Employers have an engagement problem. Earlier this year, Gallup released a survey that found while employee engagement was at its highest since 2000, the majority of employees are not engaged, including 17.5 percent who were actively disengaged from their work. Engaged employees tend to be more productive and it’s easier to retain them, while disengaged employees are checked out and may be looking for a new job. It’s a challenge for employers to keep their employees engaged.
Drivers of engagement vary by industry, department and individual. No matter what they are at your organization, measuring the work you do on engagement is critical, says Tim Glowa, co-founder of Bug Insights. Simply boosting things you think will engage employees isn’t a strategic approach. Instead, survey your employees to find out what they find important, and then deploy your resources to make improvements. Repeat the survey often to see if you’re moving the needle.
“Getting this right is critical,” Glowa says. “We know that organizations with higher levels of engagement have better financial metrics, such as higher sales per employee, higher profits per employee, fewer sick days, more applicants for open positions and so on.”
This white paper will look at five common drivers of engagement and how employers can improve them in their own organizations.
1. Ask, Listen and Act
One of the simplest ways to find out what employees want from work is to ask them. It doesn’t have to be complicated — even five-question surveys can give you an idea about what employees are feeling and what they want from work. When you allow employees to have a say in operations and business plans, you get new ideas and perspectives and you give them the feeling of being a part of something bigger.
“It is always a good idea to ask employees for their thoughts,” says Michelle Roccia, executive vice president of employee engagement at WinterWyman. “Survey people to find out what options appeal to them most. Where do they want the resources to go? What would they like to see?”
In addition to surveying the workforce as a whole, employers should be plugged in to what employees want individually. “Employers need a good read on each employee’s ambitions, development needs and desire for variety,” says Leigh Steere, of Managing People Better. Doing so can help managers understand their direct reports more completely and manage more effectively.
While managers often meet with employees and ask questions about what they want from their careers, the key moment comes when managers do something with those answers. “For example, some employees love being in the steep part of a learning curve. If they’re less challenged, their motivation is likely to wane, leading to a retention risk,” Steere says. High performers and employees with ambition tend to want to see a clear career path, and if they don’t get the challenge they’re looking for, you risk losing them.
2. Be Authentic and Transparent
When you survey employees, you expect to get honest answers. But employees won’t be honest if your organization has had a culture of cynicism or a history of leaders not saying what they mean. If you expect employees to share information about their experiences and expectations, be honest in all your internal and external communications.
One way to do that is to routinely share information. “We update the entire company on all of our key performance indicators and sales metrics weekly, and we make sure that everybody in the organization understands what our big-picture goals are,” says Peter Arvai, CEO of Prezi. That way, employees feel empowered to make the right decisions about what they should be doing for the business.
Transparency applies to bad news, as well — anything that can affect employees’ decision-making, Steere says. When employees feel you are being straight with them, they are more likely to work with you to solve problems. “If they feel you are withholding information, trust erodes — and so does engagement and loyalty,” she says. This culture change can be one of the most difficult, experts say, but it’s also an effective way to boost engagement. When employees feel you’re being straight with them, they’re more likely to be willing to be straight with you.
3. Have a Strong Mission and Show Where Employees Fit In
When employees see how their jobs support the goals of the company, they are more likely to be engaged. Establish a strong mission for your organization and communicate clearly how everyone’s role fulfills that mission.
“Employees need to understand how their personal work contributes to your organization’s success. Are they just a bricklayer or are they helping to build a cathedral?” Steere says.
Managers play a key role in this engagement driver. “Employees who are engaged truly know what their goals are because their manager has communicated the company vision and let them know how they individually contribute to reaching that vision,” says Aoife Quinn, of Quinn HR Consulting Group.
Quinn says she worked with a company where every new employee received a day’s training in its mission, vision and corporate goals. All of the organization’s communications used the same wording as the mission and vision statements, and performance evaluations were based on those terms, as well. “There were no surprises and people worked hard because they knew that they were impacting lives on a daily basis,” she says, as if there were an underlying force pushing people in the right direction and making them feel good about what they did.
Another way to communicate your organization’s mission and values is through corporate philanthropy. “Participating in employer-sponsored programs allows employees the opportunity to donate their time to a worthy cause, make a connection to their community and feel good about their organization,” Roccia says. Millennials in particular are looking for ways to live their own values through work, so look for organizations to support that tie in with your company’s mission.
4. Reward and Recognize
Everyone likes to be rewarded and recognized for a job well done, but if the reward doesn’t hold any value for the recipient, it doesn’t do any good. When you recognize employees for achievements, make sure the reward is something they will value. “Extravagant incentives are out of reach for most organizations, but rewards can still be effective without being pricey,” Roccia says. Gift cards to favorite restaurants, stores or coffee shops may be valuable to some, while others might appreciate an afternoon off or an extra paid vacation day.
“People have an intrinsic need to be recognized, and when it goes unfulfilled, it can make us feel like we don’t exist,” says Cord Himelstein, vice president of marketing and communications at Michael C. Fina. “When that happens, engagement and motivation are off the table. To get the true value out of your employees, the first step is to treat them like they are truly valued.”
Having plugged-in managers and clear communication can help with this engagement driver. When companies take the time to learn about their employees and reward them with things employees find valuable for actions that benefit the company, employees feel valued and feel like their work matters.
5. Offer Better Training and a Clearer Future
Employees who see they have a future at your organization are more likely to be engaged. Offering continuing education and development is vital. It keeps employees’ skills up to date and shows their employer considers them to be a valuable part of the company’s future.
Simply put, Roccia says, “this keeps people excited about their jobs.” Even sponsoring a series of internal learning lunches or lectures can pay off. “Be sure to invite the CEO, clients or business partners to speak on timely topics. Get creative about how your employees can help each other and continue to learn.”
As employers consider how best to engage millennial employees, Arvai recommends reimagining career paths so they are more horizontal instead of a ladder. “At Prezi, we have a dual-ladder system, which provides two equally respected paths from which an employee can choose,” he says. “We realized early on that talented engineers who want to move up the ranks in their field without taking on managerial duties should be able to choose the ‘individual contributor’ ladder instead of the traditional management ladder.”
Engaged workforces don’t just happen. They require a lot of effort and research from managers and leaders. “The most engaged employees will be operating from their greatest strengths,” Steere says. “That means you, the employer, need to know those strengths and to make sure assigned work plays to those strengths.” However, the results — better productivity and better retention rates — are worth it.