Building a strong learning culture and refining your strategies now will strengthen your current employees’ engagement and attract top-notch talent in the future. Photo via Getty Images

Employee training is often seen as synonymous with learning and development, but there are significant differences. Understanding the differences can help elevate your organization’s programs and foster a learning culture.

Training teaches employees to perform the core duties of their role, typically competency and task/skills-based learning. Training is usually leveraged when the goal is to elevate an employee’s performance in their current role.

Learning and development (L&D) programs give employees the resources to grow within their current role and ready them for their possible advancement into new positions and/or another role or function. This development should be a collaborative effort with the employee to support the employee’s growth goals. L&D programs build and strengthen your organization’s learning culture, which encourages employees to lean into the overall corporate culture and promotes employee engagement.

There are major benefits when developing L&D programs that impact business success, including:

Employee retention

Employee turnover occurs in every organization, regardless of the work culture. As we continue to maneuver a tight labor market, it is important to consider how each business initiative impacts employee retention. Leadership should not focus on L&D potentially preparing employees for their next position outside the organization. According to LinkedIn’s 2024 Workplace Learning Report, organizations with a strong learning culture saw a 57 percent boost in employee retention. It is much better to invest in and retain your current employees today to drive business success, rather than be forced to invest in constant hiring and onboarding initiatives. Investing in L&D shows your workforce that you value them and care about their future within the company. L&D is a sound investment in your most valuable resource, your people.

Upskilling and reskilling

Today’s labor market has brought increased attention to the value of upskilling and reskilling, with upskilling reducing the skill gaps and preparing employees to advance within your organization, while reskilling teaches employees how to perform an entirely new set of skills. Insperity’s 2024 Business Outlook Report surveyed small- and medium-sized businesses, finding that almost 75 percent either had or planned to introduce an upskilling strategy.

A learning culture is the foundation for upskilling and reskilling within your organization and creates agility in the talent within your business. Upskilling and reskilling opportunities can be individually customized to meet your employees’ career goals, skill sets and the needs of the organization. When members of your workforce experience upskilling and reskilling, others within the organization may be motivated to grow within the organization as well.

Employer branding

Information travels about your organization, whether good or bad. When there are ample L&D opportunities, it improves your employer brand and helps attract top talent who are looking for growth opportunities. A learning culture is a competitive advantage when competing for talent. When the competition does not invest in L&D, your business will stand out more to their employees and prospective candidates as an opportunity for growth and development.

Leveraging your L&D programs and knowing the opportunities available are important for recruiting success. Highlighting upskilling and advancement opportunities are especially important as many employees who choose to work with startups and small businesses want to have a hand in the company’s growth and success. It is also important to discuss how your organizational culture supports learning on the job.

Building a strong learning culture and refining your strategies now will strengthen your current employees’ engagement and attract top-notch talent in the future. Success in business always begins with a focus on your people.

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Karen Leal is performance specialist with Houston-based Insperity, a provider of human resources offering a suite of scalable HR solutions available in the marketplace.

In his new book, Houstonian Brad Deutser explores how increasingly important a sense of belonging is in the workplace. Photo via Getty Images

Houston innovator explores importance of belonging within the modern workforce

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Even in a highly digital, globalized world, the essence of business remains the same: a vibrant tapestry of people working together towards a common goal.

Regardless of how fractured business focus can become, people are at the center of everything that brings business success. And people all share in our fundamental human need to belong to something greater than ourselves and to experience a sense of community, support, and affiliation with others.

The intricacies of human connection underpin our collective drive for unity and purpose, which becomes profoundly disrupted when an organization loses sight of prioritizing its employees. To prevent the Great Disconnect from further eroding our people and forestalling the perils of losing their best and brightest people, leaders must cultivate a deep understanding of, and commitment to, fostering organizational belonging.

The recent groundbreaking study by the team behind Deutser's Institute for Belonging, incorporating the perspectives of nearly 15,000 employees, crystallizes this sentiment. Our results overwhelmingly indicate that an employee's sense of belonging outstrips both their perception of organizational culture and their salary as key determinants of engagement, satisfaction, and overall performance. Previously, employers believed the inverse to be true. This is a significant shift in the attitudes of the workforce.

Unless leaders devote considerable energy, time, and resources towards nurturing an organizational culture of belonging, they may risk depleting their most valuable asset: their people. This article delves into the intricate details of our research and the consequent implications for leadership, aiming to provide a blueprint for leaders to build an inclusive and empowering workspace.

In another of our studies with 275 employees, a staggering 90 percent affirmed the importance of experiencing a sense of belonging at work. Broadening our research to an expansive sample of 14,709 employees across diverse industries and roles, we found an undeniable correlation: individuals who experienced a sense of belonging exhibited significantly higher levels of engagement, job satisfaction, and effort. The most striking understanding about this work was that belonging predicts satisfaction, engagement, and commitment to the organization over and above employees’ views of the culture or strategy.

As leaders, we’ve seen a decades long placement of culture and strategy at the top — but it is belonging that really drives performance. Another adjunct study, employing an experimental design with 71 employees, validated that employees would willingly forego higher compensation and be more inclined to stay at an organization that nurtures their sense of belonging. In sum, organizations and leaders stand to gain substantially by investing in nurturing connections, empowerment, and unity among their teams.

In our survey research, conducted with a sample of 14,709 employees, we used a five-dimensional measure of organizational belonging, encapsulating:

  1. Acknowledgment and appreciation of individual opinions.
  2. Fostering a strong sense of team unity.
  3. Opportunities for professional growth within the company.
  4. Optimal alignment between job responsibilities and individual skill sets.
  5. Trust in leadership’s commitment to their welfare.

Although there are many definitions out there, we define belonging as where we hold space for something of shared importance. It is where we come together on values, purpose, and identity; a space of acceptance where agreement is not required but a shared framework is understood; where there is an invitation into the space; an intentional choice to take part in; something vital to a sense of connection, security, and acceptance.

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Brad Deutser is the founder and CEO of Deutser, a Houston-based consulting firm, and author of BELONGING RULES: Five Crucial Actions that Build Unity and Foster Performance. Isabel Bilotta is managing consultant and head of learning and innovation at Deutser's learning initiative.

Whether it's the “Great Resignation” or the “Great Reallocation,” here's what you need to know about the pandemic's lasting effects on the workforce. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: Here's how the pandemic affected the workforce

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The pandemic has altered many aspects of American life, but perhaps none as much as the way Americans work – or, if they work at all. One startling phenomenon resulting from the pandemic is a massive exodus of people leaving the workforce. On average, around 4 million employees quit their jobs each month in 2021, with resignations accelerating toward the end of last year and hitting a record 4.5 million in November.

These mass departures have created an imbalance in the labor market. As of December 2021, there were 10.9 million job openings in the United States, but only 6.3 million unemployed workers. This imbalance has contributed to the supply chain issues that have plagued many industries, as well as to some of the wage and price inflation we are seeing. Inflation has been rising while our labor force participation rate has plummeted to 61.9 percent, back to around where we were in the mid-1970s. In other words, only about 3 out of 5 working-age adults are actually working.

Embedded in the resignation data are really two types of people: those who are leaving the workforce permanently, and those who are leaving their current jobs for better, or more flexible, work. If the former group refers to a trend dubbed the “Great Resignation,” the latter is more aptly described as the “Great Reallocation.” Although fundamentally different, both trends tell us something important about the ways in which American work life has changed in the wake of the pandemic.

Workers permanently leaving the workforce may be doing so for a variety of reasons. Pre-pandemic, America was already in the Baby Boomer retirement cycle. So, for many people who might have been a year or two away from retirement before the pandemic, the fear and uncertainty resulting from COVID-19 simply delayed those plans. But with 2021’s stock market gains, and retirement accounts flush with cash, many people felt secure enough to pursue the retirement they put off during 2020’s uncertainty.

Another subset of people leaving the workforce likely did so out of a legitimate fear of COVID-19 or, on the flip side, because of burgeoning vaccine mandates. As Americans learn to live with COVID-19, and with many vaccine mandates being struck down or withdrawn, some of these workers will return to the workforce, while others will opt for retirement to avoid these issues. Additionally, with the advent of virtual school across much of the United States, many parents felt pressure to either quit working and stay home with their kids or quit an in-person job to find a work-from-home job.

Still another subset of workers—primarily those in lower-wage jobs—chose to stay home because government subsidies stemming from the pandemic equaled or, in some cases, exceeded their expected earnings from work. Since those subsidies largely ended, many of these workers have been looking to reenter the workforce. However, with the rise of artificial intelligence algorithms pruning resumes for “fit” with certain jobs, a significant employment gap on a worker’s resume could create problems for many who are now seeking work. In any event, many workers looking to get back in the game could benefit from having an expert optimize their resumes so they are attractive to the gatekeeper’s new electronic eye.

Another group of workers resigned to start their own businesses. From January to November 2021, nearly 5 million new businesses were created in the United States. This represents a 55 percent increase over the same period in 2019, which was a boom year right before the pandemic.

The workforce gap stemming from the “Great Resignation” has substantially increased employee bargaining power. In an effort to bridge that gap, employers have been engaged in a war for talent that will continue or, absent a market disruption, even intensify in 2022. In this tight labor market, employers have been realizing that there is a competitive advantage to recruiting talent away from competitors. Wages are up, with no downturn in sight. In November of 2021 alone, pay was up 3.2 percent for employees remaining in their existing jobs. But, for those employees who switched jobs, pay increased 4.3 percent, revealing an advantage to employees looking to “upgrade” their positions. To attract employees, employers are not only offering higher wages, but also, other enticements like signing bonuses, retention bonuses, private offices, and hybrid or fully remote working arrangements.

The pandemic also changed employees’ perspective on work. People became introspective and reevaluated their wants and needs. With so many forced to work from home at the onset of the pandemic, and the overall success of working from home, the flexibility that accompanies working from home has now become ingrained in people’s psyches. Many now prefer or demand jobs with greater flexibility. The success of the work from home phenomenon has also caused several employers to embrace nationwide recruiting of remote workers. These employers greatly benefit from mining a nationwide talent pool and their employees love being able to live where they want, work from home, and still receive great pay. Now, if you want to live in a cabin in Montana or a beach house in Florida, you can do that and still get Silicon Valley pay.

Given the pandemic-driven new market realities, a few things have become clear. First, work from home, to a greater or lesser extent, is here to stay. Second, whether employees work from home or at a business, if we hope to solve supply chain problems, get products back on shelves, and stem the tide of inflation, we need to get Americans back in the workforce. Third, for those considering going back to work, there is no better time than now.

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Scott Nelson is a Houston-based partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth focused on labor and employment.

Maintaining employee engagement can be tough this time of year even pre-pandemic. Here are some tips and considerations from a local expert. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: How to keep your employees engaged during the holidays

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When you combine standard holiday distractions with a year of prolonged and intensified stress, it can result in an exhausted team and real employee engagement (and productivity) problems for your business.

So, what can you do to minimize the impact of this year's holiday slump? It starts with understanding why employees tend to disengage during the holidays.

Reasons your employees are less engaged around the holidays

While employee engagement is something to be focused on throughout the year, the holiday season can be a particularly challenging time. Pre-pandemic, common distractions included holiday parties, upcoming travel plans, and the pressure to find the perfect gift.

This year, travel and large holiday gatherings will likely take a back seat to burnout, pressure to keep family safe, and a different kind of shopping stress (like factoring in delivery times), which could pull employees away from work commitments.

Plus, the business gets busier. While not every business is seasonal, the end of the year tends to be a busier time for many companies, especially for those whose fiscal year matches the calendar. For these companies, the arrival of the holiday season can be an abrupt reminder that they only have a few days left to accomplish the year's goals, meet their annual quotas, or close out requests they've been meaning to get to throughout the year.

We also have the arrival of flu season. When you combine cold and flu season with a very contagious coronavirus, you can be looking at sidelining even the most dedicated employee for days or even weeks. And, unlike vacations, employers have a much harder time planning for illness.

There's also the end of the school session. Working parents are looking forward to spending quality time with their family, and prior to time off from work, they may still need to make childcare arrangements during the workday, the cost of which can be burdensome at the holidays.

Ideas for boosting employee engagement around the holidays

Even though the holidays can compound workplace stress, there are effective strategies you can put in place to minimize the impact of any holiday-related slumps:

Planahead. The single most important thing employers can do to prepare for the holiday season is to plan ahead. If you haven't already, make sure you have all PTO requests in. Forecasting for a lighter staff or arranging additional coverage and adjusting timelines for projects during the holidays can help you meet year-end objectives without intensifying the strain on your already stressed team.

Be flexible and understanding. It's important to try to be as accommodating as you can (within reason). Between potential illnesses, family responsibilities, and added financial burdens, employees will appreciate a little more flexibility and understanding during the holidays. Allowing employees to adjust their schedules or even work overtime to complete projects can build morale and have a positive impact on your bottom line. If you can't accommodate employees' requests, communicate early, and keep an open dialogue to help them understand why. Loyal employees want the company to succeed as much as you do.

Encourage employees to stay healthy. We've all come to understand that more than ever this year. Keeping any wellness programs in place (online or otherwise) can make a big difference. To help keep your staff healthy, happy, and productive during the holidays, you can:

  • Host a flu-shot clinic or encourage employees to get one from their healthcare provider
  • Provide general tips and education about the importance of getting enough rest
  • Make sure common areas are cleaned thoroughly for those present in workplace facilities

Embrace the holiday spirit. While it may not be appropriate for every employer to focus on a specific holiday tradition, ignoring the holiday season isn't going to improve engagement. In fact, a little holiday cheer is exactly what most of us need this year. Even if your team is fully remote you can host intentional, inclusive activities to help employees decompress and encourage camaraderie and collaboration.

Show appreciation for your employees. A little extra employee appreciation or recognition is always needed and welcomed. Your team has worked through some very difficult times in 2020. Celebrate their successes with (if possible) an end-of-year bonus, a complimentary meal, a meaningful gift, or simply a kind email or handwritten note. The holiday season is a great opportunity to show your appreciation for all of your team's hard work. It can be a much-needed reset for what we all hope is a much-improved 2021.

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Susan Crowder, senior HR adviser at Houston-based G&A Partners.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

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Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

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Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.