It's fascinating to watch workplace trends shift in the modern economy. Where companies once focused on squeezing the most productivity out of employees, their focus has shifted to attracting and retaining employees in a market rife with opportunities.
Now, more than ever, managers and leaders need to optimize the employee experience—not just for this quarter or this year, but for the long term. Professional development is an excellent way to show your employees that you recognize and respect their future as much as their present efforts.
Defining professional development
According to our 2020 Employee Engagement and Modern Workplace Report, 89% of Highly Engaged employees are satisfied with their professional development opportunities, compared to only 36% of Actively Disengaged employees. What’s more, LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report found that 93% of employees would stay longer in at a company if it invested in their careers.
Wherever your employees are in their career, they’re looking at the next step. And this ambition is something that should be encouraged and celebrated! 🤓
Of course, it’s one thing for employees to say they want professional development and quite another for their companies to effectively provide it. Defining the goal of professional development in your workplace can help prevent the awkward silence when managers ask groups of employees how the company can help.
Professional development metrics to track
Firstly, how is your company doing in professional development? Monitoring these metrics will help you find out and can provide some enlightenment into the factors you should focus on.
Turnover rate: are your performance management and professional development efforts having an impact on your turnover?
Employee satisfaction surveys: these macro-level surveys, administered twice a year, give company leaders a bird's eye view of the issues employees care about. You can find trends in how employees comment on your professional development plan. Who is praising it? Who thinks it needs improvement? Are there patterns among departments?
Internal hiring statistics: what percentage of positions do you fill from within? How many current employees apply to new openings?
Once you have those insights to action, it’s time to create a plan for the future. When it comes to career development, there are three main categories where employees want to grow: procedural knowledge, hard skills, and soft skills.
Supporting employees in these three areas shows that your company wants to help them grow from good to great—whatever their definition of great is, whether that means moving up into a management position or becoming a highly-valued individual contributor.
Developing procedural knowledge
When companies consider professional development, most think about procedural knowledge—or how small tasks combine to create a desired result. Whether it’s riding a bike or proceeding through a support call, procedural knowledge makes the difference between a wobbly ride and a dynamic performance. 🚲
It takes time and training to develop procedural knowledge—in fact, training new employees in company procedures is one of the factors that contribute to the thousands of dollars it can cost to replace an employee. Even when new employees have similar skills as company veterans, it still takes time and training for them to integrate into your existing team structure. This time has a cost in manager productivity and man hours.
Employees notice how you approach procedural knowledge in your company, from their onboarding experience to the latest performance review. These are the questions you should be asking to assess how your company handles procedural knowledge:
- Does your recognition program tend to highlight employees who do best at sticking to procedure, or those that find ways to improve the process?
- Do new employees have enough time and structure during the onboarding process to comfortably grasp your procedures?
- Does your company provide regular reminders and refinements to your procedures through team lunch n’ learns or company offsite meetings?
Progression vs. stagnation
While procedural knowledge is important, it’s important to show how the procedures develop with the company and its employees. If nothing ever changes in your company, then how can you provide professional development for your employees?
At a previous employer, I had mastered the procedures. Draft, review, commentary, editing, captioning—I had it down. I might as well have been pushing a button in a content factory: Receive description of work. Beep. Formatted copy out. 🤖
But when the company stopped growing and it became clear that I wouldn’t be moving up into a management position, I had to ask myself how this procedural knowledge would translate into my job hunt.
Employees will move on from even the best of companies as their lives change, whether it’s following a spouse to a medical residency, deciding to stay home with a new baby, or a good old-fashioned midlife crisis. If your employees want space to dream of their future, they need development in areas that mean something outside your company.
If not, a sense of stagnation soon sets in, and they start looking for opportunities where they have a better chance to progress toward their life goals.
Relying on employees who feel trapped in their jobs isn’t healthy for employees or the companies who are trying to engage them.
Developing hard skills and soft skills
A professional development program needs to provide meaningful experience, letting employees develop hard skills and soft skills alongside the procedures that keep your company running smoothly.
Hard skills include education, vocational training, physical training, technological proficiencies, and other employee experiences. Most hard skills are developed outside the workplace as a prerequisite for the position, as the time required for deep learning often takes a backseat to core job responsibilities.
This doesn’t mean that employers can’t offer opportunities for employees to build their hard skills. Here are a few examples:
- Tuition reimbursement and flexible hours for classes and homework
- Seminars from professionals on other teams
- Training on new technologies as they’re applied in the workplace
- Apprenticeships and internships
Soft skills focus on how employees make decisions and interact with each other. These skills comprise 90% of the factors companies look for in future leaders. Traits like communication skills, self-motivation, leadership, empathy, and emotional intelligence reduce the friction between employees so they can work well together.
Often, these skills develop as employees put them into practice during the unique circumstances of each workday, whether it’s figuring out how to gently tell a colleague that their work isn’t up to standard, pushing back against an executive decision they disagree with, or discussing their own weaknesses during a project retrospective.
Here are a few ideas for developing soft skills at your company:
- Lightning talks to help become confident with presenting and communication
- Formalized goal setting to practice time management and accountability
- Frequent one-on-one meetings to refine management style
- Providing and receiving Radical Candor to develop emotional intelligence
Putting it into practice
Professional development doesn’t have to come with trumpets and fanfare. If managers and employees practice regular performance management, they have an opportunity to recognize how their work meets all three professional development categories.
Let’s break down a one-on-one meeting with these categories in mind.
- By asking what employees need from the company, the manager can provide access to other departments and pass down feedback from other parts of the organization.
- Managers can also inform employees of shifts in procedure and the rationale behind them.
- After developing trust, the manager and employee can discuss and resolve procedural breakdowns.
- With an establishment of trust, an open one-on-one meeting provides a safe space to discuss technical issues and provide mentoring opportunities.
- Employees can make recommendations for tools and resources to help them practice their craft.
- Managers can pass on their experience and answer employee questions.
- Discussing goals helps employees decide the best ways to improve and provides an opportunity to practice accountability, instead of defensiveness or blame shifting.
- Developing a regular pattern of conversation helps employees be forthcoming about life changes and how this might affect their work performance.
- Developing a relationship that's comfortable with asking employees about long-term goals can help your company identify internal candidates when new positions open up.
Providing professional development opportunities for your employees through daily interactions, frequent recognition, and special events shows that you see their full potential and that you want to grow together.
Don’t stop here—find even more information on day-to-day employee evaluation in our Guide to Modern Employee Performance Management.