For many employers, gone are the days when co-workers stopped by their colleagues' desks for a quick chat, or joined them in a breakout room to walk through a demo of the newest widget. Even in workplaces that have remained open during the pandemic, social distancing practices and other measures strictly limit person-to-person contact.
Yet it's not just casual chatter at the coffee machine that has been lost due to COVID-19. Executives who spoke to HR Dive said that movement to a remote-work environment can have a tangible impact on how workers learn from their colleagues on the job.
Specifically, remote work makes it difficult for employees to "learn by osmosis," according to Lucinda Pullinger, global head of HR at workspace management company The Instant Group. The term describes the type of unconscious learning that occurs in a natural, organic, sometimes indirect way, Pullinger said in an email; "You overhear a discussion between colleagues in the workplace or hear a colleague on the phone and this triggers an idea or prompts you to ask a couple of questions that lead to an opportunity you would not have otherwise learned about."
Sometimes learning by osmosis means directly observing a co-worker's or manager's work style, said Amy Contreras, head of learning and development at Uber Freight, the ride-hailing company's commercial freight division. Though the pandemic has created concern about workers becoming disconnected, "employers are discovering that remote work presents exciting new opportunities to encourage communication between colleagues and foster a productive learning environment," she wrote in an email.
Promoting virtual interaction
One avenue for addressing this challenge is to restructure learning delivery to focus on quick-hit, bite-sized chunks, Pullinger said. The Instant Group, for example, has introduced a training program to sales employees that can deliver short bursts of content remotely, allowing employees to put training into practice immediately. And by using the same learning facilitators across the firm's different locations, employers can provide all learners with a uniform experience, she added.
Elsewhere, The Instant Group has broken learners down into smaller groups, mixing employees from different locations, "which has built relationships that would not otherwise have been as strong," according to Pullinger. Additionally, the company's use of virtual breakout rooms has also helped to make training more fun and interactive, she said.
It's an approach embraced by other employers. Siemens, for example, is using online modules to create a "future-focused learning ecosystem," said Lisa Lang, the company's head of learning and education, Americas. As part of that strategy, the company is focused on a list of objectives, such as increasing the number of learning hours per employee and using tech to make more learning more personal, flexible, mobile and engaging.
"However, digital learning is not only about having the right tools, platforms and content," Lang said in an email. "It's critical that employees have the right mindset and that Siemens creates the right culture for learning." To that end, the company has started a culture change initiative, "my growth," to provide resources for learning and career development with the message that "we believe we must be 'always learning and always growing' at Siemens," she added.
At Uber Freight, HR leaders have taken advantage of online channels such as chat rooms and video conferencing to create spaces in which employees can learn from one another, Contreras said. Platforms like Slack, Zoom and Degreed allow the company to place learners in breakout rooms, where there has been strong participation in smaller conversations, before returning to a larger central channel. This can also have the effect of leveling the playing field for participation, compared to live meetings that require workers to speak up or raise hands.
"People want to spend more time doing and learning, and less waiting for the right moment to speak up or ask for help, especially with everyone in WFH siloes — so it feels great to watch quieter, shy employees become more vocal through Slack, or grow into more confident writers with tools as simple as Google Docs," Contreras said.
Keep mentorship activities alive
In pre-pandemic times, many employers used mentorships to bring employees together for team-building and career development purposes. With the reality of remote or distanced work setting in for the long term, some companies have worked to replicate these relationships digitally.
Siemens used online coaching platform BetterUp, which offers a self-service experience and unlimited coaching hours for six-month and one-year licenses as well as micro-learning capabilities, Lang said. The company offers coaching on traditional topics as well as sleep, nutrition, communication and diversity and inclusion.
"The whole-person, data-driven approach aligned with our vision of supporting employees as they cope and adapt through times of change and uncertainty, and as they build their resilience," said Lang, who also noted Siemens' efforts to implement coaching circles that allow employees to work in cohorts on common topics with the support of coaches.
Contreras noted that HR leaders are looking to create more up-front structure within mentorship programs, in some cases bringing what she called "shadow partnerships" that formerly occurred in person into the virtual world. Experienced employees can also host group and virtual shadowing sessions to help replicate in-office, peer-to-peer learning, she said.
"Another key part of on-the-job learning is playing into employees' strengths," Contreras said. "Some people are visual learners and need feedback in writing, while others prefer to talk it out."
At the same time, not all elements of the in-person mentorship and peer-to-peer experience can be replicated online. Pullinger used the example of a sales manager overhearing a call conducted by a team member and offering feedback or coaching directly after the call. Managers, she said, are losing out on these opportunities when their reports are working outside the office.
The 'perfect time' to invest in development
That said, employers need to recognize the need to align workplace strategy with HR strategy, including L&D, when planning for the future, Pullinger added. HR directors, she said, should work with L&D colleagues to balance client and customer needs, employee preferences and strategic and operational objectives.
Employees also need to understand the need for agility, particularly in situations where they have access to limited expertise, Lang said; "The ability to rapidly learn, unlearn and relearn based on new and changing situations has never been more vital to business continuity."
It is also the "perfect time" to invest in employees' development, Pullinger said, though the stresses workers encounter both inside and outside of work should be taken into account. Each organization faces a different set of circumstances, but well-being is important across the spectrum. "Employee wellbeing cannot be separated from the health of the business so if employees are suffering and under stress it makes no commercial (not to mention moral) sense to pile additional expectations onto people," she added.