When we work virtually, we lose some obvious touch-points of organizational life. Many of those practical challenges have been well-explored. For example, almost every organization has learned to replicate meetings, measure productivity and output, and even to replace social gathering like happy hours and all-hands town halls—all without the benefit of sharing space. But an area that we haven’t heard much about is how to maintain the learning environment of work.
By learning, I don’t mean skills training. Training videos and interactive courses have been around for a long time. Those are a cinch to deliver virtually. Instead, I mean the kind of learning that takes place every day in the subtle interactions between peers, managers and their direct reports – or just through observed body language and casual interactions. Those kinds of learning moments happen constantly when you work in the same space with other; and hardly at all when you work virtually.
We all experience constant feedback when we are around other people, and especially when we are working. Most of it isn’t formal, like annual reviews and scheduled one-on-ones. The informal shrug, frown, or awkward silence that signals disapproval is largely absent. So is the encouragement of the satisfied grin, the pat on the back or the instant recognition of a win when a team-mate closes a big deal or comes up with a great idea. We observe and learn so much from those momentary bits of feedback. They typically occur in what cognitive psychologist Robin Hogarth calls Kind Learning Environments.
Kind? Yes. A learning environment is kind when the feedback is immediate and specific.
Imagine you are playing Gin Rummy and you discard a 10 of hearts. Your opponent immediately picks it up. The feedback is instant. Your opponent is building a sequence of hearts that includes a 10. You can use that information right away. In the next round of play you are faced with needing to discard either the 9 of hearts or the 3 of spades you are holding. Assuming you picked up on the feedback you just received, you will hold on to the 9 and give away the 3. Gin rummy is mostly a kind learning environment.
But all learning environments are not kind. Instead, some are wicked. Wicked learning environments offer feedback that is non-specific and often removed in time or space from the behavior that provoked it. Think about the last time a Tinder match ghosted you. You may have wondered what you did wrong; or maybe she just wasn’t ready for a commitment; could it be he was involved with someone else? Any of those is possible, and none is certain. What a very wicked learning environment online dating can be.
In wicked learning environments the feedback comes too late; or it is so diffuse as to make it hard to know what it means.
At the office, we have a mix of kind and wicked learning environments. Even those companies that provide the best environment for employee development may be struggling with this in fully remote operation. We have all lost the instant feedback of indifferent shrugs, casual eye-rolling, obvious tedium during boring presentations and so much more. Even our innovations can hamstring good feedback. For example, we gain efficiency from asynchronous communication. I’ve even advocated in favor of it as a time and focus-saver. But, when communication is asynchronous it is, by definition, too removed from behavior or circumstance to be helpful.
Zoom or Google Hangout sessions do not replace that casual feedback. The loss of impromptu interactions or the tacit feedback like “atta girls”, casual kudos given at the Keurig, course corrections that happen through unexpected collisions at one another’s desks—they are all gone. How much learning are we sacrificing and what is it costing our teams in their own development? It can be hard to tell. But we can take steps to compensate for the loss of the office learning environment.
Start by examining your formal processes for feedback and then expand on those to provide more short, direct, and specific opportunities. As a starting place, increase the frequency of your formal one-on-ones. But, that won’t be enough. How could you give more instant feedback for ideas, presentations, initiatives or just conduct without adding to the overwhelming Zoom meeting schedule? Here are some ideas:
- Send super-quick, individual email notes after every consequential meeting with direct reports. You may simply comment on the quality of meeting participation or the fact that you noticed the new whiteboard with department goals in the background in their home office. Alternatively, you might mention the great addition they made to the agenda, or their provocative questions that led to a new direction. These don’t all have to be positive either. If someone has been silent and failing to weigh-in on meeting items, ask why? Mention that you wondered why they were so quiet and ask what their feedback is about the initiative.
- Implement a peer-based kudos channel on Slack. Request that everyone gives kudos to someone in the company for something specific. At WPEngine they call their channel “Sunshine”. If team-members are tasked with observing their peers’ work so as to provide kudos, they will have to engage with them and learn what they are doing. That means more casual interactions, short IM exchanges, impromptu calls and more.
- Many CEOs send out weekly letters to their teams. Along with the normal content, you can include shout-outs scraped from the peer kudos slack channel in the weekly CEO letters.
- Never let a problem go unaddressed. Don’t wait for a formal one-on-one. Call or Zoom immediately.
- Create leadership team office hours for anyone to call or Zoom –for any reason.
- Implement a 360° review process for everyone (more on this in a later article).
These tips plus your brilliant ideas can take you some way toward creating a kind learning environment –even from afar. Your employees deserve to keep growing. Your organization deserves to have them do so!