The wood from the trees: How to engage today’s overwhelmed workforce

Martyn Bull looks at generational attitudes towards engagement.

With the sheer amount of content available online today the battle for attention is fierce. Measured in clicks, views and shares, the world is awash with news, information, video, sound, pictures, email and messaging, all designed to momentarily grasp attention and register, before being scrolled away.

Millennials, in particular, are touted as having what educator Seymour Papert called ‘grasshopper minds’, leaping quickly from one topic to another, instead of focusing on one subject. Several studies have attributed this to the nature of the media they consume: bombardments of short, easy-to-digest bits, usually whilst on the move through mobile devices.

Despite the debates that can be had over the desirability of living with a grasshopper mind, few are likely to argue against the value that instant access to information and communication brings to daily life.

Checking transport times, finding recipes, ordering rare gifts for friends, online banking, scheduling meetups and instant dating is now so commonplace that when there is no wifi or cellular reception, life seems to come to an abrupt standstill.

HR and L&D teams are having to rapidly adapt their approaches to suit the varying needs, abilities and perspectives of their workforce.

Whilst this utopian blend of lifestyle and learning is commonplace outside the workplace, the truth is that inside the workplace systems and processes are not keeping pace.

With a recent report stating that up to 40% of millennials felt they were held back by old technology and the outdated, rigid work styles of generations past, learning and development teams are facing an increasing struggle to grab attention about the important company issues of the day.

So how can L&D teams achieve the balancing act of placating the quick-adapting easily dissatisfied digital natives with the experienced but sometimes overwhelmed and alienated baby boomers? How can teams engage with all learners, and truly help them see the wood from the trees in the corporate environment?

What do we mean by ‘engagement’?

Before we can delve into the barriers to engagement, it’s important to establish what we mean by the term, as there are two important factors in a learning and development context.

  • Learner engagement – In general, in learning and education, engagement refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism and passion that learners show as they are learning or being taught. Engaged learners are inquisitive, interested or inspired and motivated to learn so that they expand their knowledge and skills. If learners are bored or otherwise disengaged, learning suffers.
  • Employee engagement – Employees who have good quality jobs and are managed well, will not only be happier, healthier and more fulfilled but are also more likely to drive productivity and produce better work, services and innovation.

The careful balance of self-motivation and inspiring people management is at the heart of employee engagement. Put together, employees who feel a sense of ownership and value in the workplace will naturally be much better placed to be interested and attentive to learning and training activities.

A recent report by PwC found that 74% of the millennials they surveyed desired learning new skills or retraining to remain employable. Over a quarter of these listed excellent training and development programmes as the most important factor in making an organisation an attractive employer.

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Barriers to engagement

So what are the main challenges to engaging today’s overwhelmed workforce?

The changing workforce

The workforce is under a constant state of change, as it is becoming both younger and older, with millennials expected to make up half of the global workforce by 2020. Having grown up with the expectation of rapidly evolving technology, these digital natives are used to having to regularly adapt to new tech and trends.

Meanwhile, the current workforce is having to work longer, some into their seventies.This means there exists an ecosystem of two or three generations of workers, coexisting but with very different expectations and experiences.

The way people work together is also changing. Short-term-teams are becoming more and more commonplace, with people coming together for just weeks or a few months to tackle projects, then disbanding and moving on to new assignments once the project is complete.

All of this has a big impact on leadership development, performance management, learning and career progression. HR and L&D teams are having to rapidly adapt their approaches to suit the varying needs, abilities and perspectives of their workforce.

This piece will be concluded next week.


About the author

Martyn Bull is the senior learning designer for digital learning agency Insitu Digital


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