If you’ve read Part 1 of this two-part series – where we looked back at our predictions for L&D in 2020 to see how we did – you’ve already seen our description of the last 12 months. From the pandemic to international politics, from environmental catastrophes to social unrest, 2020 was the year that didn’t just create unexpected upheaval, but also established the building blocks for real, lasting changes.
Many organisations will have entered the new year still in survival mode and others will have faced the lockdowns in a good position, leaving them largely unaffected, or having to be agile and reinvent themselves. But, in general, if 2020 was categorised by anxiety and challenges, then we expect 2021 to be more about transition. Talk of the ‘new normal’ has been (in our opinion) overstated and overly hasty. The phrase became cliché before it ever became accurate, as what we considered ‘normal’ changed by the day. We aren’t convinced that by the end of 2021 we’ll necessarily know what the lasting normal will be, but we’re pretty sure this is the year we’ll shape it.
The learning and development space has always been about simultaneously reacting to change and proactively creating it. In 2021, that’s going to be truer than ever. Over the coming months, L&D professionals need to step up and be heard. We’ve written extensively on this blog about how L&D should be instrumental in leading an organisation, being an essential tool in shaping culture and establishing organisational priorities. After the year we’ve all experienced, it’s now time to consider what comes next and how to use learning to build a better ‘normal.’
1. The future’s made of a virtual insanity
Back in the mid-1990s, the band Jamiroquai gained popularity with their song ‘Virtual Insanity,’ in which they warn of the ways the future is “twisting our new technology.” As much as culture was changing around technology then, nobody could have predicted where we’d be today.
When the Covid-19 pandemic began last year, the world rushed to make offices virtual and teams remote. Workplace learning joined this trend, with face-to-face L&D plans all converted into virtual delivery. This process was a swift, overnight process which took many people and organisations much of the year to become comfortable with. Now that we’ve all had time to adapt to this style of working, learning and living, 2021 is shaping up to be the year we learn to truly thrive in the virtual landscape.
Currently, virtual is king, with over 70% of all training delivered virtually,1 because it’s the only realistic and safe option for most organisations, but once offices are able to reopen safely, L&D leaders will have to make a choice over which medium is the best for their people and the content.
Virtual learning won’t just be a substitute for face-to-face sessions, it will stand on its own and be seen for the benefits it can offer – whether it’s being able to cut down on travel or the benefits of people from a global team being able to learn together. However, face-to-face settings make it easier to build connections between participants and may suit those who don’t enjoy watching a screen for long periods of time. As many workforces begin a blended future of working from home and the office as needed, so too will L&D focus on a blended future of finding a bespoke mix of various types of intervention to match the audience.
2. Learning will come in many different ways to cater to many different needs
As the global vaccine rollout heralds the beginning of the end of the pandemic, there’s a lot of enthusiasm for continuing to work and learn from home, with over 90% of HR leaders saying they’ll continue allowing employees to work remotely, at least some of the time.2 Additionally, the challenges of 2020 made employers acutely aware of the personal and individualised situations of their workforce (more on that later), recognising that what works for one group won’t automatically work for another.
Every organisation has its own culture, every team has its own style and every person has their own preferences. The best designed courses and programmes take all of these into account. We’ve been championing this for some time now, but a ‘one-size-must-fit-all’ approach to workplace learning isn’t going to be anywhere near as successful as creating a more specific, bespoke approach that’s designed to meet the needs and requirements of your people. Some people will thrive in a classroom environment, but others need practical opportunities to try out their new skills, while others want time to discuss or watch others use it. Classrooms – whether virtual or face-to-face – can be a good starting point, but on the job training, buddies, extra reading, mentors, coaching, peer reviews, personal reflections and much more can all be used to expand the effectiveness of a learning programme.
In 2020, managers and leaders were able to see their employees’ homes via video calls, witnessed perhaps how they were juggling priorities and had to consider even more their health and well-being and, in short, were forced to see their humanity – not just as workers. Now, in 2021, there’s no excuse for L&D not to reflect this renewed sense of humanity. L&D leaders already know all of this and they understand their workforce and what they need. Now that their influence is growing (which we’ll explain in the next section), we think this year L&D strategies are going to start focussing much more bespoke programmes blending a variety of interventions and methods.
3. L&D has earnt its seat at the top table
In our review of our 2020 predictions, we referenced a LinkedIn Learning report saying that the number of CEOs taking an active interest in their organisation’s L&D increased from 29% to 70% throughout the pandemic. In the same report, we also learnt that before the pandemic, just 24% of L&D professionals had C-level positions, by May 2020 this had gone up to 62%.3
After the 2007 economic crash, workplace learning got a huge amount of investment in order to train and re-train people to get back into work. Unfortunately, this didn’t continue once the recovery began, but this time looks different. During his election campaign, the incoming US President Joe Biden pledged $50 billion for workforce training initiatives.4 L&D became a lifeline for organisations and people in and out of work during the pandemic, and is being viewed much more seriously than ever before.
During the pandemic, 94% of L&D professionals said they had to change their L&D strategy,5 proving workplace learning’s strength when adapting and leading in times of change for an organisation. Research suggests that up to 20% of the global workforce could work remotely three to five days a week just as effectively as in the office,6 with major companies such as Google, Microsoft and Salesforce leading the way in offering a hybrid working approach.7 As offices gradually reopen in new ways, L&D leaders should use their newly found influence to create a better and more effective style of learning for the future.
4. Workforces need to be adaptable and resilient to change
Last year, learning programmes related to working from home, presenting virtually and leading or collaborating with remote teams became incredibly popular and important. Now that those who have been working remotely have been doing so for nearly a year, that initial rush is over. The next step for organisations is preparing for their longer-term future.
2020 showed the importance of an adaptable workforce. 85% of employers say they want new employees to be adaptable to change and 82% want a resilient workforce.8 No one expected the pandemic and the lockdowns, and there was very little time between learning about the virus and offices closing their doors. This has made people more conscious of unpredictable, unknowable future risks.
The pandemic made employers recognise the need for managers who can lead their teams through changes, and employees who can keep doing their jobs and keep the organisation afloat through difficult times. There are countless issues, much smaller than a global crisis, such as losing a key client or a server failing, which can create sudden disruption for an organisation. Now that people are recognising the need for an adaptable, resilient and agile workforce, we would expect this to be one of the most popular training topics for some time to come.
5. Increased understanding of Inclusion and Diversity
Outside of the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement was one of the most defining moments of the past year. From protests, statues being removed and minutes of silence before professional sports events, the issue was firmly in the public consciousness over the year. Removing biases and prejudice from workplaces has always been a crucial aim for building a fairer and more equal society, but this year gave it a renewed energy, with 76% of Americans now believing that racial discrimination is a serious problem to be solved.9 While L&D can’t solve this on its own, it should play a key role in making organisations and workplaces fairer and more inclusive.
Unconscious bias and cultural awareness programmes are a good first step in understanding and recognising many of the issues. By becoming more aware of biases, understanding how they’re formed and the impact they have, people can begin to improve their behaviour and call out problematic behaviours.
Covid-19 also drew attention to another form of equality – an office, generally speaking, creates a level playing field for resources and equipment. However, working from home undid this. As just one example, people with children to home school will have different experiences of working from home from people without childcare responsibilities. This is illustrated by the 73% of women who reported feeling work-related stress during December 2020, compared to just 57% of men.10 Through L&D programmes, managers can be trained to offer more support and the employees themselves can be taught a range of skills to help them stay productive. Other employees can also learn how to interact with those in different situations from their own.
2021 has the potential to be a truly transformative year for working and learning practices. L&D professionals have both the responsibility and the opportunity to lead from the front. After such a tumultuous year, L&D can help us all to heal and move on.
Learning from the current crisis, organisations can teach resilience and adaptability to create workforces that can be more confident during the next one. By training their employees to be more thoughtful and understanding of others, they can also create more cohesive, fairer and diverse teams.
L&D stands at a crossroads for the industry. The future could be exciting, with blended and well-designed programmes, with L&D leaders in key positions, but it requires them to take that leap and build our ‘new normal’ together.
1 Training Industry (2020) Training in the time of Covid: How Learning and Development is responding
2 Gartner (2020) Gartner survey finds 90% of HR leaders will allow employees to work remotely even after Covid-19 vaccine is available
3 LinkedIn Learning (2020) Leading with learning: Insights and advice about the new state of L&D
4 New York Times (2020) The pandemic has accelerated demands for a more skilled work force
5 Fosway (2020) How is Covid-19 changing learning?
6 McKinsey Global Institute (2020) What's next for remote work: An analysis of 2,000 tasks, 800 jobs, and nine countries
7 Business Insider (2020) 21 major companies that have announced employees can work remotely long-term
8 Michael Page (2020) 21 skills for 2021
9 Training Industry (2020) Trends 2021: Planning for the future of learning
10 LinkedIn (2020) Workforce confidence index 2020