Nearly every business sector is currently feeling the impact of The Great Resignation. A huge 2.9% of the U.S. workforce quit their jobs in August 2021, and an alarming 94% of U.S. retailers are struggling to fill vacant positions. A LinkedIn survey found that more time spent at home during the pandemic has prompted 74% of workers to reevaluate their current work situation, the full impact of which is likely to hit in 2022. This poses a challenge: With such apparent discontent, how can we improve the organizational culture to make sure we’re retaining our top talent? And for learning and development (L&D) teams specifically, what role does learning have to play in talent retention?

1.) Support Learner Autonomy

Autonomy is one of the three key drivers of workplace motivation (alongside mastery and purpose) as described by Daniel Pink in his classic book, “Drive,” and evidenced by the self-determination theory research. Too many organizations offer employees too little autonomy, instead expecting them to do exactly as they are told, when they are told to do it. This may work in the short term for highly procedural job roles, but it rarely works for knowledge workers, and completely fails when trying to manage remote or hybrid workers. More specifically with workplace learning, mandating employees to complete a checklist of courses and workshops throughout the year, with no opportunity to reflect and further explore their own professional interests, is not the most optimal way to positively change behaviors.

Today’s employees want to know that their employers are committed to their development. In fact, 94% of employees say that they would stay at their company longer if it invested in their career development. This means trusting employees to pursue career development opportunities that capture their imagination, are personalized to their levels of experience and are relevant to the work at hand. Operating a one-size-fits-all approach to learning is unlikely to motivate or deliver the expected business benefits.

Offering self-development opportunities to explore skills and subject areas of potential interest is also important to help people understand their preferred career direction and to respond to internal job opportunities. Facilitating internal talent mobility is a good way to keep talent in the company rather than losing them to your competitors. One easy way to help individuals work out what’s of long-term interest to them, is to make available a public course catalog to facilitate self-service learning. This can trigger more targeted opportunities for L&D, which can be discussed and agreed upon with their managers during regular performance reviews and check-ins.

2.) Drive Collaboration

People like to learn from and with their peers. Learning in groups, teams or communities of special interests appeals to our intrinsic motivation to share how we work, to learn and guide others. Finding like-minded peers can be difficult without the right tools and systems. Investing in a learning experience platform (LXP) can support peer-to-peer collaboration in powerful ways. The LXP comes in many forms, but the best focus on empowering everyone to create and curate their own user-generated content and peer-to-peer knowledge sharing. This collaborative approach to learning helps employees form stronger workplace bonds, often cross-functionally, which helps them feel valued and supported as well as having more agency to get good work done, often in spite of the more formal structures in place within the organization. Encouraging this breaking down of silos between teams, divisions, regions, hierarchy and roles is an essential characteristic of an organization that is more adaptable and resilient in the face of uncertainty and change.

3.) Implement Action Learning

Too much traditional training is delivered and experienced in abstraction, disconnected from the job role and projects at hand. This creates a huge learning transfer barrier that is rarely breached. People tend to fall back into old habits or lack the opportunity to practice new skills and behaviors. A far more effective strategy is to adopt the action learning design model. This emphasizes real business problem solving, bringing teams together to learn, act and reflect on outcomes.

Action learning often doesn’t feel like learning — and this is a good thing! By design, it takes place organically, so more readily builds continuous professional development into the everyday flow of work, while keeping your learning investments acutely focused on delivering tangible business benefits.

The Link Between Learning and Performance

Talent retention relies heavily on your employees’ perception of what your workplace has to offer them – not just in terms of salary, bonuses or annual leave, but also in terms of learning and development opportunities, and their relationship with those around them – particularly their manager. There is a tight entanglement between learning, engagement and performance which requires a more unified support framework from the HR function as a whole and particularly strong and open communication with the learning and development team.

By reframing away from “top-down delivery” towards “bottom-up user experience”, it places a fresh focus on how employees perceive and interact with the information and activities they are being asked to engage with. We know that employees like to have career development pathways they can explore and prepare for We know that everyone needs to understand why compliance and regulatory training matters to them and the company (rather than the usual check-box exercise) and that the manager-employee relationship should be an open and supportive one that looks for positive ways to improve performance and maintains a motivating and progressive L&D plan. Continuous performance management facilitates a more frequent discussion of career goals and provides a powerful way to ensure issues that arise can be satisfactorily handled before employee loyalty and trust is eroded and they start looking for new roles externally.

Looking forward, the yawning skills chasm will place immense pressure on organizations to retain their existing talent. This will require the development of skills programs that will help workers transition to new roles or acquire skills that will sustain their value and relevance into the future. L&D teams must step up into this strategic role and offer proactive solutions that tightly align the learning, engagement and performance support needs of each individual.