How can employers build personal learning and development into a reward strategy?

personal learning

Need to know:

  • Learning and development opportunities that focus on employees’ personal interests and goals can support employers’ employee engagement, recruitment and retention strategies because employees can see they are being invested in as individuals.
  • Employers can offer access to personal learning and development, such as language classes or a cookery course, via a benefits platform, within a corporate social responsibility programme or as part of their performance management process.
  • Employers should ensure employees have a say in the personal learning and development opportunities available to them, for example, through staff surveys or face-to-face forums.

Learning and development opportunities that focus on employees’ personal interests outside of the workplace are a very different ball park to the professional learning and development that is often required for employees to flourish in a specific job role. Although job-related training is commonly considered to be one of the key pillars of total reward, it is the focus on employees’ personal hobbies and ambitions that can really differentiate an employer’s employee benefits package, as well as positively impact an organisation’s employee value proposition.

Heather Carey, deputy director at The Work Foundation, says: “It’s quite clear that businesses need to up their game when it comes to learning and development. There’s a huge opportunity for employers to provide learning and development to support skills development and [support] personal fulfilment. There’s an impetus to look at how [employers] can improve learning in the workplace and embed a culture of lifelong learning.”

Why facilitate personal learning and development at work?
Learning and development opportunities that are outside of required job-role training are still considered unusual, says Michael Rose, director at Rewards Consulting. Therefore, employers that offer this as part of their reward package could be generating a head start in the battle for talent. “It gives [employers] something else that [they] can offer people, which distinguishes them from [their] competition,” he explains.

For example, this could include language classes, cookery courses, gardening or flower arranging workshops, crafting sessions or even educational degrees in subjects outside those required for an employee’s job role.

Kristen Fyfe-Mills, associate director, communications at the Association for Talent Development, adds: “Making sure that a culture of learning is identified as a benefit that [employers] offer employees becomes part of how [they] attract the best and brightest. To have the opportunity to grow skills with [an] employer is a primary thing that people are looking for. The idea of learning as a benefit really speaks to a commitment from leaders that they are going to make learning a priority throughout the organisations.”

According to the How millennials want to work and live report, published in June 2016 by Gallup, 59% of millennial respondents said opportunities to learn and grow are extremely important to them when applying for a job, compared to 44% of generation X respondents and 41% of baby boomers. Personal learning and development opportunities, therefore, can help employers to meet generational expectations. “For younger people in particular, people do want to learn all the time and people want to be constantly challenged,” says Rose. “The opportunity of meeting a generational need can be very strong.”

Personal learning and development programmes can also influence employee engagement and retention levels, says Fyfe-Mills. “Disengaged people are not bringing their highest and best effort, usually, to their work,” she explains. “Those engaged employees are the ones who are bringing that discretionary effort and through those people is often where innovation and change is being driven or created. [This] becomes a different way to look at the value of creating those [learning] cultures and opportunities when [employers are] also looking at ways to increase employee engagement levels.”

Meir Adler, organisation design contractor and director at organisation design consultancy Adler Advisory, adds: “[Employers can] get [a] different level of engagement and buy-in [because they are] investing in [employees] with time [and] effort.”

Return on investment (ROI) is also an important consideration. Although learning that is focused on employees’ personal interests may not have a direct business link for organisations, the impact on employee behaviours and motivation can have a positive effect on overall work performance, which, in turn, can influence business performance. Martin Lay, group performance and development manager at Personal Group, says: “Investing in somebody’s learning and development, even if it is a cookery class, will actually have an indirect, positive consequence to build someone’s creativity or behaviours, so [employers need to] think creatively for learning opportunities.”

A logical next step for employers, once they have implemented a personal learning and development programme, is to track the ROI. This can be done by analysing employee engagement and data linked to factors such as productivity and retention. Phil Dunk, chief executive officer at employee engagement and recognition organisation River Agency, says: “What return on investment do [employers] get from investing in [their] people?”

The importance of a learning culture
Creating a culture of life-long learning can align wit,h and promote, an organisation’s wider values. For example, where organisational values include innovation, flexibility and change, encouraging employees to continuously learn can help to drive these objectives, ensuring that the organisation’s working environment reflects its ethos and forward-thinking business ambitions. “Building something like this into the reward package reinforces that culture,” explains Rose. “It’s about the messaging [employees] get through that.”

It is also important to recognise employees who embrace such learning and development, adds Adler. “[Employers] want to celebrate [employees] doing that learning and [they] want a way to do that which is visual and visible to everybody because it both motivates the employee but also says ‘we’re really serious about learning as a business’.”

Building personal learning within total reward
Employers can offer access to personal learning and development opportunities via a variety of methods. One option is to do so via a flexible benefits platform, says Rose. This could involve the employer paying to make a choice of learning programmes available as part of the flexible benefits package, or giving employees a learning allowance to spend on their choice of course or class. “One of the components of reward for [employees], in addition to salary and bonus and everything else, is this payment that relates to helping support [employees] learn,” adds Rose. “That can all be part of the total reward package.”

Alternatively, employers could offer access to personal learning via a voluntary benefits plan, whereby they liaise with third-party providers to gain access to courses, such as language lessons, at a discounted rate. Employers could also fully fund personal learning and development opportunities, either by paying directly to facilitate employees’ learning, or by utilising employees themselves as a learning resource, by providing mentoring and coaching opportunities that facilitate peer-to-peer support. Lastly, organisations could also consider offering a tuition reimbursement-style programme to help employees fund studying for a non-work-related degree, for example.

Where employers contribute towards, or fully meet, the cost of courses, including the value of these in a total reward statement is a useful way to ensure employees realise what is available to them.

Employers can encourage take-up of personal development opportunities by setting aside dedicated time during the working week for employees to complete their learning. This could include facilitating study leave, for example, if an employee wants to complete a formal, external qualification. “Time is a valuable thing for people,” says the River Agency’s Dunk. “[Organisations] should understand the value of their employees having other experiences outside of work and them personally developing, so if they can give time, I think that [is] huge.”

Employers can also link personal learning and development to an organisation’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy, says Fyfe-Mills. This could include allocating days within the working week for employees to undertake volunteering opportunities. Personal Group, for example, links charity project work to its personal learning strategy. This sees high-performing managers participating in a local environment programme, called the Red Thread Fellowship Programme, where they can develop leadership skills while undertaking a team project to support a local charity. “The beauty of the programme is around the project work, and the project work allows [employees] to work with different people from different businesses to then support a local charity,” explains Lay.

Personal learning can be woven into an organisation’s performance management process, explains Adler. This would involve funding personal learning opportunities as a reward for employees who excel at meeting performance targets. “[Employers] start to build [personal learning and development] in as a type of bonus,” he says. “It makes it much more proactive. Being invested in with learning and development is very different than getting a [financial] bonus or getting a voucher.”

What do employers need to consider?
However they choose to do so, there are a number of practical considerations employers should bear in mind when positioning personal learning within a reward strategy. First, employers should allow as much flexibility as possible. “The whole point of this is to find things that are not required or even needed for [employees’ jobs] and they’re not really part of development for the role,” says Rose. “The big advantage of this approach to personal learning is to give people complete flexibility.”

Second, employers should allow employees to have a say in they type of learning opportunities they would like to be able to access. “Inviting employees to have a voice is very powerful,” explains Fyfe-Mills.

Gathering such feedback is most commonly achieved using an online staff survey, which can be embedded within an organisation’s intranet site, although face-to-face forums can also be effective. “Personal learning comes when people are building their own confidence and skill set, not just on the technical aspects of the job,” adds Personal Group’s Lay.

Employers also need to consider why they are implementing personal learning as part of a reward strategy. This will ensure the benefit is introduced as part of a coherent strategy that aligns with the organisation’s purpose and goals, rather than slotted in because it looks attractive on the benefits paperwork. “The question is what’s it for? Why [is the employer] doing it? What’s the value added to the organisation? What’s the value added to the individuals?” says Rose.

Employers should also ensure they set a suitable budget to enable all employees who want to take up the benefit to do so. “It’s got to be enough to make it worthwhile,” says Rose. “If it’s only £25 [per person] it’s a bit of a waste of time.”

In addition, employers should ensure that personal learning opportunities are administratively easy to access, to ensure there are no barriers to entry.

Ultimately, employers must keep employees, along with their personal interests and goals, at the forefront of their thinking if an investment in personal learning and development is to be successful. As Fyfe-Mills says: “Investing in people is never a bad play, but understanding what’s important to [an employer’s workforce] also becomes part of that equation. That’s going to be different for different people and different parts of the organisation, and probably somewhat in [employees’] own generational experience or expectation of what learning looks like.”