Collaborative learning despite remote working

Julia Norman on the enduring power of the collective brain, even in distanced times.

Covid-19 has led to an abrupt shift, significant change, insecurity and fresh challenge. Many people have been forced into unemployment, some furloughed and others working from home are embracing digital communications to replace face-to-face contact.  

Whilst Zoom, MS Teams and other platforms have enabled a swift transition from the company office to home office, it has been unsettling and unnerving for many. Our natural need for social interaction has been taken away and many share feelings of isolation. Managers are encouraged to ‘stay in touch’ and show compassion. Indeed, the British Psychological Society has set up several workstreams designed to focus on these changing needs, including ‘Adaptations’, ‘Effects of Confinement’, ‘Staff Wellbeing’ and ‘Working Differently’. The Mental Health Foundation advises on the importance of carrying on with “structured and unstructured connections with work and colleagues whilst people are working remotely or flexibly”.

In addition to the social advantage gained by working in an office environment, an equally important benefit is the opportunity for unconscious or implicit learning. This is the knowledge acquired independently of conscious efforts to learn, and forms part of ‘on-the-job’, experiential learning. It occurs when people learn from watching others, particularly – according to Joseph Henrich (Secret of Our Success) – when those being observed have “success, prestige and high-status”.

Indeed, in my own work supporting individual development, I often start with helping people identify ‘what good looks like’ so they know what to aim for. The obvious place to look for this goal is to managers and leaders, and to spot the key behaviours that have made them successful. Whether observing cues from successful individuals, we learn the ‘right’ way of doing things and unconsciously start to build those same skills. I have noticed that often the most effective way to drive behavioural change is through effective and visible leadership, where those stakeholders in an organisation recognise their responsibility to role-model the approach they would like others to demonstrate. Employees who try to adopt the ‘correct’ behavioural standards expand their skill base. Over time this translates to new, habitual practices, such as being able to collaborate, influence and inspire.  

Henrich reinforces this phenomenon by what he refers to as the Collective Brain. He argues that it is the collective brain operating over generations – and not innate intelligence, simple communication or general collaboration – that explains our species success. He states that we have progressed due to cultural evolution and social learning. By coming together in groups, watching, copying and passing down lessons learnt over the generations, we have evolved and differentiated ourselves from others in the animal kingdom. 

If we allow the physical separation of people to stifle the huge benefits of social learning, idea exchange and collaborative solutioning, then we are stifling progress and the very thing that has enabled us to dominate the planet. In our home-based environment, the physical interaction with others is gone and there is absence of these environmental cues which shape our development. As remote working becomes the norm for millions of employees and may become a permanent, or semi-permanent solution, it is critical to find other ways to help people adapt, develop and grow. Organisations need to help their employees with this and create cultures where people can continue to learn from each other, where minds can come together on scale, and where people are sufficiently interconnected so that improvements can spread rapidly. If they do not, then we as individuals and organisations as a whole will fail to learn, adapt and evolve. Individuals lacking opportunities to grow and learn, can quickly disengage, lose commitment to their organisation’s goals, and values and become demoralised. Organisations too will suffer, as performance drops, stagnation sets in and they are left behind the competition.

To counteract this outcome, as adjustments to new practices are taking place, leaders need to step up and establish a deep learning culture where people can flourish and thrive.

Here are some practical ways that leaders can create an interconnected, growth culture right now:  

  • Set up mandatory ‘learning’ forums, with an assigned facilitator, where people come ready to share how they achieved success; what they did that led to failure; reflections on what to do differently and time to ask the group for ideas, before action planning. The group facilitator serves to extract wisdom from individuals and to share insights openly and without judgement. Recording are made of the forums and shared as podcasts for others to access.
  • Encourage ‘experts’ to share knowledge and insight in easily-digestible, learning chunks as podcasts/video’s showing supporting evidence and research. Experts are selected by specialist reputation or merit in identified areas, and incentivised to maintain, ‘Thought Leadership’ status.
  • Leaders to frequently (both publicly, privately or anonymously) ask for positive and negative feedback, encouraging and thanking people for expressing their perspective. 
  • Create an environment, which allows for informal learning moments – such as giving people time to keep a learning diary which is completed every day and actions carried forward and shared openly and transparently on intranet groups or social forums. 
  • Keep detailed records of the journey or process of achieving goals and use these as a starting point for new ideas. Make every effort to avoid repetition, and challenge people when they shy away from providing opinion. Praise contribution, reflection and evaluation, whilst berating single-mindedness, solo working and too much independence.
  • Reward mechanisms to be based on specific social learning behaviour, such as for asking and giving constructive feedback; asking for help; taking risk, declaring mistakes; prompt reflection and evaluation of actions; proffering insight and applying new actions quickly. Success is also measured by the learning derived from the input effort as opposed just the achievement in itself. 

With a vaccine still out of reach, and daily headlines forecasting a second wave and lockdown measures fluctuating, there are indications that we will see a lasting shift in home-working. Therefore, it makes sense that we create a virtual workplace where people can still feel engaged and excited in their work, and are rewarded for their collaborative learning as opposed to individual achievement. 

In these challenging times, when people are likely to feel more removed from their colleagues than ever, it is especially critical that leaders focus their efforts on the employee/organisation relationship. Whilst staff may be physically remote for some time, they need not also become organisationally remote. 

- Julia Norman CPsychol

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