How firms are focusing on L&D to tackle the talent crisis

Purposeful learning and development perks can boost employee development, but employers must avoid gimmicks and give staff the time and space they need


From personal learning funds to curiosity budgets, the race to attract and retain employees has created numerous learning and development (L&D) benefits. But are such individual perks the best way to upskill teams and win over talent that will stay and grow? 

It’s no secret that organisations globally are grappling with skills shortages, which are compounded by rapid workplace transformation and employee expectations. Against this backdrop, “people are asking for concrete perks around development,” says Carole Harden, director of people at Green Park executive recruitment consultancy.

Humans are not computers you insert a learning chip into

“The question around development has always existed, with people wanting to know how they will grow in their role, but the difference is that now they are articulating it more,” she adds.

With the economy in post-pandemic turmoil, employees from junior team members up to boardroom level are looking for ways to secure their future. The focus on personal wellbeing and autonomy is also fuelling a drive for fulfilment, as lines blur between the workplace and home.

Personal learning budgets offer a variety of L&D materials giving people a choice on how their package is spent. This means the focus can turn to encouraging a learning environment that values those who want to “improve and develop an active mind”, says Harden.

Planning for success

But with a vast range of potential options, how can employees be empowered to take control of their own learning? The answer lies in creating a culture of learning and curiosity, explains Sukhvinder Pabial, senior learning strategist at consultancy Challenging Frontiers.

This starts with purposeful conversations around an employee’s learning needs and desires, as well as the organisation’s skills gaps. “Employees must see leaders committing to it as well,” notes Pabial. “Learning has to be embedded in the culture, along with ensuring that people have the time to dedicate to their own L&D.”

Time pressures are one of the greatest hurdles, according to the L&D Global Sentiment Survey 2022 from Donald H Taylor. Learner engagement is critical in ensuring L&D’s place among competing priorities as employees are overwhelmed with tasks and feel exhausted, according to the survey.

That learner engagement must come from actively promoting the L&D offer and focusing on positive outcomes, says Pabial. Otherwise, it’s easy for budgets to go unused.

“It’s helpful to let people know that learning achievements are being celebrated,” he says.

“That has a positive impact on other team members, who see learning being rewarded and recognised.”

This approach is taken by social media management platform Buffer. The company overhauled its L&D stipend after much of the budget was unused because staff forgot it existed or felt they lacked capacity outside their daily work.

Renaming the individual budgets as growth mindset funds and upping their value to around $1,000 per teammate, the company also increased flexibility around how the money could be spent.

Buffer began sending out a quarterly review of how the money was used – including conferences, apps, subscriptions and leadership coaching – as a reminder to staff, resulting in a 50% jump in employee involvement.

“The growth mindset fund does often come up in interviews with applicants and in my experience is received well,” says Hailley Griffis, Buffer’s head of communications and content.

Making the time 

Lori Niles-Hofmann is co-founder of edtech consultancy NilesNolen and has worked with brands including HSBC, Novartis and Vodafone. She believes giving employees some guidance can help empower them to take control of their learning. This comes down to having a strong L&D strategy entwined with the wider organisational goals.

“We must give people the conditions to be able to learn,” explains Niles-Hofmann. “Humans are not computers you insert a learning chip into. Excitement and motivation come down to the quality of learning on offer and how we treat the concept of learning.”

For example, ask whether you’re allowing time for learning. While it’s one thing for a company to pay for learning, it’s not a perk if employees are expected to do it on a Sunday night.  “Learning is a tax on people’s time and emotions and you want to make sure they get a good return on that,” says Niles-Hofmann.

Providing quality content that people “actually benefit from” will help foster a learning culture, while investing in a career coach for employees can help guide them towards the right L&D content.

Employees are also empowered when they have opportunities to use their new skills, with real projects allowing for the “creativity and ingenuity” sparked by learning to flourish, emphasises Pabial.

Preparing for the future

Research for LinkedIn’s 2022 Workplace Learning Report revealed that only a fifth of learners believe their “organisation’s leadership values learning more now than ever”. Yet there is an urgent need for companies to future-proof by building skills in areas that are lacking, as well as attracting and retaining motivated employees.

Curated workspace company Huckletree offers a “personal curiosity budget” to inspire employees to pursue learning goals.

“Perks that focus on personal growth, learning or empower true flexibility are far more attractive to top talent than gimmicks,” explains Huckletree CEO and co-founder Gaby Hersham. “Not only do they help people skill up for the role, but they speak to a bigger commitment around employee curiosity, knowledge and connection with the world – qualities that are so valuable as you’re scaling a business.”

Work that demands more “out-of-the-ordinary creative attention” is where much of the value lies, she says, and where people start to turn into leaders. “Helping your people to stay curious, lift their heads out from behind screens and invest in their own growth can make or break your business.”

With Gartner research finding 91% of HR leaders are concerned about employee turnover in the coming months, attraction and retention is a business imperative.

“I’d like to think as new leaders emerge and we see more start-ups and businesses created, we’ll see leaders more engaged in looking after the whole person, with autonomy to make their own decisions in the best way for them around their learning, skilling and career pathway,” says Pabial.