Make light work of learning

Learning at Work Day this Thursday is an opportunity for employers to make skills and training more fun.

More than 6,000 organisations and at least a million employees across the UK will take part in this Thursday’s Learning at Work Day (20 May), which aims to promote the benefits to both employee and employer of learning new skills or brushing up on existing ones.

While some of the activities planned by participating companies will be work-related, such as job swaps and IT training, others will be purely fun. Who would envisage one of the country’s largest mutual building societies running flamenco dancing classes? Or staff at Birmingham International Airport learning about the finer points of hanging baskets?

Learning at Work Day is organised by the Campaign for Learning, an independent voluntary organisation that promotes life-long learning. The day was launched in 1999 as part of Adult Learners’ Week, and encourages companies to demonstrate their commitment to staff development by giving people a break from routine and the opportunity to learn something new.

Participation in the day has grown significantly over the past five years as more companies realise the motivational benefits of learning at work.

“Effective informal learning and skill sharing can be done with minimal cost and disruption, and just one day spent focusing on learning can lead to highly creative future development for both organisations and individuals,” says Campaign for Learning chief executive Susie Parsons. “Learning at Work Day is a good chance to give informal, inexpensive ‘taster’ training sessions in the workplace, to involve staff in passing on their skills and expertise to others; to arrange job swaps with outside organisations; and to organise job shadowing.”

And there is certainly a need for many companies to do more to offer learning opportunities. Last year’s National Employees Skills Survey revealed that although three-quarters of organisations ran an annual performance review system, only 39 per cent had a training plan and only 31 per cent had a training budget.

While Learning at Work Day can highlight the need for and enjoyment of learning through non-business-related taster courses, one of its key aims is to help employers develop organisational learning strategies that relate to business needs. This, the Campaign for Learning argues, will not only improve the knowledge and performance of an organisation, but have a positive impact on staff motivation.

Providing opportunities for learning at work can also enhance an employer’s reputation, making it easier to attract and retain the best job candidates. According to a Campaign for Learning Survey conducted this year, 93 per cent of staff working for an employer with a strong learning culture would recommend that employer to a friend whereas only 47 per cent of staff working for an employer with no learning culture would do the same.

Learning at Work Day is typically organised by training and development departments, together with HR. The taster courses on offer can be unrelated to work, be job-related or tie in with the campaign’s aim of improving basic numeracy and literacy skills. Nearly seven million people in the UK have difficulty with reading, writing or maths, including one-sixth of graduates. But because people are encouraged to think about themselves rather than point the finger at others, Learning at Work Day is a way of improving basic skills without the fear of being stigmatised or singled out.

Nationwide appeal

One company with few doubts about the value of learning at work is financial services company Nationwide, which employees 16,000 people across 700 UK locations.

Nationwide places much emphasis on its corporate culture and people management skills and has participated in Learning at Work Day since 2000.

“We see it as a Learning at Work week,” says John Wrighthouse, head of training and development. “It helps employees see the value of training and see that while we all know about the formal ways of learning, it also happens all over the place and in many different ways.

“Learning to learn is the key and we use the day to help people realise the value of learning. It’s also fun – we have flamenco dancers and gospel singers or the opportunity to try sign language – it’s a real mix,” he says.

At Nationwide’s two large call centres, in Northampton and Swindon, Learning at Work is a big event. For the price of a coffee (donated to the Macmillan Nurses) employees can try plate painting, dancing, singing or playing an instrument.

“People were a bit sceptical to begin with and the scheme started off quite formally and centred on the Nationwide products,” says Wrighthouse. “But every year we are moving on to things we would never have thought of, although there are more serious things people can do too.

“We are keen to get the branches involved, but that is more of a challenge as it’s easier where there is a collective group of people. The branches have to fit Learning at Work around their work patterns, which is one of the reasons we run it for a week rather than just a day.”

Nationwide’s training and development team along with internal communications organise the week, together with the business’s ‘Pride Partners’ – internal individuals who are deemed to be doing a good job in helping Nationwide achieve its values.

“Learning at Work helps people develop themselves – it’s fun, it’s noisy and it gets people involved,” says Wrighthouse. “We don’t measure the success of Learning at Work directly, because it is part of an overall strategy. But we ask employees to complete an attitude survey with several questions about the depth of training and its value within the company. Learning at Work is one small piece of the jigsaw.”

Wrighthouse has no doubts about the tangible benefits of keeping staff motivated through training and learning.

“At 8 per cent, our staff turnover is half the 18-19 per cent average in the financial services sector and we never have to advertise jobs in Swindon,” he says. “Everyone has access to training schemes, across five main areas including ‘making the most of my talent’, coaching and business performance. Employees can assess themselves in each of the five areas and work out a training scheme to suit themselves.”

The most successful Learning at Work Days are those that have the commitment from everyone within the organisation, from the chief executive down. Commitment from managers is particularly critical as their example influences how staff respond. Persuading line managers to release staff to participate can also be challenging. Campaign for Learning recommends talking to managers about how a Learning at Work Day could be helpful, or involving them in a learning activity.

Airport’s runaway success

Birmingham International Airport has run a Learning at Work Day since 1999. The 750 staff on-site – as well as staff from other companies operating within the airport – are offered bite-sized courses as well as details of all the training opportunities the company offers.

“Gone are the days when people leave school and think they then stop learning,” says training and development manager Jayne Howle. “People are learning all the time and it’s important to keep up the skills levels of our people. Things are changing all the time and our industry is changing.”

Areas addressed in previous years include work-life balance, but staff have also had the chance to make hanging baskets or have an Indian head massage. The latter proved so popular that treatments are now offered to staff on a regular basis.

“You have to keep learning high on the agenda, it keeps the brain active,” says Howle. “People are also kept motivated and start to develop a learning culture.”

This year’s Learning at Work Day at the airport will focus on a Visual Impairment Workshop as part of the company’s on-going ‘Disability Action Strategy Plan’, which helps employees empathise with disabled people.

“The course is open to all, even those not working in customer-facing roles as we are often approached by customers when we go into the terminal because of our ID badges,” says Howle.

The day course has been advertised throughout the airport via e-mail, posters and various noticeboards and although it is organised by training and development, it also has the backing of HR.

“It promotes interest and makes people realise learning can be fun,” says Howle. “It can also encourage them to do something else. For example, since attending a workshop on signing for the deaf, a security guard at the airport has gone on to become an assessor herself. Cultural awareness sessions have led to improvements in airport facilities.

“It’s not easy to equate training in terms of financial gain, but there are customer benefits too,” concludes Howle.

Halifax uses its head

Halifax is another UK-wide company that embraces Learning at Work Day and has done so for the past three years. At its corporate offices in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Halifax, employees will be able to attend one-hour training sessions on a variety of subjects including basic DIY, mind mapping, car maintenance, dance sessions, pilates and first aid.

The company’s training and development function has also organised talks by external people, such as a pilot talking about how altitude determines your attitude, advice on personal presentation from Colour Me Beautiful – a company that gives advice on personal presentation – and weight management sessions from WeightWatchers. There are also introductory sessions on digital photography, interior design, art and design as well as Greek and Spanish. Some sessions are free, while others cost up to £6 per hour, but the point, according to learning and development manager for group functions Jayne Edwards, is that the sessions aren’t work-related.

“It’s about stimulating the mind and creating a culture where the organisation is concerned about your development both in and outside work,” she says. “It’s about stimulating people to think about what they can learn and seeing that the organisation supports them.”

As with many other companies, Learning at Work Day forms just one part of Halifax’s on-going commitment. “We have run our own internal Learning at Work Day,” says Edwards, “and we run different sessions with people coming in, talking about things such as running across the US.”

She says this not only maintains the enthusiasm for learning, but is inspiring. “We are supporting people in their development and not just in work. It’s not necessarily tangible, it’s all about supporting people.”

Raising training’s profile

  • Keep the momentum going throughout the year by using an evaluation form to encourage learners to plan their next step. Reflecting on their learning experience should stimulate a desire to learn more
  • Offer opportunities for learning progression at work. Plan some next steps that will build on Learning at Work Day. Publicise these learning opportunities on the day. consider holding more Learning at Work Days throughout the year
  • Raise awareness of further learning opportunities outside work by inviting local colleges and other learning providers into your workplace to publicise their courses. (see for details)
  • Help staff address difficulties with reading, writing or maths. Learning at Work Day may stimulate staff who have such difficulties into tackling their problem. The on-going Get On campaign motivates individuals into improving these skills (for more information, visit

Source: Campaign for Learning

What did you offer employees?

If you got involved with Learning at Work day, then tell us what you did? E-mail [email protected]

Comments are closed.