Delivering Development in a Virtual World

January 7, 2021
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COVID-19 has forced businesses to pause and ask what their customers need in this new environment and how to best deliver. New strategies beg for a different kind of talent and a redefining of roles and thus the need to breathe fresh air into the talent development frame and conversation. Leaders now need to make good on the promise of developing people for career and life success versus success in the siloed role they were hired for.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

Despite the business imperative for creating real-time development plans and pathways, employees are feeling neglected, and managers are realizing they’ve dropped the ball on talent development. Why is this happening? Gone are the days of managers gathering feedback on performance and impact at the coffee pot or by dropping by a colleague’s office.  These days, talent development conversations have to be done with more intentionality than ever before. Carving out time for meaningful talent-development conversations requires conscious effort and time; time that is becoming less and less available given the way people’s workdays are hijacked with Zoom calls. Less real-time interaction combined with less peer feedback leads to less-meaningful mentorship.

Leveraging the Virtual Environment for Talent Development

While the current situation may feel like it’s making purposeful talent development evermore challenging, a virtual office can actually be a boon to talent development in these ways:

  1. The virtual workplace may actually be a better environment for one-on-one conversations away from the distractions of the office or being overheard.  In many ways, it’s more focused and potentially more intense. Video conferencing into our homes provides a window into the personal side of life that hasn’t been visible before. The artifice of professionalism and being on one’s best behavior—putting on one’s game face—has been stripped away to some degree.  It’s a great equalizer, leveling the playing field and opening up the possibilities for greater self-revelation, the sharing of concerns, and mutual empathy.  But this requires managers to carve out that time.   In a virtual environment, you either have intentionality around developing your people or not.  The lack of intentionality is very obvious without the casual interactions of the old workplace.
  2. “Apprenticeship” can be accomplished much easier in a virtual environment where the team member seeking growth can now easily accompany the leader on any engagement, and they can work together seamlessly using virtual tools to jump across continents. The more exposure they get to all forms of doing business, the better their business toolbox and the stronger they are to carry it.  It is certainly easier to get “range” virtually.  (See Range by David Epstein.) Look for opportunities to include team members in virtual meetings that they normally would not be exposed to.
  3. Virtual working provides greater opportunities for visibility since you can move quickly from meeting to meeting without travel time, yielding more opportunities for exposure and one-on-one feedback from peers. Encourage team members to sign up for internal task forces or work groups where volunteers are needed. It’s easier to create cross-functional touch points, bringing a greater diversity of people and ideas into the conversation to speed innovation and the dissemination of new ideas and processes that enable talent to flourish.  (See Jimmy Davis’s and Lisa Carey’s 7/23 blog How COVID-19 May Actually Increase Diversity and Inclusion for Many Companies.) Actively facilitate creative problem-solving by tapping into diverse voices and perspectives from near and far.
  4. Companies can accelerate and enrich the onboarding process for new hires using video technology.  Engage HR and IT in creating a virtual tour of the organization and all the relevant stakeholders for each job sector that is hiring.
  5. Because we can now literally see into each other’s lives, it opens the door to talk about life goals to enrich the development conversation, extending it beyond current role and career ambitions. Seize the opportunity to show an interest in employees lives beyond the office door, and use that newfound knowledge to create more meaningful, truly personalized development plans.
  6. Battlefield promotions:  In a crisis such as COVID-19 there is no playbook.  A vacuum is created and leaders emerge, stepping up and bringing latent strengths to light.  Often, these aren’t the same folks who were carrying the flag before the crisis.  So take note of who stepped up—they may just be your future leaders.

In a virtual environment, we can’t approach talent development using old habits. If properly leveraged, a virtual environment presents distinct new opportunities and advantages. Leaders can engage employees in their homes and grow the leaders who will help your company find its way through 2021 and beyond.

Grant W. Levitan is a Senior Partner based in Chicago. His work facilitates organic and authentic growth in leaders, enabling them to achieve new levels of performance and personal effectiveness.