When it comes to learning in the workplace, few things are as ubiquitous as the corporate “lunch and learn.” While learning can and should take place throughout the workplace and at any given moment in the day, lunch and learns can, when done properly, be a great way to engage the team in a new, interesting subject. It can be one of the only times in a busy schedule where the team can take a moment to gather together, and, because professional development drives company culture, it’s an opportunity to build a culture where employees are supported in their lifelong learning endeavors.
That said, the writing is on the wall: lunch and learns can be boring. Really boring. While great lunch and learns can drive a culture of learning and collaboration—making employees feel like the company is investing in them—bad lunch and learns can leave employees feeling the exact opposite. The key takeaway: give employees something they will find interesting and valuable. Let’s break it down.
Avoid Mandatory Information
Lunch and learns should supplement employees’ knowledge by exposing them to something they might not have otherwise learned. If the information is mandatory or mission critical to company operations, schedule an all-staff meeting during regular business hours instead. Asking employees to give up their lunch hour for something that is explicitly (or implicitly) mandatory and routine begins to erode the meaning and intended excitement around lunch and learns.
Even more importantly, using a lunch and learn as an excuse to insert company operations without taking from “normal” work time, can actually lead to a decrease in productivity. Lunch breaks contribute to productivity in a very real, measurable way. Taking that away by regularly using the hour to give an update on HR policy may technically be providing a learning opportunity, but they aren’t being given the time away from core work operations to get a much-needed midday break from the daily grind. Speaking of which…
Keep Lunch and Learns Novel and Exciting
No matter how much someone may love their job, there come times when injecting something novel and interesting can be a refreshing break in everyday responsibilities. Lunch and learns that present fun, new ideas can bring teams together around a new subject, strengthening team member bonds and energizing the room. It might even introduce individuals to new hobbies or interests that can give them an extra dose of fulfillment in their day-to-day lives.
Novel ideas are also fuel for creativity. Even the most seemingly irrelevant topics can spark an idea or seed a brainstorm that somehow leads back to improving work. Introduction to new topics and diversity of thought across disciplines encourages outside-the-box thinking and is the raw material needed for innovation.
Last month, the SHP offices welcomed the president of the Ohio State Beekeepers Association to the office for a lunch and learn that had very little to do with the daily workings of an architecture and design firm. The team learned about the best practices beekeepers across the country ascribe to and the behaviors of some of the world’s most prolific pollinators. It was a novel idea that got people talking and making bonds that they otherwise may have never made. And you better believe that some of the team left inspired with ideas on how pollinator gardens could be incorporated into outdoor learning spaces.
Don’t Forget the Lunch
For something called a “lunch and learn” this one should be obvious, but for anyone who has went to a lunch and learn that is either completely void of refreshment or so involved that eating is an impossibility this tip is completely necessary.
Remember, this is supposed to be an opportunity to make learning a seamless, engaging part of workplace culture. It’s hard for an employee to feel that way when “learning” means they lose their only chance to eat before an afternoon of meetings and deadlines.
This is a more controversial take—many companies implement lunch and learn programs that are strictly on a bring-your-own-lunch brown bag basis. Ignoring the fact that many employees may interpret this as cheap and insincere (“You want me to give up my lunch hour and aren’t even going to feed me?”), leaving employees on their own for the lunch portion of a lunch and learn fails to take advantage of a key learning opportunity!
Food is a cultural experience, and we can learn from new cuisines and dishes. While a speaker can be sharing the latest information about beekeeping and global pollination patterns, the provided lunch can be an opportunity to provide insight on new and interesting local restaurants, the food culture of another region, or even a lesson on nutrition and diet.
Don’t Overdo It
The core idea in planning the best lunch and learns comes down to respecting your employees’ time and making sure you’re providing them with something valuable. In addition to great content, lunch and learns should be scheduled in such a way to not add unnecessary stress to their work life. This means being mindful of when—and how frequently—lunch and learns are scheduled.
An accounting firm is probably wise to avoid scheduling lunch and learns in the run up to tax filing deadlines, and a retailer would be crazy to schedule a lunch and learn in the final days before Christmas. Every industry and organization have their own peak times: know yours and be cautious to add weighty sessions during stressful times. Instead, consider peak times as an opportunity to help employees de-stress by bringing in chair massages or yoga during the lunch hour or breaks—employees may learn something new and get a much-needed moment to relax at the same time.
By that same token, lunch and learns should be frequent enough so that employees understand the importance of lifelong learning to the company’s culture but spread out enough to avoid lunch-and-learn fatigue. This will mean different things to different organizations and will also depend on the quality of speakers and topics. A quarterly session might be great if you invest heavily in bringing in keynote-style speakers and industry leaders, whereas monthly gatherings may be more appropriate when sessions are more intimate with speakers from within the company and local community.
Have the Right Gathering Space for Learning
Nothing is worse than having the entire team—lunch in tow—crammed so tightly into a space that some are standing and others are sitting on the floor. Having that many people (and that much food!) in a small space is simply unpleasant. Space is crucial to learning whether in the office or in the classroom, and every organization needs a gathering place appropriate for the size of their company.
This also means having the appropriate technology, both for the speaker and your employees. For organizations with satellite offices or a distributed workforce, invest in conferencing solutions so that the entire team can benefit from the lunch and learn. These type of common spaces are not just important for lunch and learn sessions—they’re becoming a critical element of workplace design. As the workplaces change, collaboration across disciplines is becoming more and more common and the spaces where we work need to reflect that.