L&D Leveraging the Current Situation to Build More Effective Workplaces

In the past two months Nigel Paine and I have co-hosted exploratory discussions with L&D professionals on how to leverage the current situation in order to build more effective workplaces.  These were a different kind of online event where we facilitated a discussion rather than presented content.

Together we explored the implications of current disruption to work and workplaces for learning as an activity and for L&D teams in organisations. What, how and why are people learning? What role have learning teams played in organisational transformation? Have organisations adapted with their support or have they been side-lined or even retrenched as a non-essential function?

Learning Culture Lens

We both bring a lens of learning culture to our work.  The model below which Nigel developed based on research for his book Workplace Learning conveys critical elements to building learning culture.


If you’d like more information on this model you can download the Learning Culture Primer that we co-wrote.

Key Discussion Themes

Firing courses blindly at people is failing to get traction right now (if it ever did!).  The most effective responses to remote working have been much more holistic.  These sit in the middle layer of the learning culture model – leadership, trust, engagement and empowerment. Focussing on getting that layer right builds the conditions for successful learning or much more likely facilitating and enabling successful learning.


The role of leaders has been critical.  What has worked best is where leaders have shared their personal side and been willing to be vulnerable and authentic and focussed on supporting rather than micro-managing their teams.  People have appreciated seeing leaders in their home environment, seeing them more as ‘whole people.’  Leaders who stretch, get out of their comfort zone and bring ideas to life through role modelling are helping their people to adapt.  Deep listening is a key skill for leaders right now.  This includes asking great questions, listening openly, seeking feedback and being responsive and admitting when and what they do not know. Building communities is the most role for L&D right now.

As one participant put it “I feel I can do better, now that I know what needs to be done in terms of supporting individuals and building stronger, more genuine relationships.”

Trust and Engagement

Those organisations where trust and engagement were already high were in a good position to adapt.  In other cases, the sudden disruption has provided an opportunity to respond in ways that have built trust and engagement.

We heard some really heartening examples of the focus being placed on human engagement, connection and social bond building and sustaining.  One organisation has focussed on building “stability, care, trust, hope and innovation.” They’ve also used weekly pulse surveys to stay abreast of how people are feeling and what they need.

Many organisations have emphasised the need for lots of communication and worked hard to get the balance right – not too little, not too much.  Daily huddles are common as part of the current operating rhythm.  When the intention is to provide connection, care and empathy people are seeing much higher levels of engagement.  If the leader(s) do not trust their staff and try to micromanage from a distance, the outcome is wasted time and disengagement.


The crisis has bound people together with a sense of common purpose.  Participants expressed concern that this will be lost as socially distancing eases.  One lamented “How can we go back to ‘normal’ and lose the valuable skills we’ve developed and the enthusiasm?  ‘Normal’ would be like going backwards.” In many ways the big challenge for learning and development teams is to make sure that the best practices endure.

We will continue to explore that question as we begin to re-establish a more familiar work environment and relax the current restrictions. We want to hear about L and D’s successes and challenges in that space over the next few weeks.

Empowerment, Change and Experimentation

The pace of adoption of technology platforms and new ways of working has been phenomenal.  All of the things that have changed were possible pre-pandemic.  The new constraints have accelerated adoption.  As they say: necessity is the mother of invention.

Some have seen success with using champions from within the workforce and introducing change from the outer edges of the organisation rather than pushing things out centrally.  A participant recommended Salim Ismail’s Exponential Organisations as a resource for introducing change from the outer edges. (It’s in the resource list further on).  The innovation cycle has accelerated: scale up fast or shut down and move on.

In terms of using the platforms and new communications and learning technologies, what’s worked has been short ‘how to’ sessions, practice sessions, providing tips, simple checklists, local champions and sharing success stories. Long, tedious programmes, or extended online sessions have not worked. It’s much more about support and resources, not courses.

These shifts also apply to learning.  Several participants noted that initial reluctance across their organisation to use digital learning has been replaced with an enthusiastic embrace of it.  One participant observed:

We’ve never experienced so much interest and support for learning before.  We feel like we are able to connect to our people and provide them when they want and need and are actually able to deliver it.  I’ve never been so happy and ready to go and “full of beans” with the energy I’ve got for this work.

Of course, people’s experience with adoption and experimentation has varied.  In some organisations policies and security concerns remain a barrier.  If you are in this position, we suggest finding a collaborative tool that you can adopt without formal approval e.g. Slack.  Start using it with a small group, then show others what you are doing and gradually get more people on board.  Creating a compelling story around the value and use that evidence to start shifting adoption.

Adaptation is about doing new things, not trying to do old things in new ways.  It is about leaving bad habits behind, not transferring them to the online world or creating new and even worse bad habits!

Participant Insights

Standout insights from the discussion:

* We are creating new stories about who we are and how we are

* Flexibility is key in regard to work arrangements now and into the future

* It’s important to sustain the kindness, empathy and care

* People are currently willing to play in a new world – take the opportunity to experiment. L&D need to use this opportunity to the full.

* L&D is earning goodwill at the moment – we can leverage this to build trust, rapport, and better relationships

* L&D has a new status inside the organisation


You can access a collection of resources that participants shared during the discussion or are relevant to themes discussed.


  • Brock Shears

    Michelle and Nigel are an inspiration. The discussion format itself, I think, demonstrated a learning culture building opportunity in action. I particularity reflected on the discussion of constraints on learning in my own organisation. Check out the resources Michelle and Nigel have so generously shared and if you haven’t already, connect with each of them. You won’t regret it.


    • Michelle Ockers

      Thank you for your comment Brock. It’s always a delight to have you participate in a conversation – your curiousity and willingness to share help set the tone for enquiry, exploration and application.


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