Out of sight and out of mind?

The rise and rise of flexible workers provides quite a challenge to those training managers responsible fortheir learning and development.How should they handle it?

The UK’s growing army of flexible workers raises many issues for learning and development professionals. For example, although much has been made of the need to train employees in how to make flexible working arrangements work successfully, when it comes to the personal development and career progression of these workers is it a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’?

Recent research by professional services firm JBA and Durham Business School, suggests that when it comes to the calibre of training and development on offer, promotion opportunities and career development, people working away from the office feel disadvantaged.

“In each and every scenario it was those working away from the office who said they felt disadvantaged,” says JBA’s managing director John Blackwell. “They felt that their employers were not providing the same uniform access to training [as is available to office-based colleagues].”

Equal opportunities

The business case for flexible working – that it enhances an employer’s brand and status in a very competitive recruitment market, can aid the retention of valued and talented staff, improves productivity and allows businesses to meet the demands of customers – would suggest that neglecting the training and career development needs of this part of the workforce is foolhardy and unsustainable. Not only that, says Eileen Arney, CIPD adviser on learning, training and development, it is also a question of equal opportunities.

“I would always advise that flexible workers are kept in the loop when it comes to training and development – it’s fair and a legal requirement,” she says. “But changes to the way that learning and development is supported in the workplace these days means that this isn’t difficult.”

Arney highlights the increasing emphasis on individualised packages and flexible learning generally as being good news for employers of flexible workers. “Getting it right is about having effective performance management systems, identifying learning objectives and agreeing ways of achieving them,” she adds (see case study below).

Rise in e-learning

Training providers, such as Knowledge Pool www.knowledgepool.com, have seen a rise in demand for e-learning packages as the number of flexible workers has risen. But, says Kevin Lovell, learning strategy director at KnowledgePool, the demand is dictated by the type of workers that require training. In his experience higher-skilled workers, who are used to a greater degree of mobility, also have well-developed skills when it comes to working flexibly and approach training in a similar way.

“They are more independent, self-directed and motivated when it comes to their learning and development needs and don’t present employers with too much of a problem. They have the technology to access e-learning packages themselves, are able to juggle their working hours to fit in attending a course and have the mobility to do so,” says Lovell.

“But these workers are different to their office-based colleagues who are working flexible hours. The reasons that these employees work flexibly can also make their availability for training quite limited.”

He adds that training and development professionals addressing the development needs of flexible workers are demanding that training companies break down courses into smaller modules that can be delivered locally across different sites.

Dr Christina Evans and Claire McCartney, co-authors of a study for the Roffey Park Institute, Making Flexible Working Work www.roffeypark.com/research/flexible.htm, also predict a growing demand for e-learning to meet the training needs of flexible workers, but say the need for face-to-face training sessions will not disappear. The solution, they say, is for training and development professionals, to plan ahead and ensure managers are also trained to manage flexible workers.

“The employers [we studied] were looking for some give-and-take, so that they could get workers in for training on days when perhaps they would not otherwise be in the office,” advises McCartney.

by Sarah-Jane North

Case Study: Vertex

Outsourcing solutions business Vertex introduced flexible working in 2000 and now offers several options, such as homeworking, part-time working and job-sharing. It addresses the development needs of these staff by ensuring their managers are equipped to attend to their individual development and career aspirations by regularly reviewing their needs, sending them on courses and supporting requests to become team leaders.

“Five years on, we have learned many valuable lessons, which has led us to implement a web-based performance management tool for front-line staff, together with an innovative learning and development portal,” says head of employee engagement, Martin Grainger.

“Both complement the existing performance management process and give our flexible employees equal access to performance feedback and learning opportunities.”

A web-based performance management tool allows employees and line managers to access performance information and develop personal improvement plans. A learning and development portal then gives workers the opportunity to link-in to relevant company training support, including web-based courses and e-learning, to achieve their personal improvement plans.

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