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8 affordable employee development ideas for the modern workforce


Employee development is an important part of creating a culture of continuous learning within your organization.

Unfortunately, many small and midsize businesses don’t have a big budget for the latest and greatest advances in employee development. Because of that, leaders often make the wrong assumption that any company-sponsored professional development is financially out of reach.

The good news is, even if your company lacks the deep pockets of a major corporation, you can still absolutely build up your employees’ knowledge and have them learn new skills.

In this article, you will learn:

  • Why career development training programs are important
  • What to do before you start employee training
  • Cost-effective employee development ideas
  • Why it’s important to invest in your people
  • Learning and development must-haves for today’s workforce

Why career development training programs are important

Ideally, learning and development should be a win-win. They can help your employees be more productive and streamline your processes, resulting in a better bottom line. Training also shows employees you value them enough to invest in their development, fostering a sense of validation that can translate into higher levels of satisfaction and retention.

Start with your new hires

Starting with new employees sets the standard on what you expect from your employees. That’s why new employee training is the first building block of developing a company culture of learners excited about their career growth. You’re able to train new hires on the history of the business and what it takes to be successful in their role. Typically, new employees should be in their training period 30 to 90 days. That’s a reasonable time to complete onboarding and for managers to learn what specific skills that employee needs to continue growing.

Before training

1. Evaluate each opportunity and choose wisely

To help you get past the sticker shock of direct and indirect costs associated with employee development, look at it as an investment in your business and your employees. Do your due diligence to get your money’s worth, maximize your return and ensure your employees (and your business) benefit from the experience.

2. Plan specific skills training

Beware of training for training’s sake. Do not blindly throw training at your employees, just so you can check off a box on their annual review. It should have quantifiable value.

What is your vision for your organization? Your key initiatives for this year?  What about individual employees’ career goals? When presented with a professional development opportunity, cast an analytical eye. Make sure the content and performance outcomes align with your organizational goals and your employees’ development plans.

3. Establish performance outcomes

How will what they learn help employees be more effective in their roles or help them accomplish their career goals? Guide them in establishing specific, clear outcomes for the training and encourage them to write them down. It doesn’t matter if they’re formally documented or jotted in a notebook. Studies show that the simple act of writing out goals and objectives increases the likelihood they will be achieved.

With that said, here are some employee development ideas that will help your team learn and grow without breaking the bank.

8 cost-effective employee development ideas

1. Take advantage of industry offerings

Tap into membership with organizations in your field or industry to access resources that can keep you and your employees knowledgeable on relevant topics. Professional organizations offer a wealth of educational programs and content, such as webinars, blog posts and white papers, for nearly every industry and discipline. And much of it’s free and easily accessible. At most, you may have to pay a nominal fee for an annual subscription or membership, but you’ll have access to relevant content anywhere and at any time.

2. Organize a book club or employee forum

Employees can select a book, article or topic and meet regularly – in person or via videoconference – for discussion.

This is a fun way for employees to share the latest ideas and trends in their industry or in their individual roles, or learn more about critical talents and skills – all while getting to know other members of their team better. (This way, it’s a great development and team-building activity combined.)

It doesn’t have to be boring or dry (think Management 101). Pick topics that are interesting, exciting and relevant – something that employees can use today and tomorrow. For example, emotional intelligence is a hot topic across many industries and roles.

This type of development activity has many benefits:

  • It encourages employees from the same teams or even different teams to come together. This enables employees to potentially learn about other roles within the company and achieve a kind of organic cross-training.
  • Employees can learn from each other and find value in other perspectives and experiences.
  • It helps employees sharpen their skills in formulating and articulating opinions and teaching others.

Note: Especially in virtual environments, you’ll need a skilled facilitator to make this interaction a success. Some people may be more reserved in videoconferences or online than they ordinarily would be if they were in the same room as others. As a result, conversation may not flow as naturally without a leader to help guide the discussion.

3. Establish a mentoring program

Set up a mentoring program to pair employees who are knowledgeable in a subject or skill with others who need to improve. For example:

  • Tenured employees can share their wisdom with less-experienced employees who may be taking on more complex projects or training for a management role.
  • Newer employees can share their unique ideas or skills from previous job experiences with more seasoned colleagues (often called reverse mentoring).

Successful mentorships can go up or down the organizational ladder. After all, different generations have much to teach each other.

At the start of any mentor relationship, both parties should set clear expectations and understand all their responsibilities to the other party. Especially in virtual environments, it’s critical to schedule regular, face-to-face meetings to connect.

4. Leverage internal talent

Some of the best trainers are already available to you at no extra cost: your current workforce. You likely have untapped subject matter experts (SMEs) on staff with an interest in teaching skills and sharing knowledge with larger groups of their colleagues.

In addition to leveraging your employees’ core job responsibilities and skills, do a little sleuthing and find out more about your employees’ interests, hobbies and lesser-known areas of expertise. You might uncover employees with valuable skills they can teach to others.

Be forward-thinking and try to recruit employees who are qualified and have an interest in contributing to your company’s training and development efforts. This ensures ongoing and future growth within the company while giving employees the opportunity to build sought-after leadership skills.

5. Invite an expert from your network

Reach out to your network of business associates and clients to find experts who are willing to speak to your employees about a topic, either virtually or in person. It’s a win-win – it flatters your professional contacts, and your employees will learn something new. Your contact may also return the favor by asking you or someone from your company to present to their employees or peers, which could eventually lead to new business for both of you or, at least, positive word of mouth about your company.

6. Launch a lunch-and-learn

If you feed them, they will come, right?

Consider turning an internal SME’s or external expert’s presentation into a lunch-and-learn. Your employees enjoy lunch (they can bring their own, or you can cater it) while they listen, engage and learn. Many companies have had success in deploying over-lunch educational programming in both remote and in-person work environments. In fact, as companies bring employees back onsite in the post-pandemic era, lunch-and-learns are among the most popular development opportunities in wide use.

They’re popular with employees, too, because they’re usually narrow in focus, short in duration and make smart, efficient use of their time.

7. Embrace social media

Formal learning structures have given way to short, bite-sized learning opportunities available on demand, 24/7 – free of any logistical barriers to personal development. That’s why social media is such a popular delivery method for development content. Examples:

  • On YouTube, employees can watch a quick five-minute video of experts in their field.
  • TED Talks cover nearly every topic under the sun.
  • LinkedIn Learning offers thousands of online courses on a variety of business, creative and technical topics.
  • Podcasts, formerly reserved for entertainment, are increasingly downloaded for educational purposes.

8. Don’t ignore traditional resources

There’s still value in traditional approaches to education and development. For example, trade magazines and journals – most no longer printed, but all available online – are always reliable sources of industry news and trends.

Furthermore, some employees may still want to access recorded, self-paced presentations.

It’s a matter of knowing your employees and their wants.

Development musts for today’s workplace

The days of all-day seminars led by droning instructors who subject participants to “death by PowerPoint” are gone. The world of employee learning and development has changed permanently for a few reasons:

  • A growing dominance of Millennials and Generation Z employees in the workforce, who bring a more collaborative, interactive mindset and want information quickly and in short bursts. In general, they reject recorded, lengthy presentations.
  • With the rise in virtual and hybrid workplaces, and the lingering reluctance of people to gather in person in large numbers, formal conferences and seminars are less popular than they were before the pandemic.

Companies simply can’t use traditional employee development ideas and approaches anymore and expect a desirable return on investment.

Today, the most successful employee development initiatives align with these characteristics:

  • Applicable to both on-site and remote work environments
  • Available in different delivery methods, and always easy to access
  • Employee-centric (considering employees’ needs, preferences, learning styles and desired scheduling)
  • Very focused in topic
  • Immediately relevant
  • Short and easily digestible (20-30 minutes is considered long by today’s standards)
  • More interactive in nature (live, instructor-led and encouraging of conversation and questions)
  • Seamlessly integrated into the workday (in-the-moment, on-the-job learning)

Summing it all up

Investing in your employees’ development helps to:

  • Expand your staff’s knowledge and skill set and, as a result, improve their performance
  • Support employees’ career pathing
  • Maintain your company’s competitive edge
  • Enhance employee engagement and boost retention by making them feel valued and supported
  • Convey that your workplace is dynamic, receptive to new ideas and committed to forward progress – another boon to retention

What “works” for employee development has undergone significant changes in recent years. Today, it’s all about being brief, focused, employee-centric, agile and relevant. All the employee development ideas presented here align with these trends. Better yet, they’re low-cost or free and easily within the reach of resourceful business leaders.

For more information about how to invest in your employees and reap the benefits of a robust employee development program, download our free e-book: How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.