Leaders often complain that training employees is expensive—and they’re right. In 2018, U.S. companies spent a combined $87.6 billion on workplace training, according to data platform Statista. At the same time, organizations that prioritize employee development earn median revenues of $169,100 per person, while staff at companies that don’t highlight training make $82,800, as reported by a 2015 study by consulting firm Cornerstone On Demand.
Employees also seek companies that support their growth. In a recent survey, PwC Global asked millennials what they look for in an employer. “Opportunities for career progression” was the number-one response, followed by salary and financial incentives. Excellent training and development programs ranked third on the list.
The findings reveal a fascinating disconnect. We know that training is essential, yet when budgets are tight, it’s one of the first things that a company cuts. I wasn’t thinking about these issues 13 years ago when I started my company, JotForm, but I’ve learned there’s another way forward: nurturing a culture of learning and mentorship.
A strong workforce, combined with on-the-job education, can make training less intensive and time-consuming. It doesn’t always require formal seminars or workshops. And it responds to individual needs, which can dramatically slash costs. Here are a few ways to empower your employees to learn and share knowledge without breaking the bank.
Hire slowly and selectively
Venture-backed companies often use hiring sprees to scale up fast. But if you have the choice, take your time. Look for people who share your values. Watch for kind, curious, knowledgeable applicants—even if they don’t possess every hard skill on your wish list. Hire for attitude, then create internal programs to nurture talent and fill in the gaps.
For example, all our new hires answer at least 100 customer support requests during their first month on the job. We want them to understand our users intimately, what they need, how they struggle, and how we can better serve them. This hands-on training also immerses them in our culture and ensures they’re prepared for any role in the company.
Encourage in-house mentorship
Effective collaboration can move mountains. According to research from UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, organization-wide collaboration—which crosses functions, perspectives, or levels—can boost energy, creativity, and productivity, and lead to happier, less stressed, and more engaged employees. Drawing different people together also keeps knowledge out of silos.
On a tactical level, pair junior team members with more experienced staff, either on a per-project basis or for a set period each week. We call this “copiloting,” and we’ve found that it has helped employees solve problems and hone skills.
At the same time, it’s important not to overburden top employees. Research from Harvard Business Review contributors Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant found that 20 to 35% of value-added collaborations involved just 3-5% of employees.
Make sure that you check in regularly with your mentors to ensure they’re not overwhelmed and can still tackle the work they love. You still need to make sure that you empower them to say no, direct people to online resources or fellow team members, and minimize unexpected disruptions.
In addition to off-the-cuff learning, standardized processes can increase training opportunities. For example, we hire at least 100 interns every summer—many of whom become prized employees who know our organization inside and out.
We also offer a New Grad Training Program, where employees who are just beginning their careers spend four days a week doing support tasks and one day working with a mentor. Participants receive homework and feedback as they gain practical skills. Every six months, they can re-interview for any position in the company.
No two organizations are the same, so you need to assess your training needs and look for creative ways to fulfill them. Once you step out of the traditional “training” mindset, you can begin to see new structures and systems that don’t necessarily come with hefty price tags.
Serve individual needs
Instead of investing in broad, company-wide training efforts, consider a more responsive approach. Send employees to niche courses, sessions, or events. Bring in specialized consultants to work with a core team. Afterward, ask attendees to share what they’ve learned through presentations or project-specific collaborations. Offer training that serves individual needs, but reinforce and reward a culture of cross-pollination.
“Train people well enough so they can leave,” said Virgin founder Richard Branson, “treat them well enough so they don’t want to.” Serving individual needs also means respecting employees as unique, multifaceted people. That could mean offering flexible work hours, providing comprehensive benefits, or paying for conference expenses. And if you’re not sure what teams want, ask them.
Model (and implement) transparency
At the U.S. e-commerce company Zulily, company-wide meetings every two weeks ensure all 3,500 employees know what’s happening in every corner of the brand, from accounts payable to logistics. The sessions also address concerns and realign staff with the company’s mission.
In organizations of all sizes, knowledge often takes many different forms—and a culture of learning doesn’t stop with hands-on skills. Bring your staff inside crucial business decisions and ask for their feedback. Healthy, open communication is one of the best ways to build trust and empower your employees to perform at their best individually and as a team.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.