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Tristram Hooley

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How has Covid-19 impacted the way we develop graduates and apprentices?

What has the crisis has taught us about how to develop young graduates and apprentices?

The world of flip charts, coffee breaks and breakout rooms covered in post-its has been one of the less remarked upon casualties of the Covid pandemic. 

Organisational learning and development has gone through a massive shift over the last year, and many employers aren’t expecting to return to their pre-pandemic approaches. 

For young people entering an organisation for the first time this has been a challenging period. Induction weeks and training programmes serve more purposes than the development of knowledge and the acquisition of skills. 

In the pre-pandemic world this kind of learning and development was where friendships were forged, cohorts built and organisational culture assimilated. 

The loss of the social aspects of work have been challenging for everyone, but for those just joining an organisation and in their early career it is potentially disastrous. 

The most effective development programmes have designed approaches that actively build sociability into the online experience.

How Covid changed training

A year ago, just before the start of the pandemic, we surveyed ISE members (mainly large employers recruiting graduates and apprentices) and asked them how they trained and developed their new hires. Nine out of ten of them reported that the training room was at the heart of their development programmes. 

More than half of the employers reported that face-to-face training approaches were the most effective way to develop new recruits. Indeed, this was both the most popular approach and the approach viewed as most effective in our 2020 survey.

A year on, and a lot has changed. ISE’s Student Development Survey 2021 shows that online learning is now the most common approach that is used to develop early career hires. 

Eight out of ten employers reported that they had shifted face-to-face programmes online during the pandemic. But there was less enthusiasm about the impact of online training. 

While 32% of employers ranked it as one of the most effective approaches, rotations between different business functions, mentoring, experiential learning, engagement with senior leaders, running development projects and old fashioned face-to-face training room learning were all ranked as more effective. 

Covid has disrupted the way in which training is delivered, but it is more complex than a straight switch between the training room and the Zoom course. 

Learning and development is being rethought with organisations trying to address the other problems associated with remote working, including loss of social contact and lack of exposure to the organisational culture, as well as simply trying to replace like for like. 

The future is hybrid

So far the UK government’s roadmap out of lockdown seems to be on track. So, does this mean that by September online learning will dry up and training rooms will once more be overflowing with new recruits?

Despite some problems associated with the rapid shift online and the challenging working environment of 2020/2021, most employers report a high degree of satisfaction with the new approach to training and development that has been necessitated during the pandemic. 

Three quarters were satisfied that they had managed to maintain the quality of their training and development programme throughout the transition online and a further 14% reported that they had seen quality improve. 

A common story is that the pandemic has created a period of forced creativity. It has made employers stand back, consider what it is they are trying to achieve and recreate their learning and development strategy with the tools to hand. 

The pandemic has been a demanding teacher. It has asked organisations to break down their learning and development programmes and rebuild them from the ground up.

Many have been sitting on under-used eLearning technologies for years, which have finally come into their own. A more systematically digital approach to training and development is proving more flexible and allowing organisations to overcome challenges of distance, engagement and cost. 

This is not to say that employers are blind to the problems that are associated with online learning. The loss of the social aspects of learning, of happenstance connections and challenges with screen fatigue are all very live issues. The most effective development programmes have designed approaches that actively build sociability into the online experience, which provide space for thinking and connections to be built and create opportunities to connect with others in the organisation.  

While very few are planning a return to pre-pandemic approaches to learning and development, most are looking towards a new hybrid model. Building the right blend between face-to-face and digital elements of training programmes creates yet another challenge for learning and development professionals, but it also offers serious rewards if the best of both worlds can be captured. 

Lessons from the pandemic

The pandemic has been a demanding teacher. It has asked organisations to break down their learning and development programmes and rebuild them from the ground up. If we can take a few lessons from the last year to inform the future of early career development programmes it is probably the following: 

  • Think radically and be creative. It is easy to get stuck in a rut. Don’t wait for the next pandemic before you challenge yourself to rethink your development programme. 

  • Decide what you are developing before you decide how you are going to deliver it. A focus on learning outcomes and organisational needs should come before a commitment to a particular approach. There are many ways to teach the same knowledge and skills. 

  • Value the social aspects of learning and happenstance connections. Learning and development is about a lot more than just passing on knowledge and skills. Design learning to create connections within the cohort and across your organisation. 

  • The best programmes make use of multiple development approaches. It is a false opposition to view face-to-face and digital as in competition. The most effective development programmes combine these and other approaches. 

Interested in this topic? Read 'How can apprenticeships help organisations build a better future?'

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