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Making Time for Learning When No One Has Time Six ways leaders can take a more creative and flexible approach to professional development during this challenging time.

By Shelley Osborne Edited by Anna Wahrman

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

10'000 Hours | Getty Images

Remember when you could toss out the saying "There are never enough hours in the day" with a smile? Now it's really no joke. The stark reality of fitting in work around childcare, eldercare and continued uncertainty has left us all feeling scattered and frazzled. A recent survey conducted by Udemy, where I am the VP of Learning, revealed that the majority of the workforce — 58 percent of all employees and 74 percent of parents — say they are working harder now than they did before the pandemic started.

While business leaders work to support employees to survive through these times, is it possible to prioritize professional development that could help employees actually thrive in this environment? I think it is. Employee development is not just a "nice to have" — it's a proven business driver that companies ignore at their peril. In today's circumstances, how can business leaders and organizations innovate to make learning more accessible to employees who now have less time and more to do? Consider these six approaches.

Related: This Is How to Boost Employee Retention With Lifelong Learning

1. Evaluate existing training practices

An important first step is to evaluate what you're currently asking your employees to do in terms of training or continuous learning. How much training, how often, how long? Is the training relevant to the individual? Because we all have less time, you'll want to be very sensitive to ensuring that the training or learning experience is worth employees' time. Maybe it doesn't make sense for everyone on the team to attend that four-hour webinar. What can you cut out of your existing training schedule? Can you reduce workload to make more time for training? Be empathetic to people's very real situations. Also, ask employees what they want to learn in order to personalize training and make it more relevant and timely for each individual.

2. Learn in the flow of work

When it's difficult to make extra time for learning, one smart way to fit it in is to incorporate it into the flow of work. In other words, while working, employees can readily access training and learning resources as needed (e.g., on an online learning platform). This approach makes learning directly relevant to getting the job done in the moment and feels helpful, versus an additional task or a waste of time. Also, learning in the flow of work eliminates roadblocks such as having to schedule and wait for a training that might be useful now.

Related: How to Create a Learning Culture in the Workplace

3. Schedule some time

On the flip side, while learning in the flow of work might be an ideal scenario, you may also need to schedule regular time specifically for learning and development to ensure it happens. A benefit to this approach is that it helps signal that learning is part of the company culture and it's OK to take a break from daily tasks to do it.

For example, at Udemy, we have a monthly DEAL Hour, or "drop everything and learn" hour that normalizes pausing daily tasks to take an online course. The DEAL Hour helps employees recognize that it's part of their job to learn and that learning is part of work. Like learning in the flow of work, DEAL works well when employees have easy access to learning content and can make this time relevant and productive for themselves.

4. Think like a marketer

The increase in video calls has definitely decreased employees' willingness to sit through another webinar. Also, not everyone on your team is a self-driven learner, so it's important to put on your marketing hat and figure out how to get more employees to buy into training and learning. Are there more creative ways to build awareness (like raffles or contests) and keep people engaged (even if they're simultaneously making lunch)? It's also important to clearly highlight the value and benefits of training and possibly incentivize employees to do it — before, during and after learning/training — to keep them interested.

Also, just as marketers track campaigns, use data to optimize your programs. Understanding behavior and usage trends can help inform which trainings and courses best meet employees' needs or wants, which to recommend to others, what course sequence best supports a learning path, etc.

Related: Why Continuous Learning Is Critical for Entrepreneurs and Their Teams

5. Lead by example

Research shows that employees often feel that their organization doesn't trust them. With recent layoffs and reorgs, this feeling may be exacerbated now, making employees feel like they always need to look busy and can't take a "break" to learn. Learning shouldn't be thought of as a break but as an essential part of any career. "Signal value" can go a long way in creating a learning culture. For my team, I expect and try to model that learning is part of the job. I start team meetings by asking about a recent "win" and a "learning" from each person. As a business leader, you can lead by example by regularly talking about the learning you're doing and by asking others to share what they've learned lately.

6. Embrace agility and creativity

With so many challenges competing for business leaders' attention, it would be easy to give up on learning and training now. I would caution against dropping development as ultimately it will only decrease your organization's competitiveness. Instead, I encourage leaders to take a more creative and flexible approach to making space for training and learning and take time to acknowledge and recognize the effort that employees are putting in to continue to develop themselves and their careers despite today's very real challenges.

Shelley Osborne

Author of The Upskilling Imperative

Shelley Osborne is an ed tech and learning expert. She was recently the VP of learning at Udemy, where she led the learning strategy and upskilling of employees globally. She is the author of the McGraw Hill book 'The Upskilling Imperative: Five Ways to Make Learning Core to the Way We Work.'

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