The Big PR Question: How do you encourage passive learning while working remotely?


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We are now almost 10 weeks working remotely. There are many positives to our new working lives, including – no commuting, more free time and a sense of feeling safe working at home. But what is the biggest challenge to not being in the office? One that I’ve been grappling with is that passive learning is now obsolete. How can we learn from colleagues when we are all working remotely? And how can we pass on the best of what we know and do everyday? Is passive learning gone, at least for now?

Please explain the question?

Passive learning, or learning on the job by doing and listening to colleagues is not as possible during Covid19. We want to explore how you do this effectively now.

So how do you build your culture remotely?

Accept the limitations

The old way of doing things is gone, for now at least. This is a huge upheaval, but acceptance is the first stage of the process. If you are a team that used to train people by getting them to shadow others then you have to find a new way.

A document for stupid questions

Questions are so powerful. The next thing to a fully formed answer is the question that will get you there. At MediaHQ asking questions is seen as a sign of strength – not weakness. But working remotely limits our ability to just ask simple questions of our colleagues, or at a meeting. How do we encourage questions remotely? One way is to get everyone on your team collaborating on a ‘Stupid Questions’ document or even a chat channel. The premise is that you can ask anything that you are confused about and someone will answer. The document then becomes a resource. It encourages interaction and a bit of serendipity.

Being crystal clear on the objective

Passive learning thrives in an unstructured work environment. The type of environment where the command ‘If you are stuck, just ask’ prevails. This is not effective now, as people are mostly working remotely and it’s harder to check in on staff. One decisive way around this is to be very specific on the desired outcome of the work. You do this by agreeing a set of objectives in advance. Then everybody knows what success looks like. The command then changes to “this is what we are trying to achieve. If you have any questions about how to get there just ask.” This is much more likely to get a positive response.

Mentor system

Designating mentors is a good way to overcome the possible passive learning gap. You can do this by allocating a senior person to a junior person for two weeks. Make sure that each member of the team sets their expectations at the start of each mentorship. It is good to design what the interactions should look like before you start this and the types of outcomes that people can expect. You could do a group mentor call once a month so that everybody can learn from the interactions.

Document the process

What is the opposite of passive – yes active. In the absence of chance encounters you have to document everything more. I know it’s a bit of a pain in the back side, but it’s worth it in the long run. What should you document:

  • Job roles.
  • Job descriptions.
  • Work flows – what is the process of a job?

Engineer serendipity 

Ignite Talks are 20 slides in length, 15 seconds per slide and they change automatically. Pick four people on your team each week to give these talks. Pick a theme that will promote passive learning like: “What I’ve learned so far in my career.” or you could be even more specific to get deeper results. “Five things I know about product research” or “The five best lessons I’ve learned in my career.”  This format is fun and it’s quick. It will also work very well over a video call.

Create a virtual water cooler

“Some of the best product insights come when we are waiting around for the kettle to boil.” This is the line from a colleague that has haunted me all week about the loss of passive learning. I kept thinking how I could replicate this. My best idea right now is to replicate the conditions. Get people to have a cup of tea or coffee over video chat and to talk about work, god forbid! Talk about work not in an intense way, but in a what are you up to sort of way and get people explaining their work and projects. The trick is to make it the length of a cup of tea – 15 minutes. Make sure that people come to talk about a specific topic and they come prepared with questions. It’s not the same I know, but like everything else these days it takes a little more thought. Pre-engineered passive learning is a contradiction in terms but it may end up delivering even better results.

“What I learned this week”

Imagine if everybody had to share a short statement once a week entitled: “what I learned this week”. It would be a powerful collection of stories, articles, and anecdotes. You should decide on the format – no more than 200 words on what you learned this week in no more than three bullet points. That way it’s to the point. Editing makes people better! You could even have a video chat on Friday to reveal these nuggets and a shared document for the articles and files.