Since the COVID-19 pandemic, business leaders have been grappling with how best to adapt to hybrid or fully remote working practices. A major area of discussion is how to maintain team cohesion and engagement when a business has hundreds and thousands of workers all over the globe who are unlikely to ever meet in person. When it comes to upskilling and reskilling programs, which are more essential than ever before, overcoming these challenges becomes critical. So, what is the best way to train a remote workforce on an ongoing basis?

To answer that question, we need to think about how training and upskilling have changed over the past decade. In the “before” times, most corporate training programs took place in person, often in an off-site location, and were generally time-consuming affairs. The principle being that sending a team to all learn a specific set of skills or accreditation in an unbroken block away from the distraction of regular office work would be the most efficient way to upskill staff.

This situation slowly began to change with webinars, virtual training tools and online-skills trainers increasing in popularity. This allowed for a much more flexible approach to training, with people being able to learn in a more individual way — often in a timeframe, manner and subject matter of their choosing. The pandemic naturally accelerated this change. At the same time, what people needed to learn evolved too. Digital and data skills have become far more important to businesses and are required knowledge, in different forms and degrees, for almost every worker in a modern organization.

These factors have combined to make upskilling a much more adaptable and dynamic process, which is much more applicable to a global remote workforce than ever before. However, some principles remain constant. To have a successful training program you need to know exactly what to teach to whom, have staff buy-in and engagement, a means to assess success and, ideally, mechanisms that will allow your team to apply what they have learned straight away.

Assessing what to teach and to whom requires a skills audit — you need to know what expertise you already have. The challenge with a remote workforce is that a remote employee’s skills can be easily overlooked since they aren’t on display as when in an office environment. Surveying your team to find these hidden gems is an excellent starting point.

Next, you need to know what you require now — and in the future. Training companies can of course provide support at this juncture, but a lot of information can be gleaned through asking your managers, looking at wider recruitment trends, discussions at industry events and, of course, looking at your long-term commercial strategy. Then it’s time for the step businesses too often forget, asking your team what they are actually passionate about learning. These goals won’t always overlap but should inform your plans. People who have a personal ambition or interest in acquiring a skill are far more likely to excel.

Now you need staff buy-in and engagement. This is where the rubber really meets the road for a remote workforce. It starts with internal communication. If you asked people during your skills audit about what they would like to learn, you’ve already set the ball rolling with getting good engagement. People respond better if they are informed and empowered. Making clear what their skills program could look like, the options available to them to learn (i.e. when, where and how) and giving them the ability to influence these plans with their own ideas, should be the basis of your strategy.

In most cases you will not have the need or capacity to train your whole organization. Therefore, for those not involved in the program, it’s important to show that they too will see a benefit — either by revealing future training plans, upselling how it will help their day-to-day job or providing them with an alternative benefit. You do not want a situation where certain teams feel they are underappreciated because they have not been given the opportunity to upskill. The risk of individuals becoming disenfranchised and isolated is always present in a remote environment.

It’s important to remember that internal comms is not just a one-and-done action. Keeping everyone continually updated, through emails, conversations on platforms like Slack and via team meetings is an important part of the process. Plans might change and delays can occur and radio silence is not an option. Communication should also be a two-way street — if members of your team have feedback on their experiences, you should give them a clear avenue to express it. Positive experiences shared amongst the wider team will help to build enthusiasm and any criticisms, acknowledged or addressed, will help to refine the program and underline your team’s empowerment.

Finally, let’s turn to the practicalities of remote training. A global team is likely to operate across multiple time zones, cultures and languages. This can pose both logistical and quality control challenges. Add to this the fact that some team members may prefer to learn individually, in a group, before, after or during working hours, online or in person, and everything can suddenly become incredibly complicated. Global training companies can of course do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. If, however, you prefer to hire local training companies, it’s essential to have a very clear and well-thought-out procurement policy to ensure that the standard of training is uniform. The administration of the training program must then be centralized with an individual or team, given the resources and made accountable for its success. Regular status updates are essential to ensure any challenges or pain points are quickly addressed.

One of the most important elements of skills training is applying the new knowledge to day-to-day work as quickly as possible. This solidifies learning and enables you to properly assess its effectiveness. Remote environments can make this process more challenging. It is therefore very important that your team managers are properly directed to provide an environment where this can happen and report back on the results. It may mean designing special projects where these new skills can be used, providing an understanding to managers that delays and inefficiencies would be accepted in the short term as workers experiment, and giving managers the tools to monitor and feedback results.

Ultimately, modern techniques and technology mean that training a global remote workforce can easily be just as effective and efficient as the in-office environment. The critical ingredient to make it all work is communication. Replicating the casual conversations, enthusiasm and momentum generated by office culture online is fully achievable with the right approach.