Changing the face of workplace learning

As businesses grapple with the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, companies are looking at ways to reduce costs and improve outcomes through innovative, interactive training

A year into the pandemic, businesses find themselves with decimated budgets, reduced manpower and facing some of their biggest challenges yet. Many rely on the input of every employee to recover and remain competitive in an increasingly unpredictable market. Investment in human capital, therefore, has never been more important.

New technologies have made innovation in this area not only possible, but desirable. Lockdown and remote working have accelerated business digitalisation by several years. Businesses now look at solutions that will work well with a distributed workforce, while keeping interactivity, collaboration and engagement high.

Still, this comes with its own risks. Technology adoption should always be a means to an end and not the end-goal in itself. Too much automation and businesses risk introducing conformism at the expense of innovative thinking. A balance between human interaction and technology-assisted training can be the perfect blend businesses need to see their workforce flourish.

Bringing interactivity to the virtual classroom

The World Economic Forum estimates that 44 per cent of employees’ current skills will need to be replaced by 2025. That’s a lot of retraining that needs to be done in a short amount of time. 

When L’Oréal found themselves with a distributed team at the beginning of the pandemic, they knew they couldn’t just pause their training efforts. They needed to act fast to keep their workforce engaged and prepared to face the new reality. That’s when they really started to look at virtual classroom training.

“COVID-19 has forced us into the future and in the UK and Ireland we have gone from 5,000 hours of virtual learning in 2019 to over 30,000 hours in 2020, of which 19,000 are from virtual classroom hours,” says Vanessa Palmer, learning, culture and engagement director at L’Oréal UK and Ireland.

However, virtual training in itself wasn’t going to be enough to keep engagement high, so the business looked at ways to keep employees interacting and communicating with each other.

“We were very aware from the start of our move to virtual learning that full-day courses were not engaging; someone is not going to learn effectively through spending a whole day in front of their laptop at home. Effective learning needs interactivity and a change in the format of the courses, whether that is break-out rooms, whiteboards, or polling or quiz elements,” says Palmer. 

While virtual classes have made their corporate training far more accessible, it’s the human element of interaction and exchange of ideas that really made the difference in how employees responded.

“The total number of hours our UK and Ireland employees spent learning in 2020 increased by more than 20 per cent in comparison to 2019 and the average hours of learning per employee has also increased by over 20 per cent,” she says. 

New landscape of soft-skills development

Interactivity and collaboration are particularly important in the world of soft-skills training where employees often have to rely on subtle cues and signals to interpret behaviours. Thousands of people, who are just entering the workforce, are transitioning from a world of social media into a world of remote work and missing out on key in-person interactions that can help them hone their soft skills. 

Now employers are asked to come up with innovative ways in which their workforce can continue to develop these intangible, yet crucial, skills for business success.

“People used to think they had to be engaging and creative when talking to their consumers, but dull, dry and grey when communicating with their workforce. Businesses are finally realising their first audience, and the one that can have the biggest impact on their ambitions, is their own employees,” says Tom Hall, chief executive at Contented Brothers, a content innovation company based in London.

One unsuspecting technology that has made soft-skills training not only engaging, but also possible in the world of remote work is virtual reality (VR).

“VR is able to deliver the kind of learning that makes your brain feel like it’s been through the experience you’re learning about rather than something you’ve observed or watched,” says Hall. “People think of VR as something to be done on your own, something that can be very isolating, which is absolutely not true.”

Contented Brothers recently worked on implementing VR-assisted soft-skills training where one employee wore a VR headset and another held clues to a puzzle that could be resolved only through collaboration. While VR training does require additional equipment, solutions like Google Cardboard have made it accessible and a viable option for remote training.

World of AI: risks and opportunities

Looking beyond interactivity, businesses often turn to artificial intelligence (AI) as a panacea for all their corporate inefficiencies. We’re already seeing some progress in this realm with adaptive technologies that take specific job-role competencies and match them up against individual skill levels of the employee. 

The technology works very well in scenarios where large groups of people need to acquire a very specific skillset. Statistical data analysis can look at patterns and anomalies which then tell the student where their knowledge is lacking. Yet, the technology doesn’t come without its own flaws and AI experts warn businesses to use this technology with caution.

“The notion of intelligence is quite wrong in this context, because what we talk about here is repetitive data extrapolation. Intelligence is about innovation of thinking, the ability to discover hidden things in what is visible, which you don’t get in machine learning. It is in a way creating subordination to existing knowledge,” says Dr Cyrille Mathis, neurology and psychiatry specialist, and chief scientific officer at ThinkTankMaths, a mathematics research company based in Edinburgh.

Angela Mathis, chief executive at ThinkTankMaths, adds: “Current AI is good when you’re looking for statistical patterns, things that match, but not looking for outliers. However, in these outliers there’s a universe of information; that’s where you’d go if you’d like to invent and create.”

Since AI relies on pre-existing sets of data, there’s a heightened risk of introducing unconscious biases in the algorithm, causing more damage than good. Amazon’s AI-driven recruitment tool is a perfect example of this. The technology used data sets based on successful male applicants, making the system discriminate against female candidates. The technology was instantly shut down once its bias was discovered, but the risk always remains that more subtle biases can go unnoticed for a long time.

Regardless of the approach they take, businesses are aware things will never go back to how they were, nor should they. Some changes were long overdue and are making a big positive impact, while others need to be introduced with more caution. 

“Our approach to learning and development in the UK & Ireland will not be going back to what it was. There will be two main changes. Firstly, the future will be a greater blend between virtual and in-person than before and secondly, our longer courses will be spread out over weeks not compressed into days. Seventy per cent of information taken in is lost within 24 hours; this is a stat that the learning and development community previously accepted, but COVID has given us a chance to change this,” says Palmer at L’Oréal.

And maybe that’s exactly what the workforce of tomorrow needs. Rather than delivering training faster, better, smarter, all we need is a bit of a break. A bit of time to engage in a quality peer-to-peer or teacher-to-student interaction that encourages us to think critically, challenge the status quo and use our imagination. It’s these skills that will eventually help businesses weather the storm and come out stronger at the other end.