Employee engagement is something that employers can build and nurture, but there’s no magic program or initiative that can improve it overnight. Engagement – an employee’s emotional attachment to their work –depends on both the fundamental characteristics of the job (is it interesting, is it important), and the environment that managers and other create around that job.
In two previous posts, I discussed the importance of employee engagement and how it’s measured, and the three big factors that shape it. Here, we’ll talk about practical techniques that companies can use to improve employee engagement.
First of all, we need to be realistic: To fundamentally improve employee engagement, many of the changes that are needed are structural and not undertaken in an afternoon. These are long term concerns that a company builds into its DNA. Here’s what’s needed:
- Make sure your managers, and the organization, actually support their employees.For most people, the quality of the work environment hinges on the tone set by their immediate managers, in how they interact with the employee directly and the environment they support among co-workers. That means giving employees the resources they need, providing clear direction, and involving them in decision making.
- Make sure employees are doing meaningful work at which they can succeed. If people are in jobs that are uninteresting, unimportant to the organization, or they don’t feel they can be successful, they won’t try as hard.
- Sincerely ask for what employees want, and give it to them where possible. Engagement is at root an emotional attachment to a company – with strong correlation to the feeling that the company cares about them. But there’s no universal way to show that the company is truly interested in their welfare; instead, it requires honest caring, listening to employees, and showing them that they are being listened to. It needn’t (and often shouldn’t) be touchy-feely – but employees need to see that the company is responsive to their needs and requests.
- Stamp out hostile environments. Above and beyond creating a positive environment, companies need to be on the lookout for engagement killers – things that poison the work environment. Harassment is near the top of the list – if an employee is being harassed (verbally, sexually, physically) at work, and the company isn’t stopping it, they can’t (and shouldn’t) feel a positive attachment to their job. Similarly, the sense that they or a group they self-identify with are being discriminated against can kill an employee’s attachment to their work.
Often you can’t change the overall workplace environment and roles that people are in –at least, not in the near term. But, there are still smaller things you can do to improve employee engagement – and build up the right atmosphere over time. Here are some places to start:
- Measure where you are. It’s difficult to know what’s working if you don’t know where you’re starting from. Doubtless, you’ll already have a sense of your overall employee engagement from everyday interactions. But, by creating a repeatable external metric of engagement, you can track progress and distinguish effective and ineffective efforts. Clear metrics also help focus the management team’s attention. Gallup’s (proprietary) survey tool is the most commonly used in the field, but you can also devise your own.
- Set goals. Given a metric of where you are, set clear goals and hold senior leaders accountable to them. Remember though, these goals and metrics are probably completely meaningless to most employees – it is the actions that the company takes to actually support its employees that matter, not the company’s intention to be supportive. The goals and metrics are for senior leaders, to keep their feet to the fire. Again, engagement isn’t a program, it’s something that arises based on the other actions companies take.
- Communicate clearly with employees. For example, tell them about their benefits in ways that normal people can understand and value. To be frank, many official corporate communications don’t exactly speak to an emotional bond between the individual and their employer.
- Ask employees about problems in their work environment, and fix them. Are there problems of harassment, job-site safety, or lack of vital resources to be effective? Are there bad managers or employees who are poisoning the environment? Asking employees is important; companies must also remedy the problems and show that they responding to employee concerns.
These changes work in tandem. A common critique of many engagement “programs” is that all they really do is survey employee engagement, but don’t actually lead to direct changes in the corporate culture or the quality and nature of work that employees undertake. By combining data gathering and senior-level goal-setting with concrete changes in the everyday experience of employees in their work, progress can be made. As I mentioned in my first blog post in this series, the benefits for companies and employees are tantalizing: 65% lower turnover, 48% fewer safety incidents, 41% fewer product defects, etc.
Creating an environment where employees want to be engaged, and especially, see the value of their work, means building a more successful company, better jobs for employees, and products that both can be proud of.