Editor’s note: As we ended a difficult and unique year and entered a new one, the Training Industry editorial team asked learning leaders to write in with their reflections on 2020 and predictions for 2021. This series, “What’s Changed and What Hasn’t?: Taking Stock of 2020 and Planning for 2021,” is the result. Plus, don’t miss our infographic, “5 Tips for Turning 2020 Disarray Into 2021 Direction: Insights From Learning Leaders,” which shares insights from the series.

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on certain trends that were emerging in early 2020, many of which have accelerated in virtually every field. For 2021, the trends learning and development (L&D) professionals and innovators should expect may be a reflection on 2020:

1. Hybrid Is the New Normal

Several industries thrived in this grand experiment in which employees shifted from offices to their homes. However, the preference is really for flexibility, and even in the midst of quarantines and isolation, many companies haven’t fully adopted a work-from-home model. There are essential employees who must be on site and executives who still travel. Some companies have been creative in allowing their workforce to gather in person by setting up outdoor offices.

2. Enhanced Immersive Technology

With the advent of 5G technology, more areas across the nation can support remote work and experiential platforms, such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Implications for learning include more immediate and immersive experiences; an improved ability to meet employees where they are; and the ability to go deeper with content, environment and virtual “shoulder-to-shoulder” instruction. Zoom fatigue is showing us that video calls are not sufficient, especially when it comes to creating a virtual classroom, and is one reason organizations will increasingly rely on AR and VR.

3. Increased Workloads

In 2021, developing an enterprise-wide digital acumen will prove to be the antidote to some of the continued disruption, such as the increase in workload, broadening of job responsibilities and new skill requirements. Often, disruption isn’t about competition; rather, it comes from within. The same transformation that is creating growth for companies can also provide growth for employees by offering career development, wellness and other benefits to help with the increase in work. Evolving learning programs, in step with broader corporate evolution, can inspire employees, resulting in retention and growth.

4. L&D Is Leading the Charge

Learning organizations must adapt along with their workforce to the quickly evolving world, shifting to new areas of demand. Beyond the pandemic, there will be a substantial need for L&D to bring new workers up to speed rapidly and to diversify the skills of existing employees.

As technology fatigue sets in, learning can show the way to combat it. Chief executive officers will increasingly rely on their L&D teams to shore up their organization’s skills to address the disruptive challenges from the market without hiring large numbers of new personnel. As a result, learning and development teams will need to be ready with new training programs, some of which organizations may not have needed in the past. As training programs step away from video team apps, L&D leverage more innovative ways to connect and collaborate.

5. Adapting to Digital Formats

Organizations that were already on the path to digital transformation had a head start last year, but learning departments have the opportunity to take the lead. Tapping into digital platforms is half the battle, and the other is knowing how to learn — not necessarily a given for companies and teams focused on digital transformation without an embedded learning component.

As innovators know, being agile — experimenting as a way of working — is only successful if learning is built into the process. Moving fast just to move fast doesn’t create value if insights aren’t carried over from one iteration to the next. Therefore, learning isn’t just a department; it is a state of mind and a requirement for continued innovation and success.

Long-term trends and the nature of the current historical moment point to one conclusion: L&D will be critically important to companies navigating the post-COVID world, where success will hinge largely on the ability to adapt rapidly to unpredictable forces. No one will be able to tell L&D leaders in advance which new programs their companies might need; however, the need will be great, and timelines will be short.

6. The Alignment of Business and Learning

Setting up a COVID-19 learning response team, a solution that McKinsey wrote early in the pandemic, is still a relevant approach. An alternative is to embed learning scenario planning into the company’s response efforts rather than have a separate workstream dedicated to the training department. A variety of cross-functional stakeholders are required to respond, and consistency in protocols is critical for precautions to be effective. You can’t be planning for potential in-person programs if no one is allowed in your building, for example. And since learning return on investment (ROI) is highest when training is tied to business metrics, it’s important to mirror the shifts in priorities that are occurring at that strategic level. With data shifting daily, you want to stay on top of the latest information and be prepared to pivot in tandem with the business leaders you serve.

Linking learning and development services to business outcomes and processes will also provide insurance against the potential “nice-to-have” brand some L&D teams might carry. In a recent SmartBrief post, Adobe claims, “In this moment, it is up to L&D professionals to champion learning across their organizations.” L&D leaders who had already forged strong ties and business cases have a leg up during challenging times.

While 2020 changed a lot about the way we do business, in 2021, we can expect more adjustments. The sooner the L&D department leans into fears about the future, the sooner organizations can right the ship. “Transformation” as an abstract concept has been replaced by concrete examples of how our world is changing in real time. To embrace the lessons the pandemic has offered us, it is time to move from learning as a department to learning as a way of working.

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