Employee engagement misconceptions concept

Employee engagement — why learning and development must be the torchbearer in the 4th Revolution

Employee engagement may be the greatest issue facing businesses in the modern era. The 4th Revolution – the age of artificial intelligence, augmented reality and digital everything – means the job market and demand for skills are constantly in flux, leaving the relationship between organisations and their employees stretched further than ever before. In this article, we’ll examine how to redress this fraying connection, and specifically how learning and development departments are the key torchbearers for employee engagement going forward. If they fail to rise to the task, we could begin to see yet more well-established businesses fall prey to start-ups and innovation companies.

What’s the opportunity cost?

Divested of expectations of a lifelong position within an organisation, faced with an onrushing artificial intelligence boom, and struggling to keep up with rapidly shifting skills demands, modern employees no longer envision their future as intertwined with their company’s. Brought up in an individualistic, self-deterministic culture where nevertheless progress and worth must be validated by constant feedback, employees feel that their work goes unheralded, bookended only by annual progress reviews. Swamped in the quagmire of bloated (rather than lean) processes, they feel that their creativity is stifled and their opinion counts for nothing. In other words, they are disengaged.

The costs stack up, not only for the individual employees and their wellbeing and productivity, but cumulatively across the organisation. Despite disruptive technology, a business can only be as strong as its employees. When employees aren’t engaged, they’re less productive and efficient on all fronts, and the scale of the problem is not to be underestimated.

A 2013 survey of 6 million UK employees by the Hay Group revealed that 35% of them were not engaged with their employment. Just 15% of UK workers find themselves “highly motivated,” and the productivity costs of the employee engagement deficit are estimated to be as much as £340bn each year. However, every challenge is an opportunity, as the old aphorism goes, so 35% of disengaged employees also represent £340bn that could be generated.

Research tells us that engaged employees deliver improved organisational performance – they are happier, healthier and more fulfilled, more likely to increase customer satisfaction levels, and be more innovative and productive. A boost in all of these key areas through a symbiotic relationship will increase turnover through greater efficiency and productivity, better sales and brand image, and less absenteeism, supported by a whole host of more intangible holistic benefits.

What makes an engaged employee

According to the Institute of Employment Studies, an engaged employee:

  • Believes in the organisation
  • Strives to improve it
  • Understands the business context and the “bigger picture”
  • Respects and helps their colleagues
  • Is willing to “go the extra mile”
  • Keeps up to date with developments in the field

A key concurrent factor across all of the engaged attributes is a sense of shared investment between the future of the individual and the organisation, and a feeling that the individual is valued and involved in the future vision of the organisation.

However, achieving this kind of goal alignment, where the organisation and the individual share the same pathway to success, is easier said than done. Due to the 4th revolution and the constantly increasing pace of change, both employee and employer need to be agile, and able to keep up with rapidly shifting requirements for services and skills. It’s adapt to survive.

For the employee, this means continuous development of necessary skills, which could change from one year to the next. If they are to keep up with the pace of change, they need to be more than motivated: they need to be engaged.

It falls upon learning and development departments, as the arbiters of this constant renewal of skills and technology, to drive the engagement levels required to maintain constantly redeveloping skillsets, and provide the tools to do so. Truly inspiring learning both engages the learner and opens the pathway to further development, enabling learners to invest in both their own and the organisation’s future.

Learning to engage

In a 2016 report, Deloitte stated how ‘learning opportunities are among the largest drivers of employee engagement and strong workplace culture – they are part of the entire employee value proposition, not merely a way to build skills.’ Done right, leveraging behavioural science insights and innovative instructional design, learning can point the way for employees to autonomously find their way towards engagement. Learning-driven behavioural change doesn’t have to extend only to technical skills or systems knowledge. It can facilitate a radical shift in approach and vision through moulding of a learning culture, and in turn company culture. So give your learners value-for-study, earn their learning. Using behavioural insights is key to this, and to developing learning that fosters engagement and change.

However, there’s no simple solution, no magic wand that L&D departments can wave to suddenly open the eyes of their employees to the bigger picture, leaving learners clamouring for the next course module or to sprint “the extra mile”. In fact, learning done wrong can even be counterproductive, decreasing employee engagement levels and engendering a negative feedback cycle.

Culture is key here. Just as you want your learning environments to be continuous experiences that keep learners coming back, you want any improvements in employee engagement to stick and become part of company culture, eventually enabling a positive feedback cycle, or “engagement loop” whereby learning leads to engagement, which leads to more learning, and so on. This is possible by building a learning culture that fosters such engagement. But how exactly can that be done?

Think about learning that continually adapts to the learner through personalisation, or a platform that constantly repopulates itself with the freshest and most relevant content to your learners through social learning. On top of those, we can build mobile apps that act as personal coaches, encouraging continuous learning and assessment rather than single interventions. These are just some of the ways you can make your learning a tool of engagement empowerment, rather than a stultifying obstacle course. Your learning can be the spark that ignites engagement, kindling the flicker of curiosity that leads a learner on from being a disengaged employee to flourishing as a social-sharing, independent learner with a constant desire to improve themselves and the organisation they work for.

In conclusion

The torch that learning and development departments and providers must bear, then, in the quest for company-wide engagement is not only to craft content that is impeccably directed and imbued with a sense of company identity sympathetic to the learner that uses behavioural science insights to harness intrinsic motivations. It’s also to assemble the framework around engaged learning culture, and in turn an engaged company culture. The goal is not just finally achieving as close to 100% engagement as possible, but ultimately to stimulate a sustainable “engagement loop,” allowing employee learning and development and engagement to continually reinforce each other.