Before the pandemic, most business organizations housed their office workforces at centralized locations. Technology was allowing some remote work, but it was the exception and not the rule. Covid changed that in a matter of weeks. According to a Stanford University Study, by June of 2020 42% of the US labor force was working from home, 33% were not working, and only 26% (essential workers) were working at their place of business.
As vaccination and other preventive measures begin to take effect, the shift back to the office has begun. However, many organizations have indicated that they do not plan to return to a fully centralized workforce – particularly for office workers. This is occurring across a broad spectrum, from high tech (Google, Microsoft) to manufacturing (Ford, Lockheed Martin) to professional services (Citigroup, PWC) to retail (Target). There are several reasons for this:
- It saves time for the worker (commuting) and money for the company (reduced office space)
- The “stigma” of the remote worker has been effectively removed. In fact, flexible work policies are often seen as a key way to attract talent.
- After a year of enforced usage, it mostly works. The technology enablement is there, and we are starting to work out the kinks.
- Most workers seem to like it, given the proper “home office” environment.
If this is not “the new normal”, it is at least a reality for a significant chunk of the post-pandemic corporate world. The resulting mix of remote and local workers is often referred to as the hybrid workforce. In whatever form, this new paradigm appears to be here to stay and creates several challenges. These include logistics, management, oversight, and most certainly training and development.
Implications for learning – What have we learned so far?
The yearlong experiment with a remote workforce has taught us a great deal about what to do (and not to do) in the training and development space. For example:
- Technology products like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and RingCentral are all good tools, but not the whole solution for training. They are tremendous enablers but must be used effectively. And the training they support must be “tuned” to take advantage of them.
- More than ever, it is all about engagement. We have learned how difficult it is to keep a remote audience engaged and involved. Now we may be faced with “classes” that regularly contain both local and remote participants. Unlike the classroom, engagement is not a given – nor is it easy to monitor.
- For years we have been trying to make more (and more effective) use of “pull” learning – give the learner what they want and need when and where they want it. The remote workforce showed just how critical this can be, and how important it is that this be done correctly. But creating “good” learning products in a timely fashion and having the technology to share them effectively has been a challenge.
- Coordination of learning can be a nightmare. Learning “events” are harder to schedule, conduct and track.
- Collaboration requires a special focus and some new techniques. For synchronous collaboration, the use of virtual “breakout groups’ has become quite popular. Asynchronous collaboration which makes use of social media (blogs, whiteboarding, document sharing) has also found its place.
Implications for learning – Where do we go from here?
The hybrid workforce will add many new dynamics to the existing corporate culture. Depending on the degree and style of the remote work, this could be a major overhaul to that culture. For the past year, we have dealt with the implications of the remote workforce reactively. No one really planned for this! Moving forward, however, we need to deal with this in a proactive, thoughtful, and strategic matter.
There will be new norms for business at many levels. What does “personal responsibility” now mean? How do we manage, evaluate, grow, and develop a workforce that we see face to face much less often? What does effective teamwork look like? The list goes on.
The challenge for training and development is to build a new learning culture within the revised corporate culture. Obviously, learning will need to support the corporate culture and reinforce key corporate messages. But just as importantly, it should be a catalyst in creating the revised corporate culture, even as it creates the new learning culture at the same time.
On the business side, learning must reflect where the business culture is and where it is going. It must continue to support the same career inflection points but in a new way.
- What are the key messages about the hybrid workforce business culture that get instilled in the onboarding process?
- How do we advance those messages as people grow and take on new roles and responsibilities?
- How does this impact the learning that takes place as people move up the leadership ladder?
- What additional skills must now be addressed – things like managing virtually, hybrid teambuilding, virtual collaboration tools, etc.?
On the learning side, the first challenge is to take everything we have learned over the past year and make it more robust. What tools work and what else do we need? How do we need to approach this learning as the new normal rather than a stopgap measure?
The next challenge is to understand the new hybrid workforce environment and determine how best to support it:
- Creating a hybrid workforce environment will be a change management process. What role should learning play in helping articulate and reinforce the new cultural norms?
- What will learning look like? Will we still be able to run traditional classroom sessions? If so, how often and for what purpose?
- What balance of push and pull learning makes sense in the new hybrid environment?
- How can we ensure that learning has the flexibility to meet the needs of a workforce that is both local and remote?
- How does that flexibility apply to both synchronous (“the hybrid classroom”) and asynchronous activities?
- What does “curriculum” mean in this new environment? And how do we effectively measure everyone’s progress through learning in this hybrid environment?
It should not be a surprise at this point that there are more questions than answers. The concept of the hybrid workforce is still under development and will be interpreted differently by different companies. That said, we can still look at what success needs to look like:
- Learner satisfaction – This measure will be as important as it ever was. But now we must make sure that we are effectively meeting the needs of both local and remote learners.
- Meeting business needs – The challenges will continue to be agility and speed to capability. The new learning environment may enable that in some ways, but again it must be effective for local and remote learners.
- Supporting the cultural transformation – The organization’s ability to adapt to a hybrid workforce will depend heavily on learning’s ability to infuse the new cultural norms.
- Maintaining readiness – If we have learned anything from the last year, it is that the world can change in an instant. We must be better prepared for another pandemic or similar global crisis where maintaining an effective learning environment will be critical to success.
At the end of the day, giving people the skills and abilities they need when they need them will be as important as ever. What may change is the focus on where those skills and abilities need to be addressed, and how to do so effectively.