Working Well January 15, 2023

7 ways to foster peer-to-peer learning

Employees like learning at work: In fact, according to a 2022 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and TalentLMS, 76% of employees indicated they would be more likely to stay with a company that offers continuous training. “Today’s talent expects more than continuing education conferences, pre-recorded webinars, and classroom-based passive learning,” says Heather Currier Hunt, an expert in workplace learning and development. “Significant workplace learning happens through peer-to-peer collaboration and hands-on work, and employers that facilitate this kind of interaction will have an advantage when it comes to talent recruitment and retention.”

Here are seven ways to tap into every employee's expertise to foster knowledge exchange at all career stages.
Formalize mentorship

With the rise of hybrid work arrangements, mentoring isn’t as spontaneous now as it was when everyone was in the office full-time, so competitive companies are embedding mentorship into their work cultures.

“It used to be that junior people learned a lot just by passively observing the more experienced people around them,” says Catherine Corbin, chief business innovation officer at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. “Informal mentoring has great benefit, but historically, it hasn’t been something that senior people felt they had a responsibility to practice consistently. Making mentorship and professional development an explicit part of senior people’s jobs is becoming the new norm.”

Try it:

Include mentorship duties in position descriptions and performance evaluations. Also, be sure to allow time for in-person or remote mentoring.

Encourage proximity

Eliminating private offices can also foster learning by bringing senior staff into more frequent contact with early-career employees.

“The moment that we can disengage from that myth of the private office as a status symbol, I think that we’ll engage space in a healthier way,” says T.J. Logan, associate vice president for the residential experience at The Ohio State University. “In a hoteling type office, a senior person like me is going to be sitting with frontline staff. And I should be, because space isn’t a status symbol anymore.”

Try it:

To encourage mixing and mingling, consider reducing privately assigned offices and increasing collaboration space.

Design to support various learning styles

That said, the open office isn’t for everyone, particularly people who need or want to learn independently at work. “There is a common perception that we should all be moving to collaborative workspaces because that’s the future of work,” says Becca Cleveland, senior principal in business transformation at Slalom, a purpose-led, global business and technology consulting company. “And for a lot of jobs, it is. But there’s not one universal approach. We have to consider what a person in a particular function needs in their day-to-day work environment to learn effectively.”

Her colleague, Josh Thompson, director of experience design at Slalom, elaborates: “Just like an architect of physical spaces wants to understand how a building or room will be used, we also interview individuals to understand their learning goals and begin to affinity map those jobs, goals, and learning styles. That helps us create a learning experience that’s more psycho-behavioral than it is demographic.”

Try it:

Poll your employees about how they prefer to learn or lead focus groups to understand preferences around learning spaces and programs.

Record and share knowledge

Institutional knowledge is a vital part of any organization, and transferring it to newer hires is essential. Documenting, updating, and digitally disseminating such knowledge is easier when recording studios are incorporated into office layouts. “We’ve deliberately built a couple of rooms where we can record content when we need to,” says Elaine McGleenan, director of learning and organizational development at KPMG, in reference to the global professional services firm’s new office in Dublin, Ireland. “We’re building them into the structure because it needs to happen on a much more frequent basis. Even if it’s just a five-minute video, our subject matter experts can quickly share what they know and get it out to a wide audience.”

Try it:

If you don’t have space for recording rooms or a broadcast studio, you can still encourage knowledge sharing via screen recording applications that allow voice-overs, like Loom or QuickTime.

Make space for hands-on learning

Many professions, particularly those in healthcare, require specialized skills that are best learned in person with the support and coaching of an expert. “Hands-on learning is a tremendously valuable tool for building a doctor’s confidence with important behaviors and concepts, as it enables them to translate an idea into an action,” says Chrissie Leibman, senior vice president of learning and development at consumer healthcare support organization The Aspen Group. “Repetition with hands-on skills helps form habits for performing work in real life.”

Areas designed for active learning can also build and strengthen relationships. “One of the amazing benefits of learning, when done well, is it also creates amazing bonds, friendships, and communities,” Leibman says. “The learning space cultivates connections through a shared learning experience and even during ‘downtime’ like breaks and meals.”

Try it:

Design spaces that are specific to your company’s mission and your employees’ goals.

Make time for meaningful interaction

Informal time is an important piece of the puzzle as companies develop hybrid work policies. Employers are experimenting with ways to offer flexible schedules and still ensure enough people are present in-person for adequate periods of time.

“It’s often between scheduled meetings that learning happens in a more natural way rather than a scripted way,” says Corbin, who adds that, at St. Jude, they’re now experimenting with a variety of structured work schedules that build in time for spontaneous interaction. “In one experiment, we’re saying, ‘You and your team select two days a week. They must be consecutive, and we want time for you to have your formal meetings, but you’ve also got wiggle room to just sit down at a desk station together and look over your research report or code you’ve written.’”

Try it:

Balance flexibility with structure by allowing teams to determine in-person days, and encourage them to set aside unstructured time for spontaneous meetings and conversations.

Enable virtual learning

When the time and travel for in-person learning isn’t practical, innovations in distance learning can still provide a high-impact experience. For example, The Aspen Group’s new classroom studio consists of 30 large monitors arranged in a floor-to-ceiling arc around a stage with interactive whiteboard panels that can welcome up to 180 learners at a time.

“This environment empowers facilitators to bring the same energy and interaction they do to an in-person session while also promoting more interactions and discussion across the group of learners,” Leibman says. “Learners not only feel like they each have a front row seat to the facilitator, but the technology also enables interactions like quizzes and polls and for session notes to be shared in real time.”

Try it:

If a full-blown virtual classroom is beyond your budget, you can still offer remote learning options. Provide a space where facilitators can stand up to bring more energy and engagement to their sessions and leverage polls and chats to encourage interaction.