busy desk with laptop and coffee ready to learn to engage

Learn to engage — employee engagement through learning design

Can you think back to the most powerful learning experience you’ve ever had? Was there a class that you always looked forward to?

Mine was a class at university, not exceptional in its content but transformative because of the teaching methods used by the professor. He skillfully used the flipped classroom methodology to reach the promised land of education: it made me realise the unknown unknowns, the blind spots I never knew I had.

These experiences initiate deep learning moments, a rush of hormones that have us wanting to come back for more. In education, they have us diligently preparing for classes and continuing animated conversations long after they’re over. At work, quality learning re-ignites our excitement for what we do, energising and empowering us to create, think and do. In other words, it engages us.

Employee engagement is the holy grail of today’s workplace. Engaged companies have fewer sick days, higher productivity and better customer satisfaction. Learning can play a key role in driving this engagement, and is a strong motivator for an employee to want to stay with an organisation, feel valued and grow with the company.

Whilst learning, and digital learning in particular, may not be the axis of your employee engagement strategy, it’s an essential part of a well-oiled organisation. The 2017 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report names learning as the number one reason millennials choose an employer, and the 2016 version posits that learning opportunities are among the largest drivers of employee engagement.

Learning – done correctly – can help ingrain best practices and accelerate the adoption of your employee engagement strategy. It can aid in manager training that’s usually at the top of the list when it comes to engagement interventions. And when all’s well in an organisation, learning can make the final push from good to great: by filling in any knowledge gaps on demand it can clear the path for true creativity, leadership and innovation. At the heart of this potential is good learning design, and these key considerations can create learning that truly drives engagement and behavioural change.

The hook

Otherwise called the “what’s-in-it-for-me?” quandary. Answering this is the proverbial key to learners’ hearts and minds so address it head on. No matter how critical the message is and how silkily it flows, it will only resonate with learners – and change their behaviour – if you make an effort to bring it to life. Many learning departments breathe a sigh of relief when they hear that a course will be compulsory. No need to strain yourself with making data security engaging… learners will have to finish the course anyway, right? But we’re in the business of behaviour change, and for that to happen learners have to be active participants in the learning process. This means that intrinsic emotional factors need to be considered for mandatory courses as for any other.

Depending on your company, the course topic and context, different approaches may need to be used to hit that emotionally engaging sweet spot. In some cases, emphasising the consequences on a personal level could be the most effective. In others, you can leverage social comparison and the fear of missing out.

When tackling employee engagement on a strategic level, learning can also be used to effectively communicate the brand message and make an explicit connection between learner’s performance and the strategic vision of the company. In combination with other corporate communications, elearning can hook the learners by making the company’s goals seem tangible, achievable, and most importantly relevant to an individual.

Make it about them

Making learning about the learner is intuitive but sadly not frequently implemented in learning design. That’s quite surprising since personalised products and experiences have been successfully engaging us as consumers for a long time. In fact, we take personalisation for granted in the many services we access daily from our devices. Our online services are now personalised based on our age, location, browsing history and any other bit of data they manage to get their hands on.

There’s no real reason why learning software should lag behind these trends, and corporate learning is increasingly resembling regular consumer applications. To drive engagement, learning must be designed to address the personal need each course is tapping into. Is a diversity course merely about being compliant or is it about being an enlightened citizen of the world? Is an ethics course about learning to reiterate the slogans in the Code, or is it about integrity, honesty and honour?

Make it beautiful

Good learning design trumps graphic design any day, but we’re well past the time when you could pick one of the two. That’s especially true when creating content for the younger generation who don’t tolerate compromises on user experience.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we’re drawn to beautiful things. Try browsing any category in an app store and I bet you’ll settle on the app that looks nice and slick. Moreover, in the product design industry it’s long been known that the way something looks affects our overall perception of the quality of that product. If the first few pages of the course look solid and animate nicely, the learner carries that positive first impression throughout the course and is more willing to forgive any errors That may arise later.

Beautiful, visually stimulating design is an easy but effective tweak that aids employee engagement. Pair it up with powerful, thoughtful learning design and you’ve got an elearning convert.

Autonomy and exploration

You know the feeling when you open an article in your favourite website, and it links to another one, and another one that you absolutely need to read? Now imagine if corporate learning was like that: if a course offered such good quality curated content that you never wanted to put it away.

In the haste to include all the required content in a course we forget the defining feature of adult learners: their need for autonomy. Just like I have my daily dose of informal learning by accidentally getting hooked on an idea and then digging until I feel I’ve explored it sufficiently, adults are generally capable of defining their own learning path, and they’re much more motivated to engage with the content that way.

Until we start heavily using AI to determine and modify learning paths, Amazon-style, with suggestions and all, it’s worth being mindful in how we utilise existing tools. Consider course design that could work either with units being taken in sequence or used on-demand. Similarly, a resources page that, when thoughtfully designed and signposted, could resemble something of a collection of anticipated learning paths. Even simulations that highlight different learning points based on learner’s decisions give a sense of freedom to explore.


If you’re committed to employee engagement in your organisation, digital learning can be a powerful tool to connect with your employees, address their fears and aspirations, and to build a solid foundation of knowledge for future performance. That’s no small feat, and it means learning designers have to dust off adult learning fundamentals, borrow best practices from consumer product designers and double-down on their focus on the learner.