The first time I heard the term employee engagement was in 2009, when I was a Human Resources (HR) Manager for a large national corporation. All of the HR Managers were tasked with driving employee engagement initiatives, with our General Managers leading the charge. Employee engagement was ubiquitous: on posters, on the home page of the company intranet, in new online trainings, and on the agenda of every meeting. At first, I didn’t understand what all the hubbub was about. Why did we have to work on getting employees to be happy at their jobs? In the state of the economy, shouldn’t they just be happy to have a job?
It was actually a perfect time for rolling out engagement initiatives. The company had recently undergone numerous layoffs and many employees had taken on extra job duties. A number of employees were performing two jobs with no accompanying increase in compensation. Steps had to be taken to keep the employees engaged, productive and to stop them from leaving. The company desperately needed high levels of engagement to successful navigate through the difficult time.
Flash forward to 2021. As we all know, COVID-19 has caused great disruption in the workplace over the past year. Companies are now dealing with the fallout of the pandemic and employers are continuing to grapple with the realization that remote work is here to stay. Business owners have a lot on their plates, but nevertheless, now is the perfect time to make a push for employee engagement. As we move forward addressing workforce changes and the challenges they pose, employee engagement belongs in every company’s strategic plan.
So….What Exactly IS Employee Engagement?
I hear this question all of the time! As it turns out, employee engagement goes much deeper than simply “happiness.”
Gallup defines engaged employees as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. Studies show that engaged employees go the extra mile, put in discretionary effort, and recommend the company to others as a great place to work. The engaged employee shares ideas to increase productivity and does the right thing when no one is looking. All in all, engaged employees are cheerleaders for their organization and have a vested interest in the company’s success.
Why Employee Engagement is Important
You might be shocked to know that current statistics, (according to the most recent Gallup polls) show that only 39% of the U.S. workforce is engaged, and that is actually an increase from a low of 26% in 2000!
On the flip side, 14% are actively disengaged. These employees cost U.S. companies an average of $500 billion each year according to a Gallup report. Additionally, actively disengaged employees are toxic and spread their negativity to others around them. They are unmotivated, poor performers who are simply going through the motions; the polar opposite of the engaged employee.
Imagine now that instead of 39%, a full 100% of your workforce is engaged. Highly engaged workforces have higher productivity, better retention, fewer accidents and higher profitability. Companies with strong engagement enjoy less absenteeism, lower turnover, and healthier employees who provide better customer service.
Sounds like a dream team, doesn’t it? The good news is that implementing a few programs to increase the company engagement score is not difficult.
It Starts at the Top
First and foremost: Engagement efforts need to take place from the top down. Oftentimes companies task the HR Manager with single-handedly rolling out programs to increase employee engagement and then wonder why their survey scores aren’t at all-time highs. The fact is employees take their cues from their direct managers and C-suite leadership. In order to engage employees, managers and senior leadership need to be 100% committed to engagement programs. The leaders of an organization must emulate the culture and core values and drive the initiatives. In short, they must set the example.
Define Your Company Culture – Vision, Mission, Core Values
The Vision of a company is the overall goal or destination, the mission is the play to get there and the core values are the compass. The core values shape the company, let customers know how the company does business and drive the mission forward. Great companies ensure the mission and core values are part of the entire organization, starting with recruiting and weaving through the entire employee life cycle.
Core values provide employees a basis for how to conduct themselves and set a guideline on the type of person employers want to hire. When a candidate views the company careers page, if the company core values align with the candidate’s personal values, style of work and decision-making, their interest will be piqued. Employees seek meaningful work and a purpose in their lives. When their personal values align with accomplishing a mission, they realize that sense of purpose.
Update the Strategic Plan
Every company has goals and objectives. Not unlike increasing company revenue or customer satisfaction, employee engagement is not a one-time effort. Outlining the steps that will be taken is an important part of an engagement strategy. The initiative needs to be incorporated into the long-term strategic plan, and as with the core values, should be included in every step in the employee life cycle. Whether creating the strategic plan for recruiting, performance management or organizational exit, engagement programs must be an integral part of any company strategy.
Train Your Staff
Train everyone in the company on employee engagement, what it is, why it is important and what steps the company is going to take for their employees. Offering coaching and teambuilding programs also afford managers and employees the tools to support their efforts and increase engagement levels.
Training your management team to foster employee engagement includes topics such as effective communication and coaching skills, motivating and engaging employees, delegation and decision making. Providing development opportunities and ongoing coaching results in better leaders.
Once the word is out and employees and managers are clear on expectations and goals, the company will soon be on course to higher engagement.
Increase Communication and Feelings of Belonging
Put into practice programs that foster communication between employees and management. One of the top predictors of an employee’s level of engagement is the relationship the employee has with their direct manager. Employees respond to a manager that regularly shows genuine care and concern for the employees as people, not just workers. A place to start is simple day to day honest feedback and sincere appreciation.
Additionally, implementing programs such as regular one-on-ones, structured onboarding programs, employee engagement interviews, team building and coaching programs all increase communication, invite feedback and give managers a chance to build relationships.
Other programs to consider are structured employee recognition programs, buddy programs, employee engagement committees, skip-level interviews and pulse surveys.
Pilot and Revise Programs as Needed
Once you have determined the appropriate programs for your organization, measure the success of the programs and revise as necessary. You may ask for direct feedback, review HR metrics such as turnover, average tenure of new employees, or even conduct small pulse surveys. If a program isn’t working or needs tweaking, make changes based on feedback and re-launch or try another program until you find what works.
Once a strategic employee engagement plan is in place and management has been sustaining the efforts to support and maintain the culture, the next step is to conduct an employee engagement survey.
Be careful when conducting an employee engagement survey, as they can have a dramatic impact on company culture. If you do not take steps to share the survey results and action plan with your employees your efforts can quickly backfire. Employees will feel their concerns didn’t really matter and engagement levels may drop. Here’s how to carefully proceed:
1. Conduct an internal survey. A best practice is to hire an outside consultant who has experience in employee engagement.
2. Use well-crafted questions which are both reliable and valid in the measure of engagement levels.
3. Create an action plan to address areas of opportunity and share this with all employees. Don’t forget to showcase the areas in which the company received high marks.
4. Continue to adjust your company programs and follow up as part of your strategic plan.
The bottom line is that engaged employees are better performers. Putting forth the effort to have an engaged, productive workforce makes business sense. Engaged employees also become ambassadors of your culture and your company overall. Peter Drucker said, “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast,” and he was correct. You can strategize all day long, but in the long run, you need the workforce to carry out the strategy. Employee engagement is the best way to accomplish your mission.
Roberta Edwards is the Owner and President of Edwards HR Consulting. Roberta has been a human resources professional for nearly 20 years. Her firm provides proactive human resources strategies for empowering and engaging your workforce, creating a powerful company culture focused on results. Roberta is also a Certified Gallup Strengths Coach and offers a variety of coaching engagements as well as team building sessions.