Employee Engagment – Your X-Factor for Success

The Case for Employee Engagement – Your X-Factor for Success

“People are key differentiators in making companies more effective…the people development strategies go beyond pay…”

Journal of Organizational Excellence

Have you seen the Gallup Organization’s latest report on employee engagement? For me, the data is clear: To be profitable, new approaches are required for leading and managing the people in your company. Gallup’s 2009 survey estimates that 18% of the U.S. workforce is disengaged and another 53% are merely “getting by” in the work they do, resulting in a whopping $315-$516 billion in lost productivity. Disengaged employees underperform, become disenchanted, negatively influence those around them and eventually leave their employer. Engaged employees, on the other hand, are enthusiastic, contribute ideas, are retained longer and become valued ambassadors. The engaged employee will have a significant impact on the bottom line in any organization. What does an engaged employee look like, act like and sound like? Meet Ken, an engineer for a software company.

Ken’s employer makes a habit of doing what it takes to ensure their employees are engaged. The company had been working on a new product for fifteen months and the deadline for product launch was quickly approaching. With much to accomplish in the way of product testing on different platforms and interface with other software, Ken was putting in long hours.  Noticing that Ken was working hard to balance family commitments and work responsibilities, his manager reallocated portions of Ken’s workload to other team members. As a result, Ken was able to be at the ball field with his wife to watch his son’s soccer game. Launch day arrived and the project went off without a hitch. The VP of product development was well aware of the extraordinary efforts that Ken had invested to see this project through to completion. He made it a point to know Ken and what was important to him. After the launch, Ken was presented with a token of appreciation from the company. Ken was blown away. Why? Because the memento was incredibly personalized and demonstrated that his company knew him as a person. The recognition gift reflected Ken’s interests as an engineer, auto enthusiast, volunteer, and most importantly to him, a father. The world has not always been this way. What’s changed?

In the industrial age, physical assets such as machinery, facilities and raw materials could most often mark a company’s success. Companies made “products” and people were a factor in production – viewed as “inputs”.  It was not uncommon to accept a position and 25 years later retire with the “gold watch”. Successful businesses in the 21st century will look very different from those in previous generations. You might be thinking, “Boy, have things changed.” Why?

Technology, globalization and people have fundamentally changed our world. Technology quickly becomes obsolete in the face of even newer technology. Competition is global — ideas are quickly developed and can be copied almost as quickly as they were developed. People view their work as an extension of whom they are and expect the workplace to be a place for personal enhancement.

Technology has brought greater access to data which can be organized into information that can be easily transferable. Employees used to perform narrowly defined tasks in a simple framework. Greater access to information has empowered people. Jobs that are not automated are not routine enough to be automated. The number of positions requiring interpersonal skills, technological and decision-making skills has increased. These positions require judgment, creativity, intuition, experience and empathy. Globalization has changed the workforce. The pace of change is accelerating and has increased to a point where it is difficult to see what might be coming. Not all plans work the way they were intended. When they do not work, machines, capital, or strategy are not “the fix” — people are.

People have changed the workforce … diversity abounds. There are more women in the workforce. There are more ethnicities in the workforce which requires thought in communications, observance of holidays, and variety of dress and diet. The workforce is multi-generational with different expectations in the work setting, personality traits and values. In previous generations, people accepted unpleasant work and work environments for a good salary. This is not true anymore. People today expect their work to be interesting and challenging in addition to the growing opportunity for advancement. The younger working generation, are willing to make trade-offs between work-related status, financial compensation and personal lifestyle. In this paradigm shift, the ability to attract, retain and motivate people, companies need to reframe their thinking toward a more humanistic way of looking at their greatest asset.

The most-prized assets of a business have become the intangible assets that are not easily replicated: knowledge, reputation and talented people who are passionate and committed. People are transforming businesses. People want to be engaged in their work.  What is engagement?

Engagement can be boiled down to the “X-Factor” – an employee is willing to give emotionally and intellectually to accomplish the work of the company. The “X-Factor” often takes them beyond their job description. The employee is passionate about the work they do and takes “ownership” for their contributions to the company. An invested workforce needs to be viewed as a universal need to all business environments. It is not industry specific or related to company size. Engagement is a simple concept, yet it can be difficult to execute. A devoted workforce takes time and patience to build, and must be cared for regularly. engaging their employees.

Unprotected, it can fade quickly. The results of an engaged workforce can be measured in greater financial performance, increased employee retention, and increased productivity. At the highest-level, engagement reaches the heart of your employees. Let’s take a glimpse into how forward-thinking companies are engaging their employees.

Integrating a New Employee – Welcoming 101

A PR firm with 115 employees was concerned about the productivity of new hires. The question on the table … how can we drive productivity–faster?  Many of you have started new jobs and can recall the first few days. It can be challenging to feel like part of the team. To understand the specifics, we needed to know first hand how new employees were being integrated into their new positions. A focus group of employees that had been hired in the last two years was put together. We asked them to think back to what they did and how it felt in their first days with the company. Here is a sampling of what we heard:

“I spent the morning in HR filling out paperwork.”

“My supervisor took me from HR to my new department. He didn’t have anyplace to take me; my work space had not yet been assigned. “

“My work space did not have a computer or phone extension and my supervisor really did not have anything for me to do or time to train me.”

And the list goes on. When asked how this made them feel we received comments such as: out of place, did they really need me, maybe I should have started next week. We shared the results with a cross section of company managers – the expression on their faces was priceless. They had no idea how these seemingly little glitches to getting a new employee settled could impact them in just this way. With information in-hand, we went to work to develop a practical, sustainable approach to welcome and integrate new employees more quickly. Plan in place, leadership at all levels received training on welcoming a new employee. Eighteen months later we formed a new focus group of employees that had been hired in the last year. Here is a little of what we heard:

“My supervisor introduced me to everyone in the department. At the next staff meeting I was asked to share a little about myself so that my colleagues could get to know me.”

“A few of the people I work with directly invited me to lunch and helped me learn the important ins and outs of our department.”

“The VP of our division introduced himself to me and gave me a portfolio and pen with the company logo – it made me feel less like ’the new kid on the block’.”

– A solid solution with a number of touch points that appealed to the head and the heart. –

Appreciation Can go a Long Way – Appreciation 101

A mortgage bank with 23 locations and 290 employees had mounting concerns about their employee appreciation program. This program had been built into their culture and had been important for years, but no longer seemed to provide the “lift” that it had in years past. The question on the table … how do we get back the camaraderie and energy that this program used to provide?

Many of you work in companies that have programs embedded into the calendar designed to build camaraderie, a sense of community and goodwill. When an activity/program is initially designed, much thought and energy goes into the planning. Often in the first year or two of the program, there are many eyes watching for “how it’s going”. Once it is off the ground, a smoothly running activity/program is too often put on “auto pilot” with little energy used for taking its pulse or to understand what might need adjustment to keep it viable. To get started, we assembled a group of company leaders to talk about the program and how it was implemented. Armed with much information about what was currently being done to show appreciation to employees, we hit the streets and interviewed frontline employees through mid-level managers to gain insight. The comments were quite interesting:

“They are showing us appreciation by giving us stuff.” Often the “stuff” is items from the company store with the company logo on it. We could just purchase these things if we really wanted them.”

“I really like getting gifts. The gifts they give us during employee appreciation don’t really connect to the message of the company or say thank you to ’me’.”

“Sometimes I wish my manager would just outright say ‘thank you’ to me for some of these overwhelming tasks I am completing.”

After data collection, we examined how simple, yet important shifts could change the current paradigm so that those showing appreciation to the employees of the company could hit the mark once again.  With a plan in place, training was developed for all levels of management from frontline managers to the CEO. Their new employee appreciation program looks like we have touched the hearts of their employees once again. Here are just a few of the comments we have heard since the new program was put into practice:

“I got a personal note from my manager talking about my contributions to the company. I didn’t know how much she knew about what I did.”

“Fun stuff. I love the way it ties to the message our CEO keeps talking about.”

“Something with my name on it. How COOL that they did that for all of us.”

These examples are snippets into the culture of companies that understand the value of employee engagement and are working hard to make this a critical business objective. It is important to understand that this does not happen in a vacuum and that engagement is a vital component of a company’s success. So where does the responsibility start?

It starts with leadership from the CEO on down. Those who embrace this philosophy view employees as assets, not expenses. To deliver bottom line profit, these leaders understand the importance of building a dynamic culture that develops over time and permeates through the entire organization. They establish values for their company that demonstrate authentic concern for employee well being. They create an environment where work-life balance is welcomed and promoted. Engagement is deeply embedded into the philosophy of their leadership team and incorporated into the company culture. Leaders of an invested workforce have lenses that are focused and patient toward building

long-term results vs. short-term quarter-to-quarter results. They have recognized the importance of having a direct connection to the pulse of company activities. They know that small and subtle shifts in how they think and react to everyday details can contribute exponentially to the big picture of what really matters in their company.

Leaders of engaged work environments lead and manage with key values top-of-mind. It is critical that your values are practiced by leadership and incorporated into how you hire, manage and measure.  Company values printed in a frame that hang on your break room or conference room wall will not help your company build a culture or lead to greater employee engagement.

Eight values are necessary for every successful engagement system in any organization.

  1. Communication – Leaders consistently practice clear, thoughtful, open and timely dialogue. It is imperative to develop trust that transfers among employees, across departments, and from the bottom of the organization to the top and back down again. Encouraging ideas, listening and taking action is also a key component. Understanding that front-line employees often have unexpected contributions and great ideas about how do something better.
  1. Development – Leaders who coach and develop their managers’ “people management skills” can expect consistent implementation and execution of company systems. Through training and education, leaders cultivate opportunities for the entire workforce — from new recruits to senior management. An environment is therefore created fostering and inspiring employees to master new positions and challenges. An atmosphere is built in which employees are able to learn and use a variety of skills to keep them and the company fresh. In this environment, employees readily reinvest with the company and it gives employees an opportunity to connect in ways that are different from their day-to-day tasks.
  1. Collaboration – Leaders build teams.  They recognize the benefits that come from collaboration: more innovation, improved quality, knowledge sharing and the elimination of silos in their company.  Encourage collaboration among employees, departments and business units. Employees know that their opinions are valued and leaders understand the exponential results that are often the outcome of thoughtful collaboration. Collaboration helps build camaraderie and minimize the “us vs. them” state-of-mind. Collaborative efforts are a natural way to transfer knowledge and skills and groom a broader base of their talent pool.
  1. Autonomy – Leaders foster autonomy. They have identified the importance of remaining nimble in their organization, especially as management structure flattens. Employees appreciate autonomy in the flow, pace and use of resources to accomplish their work. When employees are given the opportunity to participate in key decision-making it often reduces stress and creates trust and a culture in which they want to take ownership of challenges and take responsibility to finding solutions. They understand that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

5.   Authenticity – Leaders demonstrate a sincere authentic interest in the well-being of their employees’ lives and they understand the personal aspirations and state of mind. An environment that enriches their employees’ lives by building a community based on shared experiences leads to work that has meaning and clear business objectives. It also engenders an understanding that thoughtful gestures and kind words speak volumes about their commitment and concern for their employees, which spreads through the entire company.

6.   Clarity – Leaders bring a clear vision to the mission, to demonstrate commitment and inspire direction. Clarity leads to clear job descriptions where an employee has the opportunity to do what they do best each and every day.  Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and Built to Last, explains that the right people are in the right seats on the bus. Employees understand the value of their role and how it fits into the big picture. When leaders are clear, employees are well informed and are able to manage their time and resources, and not get stuck “spinning their wheels”.

  7.        Trust – Trust requires a leap of faith from leaders and employees. Strong emotional bonds are nurtured when leaders trust and support their employees and employees trust their manager. Leaders that are transparent with their vision of the company and its future will likely provide outcomes that are understandable and predictable for their employees. It should be a priority to share external messages first with employees rather than having them learn news second hand. When leaders instill trust within the organization, it is with faith that employees will act reliably and in the best interest of the company and its clients.

8. Recognition – Leaders who foster a well-integrated recognition system will satisfy their employees’ basic need for achievement. Recognition sends a clear signal to an employee saying their work is meaningful and they make a difference to the company. Recognition which links specific business objectives to outcomes reinforces the organization’s cultural values. Building accountability into the recognition system should include measurements to monitor results compared to the original intention, then provide feedback. Program triggers should be reviewed and optimized continually.

The long-term success of a company depends on its people. The reality is this mantra is easier to say than to put into practice on a consistent basis. The natural inclination in times of economic strife, when we are overwhelmed with downsizing and restructuring, is to only focus on the bottom-line. When budgets are scrutinized, money is scarce and the “soft-stuff” (i.e. non-monetary tokens of appreciation) is put on the back burner. In reality, incorporating the “soft stuff” of engagement is the solution to keeping up morale, building goodwill, resulting in positive financial performance.

Engagement is about appealing to the head and the heart of your employees. The key values of getting your workforce invested in your company are not difficult. However, it does take a commitment to integrate these values into part of your company culture. Review and quantify current practices to benchmark where you are. Take steps to reach your employees where it counts, as people that you genuinely care about.

Successful work places will become adept at handling this new people-based economy. They will demonstrate the right balance of motivation and cost management. There will be work places that provide respect, trust, and a sense of belonging, autonomy and recognition. When people are happy in their work, they are productive and provide greater value to the organization, which ultimately leads to solid financial performance.  Lao Tzu said, “The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. If you are feeling overwhelmed today just take one step.” Go ahead, just try it.

The Case for Employee Engagement – Your X-Factor for Success – Copyright © 2010 by Hillarys LLC. All rights reserved. An excerpt from the Business Expert Guide to Small Business Success