Star Interview

Will classroom L&D ever return?


With much development going virtual, HR Grapevine quizzes the experts on whether the old ways will make a comeback...

Words by Sophie Parrott | Design by Matt Bonnar

Words by Jade Burke


Design by Matt Bonnar

During 2020, L&D has had to quickly pivot to suit new virtual work contexts. Whist learning may have been delivered via other means prior to the pandemic – CIPD’s Learning and Skills at Work 2020 report found that the face-to-face delivery of workplace learning contributed towards the majority of all learning delivered (60-100%) in a significant number of organisations – many employers have now turned to technology to help them deliver the training that they need.

As long as there are humans, I believe that – in the medium term, at least – classroom learning will continue to provide rich development opportunities, specifically around interpersonal and ‘human’ related skills

In fact, Cornerstone Institute for People Development found that the demand for online learning had ‘increased exponentially’ in April this year. In addition to this, the data found that there had been a 50% spike in the number of organisations moving in-person trainings to a virtual format. Separate research found that searches for ‘online courses’ saw a 192% spike on Google between February and March 2020. While the stats have pointed towards a growing appetite and uptick in the use of virtual learning and development, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, does that mean that it is here to stay? Or will classroom learning make a comeback? HR Grapevine spoke to the experts to find out.

‘It will return but won’t be the same as before’

Rebekah Wallis, Ricoh UK’s Director of People and Corporate Responsibility tells HR Grapevine, that it is likely that classroom L&D will return but perhaps not in the same way that we have been used to in the past. In an interview that took place before England was thrown into ‘Lockdown 2.0’, she says: “The increase in online courses has allowed businesses and employees to skill up, or indeed entirely reskill, from the comfort of their homes. These online classes allow people to do more with their day effectively. They’re not taking up large chunks of time travelling from one place to another so they, in turn, can be more productive.”

In fact, Wallis’ comments dovetail with previous research from IBM which found that participants learn five times more material in online courses rather than in face-to-face training, which was cited by Dexway. Yet, Wallis explained that this scenario only works if staff are working remotely because, more often than not, the office has lots of distractions – from general chit-chat, to someone stopping by a desk for updates on a project. “For an L&D class to be effective, people have to be fully present and dedicated to the lesson,” she adds.

Headshot

Claire Hewitt

Head of Learning Design

How has L&D changed in the last six months?

“Over the last six months we have re-designed face-to-face programmes into online ones. These are small group interactions, where learning is facilitated by an expert tutor who guides the dialogue, rather than isolated self-study. We have been surprised by just how much can be achieved online – even some of the personal and behavioural changes which are frequently at the heart of a face-to-face executive leadership programme. I envisage that future leadership programmes will have a face-to-face element, which creates a closer network and sense of relatedness not established so easily online. However, a far greater proportion of a ‘blended’ programme than before will be managed online.”

When organisations do start to bring more staff back to a physical workspace, Ricoh UK’s HR lead said her guess would be that classroom learning will make a comeback. Though, she said a big question mark still looms over how soon it will be before this happens. “As long as people are comfortable attending classes, and the safety of employees is taken into serious consideration, I see no reason why they wouldn’t return in some capacity,” she explains, citing that a ‘hybrid model’ could be a more likely option. “There is no doubt in my mind of the benefits which classroom learning has over online learning. From the minute we are born – as humans – our drive is to interact with and learn from others; being in a face-to-face, safe learning environment facilitates a depth of learning – both conscious and unconscious – which online learning has yet to replicate,” Wallis explains.

‘There will always be a place for face-to-face collaboration’

Wallis’ theory correlates with the thinking of Naleena Gururani, Chief People Officer at Hyperoptic, who told HR Grapevine in an interview before the second lockdown that there will always be a place for classroom L&D and “face-to-face collaboration”. She explains: “Our approach has always been to promote multi-channel learning using both virtual and physical infrastructure. We have just opened a new headquarters in Hammersmith, the design of which has been perfectly aligned to the new smarter working practices that will support employees during and in a post-pandemic era.”

Before England was thrown into a second lockdown, Gururani explains that Hyperoptic had already returned to some face-to-face training, particularly with its engineering workforce. Gururani adds: “We have cleverly adapted our training spaces to ensure the Government guidelines of social distancing and the use of PPE is being strictly adhered to and any advice given through Test and Trace is being followed.” Hyperoptic’s CPO went onto explain that the current coronavirus crisis has forced the organisation to work in an agile way and to create ‘work arounds’ for classroom L&D that may not have been considered otherwise. “We’ll continue to be inventive as we progress through 2020 and into 2021,” Gururani says.

Our approach has always been to promote multi-channel learning using both virtual and physical infrastructure’

As with any aspect of work this year, employers and HR have had to come up with inventive solutions so that they could continue to carry out corporate operations in virtual contexts. Whether this was recruiting, onboarding or learning and development, it has all changed in light of the pandemic. While a plethora of research has pointed to the number of employers that have moved to virtual learning in light of the pandemic, it is possible that classroom learning will return as offices re-open post-pandemic. “As long as there are humans, I believe that – in the medium term, at least – classroom learning will continue to provide rich development opportunities, specifically around interpersonal and ‘human’ related skills,” Wallis concludes.


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