Six ways to engage employees to help drive their development

Directly linked to motivation and retention, employee development tools can empower employees to take charge of their own training and supercharge their performance. But first, they need to engage with the tools, Dominic Bernard reports.

The technological advancement of the past five years has meant HR has a staggering array of tools at its disposal, and getting familiar with any one of them can be an unenviable task.

For employees, getting to grips with additional platforms on top of the day-to-day can be confusing and a hassle even when for their personal development.

To find out how to get employees engaged in development tools, HR magazine convened a panel of experts for another HR Lunchtime Debate in partnership with software company CultureAmp. Here are six of their top tips.

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1. Empower and encourage managers

Development starts with managers and getting employees engaged with development tools is no different, said Daniel Gualdino, senior people scientist EMEA at CultureAmp.

He said HR should help managers to be a bridge between the needs of the business and the need to upskill people. As a first point of contact, they are ideally placed to get employees rolling with their development.

“They play a huge, huge part,” he said. “They’ll be the ones having growth conversations, they’ll be the ones providing feedback support. So, obviously, enabling the managers is key.

“We know from our research that companies with development cultures, or have employees that get to decide which skills they want to develop, score much higher on engagement.”

A manager’s position in the middle can however make it tricky for them to prioritise development.

David Pacifico, client executive director at HR consultancy Lace Partners, acknowledged the difficulty: “It’s always going to be hard for us to find time, because we all have busy weeks, busy days.

“I think we need to flip that and say: ‘What’s the impact of not doing it?’”

He added that if an organisation created space for a couple of hours development each week, it would soon find itself holding an advantage over competitors.

He added: “It comes back to prioritising, understanding why development is important.”

2. Personalise engagement

The issue is greater than just giving staff the tools, however. For real engagement, employees need to find something within it that speaks to their own hopes, according to Katie Winstanley, HR director at engineering recruitment firm Morson Group.

Employees, she said, naturally vary in their willingness to engage without any prior encouragement.

“It’s difficult to motivate employees to use a platform for a single reason, because some are naturally keen learners and others will have to be encouraged to use it,” she said.

“You have to persuade them, and try to understand why they don’t want to [use the tool], and build their confidence.”

Matching the right tool to the right person can do wonders for engagement argued Gualdino.

He said: “I tend to see this in the same way as product teams see their customers finding products.”

Different groups within the organisation, such as older and younger workers, may have totally distinct goals, and therefore distinct needs for their development tools, he added.

Pacifico agreed: “And if that [platform’s] content isn’t relevant to your job or to your interests, it’s not going to get used.

3. Listen to employees

Finding the right fit for an organisation’s employees can only happen if HR knows its own staff.

Winstanley emphasised the importance of speaking to staff in her own efforts to improve engagement with employee development tools.

“If you factor in feedback when making those decisions, it makes the transition easier,” she said.

“We’ve seen some really positive results over the last two years as we’ve started to amend the tools we’re using to engage our employees.”

In 2022, Winstanley said, 79% of the company’s employees reported that their L&D tools were effective, up from 56% the year before.

She added: “We’re seeing some huge moves in engagement stats because we’re using the voice of the employees to drive and shape what we are doing.”

4. Tie engagement to business goals

An effective means of getting employees engaged in their development is to open up development pathways that will benefit both the individual and the organisation, said Gualdino.

He said: “Sometimes, companies would create a development budget when there was an abundance of money, but then give the onus to the employees to decide what to pursue, and there was no clear guidance of what skills are relevant to the business.”

A lack of guidance on business needs, he said, defeats the point of the arrangement.

Pacifico added: “I think there’s been a shift from role-based development to more targeted, skills-based development.

“That needs to link back to the critical capabilities you need to build for your organisation today, and importantly [they need to] make sense in the market as critical skills that you need for the future. From what I’ve seen, it ties back to the business strategy.”


5. Think outside the box

Employee development systems are just one of many HR tools. Gualdino said that, like any other tool, they benefit from being used in concert with other things.

He said: “Not every type of development needs to be like an educational, classroom, webinar or book type of development. You can have people being exposed to other roles or functions, just observing teams at work. Even just giving them the experience and saying ‘Hey, you’re going to run this [project].’

“We support them, obviously, but letting them have that experience will really help develop their skills.”

Tying academic training with practical experiences is particularly important for development, Pacifico added.

He said:“I think it’s critical. Whether it’s through virtual means or in-person means, doing a ride-along with a sales person to a customer meeting, it is really invaluable to understanding how people operate and how clients think, and whether or not a certain role is for you.”

6. Live up to the hype

Many employers make big promises about the prospects for development. But if employees’ experience of the programme does not live up to their expectations, they often leave, said Gualdino.

He said: “Some research we conducted last year showed that the main reason people were leaving organisations was the lack of development.

"Funnily enough, it was also the main reason why people are joining organisations. This tells us that companies are doing a much better job selling the promise of development during the attraction phase and recruitment phase, but then not following through and providing these development opportunities.”

Winstanley agreed: “I think that for me it links back to the psychological contract. If you are entering the world of work and you have been promised things, and then they don’t come to fruition, that for me is more damaging.”

Morson Group previously used a learning management system (LMS) as part of routine process for new starters, she added, which proved disengaging to employees.

“When people have had that negative experience as part of their onboarding, using those really traditional tick-box LMS systems, it’s really difficult to then get them to engage with a different tool - even if it’s quite different, you lose that trust,” she said.

One mistake companies make when thinking about development, according to Pacifico, is to under-commit.

He said: “I think companies that really get it right; that have strong corporate success and societal success – they really do make [development] a strong commitment.”


For those who missed the event, the webinar is available on demand here

The full feature above first appeared in the January/February 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.