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Flexible learning revealed as key to talent retention

Happy adult students laughing in front of university library. iStock/Drazen Zigic

The Open University’s (OU) new report into public sector skills, Embracing Flexibility, highlights a desire for more flexibility and learning and development opportunities as part of one of the largest recent UK public sector employee surveys.

  • 68% of public sector employees in Scotland would be more likely stay in a job that allowed remote or hybrid working while 8 in 10 of public sector employees cite learning and development as key to job satisfaction
  • 56% prefer blended learning more than any other style of learning but the lack of awareness of available training may further hinder retention
  • Technology and leadership upskilling opportunities are most sought out

Published in partnership with Public Sector Executive, this four-nations report, points to a flexible hybrid working model being essential to staff retention within the public sector, indicating the pandemic’s effect on ways of working is here to stay.

For Scotland, it revealed that 68% of public sector employees state they are more likely to stay in a job that allowed remote or hybrid working options.

Public sector workers also emphasised the importance of learning and development opportunities. The new survey revealed that out of more than 500 respondents in Scotland, 8 in 10 public sector employees cite learning and development as key to job satisfaction in the public sector.

However, a lack of flexibility is hindering training, since almost a quarter (24%) of respondents cite a lack of flexible working hours as a factor preventing public sector employees from participating in training opportunities.

A desire for flexibility is even carried through to learning, with blended learning shown to be the preferred learning style at 56% and distance learning at 29%.

Marie Hendry, Depute Director, The Open University in Scotland said:

"Scotland has a significant public sector workforce and that sector has traditionally been at the forefront of workplace change from flexible working, to creches, to job shares.

"But two years ago, Scotland’s workplace landscape was forced to dramatically change as a result of the pandemic, leading to a rapid acceleration of digital delivery and remote working. Even now as we come out of the pandemic, public sector employers and employees are still trying to grapple with what increased hybrid and flexible working means in the future.

"Our survey demonstrates that employees really value flexible learning, hybrid models and remote working, suggesting they are here for the long-term in many job roles. The Open University in Scotland responded in an agile way supporting significant skills training in areas like leadership, change management and digital. This report shows that public sector employees not only value these skills opportunities but also recognise that learning and development is vital for their careers and job satisfaction."

This report outlines the challenge for public sector leaders. The future will require more choice, driving better awareness, and rethinking the way learning is delivered in the workplace."

The report further demonstrates a lack of awareness of training amongst employees with more than one in four respondents (31%) feeling unsure about the training that was available for their role and almost one in five (17%) did not know what formats of training were offered.

This highlights a missed opportunity for employers, suggesting that public sector organisations need to communicate more clearly to remote and hybrid workers about training opportunities available to aid retention.

One such training resource is the recently launched Skills for Work portal, developed by the Improvement Service in partnership with The OU and Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO). Targeted at young people and job seekers in communities, it offers access to free training and workplace skills.

Amanda Spark, Organisational Development Programme Manager Improvement Service, said: 

“The demands made on the workforce and the expectations placed on staff are constantly changing, and it is imperative that we support the workforce to adapt to this pace of change. Learning and development is crucial as we seek to improve, innovate and find new, better ways of working. It can help change mindsets and open-up thinking. 

“Staff who are under extreme pressure have requested a flexible learning environment and want to study when they are free to do so. OU courses are an excellent vehicle for this and a flexible way to learn and confirm competency in the subject matter that is well-established and recognised by all.” 

Public sector employees also expressed a desire to upskill on technology and leadership. The combination of digital services and remote working makes technology skills essential.

The report suggests more than a third (36%) of Scottish public sector employees would like to improve their digital skills. Leadership and management training showed to be the most popular area of learning in this survey, favoured by 29% of UK public sector employees overall, rising to 48% in Scotland, 48% in Wales and 54% in Northern Ireland.

Visit www.open.ac.uk/business/embracing-flexibility-report to download the report Embracing Flexibility: How can learning & development service new hybrid working and learning models in the public sector.

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