Coming into 2020, the last thing our divided world needed was a once-in-a-generation pandemic. Lo and behold, along came COVID-19 to tear our best-laid plans asunder, making this year feel like a virtual write-off for many (pun firmly intended). In an effort to combat its spread, governments everywhere put their countries into lockdown, requiring citizens to stay at home whenever possible. The result? Boredom, frustration, and alienation.
Even so, every cloud has a silver lining, and there were indeed some positives to draw from the experience — the most notable being the glut of free time to spend however you preferred (within the confines of your home, that is). Playing games? Absolutely. Exercising? An excellent option. In a fast-paced world, this was a chance to breathe.
On top of the many challenges, there were interesting opportunities in the business world, too. Companies had to make major operational changes just to survive. The move to remote working was a sharp shock, but it cemented an established trend towards working from home. Switching to virtual collaboration was trickier: a BCG study of the first COVID-19 lockdown found that while productivity stayed high for individual tasks, it dipped for collaborative tasks.
This situation was a focus-sharpener for those with ambition. Business owners buckled down. They rethought and made adjustments. As a result, you can point to almost any business currently operating and know that people had to make some major changes during the frenzied midpoint of 2020. If they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have survived for very long.
The real question, though, is what all of these changes mean for L&D. Allocating resources to different departments is a tricky task, and the relative importance of different areas of business has changed a lot this year. So, how has L&D fared?
That’s what we’re going to consider in this post. Let’s take a look at how the lockdown has made L&D more important than ever before - and what it means for you in the coming year.
First up, a question: how much of a priority was L&D before all this craziness? Well, we can look at spending stats to get some ideas. According to Statista, the average annual training spend per employee per year rose incrementally between 2008 and 2018 (with 2010 being anomalously high), with the amount hitting just under $1,300 by the end of that period.
Accounting for inflation, these incremental rises don’t seem all that significant. Companies seemed to be in a rut with their training commitments, nudging budgets slightly over time without investing heavily. This is at odds with how important L&D should have been: employees are every company’s greatest asset, and nurturing their development should be a priority.
So, is it possible that 2020’s many strange developments have pushed companies to reframe their priorities? Let’s delve deeper and see exactly how L&D has changed.
Before lockdown, the average workspace was monitored from every direction. Managers buzzed around workers, office cameras ran non-stop, and colleagues could share each other’s struggles and triumphs in person. This made it easier to highlight competency gaps: if someone encountered a task they couldn’t complete, it was tough to hide.
With most companies operating remotely, this kind of oversight isn’t possible. This makes it a lot harder to give people the support they need when they’re struggling. You can tell everyone to ask for help whenever they need it, but they might not follow through out of embarrassment. They may even fear for their position, regardless of any reassurances about job security.
This alone is certainly cause to invest further in L&D, putting more time and money into testing and improving each worker’s set of skills and capabilities - particularly through supporting collaborative learning over regular elearning. It’s no longer viable to simply sit back and let office life play out with physical oversight.
Looking after mental health has always been a big issue, but it’s become even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic. Feeling safe and secure at work is key for keeping people calm and content, and in these circumstances, it’s tough for anyone to feel 100%.
In this context, companies wanting to support their employees — and help them to be productive — must invest accordingly. This is driving a significant bump in the importance of overall people development, including L&D and HR departments. Business leaders are taking great care to support their teams, ensuring that everyone can continue to grow and develop as professionals and as individuals.
Beyond simply being the right thing to do, offering this support also safeguards your business. It’s how you retain your best performers and keep them contributing to the long-term value of your brand, as well as maintaining your reputation with customers and stakeholders.
Arne Stamer, an ecommerce expert at My Package Tracking, said this about mental health, "You can't overestimate mental health in the workplace. This should be one of your top priorities. To achieve this, you can, for example, invest in team building activities, online and offline, such as online cooking events or team retreats. COVID can't be an excuse to neglect those things. It's the other way around: You have to put more focus on them than ever before."
Now that remote working has become the new standard, it’s radically changed how businesses define productivity. So far, this has proven to be a mixed bag: some workers are able to be more productive while working from home, while others have struggled due to the loss of useful habits and lack of clear boundaries in their lives.
What makes this even trickier to get right is the lack of understanding of software resources and how they impact workplace culture. Managing performance and keeping people productive from a distance isn’t easy. You need tools for task management (GetBusy has a useful guide), time tracking (Toggl Track — formerly just Toggl — is a hugely popular option), training advancement (360learning), and more.
With the work environment changing so much, investing in L&D is critical. Your people need to be trained on building up new habits to suit fully-digital operation. They need to learn how to manage their time with limited oversight, stay motivated at home, and minimize distractions.
Each of these things is a lot more challenging than it sounds. Getting it right takes active training; simply pointing people to some basic guides won’t give them the help they need.
L&D is indeed more important in late 2020 than ever before. It has a huge effect on company performance, and more business owners are acknowledging the role it has to play in keeping them afloat. Though investment in L&D was flat in recent years, hindsight will likely show that it rose significantly in 2020 - and all in the context of a global recession. For L&D leaders determining their business budgets for 2021 and beyond, L&D has to be a top priority.