• The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the skills gap, while protest movements have highlighted widespread racial inequalities;
  • For businesses to take action on both these issues, peer learning is a powerful tool;
  • Learning from peers can help adults learn more and develop desirable emotional skills, while enabling employees of diverse backgrounds and experiences to better understand one another.

This year has brought to a head two of the most crucial issues facing businesses worldwide.

Firstly, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the skills gap. In order to recover and rebuild after record losses and unemployment, businesses need to reskill and upskill their staff. Skills such as adaptability, agility, communications and more are at the top of the list of needs, in addition to some technical skills that can help companies boost their operations with a newly remote workforce.

Meanwhile, protests in the US and across the world have highlighted racial inequalities and put pressure on businesses to take action. The US’ National Retail Federation is telling businesses that in order to win over customers, they must demonstrate how they’re supporting their employees, promoting a diverse workforce and acting to reduce racial tensions and inequality.

As the World Economic Forum’s toolkit makes clear, businesses that build inclusive cultures reap the benefits in profitability, innovation, decision-making and employee engagement.

The impact of diversity on team performance
The impact of diversity on team performance
Image: World Economic Forum

The good news is that both of these challenges – skill development and building inclusion – go hand-in-hand. After years of work and research in workplace cultures and learning, I’ve come to see that one solution gives us the chance to take huge strides toward both goals.

The power of peers

As children in schools, we learned from teachers. They had the knowledge we lacked, they instructed us; it was our job to listen, do what they say and learn. This became what many of us think learning is – and must always be.

This idea helps explain why so much of the learning that workplaces provide still takes place through instructor-led programmes, either via in-person lectures or online. Unfortunately, this is not generally the best way for adults to learn. Adults bring their own experiences, have their own internal motivations and, research shows, want a sense of how what they’re learning can be applied immediately to help solve a real problem.

Often, this means learning from peers. In a survey for the Workforce Purpose Index, 53% of respondents said they learn more from their peers than they do from their managers. Another 27% said they learn from both equally and only 20% said they learn more from managers. As such, it’s little surprise that the World Economic Forum’s white paper Accelerating Workforce Reskilling for the Fourth Industrial Revolution calls for, among other steps, “peer-learning programmes across diverse companies.”

Learning from peers is especially powerful when it comes to building what McKinsey & Company calls the four “emotional skills” – awareness, vulnerability, empathy, and compassion – that are “critical for business leaders to care for people in crisis and set the stage for business recovery.”

These are developed through peer coaching: rather than instructing each other, peers are paired off to learn by doing. They talk to each other about a range of topics, including current challenges, long-term goals, their own “purpose drivers” and more. They listen to each other and offer constructive feedback. Through this process, each participant builds emotional skills.

Growing inclusion through alliances

Through this same process, people also get to know each other across all sorts of differences. These conversations help people of diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives come to understand one another.

After a recent peer coaching experience at a $52 billion global technology corporation, a leader wrote to me. She said she oversees an engineering team that is 80% male and, aside from her, entirely composed of people who are of Asian or Indian descent. “This is where peer coaching can be really powerful,” she wrote. “More often than not, we get in our own heads. Having someone to hear out our assumptions can be very helpful.”

Because these conversations are structured in ways focused on specific goals – each participant helping the other arrive at their own answers – it “provides an opportunity to connect with someone totally unrelated to your space” in a way that is “non-threatening”, she wrote.

The best employers in the US for diverse workforces
The best employers in the US for diverse workforces
Image: Statista

A “diversity and inclusion” handbook from the company Lever notes that one-on-one conversations can also be powerful in helping win over detractors to diversity and inclusion initiatives. Conversations can build allies and the more allies across an organization, the more inclusive and well functioning it is.

Fortunately, peer coaching conversations work very smoothly online, via scheduled Zoom calls, for example. There’s no need to slow down this process while workers are avoiding the office during the pandemic.

Today’s businesses face huge challenges, but while the workplace is becoming more complex, the solutions can be relatively simple. The critical factor for learning and building inclusion lies in giving workers the chance to connect individually with their peers in meaningful ways. Ultimately, it’s about making our organizations more human.