Organizations and the people who power them have evolved over the course of the pandemic. One key area of focus has been how to engage successfully in a remote and hybrid world, and how to learn effectively when people may be apart.
Learning and development (L&D) professionals have needed to quickly pivot to—and in some cases design—new ways of providing training and learning across the entire employee experience: from onboarding to skills training, leadership development, and more. How do you do that most effectively when facilitators, employees, presenters, and others aren’t in the same space? How do you do that when they’re not engaging at the same time? How do you do that when people are living different experiences in different environments?
One approach that has picked up steam is using cohorts to fuel learning before, during, and after “training sessions” happen.
Cohorts, collaboration, and connection
Cohorts are small groups coming together to learn. They’re often associated with academia, but corporations are increasingly discovering that cohorts can play an important role in employee learning and development as well.
Cohorts, also referred to as communities of practice, says Brandi Hytower, Director, Learning Operations & Technology at GP Strategies Corporation, have a positive impact in organizations in four key ways:
- They increase accountability. Employees aren’t just accountable to their supervisors or managers, or to HR or L&D—cohorts drive accountability between each other.
- They offer additional value to learners—cohorts offer the opportunity to gain perspectives from others—perspectives that may both align and differ from their own.
- They foster “unplanned” learning—sometimes it’s the sudden “a-ha” moments that matter most when it comes to learning.
- They drive collaboration—cohorts are, above all, opportunities to learn and share, together.
During the work-from-home period, many workers For many, the answer is connections. Cohorts can help to provide those connections. “At the end of the day, we all believe in the power of connection,” says Dr. Tony Bolden, Principal & Chief Evangelist at Tony Bolden Enterprises. “Learning is that vehicle that helps us facilitate connections,” he says. Cohorts can provide a very powerful tool to enhance learning while building and strengthening connections.
Driving cohesion with cohorts
Jim Batz is Director of Learning & Development at Cornerstone OnDemand. During the pandemic, says Batz, the irony was that “we had all the tools to be together, but people were feeling a strong sense of isolation.” Over the course of this two-year forced experiment in remote connections, though, many learned how to use the available tools more effectively to create connections and community. Many found they liked it!
In fact, Buffer.com’s 2022 State of Remote Work report, drawing from the input of more than 2000 remote workers around the world indicates that 97% of them would like to continue to work remotely, at least some of the time, and that they would recommend remote work to others.
This, despite results from their 2020 research indicating that remote workers struggled with collaboration and communication (20%), loneliness (20%), home distractions (12%), being in a different time zone than others (10%).
That shift from struggling to recognizing the ongoing potential of remote or hybrid work is likely due to the shared experiences of workers during the pandemic and learning how to communicate and collaborate in a remote environment. Not only can it be done, it can be done in ways that offer significant benefits for both organizations and employees.
COVID offered, says Hytower “a once in a generation opportunity to make a change in how we communicate with our learners built around our human needs.”
Cohort-based learning provided an opportunity to not only ensure that training could continue, but to increase its impact and effectiveness. Hytower points to research from Ish Baid indicating that while self-paced courses have completion rates as low as 3%, cohort-based courses often see completion rates of more than 97%. That’s a significant difference.
Lack of social interaction is one of the biggest negative impacts on learners’ success, Hytower says. The beginning of the pandemic certainly created challenges related to social interactions. L&D pros quickly learned, though, the power that cohorts could have not only for socialization but also to ensure that learning occurred.
Cohorts and communities of practice allow employees to support each other, learn and grow their skills, share knowledge, and collaborate. They also provide an environment where psychological safety can flourish.
Psychological safety is essential
Psychological safety is a concept that refers to how comfortable employees feel expressing their true opinions and emotions without fear of censure or repercussion in the workplace. McKinsey tells us: “When employees feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions informally, or challenging the status quo without fear of negative social consequences, organizations are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity, and adapt well to change.”
Cohorts can help to create a psychologically safe forum for employees. Cohorts, says Hytower, “create a culture where it’s safe to express ideas, ask questions, and admit mistakes—that’s the magic.”
Both collaboration and psychological safety are near and dear to Batz’s heart. At Cornerstone, one way new employees are provided a sense of psychological safety right off the bat is by being “paired up with an accountability buddy.” They then go through the learning process of onboarding together.
Today’s work spaces, of course, encompass the physical work setting and a range of virtual settings. Cohorts can help to bridge gaps and give employees experience in learning how to master communications in a virtual or hybrid world.
Establishing a culture that supports psychological safety, Bolden says, “used to be about the environment for learning—now it just becomes about cultivating those authentic connections in any space that we find ourselves.”
Bolden shares his “3H Philosophy” that organizations and their leaders can use to sustain learning:
- Head—exposing employees to information.
- Heart—helping employees process information to gain assurance and momentum. This is where cohorts can come into play.
- Hand—offering an opportunity to practice what they’ve learned.
“We can’t expect anyone to participate in a task without giving them the opportunity to demonstrate proficiency in that task,” Bolden says.
Creating cohorts can help organizations ensure that employees—regardless of their tenure or experience—can interact with each other to share experiences and insights in a safe space for conversation and connection.