Skip to main content
Civil Service

Reimagining training in a covid world

Concept of work from home and home family education. Mum and son are sitting at the desk. Business woman works on the Internet in a laptop, a child writes in a notebook.

Remote training when working from home has been a boon in keeping staff connected. Pamela Dow in conversation with Louise Scott-Worrall on why lockdown is a wakeup call for better virtual training.

Hello, it’s Learning at Work Week - a great time to think about career development.

In little over a year the world has changed dramatically. This Learning at Work Week - 17-23 May 2021 - feels different to those which have gone before. We are all still (mainly) working from home, using virtual platforms to see our colleagues. We’ve all learned a lot of new skills. My favourite virtual working tip is to start and end meetings five minutes before and after the hour, just to give ourselves a chance to catch a breath, although I don’t always follow it! 

Pamela Dow, Executive Director, Govt Skills and Curriculum Unit
Pamela Dow, Executive Director, Govt Skills and Curriculum Unit

If you’d told me last year, I would have to establish a new unit and a new senior leadership team with ambitious cross-Government goals without sharing physical space, I wouldn’t have believed it possible. What has amazed me most is how adaptable we are as human beings, and how quickly we’ve been able to respond to new needs. 

Since March 2020, all government learning and development has moved from mostly physical to wholly virtual. What have we done, and learnt?

DWP onboarded and trained 13,500 new Universal Credit work coaches between July 2020 and March 2021, completely virtually. Without losing substantive content, the training period dropped from 52 days to 25.

The Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office's Trade Policy and Negotiations Faculty adapted their face-to-face expert programme, with the virtual version retaining the crucial skills, knowledge and networks, expanding access for overseas experts and colleagues.

Civil servants with benefits

The Cabinet Office Parliamentary Capability programme went virtual, doubling the number of civil servants who benefited compared to the previous year. We’ve shared these case studies on in full.

We mustn’t forget the importance of propinquity, of the indirect benefits of being close to each other and learning in the same physical space. But greater flexibility has allowed us to reach wider and more diverse audiences, more efficiently, and creatively. We must not lose these gains. 

Virtual learning means reaching more people, greater inclusion, more flexibility, and personalisation. But technology platforms aren’t perfect, and humans are a social species. We need to be precise about what we want to retain and how. 

We can now reach hundreds of people with the same ease as we can reach 10, across the UK. An hour-long webinar, or Massive Online Open Course or as it is commonly known, ‘MOOC’ style programme, or virtual workshop are all easier to coordinate - and to commit to - than their offline equivalents. Courses that took people out of the office for days or weeks can take the form of bite-sized modules. 

Technology has reduced barriers, increased comfort and confidence and helped us navigate courses at our own pace. Chat bars and hand-raising options might not seem a big deal, but to people who dislike public speaking they’re great levellers. However, non-attendance, non-completion, lack of true engagement without distraction, are all problems in virtual learning. 

You're on mute!

Even though “You’re on mute!” is heard less and less, we’ve all needed to raise our game in making best use of the platforms in lockdown and this will continue as technology becomes more sophisticated. The benefits of learning in the same physical space are considerable, and we will all know more about the implications of losing this soon, as findings from the latest studies start to emerge. 

Louise Scott Worrall, UK Head of Learning Solutions, KPMG
Louise Scott Worrall, UK Head of Learning Solutions, KPMG

Louise Scott Worrall, UK Head of Learning Solutions, KPMG

“KPMG’s evaluation scores show learners rate virtual activities every bit as highly as face-to-face. Most importantly, they say that what they’re learning virtually will help them to do their jobs better.

We’re still learning about what works well, but we are seeing teams spreading the learning out into shorter events; using technology to create smaller breakout rooms; setting real work challenges to take place before and beyond the training event and making sure space is given to reflection and sharing within the virtual training event. I share more about this in my article, 2020: The year that virtually changed my mind (”

What does the future hold?

For face-to-face social learning to make a real comeback, it’s going to have to be so high quality and so experiential that its activities couldn’t possibly be replicated within a virtual learning environment. There’s no doubt that when the option of face to face arises again, it will give us the opportunity to be a lot more creative. We’ll continue to research, explore and experiment with virtual and online training techniques alongside face to face. 

With the right blend of people skills and immersive technology, we are at the tipping point of all the positive benefits which online training and development can offer the government, both now and in the future.

This is the first of a regular series of blogs on skills, knowledge and networks. It's an exciting time to be creating the Government Campus. These experiences will shape the way training will be delivered as we come out of the Coronavirus restrictions. You can read all the case studies shared and find out more about the Government Campus at

Sharing and comments

Share this page

1 comment

  1. Comment by Miriam Mokal posted on

    I was one of the staff who was trained in delivering Universal Credit in July 2020 (on loan from the Land Registry) and having only just joined the Land Registry in April 2020, I have been trained virtually, from scratch, in 2 fairly complex roles! As I joined just at the start of the 1st lockdown, I haven't actually been in the office apart from to collect kit. Having never worked from home before, let alone been trained virtually, it was a huge challenge. But the benefits were immense. In the DWP especially but also in HMLR the opportunity to train with, and gain knowledge from, colleagues around the country with a wide breadth of experience was invaluable. Being able to attend professional development courses which previously would have required physical attendance (difficult as a single parent!) has been really interesting and of great benefit. So, yes whilst propinquity also has its benefits, the move forward to virtual learning has opened up so many more opportunities for someone in my position. Embracing all that technology has to offer is definitely an excellent move.