Why workplace learning matters more than ever

Often seen as a nice-to-have, workplace learning and professional development are now gaining importance as organisations’ best shot at retaining happy staff and staying competitive


The idea of working from home may conjure up images of dishevelled, tracksuited executives. But the home has actually become the epicentre of a reskilling revolution that may just save businesses from a coronavirus-induced collapse.

Corporate learning providers such as LinkedIn Learning, Circus Street and Hive Learning are all reporting a spike in usage, as an overwhelming array of new business challenges puts pressure on teams to embrace remote training methods and professional development.

On LinkedIn Learning, more than four million hours of content was consumed globally in March alone. Hive Learning has seen a 20 per cent increase in logins since lockdown began and Circus Street has noted not just a 64 per cent increase in weekday learning, but an unprecedented 500 per cent increase on Saturdays.

Skills gaps that the World Economic Forum had already outlined a need to bridge, such as digital and data literacy, have now become unnegotiable. Meanwhile ecommerce and digital marketing tactics like search engine optimisation and pay-per-click advertising have risen to the fore as traditional sales and marketing channels have become less viable.

But remote-learning patterns are also showing the personal impact of balancing home and work in one place. On LinkedIn Learning, demand for stress management and remote-working content tripled in March, while Hive Learning responded to an unprecedented need for programs on resilience, wellbeing and leadership.

“There is a real drive at the moment to ensure teams are receiving the right content to support their wellbeing,” says Hive Learning’s chief executive Julia Tierney. “For example, I heard the chief human resources officer of Mastercard speak about how the way companies support their people as the way they will be remembered long after this crisis. A huge impact will be mental health and wellbeing issues, so companies want to know their people will be OK.”

Online learning the new normal for remote workers

Learning and development teams are now fast-tracking multi-year digital program rollouts to meet this unanticipated scenario.

“We’ve found this time an interesting opportunity to make shifts in the organisation that we’ve been wanting to for a while,” says Tanya Bagchi, group talent and people development director at Legal and General (L&G).

“What COVID-19 has done has taken the horizon that we saw being six, twelve, twenty-four months away to now. Suddenly a lot of the barriers have come away.”

Yet companies are all too aware of the reality of screen fatigue caused by an overreliance on remote training methods, potentially pushing professional development off the to-do list.

To keep engagement and motivation up, L&G has introduced offline “missions” to consolidate and complement remote-training methods, as well as team-oriented communities to foster more efficient problem-solving and collaboration.

This has proven particularly effective among senior leaders, according to L&G’s head of development experiences and innovation Gemma Paterson.

“We have over 300 people in that community now who are collaborating, sharing and accessing resources,” she says. “That’s something we might have got to at the end of 2020, but we’ve been able to do that in a couple of weeks.”

Engaging remote teams through renewed learning

Pharmaceutical multinational Sanofi has brought its learning into the 21st century through innovations such as content targeting powered by artificial intelligence, curated playlists and podcasts developed by both internal and external experts. This culminated in the launch of the Sanofi University in March, accompanied by a company-wide challenge to achieve one million hours’ learning by June. At just one month in, they were already halfway there.

“Like a lot of big organisations, Sanofi previously had a push culture around learning and wasn’t very digital. A lot of the learning solutions available weren’t necessarily visible,” says Jason Hathaway, Sanofi’s global head of learning transformation.

“The fact that the launch of Sanofi University came at the same time as this crisis, when people were at home, increased visibility of the offerings that were strategic for capability building for Sanofi. Now people have one place where they can acquire the skills they need.”

Varied content formats may be keeping screen fatigue at bay, but crucially it is leadership that is driving unity and energy across the Sanofi business.

“When our CEO launches a challenge to the organisation saying ‘let’s do this together’, that really creates a sense of togetherness,” Hathaway adds.

Matching training content with business impact

Measuring the business impact of learning has long been a challenge, but the surge in uptake of remote-training methods is now arming teams with a wealth of data.

“The more we do virtually, the simpler measurement becomes because you can use analytics to understand how people are interacting with content,” explains Paterson.

“It’s about measuring how well we are able to solve the problems we have and are going to have. Have we got the right line manager capability? Have we got the capability to work remotely in an agile way? Moving more online makes that simpler.”

If learning doesn’t become part of the day-to-day… you won’t be able to survive in the next ten years

Building a digitally capable organisation and digitally minded leaders is now weighing high on strategic priorities not just for L&G, but businesses across industries if they are to make it to the other side of the COVID-19 crisis intact.

But with professional development budgets often seen as discretionary, businesses need to recognise the role it plays in their ability to adapt and thrive, according to Chris Daly, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

“Senior leadership teams need to be analysing the impact of any delay in implementation, to consider the risk to organisational performance, talent retention and morale,” he cautions.

Remote learning is now business critical

With no end in sight to the new home-working default, Circus Street chief executive Richard Townsend says many businesses are giving learning a more senior voice within their leadership.

“We are now seeing more direct engagement from heads of business in terms of what’s happening in learning and seeing it as business critical and fundamental for them to hit their goals,” he says.

“If learning doesn’t become part of the day-to-day, rather than something you bolt on to the side, you won’t be able to survive in the next ten years.”