There's a Pandemic Driven Learning Deficit

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth article in a six-part series on five different work modes. The first piece outlined a framework for each work mode, while subsequent posts explore a single work mode in greater depth — including focus, collaborate, learn, socialize and rest.


This post was co-authored by Kelly Griffin and Andrea Vanecko.


Learning is essential to the growth of individuals and organizations. As society evolves faster than ever before, the ability for companies to stay relevant rests in part on new attitudes toward learning beyond employees’ formal education. The coronavirus has also created a deficit of learning across companies that work from home. This virtual format lacks the richness of unique in-person learning moments in the workplace — for example, when colleagues work side-by-side or overhear conversations.


At the same time, a generational tsunami is impacting organizations and businesses. Generation Z — those born between 1996 and 2010 — will become a quarter of the workforce in just a few years. For Gen Z, learning opportunities are one of the top two factors important to building trust with employers. Maximizing learning opportunities can help attract this incoming workforce.

To better support learning, the workplace can enhance educational opportunities so when employees return once Covid-19 recedes, work is more effective, empowering and meaningful. Below are three ways organizations can employ design and design thinking to stimulate new learning outcomes.


Acknowledge that vehicles for learning are varied and diverse.

Learning in the workplace can take many forms. But first, understand why learning is needed. Is it to develop a solution, bring new practices and processes to how work gets done or gain a new skill? Then, consider four key learning modes:

  • Mentorships. One of the most valuable forms of hands-on learning is to develop a close working relationship with another individual in the workplace. It can provide a host of benefits for both the mentor and mentee, from building a network to expanding perspectives on an issue.

  • Networks. Another avenue of learning is to stay informed of the latest news, happenings and updates through colleagues. Opportunities to build formal and informal networks are incredible sources of fresh insights, different perspective and new ideas.

  • Partnerships. Learning opportunities can also expand outside an organization’s walls. Developing ties with other organizations, nonprofits or consultants can provide unique ways to close knowledge gaps and even beta test out new initiatives.

  • Whole-life Learning. By providing the space for employees to expand their repertoire of life skills and hobbies — organizations can only strengthen their commitment to and knowledge in the workplace.

Engage in best practices for successful learning.

As learning is unique for everyone, consider what matters most to your employees and organization. What can learning help achieve? How can people grow and better contribute to their organization? Opportunities to personalize the learning experience in the workplace can boost its value for employees, teams and organizations. To help tailor knowledge experiences, it may be helpful to survey employees’ preferred learning styles. But above all, consider the importance of fostering choice and agency, so employees are empowered to learn and have access to the right tools when they come back to the office.

Create spaces that foster an open learning environment.

The pandemic has both escalated and challenged the need for learning. To help employees, teams, and organizations more effectively gain new skills and knowledge, design strategies can help enhance learning opportunities in the office. A range of environments can support the ways people absorb information and also provide a fertile environment for those all-important in-person face-to-face learning moments, from overheard discussions to impromptu hallway conversations. Below are a few ways the office can support knowledge exchange.

  • Consider formal and informal learning opportunities. As learning can happen anywhere, a range of environments for formal and informal learning can help organizations support key knowledge-building moments across teams and departments. For instance, an atrium with large stadium-style steps that double as seating can transform a pass-through space into a dedicated area for lectures, presentations and talks. Meanwhile, a continuous stair, as seen in F5 Networks’ headquarters, which spirals up 28 stories, can provide unique spaces for employees to exchange knowledge as they casually connect in social spaces along the way, overhear conversations and even get some brain-boosting exercise. On the more informal end, office kitchenettes with large islands can create opportunities for impromptu group learning sessions. Booths in window-lined hallways can offer convenient spots for discussions between mentors and mentees, while also providing opportunities for colleagues passing by to join the conversation.

  • Offer spaces for group and individual learning. Some people learn best by listening, while others learn best by observing. In addition, introverts and extroverts learn differently too. Welcoming “learning rooms” with comfortable chairs, movable tables, digital whiteboards and dimmable lighting can support more social learning activities, such as group discussions and debates. Furthermore, dedicated spaces for cohort learning, such as “knowledge huts” can provide areas for teams to regularly learn together over an extended period of time. Ideally, these would be located in a new environment, filled with unique and atypical experiences, to help imprint the learning and knowledge gain. For introverts, library-like reading nooks can provide the perfect place to review the latest research report, work alongside a peer, or meet with a colleague one-on-one. More formal learning centers with multi-purpose rooms, breakout spaces and places to gather around food, can support a range of learners and breakout sessions. No matter the size, these spaces should be free of distractions and interruptions, so employees can effectively absorb new knowledge.

  • Build internal and external learning environments. Organizations can also enhance information exchange — as well as their network and brand — by opening their workplace up to the community. Underutilized ground floor retail space can be repurposed into popup classrooms or “maker spaces” for course partnerships with nearby academic or nonprofit institutions. For example, a culinary school can use an organization’s space to teach a weekly course on how to prepare nutritious meals, while a local “mobile” library can provide literacy resources for children in the neighborhood. In addition, co-working “learning lounges” can offer unique opportunities for employees from different organizations (and freelancers) to learn by working alongside one another.

In Summary

Knowledge can come from anyone and anywhere. The idea that people end their formal years of education knowing everything that is needed for an entire career is no longer valid. Yet harnessing and encouraging learning moments at work, from mentorship to upskilling, can be a challenge, particularly during the pandemic. By opening the workplace up to a diversity of talent, skills and experiences, the office environment can enhance a range of in-person learning activities so organizations can flourish, increase innovation and foster wellbeing in a post-pandemic world. The workplace needs to provide space — literally and figuratively — where people can continue to seek knowledge, pursue their curiosities and apply them to the work they do every day.

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