Looking back at our 2020 L&D predictions - What we got right and wrong

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7 January 2021
Written by Speak First Linked-in icon

Looking back at our 2020 L&D predictions

“Without a real crystal ball to look into, we’ll just have to make our best predictions and wait for time to tell us how accurate they are.”

That was the disclaimer we made in our article making predictions for the shape of L&D in 2020. Of course, we always knew there was a chance for the unexpected to happen and affect the accuracy of our predictions, but we certainly hadn’t accounted for the year we got!

2020 was a year of uncertainty and surprises. The pandemic will be most people’s overriding memory, but it was also a year that feels like it’s leading towards lasting change in other areas too. It was the year an American election brought in a much different style of administration, it saw social protests, environmental challenges, the end of the Brexit transition period and so much more. It was the year that the Oxford English Dictionary declared a whole series of ‘words of the year,’ rather than the traditional one, because no single word could do justice to the experience.

At the end of all that, we think it’s time to look back and review which predictions we got right and which we got wrong. This is the first of two articles – in the second, we’ll make our predictions for 2021.


“Changing demographics are evolving how we learn, but classrooms aren’t going away”

There isn’t really a way to spin this one – classrooms had to go away for a while. Our prediction was based on the growing increase of blended learning – learning programmes which integrate multiple types of interventions, such as a mix of face-to-face and virtual classrooms. But, as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the world, more people than ever needed to work from home in order to keep themselves and their families safe. Consequently, we saw a surge in online learning and almost every face-to-face course and programme quickly became virtual.

Research found that 66% of L&D professionals spent more on virtual instructor-led training this year than in 2019, which closely mirrors the 61% who spent less on in-person instructor-led training.1 Additionally, instructor-led virtual classrooms were rated as the most successful learning platform for supporting organisations through the pandemic.2

Virtual classrooms do have many advantages, such as ease and convenience, which make them a very useful tool for the future of learning. However, face-to-face classrooms have a number of aspects which are harder to replicate online, like building social connections.

We aren’t ready to sound the death knell for face-to-face learning just yet. As the Covid-19 vaccine begins its global rollout, it seems as though life may start to return to normal. We don’t expect classroom learning to be the first thing back, but the advantages to in-person learning do mean we don’t think it’s going to be completely extinct any time soon. On the other hand, we don’t think people will stop wanting virtual learning solutions either. The most realistic scenario is that, in the coming years, the most successful programmes will be the ones that are able to seamlessly blend the best of both – which is something we did predict right (even if the timing was a bit off).


“Soft (and transferable) skills will be more important than ever”

In last year’s article, we quoted a report saying that the speed of technological change is starting to overtake our ability to adapt.3 The last 12 months have proven the incredible speed at which we can all adapt to new situations – from employees working from home, to companies having to pivot their entire strategies. The crucial skill this year has been staying agile.

We correctly predicted the increasing focus on soft skills, but hadn’t quite predicted which type of skills would be so suddenly required. A new wave of soft skills rose to the top. Programmes on leading through change, navigating ambiguity and managing virtual teams all became en vogue, as leaders had to learn new leadership skills for the new virtual age. Similarly, employees needed to learn to work and communicate virtually. In most organisations, the work didn’t change that much, but the methods of doing it and collaborating absolutely did.

From virtual communication and virtual presentation skills to understanding how to be productive working from home, the work didn’t stop, and it became the role of L&D to show people how to keep moving forward.

Also, keep in mind that those on furlough, or who unfortunately lost their jobs due to the crisis, will also have had time to learn and reskill. Learners prioritised flexible and transferable skills. Even technical skills shifted towards Excel and coding, which can be used in a range of jobs and sectors.4

Finally, we also saw a rise in unconscious bias training throughout the year. As the eyes of the world saw protests over racial equality, many organisations wanted to do their part by educating their workforce on these sensitive and important issues.


“L&D is becoming a central part of company culture”

According to LinkedIn Learning, 70% of CEOs actively champion L&D to their employees, which is up from a mere 29% in October 2019.5 Last year, we spoke about L&D being a clear sign an organisation cares about the personal development of their employees, not just viewing them as cogs in the machine. The changes this year brought has meant organisations and managers were forced to recognise the human side of their workforce. An office is an equaliser but working from home showed a wide range of experiences, abilities and equipment available to people.

The global crisis has also affected practices, with a sharp rise in internal mobility in organisations around the world. Traditionally, if a workforce had a skills gap, someone new was brought in to fill it. However, due to difficulties recruiting, onboarding or affording someone new, organisations have been looking to their existing teams and adopting an increased culture of L&D. Data shows that compared to the same period in the previous year, between April and August, internal hiring in the UK and Mexico rose by 20%, in Singapore by 21% and Germany by 25%.6

So, we’ll say we got this one about right. Once again, we didn’t expect the reason this would happen but we’re glad to see more organisations looking to L&D to develop their people.


“Mental well-being is going to become an event bigger issue”

Covid-19 has exacerbated what was already an issue. Last year, we quoted statistics that 54% of long-term work absences are from stress and 62% are linked to workloads.7 When we predicted that L&D would make mental health a bigger issue, we did this based on rising awareness of workplace mental well-being, instead it became one of the biggest repercussions of the pandemic and national lockdowns. In the UK, mental health problems were linked to 41% of all sick notes signed by doctors during the pandemic.8

A report looking into the effects of the pandemic on workers found that, while in February 2020, 40% of workers said they struggled finding the boundaries between work and life, by August this had increased to 52%. Over the same period, the number of people who ranked their mental health between ‘very bad’ and ‘fair’ rose from 38% to 43%. Additionally, there was a worrying rise in presenteeism, with the number of people taking zero sick days over a three-month period having a huge jump from 68% to 84%.19

So, with the previously mentioned increase in leaders taking an active interest in L&D, these statistics indicate a rise in mental health-based learning over the year. Topics such as resilience and navigating ambiguity have been growing in popularity, as organisations find ways to support their people through these times.


“Budgets are growing... for some”

Our final prediction was based on a series of statistics which implied that for many L&D professionals, their budgets had been slowly rising, while others complained theirs were restrictively low. We suggested that in either case, L&D needed to throw off the shackles of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach and start being more creative and specific in what they offer.

As seems to be the theme, we were half right. According to a survey conducted by People Management magazine, 62% of L&D professionals in the UK have not faced any budget cuts this year. However, of those that did, the majority (58%) saw cuts of over 75% of their spending budget. The same report found that 70% of L&D departments had no furloughed staff, but of the 30% that did, the majority saw over three-quarters of their teams put temporarily out of work.10

It also appears that the size of a business affects how much is spent on learning and development. More globally, small businesses (with between 100-499 employees), saw an average increase of 28% spend per learner. Similarly, large businesses (over 5000 employees) spent 33% more per learner. It’s only the mid-sized businesses (between 500-4999 employees) that reported an average of a 4% decrease in how much they spend. So, as we said, budgets went up... for some.11



Perhaps quite surprisingly, despite all the surprises and upheavals this year, L&D didn’t deviate as far from the script as many would have expected. As learning and development continues taking a more central role in how organisations operate and plan ahead, the topics and focus may change but ultimately the need for workplace learning remains.

The major change this year was the almost immediate transition to virtual learning. Soft skills are still important for both the learners and their organisation, and while those skills pivoted for the new age of working from home and remote collaboration, communication skills and team work have always been mainstays of any worthwhile L&D syllabus. Mental well-being and diversity and inclusion have taken a step forward, but this was a growing trend already.

Ultimately, the real question is about next year. The way we work has changed, but is this a short-term fix for the pandemic or are we now experiencing a new future of working practices? L&D is at its best when it’s leading from the front and guiding an organisation, but it relies on having some vision of what’s coming next. For this, you need to read our upcoming article on our 2021 L&D Predictions.


For more insights for L&D professionals, read some of our other articles. To find out how we can help your people learn in 2021, take a look at our learning solutions. 


1 LinkedIn Learning (2020) Leading with learning: Insights and advice about the new state of L&D

2 Fosway Group (2020) How is Covid-19 changing learning?

3 Business Insider (2019) Mary Meeker's tech state of the union: Everything happening on the internet in 2019

4 Training Zone (2020) Which skills are learners honing during lockdown?

5 LinkedIn Learning (2020) Leading with learning: Insights and advice about the new state of L&D

6 HR (2020) Internal hiring up 20% since Covid-19

7 CIPD (2019) Health and well-being at work survey 2019

8 People Management (2020) Increase in mental health-related sickness absence during lockdown,  analysis finds

9 Aviva (2020) Embracing the Age of Ambiguity

10 People Management (2020) Has Covid-19 sparked an L&D revolution?

11 Coassemble (2020) A review of L&D budget allocations in 2020