Cartoon of a remote worker holding a red sign vetoing a return to the office. There is a beige background behind him.
Image: © katakari/

How to upskill workers who aren’t coming back to the office

6 Oct 2023

Remote workers deserve equal access to upskilling programmes, even if it means employers need to figure out how best to adapt delivery styles.

By now, we’re all familiar with the return to office debate – so familiar that it has been assigned its own acronym: RTO. While lots of employers say they are still dedicated to providing remote and hybrid-working models for their staff, others are turning away from the habits we had to adopt during the pandemic in favour of more in-person days at the office. Companies like Meta, Apple and even Zoom have been variously criticised and praised for mandating staff to come into the office for at least three days per week.

The arguments in favour of RTO mandates usually amount to more time for collaboration, more time for in-person connection with colleagues and more access to upskilling initiatives. There has been lots of talk about how employers can still provide opportunities for remote and hybrid workers to experience the camaraderie that their in-office colleagues do. Now it’s time to talk about upskilling.

“There can be – but ideally there shouldn’t be,” says Jeff Lowe when we ask him whether he believes there is a noticeable difference between the kinds of upskilling schemes employees have access to based on whether they are in the office full-time or not. As EVP of a company called Smart Technologies that sells interactive display tech for video conferencing, Lowe is obviously an advocate for video-based remote upskilling programmes. While he may have a vested interest in promoting software tools over in-person learning, what he has to say about the duty employers have towards their remote and hybrid staff is worth listening to.

Inclusive and accessible opportunities regardless of location

“Hybrid or remote work does provide challenges, so it’s important to provide inclusive opportunities that are accessible regardless of where employers are,” he says, addressing the RTO enforcers. “This is all about priorities, policies and culture as it relates to approaching training and upskilling. Ultimately, whether there is a noticeable difference in upskilling opportunities between office-based and remote employees will depend on the specific practices and priorities of the organisation. It is increasingly important for companies to ensure that all employees, regardless of their work arrangement, have access to the tools and resources they need to develop their skills and advance their careers.”

‘Most of the foundational elements of great communication remain true regardless of the environment’

Interactive video software is one of these tools, but Lowe also lists resources such as Coursera, podcasts, YouTube and even offsite training days. He thinks that in designing L&D programmes, employers should be cognisant of the fact that “Different departments and individuals will have different needs.” Surveys or even just conversations can help employers ascertain what various teams require in terms of upskilling. It’s important for programmes to be designed flexibly, too, but what’s equally important is keeping employees engaged.

Mix it up and keep it engaging

“It’s critical that different styles and preferences are taken into account. Some employees may prefer self-paced online courses, while others thrive in interactive group settings. Offering a variety of learning methods to cater to diverse preferences is key. Recognise that keeping remote and hybrid employees engaged in virtual training can be especially challenging. This is where the right tech and delivery platforms come in again.”

Lowe recommends that trainers “incorporate gamification, interactive elements and regular check-ins to maintain motivation and participation”. He also says employers should request regular feedback and “use these inputs to make continuous improvements to offerings and programmes”.

Soft skills don’t have to suffer…

That is all good advice, but some critics of hybrid and remote working believe people will lose soft skills such as communication by not interacting with each other in person. Lowe doesn’t agree. “Most of the foundational elements of great communication remain true regardless of the environment,” he says. Although he does acknowledge that “without some of the non-verbal communication cues we get when together in person, it can be easier to misread people and situations”.

Rather than hampering communication skills, Lowe reckons remote and hybrid models can provide opportunities to work on different styles of communicating. Plus, “in an asynchronous work environment, employees often have more flexibility in when and how they communicate,” he says.

“This means that communication skills need to adapt to various modes, including email, chat, documentation and video messages. Employees need to be skilled in conveying their messages clearly, providing context and avoiding misunderstandings, as there may not be an opportunity for immediate clarification. These skills should be deliberately developed and practised.”

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Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea joined Silicon Republic in 2021 as Careers reporter, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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