Post-COVID-19 working environments will likely be fully digital or some combination of digital and in-person work for the foreseeable future. Reflecting on the past and the probable future of our working world, I see the need to add a human touch to our work experience. Throughout the past decade, the adoption of technology, including artificial intelligence (AI), along with an emphasis on productivity, efficiency and systems thinking, has diverted our focus away from the very humans who make our productivity, efficiency and systems possible in the first place. 

It is time we turn our attention to humanism and design our work environments, especially our learning initiatives, with the human in mind. 

Humanism Principles in Learning Architecture 

We are all enchanted by the power of technology. Tools and systems leveraging AI are more readily available and accessible than ever before and are proven to enhance our work products and environments. Yet, adopting technology and digital operations does not supersede the adoption of principles of human psychology and pedagogy that are equally proven to enhance our work products and environments. To thrive in a post-pandemic world, we will need to engage technology alongside humanistic design. 

For those of us designing or delivering learning opportunities, we must reimagine and redirect our learning strategy to align with humanistic design. In doing so, the role of instruction, the instructor and the learner must shift. Humanistic learning design would incorporate the following: 

The Learning Architecture 

A humanistic learning architecture is grounded in guided discovery to enhance learners’ strategic thinking, specifically improving their ability to perform strategic tasks related to their job function or other personal or professional goals. The guided discovery format requires that we design learning as experiences, not courses and that we make the learner the center of the experience, not the content. Our learning experiences, tools and resources should be designed to transform, not just inform. 

The Learning Goal 

The humanistic learning goal is to design an experience that fosters behavior change. As Ruth C. Clark and Richard E. Mayer remind us in their book “e-Learning and the Science of Instruction,” we cannot observe a change in someone’s knowledge; we must infer an increase in knowledge by observing a change in behavior. If you are wondering how effective your learning initiatives are, track participants’ actions, activities and habits before and after your initiative. What changes do you observe? If there are none, or the changes are not what you’d hoped for, reexamine your learning strategy. 

The Role of the Learner 

In humanistic learning and development, the learner is a strategic thinker, which is drastically different from the passive absorber of information we saw in traditional lecture-based learning and are seeing resurface in contemporary eLearning and on-demand courses. Strategic thinkers are motivated by utility and results. Give your participants easy, intuitive opportunities to apply what they learn, and offer feedback on the effectiveness of their application to help them refine and perfect. 

The Role of the Instructor 

The humanistic instructor is a cognitive guide who provides a purposeful structure to help learners connect what they already know to new information and apply new knowledge in a specific environment. 

Key Principles of Humanism in Workplace Architecture  

For L&D professionals and other leaders, the following nine principles of humanistic design are essential for establishing a humanistic work environment (including learning programs) in our digitized world.

1. Personalization 

Through short standardized pre-tests, personalized assessments or performance evaluations, provide opportunities for employees to identify the actual state and desired state (of anything). Build pre-defined plans of action into the work environment to help employees minimize the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. 

2. Storytelling 

Purposefully use stories in interviews, job training and performance coaching that create connection, credibility and trust. Stories should not be about the ego of the storyteller but about motivating, inspiring and connecting with an audience. 

3. Intuitive Connections 

Provide relevant recommendations for opportunities employees can use to grow. For example, during an onboarding program, new employees might watch a video of the chief executive officer discussing the mission and objectives of the company. Then, they might receive an automatic followup email, popup window or other videos from company leaders to enhance their knowledge of organizational stakeholders. 

4. Pre-work 

Whether you are recruiting a new team member or designing an onboarding training program, use thoughtful pre-work to prime your learner or job candidate for a future experience (i.e., a job interview or onboarding program). This approach will enhance conversation, critical thinking, and the likelihood that the learner or job candidate will remember (and, ideally, apply) the information you include in the digital event. 

5. Simplification Using Microlearning 

We need to move away from the perspective that more is better when it comes to sharing information. Remember, in humanistic design, your participant is a critical thinker motivated by utility and results. High-quality communication is brief, clear and purposeful. Break down any complex content or instruction into micro-modules that are easy to understand and apply in the real world. 

6. Data Collection During Peak Experiences 

We all want data on how our employees are performing and how effective our learning programs are. To increase the oddthat employeewill respond to your data collection, build feedback opportunities into the live experience (in the flow of work or during the learning event). That moment, when a user experiences peak interest in the topic or a peak response to the event, is the best time to collect data. 

7. Prepare for Moments of Vulnerability

Anticipate when employees may experience disappointment, unexpected change, high levels of stress or other vulnerable moments (e.g., being a new employee, transitioning from being an individual contributor to a supervisor role or presenting their first sales pitch). Be ready with support, validation and encouragement before, during and after these moments. 

8. Create and Celebrate Milestones

Provide opportunities to celebrate and acknowledge employees in a fun and unexpected way (think Fitbit’s India milestone, which acknowledges a user for walking enough steps to traverse the length of India). Milestones can be arbitrary or relevant, such as a the first 90 days on a job or showing up to class 10 times in a row on time. Their purpose is recognition and motivation. Give people something to look forward to, and you’ll instantly enhance their experience. 

9. Use Internal and External Motivation

A humanistic approach challenges us to think critically about why an employee may be motivated to do something. We are all consciously and unconsciously motivated by intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Find creative ways to build them into the design of your work and learning environments. 

Designing with the human in mind doesn’t require a radical overhaul of your business and learning operations. It is simply a call to action to consistently reflect on the quality of your environment, thinking from the perspective of the human rather than solely from the perspective of the end result.