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  • Writer's pictureHayley Sayre

Learning Beyond the Office: The Power of Self-Directed Learning for Remote Employees

Updated: Apr 30, 2023

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Labyrinth. Image source:

Remote work has been on the rise for many years but accelerated significantly during the Covid-19 pandemic. By June of 2022, a staggering 78% of American jobs were either fully remote or hybrid, which was up from 40% in 2019 (Agrawal & Wigert, 2022). While remote work has been very popular with employees, it brings its own set of challenges, including the necessary adjustment of learning programs.

In an office setting, employers can gather workers into the same physical space, facilitate hands-on training and group discussions, and monitor participation.

How can remote employees have access to equally effective learning opportunities?

One solution is self-directed learning, which increases engagement by letting the learner take the wheel. But how can we design self-directed learning effectively, and is this approach backed by evidence? Let’s take a closer look under the hood.

Why Self-Directed Learning?

Self-directed learning (SDL) places ownership over the learning process in the hands of the learner. In SDL the learner decides, “what and how to learn” (Merriam & Bierema, 2013, p. 67). Rather than the learning and development team prescribing and closely monitoring the learning, the self-directed employee sets their own goals, identifies resources, and assesses their understanding (Park, 2008). For example, rather than waiting for formal instructions, an employee in your marketing department needing to develop graphic design skills would be able to access the library of resources you’ve compiled and select an online course.

While SDL is not new, it is particularly supportive of modern challenges, such as working without direct supervision and keeping up with ever-changing technology. Allowing employees to learn at their own pace is well-suited for remote workers who cite flexibility as a top reason for preferring to work from home (Agrawal & Wigert, 2022).

Many employers have expressed doubt that remote employees will stay motivated without direct supervision, so don’t be surprised by a little hesitation when you pitch this program to your managers (Parker, 2021). But the evidence is on your side! Daniel Pink’s motivational model asserts that motivation is built through the combination of autonomy, purpose, and mastery (Pandey, 2022). SDL programs provide autonomy by providing the freedom to make learning choices, support mastery as learners focus on targeted content, and build a sense of purpose as the individual becomes increasingly competent in their role (Pandey, 2022).

Self-Directed Done Right: Tips for Implementation

The evidence makes clear that SDL can be an effective strategy, but there are some best practices to keep in mind that will help your learners to succeed.

Get set up for success:

  • You’ll want to foster a positive work environment that encourages self-directed

Woman sitting in front of a laptop, the screen shows a virtual meeting with 13 people
Remote meeting. Image source:

learning. While employees will choose their own learning strategies, your role as the learning and development team is to outline the goals of the learning program and help to communicate how the individual’s objectives connect to the company’s goals.

Provide choices:

  • A key feature of SDL is that employees can use different learning strategies and targeted content based on their personal preferences and unique role. Survey both managers and employees to determine which topics and tools will be most beneficial, then build a library of resources that can be easily accessed.

Ariel photo of many intersecting roads
Roads. Image source:

Think outside the box! Your learning library may include videos, e-learning modules, or even virtual reality simulations!

Offer feedback:

  • To assess the effectiveness of the SDL program, you can meet one-on-one with employees to discuss goals, progress, and obstacles, or use surveys and data analysis to identify growth and areas of improvement. As you fine-tune your program, don’t forget to celebrate achievements! Your acknowledgment will help fuel your learners’ motivation to continue their journey.

A woman at a desk looks at her open laptop, appears to be speaking and gesturing
Virtual meeting. Image source:

Watch Your Step: SDL Pitfalls

While self-directed learning can be an effective approach to learning and development, it is not without its limitations and potential pitfalls. Here are some things to keep in mind when implementing self-directed learning:

One size doesn’t fit all:

  • Keep in mind that your employees are all unique individuals, and self-directedness can vary from person to person, and from one goal to another (Merriam & Bierema, 2013). Everyone is capable of learning independently, and you will likely find that some of your learners excel within the autonomy of SDL! However, others may dislike the lack of structure or need more guidance, feedback, and accountability from you.

Different strategies for different learning:

  • SDL is a powerful tool, but it will not be the perfect choice for every type of learning (Merriam & Bierema, 2013). Highly technical tasks or skills that require a great deal of feedback may be better learned through an expert-led demonstration or job shadowing. You may also reconsider SDL if there is a shortage of resources for employees to access, or if the employees lack the motivation to learn independently.

Balancing independence and interaction:

  • One downside to working from home can be feeling disconnected and lonely. Many employees cite collaboration as the most effective method for workplace learning, so

An older man sits on a couch with an open laptop on his lap.
Remote employee. Image source:

be careful that your SDL program does not replace precious social opportunities, (Park, 2008). The ‘self’ in self-directed does not necessarily mean ‘all by myself’; in fact, SDL is enhanced through collaboration (Merriam & Bierema, 2013). Encourage forums and group discussions to help learners connect and support one another.

Your Journey Into Self-Directed Learning

SDL can be a powerful strategy for employees with less access to classic in-person tools but value the freedom to work at their own pace, and you can expect improvements in both mastery and motivation. By steering clear of pitfalls and thoughtfully setting your learners up for success, you can design an effective SDL program that will push your learners’ engagement to the next level!


Agrawal, S., & Wigert, B. (2022, August 21). Returning to the office: The current, preferred and future state of remote work.

Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2013). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

Pandey, A. (2022, April 29). How to empower your learners with self-directed learning – featuring 7 strategies. eLearning Industry.

Park, S. (2008). Self-directed learning in the workplace [Academy of Human Resource Development International Research Conference in the Americas]. University of Minnesota.

Parker, S. K. (2021, August 31). Remote managers are having trust issues. Harvard Business Review.

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