A crisis of learning

New starters are caught in a no-man’s land between their own enthusiasm and the COVID-19 imposed tunnel vision of their colleagues. Frustrating for the new recruit and wasteful for the organisation, but will it focus both parties on the value of workplace performance for community, culture and employee education?

Last week, in a rare office-based day peppered with the back-to-back conference calls, I invited Sayed, Leesman’s newest graduate recruit, to sit in on a call with a major new client. The combined impact of the call and our 20-minute debrief afterwards, was clear.

Sayed joined us as an Analyst. His new job is to produce the reports from the surveys clients commission that expose how well their employees are supported working from home or from the office. It is an essential part of our service offering. Executive leadership teams will pore over the numbers he collates. But it was only seeing him there in the office, head deep in one of his first reports, that I thought to the extend the offer for him to join me.

It’s something I think Leesman do well – onboard our starters by letting them see the coal face within minutes of arriving. But what about under the cloud of COVID?

I can do my own role almost entirely from home. But last week, I suddenly asked myself: what does that take away from my fresh-faced colleagues?

Pre-pandemic, we made an invisible investment in new employees by being with them and them being around us all. It quickly boosted capability and knowledge.

This un-structured part of onboarding recruits happened without instruction or any formal framework or check-list. It was just part of being in the same space. Working out the culture. Understanding the mission, together.

Now that new employees are in distributed settings, the capability building that once came out of unstructured learning suddenly needs to be structured and strategically planned in the way of formal training. Informal exchanges need to be diarised.

Online video meetings may ooze efficiency, but they cut out the peripheral interactions of hallway meetings, team lunch invites and a few stops on the shared tube ride home. They lack all of the organic value of observation.

Our data tells us that ‘learning from others’ has been hit hard by COVID, not just in terms of agreeing it is supported, but also in the importance attached to it. So, are we facing a crisis of learning? And will it have a lasting effect on the future prospects of new recruits?

If that sounds melodramatic, think for a moment: most employers consider a candidate with perhaps one or two-years’ workplace experience less of a risk and more valuable than those ‘green’ straight from graduation. So, if situational education and coaching is totally removed by virtue of our remoteness from each other, what future do those making their first steps in the workplace have in the short term?

Can you really successfully onboard an employee who has yet to even experience the visceral culture of the team they are within; let alone the wider organisation they work for?

I also fear for the additional pressure this places on those recruits, desperate to prove their worth. In those junior positions, early commitment to the role is often demonstrated visually – simple things like time keeping, dress code, conduct in the office, interaction with colleagues, timely questions asked, discretionary effort offered.

In their early months, perhaps these signals matter just as much as output. But how do they do that sitting at home? If the time-hurried senior team member doesn’t happen to notice the new starter and think there and then to ask if they are free to listen in on their next meeting, how many starters would have the confidence to check the senior’s diary and ask if they could tag along? An online/offline light on your Zoom, Teams or Skype home screen may accurately reflect your status, but has none of the quality of seeing someone in the office. What I suddenly realised we lack most when working remotely from each other is peripheral vision and 360-degree hearing.

Graduates will work this out quickly. And so, they might start to ask questions about a prospective employer’s post-pandemic remote / home work strategy because they know the impact it will have on their career progress. Could the ability to mingle with colleagues and be part of a physical community suddenly have as much recruitment cache as salary and paid leave entitlement? Do interview candidates start to ask how often senior team members are office based? Is it inconceivable to think HR might start to quote daily average occupancy rates when recruiting young staff?

Leesman’s younger cohort, like their peers across the 125,000+ other home-based employees we have measured since March, has other reasons to want to get back to the office. Spare bedrooms turned into purposeful home offices are considerably harder to find in the under-34s. Thirty percent of home workers do not have a dedicated work setting at home and are consequently surfing the sofa, kitchen table or even their bed. In small shared accommodation the race for the breakfast table can be highly charged.

This is not only challenging ergonomically, but also culturally. Statistically this group feel distinctly less connected to their organisation and to their colleagues. Perhaps this group, desperate to be seen as young professionals, are more self-conscious of the setting seen behind them when on web-cam?

This isn’t all to say the Millennials or Gen Zs are difficult and demanding – I find quite the opposite at the moment. It is merely to raise an awareness of the challenges faced by a group of young people fresh into the workplace, plagued through their higher education by pension reform industrial action limiting access to academic staff, now entering organisations where social distancing has limited access to those they could learn most from.

Good organisations will find work-arounds and they will focus extra effort on their future talent. But my trip back to the office last week also reminds me that offices serve organisations and employees in a myriad of ways that were almost invisible. But perhaps then, from the cloud of COVID-19 will come a much greater appreciation for the value of physical workplaces that facilitate a togetherness that is just not the same when remote.

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