7 tips to upskill your workplace

The acquisition of new skills is a crucial element in both employee engagement and retention.

How do you encourage staff to gain new skills in today’s busy workplaces, where people are time poor? Two HR experts share their advice.

In today’s constantly evolving workplace, employees must continuously learn new skills.

A 2017 Productivity Commission report emphasises the importance of upskilling to address “the combined effect of an ageing workforce and technological change”.

The acquisition of new skills is also a crucial element in both employee engagement and retention.

“When people stop feeling like they’re learning or adding to their CVs or creating new opportunities in their career, they start to look elsewhere,” says leadership and people management specialist Karen Gately, founder of HR consultancy Ryan Gately.

On the other hand, when you factor in today’s large workloads and jam-packed schedules, for many people there is little time left for learning. Here are seven tips to make upskilling more effective in busy workplaces.

1. Align training to individuals

A common mistake that organisations make is to treat learning programs as “a tick box exercise” where everyone receives the same training. 

“That doesn’t work,” says Ushma Dhanak, founder of Collaborate HR. “You’ve got to align the training with the individual.”

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Use an engagement survey to determine what staff want to learn and the skills they want to develop.

It’s something organisations often overlook, says Dhanak. “The ones that do this often don’t follow through on results, which is even worse.”

Employers should then tailor training to target skills gaps, where it will be most effective. Considerable resources are frequently invested in leadership training for executive teams, when more often it is new managers who would benefit most from training, observes Dhanak.

“Middle management are often promoted on technical ability and then they become a leader and need a whole different skillset.”

2. Instil a coaching culture

Managers should see themselves first and foremost as coaches, says Gately.

“If you have a strong coaching culture within your organisation, a lot of the learning is happening on the job, with the boss in the moment.”

A coach has the advantage of offering on-the-go guidance and feedback.

“That doesn’t need to take a lot of time,” says Gately, who encourages leaders to be “creative in their capacity to coach people every day. It doesn’t need to be an event.”

3. Set up mentoring

Encourage key talent to seek a mentor to develop their leadership capabilities. Dhanak favours external mentors over in-house programs. 

“There’s a lot more value to having a mentor outside the business than inside.”

She advises allowing your employee to meet regularly with their mentor in work time. 

“Just by doing that, their engagement is through the roof. They feel like they’re trusted.”

If your organisation offers an internal mentoring program, Gately suggests establishing a pool of mentors and mentees rather than allocating pairs. 

“For mentoring to work, there has to be very sincere trust and respect between both parties,” she says.

“You can’t give someone a mentor and expect that to work. You need to self-select your mentor ... there needs to be chemistry.”

4. Break training into bite-sized learning

Full training days can be problematic: they’re difficult to manage for employees who have already demanding workloads, and frequently marked by low retention of information.

“The delivery of the training can better suit people’s busy lives,” says Gately, who suggests “looking for solutions that deliver bite-size chunks of information – it might be a series of two-hour workshops.”

Dhanak regularly runs monthly “lunch and learn” sessions as part of the Collaborate HR emotional intelligence (EI) training program. She delivers a series of 90-minute modules covering key EI competencies over a six-month period. Group members then work on action items throughout the month. 

“That bite-size learning works really well,” she says.

Another easily digestible learning format is microlearning: three-to-five-minute chunks usually delivered online. Microlearning integrates into a normal workday and incorporates elements such as gamification, apps, interactive videos or whiteboard animations.

5. Ensure online learning will be effective

Online learning provides flexibility for people to learn at their own pace but, says Gately, it needs to be executed properly to be effective.

“If someone is sitting there scrolling through slides and readings, it’s going to have limited benefit. But if it has activities they have to complete … then it can be incredibly valuable.”

One strategy she suggests is to direct team members to work through an e-learning module before convening the group to have a conversation about what they learnt.

A face-to-face component is important in making people more accountable, says Dhanak, who notes that the completion rate for online training is often low.

“If you’re going to invest in online learning, make sure … the outcomes are suited to that person. Sometimes it’s a way for businesses to tick a box and say, we’ve done training.”

6. Leverage internal talent

Look for internal talent that can help deliver training to develop new capabilities.

“Get your HR people, if you have them, to help that technical expert put some structure around it and then run some internal training programs,” says Gately.

“There’s going to be some cost implications around taking people out of their jobs, but you don’t have to hire a facilitator and buy a training program.”

7. Don’t forget to debrief 

Dhanak recommends creating a post-training action plan to get the most out of the learning experience. She offers participants 30-minute one-on-one sessions to debrief after each workshop. 

“It’s a time to reflect on what they learned and what they need more support on,” she says. “I then feed that back to the business.”

Read next: How to be a more strategic manager


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