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Employee engagement through learning: the best L&D strategy for future

Ivan Pavlov and His Dogs: The Classical Conditioning!

Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov was studying how digestion worked in mammals. Part of his research included observing what triggers dogs to salivate.

Should have been easy. Every mammal produces saliva, after all, to break down the food. A dog should naturally start drooling when presented with food.

But what Pavlov discovered had far-reaching consequences — it paved the way for a completely new theory about human behavior. He started ringing a bell every time he fed the dogs, and pretty soon, found that the dogs began to drool and salivate just as the bell started ringing, even when there was no food in sight!

Pavlov went on to extend this observation to all mammals, including humans. That if you present the neutral stimulus (the bell) and the unconditioned stimulus (the food) together, a mammal will eventually ‘learn’ or get conditioned to associate the two.

In the study of human behavior, Pavlov’s findings have now become widely popular as the law of classical conditioning, where you can artificially induce a ‘conditioned’ response with a neutral stimulus.

Whether or not this happens in the case of attachment and relationships where your dallying other remembers the smell of your favorite perfume or the red-check shirt you wore on your Feb. 14 date is another debate, but the above science of engagement definitely works in the workplaces.

Using such behavioral techniques to reinforce learning (or ‘engage’ the learner so that they enjoy the learning process) is of immense value. Just like teachers offer rewards and praises for a job well done or punish students in the form of extra homeworks, people can also be conditioned to become a better learner each day by making learning a fun activity — in the flow of work — using interactive, gamified learning approaches. The idea is, if your workforce is engaged at the workplace, they will feel much more motivated to do their work (and do it much more effectively thereafter). They will take more ownership and go all out of their way to add more value to their assigned works. 

Have a look at this interesting infographic from Dale Carnegie:

engaged employees

There is a direct relationship between negative emotions and an employee’s level of engagement, the research institute says. According to their findings, employees who feel negative emotions are disengaged nearly ten times more than employees who feel positive emotions. In fact, negative emotions are often more contagious than positive ones — they can spiral from the individual employee to impact co-workers and the organization as a whole and spread beyond the workplace to clients, potential clients and possible future hires.

Business case: The tangible impacts of Employee Engagement

Talk about safety. At Molson Coors, highly engaged employees were reported to be five times less likely than non-engaged employees to have a safety incident, and seven times less likely to have a lost-time safety incident. By strengthening employee engagement, the beverage giant went on to save $1,721,760 in safety costs in one year (Source: SHRM).

Or, for that matter, the profits resulting out of it. Construction-equipment maker Caterpillar’s increased employee engagement resulted in $8.8 million annual savings from decreased attrition, absenteeism and overtime in a European plant, and a $2 million increase in profit plus a 34% increase in highly satisfied customers in a start-up plant (Source: SHRM).

Employee engagement directly impacts your business, yes. Take a look again at this detailed chart from a Harvard Business Review report:

employee engagement KPI

Not a surprise that The Engagement Institute report says disengaged employees cost U.S. companies up to $550 billion a year.

So how do you differentiate between engaged and disengaged employees?

It’s very interesting how Gallup distinguishes between actively engaged and actively disengaged workers. They call the latter ROAD warriors, or “retired on active duty.”

While organizations and research firms may use different terminologies to demarcate engaged and disengaged workers (and the average performers in between), the essence remains the same — that an engaged performer is most likely to recommend your workplace to others and the disengaged workers feel no real connection to their jobs.

SHRM has picked up certain traits from both sides of the wall:

engaged employee

And did we read it passion for learning? Yes, that is the most important parameter. That is where so many Learning & Engagement startups have flourished in the market of late (the two ideas are not isolated; they are purposely intertwined). Learning opportunities lead to better engagement rate, and a more engaged worker is likely to stick with you for a longer period.

‘Many focus on digital technology to reinvent workplace – but without a strong learning culture, they will not succeed’ – Deloitte

But how to ensure workplace engagement for Millennials — the Job-hopping Generation!

It’s estimated that by 2025, as much as 75% of the global workforce will be millennials. This is not an ordinary data to ignore. This could totally change the way work is done at the workplaces.

Millennials think differently, and they work differently. So three things are apparently very clear as early trends resulting out of this shift:

  • Learning is a key driver of employee engagement.
  • The modern career is about a continuous learning journey and not about getting confined to a specific skill-set.
  • There is a demand to turn workplaces into hubs of personal development.

The very concept of productivity is getting metamorphosed from arithmetic KPIs into value-based development. And as we have seen, to be more productive in this age, one has to be kept engaged.

Linking learning to an employee’s individual career development naturally leads to engagement. This is my first hand experience. Early in my career when my first manager assigned me a task and I failed in my first attempt, he was quick to point out the areas I could improve upon with a considerate forethought, “Look, the same task that is taking you hours at present — I could do it within minutes, but there’s a great learning in you doing the same. It’s building you great skills for the future.” Today, that piece of learning is a knight in my shining armour of skill-sets!

Thankfully, the world is changing for the better — we have witnessed a flood of learning initiatives post the 2k dotcom boom, such as the phenomenal MOOCs (today the best content comes from MOOCs), or the social learning tools, or the new age coaching programs (according to International Coaching Federation, 86% of organisations got a return on their investment from coaching as an engagement strategy), there was never a better period for aspiring learners to build on their career development. And the more they feel engaged, the higher they contribute towards organizational productivity.

The funnel is like: Learning -> Engagement -> Knowledge -> Business Impact!

Companies are realizing this. They are implementing an across-the-board learning culture to foster higher levels of employee engagement. According to a recent U.S. L&D Report on workplace learning, 90% of companies with strong learning cultures have senior executives actively engaged in L&D initiatives.



So when managers and senior executives propel such a learning culture, the generated ripple effect lets employees feel they are being valued for their personal development, and they then tend to be more engaged in their wider company role.

And did you notice why Microlearning is so much a demand of our times? The very reason microlearning is gaining traction is because it allows learners to learn at their own pace, in a more personalized learning environment that leads to higher engagement levels, and this typically suits a millennial’s temperament. It’s because millennials are calling the shots in your devising of future job strategies, and they are notorious job hoppers after all,. you have no choice but to engage them with their preferred choice of learning.

Else you miss your own chance of greatness. In fact, a recent Gallup report reveals 60% of millennials are at any point of time open to a different job opportunity. 21% of them have changed jobs within the past year, the same report says.

Gallup estimates this millennial turnover costs the U.S. economy $30.5 billion annually!

This is huge, but why millennials are so likely to move around is a debate we would save for another day. The best solution is to take the next best step forward. Boost learning & development opportunities and create an environment of engagement. That will possibly solve a lot of problems in the long run.

The millennial factor, therefore, comes with both sides of the coin — it has its pros and cons. While on the downside, they have this characteristic short attention syndrome,  to their advantage, they can deliver much higher productivity compared to their veteran counterparts (the reason why most upstart ventures hire more and more freshers who are high on intent, energy and passion).

Their 2x productivity potential comes with a caveat though, as by now we know — they need engagement (perhaps a bit more than salary and perks) and specifically, engagement via constant learning!

Invest in engaging your workforce today for a better tomorrow

According to an exhaustive report by The Engagement Institute, disengaged employees cost U.S. companies up to $550 billion a year.

What this means is, engagement is no more an additional perk. It directly impacts companies on a day to day basis so far as the organizational productivity is concerned.

Also, 89% of employees at the companies that support engagement initiatives will most likely recommend their company as a good place to work (Source: American Psychological Association), which means employee engagement has far reaching values than you can see today.

3 ways learning initiatives can foster higher engagement

1. Managers need to be learning catalysts

We have discussed above how a learning culture at the top can have a ripple effect and boost overall engagement by actively supporting growth and development of employees at all levels. The trick is to start with the managers. Do you think first time managers are ready for their role?

First make your managers engaged, and then they’ll ensure the benefit is passed on to the last employee on the ladder. According to the last Gallup report on the state of the American Workplace, employees are 59% more likely to be engaged if they are supervised by highly engaged managers.

Another point is the need for a manager-driven, competency-based personalized 30, 60, or 90 days learning journeys and career pathways. Under constant supervision of the manager, an employee never feels unattended. A good manager can drive insane amount of engagement out of a very average employee just by fostering a learning culture.

2. Regular assessment and monitoring

Unless you assess the learning of your employees, you will not have the correct picture of their engagement levels. Continuously monitor their learning objectives and the results that come out of it, track their daily learning behavior, and keep identifying their skill gaps on a regular basis. The earlier you identify their skill gaps, the sooner you can fix them resulting in theiry getting better day by day.

It goes much beyond employee surveys and questionnaires. An ongoing and regular communication is the key.

Make the feedback frequent. Instil a sense of trust in the employees that someone is valuing their work. An even more effective strategy would be to include quizzes and polls in between their assignments.

All that will be possible when your learning solutions provider has a powerful analytics engine that tracks employee engagement at real time with impactful metric indicators.

3. Gamify, Incentivize, and Reward!

Gamification is an amazing way to drive employee engagement — you learn while you play, and play while you learn. When the highest ranked employee appears at the top of the leaderboard, you don’t need to look beyond how learning and engagement are so closely related! Companies need to keep incentivizing employee achievements by rewarding the top performers. This furthers their career progression motivation. If a trip to Hawaii digs a hole in your pocket, reward them with simple gifts. Show them how learning opportunities are coming their way in plenty. Show them how continuous up-skilling and cross-skilling is the magic code with which they can pace to the managerial level.

The best way to engage an average employee is to put them at the center of everything. Let them feel they are the central pillars of your company’s success. And that can only happen when your L&D initiatives create room for constant growth and recognition of employees.

Need of the hour is a specialized engagement & experience learning platform which could see your business productivity soaring each day. If factors like increasing attrition, reduced productivity, and low course completion rates keep you up, it’s time you invest in one such strategic learning & engagement solution. The development of your employees and your company goals should not appear as two different things.

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