Fast-accelerating factors like digital transformation and flexible working arrangements call for a new approach to employee development — shifting from static, episodic training to dynamic, continuous learning. 

Employees today are increasingly called upon to collaborate with colleagues across time zones, departments and functional areas while simultaneously learning new digital-first methods of doing their jobs. Professional development can help them not only take advantage of new tools and methods but understand how to thrive in an interconnected environment that requires new ways of communicating, handling information and gaining skills.

Employees are also increasingly eager to enhance their skills, which has become a major factor in talent attraction and retention. The University of Phoenix's Annual Career Optimism Index 2022 reveals that 65-68% of workers would want to stay with their current employer throughout their career if the employer helped them reskill or upskill. The index also indicates that 49% of employees want to develop their skills but don’t know how, an uptick of six percentage points from the prior year.

Unfortunately, too many companies are using ineffective workplace learning systems that do little to engage employees. A lack of support is leading many to seek new jobs, leading employers to fear a “turnover tsunami.” Rethinking employee development can help keep workers engaged and successful. 

“The workplace must become the classroom of the future. Cultivating talent must happen on the job,” says Michelle Weise, author of “Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs that Don’t Even Exist Yet.”  

Read on to learn about how the need for employee development is evolving, the benefits of investing in it and how to implement successful procedures. 

How Employee Development Is Changing

The desire for remote work is a new but durable feature of the employment landscape. With more aspects of work becoming digitized, especially during the pandemic, employees across the board have had to acquire new skills quickly — a trend that’s set to continue. In fact, Gartner reports that “digital dexterity” will be more important for success in tomorrow’s workplaces than levels of tenure and experience. 

Adapting to this new environment includes a focus on e-learning. This approach creates what Gartner calls “a continuous learning environment,” where employees gain knowledge and skills as a day-to-day function as opposed to learning in episodic bursts. 

The Benefits of Investing in Employee Development

Investing in professional development can bring a wide variety of benefits, such as:

Increasing productivity and profit. More-engaged employees means better workplace performance. Gallup reports that engaged employees are more productive, better able to discern customer needs and more capable of closely adhering to processes and standards. The best part? Business units with engaged employees report 21% greater profitability. 

Building an internal talent pipeline. It’s increasingly challenging to hire talent. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the labor shortage was the top organizational challenge for 84% of human resources leaders in 2021. Since it costs time and money to hire new employees, it’s also strategic for organizations to develop well-trained in-house talent: replacing an employee costs about one-third of that worker’s salary, while training a new worker comes with an average tab of almost $2,000.

Creating a winning company culture. Employees who like their company’s workplace culture are 25% more likely to be happy on the job and 31% more likely to recommend working there than are employees of similar organizations with lower-rated workplace cultures. And “opportunities to learn and grow” was the number-one driver of great workplace culture by the end of 2020, according to Glint’s Employee Well-Being Report. This was a significant jump from the prior year, when it ranked ninth on the list.

Engagement can even help with recruitment: Engaged employees are far more likely to view their workplaces positively and convey that sentiment to customers and potential new employees. 

How to Implement an Effective Employee Development Program

Professional development processes must be well implemented and formalized. C-suite leaders and HR professionals should collaborate to establish a standard way of helping each person in the organization gain skills, knowledge and opportunities. 

To implement a successful employee development program, consider the following steps: 

  • Assess organizational goals: A successful employee development plan starts with a realistic look at the goals you want to achieve. What short-term goals for teams will contribute to larger organizational goals?
  • Identify desired competencies: Identifying the core competencies — such as customer service, employer branding and marketing — that employees need to have to reach your organizational goals can help you determine where to direct resources for employee development. 
  • Do a gap analysis: Determine where your employees’ current skills fall short of the core competencies you’ve identified. You can gather this information through a variety of sources, including employee assessments, reviews and interviews, as well as accident and safety reports.
  • Set up a formal training program: The form your program takes will depend on your goals, desired competencies and gaps, as well as the needs and structure of your workforce. For some companies, online-only training may make the most sense, while others may better succeed with “blended” or hybrid programs that combine digital and in-person work.
  • Offer mentoring opportunities: Mentoring adds another dimension to your employee development program, allowing workers to gain insight and assistance from one another. Create a formal process that mentors and mentees can follow to connect and work together.  
  • Provide resources for self-directed development: Make it easy for engaged employees to pursue extra training. Provide resources for those who want to go the extra mile.  

Throughout this process, remember to keep your employees front and center. Think through how they will be able to learn about, access and engage with the assessment stage and training resources. Make everything as simple and straightforward as you can.

“Too many learning departments forget to put the learner at the heart of their processes and approach, adding layers of signoffs and approvals, click-throughs and barriers to learning," says Stuart Curtis, senior director of global talent development at Workhuman. “You are always competing with Netflix, YouTube, TikTok and other platforms for the learner’s attention and engagement. If you make accessing learning too difficult, people will not take the journey.”

At a Moment of Change, Take Employee Development Seriously

Change is in the air, and intentional employee development can be an extremely helpful means of support in a fast-shifting business environment. Leaders have the chance to help their employees and organizations come out of this moment stronger, better prepared and more effective than ever — and it starts with professional development.