Employee Engagement

Professional development in the workplace: How to provide opportunities for employees

In the race to attract and retain talent, lots of companies are talking about "professional growth and development" for their people. But what does that mean, exactly, and why is it so important?

The term "professional growth" refers to the process by which an employee gains new skills, experiences, and knowledge that allows them to progress in their career. And, as it turns out, providing professional development opportunities isn’t just good for your people—it’s also good for business.

Countless studies show that investing in professional development for employees leads to improved retention, engagement, and productivity. And a focus on learning is one of the top drivers of a great work culture. Our own research shows that meaningful growth is also intrinsically linked to workplace connection, which is essential: 

“Connection plays a critical role in how satisfied employees feel at work and how likely they are to stay at their current organization. Overall, 58% of employees say that they would consider leaving their current job if they didn’t feel connected at work.” 

While you may wholeheartedly agree with these points, the tricker part is the how. Specifically, how do you keep your L&D program fresh, relevant, and engaging? How do you empower your people to learn the things they want to learn, to engage in behaviors that actually help them develop professionally? 

In this post, we explore six proven ways to promote professional development in the workplace and offer ideas to help you build a more impactful professional development program for your employees.

#1: Work with employees to set professional growth and development goals.

People-first companies are formalizing the process of helping employees set professional growth and development goals. Why? This type of structure gives your employees something tangible to work toward, as well as a reason to celebrate once they hit key milestones. Here are tips to get started:

Get managers involved.

Managers should be involved in the process of setting, supporting, and checking in on an employee’s professional growth goals.

This gives workers someone to turn to when they feel blocked or have questions. It’s also well-known that the manager-employee relationship is critical to an employee’s experience—according to Gallup, managers are responsible for the majority of variance in employee engagement scores. Involving managers can help your workforce feel more motivated to make progress on their goals.

Set employees up for success.

It’s important for managers and employees to identify mutually-agreed upon professional growth and development goals that are achievable, measurable, and relevant.

For instance, if an employee’s goal is to build leadership skills, their manager shouldn’t immediately assign them three direct reports. Instead, the employee should have the time and space to take courses, attend seminars, or receive coaching from other leaders inside or outside the company (check out our friends at ThinkHuman or SoundingBoard).

Track progress.

Encourage your employees to track their progress. Whether you use a performance management platform—like Culture Amp, Lattice, or 15Five—or a shared spreadsheet, documenting the small wins allows employees to look back and see how far they’ve come. This is also a great way for the employee to own their journey and keep managers in the loop.

#2: Introduce new projects to help employees stretch their skills.

Another way to create professional development opportunities for employees is to allow them to work on projects outside of their usual role. A few things to keep in mind:

Don’t make assumptions.

Before assigning an employee a new task or project, make sure it’s something they want to take on, something they feel empowered to take on. It’s easy for a manager to assume they know what’s best for their direct report, but their intuition may be off. So have a conversation with the employee before making any executive decisions—otherwise, the well-intentioned action may backfire.

Consider a rotation program.

A rotation program allows people to spend a few months in new roles across different teams. In practice, this would require employees to have a decreased workload in their existing role so they have time to accommodate the program.

At Google, for instance, people can spend 20% of their time on any project they choose. This approach may be easier than a full-time rotation program since it minimizes day-to-day disruptions.

Get creative.

If a rotation program isn’t viable, there are other small, but meaningful, ways to give employees career growth opportunities.

For example, if an employee wants to learn more about event management, they don’t have to transfer to the marketing team to make it happen—invite them to the holiday party planning committee. Or encourage the product manager who wants to flex their creative muscles to join the next engineering hack-a-thon.

#3: Have a learning and professional development budget.

At Blueboard, one of our core company values is to “Set Ourselves Up for Success.” This means putting the right resources, tools, and employee training program in place for our employees to reach their career goals. That’s why we offer a use-it-or-lose-it learning and development budget of $1,000 per employee to promote professional growth. Here are some best practices we’ve picked up along the way:

Be flexible.

Empower employees to think expansively about this budget. Blueboarders have used their L&D funds for everything from conferences to leadership coaching to Toastmasters courses. We’re not limiting them to a short list of options, but we do request that the reimbursements are linked to professional growth opportunities.

Prioritize utilization.

To get the most value out of your offering, your employees have to use it. That’s why we consistently track utilization of our learning budget. 

Similar to what we recommend when it comes to building a successful employee referral program, make your employees aware of these funds by building internal buzz. Promote the program during onboarding. Get leadership involved, and capture stories from these experiences to be shared during team meetings and other company-wide events.

Encourage sharing.

Capturing stories from employees’ learning experiences is a great way to build excitement for your professional development program. That’s why we have our team share what they’ve been using the budget for and how it’s helping them tackle their current career goals. Our leadership team participates in the sharing too and gives shout outs to creative learning requests during team meetings.

#4: Encourage professional growth and development experiences.

Don’t assume that professional growth opportunities can only happen inside the office. Diversity in experiences—whether that’s starting a side hustle or traveling the world—can help cultivate a culture of learning and development as well. Here are a few of our favorite ways to encourage more learning experiences for employees:

Host fun team activities.

Team-building activities aren’t just good for bonding—they also present an opportunity to cultivate skills. That’s why, at Blueboard, we let employees take turns planning different team events. This approach has yielded many meaningful experiences, such as fencing, wine blending, and volunteering at a local farm as a team.

You can also encourage your team members to join ERGs. These groups are a wonderful way to promote openness, cultivate psychological safety, and facilitate cultural sharing—all skills that are invaluable for employees at any stage of their careers.

Offer experiential employee rewards.

Another way to encourage experiences is to use experiential rewards for your employee recognition program. This makes life-enriching experiences more accessible to your people outside the “walls” of the workplace.

Many of our recipients have used their rewards to learn new skills, whether that’s mastering the art of photography, learning a new language, or perfecting their coffee pour over technique. 

Another idea is to craft a spot recognition program that’s centered around L&D. Also commonly referred to as “on the spot recognition,” this approach allows you to reward any type of growth-oriented behavior, contribution, or milestone as they happen. By doing this, you can motivate more of your employees to seek out professional development opportunities

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Allow flex time.

Your employees can’t make time for new experiences if they’re working all day, everyday. So encourage time away from the office—whether that’s through a paid vacation or sabbatical—to engage in activities that are meaningful to them.

#5: Provide employee mentorship opportunities.

Positive mentorship propels career growth. A thoughtful, well-structured mentorship program can be a great way to support employee growth and level the playing field when it comes to professional development opportunities—especially for women and historically marginalized folks. There are many ways to execute on this strategy:

Establish an internal mentorship program.

A common way companies provide mentorship is by establishing an internal program where a more junior person is paired up with a more senior person at the organization. Make sure to follow best practices to craft an equitable professional development plan that benefits both the mentors and the mentees. 

Sponsor external coaches.

An alternative to an internal mentorship program is to provide coaching services likes the ones offered through Bravely and SoundingBoard. This may be a more comfortable set up for employees because they can choose who they want to work with, based on their specific preferences, needs, and career goals. 

Consider other mentorship channels.

Keep in mind that mentors don’t have to come from the workplace. There are many in-person and online communities that offer industry-specific or role-specific mentorship opportunities or simply connect like-minded people to each other.

#6: Cultivate a culture of feedback.

Learning doesn’t need to happen in the context of a course or a conference. By cultivating a culture of feedback at your company, your employees have the opportunity to grow from their daily interactions with teammates, managers, and leaders. Here’s how you can encourage your workforce to share feedback with one another:

Demonstrate what constructive feedback looks like. 

Sharing helpful, constructive feedback isn’t intuitive. That’s why you need to invest in educating everyone—from your entry-level employees to your C-suite—on what good feedback looks like. 

Here are a few guiding points to start with: 

  • Be timely. Many people wait for the annual performance review to share feedback. This is a huge mistake. Your employees will learn best when things are pointed out to them live. This is one reason why spot awards programs are so powerful.
  • Share examples. Whether you’re sharing positive or constructive feedback, point to tangible examples that support what you’re saying. For instance, you may say: “I was really impressed with your creativity during the marketing brainstorm today. Thanks so much for being open to sharing your ideas with the team.” 
  • Provide actionable takeaways. How do you want the recipient to act on the feedback you shared? Do you want them to do more or less of what they’re doing? Or work together to find a better path? For instance, here’s something you may say to a direct report as a manager: “Hey, I noticed that you missed the deadlines for the last two projects. Let’s brainstorm ways that we can reduce your workload.” 

Also, be sure to remind employees that feedback can and should happen in all directions. In other words, direct reports should feel empowered to share their suggestions with their managers, in addition to receiving feedback themselves.

Create structure around feedback.

Feedback can happen more organically when there are structures in place to support it. For instance, encouraging managers and employees to have regular 1:1s ensures that there’s a time for them to consistently share ideas, suggestions, and observations. Similarly, holding space for employees to ask questions during an all-hands meeting gives everyone a chance to express their thoughts and concerns with the leadership team.

Companies that prioritize learning and employee development opportunities will lead the charge in this new world of work. And the top people-focused businesses aren’t just increasing their investment—they’re also thinking of ways to take a more holistic approach to L&D. To implement fresh ideas that consider the well-being, retention, and diversity of their employees. And to use the ongoing transitions as an opportunity to  rebuild their processes. 

If you’re exploring new ways to promote professional development in the workplace, consider adding experiential recognition and rewards to the mix. That’s what we do best at Blueboard so, if you want to learn more, feel free to request a demo.

Editor's note: This post was originally published in May 2019 but has been updated to reflect employee circumstances in 2022.

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