How to fill the gap left by peer-to-peer learning

We’re missing out on informal training while remote working, says Helena Sharpstone – but there are ways to overcome what’s lacking

How to fill the gap left by peer-to-peer learning

Who did you learn from in the early stages of your career? Whether you were aware or not at the time, you were surrounded by good and bad examples of how to do things in your chosen field and they will have informed your choices as you progressed.

Learning from others has particular relevance at the moment with the temporary physical separation from our colleagues and bosses. Many of us have been working remotely for more than four months now and while return is on the horizon, it’s a slow return and for some, the office as we knew it is likely to be an occasional base rather than a permanent one.

If we produced a word cloud of the most used phrases and words this year, ‘Zoom’, ‘Teams’ and ‘you need to take yourself off mute’ would feature in large print. They have become a reality of how we work and connect with others. But they can also be a terrible energy sapper, with many of us experiencing screen fatigue. We lament the loss of the warm body experience, of meetings, away days, retreats, and events. It is exciting to see a cautious return to these on the horizon, to fill a gap that just can’t be filled remotely.

But actually, there’s another gap caused by Covid that needs filling. When we ask our clients what they are missing about the office, top of the list is those little nuggets of learning that happen simply because we are near others. It’s sitting next to your boss when they informally debrief with you on a tough negotiation they’ve just been part of. It’s hearing someone opposite you handle a call really well. It’s sitting in a meeting and seeing it chaired professionally. Sometimes it is the counterexample – a conversation handled badly, a conflict that escalates, an ill-thought out decision where we learn how not to do something. 

At the moment with work as it is, we’re missing these opportunities to learn and to teach. This is a particular problem for our younger colleagues, who rely on these opportunities to develop and grow. So what can we do until they can once again happen naturally?

If you’re experienced and in a position to teach, find opportunities to do so. Include slots for learning in your regular team meetings. Talk to the team about some of the challenges in your week and how you’ve sought to overcome them. Share highlights and lowlights of the month, what you learned and what you’d do differently next time. Let them in to your thinking and the thinking of your peers. Tell them what you discuss. Be generous with your knowledge whenever you can because at the moment, they can’t pick it up simply from you being near.

If you’re in a position to learn – ask more questions. Show interest. Be fascinated by others’ work and quiz them on their hints, tips and shortcuts. So many of us have been in ‘head down, keep going’ mode. Learn to lift your head up and look beyond your own job. Volunteer for tasks and projects that will stretch you and request proper briefings and regular debriefing, so you know how you are progressing in those tasks and projects. Ask yourself what you want to be able to add to your CV a year from now and set about gathering those skills and experiences.

It isn’t complicated – you just have to make time for it and see it as a valuable part of work. Some organisations have never been busier, but others are facing tough times ahead. More than ever, growing talent and keeping good people are a priority – and you keep good people when they feel they are growing. Let’s make this a year where we all learnt, not purely through adversity, but also just because we were at work and that’s where the learning happens – even if your current workplace is the spare room, the kitchen table or the end of your bed.

Helena Sharpstone is co-director of Sharpstone Skinner