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Learn and grow: How do you develop your employees in a pandemic?

Putting an emphasis on delivering training is undoubtedly more difficult during a pandemic, however, some organisations found innovative and unique ways to continue their employees learning and development when Covid-19 hit. In the following article, we hear from the winners of the ‘Personal Growth’ Special Award at Best Companies Live, where they shared the practices they put in place and how their learnings will shape the way that employees train, develop and grow in the future.

The way an employee feels about their personal growth is, along with leadership and management, one of the main factors that influence engagement. Employees want to be well led, well managed, and have plenty of opportunity for learning and development.

Of course, the past 18 months has caused employees to feel it more important than ever to have opportunities to learn and grow – not least because of the feeling of security it provides to know that their employer is investing in them – but also as it increases their employability should they need to find a job elsewhere.

With budgets tightened and remote working replacing face-to-face training, delivering learning programmes and courses has been harder than ever. However, it is the organisations that have continued to invest in this crucial area that have reaped the benefits. But just how have they done this? And what can we learn about the ways in which training has been delivered during the pandemic that can benefit us in the future?

“Understand what to do to get the most out of people”

For Melanie Sedgley, Head of People and Culture at global technology recruitment firm, Oscar, and winner of the Special Award in the ‘small’ size category, it was “thinking outside the box” that led to the successful deployment of their ongoing learning and development programmes during the pandemic.

“For us as a performance-led organisation, we were used to being in the office five days a week and so remote working was a big change,” she explained. “But we’ve adapted thanks to communication and thinking outside the box to make sure that, ultimately, we’re still investing in our staff at all times.”

Sedgley explained that prior to the pandemic forcing the move to deliver its training programmes online, the learning and development framework at Oscar was in a strong place. This helped the transition to a new way of working by enabling the team to build on an already strong foundation.

“It was about leveraging the L&D function remotely and making sure we were communicating with staff at all times,” she explained. “It was also about understanding our people – and that’s a huge part of my role – but also working with the management teams to understand what to do to get the most out of people and what motivates them. This allowed us to incorporate this into their development plans and catch-ups to help show them how we’re going to help them get there.”

“All our L&D initiatives were able to continue in the virtual world”

At Inspire North, the parent organisation to charities providing mental health and housing services across the north of England, the ‘Future of Leadership’ programme established pre-pandemic was able to successfully function when moved to a digital environment.

The programme, an intensive 3–6-month course to develop leadership and management skills, is designed for individuals who want to progress into management and have a passion, commitment and work ethos aligned to the organisation's values.

Explaining, Ruth Kettle, CEO and winner of the Special Award in the large category, said: “All of our learning and development initiatives have been able to continue throughout the pandemic in the virtual world. We give people opportunities for growth, providing support and supervision outside of their normal job roles, give them projects to undertake and even invite them to board meetings so they get a much broader understanding of the organisation and how it works from top to bottom.”

The initiative, she explained, allows employees to gain perspective around where they fit into the organisation’s structure and where they might like to go in their career. “It gives people the opportunity to find out where they want to be,” she added.

“It’s the real-life experience that you simply can’t get through PowerPoint”

When it came to keeping the nation’s digital network running throughout the pandemic – training provision was crucial to winner of the Special Award in the big category, Openreach. But with restrictions and rules around social distancing in place, how did HR Director, Kevin Brady, and the team ensure that the right skills were being taught?

“The idea actually came from one of our trainers – to take an old workshop and convert it into a Covid-safe environment – known as ‘Open Street’,” he explained. “He did a cracking job and so much so that we’ve rolled the model out.”

The state-of-the-art 770 square metre replica street, built from scratch to recreate the real network in the outside world enables engineers to experience a typical working day - from laying cables to building joints and making repairs, working underground or overhead, climbing telephone poles, and installing new services inside customers’ homes.

Brady said that the new training environment was so successful that it spawned the development of several other centres delivering similar facilities across the UK. This, he added, was crucial to train the thousands of new engineers recruited during lockdown.

“We’ve been able to teach our new engineers customer care skills, as well as expanding the network,” he explained. “We’ve got over 5000 exchanges and four million telephone poles – so this is the real-life experience of what the job is like that you simply can’t get through PowerPoint.”

Alongside the new in-person training, Openreach also moved some of its more basic training online and created a content studio which allows employees to access refresher materials whilst they’re out and about.

“The learning side of the plan is right at the heart of us”

To ensure the ongoing growth and development of its employees both within the workplace and outside of it,, winner of the Special Award in the mid-size category, established a new model known as ‘Play Plan’.

The initiative, established collaboratively by Nicola Patterson, Director of People, and Dan Craddock, CEO, is an online portal based around work, rest and play and features everything from training and development courses through to the option to book massages and holistic treatments, as well as join parties and organised trips.

“Play Plan is our baby,” Patterson said. “The learning side of the plan is right at the heart of us. Our passion is our people and for them to be doing exactly what they want to do – whether that’s part of their role or outside of it.”

The take up for the scheme, Patterson added, has been “fantastic”, thanks to’s understanding that not everyone is motivated and engaged by the same things.

The full lists of winners across all list sizes and categories can be found here and full recordings of the day can be accessed here.

To return to the Insight hub for more articles from Best Companies please click here.

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