Every small or midsize business (SMB) needs engaged employees to thrive. But how can you better engage your workforce in the face of competing priorities, rising burnout, and a limited budget?
In this episode of Thrive, principal HR analyst Brian Westfall sits down with Capterra group vice president Claire Alexander to talk about how your learning & development (L&D) program can go from an onboarding formality to your employee engagement golden ticket. You’ll learn how to do a skills gap analysis (with just a spreadsheet), how to better share employee knowledge with other workers, and more.
And if you’re looking for additional employee engagement help, check out these resources:
Brian Westfall, principal HR analyst at Capterra: Welcome to “Thrive: How to Drive Small Business Success”, a podcast from Capterra, focused on providing small and midsize business leaders with ideas, actionable insights, and technology recommendations to help their businesses thrive. I’m Brian Westfall, principal HR analyst at Capterra, and your host for today’s episode.
In part one of our series on how to build an engaged workforce, today we’re talking about employee learning and development. If you’re worried that learning and development, or L&D for short, has fallen behind at your organization, you’re certainly not alone. 49% of small business employees in a survey earlier this year told us that they haven’t developed any new skills during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As we enter 2022, however, with the Great Resignation draining businesses of important skills and knowledge, prioritizing your employee L&D program will be critical to keeping pace with the competition and retaining your best employees.
To discuss how your small or midsize business should approach L&D in the new normal, I’m joined today by our guest, Claire Alexander, group vice president at Capterra. Thanks for joining us today, Claire.
Claire Alexander, group vice president at Capterra: Thanks for having me.
Brian: So, because the series is talking about building an engaged workforce, I wanted to first ask you why is learning and development so important to building an engaged workforce today, do you think?
Claire: For me, I think it boils down to the fact that we’re all human beings and agency is something that makes us feel good. So the more we can give opportunities for people to tap into and use their agency in the work environment, the more likely they are to be having fun at work. And the more likely you are to be having fun at work, I think it means a good outcome for the organization and certainly for retention.
Brian: Yeah. I mean, employees, they’re looking for the intrinsic motivation to stay at a certain job or a certain employer. I think learning and development is so critical to that. And this learning and development topic that we’re discussing today is so critical for organizations in general, right? We’re going through this thing that everyone’s talking about with the Great Resignation. You’re seeing this huge brain drain of knowledge and skills from small and midsize businesses (SMBs). So it’s going to be harder to find and hire skills externally right now. And I think the more that organizations focus on learning and development right now, the better suited they will be in the long run.
Claire: Yeah, 100%. You know, I started my career in consulting. And the education I got there was, in many ways, richer and deeper and more applicable than what I did in business school. And, I will always think about my old alma mater as that; as a place that really helped shape who I am as a professional. I think the opportunity to play that role in employees’ lives is a really powerful one, and something that not many organizations think about, especially not necessarily if you’re an SMB. But to be in a place with high talent density, or to be in a place that really celebrates and creates space to learn and to apply that learning, is a really powerful combination that I think can really help make sure that you keep great talent and help attract really good new talent as well.
Brian: And it’s so important for workers moving forward. We’re always talking about this idea of the future of work, right? I think it was Dell in 2017 that kind of famously predicted that 85% of jobs in 2030 hadn’t been invented yet. Which sounds crazy! But you’ve already seen in the past couple of years, jobs that didn’t exist before, jobs that are merging together into new jobs. So it’s just so important these days to be able to set your workforce up to develop important skills that will benefit them now, and benefit them in the future.
Claire: 100%. I think it’s really interesting, especially in a small business where people have to wear a lot of hats. You’re learning something all the time, and there are things that you can learn on the job pretty easily, but sometimes you need scaffolding, right? You don’t necessarily know what you need to learn. An organization who can think proactively about how to help their employees be more effective or have a bigger impact, and actually point them in the right direction…I think that generates a lot of goodwill.
Brian: Oh yeah, absolutely. You know our audience right now, they’re probably like, “Oh, I know learning and development is important. Of course, it’s a huge priority for us.” But obviously one of those huge barriers to that, when we’re talking about small and midsize businesses, is cost, right? So when you talk about the cost of traditional options for skills development, thinking about things like college degrees, they’re skyrocketing right now. So, in your opinion, what are some more affordable ways that SMBs can help employees develop new skills?
Claire: Well, there’s always the old fashioned book club. So you can start there, you know. There are the equivalent of amazing book clubs happening online, whether it’s through Reddit or Quora, these are great places to learn things. Through peer networks, through blogs. There are really great blogs out there that have taught me things, for sure. And then, micro-credentialing opportunities. There’s a reason why Coursera and Udemy and all these other organizations are growing so quickly. It’s because they offer learning opportunities in bite-sized chunks. And you don’t need to commit tons of money or tons of time in order to get a really good grounding in a new concept or something that you need to learn for work.
Brian: Those bite-sized modules that you can do online, those little courses…I mean, we kind of jumped off this conversation talking about costs, but learning and development also takes time—at least historically. So the idea that an employee can jump into something that maybe takes a day or a week, and they learn a new skill or they gain a certification—that’s so powerful.
Claire: I mean, think about it as a species. We’re kind of an apprenticeship species, we learn from watching other people in society and figuring out how to do things. I think technology has made it more and more possible to learn from a much wider set of individuals than we have before. It’s one of the reasons why media is so powerful. And I love the fact that you’ve got options like Masterclass now, where you can kind of hear from people who are really well known in their fields, how they did “X.” And there’s a ton of podcasts, obviously, that also offer that same benefit.
Brian: Yeah. And think about all the knowledge you already have internally as an organization, but maybe it’s siloed in one person. If we’re talking about affordable ways to really facilitate learning and development, you have to learn which skills your employees have now, and be able to democratize it, right? Be able to share it. So, things like lunch-and-learns. You get people together one day and they give a presentation, you learn a new skill. But beyond that, taking those course materials, throw it in your learning management system (LMS). Send it to the entire organization through email. So they have this resource that they can come back to again and again, where typically you might think of it as a one-off thing we did for lunch one day.
Claire: No, I think that’s a really important point. Especially in this world of hybrid working and geographically-distributed teams, having a central repository that people can go back to, and that’s fairly well-indexed so that you can find this stuff, it’s pretty important. And it really helps make what, as you say, might otherwise be just like a one-time opportunity into a learning moment that can exist for decades, and potentially help onboard new people. You can celebrate the information that you’ve got in your own employee base by making them the internal expert at “XYZ,” and making sure everybody else really is seeing and appreciating what they’re bringing to the table. I think that’s also another really great way to engage the employee base and have kind of a thriving culture where people are excited to learn from each other.
Brian: Yeah. And in light of the Great Resignation that we’re all talking about, with employees quitting left and right—how many times have you had that one employee who’s the only one that knows how to use that one tool, or they’re the only one that knows that certain process? They leave the company, and then no one knows what to do. So the more you can record knowledge, the more you can archive knowledge, the more you can share knowledge, the more you’re going to future-proof yourself when something like that happens. I think it’s so important.
Claire: I agree. And you know, one of the things you talked about with me a little while ago, was how important it is to do a skills gap analysis in your organization. Just so you can really make sure that you’ve got your bases covered, and you’re really proactively thinking about what skills you need people to be developing, and what kind of information you need to make sure is available and not locked up in one person’s head. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Because I thought that was so interesting when we first talked about it.
Brian: Yeah! So we’re talking about how to make learning and development more affordable, right? I think any small or midsize business can do a skills gap analysis. All you need is a spreadsheet. You have your managers sit down with their employees: What are the skills that are important to our organization? And how would you rate your employees on those skills? It can be a scale of one to five, poor to excellent, whatever you want to call it. But at the end of the day, what you want to get is “OK, here’s the skills that we need in our organization to succeed. And here are the skills that our employees don’t have.” So when you find that overlap…you know, you’re a small business. You can’t build every skill at once with all of your employees, you’re going to have to pick and choose, right? Doing something like a skills gap analysis says, “hey, here are those few skills that we should really hone in on because it’s a weakness for us, but it’s also really important for us.”
Claire: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. And the thing I love about that exercise is, obviously, it’s applicable to individual teams and individual employees. But it’s also really interesting to think about doing that same skills gap analysis, thinking about not just the organization as it exists now, but the organization as it will exist in three years. You know, if you’re a fast-growing small business, there will be things that you probably need to be able to do in a little while, that you probably don’t necessarily know how to do now. And so, again, just getting ahead of it by being able to at least think about that question, and maybe start identifying the folks who are already really competent and might have the space and bandwidth to learn new things. I think that also helps to make sure that your high-flyers always have something to chew on.
Brian: Yeah. I think that’s such a great point. We talked about cost, but another huge barrier when it comes to small and midsize businesses and learning and development is burnout. It’s something we’ve been discussing for the past two years at this point. In our own research, we found that more than three out of every four small business employees who transitioned to working from home during the pandemic are experiencing burnout. So when you have these employees that are already overburdened, already stretched thin, what are some strategies that can encourage overwhelmed workers to put more effort into their own development?
Claire: Well, I think the first thing is sleep is really important, right? Sleep, diet, and exercise. Taking care of the basics of your physical being so that you have a little bit of space and can get away from the exhaustion of “fight or flight” that’s so easy to get into when you’re tired. If that’s taken care of, I think the next thing that can be helpful to do is to get into the “why” and help people articulate what it is about the work that they do that’s meaningful to them? Why does it matter for them to be great at what they do? What are their aspirations, and where do they want to go next? I think if you can connect the needs of the business with the aspirations and intrinsic motivators for individuals, that’s a really intoxicating place. It provides a lot of motivation to dig in and invest in building new skills. Because instead of feeling exhausting and draining, it’s really kind of a means to an end, not an end in itself. It can be very exhilarating and energy-providing if you’re working on something that you care about.
Brian: And undoubtedly, like you mentioned, there is going to be an overlap between the skills your organization needs, and the skills that workers are interested in and they’re passionate about. That is what’s going to fuel that intrinsic motivation, especially for employees who may be burdened with burnout right now.
Claire: One of the things I think that’s been just a wonderful experience from my perspective is seeing how people…You know, we did a hackathon in the middle of the pandemic last year. People were burnt out. Compared to non-pandemic years, we had fewer total numbers of people participating. But for the meaningful-sized chunk of people who did participate, they were super energized by taking the time out and working on something that was special to them. We came up with a lot of great ideas for the business. People were really loving being able to connect with other colleagues that they clearly haven’t seen in person for awhile, or necessarily even work with every day. I think that making sure your culture has a space for learning and a space for trying things out is really important.
In a business like Capterra, which is all about helping people find technology, it’s a tech business in of itself. It’s a digital product. That type of white collar hackathon is an easy thing to do. If you’re a field service organization or in construction, that may not be quite as relevant. But I do think there are analogs. There are things that are really important to excellence and success in that particular role or that particular industry. And if you can find ways to give people space, to be great at it, and sort of share that awesomeness with their colleagues, you get that social proof, you get the connection, you get the intrinsic motivation that all leads to less burnout.
Brian: That’s such a good point. I mean, bringing people together is so important right now. Not only for organizations getting to where they need to go, but in terms of bringing skills together, bringing knowledge together, coming up with ideas—I think that’s a great point. Well, Claire, we’re out of time. Thank you so much for coming in today.
Claire: Thank you for having me, Brian.
Brian: Thank you all for tuning into our podcast today. Visit Capterra.com—the leading online resource for business software buyers, where you can read verified reviews, learn how to make the most of your technology, and get the insights your business needs to thrive. Subscribe to the Thrive podcast on your favorite platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts.