2021 Culture Survey: HR  and L&D Professionals' Top Training Challenges

When Media Partners kicked off the new year with its "Culture of Respect" survey, instruction for managers and leaders dominated the top-three training challenges cited by the nearly 300 HR and learning and development (L&D) professionals who shared their insights.

Two-thirds of respondents agreed that the single biggest training challenge they face this year is teaching managers and leaders how to handle uncomfortable, often referred to as courageous, conversations.  

Providing instruction to help those groups improve their virtual leadership skills also ranked highly for HR and L&D. Learn more about the survey findings below.

Response total exceeds 100% due to "All that apply" option.

Development for Leaders and Managers Is Important

The chaotic events of 2020 highlighted the importance of leaders and managers as role models and facilitators of organizational stability during times of unprecedented upheaval. Not surprisingly, when asked about this year’s overall company culture priorities, survey participants ranked leader/manager development top-of-list.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the social unrest that followed meant that leadership competencies and behaviors needed to be reassessed. Employees looked to organizational leaders to be more transparent, compassionate, and authentic. Those leaders had to step up when outcries over racial inequities necessitated courageous—and often uncomfortable—conversations.

Because of their positions on the front lines of organizations, managers were called on to have difficult discussions, too. Those interactions include such potentially sensitive topics as physical, emotional, or other aspects of employee well-being; diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) concerns; sexual harassment claims; and more.

The need for those conversations continues as businesses still navigate turbulent times, and as companies work to put into action the commitments that were made in response to the events of 2020. Understandably, those circumstances make training for leaders and managers a particularly pressing imperative for HR and L&D as 2021 unfolds.

New Ways of Working Demand New Skills

When the onset of the pandemic caused a rapid shift to remote work settings for many employees, leaders and managers accustomed to heading teams in brick-and-mortar facilities were abruptly called on to direct workers from a distance. Supervising the performance of individuals and teams they couldn’t oversee onsite signaled a pressing need for leaders and managers to hone their skills for the virtual (and hybrid) work environment.

Half of the HR and learning professionals surveyed by Media Partners reported that training managers and leaders to head effective virtual teams and workforces continues to be a top development must for their organizations in 2021. And with many employees expressing their desire to continue working remotely, more growth is forecast in the demand for engaging, skill-building training in virtual leadership.

As business leaders and employees, alike, try to anticipate what the future of work will bring, survey respondents confirm that their attention is on providing their employees and leaders with the development opportunities and soft-skills training needed to drive future success. Fifty-six percent of HR and L&D professionals cited that future focus on performance as their second-ranked training challenge.

Training experts agree that already-shifting business models, ongoing evolution in automation and artificial intelligence, changes in talent utilization, and other trends soon will make continuous learning and upskilling/reskilling a way of life for everyone. Increasingly, HR and L&D functions will be gauged on their ability to ensure workforce readiness—for the expected and the unexpected.

According to survey participants, DE&I-related instruction and a lack of expert facilitators in difficult topics (such as well-being, DE&I, and sexual harassment prevention) are among other training challenges expected in 2021.

Training Professionals Need More Resources

About half (52%) of the HR and learning professionals surveyed by Media Partners say that their organizations have been able to transform live training to virtual in response to the pandemic. However, that leaves almost the same proportion of training functions lacking when it comes to producing and delivering effective development options for employees (remote or onsite in company facilities) who must social distance or who lack access to in-person training.

Given so many disruptive changes in where and how work is done (and with more changes ahead), 45% of survey respondents say they need training products and resources that will help them address emerging needs. From remote work skills and virtual leadership to DE&I and other respectful workplace topics, demand for learning content is shifting. The ability to quickly deliver effective training on the latest organizational imperatives is critical to competitive capability and business performance.

Response total exceeds 100% due to "All that apply" option.

Nearly four in 10 HR and L&D professionals report a need for customizable virtual learning products and resources, too. Again, the strong likelihood that many employees will continue to work remotely, and an unclear timeline for others to return to workplaces ensure that the practicality and scalability of virtual learning will drive its further growth. So will the fact that nearly a third (30%) of surveyed learning professionals say the increase in remote work is challenging their ability to deliver effective training.

Finally, the desire (and imperative) to personalize learning content and delivery is expected to drive concurrent expansion in the use of customizable virtual products. Part of that personalized learning experience also includes the growing preference of some organizations to leverage expert facilitators to lead virtual learning experiences, particularly those that focus on sensitive or difficult subject matter.


The pandemic and other events in 2020 accelerated many workplace trends, driving needs for proven training products that deliver engaging, behavior-changing content in live or virtual settings. Also important to the success of emerging training initiatives is the ability to provide programs specifically tailored to the needs managers and leaders, and training support that gives HR and L&D professionals access to expert facilitators for particularly challenging topics.

Media Partners' 2021 Culture Survey asked HR and learning professionals about eight topics that fit under the umbrella of culture—elements of it, reflections of it, and results of it.

Respondents’ priorities demonstrate the connections and synergies between organizational culture and Media Partners’ core solutions, which cover:

    • Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging
    • Sexual Harassment Prevention
    • Workplace Violence Prevention
    • Leader and Manager Development
    • Effective Workplace Communication

Through our Client Services, organizations can partner with renowned experts to deliver in-depth, enriching and memorable training experiences in these areas.

Contact us for more information.