· Features

Surviving coronavirus with a learning culture

Feedback, coaching and mentoring have become the pandemic’s invisible workplace victims. When they are lost, so is the connectivity that so often holds a company together.

Before COVID, we learned mostly through osmosis, from people we knew, in apprenticeships and mentoring schemes, as part of talent recruitment and retention strategies. But in only a year, in normal circumstances, a company’s attrition rate can be as high as 30%. Who knows how many of our colleagues will still be there, or who will be new, when we return to our offices? In preparation for that day, boards that want to reignite their corporate cultures should focus on creating a learning environment

Over the last 20 years, Mazars, a global professional services firm, has perfected a long-term ambition to become a school for excellence to transform our culture and make us future proof. Here’s how.

To start, suppose there can be no education without career progression, and no career progression without education. Consider it a matter of good governance, shareholder advantage and a strategy that guides your company’s orientation. A learning culture demands role modelling.

Today, 40% of Chinese CEOs have PhDs, but only 10% of European ones. Such a commitment makes a statement of self-confidence, and shows that COVID has galvanised, rather than damaged, new thinking.

Instead of allowing COVID to turn our homes into permanent, isolated offices, take the opportunity to re-imagine the workplace as a collaborative hub that persuades employees to return and encourages them to interact. 

The finest ideas are born in cafes and pubs, so an office should be part common room, part library. Meeting rooms should become laboratories, open areas inviting to employees and impressive to visitors. Make space for soft furnishings, secluded spaces for private thought and open dialogue. 

A structured learning programme should serve your business first, informed by external, societal shifts that will make or break it in the future. The best corporate education promotes emotional not just academic intelligence. This will attract like-minded people from all backgrounds and create a partnership of individuals who differentiate and empower the company.

Trainers as such are few and far between. Your bespoke in-house faculty is your biggest asset: partners and senior managers working around an agreed learning platform that is scalable. The faculty is responsible for both producing knowledge and sharing it. Work with a local college, university or business school to help design or accredit your learning. 

With your internal processes set, the biggest reward will come by making your education ecosystem as inclusive as possible. Consider who should be represented, and how. Surround your managers with external influencers: clients, peers, supporting partners and academics.   

Corporate education is a virtuous circle, in which the mentor and apprentice benefit each other. Nobody is too young to teach, and no one too old to learn. Training should also be designed with tomorrow’s workforce in mind. A training culture not only sets the standard within, it sends a message to the market. Recruitment should match your messaging, with an emphasis on diversity of thought and learning as a key component of remuneration. 

Merge your learning and employee feedback strategies, keeping a finger on the pulse of employee sentiment. Establish open channels between offices to facilitate conversations.

COVID has moved the office online, but human nature dictates we will move it back again, and when we do, we have a unique opportunity to draw a new line in the sand. As people re-engage, reskill and embrace new opportunities, qualifications are the only way to protect against protracted crises, economic restructuring and recessions. 

Corporate education and development must not be an occasional intervention but the very core of a company. Your mentors must be recognised and responsible for enabling future leaders to face up to emerging market realities, whatever the situation. That’s how to make your company fit for tomorrow. By making it a school of excellence today. 


Laurent Choain is chief leadership, education and culture executive at Mazars Group


This piece appears in the May/June 2021 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe now to get all the latest issues delivered to your desk.