Learning From Colleagues in the Hybrid World of Work

Hybrid Work

By Professor Gregory Whitwell

A recent survey among our CEMS alumni and graduates, the majority of whom are young professionals working in global organizations, confirmed an issue of increasing concern in our community as the pandemic progressed.  Namely, that working from home was harming their opportunities to learn from each other and more experienced colleagues.  Opportunities to develop by observing how others tackled situations, to quickly consult colleagues for advice or volunteer for projects which enabled new skills to be added to their portfolio were being missed.

When we asked them if they felt the situation would improve when – as it seems likely – we would return to a hybrid workplace, an overwhelming two-thirds (66%) still felt that this would damage their ability to learn from colleagues. 

There is a potential risk to organizations that the hybrid workplace could lead to a major disruption to the informal learning and development of their employees that takes place just by being present in the workplace. Traditionally it has been widely recognised that 70% of learning and development takes place from real-life and on-the-job experiences, tasks and problem solving, including learning from others.

To help companies ensure that valuable learning from colleagues continues, CEMS asked members of the alliance – including our corporate partners and academic experts – to share their advice for employers to ensure that learning from colleagues continues within this ever-changing climate. 

Guidelines for employers

Audrey Clegg, Global Head of Talent at Coca-Cola Hellenic, told us that some institutions leave networking and upskilling to individuals, but the most productive help their people do it more effectively. “Last year at Coca-Cola we launched our Opportunity Marketplace, which connects business demands, big and small, with people who can meet them and gain skills and visibility at the same time. Alongside international collaboration and maximising employee skillsets, a core component is a digital platform to post assignments. Employees complete a profile and are alerted when relevant opportunities arise.”

Usa Skulkerewathana, Senior Lecturer at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School advocates for leaders to lead by example: “In addition to creating platforms for learning (online forums, focus group discussions, ground-up initiatives/projects), employees will be even more enthusiastic to learn when they see their leaders lead the way, set the tone and act as role models in work-life integration.”

Heidi Robertson, Head of Diversity & Inclusion at ABB, advised to “agree on a common set up for office hours, ensuring that colleagues do have the opportunity to meet and connect in person. Without a structure of and plan for common face time and without visible, inclusive leadership, the workforce may feel left outside or left behind”

Allowing for informal meeting time is also key. “As a professional it is hard to create informal time with colleagues if the company doesn’t enable that it in the first place, “ commented Professor Marie-Therese Claes, who teaches on the CEMS programme at WU Vienna. “Make sure that as an employer you open up social time in the schedule. A lot of the most impactful learning and innovation arises from casual conversations between colleagues.”

From my own perspective, professionals also benefit from being assigned a mentor who can provide guidance, advice, and encouragement. But they also need to have sponsors who are committed to opening doors, introducing them to other key players in the organisation, expanding their network, and advocating on their behalf. Fundamentally, this is about ensuring that inclusivity is put into action rather than just talked about.

Behaviours to encourage in employees

Heidi Robertson told us that it is extremely important for employees to create international ‘water-cooler’ moments. The new working model requires employees to be more proactive in reaching out, connecting and networking outside of the immediate circle, as the arena for ad hoc meetings and ‘water cooler conversations’ are reduced. “We must find alternative and innovative ways of connecting, and there is a huge opportunity in this,” she said. “ ‘Water cooler discussions’ can be extended to reach far wider than just employees own locations in the world, as virtual interaction allows us to connect across borders and timelines.”

Time must be reserved for informal chatting as well as formal meetings. “Encourage employees to think of the informal time they would have with colleagues if they were in the same location and reserve that amount of time for informal chatting: have a virtual coffee break together, instead of leaving the computer, or have lunch together in separate locations,” said Professor Claes.

Vera Magin, Head of People Development at CEMS corporate partner Simon-Kucher Partners encourages a culture of questions. “If you want to learn exactly how to do a certain task, ask a colleague to share their screen and allow you to watch them performing it. At Simon-Kucher new joiners not only meet (virtually or onsite) their close colleagues, but also a mentor and onboarding peers. We encourage every new joiner to maintain contact with these colleagues and proactively reach out for questions.”

Finally, according to Usa Skulkerewathana, colleagues can be encouraged to share their own experiences of how to integrate work and life in this new normal. “As work and life coexist at home, learning is beyond the work context. It also encompasses learning from other colleagues on how to integrate work and life in a professional manner. Such learning not only enriches knowledge but also enhances bonding among colleagues” she explains.

Given that upskilling is so vital in a post-pandemic workplace, a range of strategies – including the ones above – must be put in place to make sure colleagues can maintain valuable human connection and learn from one another in a hybrid world.

About the Author

Gregory WhitwellProfessor Gregory Whitwell is Dean of the University of Sydney Business School and Chair of CEMS.  CEMS is a global alliance of 34 of the world’s top business schools, 69 corporate partners and 8 social partners who together deliver the CEMS Masters in Management.

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