The slipper revolution

Blog posts

13 Oct 2020

Lesley CraneDr Lesley Crane PhD,  Managing Director, Knowing How

During the Covid-19 crisis, we will be opening up our blogs to guest contributors. These blogs are intended to broaden the debate and discussion on how public policy, employers and civil society can respond.  Needless to say, the views will be those of the authors themselves rather than of IES.  If you’d like to contribute a blog, then please email IES Head of Communications: Steve O'Rourke

About the author 

Lesley has 20+ years cross-industry experience in adult digital learning and the adult learning experience from FE & Skills to work-based learning and leadership development, and is a published author. Her professional disciplines and passions are human behaviour research and blended learning with a creative media / software developer background.


McKinsey & Company recently reports how the Covid-19 crisis has catapulted companies into the kind of digital transformation that should have taken years.  There are two interesting findings which have particular resonance for the UK’s adult education and training sector. First, companies which rapidly experimented with new digital technologies during the crisis or who speedily invested capital in new technologies are twice as likely to report ‘outsize revenue growth’ than those who did not. Secondly, not only has the shift to remote working been done at blistering speed but it’s also the change most likely to be adopted for the longer term. For many then, the slipper revolution has arrived.

My own recent research with adult education and training providers in England reveals a similar pattern to the first of these findings. Of those surveyed, the majority achieved a game-changing transformation to digital provision within days, which otherwise could have taken up to a decade. Many see this as a huge opportunity and as something too long in coming. Like McKinsey’s companies, those providers able to step boldly are those who claim most success at transforming and maintaining high levels of effective provision for their students. Few providers entertain any intentions to revert to pre-crisis methods and modes of delivery. Digital is here to stay. Or it might not. In reality what happens in the sector is driven by systemic rules, requirements and contractual obligation. The ‘flexibilities’ introduced during lockdown – many of which specifically allow for digital provision - may not remain in place.

What of remote working, though, and home-based self-directed study? Do we see a cultural – and future skills - chasm emerging where students are expected to spend the majority of their time in physical contact with peers and educators in their designated learning spaces while their future employers pursue a remote working culture? Will we see providers introducing training and skills courses devoted to remote working disciplines, methods and behaviours? Will we see remote working appearing on that list of critical employability skills?

My research, which focuses on one type of adult provision, shows that students mostly embraced home-based self-directed online learning during the lockdown. Sure there were some challenges: helping students with no digital devices of their own (mobile phones are fine for short on-the-move bite sized learning segments, but not so good for more substantial engagements), or even no internet access, so they could stay on course. Some students needed more support with basic digital skills, with teaching staff (even some who had not previously been known for their digital enthusiasm) rolling up sleeves to help. I came across very few reports of students who could just not cope with home working but here it is likely that the experience of lockdown and lack of suitable home environment contributed. In the main, we expected students to cope and carry on. Although some providers talk of the ‘novelty wearing off over time’, many also point to how well their students have performed with better than average engagement, retention and assessment performance.

Remote working – or studying – is not easy. It involves having access to adequate facilities, space, the ability to shut off from the rest of the household. These are features of home life that cannot be simply taken for granted. I’ve seen some senior professionals who work for large companies perching on beds and even more unexpected household furniture while engaging in serious video calls. Mentally, it demands a particular kind of discipline and personal motivation. For instance, it places considerable demands and pressure on emotional behaviours: without the immediately available and proximate support of friends and work colleagues, dealing with rejection, tough challenges and disappointment can be hard. One can feel as though one is working in a bubble, disconnected from the world, in which difficulties can become dramatically exaggerated.  

Employers will naturally look to new employees, particular those destined to become remote workers, for demonstration of the mental and emotional skills and disciplines - and stability - required. One can imagine the kinds of questions that interview candidates might get asked in the future: can you give an example of how you dealt with a particularly difficult challenge, colleague or customer while working from home? Describe how you are able to manage your time efficiently? How comfortable are you communicating with people only through video call platforms? Can you give an example? What kind of slippers do you wear when working?

A great deal of time and effort is devoted to debate, discussion and initiative designed to give young people in further and higher education the skills that employers demand. The new apprenticeship standards, initiated by the levy back in 2017 and the launch of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education in the same year, are billed as an ‘employer led system’. But apprentices have the advantage of spending 80% of their time on the job, whereas full-time students do not. Incidentally, the ‘20% off the job training’, a requirement seen by many as being a barrier to employer take up of apprentices, has come under increasing pressure as a result of the lockdown. The upshot is that apprentices, if they’re able to maintain their position in the midst of the increasing wave of redundancies, will have opportunities to gain skills and experience that students may not: remote working skills.

The shift to remote working by, reportedly, a large percentage of employers around the world will require profound changes in employee working contracts, well-being and health support, emotional as well as skills training in order to be sustainable. Make no mistake, this is a significant culture change to the fabric of what is understood as employment. Education and training providers will need to do two things: (1) understand how that culture change is happening, what it means for employees and employers, what impact it has on employability skills set, aptitudes and experience that students will need to have. (2)  Recognise that the days of classroom-based teaching and learning as the norm are over and that providers’ places of provision and their methods need to change to compliment and be consistent with those of their students’ future workplace.

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 Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.