More and more companies are offering professional development (PD) programs for employees: 88% of tech companies who participated in our 2020 OneRange survey reported offering such a benefit. This trend only accelerated during the Great Resignation as employers fought to attract and retain talented workers with increasingly competitive perks and benefits packages.
This is great news for workers everywhere! However, the sad reality is that these benefits often go underutilized.
This isn’t because employees aren’t interested – it’s more often due to poor communication, logistical hurdles, and other errors in management.
The good news is these errors are largely preventable with careful planning, a little elbow grease, and a great technology partner.
If you’ve put in the work to create an employee-directed development program and implement purpose-built software like OneRange, you’re already 90% of the way there! OneRange includes many carefully designed features to drive engagement, including automated emails to guide users through their continuous education journey and a team of customer support professionals standing by to answer questions in real time. Your OneRange Customer Success team can help you design a customized launch plan and do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. In the meantime, these tips can help get you started on the path to a smooth rollout and long-term success.
1. Make it official
Does your program have a name? It might sound trivial, but taking the time to give your program a name will demonstrate your commitment to the initiative, while also making it easier for managers and employees to reference. You might even consider creating a logo, icon, or other visual identity for the program to give it more weight. Additionally, be intentional about choosing a prominent home for your program in a central location – e.g., a company website, intranet, or SSO portal.
2. Over communicate (and outsource as much as possible)
On average, people need to hear a message at least seven times before they act on it. Your employees are busy doing their jobs and likely contending with a full inbox. So don’t just send one email announcement about your program and call it a day. Communicate often and through multiple channels.
In addition to email, consider digital channels such as your employee web portal and messaging services like Slack. We’ve seen creating a dedicated Slack channel for professional development and upskilling work well for some companies. Also make use of in-person forums such as company meetings, team meetings, and one-on-one manager check-ins. Communicate throughout the year and increase communications during the second half of the year, emphasizing the use-it-or-lose nature of the annual benefit to drive urgency and action (our data shows that at least 10% of employees who use their benefit use it during the month of December.).
You should also think about the employee lifecycle and plan proactive communications around key milestones. Start by incorporating guidance about continuous education resources as part of employee onboarding. We’ve found that emphasizing continuous education in the first week of work when new employees are in learning mode – and before they take on too many projects – is key to driving engagement. It also helps to build a sense of community and investment for employees who are onboarding in a remote work environment, as many more are following the pandemic.
If your company is in an industry that requires time-intensive compliance training – which, let’s be honest, most people find at best boring and at worst brutal – that annual compliance cycle is another great time to remind your team of the opportunities they have to learn things that actually interest them by using their annual professional development budget.
Additionally, include reminders about professional development and upskilling offerings any time an employee gets a promotion or takes on added responsibilities that might require new skills, for example shifting functional roles or transitioning from an individual contributor role to become a manager.
Of course, we encourage you to lean on your OneRange consultants to manage as many of these communications as you can – we have a proven playbook and the capacity to serve as an extension of your HR team.
3. Ensure policies are clear and easy to find
Confusion over employee education stipend programs and how to use them is one of the primary reasons these benefits often go underutilized. Make sure to have clear policies covering the basics, including:
- Education stipend amount
- Timeline for using (e.g., annual)
- Approval process
- Reimbursement process
Additionally, anticipate some of the more nuanced questions employees might ask about your program and prepare Q&As to address them. For example, can employees complete professional development activities during working hours, or should they do it on their own time? If a program is paid for using an annual stipend in a given fiscal year, can the program content be completed in the following year?
Your OneRange consultant can help you craft policies in line with best practices, as well as help enforce your policies and answer any employee questions that may arise. Of course, all of the effort you’ve put into developing the policies will be wasted if employees have to go digging through an endless series of emails to find them. Make sure policies are easy to find in an obvious location.
4. Know your audience
Provide targeted information and resources for managers and employees based on their unique roles and needs. For example, managers will likely need guidance around how to approve stipend requests, monitor stipend usage across their direct reports, and code reimbursements when tracking expenses. Employees are more likely to want information on how to choose a professional development or upskilling program, submit a request for approval, and track usage of their individual stipend.
5. Remove barriers to participation
Beyond confusion over education stipend policies, some of the most common barriers to using professional development stipends are trouble choosing a program, concerns about timely reimbursement, and difficulty making the time for continuous education on top of a full workload. Each of these can be easily addressed with some strategic support.
Choosing a program: Ease decision paralysis by enlisting managers to recommend their favorite professional development and upskilling programs for their direct reports (these can be general or function-specific). We also advise highlighting the most popular employee-selected programs to give those struggling to choose a program some initial ideas and guidance. OneRange offers tools to make both of these types of recommendations easy.
Timely reimbursement: Work with finance to ensure employees are reimbursed promptly (ideally within one month or pay period). This will help minimize financial barriers to participation, especially for lower wage employees. Or, use a purchase card (p-card) system so that employees never have to use a personal credit card to carry professional development expenses. OneRange also offers intuitive payment processing to support any approach you develop.
Finding time: Consider allocating regular flex time (e.g., meeting-free Friday afternoons) or an official Professional Development Day(s) so that employees can easily incorporate continuous education into their busy schedules. This also helps to signal that continuous education is a priority and makes it feel more official.
6. Highlight results & reward participation
Once you have a system like OneRange in place to track professional development participation, set targets for utilization and report on progress toward your goals. Share results and key learnings with both managers and employees annually, and solicit feedback to continually improve your program and participation levels.
Find ways to recognize employees who take advantage of professional development benefits through both formal and informal channels. For example, you might have the CEO shout-out teams with the highest participation rates on Slack or in a company meeting. Additionally, consider including professional development-focused goals as part of annual objective setting, performance reviews, and promotion planning.
By implementing each of these strategies effectively, you can ensure your employee-directed development program launches with a bang – instead of landing with a thud.