July 2020
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Fresh Thinking for the New World of Working

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Prior to the global pandemic, working patterns had been changing—albeit slowly. Flexible workdays, working from home, and online collaboration are concepts some people and some organizations embraced, but they certainly were not the norm. Then along came lockdown, which forced the issue. We could no longer just do things the way we have always done them, but had to fundamentally rethink how we do business and, within that, how people will grow and develop.

L&D teams have been busy, willing and able to support learning for individuals and organizations in these unforeseen circumstances. With face-to-face training being impossible, we have adapted classroom courses to virtual live online session. As well, the provision of e-learning and the curation of microlearning resources have been important and invaluable in picking up the slack left by the lack of classroom training.

But are we challenging ourselves enough? Are we merely taking the easier option of doing what we have always done but wrapping it up differently?

Virtual online learning is one of the most popular solutions to learning in our current environment, and it is a good option. Done well, it is engaging, timely, and has benefits above and beyond face-to-face training, such as being able to assemble participants from around the globe, taking less time away from work, and reducing travel and accommodation costs. However, if we are not careful it could be reminiscent of when L&D began to turn classroom training to e-learning without first addressing the most appropriate ways to learn the particular skills and behaviors required by the business.

Shake things up

Let’s use this opportunity to catapult learning into the future we are seeking to create. This doesn’t mean learning new concepts and methods of learning; it means more fully adapting the approaches we already have to new ways of working and ensuring we use the most appropriate methods for the topic at hand. Re-examine experiential learning, social learning, and flipped classrooms and think about how you can apply these approaches, particularly when the workforce is not always co-located.


Start fresh. Don’t start from what you have. Rethink your outcomes. For instance, if you have a two-day sales training course, the temptation is to think through how you can translate this to online learning. Instead, go back to first principles. What behaviors or skills should people develop as a result? And what is the best way to ensure they learn, apply, and retain these desired outcomes? Is there any type of experiential learning that would be useful here? How about tapping into role models and subject matter experts?

Stretch it out. Learning is deeper and more durable when it is effortful and when it takes place over time. We probably remember cramming for exams back in school. How much of that have you retained? The spacing effect says that given the same amount of time studied, or the same number of exposures to material, those spread out in time will be remembered better and for longer intervals than if those same exposures are crammed together.

In other words, if you have a one-day course, you will retain more if those eight hours are spread one hour per day over a few weeks than if you learned it all in one day. We have that opportunity now with dispersed learners. We no longer need to fit everything in a day or two to maximize transport and accommodation costs. We can stretch out learning activities to ensure we are more deeply embedding the lessons.

Be creative. Create experiences that allow people to make a purposeful connection between what they are learning and their role or the wider world of work. When you are outcome oriented and stretch your creative muscles, you can greatly improve the development and retention of the learners. We all know that learning by doing embeds mastery, not just understanding. If you want people to learn how to problem solve, give them a real-life problem to solve (in a safe learning environment). Get people to reflect or discuss with peers what they have learned and spread the knowledge. There are online games available or you can even mail something like Lego bricks to their houses with incomplete instructions to simulate a real-world situation. Consider using peer mentoring. It is free, readily available, and supportive of each person’s growth and excellence.


Allow for self-discovery. People retain more when they have researched a topic themselves, debated it, and tried it out. If you want to be a good presenter, watch great presenters and note what they do. And then present, reflect, seek feedback and present again. If you want people to learn excel, provide a simple exercise and let them have a go. Give them a relevant challenge they can try at home.

Blend and mix. Blended learning can be so much more than pre-work, virtual course, post-work. In this new world, the flipped classroom has come into its own. Give learners the primary responsibility to learn, with the facilitator there to provide a learning environment and tools. Learners can have some on-the-job experience, personal reflection, and peer support. Then a group of learners can get together to analyze how this went for everyone. If you are being creative and stretching out the learning, there are a lot of opportunities to blend several learning methods together.

Customize learning. Different people have different learning needs and goals. The reason some classroom training falls short in its objective is because the learning is standard for everyone in the room, irrespective of everyone’s actual needs. Experiential learning, on the other hand, allows professionals to learn at their own pace and learn from a particular experience that is relevant to them. Since each person gets to make their own observation of the experience and derive abstract concepts, it becomes more personalized for them.

Now is the time to look more creatively and do things differently. Think about what skills or behaviors you want to embed and don’t let yourself feel constrained by the way things have been done in the past.

Share your thoughts and experiences in the Comments below.

About the Author

Diane Law is an independent consultant focused on learning strategy, leadership, learning frameworks, and bringing learning into the flow of work. Her passion is around individual potential, believing everyone has the capacity to grow and develop.  This is aligned with embedding a self-developing, learning culture, enabling people to be outstanding today and ensuring organizations have the capability they require tomorrow. She is the designer of the TJ 2018 award-winning leadership development program.

Diane was former Head of People Development at UK-based consultancy Newton Europe.

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Thank you for your article and insight. I'll be sharing with my training cadres.
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So many great points here! It was so tempting, especially at the start of the lockdown, to mimic the in-person experience on an online platform, but that is not conducive to a successful learning environment. The pressures and stressors of the pandemic really highlighted how important it is for trainers to be flexible and adaptable, and in order to do this, we really had/have to go back to the drawing board. We want to give people the opportunity to learn, grow, and interact in new ways!
I agree Samantha. We need to not just put the same thing into new packaging - but look at how the learning, and the means of delivering that learning, can be more relevant, engaging, sustainable and appropriate.
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Practice and meta-learning are indeed key! You phrased it very well, "people retain more when they have researched a topic themselves, debated it, and tried it out". What are some ideas you could recommend about including a practice session into live-online training requiring the learners to analyze a few items & evaluate them applying a new checklist they have just been presented to earlier in the session?
A practice session can be built into live online learning, particularly using the break-out room facility. Giving a simple case example or a framework to apply.
Even more powerful though is to split up the live online learning into several sessions, allowing the participants to practice in the real-world the skills/behaviors being taught and then coming back to the next online session with their successes and lessons learned.
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