Last reviewed 22 July 2020

Not only has the current coronavirus pandemic changed all our lives in so many different ways, it also has started to impact on all Learning & Development (L&D) professionals, regardless of the type of organisation for which they work. Judith Christian-Carter takes a look at how Covid-19 has already impacted on one aspect of L&D, which is remote working or working from home.

The impact of Covid-19 on L&D is already widespread and various, and there is every good reason to think that the current impact is only the thin end of the wedge.

The current coronavirus pandemic, often referred to as Covid-19, has affected people everywhere in one way or another. For everyone, it has meant changes, some of which have already been shown to be vast. These changes also apply to L&D professionals everywhere as organisations have been forced to adopt new ways of working and operating. One of these major changes is that of remote working or working from home for the vast majority of employees, a situation which already has, and will continue to have post Covid-19, a major impact on the future of learning and L&D as a whole.

Immediate change

The most noticeable impact of Covid-19 has been the number of people who have been forced to work remotely, usually from home. They have not been given a choice or a preference to do so, and neither have organisations been in a position to discuss and reflect upon whether remote working should be something they offer their employees.

While remote working has always been an after-thought for most organisations, it is no longer and, as a result, this way of working may continue to be the norm after the pandemic is over. Of course, not all organisational operations and work can be done remotely but it has probably surprised many people at how much can be undertaken in this way.

Although not everyone likes working remotely, it is interesting to see how people do adapt to a new way of working. Some recent research* which surveyed 20,262 employed adults, across 10 different types of organisations located in the U.S., Brazil, Mexico, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, China, India and Japan, between 8 May and 14 May 2020, showed that 63% of respondents were more productive working from home than they were when they were at the office.

However, several issues were also raised, such aches and pains by working from home, with 71% mentioning new or worsening conditions, such as headaches, back and neck pains, and difficulty sleeping. Respondents also cited reduced personal connections with their co-workers, difficulty in separating work life from home life and trouble concentrating during work hours due to distractions within the home. The greater reliance on their work computers than when working in the office was also mentioned by 85% of respondents. Clearly, if remote working becomes the norm for many employees, organisations will need to improve their technology, and provide both reassurance and support to empower the remote workers of tomorrow.

Remote learning

With remote working also comes remote learning and this is where L&D functions will need to think very carefully about the huge impact this will have, especially if L&D is to continue to drive better work performance given the current situation and what will be possible, logistically, in the future in people being able to return to their initial place of work.

While technology is helping remote learning in the short term, it doesn’t mean that it is the total solution in the longer term. Already, many people are experiencing “Zoom fatigue” through too many synchronous video meetings. L&D will need to explore in a critical manner the challenges of remote working and remote learning. Workplace L&D will need to be guided by evidence-based research, which considers factors such as online distraction, computer fatigue, work productivity, together with employee mental health, emotional wellbeing and stress levels in a post-Covid-19, technology-driven world.

Positive outcomes

There are several positive, albeit unintended, consequences for both remote working and L&D as a result of Covid-19, such as the opportunity for L&D to:

  • rethink learning while people work remotely and to look at the tools and processes that will support learning for enhanced remote work performance (however, this does not mean L&D converting all its classroom-based courses into webinars!)

  • let go of its control and to position learning as a decentralised, distributed, collaborative, personalised and 24/7 activity

  • introduce or increase the use of blended synchronous and asynchronous, self-paced and collaborative, self-directed and instructed, desktop and mobile-based learning opportunities

  • help employees to define and follow their path from learning dependence to learning interdependence

  • take on the role of curator of learning opportunities rather than the creator of courses so that employees can learn how to learn

  • strive for the highest level of impact where it acts as the “invisible glue” that seamlessly integrates learning into the working lives of everyone regardless of their physical location.

Today and tomorrow

Today, it is apparent that technology is serving both as an opportunity and as a barrier. If remote working and, hence, remote learning become the new normal then the L&D function will need to demand a stable, reliable and consistent technological infrastructure in order to support continuous, non-disruptive work and learning from home. Without such a technological infrastructure then the divide between the haves and the have-nots will widen further and the latter will become marginalised with fewer opportunities to work, learn and develop.

In the longer-term, employees will need to become comfortable with the idea of ongoing remote work and using technology in order to do so. Working collaboratively but from a distance is also likely to become the new normal, so employees will need to acquire new skills, attitudes and mindsets in order to achieve optimum work performance. In this regard, L&D will need to take the lead and help people to acquire and develop these new skills, attitudes and mindsets. It will be up to L&D to create the channels of learning, of growing, of communicating and of sharing, and to help employees to learn new ways of working effectively and efficiently.

Carpe diem (seize the day)

As a result of Covid-19, organisations now find themselves in the midst of what possibility is the largest social and technological remote work experiment of the industrialised economy. With this comes an excellent opportunity, let alone an essential need, for L&D to seize the day and move in a direction which many people have been advocating for some time.

However, the direction in which L&D needs to move is not one of producing more eLearning, creating more virtual webinars or using more online video meetings. Instead L&D needs to become the curator of learning and connector of shared experiences, so that employees can become autonomous and self-directed as far as their learning is concerned. If Covid-19 serves as this agent of change then at least something positive will have come out of the current distressing and dreadful situation in which people all over the world currently find themselves.

*Technology and the Evolving World of Work, Lenovo, 2020.