Ambient Learning: hybrid working’s toughest nut to crack?
Zone’s business design lead Amanda Forman shares her thoughts on ambient learning…
Whether it’s from our bosses or our parents, we have all experienced what I like to call ‘ambient learning’ — a form of picking up on things by observation (both passive and active). For example…
- The five-minute phone call to the client regarding that technical legal issue.
- The hallway conversation on the way to the meeting between senior leaders about how to present something in the right way.
- The way a person organises their day and treats the cleaning staff.
- The turn of phrase someone uses as you hear them explain a difficult concept to stakeholders.
Amanda’s definition of ambient learning
A: The things you pick up from casually observing or being around another person.
B: The informal osmosis of information, behaviours and ways of doing things that we absorb merely by being near to someone.
‘Younger associates had adequate time for ambient learning from the partners because they all shared offices.’
Ambient learning is distinguished from active learning because it’s less formal, often unplanned and just happens — serendipitous, even. I was recently discussing hybrid working with a friend and the topic of ambient learning came up as something they missed from being in the office.
Pre-Covid, offices allowed for these moments and some companies even intentionally grouped younger associates with more experienced ones specifically for the purpose of ambient learning. With offices slowly reopening after 18 months, we have been experiencing less opportunity for it.
Some leaders might use ambient learning as a clear call for things to “go back to normal” and for “everyone to get back into the office”. I cringe when I hear this because — with all its challenges — hybrid working has allowed us more flexibility than we have ever had, and we want it.
The workforce (of all ages) is literally begging for more flexibility. Every major survey that I’ve seen over the past few months (from a wide range of companies) shows that only a small percentage of workers want to go back into the office full time. People want to choose where they work and have shown they can work from anywhere.
Unless companies completely ignore what teams are asking for (a strategy many will likely take), the lack of traditional ways of ambient learning and subsequent skill gap will remain.
However, surely the challenge of a new hybrid working model presents a new opportunity to improve the way we work? Just because we’re not all in the office five days a week doesn’t mean that ambient learning should fall by the wayside.
A few suggestions for moving forward.
- Break that box: we need a new mindset
Rather than trying to shoehorn traditional ways of working in a hybrid world, we should face the challenge head on and test ways that we can evolve as a workforce to create moments of serendipitous learning without sacrificing the flexibility hybrid has given us. Shaking things up a bit will help us find solutions to the problem at hand.
2. Don’t gamble: we need to be intentional.
Leaving something as important as actively raising up the next generations of leaders to chance cannot be our approach. It starts with recognising the potential downsides of hybrid working and trying ways to mitigate them. If we know that a loss of ambient learning is an issue, we can actively look at ways to solve it rather than burying our heads in the sand.
3. Humble experimentation: we need to be willing to fail
This whole year has been one big (forced) experiment in productivity. The scale of remote working since the pandemic started is completely unprecedented. We are in uncharted waters and everyone is figuring it out as we go along (building the plane as it’s taking off vibes).
As long as we keep our people at the heart of our decisions — how we can support and equip our teams to be the best versions of themselves — we can try (and fail) exploring various options to address the issues we’re encountering.
I believe, with a new mindset that intentionally tries new ways to support our teams, we can crack ambient learning in the new world and come out better than ever for having done so.
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Ambient learning — back to you:
- How are you addressing this learning gap in your company?
- How do you wish you could address it in your company?
- How can technology enable ambient learning in new ways?
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If you have thoughts on hybrid ways of working in general, I’d love to hear them!