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The Connection Between Learning and Employee Experience

August 09, 2021 Employee Experience
scott clark
By Scott Clark

Many companies today aim to create a culture of learning for employees. Whether it’s through online learning, certifications, upskilling or reskilling, employees that are always learning are more engaged, loyal, productive and satisfied. They increase their knowledge and enhance their career opportunities, and have an improved employee experience in the process.

A recent survey revealed that more than half of Millennials (58%) and Gen Z (52%) indicated that success in their careers depends on frequently updating their skills and knowledge. It remains important for older workers, too. More than a third of Gen X (35%) and Baby Boomers (34%) said career success depended on continuous learning. Workers of all generations who frequently engaged in learning reported feeling more fulfilled, accomplished and motivated, according to survey responses.

An overwhelming majority (93%) said it was at least somewhat important that employers provided resources for ongoing learning, and younger generations were more likely to indicate that it was extremely or very important. It's become clear that continued learning initiatives are an important piece of a positive employee experience.

Creating a Culture of Learning

A LinkedIn Learning report revealed that 94% of employees said they would stay with their employer longer if the company invested in their career development. Companies that cultivate and encourage a culture of learning are more resilient to sudden changes, as well as better prepared to handle a crisis should one occur.  

All employees will need to become comfortable with learning and relearning new skills continuously, said Lars Hyland, chief learning officer at Totara Learning, a provider of enterprise learning, engagement and performance management technology. He said the pandemic accelerated long-standing employee experience priorities.

“One of which is a growing appetite and perceived value by workers of the support they receive for their learning and development," he said. "This requires an intentional learning culture to be established across the organization."

One way to do that is by making learning part of the everyday activities of employees, rather than a singular or irregular event. “This can be done by ensuring that learning activities are closely aligned with the everyday flow and cadence of work, the patterns of collaboration and communication, and in particular how performance is measured and managed,” Hyland said.

The Positive Effects of a Learning Culture on Employee Experience

Encouraging and supporting employees in their learning endeavors is a net positive, and adds long-term value to both employees and their companies.

“Giving people the permission and psychological safety to explore their skills and knowledge domains, to openly acknowledge where they need support, and where they can assist others, results in an ‘all boats rising’ effect — everyone improves their productivity and performance consistently over the longer term,” said Hyland. “This helps retain talent and builds a resiliency across the organization to respond adaptably to unexpected shocks. The current pandemic is just one of many such shocks coming down the track.”

A culture of continuous learning is the mark of a healthy organization with engaged employees, said Peter Hirst, senior associate dean of executive education at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

"Research increasingly shows professional development is one of the top drivers of employee retention and a positive employee experience," he said. "Organizations that support continuous learning understand the enormity of the challenges their leaders are facing today and their need to be supported, connected and empowered to lead.”

Related Article: Learning and Development Is Key to Employee Experience in Remote Work

Focus on the Learning Experience

Brent Pearson, founder and CEO of Enboarder, an onboarding platform, said the typical employee receives hundreds of emails and messages a day, meaning that achieving learning outcomes is harder than ever. That competition for time and attention makes effective engagement and delivery vital for successful learning initiatives.

“Unfortunately, the way many companies approach their learning programs is not human-centric," he said. "In other words, it’s not in line with how people actually learn. As a result, many learning programs, no matter how well designed, fall short of expectations with how employees experience the delivery.”

Because the hybrid workplace by its nature means that many employees are not in a location where they can be face-to-face with other employees each day, it's improtant to encourage the social aspects of learning and design them into the learning initiative. The blend of technology and human connections in learning is a delicate balance, Pearson said.

“Social learning plays a crucial role in any learning strategy, which becomes more important in a remote or hybrid work environment where many interactions and human connections risk being lost if not proactively encouraged,” he said. “The key to creating a culture of continued learning lies in creating a shared understanding, shared experiences and orchestrating the journey for everyone involved, whether that is a buddy, mentor, manager or peers, at a time and place that drives both engagement and connection.”

Related Article: Employee Experience Goes Nowhere Without Trust

How to Design Learning That Improves Employee Experience

Creating successful and positive learning experiences is an art form unto itself. In fact, the practice of learning experience design focuses on creating learning experiences that allow learners to achieve their goals in a human-centered, goal-oriented fashion.

The effectiveness of a learning initiative comes down to the design of the learning experience. The medium and channel of interaction and consumption of learning is secondary, Hyland said. He recommended five key steps to design any learning activity:

  1. Set small clear goals.
  2. Remove distractions.
  3. Actively seek feedback.
  4. Deliberately practice new skills in real contexts.
  5. Reflect regularly and iterate where there are areas for improvement.

Not every organizational challenge has a training solution, and a poorly designed learning initiative can be worse than having no learning initiative at all. “Take the time to try and design away the need for training first," Hyland said. "What you have left will form the basis of any remaining required course."

Building a blend of small, targeted learning activities is usually the most effective approach, he added. That includes microlearning that can be scheduled more easily into the normal flow of work, as well as multiple training delivery options: some learning online and self-directed, some online and in live groups, or some done in person as a group. Skills that involve teamwork are typically better off learned with others.

“A guiding principle is that if the skill/knowledge being learned is applied to working with others, then learning it with others makes more sense than trying to do that in isolation," Hyland said. Examples include product development, problem solving, interviewing and communication skills. Similarly, skills that an employee can use on their own can be learned on their own.

Enable Self Directed Learning and Mentoring

Traditional, the majority of people have been taught by teachers. Self-directed learning, on the other hand, allows the employee to decide how and when they will learn. Employees that have a choice in how and what they need to learn are more motivated and engaged.

Gita Bhargava, co-founder and COO at Global Upside, a staffing, accounting, HR, payroll and compliance service provider, said it's important for companies to understand their own beliefs, and to live up to those beliefs in all that they do, including employee learning. Mentors can play a powerful role in creating and sustaining a culture of learning.

"Once you have established your company’s culture, it is critical to uplift those mentors who acknowledge and understand the personal and professional goals of employees, as well as the challenges that each individual faces," he said. "Doing so will allow you to devise a plan of action to help them reach these goals and overcome their challenges. To ensure effectiveness, it is necessary to revisit this plan regularly to assess progress, and update the plan as needed."

Related Article: Why Now's the Time to Integrate Learning Into Your Digital Workplace

Continued Learning for Hybrid and Remote Workers

Many of today’s employees are remote or hybrid, working both in the office and at home. This provides new opportunities for continued learning via virtual whiteboards, online classes, as well as in traditional classroom settings.

“In today’s new normal, we not only need to think about driving employee experience through continued learning, but also doing so in a digital, remote and hybrid workplace environment," MIT's Hirst said.

Online learning can be a great way to connect distributed teams for example, he said. The pandemic caused a surge in demand for virtual and online learning, but that growth predate its onset. What COVID-19 did was to push innovation in learning design and delivery from theory into widespread practice.

“I think a big wave is building around the demand for well designed, very engaging, live online and asynchronously delivered experiences for professionals at all levels,” said Hirst. “I believe that we can deliver more compelling experiences virtually now than ever before. And some elements actually work better online.” 

It’s often challenging for people to work a full-time job and take in-person classes. Remote learning initiatives enable them to learn whether they are at home, on the subway, or in the office. That's a boon for workers in remote or hybrid in-office situations, as well as employees with other challenges in attending in-person learning.

"Digital content is also more accessible — people facing travel restrictions or a disability now have the same access to faculty and peers as any other participants," Hirst said. "So, in some ways, digital can be more inclusive.”

A combination of virtual learning and traditional classes is often the best choice, especially for hybrid workers. “What we have found is that a lot of executives are excited to participate in both online and in-person courses,” said Hirst. “A hybrid approach to learning satisfies both the need for personal interaction, and the thrill of physically being in a hub of innovation with the convenience and flexibility of online learning.”

Related Article: Why Upskilling Is an Imperative for Every Business

Upskilling and Reskilling Employees for Competitive Advantage

A recent World Economic Forum report indicated that half of all employees globally will need to upskill or reskill by 2025 as a result of the rise of digitization, automation and new technologies. It's here that it becomes clear that a culture of learning is beneficial to both companies and their employees.

“Organizations are having to reconsider who they are, what they do, and who their customers and competition could be," Hirst said. "These pivots and reinventions require large-scale upskilling, reskilling and career transformations — all of which are effective strategies to keep organizations up to speed and to combat an accelerating skills shortage that was problematic long before the pandemic."

Short courses in person, live online, or asynchronous can grow the capabilities to navigate these sweeping shifts while also being mindful of schedules and workload, he added.

Continued learning enables employees to be ready to take on new roles within the company and helps identify strengths and weaknesses, which allows a company to fill any existing knowledge gaps.

“Upskilling and reskilling employees benefits a company both externally and internally,” said Bhargava. “Cross-training your employees in different departments enables them to discover the areas they are truly passionate about and entices them to excel in those areas. In doing so, you are thus building an internal culture that is passionate, highly skilled and eager to perform. When employees are able to view their work as their passion, the quality of their work and service improves, which ultimately helps to ensure the success of your business.”

By designing a learning culture built on the goals of the organization, companies put themselves in a better position to handle the challenges of tomorrow. Plus, employee experience gets a needed boost, improving employee productivity, engagement and satisfaction in the process.

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