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Learning and development

Learning At Work: A Leader’s Guide

Learning at work is critical to L&D initiatives. Gone are the days of pulling teams away from their work for days at a time. Now, learning needs to happen in the flow of work and be personalized to each of their career journeys. This article dives into 3 ways employees learn and two strategies you can implement to support workplace learning.

Ryan Carruthers

February 7, 2022

In the workplace, learning and development should be on the high-priority list at all times. Not only is it important to ensure that employees are constantly learning and developing their skills, but it’s also essential for the overall success of the company. 

Leaders play a critical role in creating and fostering a learning environment within their team or department, and in the past couple of years, managers and HR leaders have been taking this responsibility seriously. In fact, almost 60% of L&D professionals pointed to “upskilling and reskilling” as their top priority in 2021.

So, what exactly does it mean to learn at work? In this article we will review what workplace learning is, why it’s necessary, and how to facilitate it, as well as some examples of what successfully learning at work can look like.

Let’s begin!

What is learning at work?

In brief, learning at work is the process of acquiring knowledge and skills in order to do our jobs better. It can involve anything from reading an article online to attending a training course. 

For example, if you have ever facilitated or taken part in professional development, you will have experienced learning at work. Or, if you have spent time researching a topic before completing work based on that topic, you have also engaged in learning at work.

 Learning at work is not just about learning new skills, however. It can also involve refining and improving the skills you already have. For example, if you are a manager, you may need to develop your leadership skills in order to be effective in your role.

Should employees spend time at work learning?

In any workplace activity that does not directly affect profit, there is always the question of whether it is worthwhile time spent. This is especially true when it comes to employee learning. Is it really necessary for workers to be constantly absorbing new information while on the job?

The answer, unequivocally, is yes. Learning at work should be a priority for all employees, regardless of their position in the company. There are several reasons why this is the case:

  • Learning at work keeps employees current in their field. They are able to apply the latest techniques and theories to their work, which makes them more valuable employees. Furthermore, they are better able to contribute new ideas and innovations to the company.
  • Learning at work helps employees stay organized and efficient. By learning new methods and best practices, employees can streamline their work process and become more productive.
  • Learning at work makes employees better problem-solvers. When they are confronted with a difficult task or challenge at work, employees who have been learning will be better equipped to find a solution.
  • Learning at work builds employee confidence. By mastering new skills and tasks, employees feel more confident in their abilities and are better prepared for advancement opportunities.
  • Learning at work is fun! It’s always rewarding to learn something new and see the positive impact it has on our work.

Despite these reasons for learning at work, some employees are unsure as to whether their manager or employer would want them to spend time learning. Questions have even been raised as to whether or not the practice is ethical

Of course, learning at work should always be an above-board activity; it is often arranged by the manager or employer themselves anyway, which erases the question of ethics and superior approval. 

Either way, managers, HR reps, and L&D professionals should always aim to integrate learning at work into their company’s culture and everyday practices.

The three ways employees approach tasks at work

According to an initiative by the Learning Innovations Library at Harvard University, people generally adopt one of three different mindsets when approaching a task to be completed. These three mindsets are completion, performance, and development. 

Completion

When employees approach work from a completion stance, their main goal is to get the job done; however, they are not aiming to become overly invested in the task, and will not commit more time than is absolutely necessary. If learning does happen in the completion mindset, it is usually accidental. 

Performance

Employees who adopt the performance stance are focused on performing well at the moment, but not necessarily retaining that information into the future. They are willing to invest as much time and mental energy as it takes to perform well – but any learning they do is purely for the sake of the task at hand, and not long-term skill acquisition. 

Development

When a person works for the purpose of development, they want to learn new skills and develop their existing skills with every new task they tackle. They are focused on both performing well and concreting their ability to perform well in the future. The learning that takes place here is intentional – which is the most preferable type of learning!

Which stance is best?

Leaders should note that the development stance is the ideal mindset for their team to adopt. At any given opportunity, try to foster and embrace the development stance within your company, as development-minded employees are continual learners who bring quality and enrichment to the company they work for. 

The Importance of Learning in the Flow of Work

So, what is the best way to integrate learning and continual development into your company’s day-to-day operations? According to the Harvard Business Review, leaders need to be encouraging a concept called learning in the flow of work.

“Learning in the flow of work is a new idea: it recognizes that for learning to really happen, it must fit around and align itself to working days and working lives…we can build solutions and experiences that make learning almost invisible in our jobs.” 

(Josh Bersin and Marc Zao-Sanders, 2019)

In essence, learning in the flow of work is a model which allows learning to take place as a part of the everyday work processes, integrated so well that it does not interrupt usual workflow or detract from an employee’s output and performance. 

This model has become popular in the corporate world now that learning at work is widely recognized to be a necessity. In their HBR article, authors Josh Bersin and Marc Zao-Sanders emphasized the idea that “the urgency of work invariably trumps the luxury of learning.”

And they’re right – it’s usually unrealistic for leaders to ask their employees to put aside time out of each day and each week to develop their skills. Often, it’s simply not feasible nor compatible with their workload. 

Because of this, leaders are looking for easier ways to incorporate learning at work. In fact, 80% of CEOs name upskilling as the main challenge they face in running their business. This is where the learning in the flow of work model comes into play. 

To make learning at work more natural and integrated into everyday tasks, leaders can:

  • Encourage mindfulness at work. Emphasize the importance of being mentally present, and minimize any distractions in the workplace, as a focused mind is better positioned to take on new information. 
  • Plant the idea of to-learn lists. If employees keep a list of skills they want to gain and develop somewhere visible on their desk, they will be more aware of learning opportunities as they arise naturally throughout the day. 
  • Utilize mentorship and peer learning. When your employees have a support person they can bounce ideas off of and turn to for help or advice, they are more likely to be kept accountable for their learning and feel encouraged to gain new skills. 

How to Support Learning at Work: Two Examples

There are many highly effective ways to encourage learning in your workplace, two of which are mentorship and peer-to-peer learning. 

Mentorship

Mentors are an excellent way to encourage learning at work, as they provide accountability for employees who need an extra push. Mentors also:

  • Support employee development and career advancement
  • Provide new perspectives and helpful guidance 
  • Give employees the confidence to explore new learning experiences
  • Help employees reflect on experiences and draw learnings from them

Case Study: Cruise Automation

In 2019, self-driving car company Cruise Automation decided to run a mentorship program for the 1000+ employees in their engineering department – but it soon became clear that this task was too difficult to arrange, especially when trying to create 500 quality pairings. 

Instead, the company chose to use a Together mentorship program that would allow them to instantly pair mentors with the appropriate mentees using an algorithm. They were able to use the software to actively upskill and develop. 

The result? Cruise Automation overshot their goal by 100 engineer recruits, and the average rating of the mentorship experience was 3.8 out of 4. 

Peer-to-Peer Learning 

Peer learning allows employees to support one another and share skills with the other person or group of people. It works especially well for helping teams to learn at work, as they can be developing together while they complete tasks as a team. 

​​Peer-to-peer learning also:

  • Holds employees accountable for their learning
  • Enables collaboration between employees in a productive way
  • Encourages a coaching culture

Case Study: Cooley LLP

Global law firm Cooley LLP requires its lawyers to be the best and brightest in order to take on the challenging tasks they face each day. As such, the company wanted to implement a system of learning that would quickly and efficiently upskill their new employees. 

They chose to make use of the Together mentorship software program, Cooley launched their ​​Cooley Academy Mentoring Program (CAMP) and began to run mentorship sessions between junior and senior lawyers in the firm. 

As a result, the Cooley firm was able to launch a highly successful onboarding process, and their employees have a 95% satisfaction rate (as opposed to the average U.S. employee satisfaction rate of 59%). 

What’s holding your organization back from enabling learning at work?

According to data from Gallup, only 4 in 10 employees say that they receive learning opportunities at work – so what is stopping leaders from providing these opportunities?

Chris Agriys, a Harvard Business School professor, once wrote that the two crucial mistakes businesses make are:

  • Using a narrow definition of ‘learning’
  • Ignoring the concept that thought and behavioral patterns can block learning

This is where mentorship and peer-to-peer training programs come into play. Rather than focusing on content and information retention, these programs emphasize the idea of social learning and facilitate the sharing and cultivation of knowledge. 

In other words: it is time for corporate e-Learning to become a thing of the past. Leaders should now make way for integrated learning at work that takes place between employees as part of their everyday working lives. 

If your business lacks the element of social learning at work it needs in order to thrive, you can try the Together mentorship programs – they have already worked wonders for companies in all industries, and yours could be next.

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