Distance learning's silver lining: preparing students for post-pandemic career success

Without a doubt, this year has been challenging. Everyone has experienced some sort of impact from the COVID-19 pandemic whether it be from the virus itself, mask mandates, employment changes, housing access, food supply interruptions, changes in interactions with family and friends, or any other number of side effects of the situation. With that said, I was reminded in a recent community discussion that such challenges have also brought opportunity. The focus of this discussion was on providing guidance to students, many in their final year of high school, about how today’s adversity may actually help them prepare for the post-pandemic job market. As we talked through this topic it was clear that there are benefits — a virtual silver lining so to speak — from this difficult period for both students and businesses.

Changing the conversation

As a long-time supporter of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, both personally as well as through my role in Keysight, I often engage with students to discuss career opportunities in technology. In a recent live virtual conversation hosted by the Career Technical Education (CTE) Foundation of Sonoma County, CA the conversation was a little different and very thought-provoking. The CTE Foundation — whose mission is to innovate the education-to-career experience to strengthen economic development and student success — focused this discussion with students on preparing for the post-pandemic workforce. Moderated by Brandon Jewell, Director of Industry Engagement at the CTE Foundation, I was joined in the discussion with Alicia Benson, Keysight Workplace Solutions and Global Senior Director, and about 100 high school students.

Acknowledgement of academic and workspace impact

The conversation started with an acknowledgement of how the pandemic has changed both academic and corporate workspaces. Hands-on classrooms with in-person interactions between teachers, friends and the general student body have been replaced with distance learning via secluded screen-time in sometimes cramped corners of bedrooms, dining rooms and living rooms. For those engaged in this new learning environment, all individual classwork has become “homework” with students juggling disruptions from parents, guardians, siblings, and other distractions as they navigate their daily coursework on their own.

Likewise, many Keysight employees have moved from corporate sites with well-maintained office and meeting spaces, and regular colleague interactions, to home office set-ups, some with the same space restrictions and distractions as students have experienced. In fact, in many cases employees are working from home in the same spaces as their children are learning. For example, Alicia noted that she and her high school-aged children carved out different spaces of their house to meet their needs and she shared a view of her remote work office space from a bedroom in her home. This is the reality of learning and working conditions for many people around the world today.

Need for collaboration does not change in the remote world of today

While the physical impacts of home learning and office spaces pose one challenge, the lack of face:face engagements pose another.

Alicia acknowledged that, as a 24-year employee of the company — all of which was spent at our now-headquarters office in Santa Rosa — moving from in-person to remote work relationships was difficult at first. In office spaces, just like in schools, individuals are able to catch someone in the hallway for a quick conversation, grab a whiteboard to jot down ideas, have lunch together to build personal relationships, and generally experience non-verbal cues that are so important to truly understanding another’s person’s perspective during a conversation. Even as a global company, before the pandemic, business travel enabled in-person collaboration sessions to drive strategic planning and other critical team activities. This has virtually (no pun intended) stopped with the pandemic.

However, collaboration with diversity of thought and experience is critical for success not only in business but also in academics. So, while the pandemic has turned the way we interact from being hands-on and in-person to remote, we all still need to collaborate to make progress toward our goals. This has accelerated the role of collaboration technology.

Collaboration tools offer opportunity

While online collaboration tools have always been available, and Keysight has utlized them for years, today’s circumstances have dramatically sped up and spread the use of these tools across businesses and schools. For example, at Keysight, we have had videoconferencing capabilities for quite some time. However, it wasn’t until just recently that everyone actually started turning on their video cameras rather than just using audio features. This has provided the opportunity to have eye contact with teammates remotely, and the ability to sense the non-verbal cues that are important to collaborative activities, particularly in strategic and innovation discussions.

And of course, at first it caused stress for some employees concerned with what may be happening in the background with pets and family members or what their home offices may look like. But that is today’s reality, so Keysight and our employees have embraced it. In fact, Alicia noted, the occasional interruption of a pet in the background has become an opportunity to get to know colleagues better. Just like sharing a funny picture on your phone to a colleague in the office, a dog making an appearance in a video call provides the opportunity to learn about the lives of others and build relationships with team members.

More broad use of other collaboration tools like messaging, social media, workflow applications and virtual white boards have helped streamline meetings while requiring clear, documented team communications that otherwise may have been lost in a side conversation. In fact, as Alicia mentioned during the discussion, Keysight has experienced opportunities for efficiency gains in day-to-day teamwork since many employees moved to remote work. I am awe-inspired by how Keysight’s people have been just as effective and productive, sometimes more so and with better work/life balance, in today’s situation by harnessing the power of these collaboration technologies.

In the academic environment, students are experiencing new ways to collaborate by utilizing online engagement tools for learning as well. Some are expansions of technologies already used in the classroom, while others may be completely new. As Gen Z-ers, students may already have an upper-hand in relation to the broader population given they have grown up in the digital world, but the quick move to fully online coursework resulted in a crash-course in managing through adversity and technological deployments in real time.

The virtual silver lining for students

Let me be clear that I fully acknowledge there are real humanitarian, mental health, and personal development that is simply missing for students when they are not able to physically gather in a classroom. And for those in their final year of high school, the impact to traditional school celebrations is immense. However, taking a silver lining perspective, the skills students have gained through distance learning and quick adaptability in today’s world will certainly help them succeed in future careers.

Rapid changes in work situations and the ability to self-manage workloads have always been hallmarks of the corporate world, and today’s students are getting a real-life crash course in these critical skills. Add to that the Gen Z utilization of social networking and online tools throughout their lives, with the new experiences in collaboration and online engagement tools, and today’s students are primed for the next steps in their life journey into careers. As Alicia mentioned in the CTE conversation, these are the skills and technological experiences that will stand out on resumes and that students moving into the working world can use to wow their new employers.

Business and the post-pandemic workforce

As for businesses, there will always be office spaces and in-person work needed. However, I can envision that what is done on-sites at corporations will be transformed. Given the progress in streamlining communications, collaborations, and business workflows in addition to utilization of automation technologies, tomorrow’s workplaces are likely to look different. I can envision less business travel, more collaboration efficiencies, potentially offices transformed into collaboration spaces instead of day-to-day workspaces, and work-from-anywhere capabilities that geographically broaden workforce access. As Brandon mentioned in the CTE discussion, employees used to have to justify being able to work from home, but in the post-pandemic workplace, companies may instead need to justify why employees would need to be in the office.