How COVID-19 has affected workplace education: A reflection two years in

Jackie Carroll, Managing Director of Optimi Workplace
Issued by Optimi
Johannesburg, Feb 14, 2022
Jackie Carroll, Managing Director of Optimi Workplace.

When it comes to educating people in the workplace, COVID-19 created a watershed. We will never entirely go back to what this sector looked like before: how we teach and what we teach, in particular, have changed forever.

While these changes have been difficult to adjust to, we’re slowly starting to understand the benefits they have brought with them, too. Maybe as an industry we’re more focused on finding solutions that cater to as many people as possible than we once were, and we’re prioritising skills that are going to be critical for the future.

As we look back over the last two years of COVID-19 – and ahead to the years to come – here are some of the lessons I’m carrying with me.

Looking back

COVID-19 hit the workplace training sector hard. In-person lessons came to a standstill and companies drew the purse strings around their workplace education budgets tighter as they sought to address other financial priorities. Retrenchments and restructurings were common.

Many businesses soon realised, however, that they couldn’t abandon the education and training of their employees completely. COVID-19 made it clear how multi-skilled employees needed to be, and that they had to be trained to be creative thinkers and problem-solvers if they were going to keep businesses afloat. On a very practical level, the demand for IT-related skills increased dramatically. Within weeks of lockdown, interest in this area grew and it has not abated.

At Optimi Workplace, these are some of the most important realisations we have had since COVID-19 struck:

1. Tackle the low-hanging fruit first

Introducing new systems and processes in a slow, phased approach works best. We all needed to adjust to the new ways in which we were doing things. Taking this slowly helped to ensure that our solutions were viable and secured client buy-in. Today, we are still only conducting 30% of our work virtually. By the end of 2022, we intend for this to reach 50%.

2. Use technology

This sounds obvious, but we learnt to be specific in the technological solutions we chose. In the workplace education space, gamification was particularly important. We used it to get both clients and learners on board in a fun and interactive way that wasn’t threatening or overwhelming.

3. Communicate

Over the course of the last two years, we have consistently asked our clients for feedback. We’re adapting all the time and incorporating their comments as we go along. We appreciate their input, and they appreciate our improved offering. We’ve also learnt to be proactive rather than reactive.

4. Deliver results

We’ve learnt to prove to our clients that they’re still getting the same – or better – results despite (or because of) our new approaches. We haven’t allowed the quality of our work to falter. Where we have managed to save costs because we’re no longer conducting as much in-person training, we’ve handed this benefit on to our clients.

Perhaps the greatest comfort is that our efforts to adapt have been successful. We’ve had to look at alternative ways of training and supporting our clients, implementing virtual sessions initially and, later, establishing the hybrid model we are using today. Largely, it’s worked.

Looking ahead to 2022

Going forward, there’s no doubt that this hybrid teaching model is here to stay. We will likely use both in-person and online tools and processes in our interactions with our clients and learners for many years to come. And what enormous benefits this affords us: teaching people remotely enables us to access more learners, and allows them to work in their own time and at their own pace.

Of course, this process is not as seamless as it might appear. The prohibitive cost of data continues to be a huge challenge in South Africa, and it is going to take concerted interventions by government, the private sector and regulators if we are going to address this problem sustainably.

But the future, I feel, is not as bleak as the immediate past. Businesses – ours included – have learnt valuable lessons in continuity, we’ve all learnt to harness the power of technology, and there is a renewed collective commitment to ensuring that no one gets left behind. Combine all that with ensuring that South Africa’s workforce continues to receive critical education and training, and there are reasons to be optimistic.

Jackie Carroll is the MD of Optimi Workplace and co-founder of Media Works, South Africa’s leading provider of adult education and training for over 25 years.