To Attract And Keep Employees, Make Your Organization A ‘Learning Environment’

A big part of the Great Resignation has been about employees feeling they have no opportunity to grow, says Debbie Gunning, vice president, people at Human Interest.
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It’s never been more critical to create a learning environment in your company, says Debbie Gunning, vice president, people at Human Interest, a San Francisco-based provider of workplace retirement plans.

Gunning spoke with StrategicCHRO360 about how to do just that and why you should consider the effort part of your compensation package.

Why and how does a learning environment play into total compensation?

A learning environment is the foundation of total compensation—it’s an investment that pays dividends in terms of employee performance and engagement. 

When we think about compensation, we frame it as total rewards for our employees, which includes all of the elements that go into recruitment and retention—benefits, salary, culture, flexibility and more. However, without a learning environment that supports the continuous growth of our employees, our benefits won’t have their full potential impact. 

There are simple yet highly effective steps you can take to create a learning environment that’ll help your organization grow and retain your employees:

Provide a subscription to online libraries, such as LinkedIn Learning for essential skills or one that’s sponsored by a professional organization for more specific technical skills.

Offer just-in-time solutions that don’t require scale or a lot of internal resources to support but can give employees access to development opportunities that are relevant to the company’s real-time needs.

Demonstrate the value of learning and continued growth, and foster a learning environment—especially if employees have the opportunity to share the new skills they’ve learned. You can have learners host lunch-and-learn sessions, or similar virtual or live events. 

Create a dedicated place to share information, such as a Slack channel. It’s also fun to have employees lead programs like book clubs and study groups to help your teams leverage each other as a resource. 

Companies may choose instead to allocate a budget for employees to attend conferences, join a professional association, take a skills-building class, maintain a certification, or pursue additional education such as a degree or accreditation. 

As we continue to face tough talent challenges, how does creating a learning environment support retention?

We’ve seen nearly 50 million people quit their jobs and go elsewhere during the Great Resignation—many looking for opportunities to grow. Ensuring there are opportunities for lateral movement within an organization is one way to retain employees at your organization.

Additionally, a learning environment does more. By creating dynamic programs that keep employees engaged and positive, you can help employees be productive and foster new ideas that will keep your organization flourishing. This investment can lead to improvements or changes that ultimately save money or introduce new opportunities to help your business grow.

What are the challenges/opportunities of creating a learning environment?

There is no one size fits all approach, which makes establishing a learning environment both a challenge and an opportunity.

To help us better identify and prioritize our team’s needs, we recently conducted a companywide survey and found that the #1 reason why employees attend employer-sponsored training is that the content helps them do their job better. 

The pace of the world and our jobs is faster than it’s ever been, so we weren’t surprised to learn that employees want on-demand short courses and 1-5 minute microlearning videos. In some cases, it’s not possible to produce the desired results in information retention and competency building. So, when you are establishing a learning environment, think about how to:

Give employees time. While in many cases learning can happen through 1-5 minute microlearning videos, employees may need more time to practice a new skill. The time an employee invests into practicing will pay off. For example, 90 minutes invested in a workshop can prevent numerous hours of downstream issues and corrective actions. Be proactive in anticipating where learning new skills will make a difference in the weeks or months ahead and consider whether employees or teams feel empowered to dedicate time to learning. 

Allow for mistakes. Part of learning is having the freedom to make mistakes. Mistakes help the learner clarify what and why the new information is necessary. Our goal with the learning activities we support is progress, not perfection, and we work with our managers to ensure they are allowing their direct reports to make mistakes and, of course, to learn from them so they can grow and improve. 

Listen to employees. Learning isn’t a top-down endeavor. You need to allow employees to be a part of the process, to suggest learning opportunities, to help you find gaps and to ensure that they will drive their own development. Without employee buy-in and participation, employees may feel like they’re checking learning items off a list rather than truly learning.

How do you maintain a learning environment?

There are really two key components for maintaining a learning environment:

Build programs for scalability. We’ve seen a lot of examples of companies building learning programs that are just checklists of courses. Instead, focus on skills-based programs and build learning around the behaviors that you want to see demonstrated. Long term, the checklist versions tend to fail because they set up wrong expectations and they become dated—very quickly. The infrastructure for a learning environment must be dynamic so that it evolves as you evolve. Look for an infrastructure that allows you to add, remove or update classes; doesn’t limit the users (or can grow to meet employee growth); and one that works with current technologies (for example responsive design that allows employees to learn on a laptop or a mobile device).

Remember that you’re never done. Maintaining a learning environment means consistently committing to it and fostering an environment where it’s OK and safe to test new learning hypotheses. You’ll want to establish a cadence for reviewing what you’re doing—what’s working and what’s not. Additionally, it’s important to look at how your business is evolving. Have you added new products or features? Built an office in a new area? Added new teams or functions? With the growth of hybrid and dispersed workforces, you may need to add opportunities to support managers that have direct reports that aren’t in the office next to them and could be in a different time zone. 

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