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President of Transcend, a pay-for-performance service.

A quick Google search of the words "lunch and learn" generates tens of thousands of responses and many of them offer advice on how to host the perfect lunch session in the workplace.

Too often, the same buzzwords are bandied around to describe what can be achieved in fewer than 60 minutes. They include transparency, understanding, building a community and other neat buzzwords. We have all attended these sessions – and munched through the quickly cooling pizza – during our careers. Some may have been helpful, but most likely you left the room with your appetite satisfied but feeling unfulfilled.

Let us step back for a minute and look at why these sessions are being held and, more importantly, how they are missing a great opportunity.

It seems many companies see them as an easy and quick way to reinforce their agenda and as a training tool. Wrong! These sessions work best when they are trying to generate creative thought and look at issues through a different prism. Sadly, too many have the opposite effect and appear to be more concerned with reinforcing the status quo.

Today, it is an undisputed fact that we have access to more information than we could have ever imagined just 20 years ago. However, instead of broadening our horizons, the opposite is happening.

In a successful workplace, it is the capacity to do something for the benefit of your employees in a meaningful way that will have the greatest impact, rather than just looking at how it directly benefits the company.

Want committed employees? Managers need to do more than talk to their team; they need to listen.

The overarching question should be: how do these sessions help the employees?

Wasting time talking about time

If you were to compile a list of the topics covered in lunch-and-learn sessions, it is likely "time management" would be near the top. While this is a very useful skill, it is, to put it mildly, uninspiring. As most of us know, these sessions rarely start on time, so perhaps for that reason alone it would be better to consider topics that spark an emotional reaction.

Time management is much better suited to being part of the ongoing cultural practice that is used throughout the company. To quote the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: "If you can't be on time, be early."

That means all meetings and conference calls should start on time and never be held up by a senior manager who needs to "grab a cup of coffee." On a day-to-day basis, meetings should have a fixed duration and recognize that everyone's time is valuable. That way, important issues have a greater chance of being resolved and it becomes part of the company DNA. It will also be noticed by clients and customers.

There is no such thing as a free lunch (TINSTAAFL)

If we accept the premise there is no such thing as a free lunch, we need to start asking ourselves: What could we achieve if we offer something different to employees in these sessions?

Lunch in most workplaces is "free time," therefore, why not aim to make the lunch-and-learn session more enriching to the people attending? This will not only increase the chance of real engagement but also encourage employees to take a fresh look at the existing company culture.

One of the first steps to improving employee engagement is assisting in the work-home balance, so why not consider lunch-and-learn sessions that have no direct links to the job? Instead, look at what matters to people in their personal life.

Here are three ways to make your lunch-and-learn session better:

  • Select topics for different audiences in the workplace
  • Invite employees to submit life-related topics
  • Limit the number of sessions so they are seen as special events

Staff will soon begin to see your company as more than a necessary stop between sleeping and quality time. And it is clear that the bottom line benefits when employees are engaged.

As the success of the sessions take hold, you will start to see this percolate into other aspects of the workplace and encourage some employees to develop their outlier potential.

The pollination of ideas and expertise will strengthen the existing brand and, in these ever-changing times, lay the foundation for a more dynamic company.

Executives, employees, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

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