Branson: Don’t let your team strain in vain to train

No time? Can’t afford it? Not good enough. Skimping on your employees’ training opportunities is a false economy.

(Photo: Marcelo Santos/Getty)

In the last issue, I talked about the importance of ongoing staff training. But one reader wrote to ask, “When does your staff find time to pursue further training? At our business, we struggle to find time for education during office hours.”

It’s a good question. Ensuring that your team has the tools needed to succeed in an increasingly competitive and challenging marketplace is key for startups and emerging companies, as is developing and retaining a strong, stable workforce—this often makes the difference between success and failure.

But it can be difficult, since businesses fighting to gain a foothold in their markets can rarely afford for their staff to take time off for training purposes—many do not have enough people to cover for missing workers. Starving your team of training is, however, a false economy. As you build your business, you’ll make investments in many different areas so that it can improve and develop; your staff should be at the top of the list.

Finding a good solution will help you to establish your reputation in your industry. It is almost always best to be known as a progressive company, with a strong focus on training, the flexibility to accommodate employees’ needs and the guts to stick by them through thick and thin. While doing this might not be easy in today’s economic environment, it may be worth any short-term hardship, because your company will attract some of the best people in the business, and they will help you to stay ahead of the competition.

At Virgin, we encourage our staff to take training days and to develop their skills during business hours. This is not really something that you can expect people to undertake just in the evenings or on weekends. A simple way to tackle the problem of managing on-the-job training is for you to challenge conventions about where and when work is done—legacies of the days of more limited communications technology. I have never believed that the best work is done in a certain building between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and you may find that this is true for your staff as well.

These days, many people can work from home, which permits them to spend more time with their families. Someone who would like to pursue extra training may benefit from the flexibility you have established; more employees may be available to fill in if your office hours are less regular. Another option startups might consider is intra-company training, or internal internships. These can improve your people’s skills while keeping staff levels the same.

In Virgin’s early days, we were similarly challenged in terms of resources, but I was keen to allow people to maintain good work-life balance. I led the way by working from my home on a houseboat, then from a villa in London’s Holland Park district, before I turned our family home into an office block. That office burned down in 2001, but I like to think that the family-style environment helped to sustain the brand’s image amongst its employees and to reassure them that it was OK to work from home, if that is what they need to do.

If an employee needs more advanced training that will require him to leave for longer periods of time, do everything you can to make sure it happens, perhaps by looking at options for part-time work. The economic situation means that many cannot afford to take time off, but this is nevertheless an area in which you should offer your staff further options and flexibility. (Another is offering phased “retirements” to allow the older staff to wind down their input but at the same time to stay involved, training the next generation to pick up the baton.)

Once the employee’s training is complete, you’ll need to help that person find ways to hone his new skills. At Virgin, we encourage employees to consider moving to other businesses within the company. If this isn’t an option, offer your employee assignments that will allow him to show everyone what he can do.

When an employee asks about further training, don’t panic! Take a deep breath, and start working on solutions. Because that ambition is an opportunity: for you to increase your staff’s skills and experience, and to establish your company as the best in the business—the best employer, and a market leader.