Improving Employee Engagement
Initiatives that will drastically help
This article first appeared on Acorn Resources in late 2020
Everyone has off days, but when your employees are actively checked out day in, day out, you run into problems.
It's crucial, then, to understand what motivates your people and how you can effectively attract, train and retain your staff. Employee engagement requires a thoughtful strategy and buy-in from all levels of your organisation. The end result? Higher profitability, productivity and retention rates for you, and a feeling of inclusion, value and purpose for your employees. Everyone wins.
We'll walk you through the steps to achieving high employee engagement, including exactly why employee engagement is so gosh darn important, the best initiatives for improving employee engagement (and ones you can implement now), and how a technical solution to a human-centric problem will garner you the best results.
Why is employee engagement important?
The term 'employee engagement' is often used interchangeably with the concept of job satisfaction. Though related, they're more like cousins than identical twins. Happy employees are made so by things related to their job description, such as pay packet and responsibilities. Engaged employees aren't just looking for any job that will support their life outside the office; they want to work for an organisation they believe in.
Engaged employees are the stars of your organisation. Some of their most honourable attributes include:
- Being committed to not only their personal success, but the success of their coworkers and company.
- Investing more in their work and producing a quality of work leagues higher than disengaged employees.
- Taking significantly less sick days. Staying longer in their organisation of choice, increasing retention.
- Staying longer in their organisation of choice, increasing retention.
- Doubling the success rate of their organisations, according to the Harvard Business Review.
- Taking ownership for their work and their impact on the organisation they work for.
In simple terms, engaged employees are dedicated, while the disengaged do the bare minimum. And between a workforce that's dedicated to goal realisation for their company and one that's coasting by to get their paycheck, we can guess which one most organisations would pick.
The types of engaged (and disengaged) employees
Your employees can currently be broken down into three distinct categories: the engaged, the not engaged, and the actively disengaged. In layman's terms, these equate to being your brand advocates, your sleepwalkers, and your negative nancies.
The first group are the dream: they are loyal, top-of-their-field employees who discretionarily invest in their work. Brand advocates will give glowing reviews about your organisation to anyone who will listen. They're your main drivers when increasing profitability. However, where employee engagement rates currently stand, they usually account for just 15% of your workforce.
Sleepwalkers are so-called as they are satisfied in their role, but often sleepwalking through their day. Everything is on autopilot for them, and their energy dial is set to bare minimum. This group is your best opportunity and greatest threat. With a strategic approach they can become alert brand advocates, but their 67% share of your workforce means they can precariously teeter into the third group at any time.
Everyone has worked with a Negative Nancy. They easily (and almost happily) spread toxicity throughout the workplace and dominate their manager's time with niggling issues. They possess that lethal combination of being thought leaders and vocal about their dissatisfaction. At 18% of your workforce, this group embodies the statement "if they're not working with you, they're working against you" - because considering their subject matter expert status, they can influence your sleepwalkers to switch off entirely.
All up, this means you're looking at a whopping 85% of your workforce being actively checked out. And when employees are checked out, productivity plummets, profitability is lowered, turnover rates skyrocket, training expenses for new hires max out, and a potentially prosperous company flounders.
An army of negative nancies can be just as successful as an organisation of brand advocates, just with wildly different outcomes for their work. This makes employee engagement important because the outcome you get depends on which category your employees fall into, as well as the strategies and initiatives you use to empower them to be your greatest asset.
8 initiatives that will drastically improve employee engagement
Just because we've outlined how disengaged employees are working against you doesn't mean the future has to look so bleak.
Now's the time to get thinking about how you can truly motivate individuals to improve overall employee engagement and reap organisation-wide benefits. Ask yourself: why do your employees want to work for you? What reasons do they have to come into the office (or log in remotely) every day? If disengaged employees have already quit mentally, what is to stop them from doing so physically? Even a Negative Nancy had a reason to come to your organisation in the first place.
There may not be a one-size-fits-all approach here, but there are ways to bridge the gaps between individual needs. These eight initiatives are easily implemented in the short-term to motive, empower and engage your employees:
Listen to your employees
Before you do anything, you need to talk to your employees to figure out what makes each of them tick. After all, they put the employee in 'employee engagement'. The best way to go about this is to solicit feedback through a survey. When administered internally through a learning management system, cost-effective) way to see if universal trends exist or if individual needs are more varied.
Make it anonymous to encourage more honest - and just physically more - responses, make it accessible by hosting it on a LMS, and make sure you're actually acting on this feedback. Even if your employees' suggestions aren't used, explain why. If they are used, give credit where it's due. Feedback is based on the hope the recipient will improve, and you don't want employees to think this is a shallow endeavour on your part.
Keep checking in, too. Pulse surveys are shorter, more frequent metrics to gauge how your employees are feeling over time. Don't eschew good old face-to-face methods, either; encourage your managers to hold regular and informal one-on-one meetings to check in on their direct teams. When it comes time to turn this feedback into other actionable initiatives, remember it's better to spend your time addressing negative comments.
Hear us out: our brains come with a built-in negativity bias, so bad experiences stick like velcro in your employees' minds while the good turn into distant, hazy memories. (No, we're not being pessimistic: the science backs it up.) The best way to change these impressions is by focusing your initiatives on turning negatives into positives.
Give them the tools they need
It sounds so easy in theory, but many organisations fail to give their employees the tools they really need. Coined as enabling infrastructure by Deloitte, providing the tools (be that technology, streamlined processes or better internal practices) employees require to do their jobs effectively fosters agility, social connections and more profitable results.
Good technology, particularly a good communications tool like an LMS, helps to streamline workflow and creates a line of open communication across teams, departments and different levels of organisation. An LMS is one of the best ways to efficiently support onboarding so new hires understand how they fit into your organisation and see a clear career path ahead, and provide the professional development opportunities needed to retain your top talent. It's also a place for employees to interact with one another and engage with content that bolsters professional and personal skills.
It's important to note that while an LMS is designed to be the foundation of your organisation, your company culture cannot be dependent on it. Utilising communications functions, like discussion forums, requires a human addition to the equation. The more you encourage open communication through other means like surveys, the more confident your employees will be engaging with your organisation and one another.
Provide training & coaching
Ever heard the saying, 'Hire for attitude, train for skill'? An engaged employee is enthusiastic about coming to work for you and learning new skills they believe only you can provide - so give them those opportunities. A culture of continuous learning is a culture that's thriving. And whilst it's a little cliche to say, employees who feel they have control over their destiny at work are more likely to stay focused because they have a goal to work towards. When you provide ongoing professional development and coaching opportunities, you communicate to your employees they are valued and you believe in their potential.
Your budget needn't be blown on a training program. The idea is to encourage employees to 'reinvent' themselves by upskilling and cross-training, so they never feel pigeon-holed in their current role. An LMS is a cost-effective way to provide rich libraries of training content, book in live lectures, organise mentorship opportunities, and knowledge-share between employees.
Professional development opportunities also counteract an all-too-common phenomenon in the working world these days, providing new hires (or those negative nancies) with an incentive to give up their job-hopping ways. Training fosters loyalty (because they'll want to stick around for increasingly more significant opportunities), creates a positive working environment (since everyone feels valued), and increases productivity (as employees are both better equipped and more engaged with their work).
Empower your managers
Look to your leaders to see how your employees are being taught to act in your organisation. Employees with highly engaged managers are 59% more likely to be engaged than those with actively disengaged managers. And Gallup's Chairman Jim Clifton put it best when he said employees don't necessarily quit organisations - they quit their manager.
Think about the people you have in leadership positions and how they influence their teams. More than anyone else, they have the biggest impact on day-to-day experiences, making them the key to improving employee engagement. They often acquire and develop your talent, making sure the right people are not only on the bus, but in the right seats. They are the ones prioritising engagement.
Highlight to your managers they are on track for succession themselves and provide them with the relevant upskilling tools in your LMS to back up that statement. Don't keep them in the dark, either; they are called 'middlemen' for a reason. Openly and clearly communicate news to them, so they can in turn feel well-informed enough to manage their direct employees. You might also invite managers to act as mentors for employees outside their direct team as a means to encourage confidence in their leadership skills, and check in regularly to ensure your managers feel they have the right tools at their disposal.
Engaged employees feel an emotional connection to their workplace, and an important part of that is the relationships within the ecosystem. There's actual scientific evidence to back up the work spouse phenomenon, and employees who say they have a best friend at work are proven to cope with stress better than those who don't. It's not just about having someone to grab a mid-morning coffee with, though. The key is for employees to care about what they're doing is who they're doing it with.
No matter the size of your organisation, you undoubtedly would have teams as part of the structure. Research has found teams with just one employee who is negative, does the bare minimum and de-energises their subordinates have a performance disadvantage of 30–40%. In that sense, encourage your staff to get to know one another beyond the professional realm they function in. Help to facilitate friendly and healthy interoffice relationships by providing social opportunities such as team dinners (anywhere from monthly to biannually), for which one person picks the restaurant. The more employees feel emotionally connected to their coworkers, the better their working relationships and the higher quality their output of work.
Volunteering fosters a cohesive team unit through a shared sense of community. Studies have even shown those instant feel-good benefits of volunteering programs contribute to higher levels of employee engagement in the long-term.
More than ever, employees want to work for an organisation that is socially responsible. It's rarely expensive to implement a service program, and it fulfils the need for employees to find purpose through their work. You might offer individual on-the-job volunteering opportunities or arrange for teams to work within the community. Offering a choice of volunteer opportunities, or allowing employees to pitch their own, shows you care for individual passions. Not only is this a great way to wake up and engage your sleepwalking cohort, the increased sense of pride, commitment and inspiration your employees will feel turns into a more favourable reputation, improved corporate visibility and loyalty for you. Win win.
Recognise loudly & proudly
You don't have to individually wine and dine them all, but figuring out what each of your employees responds to, shies away from, and the opportunities they crave is important when trying to improve employee engagement. A big hurdle when improving employee engagement is often working out how to best create a one-size-fits-all solution. Spoiler alert: there isn't one, but there are smaller initiatives most people simply can't resist.
One universal joy people share is being rewarded for their work. Whether it's public recognition, an award, a bonus or a gift card, there are plenty of ways to show your appreciation for your staff. Develop a regular communication vehicle for stories or photos of volunteers and create a Volunteer of the Month (or Quarter or Year) Award. Offer prime parking spaces for the team with the highest sales for the year. Create a peer points system for jobs well done that can be redeemed for gift certificates (and encourages employees to get to know one another). The opportunities are endless, relatively cost-effective and easily implemented.
It's important to make clear your company's mission, so your employees are working to achieve that. Recognition initiatives tap into people's psychological need to be social and feel included, which in turn makes them feel part of your organisation's success and gives them the confidence to speak up, be ambitious and innovative, and work more collaboratively. And for attention-seeking subject matter experts like your negative nancies, it's a great way to show you see your employees as more than cogs in a machine.
In the current high-anxiety state of the world, if your employees don't feel their best, there's no way they'll be working to the best of their ability. Wellness is not just a new-age fad to do with green juices and superfoods: it speaks to your employees' physical and mental health. In fact, career is one of the five critical elements of wellbeing, being the main way people occupy their time and all.
Those who experience joy in their career are 81% less likely to seek out a new employer within the year, twice as likely to adapt to change well, and 41% less likely to miss work due to sickness. Gallup found 78% of highly engaged employees feel their work positively impacts them psychologically. But in the same survey, Gallup found almost a third of all employees experienced three or more days in the past month when work stress caused them to lash out at family or friends. That leads to brewing resentment towards their workplace, which in turn affects their mental wellbeing, which affects their drive to do their work well, which leads to more resentment… and the cycle goes on.
It can be as simple as offering flexible hours - such as a 7am-7pm model, as opposed to the traditional but rigid 9–5 - or a more serious investment like corporate discounts for gym memberships. You might be in the financial position to offer daily healthy lunch options or subsidised mental health services. Whatever the means, the point is your employees are people, so treat them like people. If their wellness in or out of the office is compromised, they won't be fully engaged or focused on their work.
The employee experience and employee engagement
Don't forget about the employee experience. Just as it sounds, the employee experience (or EX) refers to the sum of everything your employees experience at work: the workspace, interoffice relationships, the software they use, their work-life balance, company culture, career path visualisation, and professional development, to name a few.
Keep the overarching employee experience at the forefront of your goal-setting creating an employee engagement strategy. Your most successful employee engagement initiatives will be those that are created and implemented with this in mind. Treat it like you would the customer experience or user experience: the employee experience is a journey through your company, and you want it to be a highly positive one.
This will help you see how each initiative works as part of a holistic plan that not only creates engaged employees, but gives them a reason to want to work for your organisation. It'll also ensure you design initiatives that target your employees at each stage of their engagement, from actively checked out to highly engaged brand advocates.