grasp the mood of the group in an online session, the lecturer keeps a close eye on everyone’s faces on the screen to gauge their reactions. For this reason, we use multiple computer screens for each session. Some instructors take to this more easily than others. Even the best “real-world” teachers might need to update their skills to teach online—they need training, too! So we do a lot of research and information gathering when designing our programs.

Nine people use like and comment functions during online employee training
The subtle power of the like button is often overlooked in the benefits of online employee training. | iStock/Oleksandra Klestova

3 Big Benefits Exclusive to Online Employee Training

Insights: What are the biggest advantages of online employee training compared to face-to-face programs?

Nakano: When it comes to online education, there are upsides and downsides for both companies and employees. I see three advantages for companies and their HR departments.

First, costs can be greatly reduced—and then redirected. I know of one large company that trains thousands of employees. They saved almost 10 million yen a year with online training, thanks to reductions in transportation, accommodation, etc. That money then went to developing new training programs that helped them retool their operational processes across the business.

Second, online training equalizes opportunities for skill development, regardless of location or working style. Training shouldn’t just be for employees at headquarters. People in branch offices, those in overseas divisions, or those who work short hours or telecommute can join online as well.

Third, online training reduces the HR workload. There’s no need to compile physical teaching materials, set up the venue, or travel to the event. In many cases, this is a secondary benefit that HR staff don’t think about initially. But we’ve received feedback saying how much easier online programs are to implement. A learning management system handles the submission of assignments, and recordings can be provided. So if someone is unable to attend on the day of the training, you catch them up later.

How to Work through the Downside of Online Training

Insights: So there are benefits of online training for both organizers and participants.

Nakano: Oh, yes. The big advantage for participants is that they don’t need to travel. Minimizing that time away from work is a big plus. Also, as I mentioned, participants benefit from online-specific ways of interacting and learning. Chat functions and “agree/disagree” buttons lower hurdles to speaking up, and that increases feedback. There are more opportunities to be exposed to other people’s opinions and ideas.

Insights: What about downsides of online training? There must be something.

Nakano: Well, if the advantage is that people don’t have to get together, that’s also a disadvantage—people can’t get together! Sometimes, the purpose of training is not only to develop skills, but also to help staff get to know each other and talk about other matters on the sidelines. You have to account for that. There are ways of doing online get-togethers after training sessions, but they don’t happen spontaneously. HR needs to plan them.

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How to Ensure Your Online Training Is Successful

Insights: Finally, what are some points that companies should be aware of when implementing online employee training?

Nakano: To make real-world training successful, you need to take time beforehand to thoroughly inform participants of the background and intent of the training. The same is true for online training.

Companies use online education with many different intentions. Maybe they want to provide skill development opportunities for more staff, or maybe the president has announced a company-wide shift to digital, which includes training. It’s good to make these things clear from the start. Especially if it’s the first time that training is being conducted online, be sure you convey the company’s approach and reasoning. That’s the only way to get people onboard and create a positive atmosphere.

Looking to the future, online training is becoming a standard part of the HR professional’s toolkit. Ultimately, good worker education is about designing training programs that make the best use of the chosen format, whether it’s in-person or online, to meet the company’s objectives.

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