Employee Engagement Linked to Professional Development

by Angela Settles
Bradley University Executive Development Center

The economy is beginning to recover, and many companies will soon find it necessary to ramp up their productivity to meet the demands of consumers who have long been dormant.

In order to survive the recession, many companies were forced to take cost-cutting measures that will have lasting implications. Since the economic downturn began, many working professionals have watched as their colleagues were let go, laid off or squeezed out of the workforce through restructuring or downsizing. Those same working professionals have been asked to take on the work of their departed colleagues—and they have been told not to expect the promotions, raises or bonuses to which they have become accustomed.

It’s been a demoralizing experience at best, and as a result, many companies have suffered the woes of decreased employee motivation, plummeting engagement and sinking loyalty. The 2009/2010 Strategic Rewards Survey indicated that employee engagement, or commitment and satisfaction with work, dropped nine percent since last year, and close to 25 percent for top performers. The survey also found that 41 percent of those top performers believe that pay and benefit changes made by their employers in the last year have had a negative effect on work quality and customer service. The survey was conducted in May 2009 and is based on responses from 1,300 full-time workers at large U.S. employers.

With the recession ending and key economic indicators stabilizing, it’s a perilous and untimely position for employers to be in. As the economy rebounds, companies need to be poised to regain their competitive advantage. And those same disengaged employees are the very people employers will depend on to lead their companies and our nation out of this recession and into economic recovery. The burning question then becomes: What can be done to bring this leaner, disengaged workforce back into the fold? Employers need increased employee motivation, productivity, innovation and creativity now more than ever.

Although education and other professional development opportunities are often first on the chopping block when times get tough, they are key factors in increasing employee engagement, loyalty and motivation. Companies that traditionally offer these opportunities, only to severely cut them back in a downturn, run the risk of losing their best and brightest employees. And, for those employees who do remain, this particular cut is linked directly to a decline in employee engagement, motivation and loyalty.

The loss of intellectual capital and leadership skills stemming from the need for a leaner workforce can severely impact an organization’s financial success. Intellectual capital and leadership skills should be refined in many of the remaining employees as part of a professional development program, especially in the midst of a downturn. Although there is a cost associated with professional development, cutting these opportunities out completely comes with its own cost; some experts suggest that it can take up to three years to regain traction when investment in employee development is stopped.

Another alternative to training—adding to an organization’s workforce through new hires—can be far more costly than retooling the existing workforce, and it can take longer to realize the benefits. Employers who provide training and development in a downturn to employees who already have the insight that only years of experience can buy can increase their ability to lessen the effects of downward economic trends. Continuing to allow for professional development opportunities during a downturn can enhance the innovative and creative thinking required to adapt quickly to the changing business strategies the economic recovery will require. Consistently providing professional development opportunities is by far the more beneficial and cost-effective approach.

Visionary leaders understand that there is no better time to invest in the training and development of their employees than during an economic downturn. Given their leaner workforce, it is critical that remaining employees be ready and motivated to produce quality work. They must be armed with the skills necessary to lead their companies and to face the challenges presented by business-as-not-so-usual. Employers that continue to provide their employees with professional development opportunities in a downturn will have an educated and flexible workforce at hand, well-equipped and ready to respond to new challenges of the post-recession economy. A company that has invested in its employees during times of economic hardship will be poised for growth as the economy recovers. iBi

Angela Settles is the assistant director of the Executive Development Center in the Foster College of Business Administration at Bradley University.

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