Learning & Development

Employee-led learning & why a bottom-up approach works

Employee-led learning has a lot of potential benefits; is your organization taking advantage of them? From catering to different learning styles to lowering the burden on human resources and learning and development departments, this alternate approach to the more traditional, top-down processes can revolutionize how your organization reaches its training goals. Why limit these benefits to just training, though? Employee-led learning can help with engagement, retention, and more, but how about empowering your team members to grow a wholly employee-led culture?

We’ve said it before, and we’ll definitely say it again: the transition to hybrid work represents an incredibly exciting opportunity to transform the way workplaces work for people. Rather than returning to ‘business as usual’, we can instead imagine a new way of doing that delivers a world-class employee experience to every worker, no matter where they’re based. Shifting more of our processes to be employee-led rather than top-down can help us get there, and quickly, too. In the following sections, we’ll outline what’s been demonstrated so far around the outcomes of employee-led learning, then discuss ways to encourage more employee-led efforts throughout your organization.

How employee-led learning can help you achieve your training goals

Way back in 2017, McKinsey estimated that 375 million workers (14% of the global workforce) would have to change their occupations or acquire new skills prior to 2030 due to advances in technology and automation. In the early, pre-pandemic days of 2020, they further reported that 87% of executives were already experiencing skills gaps or expected to within a few years. Unfortunately, at that time fewer than half of the respondents had a plan to address the problem, and the pandemic has only accelerated the issue.

During the pandemic, employees had to adapt to a lot of new changes virtually overnight. While some companies engaged in extensive training to ensure that everyone was up-to-speed, many employees had to self-train on a number of fronts. Although live walkthroughs can help, employees who had to use new software every day in order to complete job functions that previously occurred in person had to learn as they went along in most cases. Essentially, remote working has been hailed as “an overwhelming success for employers”, and much of the learning process was employee-led as workers retreated to their homes and sorted out the logistics on their own. We already know this can work, and with asynchronous working expected to become the norm post-pandemic, live, company-wide, in-person training is really no longer viable. That’s where employee-led learning comes in.

As a final point, the recruiting firm Hays surveyed 23,000 respondents and found that while many are certainly seeking specific knowledge and expertise, the top skills employers are looking for are soft skills. This was true as far back as 2018, though. When LinkedIn Learning published their 2018 Workplace Learning Trends Report, their findings showed that the most in-demand skills were leadership, communication, collaboration, and only then role-specific skills. Unsurprisingly, training for these soft skills was the most important focus for talent development efforts as well.

From the employee side, the data also showed that 68% of employees prefer to learn at work, 58% of them prefer to learn at their own pace, and 49% prefer to learn at the point of need. In other words, employees want to learn, and they want to be able to direct their own learning so that they can learn what they need when they need it. This makes sense given that 94% of employees say they would stay with an employer longer if the company invested in their career, but their main reason for not learning as much as they’d like is that they don’t have the time. Converting to an employee-led learning approach meets all of these employee needs and empowers team members to work on difficult topics like soft skills in an environment in which, and at a time when they feel comfortable.

How to integrate more employee-led initiatives into your post-pandemic workplace

Now that we’ve explored why employee-led learning makes sense, all that’s left is to find the right systems to enable it at your organization, right? That may be the best choice for you at this point however, why not consider taking things a step or two further? Why should learning have all the employee-led fun? Below, we’ve listed a handful of other ways you can integrate employee-led efforts into your employee experience.

  • Employee resource groups/affinity networks. ERGs are one of the most obvious employee-led efforts you can integrate into your strategy. This employee-led approach dates all the way back to the 1960s, and can confer a wide array of benefits. ERGs are typically part of an organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy, but affinity networks in general can be expanded to encompass many different employee needs and interests. By empowering employees to form groups around identities, interests, or needs that are important to them, you can deliver a more tailored employee experience that meets more employees’ needs without increasing your overhead. Employee-led communities can help better support working parents, assist with mental health needs, or just provide social and/or recreational opportunities with colleagues, so they can create a great deal of value across the organization.
  • Innovation. Companies like Google understand that if you give your employees space to innovate, your organization will ultimately come out on top. Their ‘20-percent time’ policy, in which employees are allotted 20% of their workweek to focus on projects they believe will benefit Google, has spawned such advances as Google News, AdSense, and Gmail. Innovation is crucial to staying on the cutting edge of any industry, and if you’ve hired well, you likely have an untapped brain trust languishing amongst your employee ranks. Make the most of that resource! In addition to employee-led learning, employee-led innovation efforts can supercharge your company’s products and services and help you succeed in the long-term. If Google’s approach seems like too much to start off with, consider giving employees one day per month to work on bottom up innovation projects with their colleagues. Still too daunting? Even running hackathons once or twice per year for employee-led innovations can make a radical difference in whether your company remains a leader, or falls behind.
  • Social impact. As we recently discussed on this blog, social impact is extremely important to employees, and even more so after the pandemic. Why should you invest time and money in top-down fundraising or service activities though, when many employees may not be interested in the cause you chose? Instead, empowering employee-led impact efforts can ensure higher levels of team buy-in alongside greater payoff in terms of engagement and retention as employees get to support organizations whose work they are truly passionate about. Plus, your company will benefit from a significantly stronger employer brand boost as employees post and talk about the great charity work they get to do as part of their jobs.
  • COVID-19 safety. Returning to the office in whole or in part represents uncharted territory for every company. Why not involve your employees in your planning and execution to ensure your return is a success? Taking an employee-led approach to COVID-19 safety entails asking employees their opinions on when and how to return, integrating them into the work of deciding on processes and policies, and having volunteers ready to help out on the ground as employees come back on site. You’ll need employee buy-in to make this effort a success either way; you might as well involve them in all aspects of the process to lighten some of the burden on you.

Employee-led learning has been around for years, and it’s because it offers a flexible framework within which every team member is given the tools they need to succeed. As we envision a whole new world of work though, why wouldn’t we apply this intuitive framework to more initiatives such as diversity, equity, and inclusion; innovation; social impact; and more? It can be daunting to imagine putting more power in the hands of employees, but it can also be liberating as it frees you up to spend your time on more pressing matters. If you’re interested in exploring the employee-led approach but would like to start off with some guardrails, we invite you to check out Workrowd’s platform. We’ve got a central hub for all the initiatives employees can get involved in, but we’ve also included straightforward administrator settings and on-demand analytics so you can always monitor how things are going. If you’d like to learn more, drop us a line at; we’d love to hear from you.

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