Stepping up: The manager’s role in optimizing virtual team learning

It’s a commonly held view that managers are the key to helping their teams learn and develop.

Written by Martin Couzins
Published 03 August 2020
Stepping up: The manager’s role in optimizing virtual team learning

It's also a commonly held view that managers are not good at doing this. This links to the idea that people leave their manager, not their job. There is evidence to suggest this is the case.1
The COVID-19 pandemic has put managers under the spotlight. They, along with their teams, have seen significant disruption to working practices, as well as experiencing the various effects of the virus on individuals, colleagues, family and friends.
Managers have been required to steer teams through the crisis and beyond, to help teammates work remotely, communicate effectively from afar and to stay well. As change and disruption accelerate, organizations will continue to require managers to ensure teams have the right skills to do their jobs effectively. And managers will themselves be required to develop the skills to lead teams remotely.
Virtual team learning is a huge challenge for organizations and for managers. Research from LinkedIn Learning bears this out. It says the number one challenge facing learning and development (L&D) professionals right now is getting managers to make learning a priority for their teams.2
The research, which quizzed 2,932 managers, 1,675 L&D professionals and 2,000 learners, suggests that managers are rising to the task of being learning enablers, with 68% of L&D managers saying that managers are actively promoting more learning resources to their teams than before the COVID-19 pandemic.
If managers are going to be critical of the effectiveness of remote teams then it would be wise to understand what we know about managers as learning enablers. We have dug into Emerald Works’ research of L&D professionals and managers to see what the data is telling us. What insights can we draw on to help managers optimize virtual team learning?

Manager learning preferences

When interrogating data it is useful to have a question to help extract insights or to have an assumption to test. In this instance, one question might be: would it be useful to know the learning preferences of virtual managers? If managers have similar preferences to those the organization is looking to promote, then it might be reasonable to assume this would be helpful for L&D teams.   
We have segmented our Learner Intelligence research to show the learning preferences of 4,590 managers who either work remotely or in an office.
The data shows a number of things.
1. They value manager input into learning: Whether working remotely or in an office, managers value the support of their own managers. The data shows 80% of virtual managers prefer the support of their managers compared with 75% of office-based managers.
2. They value multi-channel/multi-format delivery: 46% of virtual managers use online performance tools (versus 41% office managers), 32% use external blogs and news feeds (versus 27% of office based managers), 34% use video clips and podcasts (versus 29% of office base managers) and 65% use internal company guidance and documents (versus 58% of office based managers).
3. Mobile is key: with 65% of virtual managers wanting to be able to access resources on a mobile device versus 60% of office-based managers.
Interestingly, virtual managers are keener on accessing resources at the point of need (66%), versus office-based managers (57%).
Overall, virtual managers feel that they receive learning that is directly relevant to their current role (73%), versus 65% of office-based managers.
So, from the perspective of the learning team, the data suggests that virtual managers display the preferences that they would be looking for. This might be a reason why, according to the LinkedIn Learning research, managers are actively promoting learning to their teams. In the virtual working environment, managers are displaying the learning preferences that organizations would like to see in their teams.
What is it about the virtual environment that drives these behaviors in managers? It is worth noting that managers themselves appreciate the support of their managers as well as favoring collaborative ways of working. If they like to work in these ways, then it would follow that they would extend this approach to their team. And being virtual, rather than in-person, managers understand they will need to adopt different approaches to learning and communication.
This data would suggest that virtual managers are more comfortable than their office-based counterparts at accessing learning at the point of need. And they want to receive learning resources across multiple channels and formats.

Barriers to optimizing virtual team learning

So, the data suggests virtual managers are keen to learn the ways organizations would like all employees to learn, and that are now required with so many of them working from home. Is L&D pushing at an open door when it comes to supporting managers to help develop their teams?
Our data suggests that L&D teams see managers in a different light.
Data from our annual Learning Health Check shows that more than a quarter of L&D leaders (28%) report a reluctance by managers to encourage new ways of learning and working as extremely concerning.3 This is compared with 3% in top performing companies.4
More alarming is that learning teams are failing to support managers as learning enablers, with only 22% reporting that they equip managers with resources, so their teams get the most out of learning, compared with 76% in top performing companies.
Added to this, only 28% of L&D leaders report that they develop managers to be line coaches, compared with 94% in top performing companies.
More generally, L&D teams are failing to understand how employees learn, with only 19% of L&D leaders reporting that they are proactive in understanding how their people learn what they need to do their job, compared with 76% in top performing companies. This has a knock-on effect on learning design as 79% of L&D leaders highlight that they do not involve employees in the design of the most appropriate learning approach, compared with 29% for top performers.
Our data shows that there are steps learning teams can take to ensure learning has impact. Learning Health Check data shows high impact learning companies take the following steps:

At a strategic level

  • Assign board level accountability for organizational learning
  • Business leaders recognize that learning interventions are aligned with the overall business plan
  • All stakeholders share L&D’s vision for organizational learning
  • L&D works with senior management to agree business metrics or KPIs for measuring learning impact.

At a tactical level

  • L&D actively encourages people to collaborate in building knowledge resources
  • Staff know how to work together to productively connect and share knowledge
  • L&D develops challenging and stretch tasks to embed learning in behavior
  • L&D recommends learning resources based on individual performance
  • People have easy access to job aids
  • Learning goals and outcomes are discussed with individuals before they start.


Clearly, managers have more agency as they are tasked with getting work done through a crisis. But by looking at our pre-COVID-19 data we can see that virtual managers were already working in ways that are congruent with working and learning from home. The data suggests that learning teams were not picking up on this.
If, as the data suggests, managers are keen to learn in more collaborative ways, at the point of need, and using multi-format, multi-channel delivery, then L&D is well placed to support managers in supporting their teams. Maybe the commonly held view that managers are the problem when it comes to supporting learning is just that, a view. Our data would suggest the reality is quite different.



[1] State of the American Manager, Gallup
[2] 2020 Workplace Learning Report, LinkedIn Learning
[3] The Learning Health Check is a strategic tool for organizations to benchmark their L&D approach, vision, technology use, budgeting, culture, and much more. A total of 1,123 respondents participated in our 2019 season.
[4] These are the top-performing 10% of our data sample. Their learning strategies consistently achieve excellent results in terms of their organization’s growth, transformation, profitability, and productivity. We therefore use them as a benchmark/gold standard.

About the author

Martin Couzins

Martin Couzins

Head of Insights, Insights Media

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