Language learning insights for companies

Switching classes online: Maintaining learning and a sense of community


Zambon is a multinational pharmaceutical company headquartered in northern Italy, which has been improving patients’ lives for over 100 years. The company is famous for its drive to innovate, its strong sense of community, and a long-standing commitment to the development of its people.

These values were put to the test during the recent Covid-19 crisis when their existing L&D programs were thrown into disarray, with staff needing to swiftly evaluate their planned training and shift in-person classes online. We spoke to Matteo Villa, Training at Global HR, Zambon, to find out more about how they overcame these challenges during a countrywide lockdown.

Staying agile and re-designing learning

In keeping with their long history of innovation, Zambon has always tried to build agility and flexibility into their learning projects from the very beginning. This means that working with providers who are able to customize their programs to fit their unique needs is key. They did however have to carefully assess which programs were a priority and could work best in the new, purely digital environment. They found themselves with a large number of different platforms, some customized and some “off the shelf”, with some easier than others to transition their classes online.

“We asked EF at the beginning of the lockdown to reinvent the EF Professional face-to-face program to continue our employees’ development during the crisis period, and the best way was to quickly transition to using the EF virtual classroom. In this case, digital methods allowed us to do what we could not do otherwise because of the constraints we had.”

Switching classes online

The firm’s approach to learning was already multi-channel, being established users of EF’s digital and blended training programs for a number of years and demonstrably valuing all the different channels available to enable people to learn in the best way possible.

“We have tried to break down the barrier between physical and digital and create an ecosystem in which is able to integrate different approaches. Those approaches can depend on the circumstances or a specific goal. I would like to stop talking about “digital” as for me it is just a way to learn, and when I study a book I don’t consider it “paper learning!”.

Matteo’s personal philosophy is that although all channels have value, in order to get the best results from online learning it should be designed with that platform in mind. This is why Zambon chose to carefully consider the structure and methodology of their courses during the transition, which led to some adjustments.

“We didn’t want to lose the good rhythm and learning momentum we had before lockdown, so we decided to redesign our customized language workshops with EF. We removed some of the more instructional components and made them even more about role play and small group interaction – virtually.
Working in this way digitally can be difficult at times. Some learners can have less confidence and also find it requires more energy and concentration, so for example we reduced the length of the sessions to take that into account.”

Learners appreciated having exactly the same teachers for their online sessions as they did for face-to-face classes. They also found that the interactive language classes delivered virtually encouraged a slightly different communication style from them. For example, the very Italian trait of using the hands and gestures to add color to communication was less effective on a laptop. So it led to more focus on the clarity of the spoken word – in itself probably an advantage when learning practical skills for modern business communication.

Community and Impact

Ensuring that learning continues during the crisis has avoided knowledge stagnation and loss of momentum in Zambon’s learning projects. It has also helped maintain that sense of community and support network amongst the employees.

“It has been very positive from our side because some people were feeling lonely during this time, and this was a way of getting in touch. In Zambon, the sense of community is very strong, and losing it just overnight could be very difficult to overcome.”

Evaluation of the recent changes is still on-going, but so far the move online has been smooth and with results that rival the KPIs pre-lockdown. As the world gradually returns to normal, Matteo plans to learn from the experience and take stock in the Autumn. He plans to analyze the effectiveness and agility of the project but also to ask participants which format they prefer going forward. The expectation is that online learning will continue to play a major role in almost all cases. And the possibilities could even mean that previously local classes and workshops can involve colleagues from all over the world, without travel – that’s really compelling for a global employer.

“The results are great, and there is no discernible difference in our participants’ evaluations from before and after moving everything online. I’m very glad that we found great support from the EF people we work with, they understand our needs. It’s not so easy to change the rules of the game, while you are playing it!”

Zambon has collaborated with EF since 2017 to deliver customized online and in-person language solutions to their employees.

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