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.

The End of an Era

Traditional face-to-face training has seen its heyday. But, while training as we knew it may be waning (or even dead), the need and desire for growth and development is ever-increasing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hastened a few trends that began a number of years ago. One factor is that during social isolation, the desire for novelty has grown, along with curiosity. Another is that plane travel has become more cumbersome, taking substantial time in arriving to and leaving airports, passing through enhanced security, flight delays, reductions in flight schedules, and the discomfort of the flights themselves. Meanwhile, more and more people (and institutions) have decided to minimize air travel to slow down the contamination of the environment. Now, after following safety protocols associated with the COVID-19 pandemic for months, millions of people — and their organizations realize — that they can, perhaps, be just as effective working at home as they can in the office.

But people still need training and want development, and virtual programs and coaching have come to the rescue. Workers have increasingly turned to YouTube videos to learn how to fix items and complete tasks. Learning through massive open online courses (MOOCs), apps and other forms of asynchronous delivery has increased considerably over the last several years. Meanwhile, for a more personal approach, and to help with more complex and elusive issues, such as leadership style, emotional reactions, and how to find more excitement in work and life, millions of people have turned to coaches. One-on-one coaching, peer coaching and team coaching have all become dramatically more popular.

The Possibilities of a Culture of Development

If organizations could create a culture of development to complement their culture of performance or results orientation, many more options would emerge for enhancing engagement, organizational citizenship, effectiveness and innovation. These possibilities would emerge because executives and other employees would feel valued and believe that their organization was investing in their development on an ongoing basis rather than sending them to a several-day training session every few years.

Based on 30 years of longitudinal behavior research, functional MRI (fMRI) studies and hormonal studies, we explored the basis for this claim in our 2019 book “Helping People Change.” A culture of development would lead to leadership norms and practices in which leaders and managers engage the empathic neural network (which enables people to be open to new ideas and people) and the hormonal parasympathetic nervous system (which enables people to ameliorate the ravages of chronic stress, which result in impaired cognitive, emotional and perceptual functioning).

If more executives and managers learned how to include coaching in their behavioral repertoire, it would be like having more primary care physicians in a social system. People could receive support earlier, which would help prevent them from acting in ways that make things worse. At the same time, employees’ relationship with their boss would feel more caring and developmental, not focused on pursuing results and increasing productivity at all costs. Research shows that the former type of relationship enhances engagement and effectiveness.

When development is as much a part of an organization’s culture as a results orientation, managers and associates search for ways to grow, learn and change. To that end, a variety of asynchronous methods are available (e.g., MOOCs and apps). People may also begin to form self-managing study groups, which many organizations call peer coaching groups. These options also have the advantage that the dose (i.e., how extensive or time-consuming they are) can be varied, as can when people engage with them, making learning easier and more effective.

These components of a development system are relatively inexpensive or even free. The organization can still provide trained coaches externally or internally, who can work remotely in a time-efficient manner. When we can travel more freely again, organizations can still send people to internal training programs or external programs. While these latter components are more costly, they can serve as a useful complement to the other low- or no-cost options.