Head of Learning Innovation, Huthwaite International | Senior Consultant, Learnworks Ltd
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Redesigning L&D for the new hybrid world of work

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The L&D profession has been operating in ‘crisis mode’ for the past year. Now that the dust has begun to settle, it’s time to assess what we’ve learned this year and for the real work to begin. We must adapt workplace learning to add greater value in the new hybrid working environment.

2nd Jun 2021
Head of Learning Innovation, Huthwaite International | Senior Consultant, Learnworks Ltd
Columnist
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In the last year or so, most of us have had to deal with a rising demand for L&D programmes that are Covid-safe. The go-to solution for many was virtual – using videoconference technology to deliver virtual classrooms and webinars to meet demand, and help workers adapt to a changed world of work.

Like those who will return to the workplace one or two days per week, we need to reframe our approaches. 

Some of those programmes were, inevitably, short-term. They existed to fix an immediate problem of working from home or adapting to Covid-19 restrictions, using unfamiliar technology, or protecting our mental wellbeing in a world of work to which we were unaccustomed.

Some of those programmes will need to endure because the new requirements still exist and our capability to navigate this new hybrid world requires further attention; or because the programmes we redesigned were meeting ongoing and long-term requirements.

This means that as we emerge from lockdown, now is a good time to take stock of what’s worked, what do we want to keep (and what we want to jettison) and what work remains.

Virtual worked

L&D teams that saw the lockdown as an opportunity to learn how virtual sessions can support team and individual capability have – for the most part – been pleasantly surprised that the results were pretty good. I have certainly heard both participants and facilitators say that they prefer them. There are two key factors here:

  • A) Short, more numerous sessions work better than trying to replicate whole days in the classroom with whole days on a videoconference. However much we use breakouts and other interaction tools, virtual learning demands concentration and focus, which is different from being in a classroom where you are able/required to physically move as you engage.
     
  • B) Replacing days in a classroom with short sessions provides the opportunity to intersperse these sessions with ‘just in time’ access to resources and activities, delivered online and asynchronously. This development of traditional blended solutions has led to another thing we want to keep hold of.

Learning journeys

Having escaped the tyranny of the two-day classroom event, we can now create meaningful learning journeys that support integration of learning into work and provide a coherent flow of new content with practice and application activities integral to the learning process. Having set up an application activity, the subsequent virtual sessions are much richer, based on a shared experience of trying something new and reflecting on what this means for each individual.

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Peer-to-peer and manager-to-learner support

Under the new conditions, peer-to-peer and manager-to-learner support became more of a reality. When there are clear workplace activities to support, and points where engagement with your line manager or others going through the learning journey adds value, this seems like a complete no-brainer to me.

Let’s be honest: previous attempts to utilise learning teams or managers as coaches was an uphill struggle. Organisations said their managers didn’t have time and – at least tacitly – expected training to happen independently of anything in the workplace. The experience of the last year or so has been that countering these arguments has been much easier. It’s not perfect – managers still seem reluctant to get involved in supporting team members’ capability and the organisation of work doesn’t routinely enable people to try new things and learn from their mistakes – but we have made progress and need to push on.

By contrast, the things we need to jettison are pretty simple to figure out. Get rid of:

  • Long, lecture-based virtual sessions: they are dull and – worse – ineffective.
     
  • Training that ‘cures’ performance problems: it’s rare that being in a workshop or classroom session solves much on its own. Be honest that change may be accelerated or initiated by a course, but on their own most courses achieve very little by way of improved performance.
     
  • Learning that is exclusively knowledge based: without a clear link to people being able to do things differently and actually doing different things, we shouldn’t be designing a learning intervention at all. Delivering virtually doesn’t change the reality that learning for the workplace requires experience in the workplace.

Workflow learning

This brings me to work we need to do. A phrase much used and abused in recent times is ‘agile development’. This is an iterative process of build, test, refine and repeat. Its basis is the minimum viable product (MVP) where we get something out there that is ok – it meets a need – bit it isn’t the final version. MVP is tech-speak for ‘not quite finished yet’.

When we look at things we have created – whether it’s designs for virtual sessions, supporting digital modules and resources or workplace tasks – it’s neither unexpected nor unrealistic to think that these are MVPs. The need for a rapid and emergency response has meant that perfect was not expected and we have produced things that are ok, but now need the wrinkles removing to make them good enough to remain as a long-term solution.

Workflow learning has been boosted by the pandemic, but we’ve all learned that it’s much trickier than the advocates of 70:20:10 or other simplistic overviews would admit to. Getting it right and getting it done will require much more work with the business to get everyone on board and to create the expectation that we provide inputs but you need to do the learning. We have been guilty of comforting people in the assumption that we can do it all for them: we can’t, we never could and we shouldn’t allow the belief that we can to endure.

What about face-to-face?

There is some evidence that demand for face-to-face courses is re-emerging. We need to be realistic. There is a growing demand for home-based or ‘hybrid’ working. If we accept that most office workers who were able to work at home want to continue doing so at least part of the time, then why should we expect them to return to the classroom?

Let’s not forget that more than half the UK workforce was not able to work from home. They’ve either been adapting what they do to be Covid-safe or they’ve been furloughed. When furloughed, a lack of clarity about the rules meant that, although they could be trained, many weren’t. Of course, in the UK government’s mind, training is separate from work – yeah, I know!

Like those who will return to the workplace one or two days per week, we need to reframe our approaches to include some face-to-face activity – but only where we can show a definite value (because it costs a fortune in travel, accommodation, venue hire and catering – it needs to offer a return).

How about a learning journey that kicks off with a face-to-face session and ends with one? The bits in the middle can include virtual sessions, digital modules and resources and work-based tasks. We have shown it works, so let’s be flexible, adaptable and pragmatic.

Overall, the L&D profession has stepped up to the mark during the pandemic. Now is not the time to take our foot off the pedal, but to build on the sound foundations we have laid in extreme circumstances.

Interested in this topic? Read 10 tips for learning and development in a hybrid working world.

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