Like it or not, barriers are a natural part of life. Things are rarely as simple or as straightforward as we want them to be. Whether there's a trial to pass or an obstacle to overcome, barriers often get in the way of our best-laid plans. However, these challenges make success all the more rewarding. And workplace learning is no exception.
As technology continues to advance, learning at work is no longer an optional luxury. It is an essential benefit that no team can do without. Senior commentators at Deloitte explain that "in a competitive external talent market, learning is vital to an organisation’s ability to obtain needed skills."
Despite this, multiple barriers prevent employees from engaging in workplace learning. From time to access to a lack of technical skills, we'll analyse the most common barriers to learning at work and offer practical suggestions for how to overcome them.
If you wanted to learn a new skill at work tomorrow, would you know where to begin? Does your company have clearly defined processes for workplace learning and development? Does your boss encourage upskilling, or see it as a waste of time? Does your company foster a culture of learning, where employees feel safe and comfortable exploring new skills? Do you have the appropriate access and training to make the most of your organisation's LMS?
In theory, every business should want to encourage its employees to learn. After all, IBM finds that every dollar invested in online learning results in $30 worth of productivity. In practice, these are just a few of the most common barriers that get in the way.
In a 2022 study published in Educational Philosophy, Sebastian Anselmann explains that barriers to learning come in many shapes and sizes. He says, "barriers can occur on the individual, team or organisational level. Research indicates that motivational factors, social interactions, the general structure or equipment of the workplace, and further career development can all be learning barriers. In turn, these barriers can be external, internal, or refer to problems with organisational fit."
Thus, while online learning tools have made it easier than ever for employees to access study materials that are appropriate to their needs, barriers still abound. According to the Learning and Work Institute, just 17% of people say they face no barriers to learning at work. This leaves the remaining 83% experiencing the following barriers to learning:
Even getting started with workplace learning can be a daunting challenge. Although some employees won’t have long graduated from high school or university, many would have finished formal learning years ago and may need help reconnecting with the process. Like any other muscle, your brain needs constant exercise and stimulation, so it can take a while to get back into the rhythm of learning.
And these issues are just the tip of the iceberg! Other common hurdles that prevent employees from engaging in workplace learning include:
As you can see, there is no shortage of barriers to learning at work. So, the question becomes, how can businesses overcome these barriers and see their learning culture thrive?
Now that we understand some of the most common barriers to learning at work, let’s look at how organisations can overcome these challenges and make learning at work a more realistic and sustainable goal.
In the modern workplace, access to technology has enabled us to work whenever we want, wherever we want. For many, remote work has been a blessing. However, with this shift, the sense of community that employees once experienced at work has diminished.
Professional learning and development relies on networks. According to the 70:20:10 model, 20% of all learning occurs through incidental social interactions. Today, there are many more ways to communicate (messaging platforms, email, video calls, etc.) but fewer opportunities to have spontaneous conversations about learning.
To overcome this barrier, it may be beneficial to encourage employees to meet up face-to-face throughout the learning process. Bringing in a social element to workplace learning will boost motivation and give learners a chance to explore any concepts they find challenging.
Many employees might have had negative experiences of learning in the past. School might have been tedious or stressful, a previous boss might have discouraged workplace learning, or they might be hesitant to undertake more formal study.
For those in leadership positions, it is essential to show employees that modern learning has come a long way from the strict classrooms and rigid rules of the past. Learners can now select content that is relevant to them, as and when they need to. Alternatively, they can work with their colleagues to complete courses in groups. The learning process is far more flexible, targeted, and personalised, making it significantly more engaging.
It may be a question of attracting staff to engage with workplace learning by showing them how much learning has changed. Learning doesn't have to be dull and stressful — it can be engaging and rewarding!
Ultimately, it all comes down to building a strong, robust learning culture, where employees are rewarded for seeking new skills and knowledge. For tips on how to achieve this, check out our article on creating a sustainable learning culture.
Finding the time for learning is also a significant barrier in a time-poor world. There is always something more pressing to do, so upskilling tends to get pushed to the bottom of the pile.
Industry analyst Josh Bersin explains the average employee has only 24 minutes per week for formal learning. What's more, while 94% of workers say they see the benefit of making time for learning, just 49% make time to do so. Further, a recent survey found that 61% of employees think that time is the biggest barrier to their development. Other common barriers to workplace learning include money and a lack of formal direction. Clearly, employees struggle to find the time for workplace learning.
In this working environment, organisations must prioritise learning. More importantly, they must tell employees that learning is a priority, not an afterthought. If staff understand that their development is integral to company strategy and that it is valued, they are far more likely to set aside the time for it.
While it can be tempting to complete five minutes of study here and there (and ultimately this is better than nothing), employees should set aside dedicated blocks of time to focus on workplace learning. As usual, this is easier said than done.
Finding time for workplace learning should be a top-down process, with managers and team leaders encouraging everyone to find time for learning. If your manager tells you to set aside time for learning, you are far more likely to do so than if you are left to find time for learning independently.
Managers and leaders must set a positive example to foster a robust learning culture. For example, team leaders could encourage everyone to set aside half an hour before lunch on Fridays, followed by a team lunch to debrief and share what they learned. Structured sessions can make the process more social, while also easing the time pressure on employees.
Perhaps the most significant barrier to learning is finding a space to focus and get started. Although the standard working environment has changed considerably to suit the needs of millennial employees, it can still be challenging to work uninterrupted. Offices are open-plan, and there is a consensus that it’s ok to speak to somebody at their desk.
In fact, Time Magazine finds that the average office worker is interrupted a whopping 56 times per day! It's hard to find time to complete all your work in between these interruptions, let alone carve out extra time for learning.
Interruptions can be particularly problematic for learning, which requires 100% focus and attention. According to one study, it takes the average employee 25 minutes and 26 seconds to completely refocus after being distracted. This lack of focus time makes workplace learning nearly impossible. Imagine trying to learn a complex, intricate new skill, only to have your concentration broken every few minutes. Worse still, it takes over 20 minutes for you to completely refocus! Clearly, this is far from the ideal learning environment.
With this in mind, we suggest using the following tips to make your employees’ learning space as quiet and calm as possible:
For more ideas on how to reclaim your focus time, see our article on reducing interruptions.
While online courses have simplified the learning process in many ways, some platforms can still be clunky and awkward to use. Additionally, some staff members — particularly older ones who aren't digital natives — may not have the necessary technical skills to access and operate their company's online learning platform.
This should come as no surprise, as digital literacy expert Elizabeth Marsh recently found that 88% of organisations have not taken any action to tackle their employees’ lack of digital skills.
If these issues are troubling your employees, then this is an excellent opportunity to practice upskilling. Focus on equipping your employees with the required knowledge, access, and skills to navigate online learning portals with confidence. Don't simply assume that everyone is starting from the same base of technical skills and knowledge!
For tips on improving your team's digital literacy, see our article on the importance of digital literacy for your workforce.