How to Encourage Employee Development Programs and Participation

Every company needs a culture that actively inspires ongoing learning and personal development.

Is anything worth doing if we can’t improve ourselves while we do it? More CEOs, Training managers, and, yes, employees have this vital question on their minds a lot these days. Are we going through the motions, or are we challenging ourselves to learn new skills and think differently about how we perform in life?

Company leaders arguably have a responsibility to give back to employees in the form of development programs and learning opportunities. But you won’t be surprised to find such opportunities under-utilized if you haven’t laid the proper cultural framework first.

Employee Development Is Great for All Parties

We know not every company is the same, but we also know that just throwing money at token “employee development” programs doesn’t help anybody grow in a meaningful way. Employee development and ongoing learning represents a $164.2 billion annual expense for today’s executives. And yet, we must not be getting our money’s worth, because employee learning remains a top-of-mind concern for many of those same leaders. Something has to change about our approach.

It is possible that we have such an imbalance between investment and real-world results because Training managers haven’t started with the fundamentals. Every company needs a culture that actively inspires ongoing learning and personal development. Your atmosphere must encourage participation.

You’re probably familiar with programs like these:

The list goes on. The truth is, employers and Training managers are in excellent positions to help the employees in their care become their best possible selves. It’s possible that in some cases, they might end up grooming a young professional only to see him or her move on to the next challenge. In most cases, though, employees recognize the value of an employer that believes in their continued growth. They’re likely to stick with those companies for a while. “Sticky” learning makes for “sticky” employees.

How to Encourage Development and Ongoing Learning

If development needs aren’t being met, employees and Training managers alike have a responsibility to speak up.

But the big unanswered question isn’t the form your company’s ongoing learning and development program can take. I listed some of the options, but there are many others that are far less formal. If you’re not already, begin accumulating up-to-date resources that are relevant to your employees and the work they do. Encourage them to study from these resources on their lunch break. Incentivize learning with gift cards or employee perks for books read or TED Talks listened to. Simply knowing learning materials are available takes care of some of the motivation barrier.

But that’s not all leaders and trainers need to concern themselves with. For even reward-based development programs to work, and for your program to be successful over the long run, you need the right culture and atmosphere. Below are some practical suggestions for how you can “prime the pump” for your employees to take ownership of their career development.

It also should be noted that all of these apply to the employee, as well. If your company doesn’t offer ongoing learning, educational reimbursement, mentorships, or other opportunities to broaden your horizons, you can and should look for some of these opportunities and bring the benefits to the attention of company leaders:

  • Explore mentoring and reverse mentoring in a deliberate way: It’s possible you’ve started to hear about reverse mentoring. This is a huge opportunity for older and younger generations in the workforce to challenge each other, address each other’s weaknesses in a constructive way, and enrich each other’s knowledge in their subject-matter blind spots. Some 53 percent of Millennial workers believe they’d be more productive if they had a mentor. Training managers and HR personnel have a great opportunity to facilitate these sorts of relationships.
  • Address the short shelf life of skills: The rapid accumulation of skills has never been more important than it is today. In part because technology makes it so, and in part because we live in a global world, modern employees need to stay on top of new trends, new tech, and new industry developments to stay relevant. Recognizing the need for personal growth doesn’t just engage employees—it’s also imperative if you want to keep your company competitive.
  • Encourage reasonable goals without being pushy: Even if you remove it completely from any kind of ongoing learning program under your roof, goal setting happens every day at any company that takes itself seriously. But employees who tread water with easy goal setting probably won’t challenge themselves to take advantage of learning opportunities either. Again, you need to stoke the fire a little bit. Encouraging individual and company goals, and looking for thoughtful ways to tie them together, is crucial if you want to maintain an atmosphere of engagement and motivation.

Although I’ve mentioned how Training managers and other leaders can incorporate various training and professional development programs for their employees, we also have to recognize that not every company culture and workflow can accommodate some of these models. Sometimes, if employees want to grow up and out of their current roles, they’ll have to tackle some of this learning during their hours away from the office.

And that comes with certain challenges when it comes to the hallowed work-life balance. Still, many of the techniques you’d use on-site to facilitate learning—podcasts, articles, white papers, partnerships with local colleges, and subscriptions to digital learning platforms—can be used during a morning commute or in the quiet hours of the morning or evening. Learning initiatives don’t have to disrupt your company’s workflow or unnecessarily eat into your employees’ free time.

If the motivation is there, they’ll find those spare moments throughout the day to finish that book on leadership or sign up for that distance-learning course on C++ basics.

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance writer and STEM blogger. She regularly contributes to IMPO Magazine and Born2Invest. She also updates her own blog, Schooled By Science, every Tuesday and Thursday. Stay in touch by following her on Twitter or subscribing to her blog here.