The eternal quest for higher profits has perpetually compelled organizations to increase their efficiency, generating more output with less input (including a minimum of personnel). But if skill building was ever a silver bullet for this pursuit, it has lost much of its shine. Today, many workers are suspicious of “quiet hiring,” and just as many employers worry their people will use any new or sharpened abilities to find another job. Fortunately, with the right approach, skill building can still benefit both sides. Educating and developing employees not only strengthens connection and increases their sense of fulfillment; as our research shows, it also dramatically boosts retention and innovation.
Skill building (often referred to as upskilling) helps employees gain additional training and education to excel in their jobs and develop their careers. It also helps organizations partially address a competitive market for talent. However, in some circumstances, it can provoke skepticism among employees who are wary that organizations will train them to do more work without reflecting it in their pay (commonly known as “quiet hiring,” stemming from the term “quiet quitting” in which employees do exactly the amount of work they’re paid for, nothing more).
Equally apprehensive, many organizations believe employees who want to learn new skills are plotting to expand their employment options. However, our research finds less than a quarter of workers (22%) say they’d want to build skills to leave for a job in a new field at a different organization. Instead, 83% of workers told us it’s important for prospective organizations to offer skill-building opportunities and the top reasons for wanting them are to improve performance in a current job (54%) and to achieve personal growth (53%). By not offering skill-building opportunities, employers may inadvertently communicate that they don’t care about employees or their growth. Indeed, organizations that don’t provide any skill building have 76% lower odds of having a thriving workplace culture and 72% lower odds of having employees say they still want to work there in a year.
When done right, skill building bolsters growth, inclusion, and a sense of community. Employees who are satisfied with their organization’s efforts are more than 5x as likely to be Promoters of the organization and nearly 5x more likely to do great work. In an era of work where change and growth are constant, supporting employees’ skill building is a vital investment. According to the LinkedIn 2023 Learning Report, the number-one way companies try to improve retention is by providing learning opportunities, followed closely by upskilling and creating a culture of learning.1
So, how can HR make skill building mutually beneficial for workers and the organization? Simply put, by focusing all efforts on people. Opportunities that are flexible, inclusive, and allow employees to explore their interests can transform how they view career development and growth in their workplace. Giving people a voice in the skills they build, the time to build those skills, and recognition for their accomplishments will help them find fulfillment and thrive at work.
“Learning is key to your resilience as a business. If you invest in curiosity, learning, and agility for your workforce, you will be able to bounce back from setbacks, adapt to change, and be more ready for whatever comes next.”
—Cat Ward, VP, Jobs for the Future
Employees Need Options and Autonomy
Giving workers a choice in skill building is critical—a full 90% report having a say in the skills they learn is an important part of their employee experience.
Organizations can start by asking employees what training or topics are most relevant or interesting to them. This improves the odds of employees feeling connected to leaders (5x), having a sense of freedom and choice at work (5x), and perceiving that they’re getting what they “really want” from their work (4.5x).
Many employees seek skillsets they can use in their current and future jobs, but we also find a desire for hobby-type classes that may not directly relate to work. Specifically, 85% of employees have above-average interest in learning work skills, and 82% have high interest in pursuing non-work skills. Acquiring either type can boost employee wellbeing and morale. And, as shown in the next table, when organizations design opportunities with employees in mind, we see a positive impact on many cultural metrics.
Successful skill building requires organizations to demonstrate they have employees’ best interests at heart—that they care about peoples’ growth and development and not just the bottom line. When employees have a wide variety of skill-building opportunities and believe senior leaders care about them, the data show:
- +230% increased odds of a satisfying skill-building experience
- +390% increased odds of a stronger sense of workplace community
- +352% increased odds of a thriving workplace culture
“People want to be in a place where they feel they are growing, where they are being challenged, where they have autonomy to push their ideas forward. The employee wants to feel like they’re a part of that conversation, and that they actually get to dictate some of those goals. Employees having a say in their goals is super important.”
—Jarin Schmidt, Chief Experience Officer, Credly
Skill Building Must Be Equitable
Often, skill-building opportunities are only available to employees in certain roles or at specific performance levels. However, when organizations give everyone the same opportunities, the odds that people will thrive, do great work, and feel a sense of community increase (5.6x, 5x, and 4.6x, respectively).
Regrettably, only 64% of employees say their skill-building opportunities are open to all. Furthermore, our analyses find that individual contributors, generalists, and minorities are significantly less likely to report equal opportunities in their workplaces.
Organizations can ensure skill building is more equitable by providing a variety of options to satisfy a greater range of employee interests inside and outside work. Whether it’s learning how to create Excel spreadsheets or plant a vegetable garden, when employees feel cared about and invested in as people, their feelings of inclusion and belonging also grow.
Opportunities such as tuition reimbursement and professional classes that directly apply to the workplace significantly impact employees’ sense of community and inclusion. Yet, interestingly, support for teams to learn skills together and reimbursement for classes that are less relevant to work can strengthen feelings of belonging, inclusion, and community even more, as referenced in the following table.
Additionally, reimbursement for hobby classes improves the odds that the skill-building program will positively impact retention by 119%. Not surprisingly, employees want to stay with organizations that support both their professional and personal growth.
Skill Building Increases Employee Fulfillment
Ultimately, skill building can be a way for people to satisfy their psychological needs and find fulfillment at work. Last year, we uncovered four main factors for fulfillment that included growth, both inside and outside of work.2 Skill-building opportunities contribute to a sense of professional growth which, in turn, helps employees feel more fulfilled overall.
Employer support for developing a wide variety of skills also leads to a stronger sense of life balance, another factor that influences employee fulfillment, as seen in the table below.
The odds of fulfillment are 4x better when leaders support employee skill building and 5x better when organizations do. The impact even extends to retention: Employees have 4x greater odds of planning to work at their organizations one year in the future when leaders or organizations support skill building, and when both support it, the odds improve to nearly 9x.
“If you give employees all the adequate training and resources, then you will actually keep more employees. You’d be surprised how many people want to stay because people see that this company is investing in me with all this training and all the opportunity.”
—Focus Group Participant, Finance Professional
To implement a people-centered approach to skill building, organizations must provide choice, time, and recognition.
1. Give employees options and ask for feedback
Every organization is unique, and workers have diverse desires and expectations for skill building. Even when an organization mandates development, it can offer employees choice within a framework, which starts with asking employees what they’d like to learn before deciding what kinds of classes or programs to offer. Have them suggest the skills and how they want to acquire them. As the following table details, this helps satisfy the psychological needs of autonomy, mastery, and connection.
After listening to input and feedback, take supportive action. When employees feel the organization uses their feedback to develop skill-building programs, their sense of empowerment and desire to stay increases:
2. Give employees time at work to build their skills
In addition to a variety of resources, employees need the time to develop skills—and that shouldn’t all happen after hours. More than 91% of employees say it’s at least moderately important for organizations to give employees time to complete trainings (and 70% say it’s very or extremely important).
Setting aside time, on the clock, for employees to focus on classes and training encourages participation and sends the message that the organization is committed to people-centric skill building. When employees are given time during work hours to complete their training, they’re 4x more likely to participate in a skill-building opportunity and 5x more likely to feel a strong sense of community in their workplace.
Of course, clearly communicate the time parameters for employees to learn new skills at work. And keep in mind stretch assignments, special projects, and mentorships can also help build skills, so give employees time to incorporate these opportunities into their daily work.
“This is the way that people feel valued in the business. If you’re training me, you’re telling me that you want me to be prepared for the future of the organization.…Even if you don’t know where people want to be in their life or what’s important to them, I guarantee you there is something at the end of the rainbow for them. And training and development is the way that people feel valued.”
—Julian Lute, Senior Manager and Strategic Advisor, Great Place To Work®
3. Integrate recognition into the skill-building process
HR industry analyst, The Josh Bersin Company, finds high-performing companies are 30x more likely to reward employees for skills.7 Unfortunately, according to HR consultant, Brandon Hall Group, rewards and recognition for employees who reach new competency and skill milestones are inadequate.8
Recognizing employees throughout the skill-building process shows them they’re valued and have achieved something important as they learn new skills. What’s more, in our research, 73% of employees stated that encouragement from a coworker was an important factor in their decision to pursue additional training.
Don’t reserve recognition for the end of a certification or training. Why? Employees have 3x greater odds of being satisfied with their experience if they’re recognized at the completion of a training, but those who receive recognition both during and after have 4x greater odds of being satisfied. This type of recognition is akin to cheering for a runner to encourage them before they cross the finish line. So, be sure to provide ample opportunities for leaders and peers to recognize employees for both extra effort and accomplishments and whenever people demonstrate or practice a new skill. Doing so will reinforce the specific skills and the importance of skill building throughout the organization.
Cooperative Skill Building—Key Takeaways
When skill building is people centered, it benefits both employees and organizations.
Organizations benefit from providing skill-building opportunities for all employees.
Offering employees options and time to develop skills helps meet their needs for autonomy and mastery.
Recognizing people during and after their training improves the employee experience and reinforces the value of new skills.
Cooperative Skill Building Sources
- “Building the Agile Future,” 2023 Workplace Learning Report, LinkedIn.
- “Finding Fulfillment,” 2023 Global Culture Report, O.C. Tanner Institute.
- “18 Companies that Truly Invest in Your Professional Development,” Rebeca Piccardo, The Muse, May 4, 2023.
- Developing Ourselves, Etsy website, 2023.
- Intuit India website, 2023.
- CEAT LinkedIn, 2023.
- “The Definitive Guide to Pay and Benefits: The Road to Systemic Rewards,” Josh Bersin, May 2023.
- “Innovator's Challenge: Unleash Peer-To-Peer Recognition,” Annabel Acton, Forbes, June 6, 2017.
Case Study—Skill Building With the Best
While many organizations offer great skill-building opportunities, these companies ensure employee choice and autonomy is built into their development efforts:
Atlassian. The collaboration software company gives every employee an annual training budget to spend, along with access to an internal portal and online library featuring thousands of developmental topics and courses to help them find and cultivate new interests.3
Etsy. The global online marketplace for unique items offers its people a variety of both professional and personal learning opportunities, ranging from techniques to invigorate sluggish meetings to tap dancing lessons.4
Intuit. Using development programs that flex to meet the needs of each employee, the business and financial software company provides workshops, coaching, experiential training, videos, articles, and books, plus ongoing development conversations with leaders, to help people grow their careers.5
Case Study—Encouraging Skills and Building Culture
CEAT, a global tire manufacturer, understands its employees’ personal aspirations are an important part of finding fulfillment, so the company provides opportunities to explore various departments and participate in extracurricular activities. What sets CEAT apart is the encouragement it gives its people.
For example, adjusting shifts to accommodate dance classes or creative writing workshops inspires workers to follow their passions—and the support is extremely impactful. Employees describe it as “heart-touching” and “overwhelming.”
Arjun Singh, VP of Human Resources, explains the company perspective, “To ensure that our belief and trust in employees convert into practice and ultimately culture, we have contemporary policies that provide a guiding framework so people can get the benefits of these policies.”6