Learning and development (L&D) is a key strategy with proven benefits in employee engagement and retention, but investment in workplace learning and development programs plummeted during the Great Recession of 2007-2009 as organizations tightened budgets. One 2009 report from global professional services firm Bersin by Deloitte  (formerly Bersin & Associates) found that training budgets fell by 21% the previous two years. But today, those very same programs are reemerging because of another global crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic — along with the Great Resignation it’s triggered.

As workers search for positions with better pay, benefits, and work-life balance, they’re quitting their jobs at historic levels — some 4.4 million in September 2021, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). And employers are scrambling to find ways to attract new hires and retain workers once they’re on board. 

Amid all this upheaval, according to LinkedIn Learning’s 2021 Workplace Learning Report, 64% of learning and development professionals agree that training has shifted from a “nice-to-have” to a “need-to-have” benefit. “We’re seeing this race to build L&D programs back up,” said Theresa Balsiger, PHR, SHRM-CP, Vice President of Candidate Relations at staffing and recruiting firm Carex Consulting Group

A boom in new technology, spurred in part by the shift to remote work, is one reason for this evolution; workers need to know how to use the new apps and software that companies are deploying. But, Balsiger said, more importantly in today’s labor market is that these programs are critical for retention. The LinkedIn Learning report found that engaged learners are more likely to stay in a company and move into new jobs internally. 

“Companies that are invested in their employees’ growth and professional development…are going to be able to retain top talent a lot easier than those that are just [focused] on productivity,” Balsiger said.  

But it’s not enough to throw together one-off training sessions and expect that employees will be engaged. L&D professionals say leaders and Human Resources teams must be strategic about what they offer and how. Read on for seven ways to boost employee engagement and participation in learning and development programs.   

7 Ways to Boost Engagement in Learning and Development Programs

1. Have an executive champion.

Leaders are increasingly seeing the benefits of training programs — 62% of L&D professionals say that C-suite leaders are prioritizing learning in their organizations, up from 27% at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, according to the LinkedIn Learning report. 

That’s critical, Balsiger said. “If a leader within the organization rallies around the training [and] L&D opportunity as something that’s important, that will permeate through the organization,” she noted.

Communication about what’s available should come from top leaders, advised Allison O’Brien, Director of Learning and Development at training and development consultancy ECHO Listening. The executive team can draw attention to these programs and initiatives during staff meetings or share their own experiences with different programs, she said. Leaders might even mention the skills that they need to shore up themselves. 

2. Create opportunities for training.

Workers may already be stressed about their day-to-day obligations, so employers must allow sufficient time for employees to complete training. “If having enough time during the day is an issue for employees, having a policy that allows them a half day or full day [or] month for professional development might remove that barrier,” said Balsiger. 

Providing eLearning opportunities or access to training programs when workers aren’t on the clock also can trigger more interest, especially among motivated workers who are eager to boost their skills. Online programs provide people with a myriad of topics to learn about. “It’s self-directed,” Balsiger noted. “You get to choose the training programs you do and when you do them.”

3. Explain the ‘why’ behind the training.

Plenty of employers have set up training for a new software deployment, for example, without explaining why employees need this training and should care about doing it. That strategy may have worked in the past, but not anymore, said O’Brien. 

Employers should demonstrate how training might help an employee pick up new skills because of shifting requirements for their current position or in order to make new company-wide initiatives, such as a product launch, possible. Through job descriptions and postings or team meetings with managers, organizations should also look for ways to connect training to future promotions or lateral moves for employees.

Companies can tie professional development to goal-setting and the ongoing one-on-one process with managers as well. For instance, firms could make learning requirements part of performance reviews and ensure that managers are regularly speaking with direct reports about their learning plans and how they’re putting their new skillsets into action.

“There’s commitment, and there’s compliance,” explained O’Brien. “Commitment is, ‘We really want to do it, and we see the bigger-picture benefit of it and we feel part of it.’ Compliance is, ‘I’ll do the training because it’s part of my job and, in the end, I get paid.’ What we want is a committed workforce. And if you are committed to learning, you see the ‘why’ of it and, ultimately, are putting the learning into practice on a daily basis.” 

4. Think about attention spans.

We’ve all heard of “Zoom fatigue” — the exhaustion from spending too much time in online meetings. Ashley Cox, PHR, SHRM-CP, founder and CEO of Human Resources consulting firm SproutHR, said employers must be mindful that some team members may no longer have the ability to stay focused for hours-long online learning modules. Going forward, Cox predicts a resurgence of more traditional types of learning experiences and new development opportunities that better serve today’s workers. These include: 

  • Mentorship Programs: Mentorship is a hugely underutilized resource, especially for companies that have a deeply tenured employer base,” Cox said. “We’re missing out on amazing opportunities to tap into knowledge that’s already there, and the experience and cultural integration of those experienced, tenured employees.”  Experienced workers can mentor new hires, but younger workers can also work with more senior employees on technical training or social media skills. When building training initiatives, look for different ways to encourage collaboration between team members, Cox advised.  
  • Microlearning: Instead of day- or week-long training programs, microlearning lets workers take part in much shorter lessons — perhaps 15 or 20 minutes a day or week. Those short bursts of content will be even more effective when they are tied to interactive discussions within a team or between mentors and mentees, who can talk about how they’ll put their new learnings into practice. “It’s easy to watch a bunch of videos and check off a bunch of boxes and say, ‘I did all that,’” said Cox. “But does the learning actually stick, and is it beneficial to the company?”

5. Get employee input.

A top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to developing learning and development programs can often miss what people really need, Cox pointed out. “A lot of times, we sit in boardrooms, senior leadership meetings, and strategy sessions and talk about where we’re seeing challenges and what we think needs to happen,” she said. “There’s a space and time for that, and it’s appropriate at a certain level.”

But, she added, it’s also critical to go directly to employees to find out what skills they hope to boost and what they need to do their jobs better. You may learn about bottlenecks in your workflow, for example, that might be removed with more effective training on a particular technology stack. Or, you could discover that your workers’ development needs to include training on soft skills like communication

“We often see companies provide a lot of options and opportunities for technical training, [but they] aren’t including offerings like management training and leadership development — skills that will really help [employees] as they work toward a hierarchical role in an organization,” O’Brien said. 

6. Make it easy.

Sometimes employees just need a reminder of when to log in to an eLearning course or complete specific modules. Also, visual reminders such as cheat sheets or a list of tips can help, Balsiger said. So can follow-up assignments with accountability partners who might be following the same or similar L&D curriculum.

A learning management system, Balsiger said, also can keep workers on track with their progress, providing the opportunity to complete sessions on their own time. “Employees really want flexibility across the board,” she said. 

7. Consider your culture and messaging. 

A culture of learning, according to global professional management organization the Association for Talent Development (ATD), is one where employees “seek, share, and apply new knowledge and skills” to improve on employee performance. It’s expressed in the company’s values and filters down through every aspect of an organization’s operations. 

Companies that want to boost on-the-job training should ensure that professional development is part of their values and mission and expressed by leaders who encourage innovation, not a my-way-or-the-highway mentality, said Cox. “When we’re having these conversations, if we’re not centering that learning and development in our values and mission, then it’s disjointed,” she said. 

And that makes an all-in-this-together message that focuses on helping employees understand the benefits of training for their own professional advancement and, collectively, for the growth of their organization, so critical, Cox stressed. It will boost learning and development participation and engagement and, in turn, make for more motivated employees in the long run.

Happier people are more productive people,” she said. “When we support our employees and their ongoing learning and development, they show up more powerfully for us.” 


Ready to boost your L&D participation and engagement? Check out Lattice’s Grow platform, which integrates employee growth and development and turns talent management into talent acceleration.