5 Ways HR Managers Can Build a Culture of Learning in Firms

Learn 5 ways HR managers and firms can help support their candidates on the path to licensure by creating a culture of learning at work.

As an HR manager, you’re often responsible for providing learning and development opportunities for your staff, both licensed and unlicensed. This is no small feat, and it can be overwhelming to know what the best materials are. What benefits everyone? What’s affordable? And how can you make sure people actually use the resources available?

To find out, we sat down with Carolyn Smith, who’s the human resources manager at HH Architecture, a full-service design and architecture firm based in North Carolina. We talked about ways firms—and HR and learning managers in particular—can support a culture of education in their workplaces to help their employees feel valued and supported. 

Offer CEUs and Internal Lunch & Learns

Once you get licensed, the learning doesn’t stop, Smith says. HH Architecture makes it a priority to offer learning opportunities for both their licensed and unlicensed staff; some are hosted in-house, and others are taught by outside vendors. Some of these events offer continuing education units (CEUs) for their licensed staff, helping them fulfill the yearly AIA requirement.

“We do a lot of in-house lunch and learns. Our technical director oversees these, and a lot of times our architects and project managers might go to him and say, ‘Hey, we noticed a couple of folks might need some help writing technical specifications,’ or whatever it might be. And so then he’ll look to plan a lunch and learn about those topics,” Smith says.  

Although lunch and learns focused on internal topics often aren’t available for continuing education credit from the AIA, they’re still beneficial to the professional development of your team, which is just as important. Choosing topics that you know your staff is interested in and that will benefit them in their daily work will also help them feel valued and supported, which is an important part of a firm culture. 

Host Specific Internal Events 

Another benefit of choosing topics that are specific to your firm, even if they don’t qualify for AIA credit, is it helps encourage people to actually attend. Smith says one challenge they face at HH is that events like this “often go to the bottom of the priority list for people, because if you spend an hour on this event that's an hour you’re not spending on something else. So it’s sometimes hard to get people to stop and step away from their day-to-day.”

But for HH, hosting events about specific projects in the firm helps with that. Smith says she thinks it's because when people can see that others are going through the same things as them—like experiencing the same road block or asking the same questions—it makes the event more personal, and people can see the value of giving up their hour more easily. 

Promote Study & Mentorship Groups

Sometimes, even if people want to study together, they need a little push to actually meet up and work together. One way you can help support your candidates for the ARE is to set up the study group for them, so all they have to do is show up. 

At HH Architecture, Smith and another recently licensed architect created a study group for unlicensed staff to come together, get advice and support, and, of course, actually study for the exams. 

“We have a mentorship group that meets for people specifically on the path to licensure. We have one of our licensed architects that oversees that for us,” Smith explains.  

“I had been talking with her about wanting to motivate people to get started and get through their exams. She was talking a lot about her own journey of taking the exams and how it wasn’t linear. She failed some along the way, and she wondered if talking about that would help. Because I think people keep it to themselves, because they might be embarrassed. It’s defeating, right? You studied and then didn’t succeed, but that doesn't mean you’re not going to be a great architect or designer. It just means that wasn’t your day.

“So she was talking about that, and we thought what if we got everyone together and made you a resource for people? So the study group was really born out of that conversation. She said she was happy to schedule a lunch or a breakfast with everyone and see if anyone would be interested. And so we opened it up firm-wide, and she had attendance by every single one of our unlicensed staff, and now they’ve all stuck together.” 

Born out of one “What if?” conversation, this study group at H&H is now an important resource that their unlicensed staff can take advantage of. Aside from studying together, this group has social and emotional benefits as well. 

“This group, I think, has really helped get people together, and has helped them realize ‘See, look at all these other people also going through the same thing.’ So now we have some folks who have buddied up and are studying together and taking the exams together,” Smith says. 

Create a Culture of Communication 

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for young architect professionals is finding a balance between their workloads and studying for the exams. This is something that firms can be more active in supporting, and that’s something HH makes a point of doing. 

“Janessa Van Deen, our director of operations, oversees everyone’s AXP hours, and she’s continually communicating with our folks who are on the path to licensure about where they want to focus,” Smith says. “So if they know they’re taking their project management exam or their practice management exam, they’ll meet with Janessa and she’ll get them plugged in on different projects that might help them prepare for that exam.”

Since candidates for the ARE need to complete AXP hours anyway to get licensed, this approach is a great way to support your staff in two ways—helping them get real-world experience, while also helping them prepare for the exam. 

Help Candidates Set Boundaries

But creating this culture of communication doesn’t stop there. Since your candidates are working full time while also studying, there will inevitably be deadlines that conflict or workloads that need to be shifted around. By setting up the expectation that this is something your firm can work around, you’ll be giving your staff a concrete way to avoid burnout and have better work-life balance. 

“We also encourage people studying to communicate with their project teams when your exam is scheduled so that everyone is aware. We’re a team, we like to collaborate together. So if someone has their mind on a million different project things and is also trying to get this exam done, we want to give them that grace. And sure, some of our deadlines are not as easily moved. We just always say that it’s that communication piece that really helps. Once you schedule an exam, communicate it to your team so everyone’s on the same page.” 

This, Smith says, makes it easier for teams to move things around when there are competing deadlines—but no one is put out or caught unaware. As a firm or HR manager, this goes beyond telling your ARE candidates to communicate their deadlines. This is about creating a culture in your firm where your staff can feel comfortable and safe communicating these conflicts, and where they know you’ll do your best to accommodate them where you can. 

Celebrate Big and Small Wins

Passing the ARE is a huge deal, and Smith says that this year HH Architecture has made more of a point of celebrating the wins that come along with studying for the exams. 

“We had one person that got licensed two months ago, and we had a huge party to celebrate her,” Smith says. “We’ve been celebrating smaller wins too, so as people pass exams we have little parties for them as well. We really want to incentivize it as a community; we want everyone to succeed, and we want to celebrate them when they do, because it’s a huge achievement.” 

Everyone wants to be recognized. Celebrating your staff when they pass an exam and when they get their license is a great way to encourage others to do the same, and helps build a culture where people feel supported and recognized for their hard work. 

Be Understanding

Smith says that from the human resources and business side of things, one of the biggest ways firms can support people studying for the ARE is just to be understanding. 


“I think a lot of times companies put really strict time limits on the support they’ll provide for licensure,” she says. “They might only provide study materials for a certain number of years, and if you don’t get licensed in that time frame you’re on your own. And I think if the past few years have taught us anything it’s that we all need to have a little bit of grace for everyone’s different situations.

“Of course licensure is important, and so is recognizing all the hard work people put into passing those exams. But I also think it’s important to have an understanding that when people fail exams or their studying isn’t going as well, that doesn’t mean they’re not going to be successful. We just don’t know everyone’s individual situation. So from an employer’s standpoint, we just need to make sure we’re having grace for the people who are taking advantage of these resources.” 

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