The Problem with Losing Osmosis Learning

As organisations start settling into a hybrid way of working, focus is shifting away from maintaining task productivity towards other aspects of work. One of these is learning by osmosis.

As HSM Advisory CEO and founder, Professor Lynda Gratton pointed out in a recent BBC Worklife article, in a physical workspace, osmosis tends to happen because you’re sitting near someone, but the rise of remote working during the Covid-19 pandemic has led to concern that such learning opportunities are being lost. Remote workers may have increased communication within their own teams, but this has come at the expense of interactions with other teams, reducing opportunities for wider knowledge sharing.

So how do we fix this? Firstly, it is important not to assume the office-based environments we knew before the pandemic were ideal for learning. According to Professor Gratton, the problems traditional offices pose are merely different. For example, most workplaces – particularly open plan ones – were noisy spaces that forced people to withdraw behind screens and headphones to focus on work, and hampered communication. Secondly, it is important to frame the problem you want to solve as accurately as possible. At its core, learning by osmosis is not about location, but about our ability to connect to, observe, and learn from others.

Finally, we must take an intentional approach that spans workspace, proximity and encounters. This includes designing separate workspaces for focused work, noisy work and collaborative work, and putting serious thought into things like where people sit – abandoning self-directed hotdesking and fixed seating plans for strategies that maximise encounters. At Arup, for example, teams move around the building so they can mingle with – and learn from – different colleagues. Designing meaningful learning encounters – which have traditionally been left to chance – can come less naturally. Encouraging leaders to take junior colleagues with them to decision-making meetings is one way of doing this – but work must be done to ensure they are choosing junior candidates from a diverse pool.

The most important thing to remember is that learning does not need to be tied to a physical location: encounters and proximity can be designed to work remotely, too. The key is to ensure people have the time, opportunity and autonomy they need to learn effectively from the connections they make at work.

Interested in learning more? Read Lynda’s full article here.