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Why learning on the job is more important than ever (and 5 ways to do it better)

The general manager of Trailhead at Salesforce observes that hybrid work demands that companies find fresh ways to help employees build the skills they need to succeed.

Why learning on the job is more important than ever (and 5 ways to do it better)
[Source photo: Anna Kim/iStock]
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As many parts of the world reopen for business, we shouldn’t expect workplaces to look exactly as they did before the pandemic. Many companies have announced that workers can continue working from anywhere permanently. Meanwhile, some employees are eager to return to the office, while others are opting for something in between: working remotely while gathering in person for meetings or special events. 

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In this hybrid work environment, employees are looking for ways to develop their skills and careers in order to thrive in a changing landscape. Managers want to engage and retain their teams, no matter where they’re based. And companies need to go digital fast while bringing their workforce along. Hybrid work demands that companies find fresh ways to help employees build the skills they need to succeed.

Workplace learning has always been a key driver of success for both employees and companies. According to recent Salesforce research, more than 70% of knowledge workers say that having more opportunities for workplace learning would make them more productive and engaged at work. Providing educational opportunities also breeds loyalty, with two-thirds of respondents saying they would be more likely to stay with a company that invested in continuous learning. 

To keep up with current workplace trends, employees need to develop both hard and soft skills. McKinsey estimates that up to 375 million people may need to learn new job skills by 2030 in order to adapt to technological transformation.

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Companies need to actively invest in workforce development to be successful and avoid leaving people behind. Unfortunately, the opposite has often occurred over the past year. Based on Salesforce’s April 2021 survey, nearly 60% of knowledge workers say they’ve had fewer opportunities for workplace learning during the pandemic. 

Five principles of effective employee development

To be effective in the hybrid workplace, companies need to reimagine the way they approach employee development. In the past, workplace learning typically involved spending days in a room listening to speakers and watching presentations. Online education existed but was usually an afterthought. Training often focused on compliance rather than engaging individual employees. 

With the rapid shift to digital, companies have had to rethink and refine the way they deliver education in the digital space. The strategies they’re finding most effective are those that put the learner—not the content—first.

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  1. Deliver education in micro-moments. Time is a precious resource, and we’ve learned that staring at a screen for hours on end is exhausting. People process information better when they can digest it in bite-size chunks. According to Salesforce’s research, around three-quarters of employees would rather learn on the job and in small moments throughout the day than in formal trainings.
  2. Enable hands-on experience. Learning all the skills you’ll need for the next decade seems not just overwhelming but actually impossible in light of how quickly technology evolves. Plus, it’s hard to retain a mountain of information without putting it into practice. Teaching team members a few critical skills they need right now, then providing opportunities to practice as they go, makes learning feel more manageable and helps people retain information.
  3. Make content accessible. To keep employees involved and motivated, deliver information through engaging stories, rather than static content. Use inclusive language that makes everyone feel welcome and teach skills that are customized to an individual’s role and existing knowledge base. Technology is key to enabling this kind of personalized learning journey at scale.
  4. Recognize progress. Finding ways to demonstrate acquired skills is both motivating for employees and useful for managers. For example, this can take the form of a certificate or a gamified experience in which workers earn points or level up.
  5. Elevate community. People learn best when they learn together. That can mean connecting employees around shared roles, like marketing or sales, or a shared skill base. Or it can mean linking people with mentors who can help them advance their careers. 

Moving toward an inclusive future

Employee development is about more than productivity—it’s also about building a more equitable workforce. Amid rapid digital transformation, companies need to teach existing knowledge workers about new technologies and business processes.

But employers are increasingly looking for ways to reskill frontline workers to give them opportunities to fill emerging roles. A focus on retraining current employees, rather than just recruiting new ones, not only gives a company the agility to fill in-demand jobs, but also promotes diversity and inclusion.  

For example, one large African bank has invested in skilling up every employee—from receptionists to developers to vice presidents—to support its pivot to becoming a digital-first company. This broad-based approach to education has helped the company move faster when it comes to digital transformation and provided pathways for workers at all levels to grow their careers. Now, the bank is planning to go further by providing resources to improve digital literacy in the communities where it operates. 

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Similarly, a large waste management company in the U.S. is taking steps to teach tech skills to its sanitation workers. Its vision is for frontline workers to become the next developers or customer service personnel. Instead of only hiring externally, the company is investing in helping their existing workforce adapt to technological change and advance their careers. 

Even as we begin trickling back into offices, we won’t be returning to the days of formal mass training. In the hybrid workplace, effective employee development must be digital, digestible, and personalized. Investing in skilling up to help anyone succeed from anywhere is key to keeping current with the technological changes transforming all industries and to creating a more agile and equitable workforce.  


Heather Conklin is the senior vice president and general manager of Trailhead at Salesforce.

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