Learning in the modern workplace: why is engagement so important?

Reading time: 5m

AuthorNick DaviesChief Commercial Officer (CCO)
Reading Time5 minutes

Engaged learners play a key part in the success and growth of an organisation. How? Ed O’Boyle, global practice leader at Gallup, believes that an employee who is highly engaged isn’t “someone who just shows up and fills a seat; they are enthusiastic about coming to work, they go above and beyond expectations, and they find meaning in what they do.”

The shelf-life of work-related skills is shrinking, meaning learning must be viewed as a continuous endeavour to keep up with the changes. The more engaged employees are, the more productive, positive and motivated your workforce. This drives greater staff retention and loyalty, and in turn has a positive impact on workplace culture and productivity. Ultimately this provides a greater return on investment.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise to learn that both improving employee engagement with learning and increasing on-the-job productivity are two of the top priorities for 9 out of 10 L&D leaders today. However, with only 1 in 4 achieving these goals, we need to step back and consider why.

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How is L&D changing in the modern workplace?

“We just don’t view our job as teaching people. We really view our job as inspiring people to learn. If we can get that right, the rest of it sort of comes.” — Stephanie Demiris (Deckers Brands)

The modern learner, as we have already discussed in What Does Modern Learning Look Like?, no longer expects formal, face-to-face training as the only way to learn. Instead, today’s time-poor employees need learning that’s accessible and available whenever they need it, with a range of options as to how. With the growth of apps, podcasts and video blogs, for example, today’s choices are endless.

It’s not just the attitude to learning technology that’s changing though – the employee’s relationship with L&D is undergoing a radical transformation too. Many employees are now taking control of their own development, with statistics showing that people now spend up to five times more time learning on their own each week than on L&D-led learning. L&D departments today are therefore changing from learning providers to content curators and are becoming responsible for providing the tools and support to enable self-directed learning. No more spoon-feeding – it’s all about encouraging the learner to take control.

Bear in mind that to foster a learning culture in the workplace, it’s also the practitioners, trainers and people managers who can make or break engagement. As learners seek to learn more independently, they will rely on coaches and mentors to support them along the way. L&D professionals therefore need to be ready to embrace changes to their role that see them becoming coaches who inspire, encourage and enable the learning to take place.

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How can you drive employee engagement?

“The message is clear: L&D teams must adapt to the needs of colleagues rather than force them to do what L&D wants them to do.” – Laura Overton, Founder of Towards Maturity

If we asked you to list exactly what is working with your current strategy and to list the things that need improvement, would you be able to identify these things immediately? What are your current obstacles?

To find out what is and isn’t working, you’ll need to communicate with the people directly involved with the learning themselves. Do your research – ask employees what it is that they like about their current training and what they would like to see improved. Conduct surveys, interviews, focus group discussions or simply just have an informal chat over coffee. A little bit of personal interaction can go a long way in boosting engagement – and these are, after all, the people you need to engage.

Once you’ve identified learner ‘pain points’, how then can you set about resolving them? Let’s take a look at some of the strategies you can use:

1. Promote active learning

At least 10% of your learning delivery (according to the 70:20:10 model of learning discussed in our previous blog post) will consist of formal, trainer-led learning. However, there is a danger with this style of becoming too ‘chalk and talk’ – that is, the trainer delivers reams of information with little interaction from the learner other than note-taking. This is contradictory to our aim of engaging learners – cue a room full of bleary eyes rolling frequently towards the clock.

The key is to keep learning active. To do this, you could:

  • Add some scenario-based activities to help the learner apply their skills to real-life
  • Encourage social learning through group activity and discussion
  • Conduct quizzes to regularly test knowledge and identify gaps early on
  • Add videos and engaging visuals
  • Communicate with your learners by asking and answering questions throughout.

Make the learner part of the learning process, rather than a reluctant bystander and watch attitudes transform.

2. Enable with technology

Studies by Pearson Research & Innovation have shown that digital learning strategies and access to devices can help learners develop a deeper and more engaged understanding of a topic. Technology has opened up a whole host of content delivery channels in a variety of multimedia options: think videos, diagrams, images and interactive assessments.

Offering the learning digitally also allows users to complete the learning in their own time without the constraints of day-to-day working patterns. Sometimes we feel more motivated to learn than at other times – after a long day of meetings for example, how motivated would you be to sit and learn for hours that particular evening? Every learner is different, and while some may find they learn best late at night, others may absorb more information early in the morning; on their daily commute, for example. Enabling access to the learning via mobile device allows the learner to digest on-demand, bite-sized chunks of learning at their own pace, in their own time and when they’re feeling most responsive.

Take a look at our previous blog post on The Value of Informal Learning Libraries to see how technology can specifically be used to drive a more engaging, learner-led experience.

3. Demonstrate relevance

Have you ever attended a training course only to ask ‘What was the point?’ at the end of it? If a learner can’t see how the learning will improve their life at work, they are unlikely to absorb information they consider irrelevant.

Outline any benefits and objectives at the start of the course, then ask the learners to identify how they can apply the learning in their role. Add scenarios and real-life success stories to allow learners to see the impact learning will have, keeping them motivated and wanting to learn. This is the perfect example of ‘pull’ learning in action.

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To summarise, L&D leaders today should no longer be trying to “maintain the role of learning gatekeeper”, as described by Microsoft. Instead, they should recognise that everyone needs to be kept up to date when it comes to developing new skills and be ready to support and encourage learners to take their own personalised journey. Champion those who are already engaged employees – if you’re going to create a successful culture of engaged learners, we need these social influencers to lead by example.

Get to know your people. Identify their problems, offer realistic solutions and be their biggest supporters throughout – then watch learning in your organisation flourish.


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