Learning From Lockdown

There’s a widespread “back to school” feeling as workplaces reopen – and the education sector has lessons for us all.

Written by Jonathan Hancock
Published 28 September 2021
Learning From Lockdown

This year, it’s not just students and teachers feeling nervous as they return from a long break. Many offices are reopening as COVID restrictions ease, and people everywhere are having to readjust – to commuting, sharing spaces with others, and negotiating communal working after months on their own. 

Some will be happy to get back, especially if they found it hard to be productive at home or missed real-life interactions with others.  

Others won’t be so keen to give up on the things they gained during the height of the pandemic: more flexibility with their time, for example, or new opportunities for self-direction and independence. 

So all organizations will have to help their people through this tricky transition. 

What to keep and what to change after COVID  

Education has some particularly big decisions to make. After taking a leap into the dark with remote learning during lockdown, the sector finds itself at a “pivot point.” [1] There’ll likely be an urge to go backward and restore real social connections and in-the-room collaboration, even if it’s on a smaller scale. But there’s also the opportunity to go forward: to double down on the things that worked during lockdown – going further with remote technologies, for example, and extending people’s independence. 

It’s a choice that many other sectors face too – and one that will likely result in a mixed approach. Often this will mean hybrid working, giving people a say about when to engage in person, and when to do so from a distance. That’s certainly been well-received by many students during the pandemic, especially those living far from their providers or who’d previously struggled with inflexible timetables and large groups. And in education it can also be a blended approach, with courses carefully structured to mix “real” and remote. 

Both options offer sustainability benefits, too – less travel, for example, and fewer physical textbooks. These advantages appeal to many students, and even more so to staff keen to cut down on printing, and to use campus facilities as efficiently as possible. [2] 

Plenty of other sectors are also focusing on flexibility, so that their people can work, learn and live their lives in ways that suit them – with the result that they give more to their organization, and take less from the planet. 

New ways of working – the challenges ahead 

Flexibility that works for everyone isn’t always easy to achieve, however. 

Many in education have already experienced the stress of having to master new technology, for instance. Hybrid teaching requires more careful planning and evaluation to ensure that everyone gets a high-quality experience. [3] And there are concerns that remote lessons can become passive and unproductive, leading to disconnection and isolation. [4] 

Our own research shows that organizations generally have struggled to set up their people for independent learning during lockdown (although, tellingly, the highest-performing ones did find ways to make it work). [5]  

All sectors will need to equip their people properly for whatever their “new normal” is going to be. Having the right technology is part of that, and many universities are investing significant amounts of time and money into providing the necessary resources, along with the training and support required to make the most of them.  

But it’s not just about knowing how to use the systems. It’s also vital to create the right environment for whatever work you’re doing, choosing the best times to do it, and continually assessing how well you’re getting on, whether alone or connected with others. [6] And as in other types of organizations, education staff will have their work cut out to make everyone feel included and empowered in a hybrid world.  

Prioritizing well-being in the “new normal” 

Change is often challenging. Educational institutions will have to be particularly mindful of people’s well-being as they reshape the way they work – and the rest of us will be watching with interest. After all, everyone needs to feel safe and settled in order to learn and develop. [7]  

Schools, colleges and universities are large and complex organizations, where people’s mixed feelings and varied circumstances need to be taken into account. Communication between individuals, departments, and across whole establishments will have to be top-notch, to avoid causing misunderstandings, wasting people’s time, and hampering their work. [8]  

But get it right and your people will thank you for it. This was highlighted in education this month when St Andrew’s University was named as the top university in the U.K. for the first time – due in large part to the way it maintained teaching and learning standards, and supported students’ welfare, during the pandemic. [9] 

Coming together – and staying together 

Research in education shows the importance of community for institutions to thrive, and that’s something else that all sectors will need to promote as their people reconvene – whether in person, online, or both. [7] We’ve all learned new ways to use technology to stay connected. And like universities trying out different class sizes and configurations, we’ll all have to experiment to find out what feels safe and supportive in this next phase.  

It means that emotional intelligence (EI) in the workplace will be more important than ever. EI pioneer Daniel Goleman has emphasized the value of being attentive and “present” to understand how we and others are feeling. And Harvard’s Emma Seppala focuses on compassion as the key to reestablishing the connections we’ll all need to thrive. [10] 

Beyond COVID: embracing the opportunities 

With major readjustments required after lockdown, the education sector has more challenges than most as its new year begins. But that “back to school” feeling should include some excitement, too.  

The signs are that many of the innovations made in lockdown will lead to long-term improvements. Students and staff have tasted new levels of independence, and been able to direct much of their own learning. People have collaborated in innovative and effective ways. Barriers to inclusion have been broken down. 

Going forward, everyone will need to play a part in embracing new approaches and accommodating others’ needs – and some will need more support than others.  

But, despite the challenges, the benefits of flexibility, empowerment and supported self-direction are becoming clear.  

And as every organization gets back together and faces the future, that’s valuable learning for all of us. 


[1] Parkin, D. (2021). Hybrid Working and Leadership in Higher Education [online]. Available here. [Accessed September 17, 2021.] 

[2] Sweeney, M. (2021). Why Higher Education Must Evolve to Support the Hybrid Workplace [online]. Available here. [Accessed September 17, 2021.] 

[3] Miroshnikov, G. (2021). How to make hybrid learning work in higher education [online]. Available here. [Accessed September 17, 2021.] 

[4] Weitze, C.L. (2015). ‘Pedagogical innovation in teacher teams: An organisational learning design model for continuous competence development.’ In A. Jefferies, & M. Cubric (Eds.), Proceedings of 14th European Conference on e-Learning ECEL-2015 (629-638). Academic Conferences and Publishing International. Proceedings of the European Conference on e-Learning. Available here.  

[5] Emerald Works (2021). ‘Workplace Learning From Home.’ Available here

[6] The University of Edinburgh (2021). Hybrid teaching and learning [online]. Available here. [Accessed September 17, 2021.] 

[7] McKinsey (2020). ‘Back to school: A framework for remote and hybrid learning amid COVID-19.’ Available here

[8] BBC (2021). The digital body language cues you send – or don’t send [online]. Available here. [Accessed September 17, 2021.] 

[9] Evening Standard (2021). St Andrews beats Oxbridge institutions in national university rankings [online]. Available here. [Accessed September 17, 2021.] 

[10] Mind Tools (2021). Reconnecting After COVID [online]. Available here. [Accessed September 17, 2021.] 

About the author

Jonathan Hancock

Jonathan Hancock

Digital Content Editor/Writer
After 15 years as a BBC current-affairs presenter and producer, Jonathan spent a decade in education, progressing from classroom teacher to school leader. He’s passionate about all aspects of learning, but has a special interest in memory, having won two Guinness world records and the title of World Memory Champion. Jonathan has published 14 books on thinking and learning, designed training programs and competitions, and consulted for TV shows. He also loves staying physically fit by competing in running events – from 5K races to ultramarathons.

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