Learning to offer a helping hand

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Written by Michael Lewis on 1 March 2014 in Features

A degree of support from employers can help staff to study part-time, says Michael Lewis

Running a family business is much more than working with people to which you are related. It is about the culture you create and what your values stand for. My brother and I are founders and managing partners of The Underfloor Heating Store. Our business and employees are our family too and this is the way we approach ‘being the boss’.

When the recession hit, our business took a bit of a tumble. Like many others at that time, we had to evolve and try to be as agile as possible. A few years beforehand, I’d taken an Open University course as a way of filling my spare time with something useful. As part of this course, I was taught about creating a website and taking a business online. It was all quite new to me but, when the recession took hold, we considered our options and decided to take this forward based on what I had learned. We’ve never looked back and the business has gone from strength to strength through online bookings. Without the knowledge from my course, I would not have considered this as a way forward and we would not be where we are today.

As the business has grown (we now employ more than 30 staff), my brother and I are keen to keep the sense of a family team in the work we do. Respecting work colleagues, providing opportunities and nurturing staff are important in creating this kind of culture. Part of this ethos is wanting the best for the people we work with and, because of my own experience, taking on extra study and learning is one of the things I encourage them to do. I studied a higher education qualification and it was an amazing experience for me, so I’d recommend others do this too.

As an employer, I’m not advocating people pack in their day jobs as this is not possible for most, especially for mature students and those supporting a family, but there are alternative routes to getting a degree while working. Part-time study is a way to balance both – a way to keep in employment and study at the same time. Many universities and colleges offer part-time higher education courses in a huge number of subjects from business to psychology, computer science to management. They take longer to complete, but this is so learning can be slotted in alongside your other commitments. I would fully support any member of my staff wanting to study a part-time higher education qualification.

There are a number of factors to consider when thinking of studying part-time, especially when working full-time, bringing up a family and caring for others can make life very busy. Sometimes it is hard to fit in the essential day-to-day things in life and taking on something extra to this can be daunting. I think if you’re passionate about gaining a degree in a subject you’re really interested in, it is possible to study alongside everything else.

Financing a part-time degree is a massive consideration – it is a substantial amount of money to invest. Looking at the facts, any decision to study can be weighed up by looking at the return on investment. This does not need to be about getting you a ‘better’ or more well-paid job at the end of it, even though sometimes this can be the case, but a successful return could be the pure pleasure someone gets from studying and learning something new. There is financial support available, especially for those who have not studied a degree before. Access to support with tuition fees can be gained upfront, to be paid back at the end of your course and when you’re earning more than £21,000 or the April after your course has finished.

Some employers offer their staff financial help too, so it is worth speaking to your employer to see if they are prepared to help you fund your course. If budgets allow and the course is linked to their job, employers will see that it as an investment and beneficial to the company. But, even in times where the purse strings are tight, employers can give a wealth of other support to their studious staff to assist them.

With my staff, I try to be as supportive as possible with their studies. If they need some time off or need some flexibility to attend a lecture, I always support this. It won’t affect the job they do for me and, in fact, by helping them with this side of things, I believe they pay me back in the work they do. My staff are loyal, respectful and hard-working, all of which I think stems from the relationship my brother and I have with them. Lending a helping hand with learning is a huge factor in this.

I think employers can gain a lot from supporting their staff to study part-time:

  • be flexible There will always need to be an element of flexibility as, on occasions, an employee might need specific time off or to swap the odd hours to attend lectures. Set expectations with staff as to what realistic timescales are in order to allow them to work on a more flexible basis. Plan the changes that might need to happen from the outset
  • make more time to listen Employees will hopefully look to you for advice and guidance in general, so they may want to talk to you about their studies. Take an interest in how they are getting on and give them the opportunity to chat to you about it. Listen to what they have to say and you might be able to support them through areas they are struggling with
  • show encouragement Particularly at first, employees might be nervous about deciding if studying is the right thing for them to do. Again, as a figure they look up to and respect, give the encouragement they may need to build their confidence and take the plunge
  • see the benefits in putting staff first If employees can see you are supporting them, they will look to do the same and support you back. Staff who feel supported by their bosses are more loyal and likely to put extra effort into the daily work they do.

Employees that I’ve worked with, who have also studied for a higher education course at the same time, are more confident and proactive in the workplace. They seem to be a bit more driven as a result – sometimes because they are studying something that links to the role they do, but other times because they are juggling a number of different things and want to work hard to achieve at all of them.

Realistically, the majority of people will want to further their studies in order to further their career and, if this is the case, there is a clear argument to gain support from your employer.

My advice to those looking to approach their employer would be:

  • find the right time to bring it up When stress levels are high at work and in the midst of a busy project is probably not the best time to discuss extended learning with a manager or boss. A formal catch-up or activity review is probably more appropriate as the environment will be more focused on you and your role, instead of the heat of the moment
  • consider how it will work on a practical level If you’ve done the right research, you should have a good idea of how studying will work alongside your job. When will face-to-face time be factored into your week and will this work around your job commitments? Part-time courses are designed to make this easier, but your boss, quite understandably, will be keen to understand this up-front so have the information on hand to help him to do so
  • demonstrate how your studies will add value to your role Sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. If your course is related to the work you do, this may benefit the employer in the long term. However, if not, increasing your knowledge and confidence will pay them dividends in the way you conduct your work too
  • show a passion and enthusiasm to learn more This is something that all employers will like to see in their staff. Employers want to work with somebody who has a motivation to do a good job and proactively push forward. If an employer can see how keen you are to extend your learning, this endearing quality will encourage them to support it.

It is great to see so many people studying a higher education qualification across the country, from all walks of life. Higher education does not just cater for the 18-year-old fresh out of school or college, but can be something an individual does at a much later date in their life, when the time feels right. As employers, the more we support and encourage this, the more normal it will become and the more business benefits we will see.

If you have any employees who are looking for advice on part-time study in higher education, you can suggest they visit www.nationalcareersservice.direct.gov.uk and search for ‘higher education part time’.

About the author

Michael Lewis is founder and managing partner of The Underfloor Heating Store. He can be contacted via www.theunderfloorheatingstore.com



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