We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but it’s already been four years since the COVID pandemic first reared its ugly head. The devastating virus brought with it immense changes to how we live and work, the effects of which continue to be felt today. Yet many workplaces are also trying to go back to the ‘old normal’, and reversing decisions they made four years ago.

The shift in our own business was seismic, and put us where we are today. Yet we’ve also seen a gradual shift in attitudes following the end of lockdowns, and the return to relative normality. So what is the state of health & safety in 2024, and how has the approach of individuals and businesses to safety training changed?

Adapting to the pandemic

The pandemic and the series of lockdowns it necessitated brought sweeping changes to workplaces around the world. While essential services such as public transport, healthcare facilities and supermarkets continued to operate (albeit with some changes), all office workers were forced to stay at home. Businesses were forced to furlough some employees, with part of their wages covered by the government, and allow others to work from home.

With many businesses not operating a home working policy before the pandemic, new infrastructure and policies had to be introduced almost overnight. Apps such as Zoom, Slack and Teams became common methods of communicating and working online, with virtual meetings becoming commonplace. The likes of Office 365 and Google Drive allowed people to work in the cloud, and collaborate on documents and other files simultaneously.

For consultancy and training companies like ours, this meant taking courses which we’d only ever offered in-person, and adapting them to an online training format. This required a total rethink of how we offered training, and how the differences between in-person and online training might affect how people learn and absorb information. It also meant considering different delivery methods, and how best to support and engage everyone who trained with us.

The benefits of remote working

We settled on using Zoom for our online training, as people very quickly became familiar with using it, removing any barrier to entry. Most training associations reacted fairly quickly, and adapted their courses to be offered online, while we also made our own changes where possible to better support online learning. We made a special effort to engage individuals by allowing them to ask questions freely, and trying to build a group mentality between learners who would never meet in person.

We also expanded our other online services. Video e-learning became a useful ancillary service for us, offering people the chance to learn at their own pace and in their own time. This lower pressure and more flexible environment was useful for some people to whom traditional training may not have been suitable. Online training also filled this gap for some people, who might not have been able to visit our training centre before, particularly people from locations outside of Kent.

Perhaps most markedly, training moved to an open book format, where the onus was on learners to demonstrate that they understood safety principles, rather than just memorising them. However, there were naturally also some challenges. Some people greatly missed the classroom environment, including some of our trainers, who felt that online training was more like giving a presentation than teaching a dynamic class full of learners. There were also technical hitches, and things that could be more difficult to demonstrate on camera than they are in person.

Returning to real life

When the lockdowns finished, and the unease about catching COVID lessened, classroom courses quickly grew in popularity. While this might partly be the preference of employers booking courses for employees, many individuals also seem to have a preference for in-person learning. Learning new skills isn’t something that comes easily to everyone, and many people seem to be more engaged by in-person training, and benefit from the support and encouragement of their peers.

What we’ve seen in the months and years since is a comfortable balance between our different course offerings. While the popularity of online training has dropped, our growth from a mostly regional training company to a nationwide provider means that it still constitutes a large part of our business. Because we are visible around the country and competitive with the quality and price of our courses, our online training continues to bring us a wider audience than we could find just in the local area.

At the same time, the preference for anyone training locally is definitely in-person. And our video e-learning courses have also seen steady growth as they have become more visible, and we have increased the number of dedicated video e-learning course pages on our website. Our consultancy service has also seen us travel further afield to undertake assessments and provide advice, and this has created new relationships which have further supported our online training courses.

The future is (mostly) real

So what is the overall picture for remote working and remote learning, and what does the future look like? It’s safe to say that the move to online learning during the pandemic hasn’t fundamentally changed anyone’s preferences. Individuals who enjoyed in-person training before the pandemic still do, and if anything are more resolute in this opinion now. Some people who had a particularly tough time being isolated during lockdown are still counting their blessings that they can meet up and learn in person!

What the pandemic has done is open people’s eyes to the situational benefits of online learning, both for trainers and learners. Online learning fills a niche that isn’t likely to go away, but wasn’t broadly offered before for a variety of reasons: a lack of comfort or experience from trainers, a lack of courses and exams catered to online learning, and a lack of quality courses being provided online. All of these problems had to be quickly solved during the pandemic, and make the quality and availability of online learning much better now than they have ever been.

The period in which online learning and remote working were the only option, however, has clearly opened people’s eyes to the issues with both as much as the benefits. The long periods of isolation had a negative effect on the majority of people, and this has led people to value the opportunity for human connection more now than they did previously. While remote working in particular has many benefits – particularly as a housing and cost-of-living crisis make it more difficult to live in or near to certain cities – the loss of connection and camaraderie in both workplaces and classrooms is seen by many people as overriding the convenience and cost-effectiveness of remote work.

Remote working still has an important role to play in modern work culture, particularly as a means to open up opportunities for individuals and businesses where commuting or living locally isn’t viable, or an office is simply too costly. The same can be said for remote learning, where – particularly for a one-off or niche course – attracting learners from across the country or world is a valuable prospect for trainers.

Something is fundamentally lost in the complete move to remote working or learning, however, whether that’s in terms of team and group dynamics, or ensuring the engagement and participation of all employees or learners. The modern world is one that’s still readjusting to the changes from the pandemic, but one that seems to be settling on the side of working and learning face-to-face.