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Employee engagement presents one of the biggest L&D challenges of 2020, with 35% of L&D professionals looking for new ways to increase engagement. In this series, we explore the top challenges faced by L&D leaders – and offer expert industry insight to help you get ahead of the curve.

In order for learning programmes to succeed, each employee must feel fulfilled in their role, supported in their learning, and connected to the company purpose. In other words, they need to be engaged. But how do you nail learner engagement?

According to the Learning and Performance Institute (LPI), employee engagement presents one of the biggest challenges faced by L&D leaders today; in fact, it was ranked fourth in their recent survey of 10,000 senior L&D leaders. Similarly, LinkedIn’s 2020 survey of 6,607 respondents found that 35% of L&D professionals are looking for new ways to increase learner engagement. 

In this series, we explore the top challenges faced by L&D leaders – and offer expert industry insight to help you get ahead of the curve. This week, we’ll be tackling Challenge #4: Mastering Learner Engagement.


The scale of the challenge

According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report (2017), a staggering 85% of the global workforce are not engaged (or actively disengaged) at work. Of those in the disengaged majority, 18% are “actively disengaged”, while 67% are “not engaged”: 

Global employee engagement graph
Source: Gallup

  • Engaged (15%): Employees are highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace. They are psychological “owners,” drive performance and innovation, and move the organization forward.
  • Not engaged (67%): Employees are psychologically unattached to their work and company. Because their engagement needs are not being fully met, they’re putting time — but not energy or passion — into their work. 
  • Actively disengaged (18%): Employees aren’t just unhappy at work — they are resentful that their needs aren’t being met and are acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers potentially undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish. 


In Western Europe – one of the world’s most economically developed regions – the number of engaged employees is much lower than the global average, at only 10%. By comparison, engagement levels among U.S. employees is more than three times as high, at 33%. 

The economic consequence of this lack of engagement is astronomical, accounting for approximately $7 trillion in lost productivity worldwide. In the UK alone, dis­en­gaged employ­ees account for £52 – 70 bil­lion per year in lost productivity, while disengaged employees cost U.S. companies up to $550 billion a year.

Meanwhile, businesses that ranked in the top quartile of Gallup’s survey were 17% more productive and 21% more profitable than those in the bottom. Another survey from Dale Carnegie suggests that companies with engaged employees outperform those with low levels of engagement by up to 202%. 

Engaged employees show up every day with passion, purpose, presence, and energy. And they stick around. The more engaged an employ­ee is at work, the more loy­al they are to the organ­i­sa­tion. Engaged employees are also less like­ly to uproot them­selves than those who are disengaged. In fact, teams with high levels of engagement realise a 41% reduction in absenteeism, and 59% less turnover

Considering that employee turnover is costing us $11 billion a year, it’s absolutely crucial that businesses figure out how to master employee engagement.


The link between engagement and purpose

Thirty years ago, William Kahn introduced the term “personal engagement” and its opposite, “personal disengagement”. One of the defining features of engagement, according to Kahn, is “a lack of separation between people and their roles”. 

As an example, Kahn presented “a traffic policeman at a rush hour intersection embraces his role, arms dancing and whistle blowing, and a father shepherding his son on a merry-go-round distances himself from his role, yawning and mock-grimacing.” 

The difference between the two is the degree to which “people bring in or leave out their personal selves during work role performances.” While highly engaged employees “bring their whole selves to work”, disengaged employees “uncouple” themselves from their work roles. 

Kahn’s psychological definition explains why people become disengaged when their beliefs and values don’t match those of their employer. It also underlines why it is crucial to ensure that employees feel connected to the company purpose.

Accord­ing to a sur­vey by Work for Good, nonprofits have one of the highest engagement rates, with an incred­i­ble 93% of employ­ees feeling engaged at work. One of the deciding factors is the fact that their employees feel a great sense of mean­ing and purpose when it comes to their work.


Motivation and performance 

According to Gallup, businesses can get the most out of their employees if they fulfil the basic human needs for psychological engagement. This can be achieved using various incentives, such as providing employees with frequent recognition and rewards for performance, or providing regular opportunities for personal development. 

According to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an industrial-organisational psychologist, employee performance is as much the result of a person’s motivation as it is of their talent or ability. Research suggests that we can improve workforce productivity by allowing employees to use their natural talents and work to their strengths. 

Companies who have employed this strategy have seen dramatic results: in a study of almost 50,000 business units in 45 countries, Gallup researchers discovered that employees that received “strengths interventions” saw sales increase by 10% to 19% and profits by 14% to 29%, compared with control groups. 


The role of managers and business leaders 

Leaders and managers play a critical role in engaging employees. In fact, managers account for a whopping 70% of the variance in team engagement, according to research from Gallup.

The phrase “employees don’t leave the organisation, they leave their managers” is popular for a reason: unhappy employees often leave their job because of poor relationships with their manager. Great managers, however, can help to maximise productivity by building strong, positive relationships with their employees.

To promote high levels of engagement, managers need to devel­op mean­ing­ful and authen­tic rela­tion­ships with their employ­ees. Frequent conversations and regular feedback is key – many different experts recommend hav­ing a catch-up at least once a month. However, only 20% of U.S. employees strongly agree that they’ve had a conversation with their manager in the last six months about achieving goals.

This lack of investment into employee engagement is, in part, down to bad leadership. On the one hand, the major­i­ty (85%) of busi­ness lead­ers claim that employ­ee engage­ment is a pri­or­i­ty, but only one-third actually make it one. And 35% of business lead­ers say that focus­ing on employ­ee engage­ment is a dis­trac­tion from get­ting ​“real work” done

Business leaders have a pivotal role to play in engaging employees. And if they get it right, they can join the ranks of the world’s best-managed companies, who boast engagement rates of as high as 70%.


How to master learner engagement 

As a global online learning business, Circus Street partners with global organisations to develop tailored learning programmes that help them build their marketing capabilities. 

Our learning content has been rated excellent by several of our customers – and where we really excel is in engaging our learners.

Here’s what we recommend if you want to master learning engagement:


1. Design a learning program that accounts for everyone on your team

Today’s world of work is multigenerational: increasing numbers of Gen Zs (the oldest of which are 25) are entering the workforce, while Baby Boomers (the youngest of which are 56) have become the fastest-growing segment of the workforce in 2020

With this diverse employee demographic comes a diverse range of learning needs, expectations, and habits. In order for learning programmes to succeed, they should engage everyone on your team – without leaving anyone behind. 

To address this, L&D leaders need to map out accurate learner personas that link employee demographics with their learning needs. If you fail to account for these key demographics, your employees will struggle to absorb, retain, and apply knowledge.


2. Adjust to remote learning

Remote workers have been around for a while. Last year, Gallup found that 53% of employees worked remotely at least part-time, with many employees advocating for more flexibility and a better work-life balance.

Now, however, remote working has become the new reality for the vast majority of the global workforce: since March 2020, the number of employees working from home has jumped up to 61%.

As a result, L&D will need to evolve quickly, and traditional face-to-face learning will have to be adapted for virtual learning. As the majority of learning programmes go digital, it’s important to consider how we can continue to engage the remote workforce. 


3. Nail engagement from the beginning with improved onboarding

Onboarding is the first point of contact an employee has with a company – so it’s an absolutely crucial step in nailing employee engagement. 53% of HR professionals believe that employee engage­ment lev­els rise with improved onboarding. And if employees experience a great onboarding program, 69% will be more likely to stay with a company for three years.

Companies need to make a con­cert­ed effort to engage employ­ees from day one. Offering a learning-centric onboarding experience can prove invaluable; especially given that a third of new employees are anxious about learning company protocol when they start work, according to a survey of 1,000 U.S. employees.

With proper onboarding, you can ensure that new starters feel engaged, appreciated, and a sense of belonging – all of which will make for more engaged and loyal employees in the long-term.


4. Keep people engaged long-term 

After an employee’s first year at an organisation, their engagement drops by as much as 7%. While 82% of employees are engaged in their first year, that number drops to 75% in year two.

One way to ensure long-term engagement is to offer employees opportunities to advance within the company. According to LinkedIn’s analysis of 32 million profiles, employees who change positions (laterally or via promotions) are more likely to stay on in the company. 

To accommodate this, you’ll need to create clear career pathing plans – and an L&D program that goes hand in hand with it. For instance, if an employee is on the managerial track, their learning programme will need to be focused on leadership development. 

The more learners understand how the programme will contribute to their career and add long-term value, the more likely they are to engage with what they’re learning.


5. Incorporate recognition and rewards

According to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, people tend to perform better when they are intrinsically motivated: when we truly care about what we’re doing, we are able to lose ourselves in our work, and experience a state of “flow”. However, disengaged workers don’t automatically lose themselves in their work; instead, they are more likely to await orders. Because of this, disengaged employees need to be extrinsically motivated. You’ll need to be very clear why they should bother making an effort with the task at hand, using sticks and carrots to motivate them – in other words, using a system of recognition and rewards.

Recognition boosts morale, improves productivity, and is a proven driver of employee engagement. When employees complete a project or big assignment, they expect to be appreciated for their hard work. In fact, 69% of employees say they’d work harder if they were better appreciated. However, only 12% of employees believe recognition is a top priority

Employees who aren’t recognised for their hard work are twice as likely to quit in the next year. This is why it’s so important to acknowledge strong performance and good behaviour.

If you want to maximise learner engagement and recall, you might consider using a reward system. Research from the Max Planck Institute shows that people learn faster when they are rewarded for making correct decisions. For example, you can incentivise and engage learners by incorporating quizzes, games, contests, and leaderboards in your learning programme.


6. Switch to bite-size learning

Bite-size training sessions are a great way to engage distracted learners. And, let’s face it, that means all of us. According to research from Princeton University and the University of California, Berkeley, our ability to focus is designed to work in bursts of attention, rather than uninterruptedly – and in between those bursts of attention, we are actually distracted. Our performance is significantly reduced after 50-60 minutes of continuous work – and it only goes downhill from that point. 

If you still deliver learning in one-day training sessions, it may be time to consider switching to bite-size learning. Research has proven that delivering training in one to two-hour chunks over a few weeks leads to higher levels of learner engagement, understanding, and recall than if the training was delivered in one day.


7. Remember that practice makes perfect

It’s vital that you build in opportunities for learners to practice what they’ve learned. Ideally, this should take place at some point during the training session: research shows that learners who practice their learning during the lesson forget less and remember more of what they’ve learned.

Effective training provides learners with opportunities to practice new skills, receive feedback, reflect on how they can improve – and apply what they learn to their daily work. By spacing out learning on one topic, you can enable learners to retain new information for increasingly longer periods of time – which  increases the likelihood that they will apply it to their jobs.

Effective training graph

Source: Easy Generator Blog

8. Create relevant and meaningful learning content

Most learning programmes aim to deliver relevant content, but in order to target multiple learners, some dilution is inevitable. However, taking a generic approach to training is ill-advised. 

In order to succeed, learning programmes must be tailored to the organisation, personalised to each employee, and applicable and relevant to each learner’s individual challenges. 

Not only does customised learning lead to increased employee engagement – studies show that learners remember more when the learning is personalised. For example, one landmark research study from 1988, researchers Bahrick and Phelps showed that learners are much better at remembering personal, relevant or emotionally salient information.


So what does engaging learning look like?

To find an example of best-in-class learning engagement, we looked back at our own experience advising companies on engaging learning.

In August 2020, Sanofi reached out to Circus Street, asking us to help them upskill their marketing teams in key areas of digital transformation. Together, we developed a custom global learning programme, using a number of techniques to encourage learning engagement. 

First off, Sanofi ran cross-functional workshops to help people to understand the burning platform that existed within the business, and the role and value of the Circus Street programme. Sanofi then placed several MEX leads across the organisation, who helped to drive and land the programme within the marketing communities. They also created a network of 120 MEX champions, whose role was to make sure that people were engaged with the content, and running workshops for the marketing community to land and drive the engagement on the ground.

 After just 8 weeks, we saw "phenomenal results”:

  • Approximately 3.000 people signed up to the programme
  • 30% of people actively engaged with the content
  • 45% uplift in digital skills and knowledge


Jo Earl, Head of Global Marketing Excellence at Sanofi, describes how our bespoke learning programme is driving real results in their organisation:


“Having worked in the industry, I recognise that Circus Street are amongst the very best to partner with,” Jo begins. “Their programme [...] really drives greater knowledge and confidence in all aspects of digital, as well as helping marketeers to understand better how to use and apply the thinking in their day job.”


Mastering learning engagement – with Circus Street

So how do you build an engaging learning programme? Our process consists of five steps:


  1. Planning and building your programme
    We start with your goals and requirements, and run a skills audit to assess your organisation’s current digital capabilities, before building individual learning paths, targeting training to exactly where it’s needed. We let you customise your solution by incorporating your own expert videos, case studies, and other digital content for a training experience that matches your culture and feels like your own.

  2. Launch
    We create engagement communications, training sessions, and even launch events with posters and flyers to make sure everyone is fully invested in the programme from day one.
  3. Learning delivery and assessment
    We pre-test before we educate delivering measurable uplifts in digital knowledge and custom reports monitor individual and team engagement levels ensuring training is completed on schedule.
  4. Embedding the knowledge
    We help you run follow up workshops where teams can present back on topics, showcase how they have applied new knowledge to their roles and build success stories and case studies to encourage further engagement.
  5. Certification
    We use certification and awards to reward learning. Our courses are accredited by leading industry bodies and certified by the CPDSO and endorsed by the IPA so every hour with Circus Street counts towards your teams’ professional development.


Our unique approach to learning uses professional presenters in 3D environments, and engaging animation to dive deep into the concepts of digital. All this is delivered through the “My Circus Street” hub, where learnings are available across any device, anytime, anywhere. 


Overall, the result is an education solution that results in your teams having the confidence, understanding and ability to succeed in a technology-driven world. 


“Their programme is exceptional, the content is fantastic, and it really drives greater knowledge and confidence in all aspects of digital”

– Jo Earl, Head of Global Marketing Excellence at Sanofi


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