What does the ideal employee look like to you? Are they someone who shows up, does the tasks assigned to them, and goes home? Or do you ask – and offer – a little more?
In the modern business environment, ‘lifelong learning’ has become something of a buzzword. But it’s much more than a trend. It’s a way of making sure that you get the most out of your employees long term, have an adaptable and resilient business, and inspire a high level of loyalty.
Many people feel they’re stagnating at work, but are afraid of rocking the boat by asking for training which doesn’t directly relate to their day-to-day role. So smart leaders don’t wait for people to ask – they make it clear from the outset that they encourage employees to develop new skills or work on side projects.
As Amy Edmondson puts it in The Fearless Organization, “leaders must be willing to take on the job of driving fear out of the organization to create the conditions for learning, innovation and growth.”
Learning new skills promotes innovation
For around a decade up to 2013, Google famously encouraged employees to set aside 20% of their work time for personal projects. You might have heard of a few of the results – Gmail, AdSense, Google News…
This is a prime example of how a positive learning environment promotes innovation. It can mean the difference between someone sitting on a great idea, feeling they lack the skills to execute it, and saying “I have this great idea, here’s what I need to learn to do it”.
It’s not just about setting aside a day per week, either. It’s about creating a culture of learning. While Google doesn’t officially follow the 20% policy any longer, the company still encourages and rewards learning, leading to greater flexibility in the fast-changing tech arena.
Investing in employees helps you retain talent
Even if it doesn’t lead to the next Gmail, though, creating a work environment which encourages learning has plenty of other benefits. Google has high levels of employee satisfaction and loyalty, and a lot of that comes down to the learning opportunities it offers. The mental stimulation of learning new things helps offset repetitive or boring tasks, and supports people in working towards professional and personal goals.
Surveys by Gallup, Deloitte and others have shown that Millennial and Gen Z workers put learning opportunities near the top of their priority list when considering prospective employers. To attract and retain the top talent, you need to enable continuous learning.
Mentorship can bring out the best in people
So, creating a workplace environment which encourages learning can attract top talent, increase loyalty, and promote innovation and futureproofing. Not only that, it can help build community – especially important when people are working remotely.
Peer-to-peer learning, mentorship and secondments can be particularly effective. For the mentor, it reinforces their existing skills, while developing management and leadership potential. For the mentee, it helps them develop new skills, and learning from a peer rather than someone external can be less intimidating. For both of them, it provides a chance to build a network outside their own team.
Successful leaders are continuous learners
To make sure a culture of learning really takes root in the workplace, leaders need to show that they themselves are continually learning. It might not seem like the top item on your to-do list, but a leader demonstrating humility, showing that they have more to learn, has a powerful effect.
As Amy Edmondson writes in Strategy + Business: “no one wants to take the interpersonal risk of imposing ideas when the boss appears to think he or she knows everything. A learning mindset, which blends humility and curiosity, mitigates this risk. A learning mindset recognizes that there is always more to learn.”