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Barriers to learning at work and how to overcome them 

SW
Sophia Wichtowska
Mar 17, 2020

As technology advances, learning at work is no longer a luxury. Senior commentators at Deloitte explain that ‘in a competitive external talent market, learning is vital to an organization’s ability to obtain needed skills.’

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Despite this need for employees to engage, there are multiple barriers preventing them from doing so. Here, we look at the challenges associated with learning at work and offer suggestions for how to overcome them.

What is preventing employees from learning?

While online learning tools have made it easier for employees to access study materials appropriate to their needs, it can be difficult for them to make the most of the content available. Even getting started can be a challenge. 

Although some employees won’t have long graduated high school or university, many would have finished formal learning years ago and may need help reconnecting with the process. 

Those in leadership positions are also contending with other hurdles when trying to encourage employees to engage with learning, including: 

  • A lack of sense of community;
  • Employees not connecting to the broader purpose of professional development; 
  • Busy schedules;
  • Noisy office environments;
  • A lack of technical skills;
  • Resistance to change;
  • Overwhelming complexity;
  • An underdeveloped learning culture. 

Working to remove these barriers

Now let’s look in more detail at how organizations can overcome some of these challenges and make learning at work a more realistic goal.

Lack of sense of community

In the modern workplace, access to technology has enabled us to work whenever we want, wherever we want. However, with this shift, the sense of community employees once had at work has diminished. 

Professional development also relies on networks. According to the 70:20:10 model, 20 percent 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 for spontaneous conversations around learning to occur. 

Encourage employees to meet up face-to-face during the learning process. Bringing in a social element will boost motivation and give them a chance to explore any concepts they are finding challenging. 

Lack of purpose

Many employees might also have had negative experiences of learning in the past. School might have been tedious or stressful, and they aren't interested in any more formal study. 

However, for those in leadership positions, it is essential to show that learning today is far removed from the strict classrooms of old. Participants can select the 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 process is far more flexible and personalized, making it more engaging.

It may be a question of attracting staff to learning through marketing and showing them how learning has changed.

Busy schedules

Finding the time for learning is also a significant barrier in a time-poor world. There is always something more pressing to do, and upskilling often sits at the bottom of the pile.

In this working environment, it is crucial for organizations to prioritize learning and to communicate this to employees. 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. 

Industry analyst, Josh Bersin, explains the average employee has only 24 minutes per week for formal learning. While it can be tempting to complete five minutes of study here and there (and ultimately this is better than nothing), setting aside half an hour specifically for learning will help new information or skills to sink in better.

It might also be helpful for team leaders to allocate formal learning time. Perhaps everyone could set aside half an hour before lunch on Fridays, followed by a team lunch. Structured sessions would make the process more social, as well as ease the time pressure on employees. 

Distracting office environment 

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. 

These interruptions can be particularly problematic when it comes to learning, which requires 100% focus and attention to be useful. There is also the constant barrage of emails and messages to attend to, which can easily take up the entire day if unmanaged.  

With this in mind, we suggest the following tips to make your employees’ learning space as quiet and calm as possible: 

  • Avoid all other distractions when learning 
  • Allocate quiet times or areas
  • Book unused meeting rooms 
  • Try to focus on one task at a time
  • Set boundaries with other colleagues
  • Use noise-canceling headphones
  • Learn when working from home

Lack of technical skills

While online courses have simplified the learning process in many ways, platforms can still be clunky and awkward to use. Additionally, some staff members may not have the necessary technical skills. 

If these issues are troubling your employees, it might be helpful to find out which team members are finding the process challenging and why. You can then focus on equipping them with the required knowledge, or show them how to navigate the portals with confidence.

If they are still struggling, it might be more useful for them to read a book or shadow another employee as a way to gain more knowledge. While online learning can streamline the process of workplace learning and improve engagement, don't be afraid to use more traditional tools where appropriate.

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