By Jessica Vollman, CEO of Fluent City and founder of The Vollman Group.
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, companies harbored hopes of returning to normal within a couple of weeks or months. Nearly eight months into the pandemic, it appears that a return to near normalcy will likely be a matter of years.
Organizations have adapted by going as virtual as they can. They are also reassessing which parts of their old models to keep and which to leave behind. Happy hours, commutes and free office snacks are no longer happening, but there are some critical activities that I believe should remain a priority. Professional development is one of them. It’s probably unsurprising that as the CEO of a language learning startup, I think it’s especially important to learn foreign languages right now, but I’ve seen firsthand how it can help professionals and the companies they work for.
The Social Component
Learning and enrichment programs can keep team morale alive and well. Going virtual can have a flattening effect, in which one meeting appears no different than the next. As the pandemic forces long-term change, it’s important for organizations to provide opportunities for teammates to dynamically connect, grow and develop. That doesn’t mean one more meeting, but it could mean a language class, a coding challenge or another development opportunity.
Peer-to-peer communication has always been a vital part of foreign language learning. People learn from each other just as much as they do from an instructor. As such, most business language programs have built a social component into their framework. Learners may not be able to cluster together in a conference room right now, but they can still collaborate, test a peer’s vocabulary and grammar, and practice conversation — all virtually. Language programs have been effectively incorporating online, at-home training components for years. From apps that let you chat with people across the globe, to online flashcards and gaming, to podcasts and workshops and language “influencers,” foreign language training is now very virtual.
Remote Can Mean Global
Numerous companies have now decided to get rid of their physical offices. As remote organizational strategies mature, some companies will probably expand their international footprint. After all, what is stopping them from conducting global business now that the world has gone virtual?
For companies to pivot and stay competitive, they may need to venture into geographic and cultural areas they’d previously left untouched. A business strategy that encompasses foreign markets means fluency in languages like Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, Korean and others will become crucial.
English is no longer the only language to know when it comes to conducting business. Many companies in other countries do not have English-speaking staff. If your staff can speak to global customers in their own language, you likely have a better chance of a sale or a partnership. With many organizations going fully remote, it’s only a matter of time before a truly global organization is the norm.
Mobility Is An Inevitability
As many companies experiment with a distributed workforce, teams will span states, time zones and maybe even continents. Opportunities for professional development are even more crucial in the wake of such widespread mobility.
A proactive approach to professional development that includes language learning can mean increased engagement and job satisfaction for your mobile workforce. A study by Rosetta Stone found that “80% of employees who participated in language training felt more positively toward their employer, and 66% felt more engaged with their work.”
An investment in language learning can be a relatively small expense, and there are numerous other benefits for employees. Many studies show that learning a new language can have a positive long-term effect on health and cognition, even potentially helping prevent age-related decline as well as serious diseases like Alzheimer’s. There also are potential upsides when it comes to overall communication, decision making and cultural barrier breaking. In one study, bilingual adults outperformed their monolingual peers when tested on task switching.
First Steps For Creating A Language-Learning Program
1. Figure out your goals and metrics. Do you want your programs to engender loyalty? Retention? Team bonding? Do you want all teammates to reach a certain level of fluency or develop a sector-specific vocabulary? The type of program you implement will depend on your desired outcomes.
2. Establish timelines and workloads. It’s probably a safe bet that you won’t be facilitating loyalty by giving employees “homework” on top of their day-to-day responsibilities. Will you offer learning programs as an extracurricular? How can you help employees manage the workload of a tangential language program throughout their workweek?
3. Consider tools. The tools and the structure of your program will influence its impact. Are you going to have live teachers who facilitate group discussions? Or will you use prerecorded videos, machine learning exercises and independent study as your primary modes of learning?
4. Build in a feedback cycle. How will you check in with employees to improve the learning experience? How will you iterate after your first quarter?
Nobody welcomed the onset of a global pandemic. But now that it is here, it has forced us to reconsider how we operate and how we connect with others. Language remains a key organizational building block, whether we are distributed all the way across the world or just next door.