The employee engagement consultancy People Lab has collected thousands of best workplace experience stories from people over the years. And every single one of those stories has one thing in common. “Personal growth is a theme that comes out in everybody’s best experience stories,” says Emma Bridger, managing director at People Lab and author of “Employee Engagement: A Practical Introduction.” “The ability to grow and develop in your work is a universal theme of engagement.”

People want to work somewhere where they are constantly learning new skills, where the work is interesting and where they keep progressing. Pay and benefits such as flexible working are obviously very important, but these are hygiene factors. You need to get the environment and the culture right and that means creating a culture of continuous, organization-wide learning. That’s when employees are engaged and really immerse themselves in their role. And that’s when people’s best experience stories happen. Engagement and employee experience are inextricably linked. “A great experience leads to higher engagement,” says Bridger.

Organizations are taking employee engagement and the employee experience (EX) more seriously than ever before. But, what do these two terms mean exactly? Employee engagement, according to Engage for Success, a voluntary movement focusing on employee engagement, “is a workplace approach resulting in the right conditions for all members of an organization to give of their best each day, committed to their organization’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organizational success, with an enhanced sense of their own wellbeing.”

David MacLeod, co-author of the report “Engaging for Success,” writes, “This is about how we create the conditions in which employees offer more of their capability and potential.”

According to Gallup, the employee experience is “the journey an employee takes with your journey. All of the individual moments of an employee’s experience play a role in how a worker feels about an employer’s purpose, brand and culture.”

Business leaders have only started thinking about the employee experience in this way fairly recently. “We’ve seen a rise in interest in EX,” says Bridger. “But, of course, employees have always had experiences.” The difference now, according to Bridger, is that employers realize that they have to intentionally design good employee experiences. Airbnb’s chief executive officer Brian Chesky was a reportedly an early pioneer of the employee experience concept. Back in 2016, the rental and hospitality company decided it no longer wanted an HR department – it wanted an employee experience department instead. The role of this department was to ensure that the employee experience was positive.

As we’ve already established, learning and development (L&D) is central to a positive employee experience. With that in mind, Bridger says L&D teams need to design learning that meets individual and organizational needs. “When you are designing learning, you need to understand what will work for the person going through that learning experience so that it’s not just a sheep dip,” she says. “What’s the problem you are trying to solve with the learning?”

In a learning culture, it’s not just learning teams propelling learning forward – employees are just as invested in learning. Dr. Nigel Paine talked about this in the previous post in this series, about how employees working in an organization with a learning culture feel empowered to pursue their own learning, to try things out and make mistakes.

An obvious example of a company with a strong learning culture, where employees are motivated, engaged and putting in discretionary effort, is Google.

The company’s core learning philosophy is that:

  • Learning is a process.
  • Learning happens in real life.
  • Learning is personal.
  • Learning is social.

However, Google is the exception rather than the norm in terms of learning cultures. You only need to look at the figures around employee engagement to see that there’s a problem. Gallup has been tracking global employee engagement figures since 2000, and the 2020 engagement survey found that significantly under one-half (37%) of the global workforce was engaged (i.e., “highly involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace”). It also found that 15% of respondents were actively disengaged (“those who have miserable work experiences and spread their unhappiness to their colleagues”).

Those figures have stayed roughly the same the last 20 years (despite many, many companies around the world trying to boost engagement stats through a range of initiatives, with some of them spending considerable sums of money). Despite a sudden increase in engagement levels in May 2020, one month later, Gallup reported another record figure — but this time it was a fall to 31% of employees feeling engaged and a rise to 15% of employees reporting active disengagement. Gallup attributes these variations to the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, riots following the murder of George Floyd and people returning to work post-lockdown.

These findings should be of deep concern to employers. An article outlining the research says, “Since employee engagement is highly related to many performance outcomes – even more so in tough times – this unprecedented drop in the percentage of engaged workers has significant potential performance consequences.”

Employers are experiencing tough times. Not only has there been a global pandemic, a series of lockdowns and business restrictions, but many sectors are also suffering acute skills shortages. Add to that the problem of The Great Resignation, and employers can’t afford to let employee engagement or the employee experience fall any further. Seeing as survey after survey after survey highlights L&D as a key consideration for employees across all industries, employers can’t afford not to create a learning culture.

It’s not just employees who benefit from working somewhere with a strong learning culture. Employers also benefit because employees are more likely to be engaged, and Gallup found that when team members have high levels of engagement, they:

  • Produce substantially better outcomes.
  • Treat customers better and attract new ones.
  • Are more likely to remain with their organization.
  • Are healthier and less likely to experience burnout.

These are some of the many reasons why employers need to take employee engagement and the employee experience seriously. In doing so, they will be well on their way to creating a thriving culture of learning and growth.