• Mike Zealley, Author |

Just this week, I had an early look at results into our survey about how workforce learning and development (L&D) requirements are being factored into hybrid working plans and the design of new hybrid workspaces. The survey included more than 200 HR, L&D and people management professionals. Full results will be released later in the year. For now, I want to talk about some interesting observations from a first look at the responses.

Looking at the results, I have to say that I felt a little disappointed for the L&D profession.  Some of my previous fears about L&D colleagues not having a big enough say in the discussions around hybrid working and workplace design appear to have been borne out. Even with greater demand for talent and reskilling, it seems many organisations are limiting themselves to formal learning channels – and in some cases, not even that. 

Let me provide the context first. A few months ago, I wrote a piece suggesting this was the time for the L&D profession to begin to influence the hybrid working debate. This was when employees were gradually returning to offices, and employers were figuring out hybrid working and hybrid learning – an integrated experience with remote and face-to-face learning.

What goes on in a classroom or its virtual equivalent is just one part of workplace learning; the smallest part in L&D’s oft used 70/20/10 model – learning on the job and from others (70%), social and peer group learning (20%) and formal learning programmes (10%). So we need to take a holistic view of learning. The challenge is to cultivate and encourage learning through doing and interacting with peers.

That’s why I suggested there was a bigger question around how organisations could continue to build their people capability in a world likely to be dominated by hybrid working. How can people learn from peers if they are only physically with their colleagues one or two days per week, if at all? How do you create work patterns that give people time to practise and apply new skills? How do you give them space to consolidate and reflect on what they’ve learned and experienced? How can you do any of this if people’s days are filled with back-to-back video calls?

Part of the answer lies in thinking about new work patterns, redesigned offices, equipment and collaboration spaces. We decided to include a few questions about this in our survey. Answers to two key questions show how leaders in charge of workforce learning are responding in different ways.

Adapting workspaces for a hybrid future

When asked how personally involved they are with any discussions around designing their organisation’s future workspaces, just under half responded positively.

“Heavily involved”, “fully involved”, “part of a management group”, “fully present in all decision-making”; you get the gist.  So far, so good; they’re clearly helping to plan for their employees’ return to the office.

However, another question asked how their workforce’s specific L&D needs are being factored into workplace design. There were fewer encouraging responses here.

I was pleased to read “Different spaces available for different types of activity and learning,” from a public sector operations leader. “More collaboration spaces and the technical set-up to support more VC [virtual conferencing],” added a utilities sector respondent.

“More VC and hybrid meeting space, so people working remotely aren’t disadvantaged during sessions or meetings,” said one HR professional in the financial services sector.

One HR lead in a small professional services firm gave the answer that I’d been hoping to see more of: “[I’ve been] involved in discussing with stakeholders in each area about how they might best ensure appropriate learning and development within their teams. It’s the loss of on-the-job learning experiences that we are concerned about.”

Sadly, such answers were few and far between. I fear while respondents are involved in the discussions around hybrid working, there’s not much focus on what this means in terms of L&D provision or being able to learn within ‘the flow of work’ as we like to call it. 

Making learning effective for hybrid working

Let’s have a look at some responses to the second question: how are your workforce’s L&D needs being factored into workplace design? Here, many respondents talked about a rise in online learning.

“More virtual learning”, some said. Others added: “Learning from home through online courses”; “[our] needs are being met online”; “improving online options for home learning; fewer people in physical meetings”; and “a vast number of e-learning opportunities for those individuals at home or on worksites”.

Now, the rise of online learning is not in itself a bad thing. I’d advocate for the key role it needs to play. As a learning delivery mechanism, it accelerated during the pandemic – a way of transferring knowledge and new ideas and developing vitally important new skills.  However, the amount of focus on online learning here makes me wonder if people see it as the only viable learning option going forward. It suggests to me that people see L&D as something that will happen elsewhere, away from the office.

Perhaps L&D is a victim of its own success in how it rolled out virtual learning. Perhaps we’re yet to fully move on from the learning mindset that emerged during lockdown to really contemplate what learning needs to look like in a hybrid world. While the progress in virtual learning in the past 24 months has been fantastic, I don’t think it can be the only answer. Again, we need to do more to enable learning on the job and from peers.

How can we do this in a hybrid working world? I think we need to get to grips with this in the coming months. In my own business, we are experimenting with different approaches to find out what works best for different learners and work patterns. We’re currently trying ‘protected learning time’ for the entire team each week, which gives us all a break from Teams fatigue and builds in time to reflect, study and learn. Early results are promising, and other experimental initiatives are also under way.

For now, I want to end on an upbeat note – our early findings show that over three-quarters of respondents are actively considering learning as part of their hybrid workforce strategy. Around two-thirds already use virtual learning, with a further one-fifth planning to do so shortly. Additionally, around half say they’ll be using hybrid learning within the next 1-2 years.

All very positive. Now we just need to think about the bigger picture. Keep an eye out for the full report coming soon with a glimpse of what that could look like.