Learn How to Create a Learn-at-Lunch Program

A team of workers eating and looking at a screen
••• GettyImages/Geber86

Many firms successfully employe a Learn-at-Lunch approach to supplement employee training and development activities. Some call them "Brown Bag" sessions in honor of the ubiquitous brown bags we use to carry lunches, and others reverse the phrasing and call them Lunch-and-Learn events.

Regardless of the name, the use of an occasional lunch hour for education or training can stimulate employee engagement and extend the firm's development program. This article offers ideas on how to start, sustain and succeed in strengthening employee learning with a Learn-at-Lunch program. 

Time Is Always the Issue

When you're running a business, there never seems to be enough time to get everything done. The typical training dilemma suggests that you can't spare people to go to training because there's so much work to be done, but you also can't neglect their training and development if you want your business to thrive. While individuals value their lunch periods as an opportunity to reset for the afternoon, an education program that occasionally taps into this period can be interesting and invigorating for everyone involved.


What Learn at Lunch Is

At its simplest, a Learn-at-Lunch program is a training or development event occasionally scheduled during the lunch hour or lunch period. Many firms offer incentives such as free lunches to encourage attendance and involvement — after all, they're asking employees to give up personal time.

Learn-at-Lunch training is usually less formal and less structured than traditional training events. The topics must be interesting to make the time investment worthwhile for employees, and conducive to short, hour-long sprints delivered over a period of days or weeks. Typical Learn at Lunch Training Programs include:

  • Cross-training: This can range from teaching customer service reps how to answer the phone correctly to providing leadership training to first-line managers.
  • Product training: A program can help all employees better understand product differences if your company offers many products or services.
  • Employee-led professional development: Give people an opportunity to learn about the responsibilities of employees in other departments. Do you have someone in IT who could teach a course in programming basics or someone in accounting who could explain how financial forecasting works? Maybe someone in HR could teach a session on how to interview better.
  • Personal development: A Learn-at-Lunch program does not have to be strictly business. Some firms use these opportunities to offer non-work-related learning opportunities in topics ranging from wood carving to painting or drawing.
  • Diversity activities. Many firms sponsor diversity teams and councils, and the lunch period is a great time to invite guest speakers or showcase cross-cultural education.
  • Life skills: Other options for leveraging Learn at Lunch programs include focusing on important life skills such as retirement planning, budgeting or physical fitness. 

    What Learn-at-Lunch Is Not

    Learn-at-Lunch is not the time to perform training that's required either by law or by the company. It's not a good time to train employees on serious subjects like ethics or harassment. Don't use Learn-at- Lunch programs for anything that requires you to keep track of who attends. These sessions should be voluntary. 

    15 Ideas to Help Start a Learn-at-Lunch Program

    Learn-at-Lunch programs have many variations. Here are some suggestions to help you get started.

    1. Gain support from your boss, executive, and appropriate human resources personnel, or training and development professionals.
    2. Choose interesting, relevant topics.
    3. Tailor topics for different audiences in the workplace.
    4. Establish learning objectives for each topic and lunchtime training session. 
    5. Consider offering light, healthy lunch foods, snacks, and beverages as part of the program. 
    6. Communicate the schedule in advance. 
    7. Provide light, advance reading or materials when it's appropriate. 
    8. Invite employees to submit ideas for work or life-related topics.
    1. Encourage employees to consider leading these programs by offering their own skills.
    2. Measure participant satisfaction with each session and refine the program as needed based on the feedback you receive.
    3. Select a location that supports both training and eating. 
    4. Consider the needs of remote employees who might want to attend. Offer optional video or audio conferencing support, and if you include a free lunch for local employees, extend a voucher or offer limited reimbursement for those who work away from the office.
    1. Record and make the sessions available for those who are unable to attend. 
    2. Be sensitive to the reality that many employees appreciate their lunch period as an opportunity to decompress. Strike a balance between your eagerness to schedule these events and the needs of your employees for time away from their daily jobs. 
    3. Make attendance optional and focus on content that helps individuals improve their professional skills or an ability to navigate life's challenges. 

    Benefits of Learn-a-Lunch Programs:

    • A Learn-at-Lunch program provides employees with an interesting alternative to a typical lunch break.
    • These events will grow in popularity if the topics are carefully selected.  
    • These programs offer an opportunity to improve employee engagement and involvement in the business in an informal manner.
    • The trainers enjoy the spotlight of being able to share their expertise with others in the company.

    Potential Risks and Pitfalls:

    • Mandating participation will reduce interest and enjoyment in these events. Your goal is to have some of your employees say to others, "Oh, you should have been there!"
    • Not offering a wide variety of subjects risks boring the participants and reducing involvement over time.
    • If you schedule too many of these events, you risk annoying employees who value their lunch period as a time to get away from their desks and decompress, exercise or run errands.
    • You may potentially alienate valuable professionals if you fail to offer a facility for remote employees.

      The Bottom Line

      Successful organizations invest in supporting employee development. Although training can be expensive and the impact sometimes questionable, Learn at Lunch programs offer a non-threatening and fun method for extending learning and stimulating the energy and creativity in the workplace. 

      Updated by Art Petty