A raft of recent surveys and commentaries have fanned the flames of a debate on the future of workplace learning.

The Evolution of Workplace Learning

The pandemic has unquestionably transformed the learning and development landscape, giving organisations a taste, albeit out of necessity, of a world in which people learn online rather than face to face in the same room as their tutor.

Virtual classrooms and online learning were not invented this past year. They’re nothing new in the world of training and development, but the extraordinary circumstances of 2020 and 2021 have brought about a re-think.

The well-versed trade-offs between virtual, online and face to face are now being discussed with fresh insight in human resources departments and leadership meetings across the Middle East and beyond.

Remote digital learning

Once the cheap fallback, digital learning solutions are now widely regarded as a highly resilient means to up-skill and engage with a workforce. And as importantly, learning delivered remotely will be the best solution for many businesses now moving towards hybrid working.

“the pandemic has unquestionably transformed the learning and development landscape”

Brian Kropp, Vice-President of research and advisory company Gartner, said: “Our research finds that 32% of organisations are replacing full-time employees with contingent workers as a cost-saving measure.” The firm’s researchers also found “48% of employees will likely work remotely at least part of the time after COVID-19 versus 30% before the pandemic”.

So yes, in the future, maintaining a digitally ready workforce that can adapt to a changing landscape will be a priority for HR and L&D teams. And of those training solutions being considered for this brave new world, none are more important than the choices made for health and safety.

Retaining face-to-face communication  

The pandemic hasn’t removed the duty of care employers have to their people. Remote working isn’t a case of out of sight, out of mind – as HSME readers know only too well – and responsible leaders know this too.

IOSH-approved training centre MOBIUS Training and Consultancy Limited, had a mixed reaction from its clients when online alternatives were offered as the pandemic restrictions hit travel plans. Some preferred to wait until the constraints were eased to enable them to have face-to-face courses while others fully embraced the new online experience, says MOBIUS Director Donna Gordon.

The Evolution of Workplace Learning

Donna says, “There’s no doubt about it, face-to-face learning has many advantages. It’s more of a shared experience and you can share and compare notes with your classmates. You have the conversation with your classmates and tutor in real-time. And those conversations are typically more fulfilling because you can see the body language and you’re making eye contact.

“Face-to-face communication is considered the best form of communication for many good reasons, and this extends into the learning environment. And arguably, with health and safety, where the stakes are so high, face-to-face training should be the choice wherever possible.

“But on the flip side, we live in the real world and it’s a very different world now. First, the pandemic has given companies a better idea of the opportunities with virtual classroom and online learning. Second, Covid-19 has transformed our world of work forever. We will see more businesses embrace hybrid working, and this means more remote working and a workforce spread far and wide.

“So yes, there’s no getting away from it, digital solutions are very much here to stay in learning and development, and that includes health and safety.”

Virtual disadvantages

Ahmed Tahir Chohaun is a HSE and emergency response training specialist working in the Middle East and Asia Pacific region, including Dubai, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

He says, “The positive thing about face-to-face training is that you can interact with the students. As a trainer you can read the physical body language to see if they’re learning and understanding.

“With virtual training you’re unable to focus on just one person. If cameras are off, you don’t know if the student is paying attention or doing another task. When I deliver virtual training, I find different ways to engage and interact with people during sessions.”

Ahmed highlighted the use by some organisations of virtual reality and interactive videos, which can be played like a video game to train workers. It can be a costly method and the VR training industry is still developing, he says.

But Ahmed believes companies are now starting to shape a future landscape of health and safety training that will see more choice with more tech solutions.

He says, “The good thing about virtual training is that it can bring people together from all over the world. It’s true, speaking to people face to face is the best learning curve and it allows people to interact, focus and engage more in the training. With virtual training however, you don’t have the added travel, which is good from a safety and environment point of view, but it also increases profitability by not having to cover the cost of travel.”

Emerging technologies

Some of the learning and development technology Ahmed is seeing emerge is almost the stuff of sci-fi movies.

“I recently attended a webinar where they were talking about the future of training,” says Ahmed. “There was an expert researcher talking about virtual reality training and how they have combined VR with ergonomics to create a hologram of a famous artist, who looks and sounds the same as in real life.

Virtual disadvantages

“The research focused on how people learn. A group were asked to study books and research the artist. Another group used the hologram to interact with the artist and ask questions. The study showed that the people who used the hologram retained more information than those that studied the books.

“Audio visual training will be the way of the future. Companies will make training videos or games that are specific to the workplace.”

Traditional connections

Dr Ali Mohammed Al-Shaery is Vice President of Innovation and Entrepreneurialship at Umm Al Qura University, Saudi Arabia.

Dr Al-Shaery says all the university’s services – education, research, entrepreneurial and social responsibility – have been affected significantly by the pandemic. But Covid-19 has not altered Dr Al-Shaery’s views on the merits of face-to-face training versus online and virtual.

“Face-to-face training is the traditional way of teaching and training,” he says. “You can focus on the attendees and keep their attention. There are less distractions with face-to-face training, and you can create a better bond between the trainer and trainee, which helps to deliver the message.

“The psychological link between trainer and trainees when people are facing each other is different to the experience people receive on virtual connections like Zoom, Webex or online. I think this kind of psychological connection cannot be achieved with online training.”

“research shows that on average, students retain 25-60% more material when learning online compared to only 8-10% in a classroom”

Dr Al-Shaery believes virtual classes require an experienced trainer to keep attendees engaged in what they are learning, which can sometimes be difficult to manage, he says. 

“It’s easier for the attendees to not pay attention. Online training can achieve the aims and objectives of the training courses, but I feel that trainers and trainees get a better experience from face-to-face learning,” says Dr Al-Shaery.

But there is a counter-view on the efficacy of online training. For those who do have access to the right technology, says the World Economic Forum, there’s evidence that learning online can be more effective in a number of ways.

Investment in innovation

Some research shows that on average, students retain 25-60% more material when learning online compared to only 8-10% in a classroom, according to the World Economic Forum the international organisation for public-private co-operation. This is mostly due to the students being able to learn faster online; e-learning requires 40-60% less time to learn than in a traditional classroom setting because students can learn at their own pace, going back and re-reading, skipping, or accelerating through concepts as they choose.

“Online training is a new trend in the country as well as in the world,” says Dr Al-Shaery. “Most of the training programmes were always delivered face to face and it was felt that students benefit more when there is physical attendance. But this pandemic allowed us to invest in online training, test it, try it and experience this method of training. It has to some extent helped to change some of the misconceptions about online training.

“I think people’s conception of online training has changed and people will accept more online training. Before the pandemic there were a lot of people who believed that virtual training was not effective, but the pandemic has proved to some that some virtual training can be effective.

The Evolution of Workplace Learning

“As a university we are moving towards online education and training. We are investing more in the virtual training labs and classes. Some of our courses and classes will continue to be delivered online next year. For these particular classes we have found that it there is a greater benefit by keeping them online and will help reduce energy consumption and pollution. The advantage of having some classes online outweighs the disadvantages.

“Organisations need to invest more in technology and encourage people to accept the virtual classroom and education environment. Face to face is not the only solution to perform training and education services.”

The future of training 

Pre-pandemic, businesses in the Middle East were leading advancements in health and safety. Donna Gordon, of MOBIUS, believes the crisis will follow other major world events in sparking greater innovation in health and safety training in the region.

“What has been made really clear through the last 18 months is the importance of disseminating knowledge, skills and understanding across borders, throughout companies,” she says.

“pre-pandemic, businesses in the Middle East were leading advancements in health and safety”

“Online learning technology can play a role here, but we must grasp the opportunity and realise its full potential. We know that face-to-face training will re-emerge as perhaps the preferred means of delivering health and safety training where possible, but in the new world of work we will certainly see greater adoption of online and virtual classroom training.”

Why is this debate important?

Health and safety training is an essential element of any safety management system, says UK-based Croner-i, which advises businesses worldwide on compliance with health and safety law.

Whether it’s delivered online or in person, health and safety training can have various benefits for an organisation.

  • It can enhance the perception of risk, giving the worker the knowledge and understanding to identify the nature of a hazard, level of risk, indications of adverse effects, control measures put in place and relevant emergency and evacuation procedures
  • Training can be a bedrock of a strong work culture by opening channels of communication and demonstrating management commitment to safety
  • It can reduce the incidence of work-related accidents and disease. Organisations that have instigated accident reduction schemes, often with training at their core, do report reductions of at least 50% in accident rates in the longer term, says Croner-i
  • Effective training can change attitudes and lead to changed behaviour
  • Then there’s the bottom line benefits. A potential outcome of health and safety training is a reduction in lost time caused by accidents, which would result in increased productivity

For more on the argument on investing in health and safety, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health’s (IOSH) The Healthy Profit highlights the scrutiny business is now under as an employer. And it references a finding by the International Social Security Association (ISSA) that for every euro invested in occupational safety and health, there is a return of €2.20.

The Evolution of Workplace Learning Why is this debate important?

“we have to understand the trainee’s learning preferences and deliver a product that achieves its mission: to improve their safety skills”

But whatever the method of delivery, health and safety training must deliver on some key areas, says Croner-i. Information provided must be in a form that’s easy to understand, and presented in such a way that it is actually taken notice of, it says.

Key points for training

  • It must be visible, i.e. easily seen and not torn, dirty, hidden or mixed with irrelevant information. Where online or other electronic delivery methods are used, then the information needs to be accessible by all appropriate staff.
  • Its message must be clear, i.e. the meaning of the information (or warning) must be immediately understandable to those it is intended to inform, particularly if this includes members of the public. This may require the inclusion of translated text where appropriate to the workforce being deployed.
  • It must be relevant, i.e. the information should be directly applicable to the area in which it is sited. For example, a warning notice or sign must be as close as possible to the item, area or equipment to which the warning applies.

And the specific needs of employees must be taken into account, which may include:

  • difficulties with written materials, e.g. dyslexia, visual impairment and low literacy levels
  • hearing impairments
  • physical impairments
  • limited knowledge of the language in your country or having literacy issues, i.e. written messages may be difficult to fully understand

Parting thoughts 

Health and safety training has never been more important, we cannot lose sight of the fundamental aims of what we’re trying to do. We absolutely have to think about the delegate or trainee first, understand their learning preferences and deliver a product that achieves its mission: to improve their safety skills, knowledge and understanding.