Few factors can have a greater impact on a company’s success than providing employees with learning opportunities.
In fact, a recent study found that when companies offer comprehensive training programs, they have 218% higher income per employee than companies without formalized training. These companies also enjoy a 24% higher profit margin.
That’s a pretty substantial lead, and training programs aren’t even the only way companies can foster a learning environment. Regardless of the how, one thing is certain—leaders in the workplace have a responsibility to give their employees time for deep learning.
This became abundantly clear during a recent interview I conducted with Cal Newport, best-selling author and Georgetown professor, as well as my conversation with Mark Moses, founding partner and CEO of CEO Coaching International. In a world filled with disruptive business ideas, creating deep learning opportunities could be one of the most valuable investments a company can make.
1. Cut The Clutter
In Newport’s seminal book Deep Work, one of his main proposals was that large chunks of uninterrupted work are crucial for producing great results. Today, however, our constant interaction with digital tools—both within and outside the workplace—fuels distractions that limit opportunities for deep learning and deep work.
More and more people are starting to recognize this.
“People aren’t angry at the particular behaviors they’re doing when they’re looking at their screen. Their real issue is with how much time they’re spending doing this. It’s much more about autonomy than it is usefulness,” Newport explains.
He continues, “What people have begun to notice in the last year or two, is that they’re using these things, looking at their screens more than they know is useful, more than they know is healthy, to the exclusion of things that they know for a fact are more important to them. They’re also starting to feel increasingly manipulated. Their mood is really affected by these screens.”
The small, everyday act of liking a post on Facebook isn’t what’s creating the problem. It’s the large-scale loss of more important activities that has the biggest negative effect. This is especially true in the workplace.
Needless to say, business leaders need to enforce policies that limit the spread of distractions in the workplace. But leaders should also be aware of other activities (like unwanted interruptions) that can inhibit learning and work opportunities.
“Leaders should be respectful of their employees’ work time and trust them to use it wisely,” Moses says.
“An email pop-up or a cubicle visit at the wrong moment could derail someone’s train of thought and set a project back in ways you might not understand. Allow your employees to have distraction-free time so they can work on solutions without fear of getting interrupted. You hired the best employees. Now get out of their way and don’t distract them, especially not by micro-managing them.”
2. Offer Engaging Learning Opportunities
Everyone has different ways in which they learn—and savvy business leaders understand that the occasional monthly lecture typically isn’t enough to help employees expand their skills.
“In our work, we’ve found that offering a wide variety of engaging learning opportunities is crucial for stimulating innovative thinking,” explains Moses. “The best CEOs do much more than bring in an occasional guest lecturer. They do group excursions to give team members opportunities for experiential learning. They help employees with continuing education. Most deep learning will take place outside the office—help your staff find and take advantage of those opportunities.”
When such experiences are promoted by leadership, employees will be naturally drawn to the deep learning opportunities that most appeal to them. This fosters greater engagement and innovation so employees can develop the skills they need to be better contributors at work.
3. Create The Right Environment
Another interesting idea from Newport came at the very end of our conversation. When asked about the greatest investment he’s made for his career, he shared, “We moved to a smaller town near where we used to live outside of Washington, D.C. that has two things that are really important from a writing perspective.”
He explained, “One, it’s an old, 120-year-old house that has a cool old study where I invested to have a library-style table placed. I’ve essentially replicated inside my house, the sort of old library study rooms where I used to read and think as a college student. And then two, this is an incredibly walkable town. Lots of long sidewalks with no cross streets and hundred-year-old trees giving great cover, so I can walk and think. It’s been great from the perspective of fostering more deep thinking and creative inspiration.”
The big idea here, is that the right environment is essential to creating opportunities for deep learning and deep work.
Business leaders shouldn’t be afraid to let employees personalize their work environments in ways that’ll make it easier for them to learn, focus and produce higher levels of output.
No matter how you choose to emphasize deep learning, what matters most is that you foster an environment where employees can continue to hone their skills and learn new abilities. This will ultimately improve productivity, retention and even idea generation. Moreover, a smarter, more innovative team will benefit your company for many years to come.