Continuing employee development in the face of budget cuts

COVID-19 reductions don’t have to mean that employees stop learning.
Continuing employee development in the face of budget cuts

When Michael Griffiths talks with business leaders about their company’s professional development goals, one of the first things he asks is: “Do you know what you’re spending on learning? And how do you know that?”

As the principal lead of Deloitte’s Learning Consulting Practice in North America, Griffiths has seen the impact training programmes can have on a company’s success and how the investment helps motivate and retain employees.

But lately, he has seen business leaders question how they can afford critical training while dealing with the financial strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re having lots of questions from clients around this space,” Griffiths said. “I think the mandate is there for development. The challenge is how to do it.”

Griffiths and Susanna Gallani, an assistant professor in accounting and management at Harvard Business School, offered the following advice for how to provide employee development during tight budget times.

Think about the end goal, not just the budget

If business leaders are debating whether to provide professional development to their staff, Gallani urges them to focus on the big picture and not just the current economic strain.

The act of investing in your employees communicates hope and builds trust for the future. Employees who don’t feel valued will run for the door in a time of crisis, according to Gallani.

“To the extent possible, you must communicate to your people that they’re important to you,” she said. “If you stop investing in them when you have the opportunity and in a time of crisis, you’re really sending a bad message. It feels like you don't care about them or the value that they can add.”

However, if a company is simultaneously laying people off and providing professional development to the remaining employees, that needs to be handled delicately and communicated very carefully, she said.

Audit your training budget

First, companies should take stock of what training programmes they use, how much training costs, and how much they're spending per employee on professional development.

When Griffiths asks business leaders how much they’re spending on training programmes, many are shocked to find they’re paying more than they thought, he said.

It’s not unusual to find a large or midsize company using multiple vendors for the same kind of training or having multiple contracts with the same vendor at different price points within the company. That lack of communication between a company’s divisions can cause the overall training budget to bloat.

Streamlining the budget by carefully selecting vendors and using the same contracts and training programmes company-wide can help save money. Businesses can also curate free content online, such as YouTube videos, TED Talks, and similar resources, to offer personalised training to employees.

Develop employees as people, not just their skills

Training employees on specific skills is very important. Deloitte’s 2020 Global Human Capital Trends report found that 53% of respondents said that half or all of their workforce would need to be reskilled in the next three years.

But more business leaders are saying that’s not enough — they want to help employees learn how to be more resilient, flexible, and adaptable. Those enduring human qualities are even more important during the pandemic as more people work remotely and have to adjust to new working conditions, according to Griffiths.

Deloitte’s 2020 report found that 52% of respondents want to hire people with enduring qualities and 48% want to hire for skills.

“That is unusual,” said Griffiths, who also said the focus has shifted more towards hiring great learners versus people with specific skills.

Find experts inside your organisation

One of the easiest — and cheapest — ways to offer professional development is to find experts within your own company and ask them to train their colleagues.

“This is a great moment to teach each other,” said Gallani, who focuses on incentive and performance management at Harvard and has studied knowledge sharing. “It really doesn’t cost you much, other than people’s time. … That also creates the sense of team and the idea that we are in this together, which could be very important in a moment where we’re all isolated.”

In order to share knowledge, people need two things — opportunity and motivation. Business leaders need to empower and incentivise their employees to share their areas of expertise, according to Gallani.

“Recognising that somebody’s a master at something is very rewarding,” she said. But leaders should understand if some employees are hesitant to share what they know.

“Sometimes knowledge is a treasure,” Gallani said. “It's a competitive advantage within the organisation. So very talented people might be reticent to sharing that knowledge because that's what makes them special. So, we need to work very carefully on the motivation for that knowledge-sharing activity.”

Now is a great time to offer professional development because of the changed pace of business. It can be a time to regroup, refocus, and do training that will make the company stronger, according to Gallani.

“Every crisis ends,” she said. “This is an opportunity for you to set yourself up to come up on the other end swinging.”

Kelly Hinchcliffe is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at