How does L&D need to adapt after Covid?

Following almost two years of upheaval, People Management asked a handful of practitioners about the challenges – and opportunities – the pandemic brought to workplace learning

How does L&D need to adapt after Covid?

It’s no secret that since March 2020, the people profession has been turned upside down. But with the switch to remote working for many also came a huge shift for L&D, with face-to-face training becoming impossible almost overnight, and teams needing to overhaul their offerings in a matter of days. Indeed, the CIPD and Accenture’s 2021 Learning and Skills at Work report found 70 per cent of the 1,200 organisations polled had increased their use of digital solutions in the previous 12 months, and more than a third (36 per cent) said their investment in learning technology had increased in the previous year. Almost seven in 10 (69 per cent) also reported that they were innovating in their use of learning technology.

But the silver lining to the cloud of strategic changes was perhaps an increased appreciation of L&D: less than a third (31 per cent) of survey respondents said they had seen learning budgets cut in the preceding 12 months, and a similar number (32 per cent) saw L&D headcounts reduced.

With learning at every organisation having fared differently, People Management spoke to eight L&D practitioners about the challenges Covid brought, and how the profession needs to adapt in 2022 and beyond.

“We need to dispel the myth about what L&D is”

Karen Fox, leadership and talent consultant at RSA insurance

What’s been your experience of L&D during the pandemic?

‘Pivoting’ is the phrase that comes to mind. Particularly around delivering training virtually – we had done a little before the pandemic, but suddenly it was our only option. We had to redesign a lot of our training and create content based on the queries we were getting, like managing remote teams. At the same time, we had to equip people with the skills to deliver virtual learning.

What have been the biggest positives for L&D from Covid?

People have had to adapt to challenges like being airlifted into other teams. We’ve seen some real bonding – people that had never met working together. And we tried to support this through guidance and targeted workshops.

What will be the biggest challenge for L&D in 2022?

Making time for personal development. Covid has seen people’s roles expanded or changed, and it will look different for each company. But alongside new hybrid ways of working, it’s an easy thing to neglect, so how do we encourage people to find time? Many people think development is a means to an end, but we all need to develop ourselves to keep our skills relevant. None of us is a finished article and there’s always something to improve, so we have to help dispel the myth of what learning and development is.

“Requests for hybrid are a big challenge”

Sukhvinder Pabial, senior learning strategist at Challenging Frontiers and former global talent development partner

What’s the biggest challenge for L&D at the moment?

The many requests for hybrid learning – I don’t even know how to define that. Does it mean you have some people in a room and some virtual? Does it mean you have different forms of learning available in different ways? I don’t know how you build a hybrid learning programme if you can’t agree on what it looks like.

How will the focus on remote change L&D in the long term?

Before Covid, I think we got lost in the rhetoric around things like bite-size learning, ‘Netflix for learning’ or rapid learning. In some cases, those will be relevant, but long-form programmes for upskilling are also important. Lots of people think long-form learning and remote learning can never cross over, but they can – you just have to do it in the right way. We’ve never given virtual learning a chance – most organisations are still asking for either bite-size learning or an event.

How can L&D work better with organisations?

L&D has to step up and say “this is what good looks like” and “if you want to retain your staff, this is how we can provide great learning opportunities”.

“It’s made me a far better trainer”

Chris Watt, joint head of organisational learning at the London School of Economics  (LSE) and founder of Free Your Inner Alice 

At LSE, we had around 100 days of training courses ready to go before the pandemic hit, which we then had to unpick in mid-March 2020. The initial response was panic, but we managed to replace and relaunch everything in just four weeks. But we didn’t just replace them, we rewrote them in the context of the remote environment. An interesting learning was refocusing on the outcomes and what we were trying to achieve; it stripped us back to basic principles, which we sometimes lose because we’re so busy.

An initial mistake was to try to replicate face-to-face delivery with remote – we naively believed they were the same thing. Length is one consideration – people’s concentration on the camera doesn’t last as long and there are more distractions, so you either deliver the same material in less time, or you refine your material to key points.

If you had told me that I was going to learn entirely new skills in delivering training, which I’ve been doing for 30 years, I’d have laughed. But I’ve learned serious amounts in the last year – possibly more than in those 30 years. And now I’m better at delivering face-to-face training than I was before the pandemic.

“Covid made some aspects of training almost impossible”

Lieutenant Alexandra Head, training manager at HMS Excellent, the Royal Navy’s Portsmouth headquarters 

The pandemic made things very complicated for everybody across the entire maritime industry, because firstly, there was no travel going on and different countries had different restrictions, so trying to get trainees out to do real-life training on board ships that were deployed all around the world was almost impossible at times.

Secondly, a lot of the ships we would normally use for our at-sea training became ring-fenced as high-priority vessels, meaning the government required them to be available, so we had to expand and use platforms we had never used before – and for the at-sea training, we went from using the capital ships, frigates and destroyers to our patrol vessels. This not only meant we had to adapt our training documentation, but officers who had never trained anyone before found themselves managing trainees.

But our biggest challenge was conducting lived experience training. All military recruits undertake an initial package where they live together in close proximity, which allows them to bond with their teams – key when service personnel are sent to the frontline – and is an effective way of training and building trust because they have to share resources and work closely together. It’s essential for anyone going into a military environment, but when you add social distancing, it makes it hard to bond.

Covid restrictions also meant the new trainees missed out on down time like going to the pub. That’s why it’s important to track mental wellbeing, because they are being sent from one highly pressured environment to another with limited respite.

But, Covid aside, the Navy is looking at bringing in simulators and AI to help with the at-sea part of its training. It’s looking at using synthetic training and simulators on vessels and shoreside that can allow our sailors to get real, up-to-date information when training, no matter where they are.

“The pandemic has created a burning platform for learning”

Andrew Jacobs, founder of L&D consultancy Llarn Learning Services 

We’re at the end of the beginning in terms of the way learning and development has changed. And I say that as we still don’t know what work will look like, because only around 15 per cent of the UK population has had Covid-19. It suggests that more people could get it and so we probably have to respond accordingly.

But having said that, learning strategy – the way we design it and the way we deliver it – has already changed significantly. It’s no longer just face to face; we have a more blended approach now with online courses. 

The pandemic has created a burning platform for learning; it has forced people and organisations to fundamentally think about what they do for learning. And that’s partly down to the fact that people who were just going through the motions before have now been found out. 

For example, people are asking why they have to do a six-hour face-to-face conference or online event when it can be spread throughout the day. So it’s completely thrown the idea of what is and isn’t valid when it comes to learning up in the air

At the same time, the new ways of working and being flexible have also posed some challenges. One of these is around how we evaluate learning now. Previously, if you were looking at engagement in a room, and people are yawning or falling asleep, that can tell you something. Whereas now, somebody can turn their camera off, put themselves on mute, and have a doze if they wanted to without you even knowing. 

This is one area that’s really impacting us now, but because we’re in such a state of flux, it’s difficult to know what we’ll be doing in six months’ time, let alone a year. Therefore, the most important thing right now for L&D professionals is to be responsive and move quickly and adapt to however the world of work changes.

“We can afford to be more adventurous”

Rachel Burnham, L&D consultant and chair of the CIPD’s Manchester branch

How do you think the move to virtual learning will benefit L&D and learners?

Live online lends itself to much shorter sessions, so you can make much more use of spaced practice, opportunities for participants to embed the learning, and link it with other material to make it a truly blended approach. You can also get people to do much more reflection on what they’ve used. So there are all sorts of exciting possibilities. A lot of people in L&D hadn’t really embraced the digital approach before and had to catch up, but there’s potentially a lot of good out of that because you can come up with a really effective approach to supporting learning and impacting on performance.

Do you think the approach to live online learning needs to change?

I think we can afford to be more adventurous in the way we use it. You don’t have to be constrained to slides, polls, chat and breakout rooms, although all of those are good. Actually, you can be quite hands-on, and that’s one of the things I’ve discovered. We need to avoid rushing back to face-to-face in an unthinking way – yes, let’s keep it in the mix, but think very carefully about when it’s the right option. 

What will L&D’s biggest challenges be in 2022?

One will be helping and supporting line managers to develop skills to manage in a hybrid context. That’s not necessarily about us teaching, as if we’ve got all the answers, but instead bringing people together to reflect on what they’ve been doing that’s worked.

“Very quickly, our programmes were no longer fit for purpose”

Adnan Bajwa, head of learning and organisational development at London South Bank University (LSBU)

I remember lockdown seemed to happen very suddenly, and there was no time to really prepare. Most of our L&D programmes were face to face, and there was a sudden shift in the methodology from face to face to digital that requires a whole different skill set. Very quickly, our programmes didn’t feel fit for purpose anymore. It wasn’t that the landscape had slightly changed, it had massively changed. 

Our whole environment was geared towards face-to-face, and that was reflected in our learning offer. As well as looking at whether we had the technology to adapt our learning offer, we also had to ask if people had the technology to access it – some were fortunate to have laptops, but the majority still had desktops, which brought in issues around inclusion and digital poverty.

We used to run a staff survey once a year, but we’ve probably run 10 or more in the last two years, just with the most relevant questions that will tell us whether we need to adapt our learning offer, as well as other things like if we need to do more on wellbeing.

I think the biggest danger now is reverting back to how things were in 2019. But another consequence of the pandemic for many organisations, including mine, is the financial hit, so there’s a dual pressure to adapt the learning offer when resources are limited. So we need to look at greater utilisation of internal talent to deliver learning programmes; in the past, we would’ve just got someone in to do it for us, but we can’t do that anymore.

“How work and learning go together needs urgently reconsidering”

Valerie Anderson, professor of human resource development and education at the University of Portsmouth

What has been the biggest challenge and opportunity of Covid for L&D?

The pivot to digital learning was a huge challenge, but the L&D profession did show it can respond remarkably quickly. To some extent it was an opportunity, because for far too long many organisations have seen L&D as a bit of a luxury where nobody is quite sure of the value of the investment they’re making. The challenge now is not to be left in reactive mode and look at what learning should look like in their respective organisations in 5-10 years, and the values and principles that will enable it to function in a sustainable way. It’s a hard conversation to have, but it’s important that L&D is part of that conversation, and not left to just implement others’ good ideas.

How can L&D make sure the move to digital is sustainable in the long term?

Most organisations have achieved in a matter of months what would have taken four or five years – and it was crucial. But the practice of how work and learning go together urgently needs reconsideration. You can’t achieve as much learning online as you can informally or through on-the-job experience, so when you just decant it, that is problematic – you’re probably only dealing with 30 per cent of the problem and not the underpinning skills development process. It’s going 
to be the thing that must be addressed in 2022 and beyond, so the advances in digital can continue to be leveraged. 

How can organisations better enable and support good L&D in 2022?

The only way it will happen is if those at the top commit to a system-wide process of valuing and managing L&D in an effective way. So that means there need to be mechanisms by which priority learning needs are identified at individual and team levels, and at the organisational level, people are clear that they all have roles and responsibilities relating to L&D – it’s not just the job of an L&D function.