• Mike Zealley, Author |
6 min read

As we emerge from this pandemic, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Learning and Development (L&D) profession has really stepped up to the challenges of the past year.

We’ve embraced virtual learning. We’ve adapted effectively and rapidly to keep delivering extensive learning curriculums, proving along the way that virtual learning can and does work. Even more importantly, we’ve helped staff acquire the skills and knowledge that have been vital in the fight against the pandemic. And we’ve been a central part of how organisations have safeguarded employee welfare and got to grips with remote working and management. I, therefore, think that, as a profession, L&D has demonstrated its worth.

But where next? All the talk now is about hybrid working and the challenges this will pose. That tends to lead us on to thinking about hybrid learning; how we bring learners together in both a physical and remote setting at the same time. It’s a subject that seems to be coming up repeatedly in my conversations with HR Directors and Chief Learning Officers.

Now, hybrid learning is certainly feasible. Educational institutions have been doing it for some time, after all. Most organisations now have access to technology to cater to the remote, virtual side of the hybrid learning equation. Most of us have now been part of a training course on Teams or Zoom, replacing old classroom environments. We’ve seen learning colleagues using other tools like virtual whiteboards to try to keep learners engaged. And, most importantly, learners are really diving in and embracing the technology.

As a result, I’m seeing a growing number of hybrid learning case studies emerging from organisations in the UK and overseas. People are starting to figure out how to deliver outstanding learning with some learners in the same physical space and others joining remotely.

The general view seems to be that moving to a hybrid model will be just as hard as the move to remote working. Office space and meeting rooms aren’t quite ready yet and are still being kitted out to support hybrid working. There are also plenty of stories of hybrid learning sessions that are, in reality, the same remote learning sessions as before but with people simply joining from different rooms in the office. However, I’m sure these are just teething problems that we’ll get over in time – as there are so many other really positive signs that workplace hybrid learning can be a really viable option for employers.

Nevertheless, I do think that quite a lot of organisations are missing the bigger point at the moment. Workplace learning is about so much more than just what goes on in a classroom. We all know this. It’s why there’s so much talk of the importance of embedding a culture of learning at work and of moving learning into ‘the flow of work’.   

As an industry, we understand the value of peer learning and of learning by working and applying the skills we’ve been taught. We know how, in the right environment and with the right people around us, we develop valuable skills and behaviours organically, away from a classroom setting. It’s why we talk about the 70-20-10 model; acknowledging that while formal, structured learning provides the foundation of a lot of essential knowledge building, it’s only part of the picture (and the smallest part, at that).

The big question

Therefore, the big question that we should all be asking ourselves is, how do organisations best build their people capability in a world likely to be dominated by hybrid working patterns?

I believe the ‘10 percent’ will always happen, even if, in its hybrid form, it requires some different technology and a new breed of learning facilitator to emerge (simply being charismatic and engaging in a classroom isn’t really sufficient any more) and it comes with new downsides that we need to mitigate, such as the emergence of what current research refers to as ‘Zoom fatigue’.

But when we are only physically with our colleagues a day or two a week (if at all), how do we enable effective peer learning? And how do we create the kind of work pattern that still provides the time to apply new skills and the space to consolidate and reflect on what we’ve learned and experienced?

Thinking about this is opening up all sorts of discussions around virtual coaching, assistive technology, coaching bots and even augmented reality as ways of giving learners the on-the-job support they need. But, just as importantly, there needs to be talk about hybrid work patterns, redesigned offices, equipment, and collaboration spaces.

Yet I wonder how many L&D leads are involved in designing their organisations’ future workspaces and influencing working patterns. How many are actively participating in these discussions, getting on the front foot and shaping the agenda? And how many are being told to wait and see what happens before working around whatever they’re presented with? I have no numbers to prove this but my gut feeling tells me that we need more in the former camp.

The pandemic has certainly made us think differently. But after working through how to keep staff safe, I get the sense that many organisations are leading their thinking on workspaces and work patterns with an ‘estates planning’ lens. I’m not convinced that the question around how to use workspaces to best support learning is at the forefront of enough people’s minds.

After everything we’ve been through, I think it would be a huge shame if L&D colleagues miss out on these discussions, preferring instead for colleagues from estates or finance to lead the conversation without their input.

Remaining high on the agenda

One thing we can be sure of is that people considerations remain right at the top of Board agendas. In one of our regular CEO surveys undertaken before the pandemic, business leaders confirmed that building their people capability was one of their top three priorities.  Much of this was driven by the need to undertake a wholescale reskilling of their workforce as a result of digital disruption and the changing nature of work.

Scroll forward through subsequent surveys and we can see how people considerations have remained a top priority. We saw the focus move to keeping people safe, then on to how to keep people engaged and productive during the pandemic, and then onto questioning whether a co-located workforce was needed at all.

In 2020, 69 percent of global CEOs said they planned to downsize their office space. Respondents have since rowed back on that assertion as that figure stood at just 17 percent a year later. This year’s survey also revealed just 30 percent of leaders expect to have most of their workforce working remotely for 2-3 days per week (a far lower figure than would have been expected last year). My point is that people considerations are not dropping off that senior agenda any time soon. The lens through which senior management is looking at those considerations; that’s the only thing that’s changing. 

I don’t think any of us really know what the future of the workplace is going to look like yet.  We don’t yet know how people will respond to new working patterns and models. Therefore, I think L&D leads will want to maintain their focus on building a learning culture and moving learning even further into the flow of work. However, if I were in their position, I’d also want to be an active participant in the discussions that shape those future workplaces and working patterns.

This is a chance for workplaces to be designed, not just for work, but for how people learn while they work. This is a chance to reinforce the message that, actually, learning and working are inextricably linked. Hybrid learning is not about replacing classrooms; it’s about creating an environment within which people can be engaged and keep learning every day, helping them to maximise their potential.

After everything it’s achieved in the past year, the L&D profession deserves a seat at the table for those discussions. I hope they get it.