The VP of internal communications at a large company recently asked me to help solve a problem related to employee engagement. I listened carefully as she explained. Then, I asked, “What did your employees suggest?”
It was a simple question, but it was met with a blank stare, as that question all too often is.
Managers and executives are trained to make decisions themselves — to be the team’s quarterback — and many never consider soliciting input from employees, who often have a better perspective on customer needs.
This top-down management culture can have serious ramifications for employee engagement. According to Gallup, just 32 percent of Americans feel engaged in their jobs, and close to 70 percent are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at work. This phenomenon isn’t new. Gallup’s figures have remained static since the turn of the millennium.
If companies want empowered and engaged employees, they need to start taking action.
Laying the foundations of employee engagement
In this hyper-connected, big data world, businesses don’t need quarterbacks — they need coaches.
Coaches prepare the team and mold them to be better than the sum of their parts. Coaches keep a close eye on the game and listen carefully to their players. Great coaches know when to step in and when to stay out of the way.
Business leaders should adopt a similar approach of coaching and listening as much as possible to their employees. Employee input is one of the most valuable but underused resources in a company, and it’s the foundation of employee engagement.
Few people understand this better than Stevens Sainte-Rose, the chief human resources officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance, a global corporation with more than 250,000 employees. When he took over the position last year, Sainte-Rose initiated a series of projects to transform the company’s culture from a traditional top-down organization and initiate an employee-centric approach.
The company already ran an annual employee engagement survey, but Sainte-Rose recognized that it wasn’t enough. He introduced 15 different feedback channels, from focus groups to pulse surveys. Walgreens now regularly collects thousands of pieces of feedback from its vast network of employees, partners, and vendors, and while Sainte-Rose admits he might not always like what he hears, he says the feedback is invaluable.
Why employee engagement is so important
A lot of companies define engagement in terms of productivity. Although positive engagement can drive productivity, it’s important to recognize the differences between these two metrics. For most businesses, productivity is a measure of the company’s output or profits.
Engagement, however, is about how employees feel about the work they’re doing, the people around them, and the company itself.
And positive engagement statistics can have a big impact on an organization’s future. When it comes to baseline productivity, companies with engaged employees outperform rivals by up to 202 percent, and they enjoy higher retention rates.
Engaged employees are 87 percent less likely to leave a company than their disengaged peers. And with the costs and difficulties that come with integrating new hires, it’s clear that employee engagement strategies affect more than just an organization’s output.
5 steps to help boost engagement
So how should an organization ensure it doesn’t miss out on these benefits? Here are five places to start:
- Recognize that change is necessary. Employee engagement requires new approaches. I’ve spoken to hundreds of human resources executives over the past few years, and most of them recognize that HR departments need to adopt a more strategic approach and make changes. At a recent HR data analytics conference, I talked with some members of Amazon’s team about their employee engagement data. But when I asked what type of questions they include in their daily pulse surveys, they said the information was classified because it gives them a competitive advantage. That level of secrecy shows how highly they value their new processes. Change is not only needed, but it can also create competitive advantages.
- Recruit better. Employee engagement doesn’t just come from the organization; it also comes from the employees themselves. Businesses are looking at factors other than experience and skills when recruiting. They’re deploying all sorts of new analytical models, and behavioral hiring is growing in prominence. By hiring people who are predisposed to engage within the workplace, businesses can ensure they have a firm foundation to build on.
- Be transparent and flexible. When decisions are made behind closed doors and a company’s ethos is poorly defined, employees feel disengaged. Be transparent about decision-making processes, and clarify company purpose so each employee can relate and understand his or her connection to the overall objectives of the business. Be willing to change to accommodate individual needs, too. As work continues to become more centered around project teams and organized across departments, functions, and geographical locations, transparency and flexibility will grow in importance.
- Celebrate success. A 2013 report by the Harvard Business Review found that recognition for high performers had the greatest impact on employee engagement. And that recognition should not just come two or three times a year. Integrate praise into the daily routine of the business at every level. Celebrate not only the victories, but also the behaviors that will help you build a culture of success. A little recognition every day will go a long way.
- Listen. Work conversations should never flow in just one direction. Listening to employees helps them feel valued within the organization, and it ensures the business gets the most of their talents and skills. Remember: Engaged employees’ contributions are recognized, and they don’t have to shout to be heard by managers.
Ignoring engagement is no longer an option. Lay the foundation for a rigorous and effective engagement program, and keep building.