The discussion was opened by host Kieran Howells of HR Grapevine before he handed off to Anthony Fritton of Bailey & French. Anthony’s advice to the question of engaging the workforce set the tone for the whole session. The path forward, he said, is about finding ways to make connections quicker. The best organisations globally are the ones who have a deep understanding of the human experience, and all of the nuance, knowledge and emotion that each individual brings to work. “Whole Person Experience”, as he dubbed it, helps foster connections between colleagues faster, which in turn helps them feel engaged.
Helen Marshall, Head of Learning at Thrive, was in agreement. When lockdown hit, she pointed out, we went from one extreme to another. That was disruptive and took time to normalise for workplace connections. But now, as we slowly return to offices and hybrid working is here to stay, there is a messy middle between those who thrive in the office, those who thrive at home, and the gap between these states. It makes connections difficult with those who don’t build connections in the same way, which in turn has an impact on engagement levels. Whilst stopping short of suggesting an answer, everyone on the webinar agreed that this lack of definition around hybrid parameters makes it harder to engage everyone so the need for understanding and empathy is paramount.
Whilst initially focussed on the environmental and emotional, the discussion was brought round to biological factors by Lauren Waldman, founder of Learning Pirate. She pointed to recent research she has been leading that shows how over-stimulated people are feeling upon returning to social and professional environments. This causes chemical reactions in our brain that tire us out, which doesn’t leave a lot of energy for learning or building connections. Equally, she added, we must be so mindful that people aren’t the same as they were two years ago.
Lauren pointed to the aphorism, “we’re all in the same storm but we’re in very different boats”, which was met with agreement from all present. Everyone experienced the pandemic differently so we must be mindful of people’s re-entry to the workplace and that some might take longer to build connections. David Hastings of Go1 added to this the need for safe environments where people can bring their experience, their knowledge and their passions to the table. This, he says, will help foster a sense of community that is ideal for peer-to-peer learning and engagement.
One watch-out was raised by Helen Marshall that the default so often with learning is for office-based jobs, which doesn’t fully account for those who may spend time in a factory or on a shop floor. We need to be mindful of the whole business and how they work, feel and engage with the business, L&D teams and their peers.
This was echoed by David Hastings who pointed out that learning opportunities that come off the back of peer-to-peer conversations and relationships are more powerful, engaging and useful than directives sent blanket from HR. If someone shows a passion for something, following up the conversation with some further learning opportunities in that passion is exactly the kind of quick connection building approach that Anthony mentioned at the opening of the webinar.
A further factor we should consider in this space is our preparedness for learning. Peer-to-peer and manager/mentor learning is very powerful, Lauren Waldman discussed, but we also need to ensure our brains are ready. In the past few decades, our focus attention span has fallen from four seconds to three. We’re simply not set-up to learn, most of the time. Especially not in the over-stimulating environment we find ourselves in. A tip she shared was to focus our visual attention on a single thing for 30-60 seconds as a way to prime our mental attention for focus.
Before the webinar wrapped up, the conversation turned to the intersection between employee engagement and development. The first point shared by the panel was that these two things intersect inextricably. An engaged team will develop naturally and more proactively than a disengaged one. And, likewise, a team that is developing will feel more engaged. But there are also factors we can consider to aid this loop.
Both Anthony and Helen pointed out the need to hold space for a wide range of opinions. Whether opposition or simply diversity of thought and new perspectives, a safe space where discussion is encouraged every day will help teams connect and share in their knowledge and experiences that prime for learning and development. This can come from on high too - equipping leaders to embody the values they wish to see within their team is a recommended way to foster a positive learning culture.
Go1 uses employee groups, according to David. Subcultures and communities around everything from project teams to neurodiversity, cultural backgrounds, sports and even dog owners. These groups naturally attract people to them from elsewhere in the organisation and even from outside. It then serves the dual purpose of engaging existing teams and making them feel a part of a community but it also allows for deeper connections away from the coal face of deadlines and learning more about peers.
David closed the webinar with a useful reminder. We’re never going to have all the answers but by fostering a culture of creativity and curiosity we can hope to have a solution for most learning and development needs.