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As someone who has worked remotely for years, I thought that my professional life during the COVID19 outbreak would be largely familiar. Then they closed the schools…

Last Friday the United Kingdom joined the U.S. and other countries in sending its children home for at least the next several weeks. This will bring peace of mind for parents over their children’s health while simultaneously destroying whatever peace of mind they previously enjoyed during the day.

For remote workers – especially those new to the game – there’s a benefit to the kids coming home: they can’t pretend any longer. Quiet kitchens may have seemed a good proxy for the office, but no more.

That’s a good thing. Pretending that working from home and office are the same is a mistake.

Many resources explore the wealth of best practices for the work-from-home revolution, but I want to focus on one bit of advice – that it’s in everyone’s best interest that employees make time for their careers.

If your workforce normally consists of urban commuters, chances are they just got back five hours per week.

It’s going to be all too easy for newly-remote employees to just fold that time into the day, especially in a uniquely chaotic and stressful period. But that’s a mistake.

Organisations should help their employees to resist the natural inclination to lose that time to emails read standing over the sink while wolfing down a bagel that really should have stayed in the toaster another 30 seconds.

Encourage them to use some of that time to consider and advance their career agenda. There are good reasons to do so.

Perhaps most importantly, your organisation can promote employees’ mental well being by giving them control over a forward-looking part of their lives at a time when so much is beyond their control.

It also lets people know that their employer values them and their potential.

Meanwhile, the business enjoys the fruits of their labour, getting a workforce that’s acquired new skills and is motivated to use them.

First, let’s be reasonable and admit that they’re going to have to give at least three hours to laundry, replacing school for the kids (Netflix) and the fresh hell of daily video catch-ups.

Now help them to carve off that second half, say two hours per week, and use it for learning.

Our research can confirm what you already know: it’s not easy to find the time for professional development in the working day, but that learning is a super fuel for a career. It’s good for the individual and their employers because workers who learn move the needle.

In the office environment, people may feel like they don’t have the time to spend on learning, but it’s really about finding the mental space to shift focus from the task in front of them. In these next weeks out of the office, we can help employees get better at dividing up their days and learn that productivity comes from quality of concentration, not logging more hours. 

Fortunately, as a modern HR leader, you can put together a learning programme quickly. The question is how to communicate and help employees prioritise and shape their experience.

One truth that many have learned as they find themselves thrust into the role of home schooler is that the easiest way to get a human being to pay attention is to encourage them to follow their passions.

My daughter is mad for Greek mythology these days, so we’re using it as the basis for reading, art and social studies.

The same applies, even for seasoned professionals. Fortunately, their passions are often in alignment with development goals. It’s our job to make it easy to pursue them.

In this moment, many people are concerned about their positions and careers more broadly. Offering learning programmes can help them feel connected to the organisation, valued and more in control of their destiny.

To help people choose their path with the right balance of freedom and direction, start them thinking about categories of learning instead of specific topics;

1. Future-proofing their career
This is the clearest, easiest path for someone to take. What’s vital for the future and how can they best add to their skills set to match those needs?

This varies wildly by discipline and sector, but some macro-themes pervade business. For example, what is customer experience and how do we get better at it? It’s a question that companies in every sector are struggling with, and careers will be built on helping them answer it.

Whether an employee is a marketer who needs to understand customer data or a financier developing skills in customer lifetime value-based accounting, there is clear value to themselves and their organisation.

2. Advancing their career
This can also be an opportunity for high achievers to think about their future. Smart organisations will be there to help them so their next move is up and not out.

In the marketing discipline I study, getting people ready for their next role often means helping them see how the larger business works. When they start to understand the interplay of investment, return and the interlocking roles of the different functions, their imagination has more room to play and their ambitions expand – for themselves and their teams.

Whether it’s a digital MBA, a virtual mentorship with a senior staffer or a remote management training course, the point is that the company reaches out and pushes them in a direction that benefits them both.

3. Changing their career
Some people may be thinking about real change, whether from one side of a business to another or to a different industry entirely. In this moment of transition for many companies and employees, there’s every reason to help them.

One of the most effective ways to offer learning is to simply give employees a budget and the time to take advantage.

This is a moment of unprecedented challenge in human resources, but there are opportunities as well. For companies that act quickly to create learning paths and make tactical investments in employee development, there’s the chance to build a more skilled workforce and a stronger bond with remote employees.

Stefan Tornquist is SVP of Research and Learning Strategy for Econsultancy.

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