Learning in Times of Change

Nov 13, 2020

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, companies were already facing several challenges, such as the growing skills gap and the continued rise of technologies (in particular, AI and automation) in the workplace. Recognizing that encouraging and enabling skill development on an organization-wide level can foster an environment for growth, more and more companies seek to provide employees with learning opportunities to help them adapt to these shifts. Expanding employee skill sets increases organizational adaptability and prepares the business world for the next version of “normal.” But learning during times of change—such as during a pandemic—can be extremely difficult.

Organizations must understand that people need time to process and adapt before they can turn their attention to the future. In fact, pushing learning opportunities at the wrong time could lead to employees feeling unsupported or overwhelmed. Poorly timed new programs or opportunities could be misconstrued as attempts to rush through the adjustment period and to skip directly to increasing future profit. By understanding how employees navigate change, managers can better assess when to encourage growth, how to support individual team members, and how to innovate successfully through big changes.


Understanding the Stages of Change

As change happens within an organization (or in broader society), employees need time to acclimate and move through the five-stage “change cycle” (loss, doubt, discomfort, discovery, understanding, integration) that everyone experiences in the same order (albeit at different rates and in different ways). Cornerstone’s vice president of strategic initiatives, Mike
Bollinger, recently pointed out that the earliest stages of the change cycle—loss and doubt—are not a good time for learning:

Change is typically about loss—it’s not the way it used to be. Managers have to be mindful of the individual employee’s state, if you will. Are they in a loss? That’s not the time to insert a new set of learning. That’s just going to create more discomfort and more doubt. Rather, find ways to make them comfortable so that they can grow.

As employees process feelings of loss and doubt, leaders should listen to them, field their questions, and create spaces for their voices to be heard. Eventually, employees will reach a discovery stage where “I can’t do this” and “I don’t want to do this” give way to “How can I do this?” Business leaders need to prepare to support employees with learning at this key moment, which is the optimal time to implement company-wide learning opportunities. Simply by making sure that people know how to find the resources they need, companies can help employees feel empowered to overcome change more quickly.


To Lead Through Change, Practice Empathy

Because each person moves through change at a different pace, not everyone will be ready for learning opportunities at the same moment. That means it’s up to managers to pay attention to how their employees are feeling during the change process. Setting up systems for more individualized check-ins can help ensure that no one is being rushed through the process. These are not performance reviews; rather, they are conversations that start with engagement on a human level. These check-ins should focus first on questions such as “How are you coping?” and “How are you feeling?” before moving on to work-related topics.

The more comfortable employees get with change, the more they’ll look to learning. By keeping in mind Conrad Gottfredson and Bob Mosher’s “5 Moments of Need,” organizations can better understand when employees are likely to look for learning in various ways:

 NEW: learning something new for the first time
 MORE: expanding upon previous knowledge
 APPLY: acting upon learned knowledge and skills
 CHANGE: adapting knowledge to new trends
 SOLVE: solving new problems when they arise

Because employees who have to learn something new “are most likely to ask their boss or mentor (69 percent) . . . for recommendations,” it’s critical that managers be on the lookout for these circumstances and be prepared to make good suggestions. Therefore they themselves should be actively learning, so they can recommend useful courses that they’ve taken or point their employees to a particular type of learning opportunity. They should also base their advice on an understanding of how each employee learns best.


A Formula for Learning Through Any Kind of Change

Employees are still adjusting to the current remote work environment created by COVID-19. Their organizations have likely experienced layoffs, pay cuts, and culture shifts. But many employees are already seeking out learning opportunities—a sign of a growing level of comfort with change. This is the time for business leaders to reflect on the changes their organizations are facing, assess the resources available to their employees, and ensure that those resources are properly communicated company-wide.

Change is always going to happen. On the other side of this pandemic, we’ll continue to acclimate to new normals. This approach to learning can be applied to any change cycle, at any
scale. It is about providing your staff with the tools needed to succeed and understanding them on a human level.

This article was written by the editorial team of Cornerstone’s ReWork blog, a guide to the changing talent-management industry that helps executives and HR leaders succeed in the new, technology-driven economy.

Written by: The ReWork Editors

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