We Did a Deep Dive into Engaging Learners
Here’s Why You Should Do It Too
This article first appeared on Acorn Labs in March 2021.
Keeping employees engaged is no mean feat. Training and development is just one of the ways to ensure employees are engaged with their work, though it too comes with its own challenges.
Employee development takes time and effort to be effective - but the more you nurture it, the stronger your organisation becomes both now and in future. So, what are the ways in which employee development can be designed, nurtured and maintained in order to keep employees engaged?
The link between employee development and employee engagement
Let's start with what employee development is not.
- It's not just about developing learning and development strategies.
- It's not just mandatory employee training.
- It's not just performing annual reviews.
- It's not a short-term initiative, nor should it be a one-off.
At the highest level, employee development is the process of improving and refining employees' existing skills while developing new ones that support organisational objectives.
Consider the cost of an employee with limited skills and/or limited interest in developing their skills. No doubt they are costing you time in reduced efficiency, productivity and output, as well as negatively impacting the culture, their co-workers' time and quality of output. Letting them go can cost almost as much money as keeping them, whereas investing in developing their skills can negate these issues and improve employee retention rates for you.
Investing in employees means investing in your human capital, a neat term that places a value on habits, knowledge and attitudes as much as tangible assets like revenue or property. Rather than seeing people as a commodity or resource, though, human capital focuses on investment. If you begin to view employee development as an investment in your people, then it's easy to understand why it's important and how it will benefit your organisation.
The importance of employee development
Another factor to consider is the link between business benefits and benefits for your employees. Developing skills gives employees confidence in their abilities. When an employee is confident, they're not likely to struggle with everyday tasks, meaning they'll take less time to complete them, are more likely to put out a higher quality of work, and will produce things in a more efficient manner. Plus, engagement and productivity are natural allies of innovation and adaptability, meaning your organisation has a better foundation for future success and growth.
The benefits of employee development
It's important, yes. But exactly how does employee development benefit organisations and employees? When executed correctly, it can fortify the employee lifecycle, business outcomes, company culture and reputation.
Remaining competitive is vital to an organisation's survival at a minimum and its success at best. Assuming that employee development is out of your budget or that annual reviews are enough are likely to be the reasons for poor performance, productivity, efficiency, engagement and motivation. And poor performance often occurs when an employee isn't entirely sure of one or all of these three things:
- What they're supposed to do.
- How they're supposed to do it.
- Why they are doing it.
The true benefit of improved performance
Effective employee development will ultimately increase productivity through both learned technical skills and soft skills. It'll also save time in areas you might not have considered, such as the duplication of effort that comes from time spent correcting mistakes or redoing flawed work. You may also find what is deemed a marker of good performance becomes more universal rather than unilateral - a less tangible but equally positive benefit that generates consistent output and standard for work across each employee, team and department.
The world around us is constantly changing in response to massive forces of business called megatrends (think: aging populations, big data, sustainability and political volatility). What once worked isn't a certain win now and as new and unexpected situations continue to be thrown up, it's more important than ever for employees to be adaptable. But it's a soft skill, which means it can be overlooked in favour of concrete responses that are 'proven' to work.
The true benefit of adaptability
Herein lies the real benefit of adaptability: the ability to learn and unlearn. An adaptable employee is largely unfazed by sudden turns of events. They can respond effectively and quickly and mobilise others to resolve problems, too, making adaptability a critical leadership skill. Thinking metacognitively gives an employee better self-evaluation and critical thinking skills, which means their reactions to events will be flexible and contextual (a telling sign of innovation) rather than rigid and habitual.
A continuous learning culture is highly attractive to potential employees, especially the younger generation starting to enter the workforce. The job perks they're looking for aren't necessarily car spaces and company cards; they want growth, incentives and rewards tied to your organisation's goals. Openly demonstrating how you are investing in each employee's development is an easy way to attract the talent you want.
The true benefit of improved reputation
It's a rather ineffective recruitment strategy to simply advertise job vacancies and expect the right prospects to come to you. They must want to apply for those roles, otherwise you'll likely find external candidates are applying because they 'just need a job' - and those employees likely won't be engaged with or invested in your goals, mission or bottom line (and their work will reflect it).
The longer an employee stays with an organisation, the more well versed they are in culture and expectations, and the stronger their investment in contributing to organisational success. Think about the skills and knowledge they make take to a competitor should they leave your organisation, and the interruption to output and customer service that job vacancies incur. Plus, team efficiency and dynamics could also be disrupted as others need to cover the loss of work from an absent team member.
The true benefit of retention
The simplest way to retain an employee is to train them. Rather than looking externally for skills you might be missing (and incurring the costs of recruitment in the process), it's much more cost-effective to develop those skills internally. Reskilling is also much easier than training an entirely new employee; an existing one already understands your ethos, mission and values, so is better prepared to contextualise whatever new responsibilities and skills they're learning.
Developing great leaders is one of the biggest challenges in the modern workforce.
But finding the right person to lead is difficult because no longer does seniority demand promotion, nor does someone with awards and merit against their name necessarily have the leadership skills needed to manage people.
The true benefit of training for succession
Aside from the obvious benefit of developing people who are already committed to your organisation, training leaders enables you to define the skills that are most important to your organisation. Potential leaders have a better understanding of how their role contributes to the business and interacts with others, and it saves the cost (and risk) of hiring externally.
How to develop an employee development plan
Professional development is one of the more influential drivers of employee engagement. It's not impossible to offer personalised training for your entire workforce. If anything, it's remarkably easier than you think - if you follow a few key steps, that is.
Ask your employees what they need
In software, a user-centric design is intuitive and puts the most relevant information first and foremost. Employee development should be the same. One-on-ones between managers and their team members are a good jumping off point to discuss current projects and skills and what skills employees would like to develop.
Why you should do this
Forcing employees to complete mandatory training falls short on two inherent qualities you need for engagement: interest and usefulness. It also makes it a wholly impersonal activity, considering employees across different job roles and functions might be asked to complete the same coursework.
Define organisational goals
Assessing your current workforce against long-term goals is vital for determining the crucial skills you're missing. While it's important to provide opportunities that meet individual aspirations, it's equally crucial to develop skills that will contribute to business strategy (possibly boosting your share of the market by 17% and ensuring your organisation is 58% better prepared for the future).
Why you should do this
Ask yourself how you would feel if you were in your employees' shoes and being asked to develop your skills with no real explanation for why. Purposeless professional development might cause employees to disengage and even unintentionally convey a lack of confidence from your organisation.
Create on-the-job opportunities
Throwing things at a wall and expecting it to stick isn't a particularly efficient method of learning. Learning moments move the needle quicker by giving employees immediate context in which to solve problems and build confidence with new knowledge or skills.
Why you should do this
The case-by-case basis of on-the-job training gives employees a chance to contextually apply new skills, which creates a basis of experience they can build from in future circumstances.
Evaluate & adjust
Engagement surveys are a good way to get direct feedback but creating learning milestones for individuals and tracking their progress is even better when understanding if learning is having an impact.
Why you should do this
Most of the benefits you'll get from employee development are long-term, so it's important to have metrics against which you can evaluate success or use to determine adjustments.
5 strategies to improve employee development, now
Whether you already have an employee development plan in place or you're only just starting to design one, there are ways to immediately improve your offering and reap some short-term benefits.
1. Train from day one
You may have heard of this little thing called onboarding. If you want new employees to last more than six months, you need to give them the tools and resources they need to do their job well from the day they start. This sets the tone for the rest of their careers with you. Consider that remote workers don't get the lay of the land that those working in-office do and you'll understand why it's important to have a central repository for knowledge and training.
2. Train your managers
We've talked many times about why it's important to train your managers. (See here, here and here.) Part of effective professional development training is ensuring you have managers who lead by example and champion employee development in their teams. Those aforementioned one-on-ones? An easy and almost instant way for your managers to ascertain:
- Employees most recent 'wins'
- Challenges being faced
- Individual and team morale
- Job satisfaction
- How employees view leadership.
3. Encourage collaboration
Employee development needn't be a formal training activity. On-the-job development is often more beneficial; employees can see in real time the context, environment and scenarios in which new skills and behaviours are necessary. Implement cross-departmental collaboration to encourage employees to learn about other parts of the business, different pain points that could affect their work, and create healthier dynamics.
4. Strengthen soft skills
The term 'soft skills' itself implies they're not that important, but soft skills are actually those that really take someone from an average worker to a future leader within your organisation. Would you say problem solving, adaptability, self-reflection, conflict resolution and communication aren't necessary? In this age of automation, the critical skills of the future are not technical but behavioural - and they're always changing in scope, meaning your internal culture and lines of communication are as well. Focusing on core relationships will help create a more collaborative and creative community.
5. Invest in personal development
Wellbeing shouldn't be a taboo word. Positivity inspires productivity, and this is the kind of environment where employees want to come to work. Mental illness is the leading cause of sick days in Australia and 1 in 6 employees will experience day-to-day symptoms associated with poor mental health, like worry and bad sleep. If your employees don't feel their best, they certainly won't perform their best. Offering mental health days, counselling services, corporate gym memberships or even just sit-stand desks are additional ways to engage and care for your employees' mental and physical health.