How informal, ad-hoc learning can still happen remotely

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A common concern of remote working has been the impact it’s having on informal learning, the knowledge staff receive through overhearing, collaboration and shadowing. Ashleigh Webber looks at what firms are doing to replicate ‘learning by osmosis’

Even before the pandemic, learning and development was undergoing a significant shift. Gone are the days where taking staff away from their desks to sit in a classroom was the main focus of an organisation’s training strategy. Instead, e-learning and self-directed skills development via desktop, smartphone, video and gamification, now form the lion’s share of many firms’ approach to L&D.

But what perhaps hadn’t become clear until staff were required to work from home was just how much learners, especially new starters, junior colleagues and trainees, rely on ad-hoc knowledge sharing – the ‘water cooler conversations’ and casual observation of how others work – for their own skills development.

“A lot of L&D activity happens by being in the same room as someone, hearing a conversation and watching how somebody else does their job. We don’t always notice that this is happening and it’s only as we’ve settled into remote working we see there are gaps,” says Fiona Aldridge, director of policy and research at the Learning and Work Institute.

“Training courses have a role in imparting knowledge. But it is by actually doing something, and doing it collectively, that things are learned and skills are developed. And that’s something we’re at risk of missing out on.”

Getting people together to share knowledge is easier when groups of staff know each other and naturally convene for meetings over Teams or Zoom. But it is much more difficult for new starters – especially those who have entered the workforce for the first time – to learn how things are done.

“We do heavily rely on them being part of a team for them to get up to speed,” Aldridge notes.

Learning by osmosis

Sophie Manson, senior L&D manager at Addleshaw Goddard, says this is an issue she has noticed in her firm. “Training new starters is definitely a tricky one. A lot of that happens organically within teams and a lot of their learning happens through osmosis by watching people. We’ve certainly noticed that a partner would often allow a trainee to shadow them when they’re on the phone with a client in the office, which isn’t possible at the moment,” she says.

A survey of young professionals by CEMS, an alliance of business schools and corporate partners, found that 72% felt not being able to physically network with colleagues would damage their progression, while 68% of recent masters graduates said the lack of face-to-face training would have an adverse effect on their careers.

Employer branding

Not only could this have a damaging effect on career prospects and innovation, it could also harm an employer’s brand too, suggests David Perring, director of research at HR and digital learning analyst Fosway.

“When things pick up again, we’re going to see a mass exodus of staff who don’t feel they’ve been looked after well,” he warns.

It is by actually doing something, and doing it collectively, that things are learned and skills are developed. And that’s something we’re at risk of missing out on” – Fiona Aldridge, Learning and Work Institute

So, how do firms ensure that these opportunities for informal knowledge sharing and collaboration are continued when people are working remotely?

Rebuilding communities

When we say informal learning opportunities have been lost, what we’re really saying is that organisations lack communities, says Michelle Parry-Slater, commercial learning content manager at the CIPD.

“You can still build those communities online, sustain them online, and nourish them online,” she says. “In our own team we started Tea at Three; an informal coming together of the learning team for a chat, support and ideas sharing. People also hosted quizzes, scavenger hunts, pilates, and we enjoyed time together. Positive learning consequences came out of these activities, too.”

Perring says firms should consider using virtual meeting tools in different ways. “For example, they can be used for coaching, rather than just establishing output on a project or checking in with people.

“We need to recalibrate our actions and get more out of the touchpoints we have with our people and teams,” he says.

Replicating spontaneous interaction

April Vale, senior learning & development advisor at Peters & Peters, said the firm has attempted to reproduce as much ‘informal’ knowledge-sharing activity as possible online, running team chats, inductions with ‘buddies’, mentoring schemes and departmental knowledge-sharing sessions, as well as encouraging senior people to screen-share with junior colleagues to review their work.


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“It’s inevitably challenging to replicate the informal ‘learning by osmosis’ that once existed face-to-face in the office,” she says. “We recognise that this is particularly important for our trainees and junior associates, for whom experiential learning is vital.

“Having well equipped buddies, peer support, mentors, and supervisors provides more open channels for informal learning. Making knowledge sharing and informal roundtable discussions the focus of training sessions and meetings can help too, as well as signposting internal ‘experts’ more clearly. Problem-solving and team tasks can bring people together to learn informally, and regular virtual social events can help replicate spontaneous interactions.”

Cross-departmental projects

Perring suggests offering people the opportunity to take part in a project that they would not normally be part of in their day to day role, which involves people across different departments and specialisms, would help develop skills in a practical, less structured way.

“Action learning was not a big feature before the pandemic, and indeed during the pandemic, but it’s something that people need to do more of,” he advises.

“One thing we’ve seen, and can be successful, is organisations starting to offer more gigs and project work that can be used to develop skills and expertise. This pandemic has highlighted the need for us all to enhance our skills and perhaps reskill, so organisations should encourage people from different departments to get involved in projects that may develop the new skills they need.”

Day-to-day learning

It is also useful to remember that people learn new skills in their everyday lives that can be beneficial to their career development. Evening and weekend learning was particularly popular in the first lockdown, with Aldridge saying that 43% of adults did some form of learning during this period.

Parry-Slater says: “We are already experts in informal learning as we do it all the time in our private lives. For example, we don’t go on a course to buy a car. Instead we ask a friend or family member, research dealers, look at magazines and use the internet.

This pandemic has highlighted the need for us all to enhance our skills and perhaps reskill, so organisations should encourage people from different departments to get involved in projects that may develop the new skills they need” – David Perring, Fosway

“Informal learning allows us to put a range of skills to use that we are already well-versed in: using our network, research, sense-making, reasoning, curation, and embedding.”

Buddying and coaching

HR and L&D teams will also find that employees are often willing to ‘buddy’ with others to support them in their development and help monitor their wellbeing.

“There’s been an overwhelming sense that people want to support colleagues both at their own peer level but also those more junior to them,” says Addleshaw Goddard’s Manson.

“People are recognising that they could be supporting others with their learning and development more, because they’re not in the office to see that someone’s stressed or struggling. There’s definitely a sense that people should be pulling together and helping each other out.”

Mentoring schemes

Addleshaw Goddard is currently piloting an internal coaching programme, and is offering more coaching and training to team leaders and managers around supervision and delegation of work.

Trowers & Hamlins is also planning a reverse mentoring scheme, helping its Generation Y and Z staff connect with senior leaders. Its mentoring schemes also bring people together across disciplines.

The firm’s head of learning and development John Worrall says: “We have to be more conscious and deliberate about the way we manage people. Lawyers will regularly check in with staff and include them in client meetings. Short appraisal check-ins take place three or four times a year. We have a very successful mentoring scheme for both lawyers and business services staff where more senior staff mentor more junior, and we have around 200 people involved in the scheme.”

Not quite the end of face-to-face learning

Although the pandemic saw Addleshaw Goddard shift all of its face-to-face learning activity online, Manson says there will still be a place for in-person workshop learning when people return to the workplace.

“In early March I surveyed our partners to find out their development priorities for the year and less than 3% said they would want to receive training in a way that wasn’t a face-to-face classroom,” she says. “Based on employee feedback, all of our learning up until this year had been face-to-face and delivered internally.”

Worrall adds: “Of course, some training works better face-to-face, that is unavoidable, but most can be translated into a virtual experience.”

The evolution of L&D

For many organisations, adapting their L&D strategy has not been easy, with Parry-Slater suggesting that some are still grappling with technology.

“Some have had painful realisations of what the difference is between learning platforms and team communication platforms. Others have tried to squeeze all their content into two-hour webcasts, and some have continued with face to face aspects of training because there has been no other choice,” she says.

Vale says it is likely that L&D will need to evolve once more when firms move to a hybrid home-office working model and careful communication will be needed to ensure learning can be accessed equally.

With a multitude of tools at their disposal, and employees’ willingness to learn and connect with others, there is no reason why informal knowledge-sharing, shadowing and mentoring should fade away. Often it is a matter of encouraging people to dedicate some time in their working day to supporting the development of colleagues and themselves.

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