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Double Duty for Learning: Fostering Social Connection

When most L&D professionals think about social learning, it is with an emphasis on learning. We know people learn through social modeling, discussion, coaching, mentoring and connection. For many L&D professionals, social strategies have been a means to an end—they help us accomplish or further our learning objectives. But what if we have failed to appreciate or fully grasp the impact of social learning? In this new work-from-home (WFH) world, could or should the social elements of learning actually be the end goal?

Recently, VitalSmarts conducted a study of 2,300 executives, managers and front-line workers, all of whom had shifted to WFH within the last 12 months. Unsurprisingly, a percentage of respondents (54% of executives and 43% of non-executive respondents) reported strain on and deterioration of their organization’s or team’s culture since the forced separation imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But surprisingly, a sizable minority reported teams feeling closer and being more productive than before.

The study suggests that learning initiatives may have a role to play in building a strong WFH culture. Among the slightly more than half of employees who say they are getting the same or more training since WFH,

  • 33% say their culture has improved, compared to 23% whose organizations haven’t maintained or invested in training.
  • 22% say they feel more connected to their organization, compared to 16% whose organizations haven’t maintained or invested in training.
  • 52% say their commitment to the organization has increased, compared to 38% whose organizations haven’t maintained or invested in training.

Simply put, when people participate in organizational learning, they are more engaged and committed to the organization. When organizations invest in high-quality learning, especially in challenging times, they make a visible commitment to their people. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, their people make a commitment back.

And while the data suggest a direct correlation between learning and development and employee commitment, are some learning options more effective than others? We’d argue that the learning options heavily laced with social learning tools and exercises provide the maximum benefit to both the employee and the organization.

When learning experiences perform double duty by both instructing and connecting, learning initiatives do more than just build skills. They also build culture. Now more than ever, our people are hungry for meaningful social connection. So, how can L&D professionals purposefully design learning experiences that create and sustain meaningful social connection?

Start by acknowledging that all social connection is not meaningful. Zoom fatigue is real. People are not looking for one more virtual meeting. They are not looking to simply be online at the same time as others. Gathering people together is only the first step toward creating meaningful social connection.

As instructional designers at VitalSmarts, we understand that truly meaningful social connection occurs when people are vulnerable with one another. That’s why we create moments for vulnerability in our learning experiences, because we know those moments are ripe for insight and connection. These moments don’t happen by chance. Instead, we architect them in our course design by creating time, safety, and meaning.

Time

Social connection requires time together in some way. Many are most satisfied when they can meet together in person. When that isn’t possible, we engage through a video conferencing platform that allows us to see and hear each other. The time that matters most, however, is not the amount of time I am logged in. It is the amount of time I am talking with others.

Learning designers must look at not simply the total minutes of the course but the minutes of the course when learners engage in small group or partner discussions, which is where the most powerful social connection occurs. Joining a webinar and listening along with 500 other people will do little to foster social connection, but attending a virtual training course with 20 others and spending time in breakout groups actually talking with people will.

Safety

Don’t assume that if you put people together in breakout rooms and give them time to talk that meaningful social connection will happen. Without careful construction, you are just as likely to end up with awkward silence or worse—thoughtless and offensive comments that alienate people rather than draw them closer.

At VitalSmarts, we have learned that creating psychological safety within a shared learning experience is best done through a series of graduated interactions paired with explicit messaging.

We start small, with fun, low-stakes icebreaker activities that quickly put people in small groups for easy discussions. We do this up front because we want the implicit message of all our courses (especially our virtual courses) to be this: you’re going to have to participate. This is not your parent’s webinar.

From there, we follow up with polls and chats to continue the interaction. Then we layer in a series of small group discussions with three to four people. Finally, we move to learning partnerships—just you and one other person. Nowhere to hide here. You will be connecting with someone. But by then, the groundwork has been laid and people routinely report the learning partnership as the most valuable part of the course.

We are also explicit in our messaging. We make and keep an uncompromising and clear commitment to confidentiality. If information is going to be shared outside the classroom, we make sure learners know it. More often, we commit and ask for a commitment from learners that what is shared in the course stays in the course. When coming back from breakout groups, we create space for “opt-in” debriefs in which learners can choose to share what they discussed. But when it comes to learning partnership discussions, those aren’t debriefed. Those are theirs to hold and keep.

Meaning

If we are aiming to create deep, energizing, renewing social connection, we have to help people talk about something that matters. Happy hours (virtual and otherwise) are great for socializing. But for truly connecting, people need to engage with one another at a deeper level. The topic matters.

The surest way to create this kind of meaning in your learning experiences is to focus on application. How will learners use this skill, idea, or insight in their lives? Push people to consider their work, their families, their communities, and their personal concerns and frustrations. If they can’t make a meaningful connection between what we are teaching and their own lives, we are simply teaching the wrong things.

Once you have primed that self-reflection, expand it to social connection by asking people to share with their learning partners or others. This constitutes a reliable formula for creating connection: designing the time and space for people to reflect deeply and share safely.

Double Duty

While the data clearly show that training, when done well, can foster connection and engagement, this is not to say the primary objective of any given training initiative should be social connection. Of course, organizations must invest in training largely for skill acquisition. But, if you offer and lead training courses that do not increase human connection, you forfeit a primary benefit of training. When done well, a good training initiative should accomplish more than skill or insight acquisition. It should do more than change people. It should also connect them. And the beauty of double duty is that when people connect, the organization sees a return in the form of an enriched culture and committed workforce.

Emily Gregory

Emily has consulted and trained with non profit, start-up ventures, and major national corporations such as Eli Lily and The Chicago Board of Trade. Additionally, Emily has taught finance courses at Brigham Young University and trained corporate clients in Crucial Conversations.

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