When it comes to employee development, companies get what they give. According to a LinkedIn survey, 90% of professionals say they would stay at a company longer if it invested in their growth. But while companies have long understood that learning and development (L&D) is tied to retention, it’s often left to managers to figure out how to facilitate it.
Led by your HR team, your company can introduce programs that encourage and even incentivize growth. Here are some of the creative approaches to L&D being taken today.
If you want to demonstrate your commitment to your employees’ development, giving them the gift of time might be a great place to start. Rather than leave it to employees to focus on growth after hours or between meetings, some companies entitled employees to a quota of “development hours” or even days.
“We give our employees one day off each month as a development day for them to work on something they are personally passionate about and would benefit them professionally,” said Christopher Prasad, Team Director at JookSMS. Employees taking a development day might spend it attending a virtual conference, enrolling in an online class, or even just reading a book to pick up a new skill. While it’s up to the individual how they use that time, the most important thing is that it’s sacred — meaning no emails, Slack messages, or check-ins during a development day.
“There's no pressure on them to do something related to the company directly and we don’t check up on them or expect them to be available that day by phone or email,” Prasad said. He believes when managers trust them to use that time effectively, they’re rewarded by reports who perform better, are engaged, and more likely to stick around for the long haul.
Growth doesn’t come cheap. Enrolling in classes, applying for certification exams, or even buying textbooks can cost hundreds of dollars. That might pose too significant of a barrier to employees looking to hone or learn new skills. While your company might not be able to foot the entire bill, every little bit counts.
Alex Azoury, founder of Home Grounds, believes learning stipends give companies a tangible way to support growth while staying flexible. “While many corporate development programs are run in-house and tailored to certain departments. The ones with the most impact are tailored at the personal level,” Azoury said. Using their stipend, employees can seek out learning opportunities that best match their learning styles and needs. That flexibility has made L&D stipends popular with companies like Buffer, Webflow, and Slack — the latter offering up to $2,000 annually.
How employees end up using the stipend can also be telling for managers. “Plus, the stipends give insight into people's hobbies and professional interests, which helped build team spirit across the organization,” he said. And because inspiration doesn’t always come in the form of a conventional webinar, he encourages employees to think outside the box when looking for learning opportunities. Azoury has even seen employees use their learning stipends to pay for museum entrance fees and Master Class sessions.
Fancy yourself a part-time marketer? How about a customer service professional? While you might be content in your current line of work, trying roles outside your comfort zone helps diversify your skillset. Some companies give their employees a monthly, no-strings-attached opportunity to work in completely different roles.
“We have this great practice where employees can take a day in the month and work in a department that’s not their own,” said Dmytro Okunyev is the Founder at Chanty. In addition to broadening employees’ horizons, programs like these can build cross-departmental relationships that might pay off in the future. It also helps give employees greater clarity into the ins-and-outs of the business. “For example, someone from sales going to work in the marketing department for a day, or someone from customer support might try out sales...They can learn how the entire company functions,” he said.
While these programs aren’t necessarily intended to result in career-pivoting “eureka” moments, managers should keep an open mind. Being open to permanent, cross-departmental moves is a great way to keep top talent in-house. “One of the best ways to promote professional development in your organization is to support lateral moves in different departments. I started out my career in customer support and as time went by, I did a few marketing tasks here and there to help out our marketing team,” said Petra Odak, CMO at BetterProposals.
With the blessing of the company’s CEO, Odak was permitted to make the switch. “The manager at the time helped me learn everything I needed to know to quickly adapt to my new role and just a few months later, I became a marketing assistant,” he said.
For better or worse, it takes a little savvy to get the most out of employee-manager conversations. That’s why “managing up” is such an important skill set. Simply, managing up means managing your manager. They might be overwhelmed with meetings, distracted, or otherwise pulled away from important development conversations. While some companies’ HR teams might opt to train managers to be more mindful of those behaviors, others flip the equation.
“We run entire seminars teaching employees how to manage up,” said Abigail Dodwell, HR Director at Haro Helpers. Similar to how some companies train managers on coaching or leading, Dodwell’s company addresses how to be a better direct report. “Many employees will suffer in silence and managers won't be aware of how their style and method is affecting them if they don't say anything,” she said.
Building those relationship skills doesn’t just help teams run more effectively, it gives employees the leverage they need when making the case to take on new projects or roles. Knowing that the training even exists can also force managers to be more cognizant of their reports’ career aspirations. Dodwell says that implementing the training has established “better, more respectful, and open working relationships.”
Mentorship programs aren’t new. But while past efforts have tried to facilitate the transfer of knowledge from the experienced to inexperienced, the reverse is just as valuable. In reverse mentorships, new or rank-and-file employees are the ones giving managers and senior leadership advice.
“As a remote team, our company has employed reverse mentorships on multiple occasions especially when dealing with new strategies and projects. The position of ‘mentor’ is not necessarily given to those who’ve been employed longer, but rather depending on which member is the most skilled in that specific area,” said Simon Hansen, founder of Home Brew Advice. Reverse mentors can either teach new skills (social media savvy was a recurring theme) or just offer a reality check for leaders who might not be customer or prospect-facing. If you’re worried about members of the executive team seeming out of touch, reverse mentorships might help give them perspective.
While companies often turn to new hire buddy programs as part of their onboarding, Hansen argues new hires should be the ones playing mentor. “Just as an example, one of our new hires taught us quicker and more effective ways to troubleshoot our problems and improve our strategy. The more senior members were able to learn new tricks while the new hires were able to bond and communicate with the rest of the team. Reverse mentorships not only improved our business strategies, but it also helped in creating a freer and more united workplace,” he said.
These are just a few of the programs employed by HR and L&D teams today. Need even more inspiration? Ask questions, share your experiences, and learn how other companies are investing in employee growth by joining our 8,000-strong community, Resources for Humans.