As humans, we are hard wired to learn through connections. For the bulk of human history, our relationship to the world has been mediated by the people we are connected to. We model our behaviors on what we see around us — our families, our communities and our work environments. We draw inference and relevance from the stories people tell us. And, when we are at our best, we grow in the context of friendships, collaboration and belonging.

In the workplace, connecting and partnering with other stakeholders can help establish feelings of belonging and friendship that arise from working together. However defined, partnerships in the workplace contribute to learning and growth. Recent research from BetterUp indicates that being highly connected at work results in 91% more personal growth and 101% more professional growth.

For learning professionals, this strong correlation between partnership and growth presents both an opportunity and a challenge — especially at a time when so many people are working in remote and hybrid environments. Can we pull off a connection growth “two-fer” and make a meaningful difference to the people and the organizations we serve? Let’s take a look at how

Connecting Starts with You

To pull off a connection growth and make a meaningful difference, we need to start by thinking about our own connections: How we interact with and understand our stakeholders – employees, managers and business partners, all the way to C-suite. Are we truly understanding the purpose and potential outcomes of what we do?

In some respects, this may mean that we need to put our egos aside and actively listen to people. What was true a couple of years ago might not necessarily reflect what people need today. Ask them. Understand them. Show them that you genuinely care. This is not just a performative check-in exercise. At the end of the day, you are going to need buy-in from people at all levels to achieve your goals.

Performance and employee survey data can help point you in the right direction, but you also need to reach out and talk to real people to understand their needs. Focus groups and individual conversations can help understand nuances and provide color and texture to the programs you develop. The results will show up later when people feel that you’ve actually talked to them or one of their colleagues.

Design Experiences that Create Connections

Learning design all too often goes straight to content. Fire up a content creation tool. Build a course. Market it. Hope for the best.

We can do more. A diet of content and courses alone will not create connections, nor will it make the impact on behaviors and performance your people and your organization need.

Instead, think about ways you can create experiences that inspire, motivate and create a sense of belonging. Some of these experiences will not be captured by your learning management system (LMS) but they may show up elsewhere in your people data stack in the form of higher employee engagement and retention scores. If your company is set up to do organizational network analysis (ONA), you may be able to measure increases in connectedness and cross-functional collaboration.

Your experiences may vary. In some cases, you may want more opportunities for practice and feedback. In others, you might want opportunities to share stories about what works and what doesn’t. Or you might want to create situations where people can bond and learn how to collaborate together.

Use All the Crayons In the Box

Digital enables endless possibilities for connection. Freed from the time and place constraints of in-person experiences, more opportunities exist to create and sustain human relationships in workplace learning for more people than ever before. You can show employees that you and your organization care about your people by helping them build relationships and giving them moments that matter to their growth and overall well-being.

Cohorts and community-centered learning experiences can broaden the reach of discussions at your organization over time. Using digital to broaden reach, you can democratize learning in an inclusive and accessible way. Data can help — like any good party planner, you can skillfully arrange cohorts and communities to maximize connection and interaction.

For more individual experiences, think about ways to provide access to digital mentoring and coaching. Although coaching has generally been thought of as something reserved for executive leadership, the possibilities of technology can now connect experts and learners in new ways.

Embrace joy and think creatively. If you know your audience and your culture well, both you and your audience can have fun. You don’t need to engineer every moment of a learning experience. Allow things to happen. Open up safe spaces for people to learn from others. You’ll need to do some design work here in setting boundaries, ground rules and expectations. There’s a wide continuum of social learning experiences online. You’ll just need to pick your spot somewhere between a formal classroom style and free-wheeling discussions.

Embrace and Enjoy Risk

The nature of work is evolving rapidly. Transitions to new models of hybrid and remote work, as well as a sharper focus on skills, can appear both daunting and vague — for everyone concerned. Nobody is going to get this right every time. But by embracing both technology and a keen understanding of the needs of learners and the needs of the business, the learning community has a unique opportunity to create the human connections that drive business forward.