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The development dip: Has remote working stopped us learning?

Working from home has made our lives easier but the art of absorbing knowledge and expertise from others much harder.

By Sarah Dawood

Remote working has been liberating, releasing us from the shackles of the office and helping us hone our own perfect environment and schedule. But while it can be freeing, it can also be incredibly isolating.

Young workers and early career professionals have particularly felt the impact of working from home, which while providing more autonomy has also typically meant less hands-on support, fewer opportunities to network and a limited capacity to learn from others.

According to LinkedIn research, more than two-thirds of those aged 16-34 believe the pandemic has impacted their professional learning, and four out of five say they are out of practice with tasks such as speaking to clients or delivering presentations. Four in ten business leaders also say that young people have struggled to build meaningful relationships with colleagues.

A combination of the pandemic and advancements in technology has shifted the world of work permanently. So, how can less experienced individuals continue to learn new skills as we move to a hybrid model?

Which skills have we lost?

Unsurprisingly, social and communication skills are high on the list of those negatively impacted by the pandemic. Business leaders and CEOs say learning by “osmosis” from being around more experienced colleagues, developing soft skills and networking are the key experiences that young workers have missed out on. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that Covid-19 decreased workers’ participation in such “informal” learning by 25 per cent.

Lee Chambers, business psychologist and founder at workplace well-being company Essentialise, says many soft skills – such as telephone manner, managing conflicts, collaborating and even office etiquette – are learnt through observation. “You can’t read a book to learn these things,” he says. “It’s very much something that you just pick up. Remote working can be challenging because you don’t have the chance to observe people in more senior positions and how they handle things.”

The autonomy surrounding working from home has its downsides. While nobody likes a micromanager, the lack of “watercooler moments” and informal dialogue can often leave inexperienced employees feeling isolated, with no one to turn to when they have questions, says Chambers; feedback is reserved for formal meetings, with fewer opportunities to learn from mistakes.

People’s confidence and public speaking skills have also suffered; putting a hand up on Zoom lacks the immediacy of interjecting in real life, while delivering a virtual presentation lacks the audience interaction and pressure that comes from having a physical audience. “It’s the implicit, non-tangible interactions with other people that are missing,” says occupational psychologist Emma Russell. “They affect how we absorb, consolidate and practice new skills and information.”

The rise of online learning

While organic or “informal” learning has been hindered, research suggests there has been a significant increase in enthusiasm for and availability of formal digital learning courses. The OECD found that Google searches for online learning increased fourfold between March and April 2020, while research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found over half of employers surveyed were using online learning in 2020 compared to less than a third in 2015.

“It’s the implicit, non-tangible interactions with other people that are missing online”

Online courses have the beauty of ease – they don’t require travel and can be done from anywhere. This accessibility has empowered more individuals to invest in their own personal development. “Some education has become more liberated,” says Chambers. “People are able to source it themselves now, which is a powerful mechanism for taking ownership of your own learning.”

Virtual learning does have its drawbacks, especially for payroll employees – a lack of physical separation means employers often expect staff to carry on their daily activities while doing training, and it can be difficult to switch off from digital “pinging”. “Younger employees are less likely to have trained their attention over the years, simply because of the dynamic nature of the world they’ve grown up in,” says Chambers. “It’s not the best learning environment.”

The accessibility of homeworking

The upside is that remote working has inevitably improved people’s proficiency around technology, says Russell, and has encouraged people to be more independent and proactive, whether through seeking their own learning or networking.

Virtual learning is also much more accessible for those who have previously been locked out of education, such as single parents, people with disabilities and those from rural areas. Anecdotal evidence suggests that working from home could be preferable for neurodiverse individuals, who may struggle with non-verbal or subtle communication. For instance, the “explicit rules and structures” around using Zoom, such as “raising a hand” when you want to talk, can be easier for someone with autism to understand, says Russell.

Alex McNally, a 24-year-old who runs his own podcast production company, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and says the flexibility of homeworking has allowed him to work in the evenings when he is most productive, while virtual client pitches feel less overwhelming. The ability to open a browser tab to research during a call also helps him, as he struggles prepping prior to meetings. “Being in control of my own time and being able to network from home where I’m most comfortable has just improved my skills base incredibly,” he says.

How have employers tackled remote learning?

Many companies have rethought learning and development to enrich people’s experience from home. A prolific employer of young people, Deloitte hired 1,600 graduates and school-leavers last year. It spent nearly £30m on learning and development, including a virtual induction programme to help new starters with soft skills such as delivering presentations and facilitating meetings, and gamified “networking quests” about the art of building contacts. Learning materials on topics such as receiving feedback were made available and line managers were trained on how to lead in a virtual environment.

To accompany the digital learning portfolio, the company created bespoke collaboration spaces within its physical offices purely for teamwork, fitted with large screens for hybrid meetings. The idea was to encourage “formal” learning at home and “informal” team-learning in the office when government guidance allowed it. “We transformed the workplace into a workspace,” says Sharron Pamplin, UK partner for HR at Deloitte. “We ran different types of learning in those different environments to suit employees’ needs.”

Consumer goods giant Unilever also invested in virtual learning, including workshops where employees participated in groups to ascertain their personal strengths. Patrick Hull, vice president for the future of work, says that “small cohorts” are crucial to online learning: “When it gets big, you lose that intimacy and ability to interact, especially around soft skills.”

To tackle feelings of isolation, Unilever also increased interaction between senior leadership and employees, holding a monthly live stream with the CEO where employees could ask and upvote anonymous questions. Employee trust in senior leadership is currently at its highest levels ever, he says, and nearly nine in ten new joiners feel satisfied with their onboarding process.

The future of workplace training

As we move to hybrid working, managers should build younger colleagues’ confidence by giving them a voice at the table and creating “intergenerational connections”, says Chambers – finding commonalities, supporting them to lead projects, and celebrating small victories. “I’ve heard people say things like ‘Generation Z are entitled, they lack a work ethic’,” he says. “That kind of rhetoric doesn’t acknowledge that this has been a challenging situation for young people.”

“You wouldn’t trust a pilot to fly a plane if they had just done the online course”

Salvatore Nigro, chief executive at global education non-profit JA Europe, adds that companies should invest in proper onboarding programmes so that young people can understand how the business works and who decision-makers are. “If young people do not fully understand the dynamics of an office, that first step in their career is hampered,” he says.

Frequent communication is also vital to help employees feel heard, through line manager check-ins and staff surveys. “Where leaders are investing their time and attention in their direct reports, we will see a more satisfied and hopefully better-equipped workforce,” says Russell.

The siloed nature of remote working means that teamwork has suffered – so collaborative work should be reserved for the office while personal work should be done at home, says Unilever’s Hull. “Creativity and collaboration are contact sports,” he says. “Virtual brainstorming sessions are not the same as being around the table, riffing off one another’s ideas.”

Giving new starters the opportunity to practice their skills in cohorts will also mean they can learn from each other. “It’s not just knowledge transfer, it’s how you apply that knowledge,” he adds. “We wouldn’t trust a pilot to fly a plane if they had just read the manual or done the online course. They need to do the simulator and do their training runs with a more experienced pilot.”

Life skills will be vital

Small businesses that can’t afford to develop their own virtual learning materials can seek out resources online – the government offers a Skills Toolkit of free courses, while public body Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) provides employee training. “I’d encourage people who don’t have the collateral themselves to look at what other organisations have made widely available,” says Deloitte’s Pamplin.

The education sector also has a role to play; entrepreneurial skills should be integrated into school curriculums, says Hull, to better prepare young people for the world of work while boosting the economy by creating future entrepreneurs. “Making money seems to be a dirty word in education,” he says. “But those skills of curiosity, collaboration and creative problem-solving are so critical to succeed in the workplace. Individuals who come into our organisation equipped with that kind of mindset are more adaptable and resilient.” Free national employability programmes would teach young people from all backgrounds essential workplace skills, adds Nigro, such as how to conduct interviews or write a CV.

Most importantly, the next generation of workers will need to be proactive and inquisitive, expanding their knowledge and contacts through LinkedIn, podcasts, articles and talks. “It can be easy to get limited by your little screen,” says Hull. “But there’s a wealth of experience and insight out there. Finding interesting people outside of your normal realm to get inspiration from is going to be key.”

Remote working is here to stay, at least in some capacity. The past two years have been a period of adjustment that have made it harder for all of us, particularly those new to the world of work, to form relationships and practice crucial interpersonal skills. As we move into a hybrid model, our proficiency in soft skills will not depend on chance encounters but on making a conscious effort to learn them.

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