Nurturing a Culture of Learning in Your Remote Team: Latte and Learn

In this article, Pilar suggests a simple way of learning together as a remote team. 

Let’s get the basics right first.

“Learning” does not mean “going on a course”.

“Learning online” doesn’t mean “watching videos”; all it means is that you are using technology to upgrade your knowledge or skills and to change your behaviour in order to grow.

One of the ways in which you can use technology to learn online is through real-time group learning with your team members, setting up dedicated, informal meetings to develop as professionals. I call them “Latte and Learn”.

Knowledge Sharing or Knowledge Consolidation

The simplest way of learning together is knowledge sharing. A person in the team has an experience (it could be a passive one like being on a training course; or an active one, like successfully delivering a piece of work or ending an experiment), and now she is ready to share it with the rest of the team.

This learning meeting can result in two distinct benefits: it provides the group with second-hand information that might come in handy at some point (“just-in-case learning”), and it helps the person sharing the information to consolidate their learning.

Through sharing an experience with others, we reflect on why it was useful, or at least important to us. We pick the “highlights” and summarise our experience, which not only benefits the audience but also helps us process the relevant learning into long-term memory, and enhances our gains from the experience.  We probably all know that we should have this ‘reflective’ phase to consolidate our learning always, but preparing to share with others actually makes us do it.

Through other people’s questions, we can go a bit deeper into our thinking, and connect it to other knowledge and ideas. By talking through our experience with others, we tend to evaluate what we’ve learned: “What I found really interesting was…” or  “The reason why I don’t think that worked was…”

Not Audience Members but Explorers

This kind of learning-focused meeting probably needs quite a bit of preparation from the person leading the meeting, the person sharing the experience. The rest of you can probably just turn up on time. But then you have to work like mad during the session, for maximum mutual benefit. You are not there to be an audience, but an active learner and explorer.

For a start, you can ask yourselves questions like:

  • “Have I been in similar situations?”
  • “Is the information of relevance to what I’m doing now, might it be relevant in the future?”
  • “Is there anyone else in the organisation that could benefit from knowing this?”

This last question is particularly important if the view amongst decision-makers in your organisation is that having people working away from the office decreases the amount of cross-pollination of ideas amongst different teams/departments. Regularly reaching out to others sharing new information and experiences can help learning cascade throughout the organisation and in a way, advocate for people having the option of working away from headquarters.

Staying in touch with others through sharing recent learning is also a way of addressing any concerns about you and your team losing visibility in your organisation. Sharing information with those outside of your team (and outside of your company, collaborators, suppliers, etc) can be a very easy way of staying in touch in a meaningful way.

Taking Responsibility for Learning

Although you might be taking part in a Latte and Learn session  in a passive capacity, you are responsible from getting something from this “learning” session.

In addition to this, being the great manager and team member that you are, you will want to help the person sharing their new found knowledge with you to consolidate their learning.

Find those moments where the person seems to be unclear about what they’re explaining and ask them to be more specific. Or pick up on those moments where they become particularly animated and ask them to expand on some of the points they’re making.

Encourage them to be specific. If they say they enjoyed something, ask them why; if they mention that they would act differently next time, ask them how.

You’re probably thinking that in order to be able to ask these kind of questions, you and your team need to feel safe. You’re right. These sessions are useless unless everyone understands their value. These are not meetings where you gather a whole load of information every time you attend. These are meetings where you promote reflective thinking, where you show that it’s ok to share doubts and ask questions.

When we are open to learning, we make ourselves vulnerable because we have to acknowledge that we can still improve as professionals, as human beings.

Stay Curious

Different people will bring different experiences to these meetings. You might well have heard it all before. Or you might think it has no bearing on your own work. Stay curious. Take the opportunity to find more about the person, about what helps them do their work, about where they consider their knowledge gaps to be.

These are also great opportunities to move away from the traditional image of the manager as the one who thinks they have all the answers - it’s the moment to ask questions to understand what’s on someone’s mind, rather than to interrogate or to fish for the answer we’d give ourselves. In short, it’s a great opportunity to coach and to nurture a coaching culture.

Ongoing Learning

These type of meetings work best when they’re short. If the conversation evolves and everyone wants to continue talking about the topic, schedule another meeting, or suggest to follow up during the next learning session. Or even better, start a conversation online to continue capturing your thinking around it - and store the conversation somewhere you can also easily refer back to.

There might also be some benefit to revisiting what you took away from the previous meeting, as a way of reminding yourselves and each other. Vocalising your reflections and realisations might not be enough for them to help you in the future.

During my theatre-making days, we used to review our projects once they were over. We’d sit down, go over everything that had worked and what hadn’t worked, and took notes. I’d then type up the notes neatly, for reference later. But I kept making the same mistake over and over again: I didn’t refer back to those notes at the beginning of the next project. Every now and then, I’d come across the notes when cleaning up the computer files. “Ah, we keep making the same mistakes every year!”

This might seem like common sense, but believe me, the excitement of starting a new project rarely leads to digging out the notes from the previous one. So revisiting what you took away from learning sessions is always useful: as a way of consolidating that learning and as a way of actually implementing it. (Many thanks to Jack Vinson for his input on this during one of our informal Virtual Team Talk coffees, which are great examples of informal learning online.)

Reviewing what you all took away from previous sessions and what you are implementing, can also serve as a way of monitoring whether the sessions are actually useful, or whether you need to change the format (or even whether you want to dispense with them all together). Don’t assume that if people start to feel like the sessions are no longer useful they will voice their concern. Sometimes you need to ask directly.

Learning is not just about acquiring new objective information, it’s about adapting your behaviour to your surroundings.It can be about learning to do things differently.

Every interaction you have with another person is an opportunity to learn.

(This is an excerpt from "Online Meetings that Rock. A guide for managers of remote teams". Sign up to the newsletter - below - to find out when the book is released in 2018.)