Running a business is an expensive proposition—and offering a learning stipend to further employee education may seem like an extravagant expenditure. But every company should help employees further their learning goals, both personal and professional.
It sounds a little crazy. Why would you pay for your employees to learn things that they could potentially learn on the job? Or things that don’t affect their jobs in any way whatsoever?
We’ll show you that it’s not only worth your money, but that you’ll get a great return on investing in employee education. And that offering a learning stipend is one of the best ways to do it.
Before we get started, though, let’s look at a company that’s doing employee education right.
How Buffer Gets Employee Education Right
Buffer has developed a reputation for being progressive and not settling for doing things the way they’ve always been done. A great example of that is their unlimited Kindle books perk; employees get a free Kindle when they’re hired and can get any number of books they like, paid for by Buffer.
This is part of Buffer’s learning culture; constant self-improvement is one of the 10 core values of the company. When Buffer was ready to invest more in employee development, they added a monthly learning stipend, giving each employee $20 to spend every month on learning.
It doesn’t have to be on skills related to their job; it could be directly relevant, indirectly relevant, or on something else entirely. In 2017, at least two people at Buffer used their stipend to learn about weaving (we’ll talk about why this is important in a moment). Of course, there was plenty of job-related learning; employees learned about software development, wireframing, leadership, and data science as well.
Buffer isn’t the only company to excel in supporting employee education (Slack also does a great job), but they’re obviously fully committed to enabling employee learning, both on and off the job.
There’s a reason why Buffer is considered both highly successful and progressive.
Taking the Long View (or, The Danger of Specialization)
There’s been a trend over the last several decades to move from well-rounded, generally capable employees to specialized experts. It’s true of education, where students are getting increasingly specialized degrees, and is becoming ever-more true of the professional world, where highly specific skills are valued over well-rounded skillsets.
We get that. It seems like the best investment is to make sure that an employee in any particular position is going to have the greatest knowledge of that particular area.
But that’s a short-term solution. Highly specialized employees are great at doing what they do best, there’s no arguing that. But few positions—especially in today’s quickly changing professional environment, and even more so in the startup world—really only focus on one area. Employees are expected to cooperate, take on new responsibilities, be good communicators, and resist burnout.
Well-rounded employees are likely to be better in all of these areas than specialists. Burnout is an especially poignant issue; well-rounded employees may be more resilient to on-the-job stress. Which could save you a lot of money in the long run; specialized employees can cost up to 400% of their annual salary to replace.
Taking a long-term view helps employers see the importance of continuous learning; happier, more well-rounded employees are highly valuable. Not only are happy employees are more productive, but employees committed to learning and broadening their skillsets are great for companies who are changing or have difficulty finding someone with the exact set of skills necessary for a position. These employees are adaptable, a characteristic that’s often undervalued but extremely important.
In the long term, a well-rounded employee will outperform a highly specialized one. The benefits may be difficult to quantify at first, but the increased resilience, soft skills, and happiness combine to make an asset that’s tough to beat in terms of long-term value. And that well-roundedness will be helped by personal development.
Let’s take a look at the learning stipend, a great way to both attract and foster learning-focused, well-rounded employees.
Burnout is an especially poignant issue; well-rounded employees may be more resilient to on-the-job stress.
Why Pay for Non-Job-Related Learning?
This is likely the first question that many readers will ask in a conversation about learning stipends. Employee education is expensive. Buffer’s $20-per-employee-per-month system costs them $18,000 per year. Slack likely pays even more. What return are they likely to see on that money if employees are pursuing personal learning goals that have no bearing on their jobs?
In short, continuous learning contributes to other factors that improve employee performance. Studies have shown that workplace learning contributes to job satisfaction—and while we aren’t aware of any studies that show a connection between personal learning and job satisfaction or similar factors, there’s no reason to think they aren’t related.
Personal learning encourages self-determination, self-esteem, a sense of efficacy, and a desire for further learning. Buffer sums it up by saying that personal development creates a “more well-rounded individual.”
And while it’s tempting to always aim for specialists in every part of your team, the value of well-rounded, curious, self-teaching employees can’t be overstated. These are the employees that are going to be high performers, no matter if they’re at the executive level or working the front desk. That’s where you’re going to see a big return on your investment.
Let’s not forget job satisfaction, either; offering to help employees learn and meet their personal goals is a great way to show your employees that they’re valuable to you, and that their personal lives matter. There’s no better recipe for job satisfaction or retention. The longer you retain these hard-working, self-motivating, curious employees, the more benefits you’ll see.
It’s a repeating cycle.
Remember that it’s important to let employees decide where to spend their stipend. Even if you prefer that they spend it on professional training instead of personal, give your employees the freedom to choose what they want to learn about. Be open to indirectly related areas of training, or even professional development that seems completely unrelated.
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