Creating a culture of lifelong learning without a ‘job for life’

With jobs for life a thing of the past, and an age of change creating promise for those that stay ahead and peril for those that do not – employees and employers alike are changing their attitude towards continual education attainment as a way to stay relevant. In fact, lifelong learning has been penned as one of the answers to creating a resilient workforce.

Educational momentum can grind to a halt as soon as we transition into the workplace. Instead, learning is replaced by ladder-climbing, and the two rarely sit hand-in-hand. But with jobs for life a thing of the past and the Fourth Industrial Revolution creating dramatic promise for those that stay ahead – and peril for those that do not – employees and employers alike are changing their attitude towards continual educational attainment as a way to stay relevant.

At first glance, lifelong learning may come across as a simple concept of learning beyond the classroom, but rather than an endless or prescriptive training plan, it is better explained as an attitude that employers can cultivate. By creating a culture of curiosity and development, employers can help their staff to grow and pivot as both individual careers and global industries are forced to adapt. Whether new skills are being developed or existing ones enhanced, lifelong learning can help ensure that staff and organisations alike are prepared to not just withstand, but benefit from change.

Leveraging a growth mindset in order to survive has never been more important, especially given the labour market challenges amidst COVID-19. While employees need to be quickly retrained towards essential services, the OECD has found that this is highlighting gaps between existing and required skills; for instance, although digital skills are becoming increasingly imperative, not everyone is fortunate enough to have them. With almost every industry facing technological and socio-economical changes, the adequacy of employee skill sets is a ticking time bomb. To counter this, the United Nations is encouraging workplaces to create dynamic training environments that not only address the skills gap but nurture deeply fulfilling careers too.

Helen Tupper, Co-founder & CEO of Amazing if, and the Author of The Squiggly Career, expands on this notion:

The landscape of an ongoing education requires a different set of skills to succeed, and while specialist knowledge will always have a role to play, it will be people’s ability to adapt, to continually learn, to solve problems creatively and to develop grit and resilience that will underpin success at work.

So what does this success look like for employees and employers, and how can we unlock it together?

The benefits for employees

For employees, lifelong learning helps to bridge not only skills gaps, but also knowledge gaps between generations. The World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Human Capital Report states that 84% of the world’s talent under the age of 25 is being prepared for the future of work through education, while for those over 25 the figure falls to just 45%. When you combine the statistics showcasing education inequality as we get older with the ageing global population, it becomes clear why many employees not only feel threatened by incoming technology and automation, but also by savvier hires fresh out of higher education.

With education systems around the world continuing to front-load learning during the early stages of life, older generations may see educational attainment as a mere memory from youth. This only adds to the skills decline, as not only may older employees’ skills be dated, but the skill of learning itself is so under-used it may become harder to be educated later in life.

Despite this, Carmen Burgos, Executive Director of Health Solutions at Aon explains that older employees are aware of the importance of overcoming this skills challenge:

‘Young people are more concerned with their purpose, the values of the organisation they are joining, and how the two fit together – while older employees are more concerned with reskilling and retirement.’

Not only are employees concerned about how their skills acquisition can improve their relevance and value to their employer, but their pursuit of a fulfilling career may help fuel their need for learning – and as a result, potentially improve their wellbeing at work through professional development.

Carmen further explains how offering lifelong learning to employees is one of the best ways to create lasting relationships with your workforce:

“Supporting employees with coaching and a plan for their future that they are actively involved in, should be the cornerstone of any employee engagement initiative. By identifying the type of workforce you have, and identifying where the business is strong and weak, it is possible to create a platform of transferable skills for your employees that also works for the business — making lasting relationships more likely, and ensuring your workforce feels a part of that journey.”

Carmen Burgos, Executive Director of Health Solutions at Aon

The benefits for employers

But with no guarantee that employees who benefit from lifelong learning will stay with the organisation who facilitates it, why are businesses so keen to continually educate their workforce? It seems that Richard Branson’s famous quote may hold part of the answer:

‘Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they do not want to.’

Carmen’s reasoning for the importance of lifelong learning goes further, explaining that as linear career paths have become extinct, lifelong learning can help employees become more adaptable to change, and as a result more open to opportunities internally, that they were either previously unaware of or that they deemed inaccessible:

‘The ‘job-for-life’ is seen as a thing of the past. With employees changing jobs and companies more with the expectation they will have to be more agile in their careers, upskilling can actually help retain talent by creating flexible career paths.’

Helen Tupper takes this further by explaining the concept behind her book, The Squiggly Career, adding:

“As ‘linear’ careers become a thing of the past, people’s ability to explore career possibilities, be able to cope with uncertainty, and navigate the ‘squiggliness’ of their careers becomes increasingly important. There is no one-size-fits-all path to follow — no single definition of a ‘good’ career.”

Helen Tupper, Co-founder & CEO of Amazing if

‘Success is not when you have reached the top of the ladder, as you’re more likely to be working your way through a labyrinth! Instead of rigid career plans and an expectation of a crystal-clear future, people need to become comfortable with flexibility and change. In practical terms, people need to nurture future roles more proactively, moving from a reactive approach to job applications to exploring opportunities and areas of interest. Managers need to support employees by enabling them to talk about possibilities inside and outside of their team, their organisation, and their profession. Helping people to explore possibilities engenders trust and openness, which contributes to psychological safety and higher-performing teams. Ironically, it is the managers that help people to leave that are most likely to result in people that want to stay.’

Tom van Lindert, CFO at Roto Group describes this as a double-edged sword. Stating that organisations who fail to facilitate agility for their existing staff will not only lose talent but fail to attract it too:

‘What an organisation can bring in terms of personal development is the natural response to the more agile worker, who is of the view they will not stay somewhere for a long period of time. Organisations, certainly those with older workforces, are not necessarily finding this easy because the workplace has been set up for something else entirely — in turn, these companies are then less attractive to the younger employees that they need as people retire.’

The environment that unlocks these benefits

Now that we understand the benefits of lifelong learning, it is time to start thinking about how we can unlock the environments in which adaptive and ongoing education thrives. Helen explains that in order to reap the benefits, learning needs to become part of your organisation’s culture:

‘Organisations need to create learning cultures, not just knowledge centres. This means they need to create environments where people are encouraged and supported to learn for the sake of learning, and where they can come together and connect ideas and information in new and unconventional ways. The collective intelligence of a community of ongoing learners is of more value to a business in the future than a group of siloed and specialist experts.’

To create a community, the whole ecosystem of individuals must first feel listened to so that the solution can cater to everyone. Allowing the space for meaningful employee connections enables this sentiment to become ingrained within the DNA of the organisation.

Tom is adopting this approach through Aon’s Well One program to find out exactly what their employees need from their development plans, complementing this with a thoughtful KPI to match:

‘We are launching Aon’s Well One program, which will enable us to create more tailored personal development plans based on conversations and assessments of what is right for the individual. We have also deployed a new system for appraisals which enables a two-way conversation between the business and employees, and we have dedicated budgets for education to support development plans. By understanding what motivates the individual we can work together to focus on the things that benefit both parties and improve performance. The only KPI for the education budget is that it should be used. We want individual managers and business areas to find a purpose for the budget that works for them and their workforces collectively and individually.’

This approach helps to create a culture of learning, by putting the onus on ‘how’ to learn as opposed to a dictatorial approach, as Helen explains:

“The traditional education system is focused on teaching people ‘what’ they need to know. We need more of a transitional education system that teaches people ‘how’ to learn in an ongoing way. The skills of lifelong learning, of having a growth mindset, and how to cultivate curiosity and curate a personal curriculum are vital for the education of our workforces — now and in the future.”

Helen Tupper, Co-founder & CEO of Amazing if

Staff development and wellbeing are interconnected features of businesses that foster a growth mindset. The creation of a safe, supportive, and collaborative culture has been transformational for specialist ICT consultants Axians. As part of their commitment to improving employee wellbeing, they have moved away from a model that primarily focussed on their employee’s physical wellbeing to one that also promotes communication, empathy and resilience. Magda Faria, Head of Workplace & Business Flow at Axians Portugal explained that while you can often see if a colleague is physically hurt, it is harder to see the current state of someone’s mental health, for example, if they are close to burnout.

‘We recognised that a lot of problems between teams were caused by a lack of communication or empathy. If someone is experiencing problems in their personal life this can’t always be separated from their professional life and is likely to impact their interactions and reactions with colleagues as well as their performance. We wanted to create an environment of trust, where people were able to better understand themselves and their response to stress, but equally, understand colleagues’ thinking processes so we can connect and create a safe psychological environment.’

Magda explains that at Axians they have invested in their people’s individual growth and their ability to be resilient and communicate effectively with one another to improve the performance of individuals and generate a culture of lifelong learning that in turn elevates the success of the business. A focus on Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) within their training program is giving their employees the tools they need to face challenges in their personal and professional lives:

‘Change is difficult, but it’s the only constant in the world. It’s hard to change things inside of us and respond to unpredictable changes like the COVID-19 pandemic, but if you can train your people to deal with change and stress without fear, by giving them the tools to adapt their behaviours and beliefs, you can create an environment of trust and build a more resilient workforce. When people work for a company where they feel safe, respected and cared for they will care for the company too.’

So, with the benefits laid out for current and future employees as well as the employers who facilitate cultures of lifelong learning so clear to see, can you afford not to join the Rising Resilient? Discover the impact of a more purposeful approach to wellbeing at work.

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