How remote working can affect workplace learning

Socio-Technical Centre
Workplace Behaviour Research Centre

Dr Helen Hughes is an Associate Professor at Leeds University Business School, and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. She has expertise in workplace collaboration, studying the social dynamics of workplace relationships and the ways that these can be harnessed by organizations to improve both their performance and efficiency, and the wellbeing and satisfaction of their employees. Currently, she is a Co-Investigator on an ESRC funded project: “Adapting Offices for the Future of Work”, which is looking to support economic recovery by identifying effective office design and work practice adaptations that also support remote and hybrid working.

A person sat at a desk in front of a laptop, waving

During the pandemic swathes of us had to suddenly work from home. From the bustle of the office, many of us found ourselves suddenly working alone in hastily created home offices, and being required to learn and navigate new technological systems overnight. 

Imagine though, that this is your first and only experience of the workplace. Not only are you learning a new job and navigating the organisation’s politics, culture and norms, you also have little to no prior work experience to benchmark your experiences against.

In 2020/21, graduates, school-leavers, and interns have entered a new world of work that is devoid of cues that we can too easily take for granted. Work environments and the way they are used set expectations for office etiquette. The size and organisation of space can provide insights into hierarchy, culture, and politics, and navigating these aspects can be crucial for employees as they seek to thrive in their work. 

Since June 2020 I have been working with colleagues on a project that has looked to understand the specific barriers and opportunities that students undertaking paid 9-12 month internships have experienced while remote and hybrid working. We conducted interviews with 25 interns and have analysed questionnaires and essays written by 182 interns.

The average intern in this study had spent less than 15% of their overall internship co-located with their work colleagues. Instead, they reported that the majority of communication was through scheduled video meetings and ‘quick online chats’ (e.g. via Microsoft Teams, Google, WhatsApp or email).

Naturally, the experience of remote and hybrid working varied. Some interns had strong, polarised views on remote working - several detesting everything about it, others reporting favourable experiences - while others reported a balanced view of the upsides and downsides.

Many of the pros and cons of remote working have been reported elsewhere in research and industry reports, with the benefits of travel time reduction and home comforts, traded against the isolation and associated strains to mental health, feelings of ‘technostress’, and the challenges to work-life balance. However, interns also reported challenges specific to those entering the workforce for the first time. These can be clustered around four themes:

1.     Workplace learning is affected by remote working

2.     The built environment is valuable 

3.     Remote communication brings new challenges for interns

4.     The importance of being proactive. 

The first theme – Workplace learning is affected by remote working – is the topic of this blog post. The other three themes will be discussed in subsequent blog posts.

Different types of learning

For those at the start of their career, the first few months in a job can provide a significant learning curve. The interns that we researched distinguished between several types of learning, and these were impacted differently by the remote working experience. 

Generally, interns reported being well-prepared to complete their key work tasks, and were well-trained in this regard by their employers. However, they often felt that it took much longer to learn the culture of the organisation – with some remote workers reporting that they still had little understanding of workplace norms and etiquette nearly a year after starting their jobs!

Interns generally reported positive induction experiences. Those with particularly good experiences reported being onboarded through a variety of activities and approaches. Remote technologies were found to be particularly beneficial for learning core work tasks (e.g. how to run or write particular reports, or undertake technical activities). Interns reported learning such activities through recorded briefings, live virtual team introductions, and 1:1 handover training from a colleague. Often this was led by an outgoing intern, and often it involved virtual ‘screen sharing’.

Specific advantages of remote onboarding included:

  • Interns could rehearse tasks through 'live' screen sharing, and could ask questions in real time, so becoming technically proficient very quickly
  • Interns could record, replay, and slow down instructions, reducing the number of follow-up questions they needed to ask
  • Interns could refer to recordings later in the placement, helping them to make fewer errors when performing technical tasks.

Having said that, interns also noted limitations to remote onboarding, describing the process as “tedious”, “dry”, and “demotivating”. Additionally, some interns felt that although they understood the tasks they were being asked to do and processes they needed to follow, they had often missed the bigger picture because they lacked understanding about how their role fitted into the wider team or organisation.

Learning through osmosis

Several interns told us that they felt that this kind of learning would have been achieved more quickly in the physical workspace, and they feared that they were missing the opportunity to “learn through osmosis” that is afforded in a physical workspace. Several noted that they had only realised how much they benefitted from the office environment since they had moved to a hybrid or office-based arrangement:

When I’m in the office I’m ‘hearing’… I can then go, ‘what do you mean by that?’ Or, ‘is that the strategy you’re talking about?’ I’m not going to hear those conversations when they’re going on in meetings at home. I’m not going to hear the office lingo and stuff like that.

It can be slower to access development opportunities

While interns reported becoming quickly proficient at their directed tasks, others found it difficult to get involved in new activities that would widen their portfolio, because they struggled to showcase their work and network while working remotely.

Some gave examples of projects that had arisen through face-to-face office conversations, while others felt that they had been slower to gain new experiences, and gave various explanations for this:

  • They were more easily overlooked because others did not know of them or their role remit. Sometimes this was because their team was small and self-contained, so they had few opportunities to engage with the wider business. In an office they felt they would have been "noticed".
  • They believed others assumed (incorrectly) they would be too busy to take on anything new, and because they were less visible than they would be if physically in the workplace, they could not correct or challenge this assumption.
  • There were few opportunities for ad hoc office conversations, which might have led to fewer opportunities to meet more people or hear about new things to get involved with.

The learning process is hidden

Several interns noted an upside to the 'invisibility' of remote working was that colleagues only saw the outputs of their work and not the process - none of the confusion, internet searching, or phone calls to friends and family! Some noted that they had received excellent appraisals for work that they had actually found very challenging. 

One explained that he would have sometimes appreciated it if a colleague had 'offered' to help though, as it can be difficult to reach out to people you do not know, and who you have never ‘seen around’. 

Managing learning

Interns found it hard to take ownership of their learning, particularly earlier on in their placements. They felt uncertainties could be slow to resolve and would limit the speed of progression.

It is sometimes difficult to learn new things remotely… It’s also a lot harder to ask small questions. In an office environment its simply the case you ask them as they’re next to you, whereas online there’s the whole hassle of finding out if they are free, then calling them.

Interns also found it hard to:

  • Identify appropriate times to ask questions. They felt uncertain about what they ‘should’ already know, and did not know how to ask questions. Several admitted waiting too long to ask questions because they were worried about appearing incompetent. 
  • Find the confidence to ask for new tasks and to access new opportunities during remote working. They often remarked that such conversations were easier where they had met a colleague in person first, as this helped build trust.
  • Approach workload challenges (both too high and too low). They reported worrying that people would not be able to see what they had been working on “behind the scenes”. Several said they had felt uncomfortable saying they had finished work early, as they assumed they had mis-understood the brief or made a mistake. Some interns described working very long hours to keep on top of work tasks, because they were keen to impress, or worried that failure to do so would be badly received. They felt such challenges would have been more obvious in a physical workplace.

One intern admitted being able to avoid more awkward exchanges and challenges more easily because they had been working remotely: 

I have been able to somewhat hide my ability with this (with work being online) by preparing for things before having to do them, rather than being put on the spot.

Learning cultural norms can be harder than learning core tasks

Some interns were shown 'welcome' videos that articulated the company’s mission statement and values during their induction. Few recalled further prescriptive training on organisational culture but were slowly gaining insights into values and norms through dealings with clients and colleagues. 

Some felt they had a good understanding of communication practices, dress codes, hierarchy, and expectations, within their immediate team, but limited insight into whether those were shared across the wider organisation. 

So culture, I think I have sort of picked up and I think I have a decent grasp of it now, but that's just work culture. I have no grasp of office culture or anything like that. They did make a conscious effort to go over culture, values, things like that [during induction]. But it was just one of a few presentations that we were run through. I feel like it's really tough - you can't possibly teach you it… I think we all acknowledge that you only really get a feel for that when you're in that day-to-day working environment.

Rethinking ‘digital’ skills

We often think of today’s graduates – the ‘digital natives’ – as the generation that is best placed to embark on a remote or hybrid career, because they have grown up in such a tech-savvy world. Certainly, our research shows that new graduates are well adept to utilise technology and can use this to quickly learn and master their job tasks during periods of remote working.

However, our research also suggests that the ability to quickly demonstrate technical competence and high-quality outputs could be masking deep-rooted insecurities about working life more generally, and that this masking might also make the challenges that such employees are facing, more difficult for organisations to recognise and address. Not only could this be stifling the potential of early career employees, but it might also create inefficiencies for organisations who could be more quickly developing and pushing the boundaries of their recruits. 

Perhaps we need to start to think differently about what digital upskilling might mean for those starting out in their careers. Many of today’s graduates already have the technical capabilities they need, but it seems there is still a place for the physical workspace as they develop commercial acumen and etiquette. In a post-Covid world, maybe we should be less concerned about training our graduates and new recruits in new technical skills for digital working, and focus instead on how we best equip them with the skills they need to help them manage and navigate how (and what) they learn at this crucial phase of their career journey.

In our full report we consider what these findings might mean for interns, employers and Higher Education providers, and how each stakeholder can play a role in helping early career employees to adjust to the hybrid and remote workplace. 

For further information:

Next blog post: Why the built work environment is so valuable to those just beginning their careers.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.