Using Online Training to Save Money, Boost Employee Retention

By Juan Martinez Features PCmag

Panda Restaurant Group needed an effective way to help foreign-born employees learn English in order to better communicate with co-workers and management. As a company with more than $2.5 billion in revenue, 30,000 employees, and 2,000 retail locations in the US, Panda Restaurant Group prides itself on giving cooks, counter help, and service staff an opportunity to advance within the company. Yet, with no way to help staffers learn English affordably, conveniently, and at their own pace, Panda Restaurant Group worried it would be doing its English-as-a-second-language workers a disservice.

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In 2012, the company began providing Rosetta Stone Language Learning software to its employees. Unfortunately, there was no way for Panda Restaurant Group to monitor and track progress on an employee, restaurant, regional, or corporate-wide basis. As a result, users may have dropped out without the company knowing. Thus, the benefits (or lack thereof) were difficult to decipher. Rosetta Stone Catalyst is a software-based, language-learning solution designed specifically to provide businesses with this level of oversight. When it debuted last year, Panda Restaurant Group decided to make the switch.

"We want to develop our associates to be the best that they can be," said Alvin Tang, Coordinator of the Learning and Development department at Panda Restaurant Group. "We don't want language to be a barrier; that's something we can control. Catalyst gave us the perfect tool to knock that barrier down."

What Is Rosetta Stone Catalyst?

As the pioneering interactive, software-based language learning solution, Rosetta Stone helped to popularize e-learning for consumers and online learning for businesses. Catalyst isn't Rosetta's first foray into enterprise e-learning but the self-paced language-learning software combines business-focused and casual activities to offer users multiple, language-based use cases that business leaders can monitor and customize. For example, do you need to train Erica, your Vice President of Sales, in Japanese to help her entertain executives who will be traveling in from Tokyo? Catalyst is designed to instruct Erica on how to use common social phrases you might hear at an authentic sake bar.

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Catalyst lets training managers oversee the progress (or lack thereof) of each individual's learning path. Managers will be able to specifically zero in on how far each employee is within his or her specific training program, how often the learner is using the software, and how proficient the learner is at speaking the new language. More importantly, managers will have granular oversight over how well an employee is performing at specific tasks.

Unlike previous iterations of Rosetta Stone (which measured success in a larger scope), Rosetta Stone Catalyst will let administrators focus on how well someone is performing in a very specific subset of a learning program. For example, instead of finding out that Jim has reached the intermediate level of Spanish, managers can use the report to determine that Jim is on the beginner level, and that he struggled with vocabulary but did really well with his pronunciation.

Retention and Inclusion

Since Panda Restaurant Group switched over to Catalyst to help its employees master English, 275 employees volunteered to take courses. As these employees used the tool, the ones who progressed through the educational programming (which relies heavily on gamification and repetition) began to provide better customer service, more natural casual customer interactions, and safer exchanges with co-workers, according to Tang. Think about it: If your company introduces a new operating procedure or product, then the orientation information provided to employees is typically written in English. What if an employee can't read those materials because they're not written in the employee's native language? Even elementary language skills can be beneficial in these scenarios.

Perhaps more importantly, Tang said Catalyst has helped Panda Restaurant Group retain workers. In a fast-paced industry such as food service, this can impact the bottom line as well as staff safety. To become a cook or counter help associate at Panda, you've got to pass a 4-6 week training course. Assistant manager training takes 6-8 weeks and manager training can last up to three months. Whenever someone leaves the company, his or her replacement has to go through that training, all of which is paid. This means Panda is paying workers to learn instead of paying experienced employees to produce. Once employees have passed their training, they're likely not as effective as an employee who has been on the job for an extended period of time.

"With turnover rates, it hurts our sales performance and overall performance in terms of having to continually recruit new associates and retrain them," said Tang. "That adjustment period harms us a lot too. The performance in the beginning, it takes a while for the learning curve to kick in. We want to try to retain associates to cut down on those costs."

Tang said Rosetta Stone Catalyst helped to partially remediate this issue by giving workers a tool that let them feel comfortable and included at work. To gauge the tool's effectiveness, Panda Restaurant Group compared the top five and bottom five locations in its network in terms of how many employees signed up for the program. Retention was 20 percent better at the most active locations than in the five locations with the least participation.

Although he wouldn't reveal a specific dollar amount that can be attributed to retaining even the lowest-level employee, think of it this way: A minimum wage worker in California earns $10.50 per hour. If you multiply that by a 40-hour work week, then the employee makes $420 per week or $1,680 per month. If the employee trains for six weeks, then he or she is being paid $2,520 to learn a job that someone else was actually doing the previous six weeks. That's not a complete waste of money as the employee is still learning and contributing, but it's money that isn't as well-spent as it would be on a staffer who is knowledgeable and at peak effectiveness.

Although Tang can't directly tie retention rates to Catalyst usage, he said he thinks providing employees with the tool "helped them feel a sense of belonging," which encouraged them to stay at the company.

"We don't see associates as tools but as potential leaders who have high capabilities and can attain their goals," he said. "We believe that [proving those goals with language-learning tools] played a key part in why we were able to see a huge improvement."

Community Support

A Catalyst registration at Panda Restaurant Group is different than an employee buying Rosetta Stone on their own. Some people who register to learn English might not stick with the program but, by registering through the corporate office, these employees can be nudged by their managers to continue learning. Managers can find out why employees stopped and see if there is anything that can be done to get the associate back into the language-learning routine.

Additionally, managers who register and successfully shepherd employees through their language learning are perceived as strong leaders who are dedicated to the success of their employees. "The more licenses we see assigned to associates, [the more] we see our leaders are proactively investing in associates and their development," said Tang. "We hope that continuing to increase investment in associates inspires them to achieve more at Panda."

Panda Restaurant Group employees who are interested in the program are encouraged to talk to a supervisor or email someone from Tang's learning development team. Managers are briefed on the program at the corporate center and encouraged to enroll employees who are interested.

This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.