“Employee Engagement”- wow, what a concept. The idea that a highly-engaged employee is a company’s most valuable asset has finally surfaced more openly than ever. It took a long time to see the two words coupled, and for the longest time it was just about customer service, and employee satisfaction, but never about actual engagement.
But why does engagement matter? Simply because engaged employees give us their best, they are creative, energetic, and they oftentimes give more than what’s required in their roles. They are the secret sauce for successful organizations, and why these organizations achieve their targets regularly. So naturally, we want them.
But to get them, isn’t simply about hiring people that look enthusiastic about the role or seem to have a positive outlook, it’s way more than that. Having employee engagement takes developing a culture where you do the things that keep employees engaged. You do the things that matter, all the time, and no matter how hard this is.
The 7 Strategies
Throughout my 20+ years as a leader in the IT field, I’ve picked up many tips and developed programs to cultivate the culture of engagement in the organizations I’ve worked in. None of it was magic, but much of it was through listening and understanding what the employees wanted and needed and putting a priority on fulfilling this in different ways.
This took putting the “human” before the “resource” and being a servant leader. So, I’ll share just 7 strategies that I’ve tried in the recent past, that have manifested in higher engagement levels in the organizations that I worked in.
Having employee engagement takes developing a culture where you do the things that keep employees engaged.Nora Osman
Develop a proper onboarding program, tours and training
Develop a “learn the business” program, tours, training that gives employees exposure to the “why” of what they do. Simon Sinek always says, “Start with Why.” People need to know the why of what they do matters. How their piece fits into the bigger picture. They need to know the company they work in, and intimately.
At Montefiore IT, I recognized early on how technology workers tend to have a very limited view of how their piece works in the bigger picture. They know their role, their technical piece, but they can’t easily connect the dots. We started by putting the Service Desk, who was not very technically diverse at the time, through a 4-day on-site tour program, having them tour multiple departments in the many hospitals, having workflow explained to them, watching how the technology services the operation.
This was earth-shattering in its impact on the team. They came back super-charged, seeing their customers and their struggles through an entirely different lens. It catapulted the engagement levels within the team, as each of them came back excitedly sharing what they learned with their colleagues, building a deeper understanding of their customers.
Their skills evolved rapidly from that point, with a massive increase in customer satisfaction. But more importantly, they became connected to the mission, and continued to want to do more for their customers. From this experience, we learned the criticality of this understanding for all IT staff, and we expanded the program to become an official tour program, with HR incorporating it into the new hire recommendations for onboarding, and managers requesting it for tenured staff as well.
Fast forward many years, we’ve now made the program digital, thanks to Covid, allowing employees to take a 360-degree tour of multiple departments, narrated by business department heads, available 24×7 and from virtually anywhere.
Open the lines of communication
Establish an Electronic Bulletin to open the lines of communication, regularly sharing what’s happening around the company/department so employees are “in the know”.
This is very impactful. Creating a journal that summarizes important projects and initiatives, spotlighting individual employees via video interviews, sharing metrics that matter (so they know what is being measured and against what targets), and last, but not least, recognition- kudos from customers, leadership, everywhere.
At Emblem Health, IT had a quarterly newsletter, changing with the seasons, and broadcasting updates that employees eagerly waited for. This same concept was repeated again at Montefiore, where the e-Bulletin team has been keeping the “MIT Times” monthly newsletter going for 71 consecutive months, featuring over 50 employee-centered 3-minute interviews, sharing news of new hires, promotions, and retirement along with many business project spotlights. Readership now ranges from 35%-40% globally, and many employees’ stories have come through this e-bulletin. In this way employees are “connected” to the mission and to each other.
Recognize, commend and reward
Create a recognition program, and a way to openly commend great effort while recognizing individuals. While many employees see their performance reflected in their annual performance reviews, what goes further than the private recognition they received in this way is the more public, and timely recognition they get by way of kudos in public forums.
There are so many ways to do this but take for example feedback that employees receive in the form of compliments on surveys, which can be shared with them and in team settings. There’s also emails about their heroic work effort, and beyond that, there’s what you as leaders/managers observe as very noteworthy effort, going the extra mile when it counts the most, and when they think they aren’t being seen.
In our monthly e-bulletin, we created a forum for any employee to recognize another, and have it published in an upcoming edition. Several managers have nominated their peers or direct reports for outside awards, allowing them the spotlight for their exemplary performance.
And establishing award categories that get celebrated at Quarterly or Annual All Hands meetings is certainly another way for employees to feel appreciated. I would add that certificates, trophies, and gift cards go a long way.
Capture the sentiment
Capture the employee engagement “sentiment”, formally and consistently via structured surveys. Now this one is tricky, as it needs to be well crafted, anonymous, and be closely reviewed. That’s right- survey your staff with anywhere from 5 questions and up to 20 questions. Make the questions meaningful, asking how they feel about their compensation, their time off options, their understanding of goals/mission, and even how they feel about their boss. Leave them enough room to give comments and examples in several of the questions. And make this something you do religiously at the same time of year, every year, reviewing the data closely with each management area.
In my current role, I’ve found this to be instrumental in uncovering key areas where some teams struggled with lack of meaningful training and feeling that they have more than just routine work. This allowed the managers to prioritize staff rotations between departments, creating mini “internships” to spice things up, but also handing out stretch assignments whenever possible. When the employees feel that they are heard, and that the management team is accountable to action out key areas based on what they’ve uncovered, it strengthens commitment levels, and brings about more engagement.
Offer growth and development opportunities
Focus on career development and career pathing more formally. You’ve heard that people don’t quit their jobs, they quit their bosses. Well, that’s mostly true, and oftentimes it’s because they don’t feel valued or don’t feel they have a defined career path.
While the annual performance review can sometimes be a forum for discussing, “what’s next” for employees, this needs to happen beyond that. Establishing a goal to understand where each employee is, what their strengths are, where they want to go should become mainstream.
There are many tools in HR platforms to allow for harvesting of individual competencies, certifications, training levels. These are key and a good starting point. But actually having the hard conversation with employees, being willing to ask, “what do you want to do when you grow up” (well, not exactly like that, but you get the picture) is important.
Few employees are open and up front about what they want to do next, and many would welcome the opportunity to have the discussion, as long as they feel they’re in a psychologically safe environment. Once you get used to having these discussions, you then have to commit to actually helping put them on a path to where they want to go.
This doesn’t mean automatically promoting them, nor helping them leave the company, but recognizing opportunities for them to learn, practice, and demonstrate new skills as they acquire them. This means being their champion, and caring innately about their success, and for giving them the opportunities to be successful.
Work should be fun too
Integrate fun into your work environment, however you can, whenever and wherever you can. No one wants to come to a boring/drab work environment. Feeling that it’s fun, and less work, will get engagement levels up.
In one environment, around Halloween, we disrupted the work week and had a “treasure hunt”; employees were given clues to solve a puzzle, and that tipped them to where they would find the treasure. You’d never imagine grown-ups so excited and competitively looking all over for candy and loot.
Another place we played Minute-to-Win it competitions as a team-building exercise, giving out prizes to those with the successful completion of physical agility challenges in different categories. More recently, during the pandemic, and as part of customer service week, our IT team globally participated in Kahoot trivia challenges, using technology and bizarre questions to break things up.
Anything non-traditional, from hula hoop challenges to pie eating and costume contests and slack games…this brings back the “fun” at work. It elevates excitement, gives employees something to look forward to, and allows people to be kids again. And who’s more creative and spontaneous than kids? No one. When everyone’s having fun, you’ll get the most commitment from them, because they want to give back more readily.
Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate!
Nothing builds momentum better than finding a way to celebrate, little and big accomplishments, whether within the department or within the whole organization. This can be a breakfast catering, a pizza party for lunch, a cake and coffee break for an employee’s shower or birthday.
When employees feel that life’s accomplishments are being seen as important, not just to them, but to their peers and the company, they bring their whole self to work. Work becomes an extension of their life, and not something separate.
In all the many companies I’ve worked, one thing I noticed as a consistent theme, those who celebrate accomplishments and life’s many milestones with their colleagues at work tend to feel more fulfilled and give more of their time and dedication while employed.
Finally, incorporate a feeling of caring, beyond just the work, but for the people doing the work. That means you need to make the time to get to know people, what makes them tick, what their strengths are, and do what’s right for them.
Sometimes it’s just listening, sometimes it’s pushing them, encouraging them, and it’s being truthful and transparent with them. None of this is fast, none of this is easy, but as I always tell my team, we need to “do what’s right, and not just what’s easy…what’s easy isn’t always right, and what’s right isn’t always easy.”