Long reads

Has Covid-19 sparked an L&D revolution?

4 Jun 2020 By Elizabeth Howlett

Faced with slashed budgets and furloughed team members, learning professionals have nonetheless turned creative in a crisis

Coronavirus has forced our hand. It is a catalyst for a long-overdue learning innovation.” So says Andy Lancaster, head of L&D content at the CIPD, summarising the impact of the current crisis on learning and development within organisations. Indeed, it is often said that necessity is the mother of invention, so – hard as it may be to imagine as we persevere through enduringly tough times – is it possible coronavirus has catalysed something of a positive L&D revolution?

John Amaechi, founder of Amaechi Performance Services, certainly thinks so. “We are further along now than we would have been without Covid-19 because we are having to think of different modalities and different content elements for the development of our people,” he says, adding the slight caveat: “Covid-19 hasn’t radically shifted L&D, but it has accelerated it.”

So it seems learning is finally developing. Previous roadblocks facing L&D practitioners eager to innovate have been torn down by coronavirus – chiefly, and most noticeably, the long-ingrained status quo of classroom-based learning. As Lancaster points out: “Technology is playing a vital part across the whole pandemic scenario. We now see that technology is no longer an option but a necessity in so many situations. So it’s forced many organisations that didn’t have an adequate digital learning infrastructure or delivery plan to invest in one.”

And this has been true for L&D professionals on the ground, according to a People Management survey of 210 readers on how L&D offerings have been affected by the pandemic. A majority of 75 per cent said they had changed the way some or all training was delivered as a result of coronavirus, with 50 per cent saying they had made training available online. Only 15 per cent already offered courses online before the crisis hit, confirming the virus’s critical role in forcing organisations’ hands on this and prompting them to quickly adapt.

Such a rapid digital adoption has certainly been the case at London housing association Network Homes, which was in the middle of a digital transformation of L&D when the pandemic reached the UK. “Last year we went through a massive business transformation project,” explains Denise Manmohansingh​, learning and development manager, who wanted to shift the organisation from predominantly face-to-face one-day courses with external stakeholders, to more digitised, self-directed learning options. “Then coronavirus came and it fast-tracked us to where we wanted to go in the digital world, and changed our L&D programme. We converted training into bite-size videos and changed one-day courses with a class of 24 into two-hour modules with cohorts of eight. We trialled modular bite-size training in March and found it was best to limit training to two hours maximum and have breaks in between.” 

Network Homes is not alone in – beyond just moving courses wholesale to a virtual environment – ensuring they are adapted to suit this very different delivery method. When asked how courses had been adapted for online delivery, 60 per cent of People Management survey respondents said they had made courses shorter to support concentration levels, with 60 per cent creating a virtual classroom environment and 40 per cent including more video content. 

“We often talk about learning in the flow of work, but now we need to look at learning in the flow of life,” says Lancaster, who advocates adapting digital learning and tailoring it to specific employee groups, rather than a ‘lift and shift’ approach to moving content online. “You cannot just think one size fits all or one organisational platform will sort it. Everybody is in a unique situation, and therefore we need to think about a human-centred approach to learning and how it works for people.” 

This again has been very much the approach taken by Network Homes. “We are now able to implement programmes that aren’t one size fits all and create a bespoke offering for departments that need it more,” says Manmohansingh. 

But while evidence of positive rapid digital innovation within L&D abounds, there are still numerous challenges for the function to contend with; most notably L&D staff having been furloughed and – most vitally, and potentially significant long term – decreased budgets. Encouragingly, reductions in L&D staff because of furlough did not seem to be drastically affecting People Management readers, with 70 per cent of respondents reporting no L&D staff had been furloughed. However, of the 30 per cent who said L&D team members had been furloughed, 56 per cent saw headcounts cut by more than 75 per cent. 

These latter findings are corroborated by Eleanor Walker, people and development consultant at Atkinson HR Consulting, who suggests furlough activity has ground some L&D operations to a halt. “People in my network have been furloughed or the majority of their L&D teams have been furloughed and, as a result, their offering has either gone or drastically reduced,” she reports. “The impact is varying. Some organisations are operating in a really lean way and are focused on what is necessary, while others are doing nothing at all. There is a real mix.” 

Amaechi agrees L&D teams can rise – and in many cases have risen – to the challenge of headcount reductions. But budget cuts make innovation near impossible, he feels: “If firms are looking at L&D as the ‘make do and mend’ function or the people who can turn scraps into something remarkable, they are kidding themselves. A transformation in L&D can’t be done without a budget.”

Encouragingly, three-fifths (62 per cent) of L&D professionals have not had to contend with a reduced budget. But for the 38 per cent who have faced cuts, 58 per cent have seen budgets shrink by more than 75 per cent

But there are still ample opportunities to drive through positive lasting change, according to Lancaster. “It’s absolutely clear that there are financial pressures on organisations, which might mean budget cuts,” he says. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t innovate. At the CIPD we are seeing that organisations are beginning to do many innovative things because of the pressure they are under with reduced budgets, and I think we should look for the positives in this.” 

David Collings, professor of human resources at Dublin City University (DCU), says L&D has adapted to leaner times by valuing content curation over content creation. Offering insight into ongoing DCU research, Collings reports that when HR leaders were asked what they needed for the future, “they spoke about the importance of the curation of online content. Not so much the generation of it, but helping colleagues navigate the content that was out there and identify content most suited to their needs.”

Pointing staff to free pre-existing online content has been key for Manmohansingh. “It has enhanced our use of YouTube, Ted Talks, LinkedIn Learning and free videos. It has really made [the L&D team] go out into social platforms more to find out what’s available to support our staff,” she says.

Coronavirus has not only shifted the classroom online and raised the importance of content curation, it has also changed what employees want to learn about. More than half of People Management’s survey respondents (53 per cent) saw uptake in role-specific courses decrease by more than 75 per cent, with a perhaps surprising 80 per cent seeing uptake for mental wellbeing training reduce by more than 75 per cent. Additionally, more than half (56 per cent) saw uptake for line manager training drop by more than 75 per cent. By contrast, demand for financial wellbeing training experienced the most dramatic uplift, with 70 per cent of respondents noticing a 10 per cent increase in demand. 

The results suggest that a focus on soft skills such as wellbeing and manager training is yet to crystallise. But Lancaster predicts it will, and urges employers to realise the great importance of such areas going forwards. He reports that the CIPD is now managing many more enquiries on “remote managing, collaborative working and digital skills”, than before coronavirus hit.

“What we are seeing is the dialling up of softer skills in the crisis – but they have always been important skills that underpin organisations,” says Lancaster, adding that they will only become more so. “At the heart of all organisations is the need for productivity and performance, and we know that soft skills underpin effective team working. I think that is something we are beginning to see now.” Manmohansingh adds the example of frontline customer service directorate staff at her organisation being given access to webinars on managing change – a much softer skill than previously associated with this cohort. This reflects the fact that “their role has completely changed to being homebound and talking to customers digitally”, she says.

But what of the future of L&D? Will these recent changes definitely stick? Is it reasonable to assume that digital learning will become ubiquitous, leaving its traditional counterpart  – face-to-face classroom learning – a thing of the past? Collings says he would be “very surprised” if coronavirus sounded the death knell for classroom-based learning. “I think a key question is: why would we make those changes? A lot of the narrative now is around extremes of moving completely one way or the other,” he says. “I think when things are settled, we will see more classroom training, because some things are better done in a classroom. In the short term, classroom learning will be impacted but in the long term I think we will find an equilibrium.”

But Lancaster feels most of the recent changes are here to stay. “The reason I say yes [they will stick] confidently, is that L&D has been thinking about these solutions for a long time. It has just taken a global crisis to bring them to the fore.”

How coronavirus has transformed Dorchester Collection’s approach to training

Dorchester Collection manages three hotels in the UK: The Dorchester, 45 Park Lane and Coworth Park in Ascot. It also has sites in France and Italy, and two hotels in Los Angeles. These are all currently closed. The hotel brand has remained partially open for guests who live there full time, but none of its 700 staff are on site – approximately 20 per cent are working remotely and the remainder are furloughed on full pay. Government guidelines suggest hotels could reopen in ‘phase three’ of the UK’s lockdown exit plan, which could see the company legally able to open its doors to the public in July. 

The Dorchester brand is renowned for refined customer service and five-star luxury. So the coronavirus crisis has created a conundrum for its chief people and culture officer, Eugenio Pirri, who must now reconfigure the ‘high touch’ elements that were once the lifeblood of the hospitality industry. “L&D is going to be elevated coming out of this pandemic because we are having to look at new procedures and new ways of doing things,” says Pirri, who is currently reworking the old approach to suit the ‘new normal’. “How do you social distance when you are serving someone food, or trying to check them in?”

Pirri has created a new onboarding programme – which he has dubbed ‘Re-engage’ – ready for when the company’s employees return. “We have already started doing videos and virtual sessions to prepare people for what that’s going to look like,” explains Pirri. “When people come back to work they will have to be taught entirely different processes – for example, hourly cleaning rotas (where it was previously every four hours). You have to re-educate and re-engage everyone, even if they have worked with us for 20 years.”

Because some guests permanently reside at Dorchester Collection’s Mayfair premises, Pirri has been given a “great opportunity” to plan training, service standards, cleanliness and social distancing safely live on site already. The training mainly consists of role-playing (which can be done in person while observing social distancing or virtually), with the pandemic giving Pirri “a whole new set of scenarios” to consider.

“I also have to think about the fact most of our employees wear uniforms. How do they pick that uniform up? How do they change in the changing rooms with social distancing? And how do they sit in the canteen? 

“To me that’s a huge training programme because people will naturally revert back to what they are used to doing. We have an obligation to retrain and re-educate our staff for both pre and post Covid-19 vaccination.” 

When the workforce returns, Pirri envisages they will be working in teams with varied shift patterns. “You have to get really smart about how you’re scheduling and crafting the teams,” he explains. “If heaven forbid someone gets sick then there will be another team ready to replace them.” 

Regarding whether the crisis has shifted the L&D focus towards mental, physical and financial wellbeing, he says: “I think learning has always been very operational and this crisis has given us the opportunity to heighten mental health training, wellbeing and work/life balance awareness. 

“We already had an employee platform that had resources on wellbeing, but we have definitely upped the ante in this period. We have signed up to external partners to provide additional training and webinars for managers, and we’ve got a robust training programme for staff to upskill in these areas if they choose to.” 


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