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When many HR teams think about ways to satisfy their employees, they often look to trendy perks like cold brew on tap, ping-pong tables and catered lunches. Others consider small cash bonuses to keep workers excited and engaged. And while these benefits are all nice-to-haves, today’s employees want more: The real demand is for opportunities to grow and engage in more meaningful work

Giving employees what they want doesn’t just benefit them—it also makes business sense. "When employees genuinely feel like valued assets, they’re better performers, less likely to engage in negative behaviors—such as gossiping or creating a hostile environment—and will even give a company good free PR by speaking positively about where they work. Everyone wins," says Sasha Korobov, an employee communications expert who works with businesses to create happier employees.

What Makes Growth Opportunities So Appealing?

While fleeting perks like free snacks, office dogs and happy-hours can be great for recruiting new hires and building a positive workplace culture, it turns out that opportunities for professional growth matter more overall. Studies show that meaningful work is the number-one driver of employee performance, and one recent survey indicates that workers with development opportunities are 15% more engaged.

It might seem strange that continuous learning is at the top of the list of personal motivators. After all, few of us really loved school. So why do employees favor this type of learning above all else? One reason, according to Korobov, is that offering professional growth feels like a real investment in the employee—it’s more personal than other, more generic offerings (say, free bagels in the breakroom or the occasional gift card) that don't target the individual directly.

"It indicates that the company trusts the employee enough to nurture their talent, experience and specific goals," Korobov says. "Trust is the least expensive, most valuable, but trickiest asset to build between an employee and company, and offering professional development is a great start."

That trust is part of what builds employee loyalty, which is increasingly critical, especially as the number of job-hoppers continues to rise: A 2018 survey by staffing firm Robert Half indicates that 64% of workers are inclined to job hop, up 22% from a similar study conducted four years prior. And while this means that there are qualified workers circulating on the job market, replacing a trained worker with a brand-new employee is costly for employers. In fact, it costs 33% of a worker's annual salary to hire a replacement, according to a Work Institute report

This means that it's well worth making sure your employees want to stay, and development opportunities are the way to do just that. A study conducted by LinkedIn revealed that 94% of workers would stay at a company longer if it invested in their learning and development. 

"When employees gain skills that make them more desirable to other employers, they are both more satisfied with their work and more committed to staying in their job," says Caroline Fisher, M.D., Ph.D., a principal at Germane & Wise Mental Health Systems. "It addresses people's natural ambition while making it clear that they don't have to leave the company to rise in their field."

In fact, opportunities for professional growth can even outperform the temptation of a bigger salary, says Ryan Lahti, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist and the founder of OrgLeader. "I've seen high-potential, high-performing professionals decline the enticement of more money presented by recruiters," he says. "These professionals realized they could better develop their skill sets and careers at their current companies."

Be Smart About Developing Skill Sets

However, it's important to be thoughtful and intentional about learning and development.  Employees who develop new skills but have nowhere to use them often feel frustrated, so trainings are best when they're contextualized, ideally attached to a project at hand. (Imagine a novice salesperson receiving lessons on the best approaches for closing a sale before an actual call.) That’s why learning in the flow of work—as opposed to hours-long learning courses removed from day-to-day tasks—is so critical.

"Training on its own isn't the answer," Lahti says. "It's important to give employees opportunities to apply these capabilities in new challenges while providing candid feedback, coaching and mentoring as they progress in their careers."

This requires the active participation of both workers and their managers and results in a more engaged, productive workforce—one whose members feel genuinely appreciated.