As we settle into our second year in the COVID era, there are a lot of questions about the future direction of learning and development (L&D). Without formal in-person training opportunities, much has been said about creating developmental opportunities and empowering employees on the job.

A third avenue, social learning, encourages employees to observe the enactment of behaviors and competencies so that they can then adapt and embody them. When curated to focus on desirable values (the ones espoused by the organization and its mission), social learning can foster an inherent understanding and adoption of these ideals.

In his seminal work “The Social Psychology of Organizing,” organizational psychologist Karl Weick defined an organization not as something that is static and definitive but, rather, as a flexible mental model. In this model, an organization lives as a social construction, and it grounds members’ experiences while enabling the continuous evolution of what they know and understand.

Using this model as a basis for social learning, we can see that it is through the observation of what other employees and leaders do and how they lead that the learners make sense of their work and purpose. In other words, employees first observe how people enact policy, protocol and decisions and then may mimic or adopt that behavior — for better or for worse.

Consider, for example, the vast difference between Uber’s previous core values like “meritocracy and toe-stepping” and “always be hustlin’” and its revised cultural norms, which include statements like “we do the right thing” and “we celebrate differences.” The revised values indicated a shift into a new reality for employees.

So, the question arises: What are the priorities organizations wish to promote as we see the light at the end of the COVID tunnel? Prior to the pandemic, there were exemplar companies and leaders whose models others sought to emulate. Social movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter and anti-racism efforts have informed the workplace and given business leaders much to think about.

Evolving Social Promotion

Over the past several decades, societal values have evolved. The model of the “ideal worker” has changed from someone who lives and breathes corporate loyalty to one who has his or her own ideals and applies authentic, values-based leadership in all interactions. Businesses recognize stakeholders beyond their shareholders, understanding that they are leading social enterprises comprised of humans who have their own interests and values. This shift has created a new focus and direction for training, directed less toward rote learning and specific skills and more toward building a broad base of workforce capabilities.

By many indications, training trends in 2021 will focus on managing employees and customers in a continued remote world. Beyond the soft skills required to nurture these relationships, it also seems likely that L&D will bridge work and culture with social trends. Instead of isolating training to intensive programs once per year, the on-demand workforce will likely also require learning opportunities integrated into their everyday work.

The pandemic also lifted barriers between consumers and companies, which empowered a new line of employees to directly interface with customers. Upskilling became a necessity as managers realized their teams were up for the challenge but not yet fully resourced to execute. And, while succession planning may have been a topic in the past, the need to create a leadership pipeline that works to build a more equitable workforce is a current reality.

Of significant importance as we work through 2021 will be the role human resource management can play in connecting employees to social issues. Topics such as protecting human rights, environmental stewardship and even corporate stewardship are concerns for every company to be mindful of, no matter the size. Managing business as usual , because employees need to feel they are working for a company that represents their values. (Last year’s Facebook employee walkout is just one example.) Companies that do not incorporate social awareness in their operations may also negatively impact their external brand among consumers, 53% of whom feel companies should be involved in at least one social issue.

Optimizing Social Learning Opportunities

The shift for many organizations to a long-term hybrid or virtual workplace necessitates new tools for collaboration and creativity, training approaches, and cultural adaptability. The pandemic’s shift to virtual environments has exposed what diversity and gender equity experts have long known: The social workplace and hands-on training provide necessary connections and support for a dynamic, diverse organization.

Intentional efforts to foster organizational values in a virtual space can also have a significant impact on improving training and professional development opportunities for all employees. Throughout the process, leadership support and direction create a model for employees to follow by enacting organizational values and advancing them through training initiatives.

MIT management professor Edgar Schein’s work on organizational culture determined that leader support for culture initiatives creates an environment that encourages employee support and appreciation of those initiatives and how they support the organization’s mission and values. Asking questions to identify employee needs and priorities can help ensure the inclusion of diverse perspectives in training initiatives and decision-making.

Supporting new ideas in training initiatives across the workplace will be essential to success for organizations that can no longer rely on full-time face-to-face interactions to develop employees or convey organizational values and priorities. Here are some current trends and ideas for managing and supporting these initiatives:

1. Prioritize Social Learning

Make time to reinvigorate your training with social learning cues. Given the changes we’ve seen over the last year, many companies have paused or significantly delayed the training, professional development, extensive onboarding and other programs necessary to keeping employees and the organization ready for success. The time has returned to encourage learning and development again — this time with awareness of society’s priorities.

2. Examine Previous Training

Critically examine the training your organization has previously implemented. The “five Ws (and one H)” can help your organization understand what you’re trying to convey, why it’s important, who needs the information, when and where conveying that information would be most appropriate, and (most essentially for today’s environment) how you will convey it. Confirm whether your training, and how you allocate it, not only aligns with organizational values but also works to build inclusive and equitable opportunities for a diverse workforce.

3. Consider Remote Training Teams

Consider remote-specific training development and evaluation teams to prioritize and adapt training and communication. Aligning a hybrid workplace requires a balance of training methodologies, taking advantage of the virtual space for its connectedness and using it to boost a commonality of purpose and information.

This new workplace creates an excellent opportunity to partner with organizations that represent, advocate for and provide awareness on topics of interest. While these organizations’ locations may not have been conducive to partnership in the past, there are likely opportunities to provide remote programs now.

4. Leverage Other Events

You can use other virtual events, like communal recognition of performance and periodic showcasing of company milestones, to educate the workforce about where and how the organization aligns to social issues. If organizational missions, visions or values have shifted to be more inclusive or to better represent a company’s standing on an issue, you can also share this information to educate employees both on what matters now and how it will impact overall performance evaluation for employees and the business.

Schein’s culture work showed us that leaders must not only model their organization’s values but also realign elements that weaken these principles. This process may include calling out positive examples of organizational culture while correcting or even disciplining employees who lose sight of workplace principles in a hybrid environment. Openness to new initiatives, from environmental concerns to gender and racial equity proposals, is part of the organizational leader’s role. Providing the tools to bring the workforce to new levels of societal awareness and action is a key role for training and development initiatives.

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