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  • Kyle Brooksher

An Instructional Designer’s Guide to Working Remotely

From my experience, instructional designers are more likely to work from home than the average employee. But still, I would estimate that about 50% of my ID peers worked remotely pre-coronavirus, while 50% were in the office.

So, for many, the switch to working remotely hasn’t been as much of a personal shift as it has been for our non-ID colleagues. Of course, I’m speaking in broad generalities, as everyone is facing unique challenges with new work settings, especially as the school year begins again. Whether you've always worked from home and are simply continuing to do so, or you were working in an office until the spring shutdowns but are now adapting to work from home and manage your children’s new virtual classroom environment, this fall poses a unique challenge to us all.

For me, I’m somewhere in the middle of these two scenarios. I’ve been working from home for about five years now, but I'm still adapting to also having a spouse work from home and a preschool-aged child without steady daycare. The impact has been moderate compared to stories I’ve heard, but I’d like to share some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned to help navigate the new world of sudden and widespread remote working as an instructional designer.

Five tips for remote instructional designers

Tip #1: Ask people about their personal lives frequently—In some dog-eat-dog environments, this may seem "touchy-feely" or intrusive. But lately I’ve found this to be a new type of self-preservation. Many of your co-workers and peers are facing changes in their personal lives that are as unpredictable as they are quick-changing. Staying up-to-date on what’s going on behind the scenes for people around you can be a great way of anticipating project obstacles before they hit. This can also help you dial in when and how to communicate with other remote workers to give you the best chance of getting a response and avoiding small delays adding up to big problems.

Tip #2: Prioritize online training projects—Online learning is booming as in-person training continues to be limited or indefinitely delayed. Some of the online courses that we help administer have seen growth over 200% over the past six months, with no signs of slowing. But like most other business sectors, the online learning industry wasn't prepared for the current pandemic, and many training companies are struggling to keep up with the influx of interest in online options. I don’t claim to be a health expert enough to know when the pandemic era will be over, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and say the increased interest in online learning options is going to continue to grow long enough to make worthwhile any efforts to convert classroom-based learning to online learning or to create new online training.

Tip #3: Do your homework before calling a meeting or picking up the phone—For many instructional designers, the name of the game is collaboration. And getting subject matter experts, designers, videographers, IT staff and other stakeholders moving in the same direction was hard enough when you could just walk across the hall and ask your coworker a question. But now, with remote working and schedule inconsistency the new norm, collaborating has become even more difficult.

So before you fire off an email asking a question, or pick up the phone to try to get someone pinned down on an issue, or call a meeting to get everyone necessary on board, doing a little homework can go a long way. Consider writing down the answers to the "5 W & 1 H" questions (Who, What, When, Where, Why and How) before you call or email someone to challenge yourself to be as specific as possible in what you’re asking or what you need.

If other issues come up as you’re identifying your needs, take a moment to ask yourself if these new issues are really a part of the core need. And if they’re not, consider waiting and asking about the new issues separately. When calling a meeting, create a detailed agenda, start on time, keep it on track, make sure you're hearing from everyone you need to, and address only the issues that need group discussion. Use email or individual phone calls for topics that can be handled by a smaller group. For more information on how to run more effective meetings, check out this episode of the Freakonomics podcast.

Tip #4: Consider creating more smaller training programs and fewer longer ones—As we discussed in Tip #1, most of our coworkers have a new, unpredictable cadence in their lives. The same goes for your learners. It’s a safe bet that the person taking the training you develop is more likely to be distracted and feel more time-limited now than they were a year ago.

So, if you can, consider breaking up the training you develop into smaller modules, so there are more points along the way where someone can stop and come back more easily. Build quick refreshers into the beginning of each new small module so people who do get distracted in-between have a recalibration point before new information is presented. Add interactive points, if possible, that help the learner stay engaged with the content while they are going through a course. It may sound like ID 101, but some of our foundational principles are more relevant now than ever.

Tip #5: Keep your instructional design goals in mind, but stay gracious of others—We are all feeling the pressure of adapting to unknowns. Even if the “new normal” that is manifesting itself is different for those within your organization, remember that everyone is feeling stressed by it.

Reread your emails and look for ways to soften your language, when possible. Allow others to voice an unrelated concern if they feel the need. Encourage your team toward common goals. If you feel tension beginning or feel attacked by a coworker’s email, give yourself a minute before you respond. Breathe. Get a drink of water. Ask for clarification. Avoid assuming that the tension or frustration is about you. Be graceful to others. And be graceful to yourself.

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