Upwork began over two decades ago by pioneering a better way of working. Today, they are the world’s largest work marketplace, where businesses of all sizes and independent talent from around the globe meet to accomplish incredible things.
The company’s people-first philosophy is championed by the 100+ employees in Upwork’s HR department, which includes Learning & Development (L&D) and Organizational Effectiveness.
“We truly value people and see their growth as the key to how Upwork as a company succeeds,” notes HR Program Manager, Dana Whiteaker.
Upwork’s global team includes 700+ corporate employees in the US and 2,500 longer-term, contingent workers—a hybrid team—that works from remote locations in the US and throughout the world.
And the company is committed to ongoing learning for everyone: all corporate and hybrid employees get onboarding training, as well as upskills and coaching.
With the rise of remote work over the past several years and rapid growth in their hybrid team, Upwork’s Organizational Effectiveness team was taking a hard look at how they approach L&D. When people are working in the office, you can hold large on-site orientations, but then remote or hybrid workers may not feel like they’re part of the team.
“We had a learning management solution (LMS) in place, but it wasn’t intuitive and it didn’t fit the needs of our growing organization,” says Whiteaker. “We needed a way to onboard large numbers of people in a hybrid model, while delivering a consistent, equitable experience—that was incredibly important to us.”
Compliance was also a significant factor and their previous LMS couldn’t segment content effectively. For legal reasons, Upwork can’t show the same content to everyone, so they needed an intuitive platform that provides a great user experience—without making it apparent that some content may be filtered out.
As Whiteaker notes: “We wanted a central repository for key pieces that show people how to do their jobs, where to go with questions about other teams or departments, as well as empower them to upskill themselves with on-demand training that allows them to improve their lives.”
While moving to an all-remote onboarding and learning approach was a risk, Whiteaker felt that creating an inclusive experience was more than worth it. In fact, she saw bigger risks in not doing it because fostering community is their aim.
“Human connection is the most important part of it all and we want to be very aware of what people are feeling,” says Whiteaker. “We realized that we were intentionally or unintentionally leaving people out, and we wanted to reduce isolation and bring people together as much as possible, especially during the pandemic.”
Whiteaker has implemented a number of different HR and learning solutions throughout her career, so she had a good sense of what’s available in the market and how SaaS rollouts can go: both the good and the bad.
“I knew our LMS wasn’t allowing us to grow in the way we needed and it wasn’t providing an equitable experience,” she says. “It wasn’t segmenting appropriately or providing a path where training and learning were easy for folks to find.
Beyond the technical shortcomings, Upwork wasn’t satisfied with the relationship they had with their previous vendor. “I need someone who knows us. Who can meet us where we are now, give us the support we need, and grow with us,” says Whiteaker.
A large buying team of stakeholders across HR, L&D, Legal, and IT worked together to choose an LMS based on: ease of use, segmentation capability, ability to scale, and on-going support.
“When we met Continu, it checked every box for what we were looking for—it was quickly apparent that Continu would be the clear winner. It wasn’t a tough decision for us to make,” says Whiteaker. “Not only was Continu far ahead from a features standpoint, the sales manager was really genuine and not pushy. We knew it would be a good relationship.”
Continu cemented that relationship when, midway through the two-month deployment, changes in the L&D team plus external technical issues caused a major reset in the implementation plan, basically a blank slate.
Whiteaker credits the Continu customer success team for saving the day.
“Our original plan had to be totally revisited and I couldn’t have done it without our phenomenal Continu customer success rep,” says Whiteaker. “We had data coming from multiple sources and the Continu team was a huge help in developing a long-term data flow plan, saving me countless hours, hundreds of hours of work.”
“No vendor has come close to this genuine level and quality of service—and I have very high standards and expectations,” continued Whiteaker. “I love to give praise, because I rarely do it!”
The team took an intentional approach to the rollout because they wanted to give teams an opportunity to settle in and make the required behavioral changes that could be challenging, given the stress of the larger circumstances.
Whiteaker notes that the company does not have an intranet: “Our Upwork playbook with our operating principles and norms is in Continu. It’s not just compliance training. The intent and purpose is: if you want to know how to really excel in your role, or develop your skills, or just be aware of activity across the company, Continu is the place to go.”
Today, each Upwork department has a presence within Continu where they can put their team’s info, their SOPs, and their trainings and Whiteaker says that she loves looking at usage reports.
“The number of hybrid workers all over the world that are using on-demand content to upskill themselves is astounding. It blew me away! People are returning continuously to Continu to learn and it’s making an impact on their lives, which brings me a lot of personal fulfillment,” says Whiteaker. In fact, more than 33% of users have explored more than 50 trainings, beyond compliance trainings, and some even more than admins.
What’s more, after getting used to being recipients of content in Continu, teams are requesting access to create their own team materials there. “This is the active behavior change that we were looking for and it’s because of Continu; we didn’t have that capability before,” says Whiteaker.
Using Continu has helped Upwork improve efficiency and productivity, while increasing compliance. But beyond the quantitative benefits, Whiteaker’s team appreciates how it helps them empower employees with knowledge, in a collaborative way.
“We love Continu’s course rating feature, and the feedback we get is almost more important than our main KPIs,” Whiteaker notes, “because if we’re not listening to what our learners say they need, we’re not doing our job.”
“The comments are so constructive and helpful. They’re automatically sent to our HR Slack, and we immediately acknowledge them and incorporate them into a plan, so our materials end up very crowdsourced and curated,” she continued.
Falling short of 100% compliance is a common problem across the industry. To get closer to that goal, the Upwork team consulted with Continu, who advised them to switch up their approach—something that wouldn’t have been possible with their old LMS.
“We changed our messaging to managers: ‘please help you team allocate the time for this training,’ since it’s really about being intentional. That messaging has greatly improved rates of completion,” says Whiteaker.
“Our previous LMS was just binary: did an employee do a training or not. No messages or reminders, and forget about automated workflows. They couldn’t manage any segmentation complexity at all, which meant it was impossible to create a cadence or timing for a variety of groups. Continu delivers a whole new experience,” says Whiteaker. Since launching Continu, they’ve seen on-time compliance trainings rise from an estimated 65% to 80%.
With the basics in place, Whiteaker says that she’s excited to use all the functionality that Continu offers, including badging, data visualization, and manager dashboards.
“Because the company crowdsources new features, Continu really understands what L&D teams need,” notes Whiteaker.
“We want to provide managers with metrics they couldn’t see before so they can recognize the investment we’re making in their people and provide them with the resources they need to continue to develop their teams,” she continued.
“What people need to realize when they look at an LMS is that it works with the info you give it. It’s a joint investment. Any LMS requires attention, patience, and calibration to truly fit your needs. But if you put in the time and energy, the payoff is enormous.”
UpWork is seeing tremendous promise as the floodgates open and more domain experts are building their own content and custom e-learnings to share across the organization. The behavior change is so effective that large numbers across the board are proactively approaching her team to help build Continu as an internal knowledge base – exactly what Whiteaker was hoping to see.
“What we wanted to do was to create the kind of developers that we wanted to see in the market”
“With Continu, we have a dedicated platform ready to go where we can create training content, assign it, and track it. With our previous HIPAA training, it was all through spreadsheets and email.”
"I wanted to make our staff’s lives easier with a solution they could rely on. That is what I found in Continu.”
"Continu really helped Slack shift to remote work without skipping a beat".