The next evolution of employee engagement is self-directed

As the pandemic gripped our lives, many of us sought to expand our minds in new ways. There was tidying up and bread making, virtual yoga classes, book clubs, and classes on anything and everything. I was no exception. Looking for something that could expand my critical thinking in a completely new context, I signed up for an immersive 9-day humanities course at the University of Chicago.

The course covered a lot of ground – but at first glance was far removed from the day-to-day work of a CPO. In the words of my professor, Professor Mark Miller, Associate Professor of Literature at the University of Chicago: “The objective of the course is to develop analytical skills common to all the humanities, as well as those specific to the disciplines of philosophy, film and drama studies and literary criticism. This is a wide-ranging course supported by a common focus on issues of ethics and personal identity.

The course had nothing to do with my day-to-day work, but it prepared me even better for success as a people leader navigating the constant changes that the past few years have brought to us. My big takeaway?

In this time of uncertainty – in the economy, the job market, and even with our own health – employees and organizations need to focus on building a foundation of “personal engagement”. For employees, this means finding ways to fuel their own performance through self-reflection, personal engagement and self-directed learning. And for employers, it means broadening their definition and approach to employee learning and development beyond simply mastering the skills in a job description. Here’s how we can make it happen.

Broaden the definition of employee engagement

Fostering employee engagement has always been hugely important, but as the world of work evolves, the next iteration will be to help employees engage themselves. For example, in the 2010s, your People team may have focused on providing individual budgets for additional learning through industry conferences. But these seem more mandatory – and less exciting and valuable – for today’s workforce.

The pandemic has increasingly changed the meaning (and importance) of work-life balance. Employees don’t want to advance their careers by adding hours to their work week to attend a conference or take a course focused on the tasks they work on day in and day out. They understand that growth outside of the office (virtual or not) can have a significant impact on their job performance.

People teams need to focus on meeting the needs of this new era of employee engagement. It starts with companies, managers, and people teams getting to know their employees so they can ask the question: What development opportunities are you really interested in and how can I help you pursue them? From there, how can we facilitate these opportunities through business-, manager-, and employee-led learning?

Feedback plays a key role here. Facilitating full and frequent feedback loops can help employees identify new opportunities for growth and encourage self-reflection.

What can leaders, organizations and employees do differently?

It is absolutely essential that leaders and organizations move beyond “learning” and into development when it comes to employee engagement. This means thinking more creatively than just providing a framework and resources for employees to master the skills required for their specific role. Just as employees take a more holistic view of work-life balance in the wake of the pandemic, employers need to focus on their team members as whole human beings with interests, desires and motivations outside of work.

“It is precisely by detaching itself from how problems arise and are framed in specific professional contexts that humanistic inquiry can develop the analytical skills necessary for high-level performance and creative problem-solving,” explains Professor Miller. “By exploring questions about how meaning is produced in various media and in different historical and cultural contexts, the humanities help us to cultivate a critical relationship with our current forms of understanding, while providing opportunities for reflection on this who matters most to us, how we should live, the forces that shape our desires, and the different ways these issues are configured for people across time and cultures.

This holistic approach to learning and problem solving is truly the currency of the future, both in the workplace and in the rest of the world. And employers who encourage this level of learning and personal engagement will attract top talent and empower employees to thrive in and outside of their careers.

Today’s workforce expects fair compensation and reasonable flexibility – these are table stakes. What will set employers apart are the opportunities they offer for career progression, growth and internal mobility – and how they harness the potential for learning and development outside the box.

Here are two simple concepts people leaders can focus on to achieve this:


We need to understand that feedback is not a one-way street. This is an ongoing conversation in which employees and employers should actively seek opportunities for growth. As leaders, we need to invest in tools and processes that create strong feedback cultures that will enable development and growth, and help employees see their employers as partners in their growth journey.


Learning is not sitting in a classroom learning your job. We need to move towards a future where work and life are integrated in new ways – where a language course is seen as helping a sales professional feel more confident in front of customers, or an evening pottery class is a valid work-sponsored way to alleviate stress and burnout to help an employee stay focused and engaged during work hours.

The future is mutually beneficial

People leaders have a unique opportunity to inspire the workforce to see the benefits of employees who never stop learning, in and out of the office. Why shouldn’t we all aim to build lives that mutually benefit ourselves, personally and professionally? A holistic approach to empowered employee engagement empowers people to explore their passions, which in turn empowers us all to be the best employees possible and the happiest versions of ourselves.

“I wouldn’t be a professor at the University of Chicago if I couldn’t insert a quote from Aristotle here somewhere,” says Professor Miller. “Aristotle believed that one of the main things that distinguishes humans from other animals is the desire to understand. This drive to understand is why we theorize, engage with ourselves and each other about politics, investigate the foundations of justice, and why we write, perform, and research stories that take us beyond of ourselves. Aristotle also believed that pursuing this desire to understand was essential to deep human fulfillment and happiness. Humanities is about taking time from the immediate demands of our lives to pursue that desire to understand and grow with it. And there should be room for that flourishing in the modern workplace, too.

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