Just about every organization in the world recognizes the benefits of high employee engagement. It's the secret-sauce that can help drive improvements to almost every aspect of your operation. But despite the vast rewards on the table for investing in employee engagement - so few organizations actually get it right.
If you're looking for quick fixes or gimmicks to help increase employment engagement for your organization, you won't find them in this article. The reality is that employee engagement is something that you need to ingrain in the very fabric of who you are. If you're ready to commit to bonafide culture change, you'll find these 4 core strategies cover just about everything you need to make tangible differences to your employee engagement levels.
We've also created an employee engagement template that you can download and work through to create your own strategy for driving employee engagement:
What is employee engagement?
Intuitively, we all kind of 'know' what employee engagement is. The reason is because we've all had jobs where we felt engaged with the company and our day-to-day activities. And we've also all lived through jobs where we didn't. In essence, employee engagement is all about creating that feeling of 'giving a damn' about where we work and what we do.
For the sake of completeness, let's settle on the following definition of employee engagement:
Employee engagement is the emotional and intellectual connection which an employee has with their employer and their job.
It's worth noting that this definition of employee engagement encompasses both the emotional (feelings) and the intellectual (curiosity in the specifics) ways in which an employee can engage with their job. Further, it also allows for that engagement to be with either (or both) the employer or the job - e.g. we could argue that an employee working for a cancer charity is 'engaged' because of the nature of their employer (a cancer charity), even if they are not actually engaged with the specific job they're doing at the moment. Similarly an employee working for say a bank may not feel very 'engaged' with their employer, but might be incredibly engaged with the specifics of their day-to-day job.
This definition gives us four possible ways to increase employee engagement:
- By increasing emotional attachment to the organization
- By increasing emotional attachment to the role
- By increasing intellectual attachment to the organization
- By increasing intellectual attachment to the role
The 4 quadrants of employee engagement
To help focus our efforts around employee engagement, you may find it useful to categorize those efforts into a series of quadrants. Each employee engagement strategy will score differently for each quadrant - however when all the efforts are combined you should have pretty good coverage across all of these employee engagement quadrants.
Let's take a quick look at each quadrant:
This refers to the engagement of the employee with their organization as a whole. This might be related to their engagement with their organization's vision or mission.
This refers to employee engagement with their role and the function that it fulfills. The employee might be engaged by how vital they see their role to society.
This refers to how engaged an employee is on an emotional level with either the organization or their role. This might come down to personal relationships the employee has within the organization.
This refers to how intellectually stimulating an employee finds their role or whether the role teaches them new things which they find interesting.
For each of the employee engagement strategies we've outlined below, we'll highlight which quadrants it primarily affects.
What are the benefits of employee engagement?
Before getting into the specifics of how to increase employee engagement, let's remind ourselves of the tangible benefits of employee engagement.
You'll often hear people talk about employee engagement being the silver bullet of success for an organization. Whilst that may be true, we also need to be pragmatic about the fact that the benefits of employee engagement often seem intangible at first. They are also often spread quite thinly across different facets of the organization. I.e. high employee engagement can give you benefits across almost every aspect of what you do - but that benefit at least initially is likely to be incremental rather than transformational.
To be specific, here's a list of some of the benefits you can expect to see as a result of investing in employee engagement:
- Lower absenteeism
- Higher employee retention
- Increased productivity
- More effective collaboration between teams
- Better customer service levels
- Improved PR / reputation
- Lower hiring costs
- Increased innovation / creativity
Remember, to see benefits such as those listed above takes time and will happen incrementally over a period of years. Exactly how long it takes to see benefits from employee engagement will depend on your baseline levels of engagement, as well as how committed you are as a leader to effecting cultural change.
Employee engagement is not a strategy, it's who you are as an organization.
Another way to phrase the above heading would be to say that employee engagement is a manifestation of your organization's culture. That means that you'll need to sign up to a few immutable commitments before even thinking about implementing the employee engagement strategies outlined later in this article. Here are those commitments:
- Your organization needs to be committed to a culture of transparency wherever possible.
- You need buy-in from senior management to drive true and lasting employee engagement.
- You need to commit to investing in your employees (financially as well as through training and development) even though they might leave your organization before you see any returns from these investments (scary I know!).
This might sound cheesy, but good employee engagement is a lot like a good romantic relationship. For the other person to truly commit to the relationship, both parties need to be invested in the long-term mutual benefit of the partnership. Further, both parties must be willing to be open and honest about every facet of the relationship. And scariest of all, both parties must be willing to throw themselves into the relationship with all their heart - even at the risk of being hurt or let down.
OK, now that we've covered the basics of employee engagement, let's dive into some specific strategies that you can implement to help you achieve it.
1. Get your on-boarding right
Good employee engagement starts the moment that the employee walks through the door on day one of their job. Actually it probably starts even earlier, in the hiring process - but that's a slightly different topic.
Here's a statistic to get you thinking:
86% of senior managers and recruitment specialists believe that a new hire's decision as to whether to stay with a company long-term is made within the first 6 months. [source]
On the surface, that sounds a bit weird doesn't it? You'd think that the act of staying long-term with your employer would be something that would evolve over time, rather than being something you could make a decision on in just the first 6 months. But be honest with yourself... Think about the jobs that you stayed in for long periods of time. I'll bet that in most cases (not all) you had a pretty good feeling early-on about the company and your prospects. And I'll bet that for the jobs where you didn't stick around too long - in retrospect, you kind of knew at the start that this particular gig wasn't quite going to work out.
Let's take a look at how on-boarding sits in our employee engagement quadrants:
As you can see, on-boarding employees primarily drives engagement with the organization and to a slightly lesser extent with the role. There are some emotional and intellectual engagement benefits too - but the main focus of on-boarding in the employee engagement process is to get people motivated and engaged by the organization they've just joined.
Whether you have a formal on-boarding program or not, here are the things you absolutely must do to drive early employee engagement:
Explain the company's vision and how it came about
Ideally this would come from one of your founders or CEO - someone who is not only extremely close to the vision, but also someone who is senior enough to prove without question to the new employee that as an organization, you care about them caring.
And don't stop there - don't only explain the company vision, but also ask your new employees what they think about the vision and whether or not it excites them. This single act is not only an early opportunity to drive employee engagement, but also a statement of intent to your new employee that you are engaged with them.
Ensure the employee has clear roles and responsibilities
Even if an employee's role changes over time, it's more important than ever that at the start of their journey with you - they have a clear set of goals that are both realistic and genuinely useful for the organization (i.e. not 'busy work').
Believe it or not, there is such a thing as 'over training' your employees. In other words, refraining from giving them actual business outcomes and having them spend all their early time 'learning' rather than 'doing'. Yes, training is important - and yes, some roles require more training than others. But there's nothing more disengaging than to see all your colleagues scurrying around you with purpose and drive only to feel as though you're twiddling your thumbs watching training videos.
Arrange quarterly reviews with the 'two-up' manager
Sometimes organizations are great at the initial stages of employee on-boarding - only to quickly have that employee disappear into the mass of business-as-usual within a few months. That can leave all your hard work around driving early employee engagement in the gutter.
Instead, be sure to arrange quarterly meetings (yes, put them in the calendar even as placeholders) with the employee's manager's manager (i.e. their 'two-up'). Again, this shows an upfront commitment to the employee and demonstrates that you care about their welfare and their engagement in the role. Those 'two-up' meetings can be high level and even relatively short - but they give the employee the opportunity to engage with more senior members of the organization on a regular basis, even if their roles wouldn't otherwise allow it.
2. Make strategy a team activity
People often think about strategy as something that helps them to clarify their ambitions and then helps them to achieve those ambitions in a structured way. And that's absolutely a huge aspect of what strategy can do for your organization. But one aspect of strategy that people often overlook is its ability to act as the 'glue' that holds together the key components of your organization - your people. In this context, that means that you can actually use strategy as a tool in itself to bring people closer together, but also to drive higher levels of employee engagement.
Involving people with strategy plays strongly against role engagement as well as intellectual engagement, as it gets employees to think deeply about their role and how to solve potentially complex problems. It also contributes to organizational engagement and to a lesser extent emotional engagement, though mostly through the bonds that employees form with one another throughout the process.
More specifically, encouraging employees to be a part of the strategy creation process plays a number of roles in driving employee engagement:
- It forces people to engage with and talk about the higher purpose of the organization (the 'vision').
- It requires that your people create direct linkages between their own work and the shared goals of the organization.
- It provides opportunities for people to learn more about how their colleagues (and their bosses) view the world and explore ways to positively influence one another's points of view.
In a nutshell, the process of creating a strategy is arguably the single biggest act of engagement that you can ask of your people.
It is therefore imperative that you involve your employees in as many aspects of your strategy formulation as you can. Whether that's working together to figure out your organizational values, or having teams come up with their own strategies that all fit together to drive the outcomes of the organization.
The benefits of involving your employees in strategy don't end there. When people feel like they have a measure of control in the work they are doing, they experience higher levels of accountability and ownership overall. That engagement persists as they go about actually executing on the goals that they were part of creating.
3. Implement a program of radical transparency
Most people would agree that increasing transparency has a positive impact on employee engagement. But the trouble with most articles out there that talk about this topic, is that they fail to actually tell you how to increase transparency across your organization in a way that is meaningful yet pragmatic. First though, let's examine how radical transparency can help with employee engagement:
I personally love radical transparency as a strategy to gain employee engagement. It plays incredibly strongly in a number of quadrants - namely organizational and role engagement. This is because it gives an employee the opportunity to engage with the organization as a whole, not just their team. It also 'shows off' the importance of their own role when the employee is asked to share details of what's happening in their team. Finally it also plays to emotional engagement, because the process of being radically transparent invariably forces us to be more honest with each other than we would be without it.
The exact approach you take to this will vary depending on the size of your organization and the nature of what you do. However, here are a few things that we do ourselves at Cascade which deliver the kind of radical transparency you need to really drive employee engagement:
Hold an all-staff meeting at least once per month
And no, I'm not talking about quick high-level gatherings where you talk about the Christmas party or even the latest news from throughout the company. I'm talking about giving your employees detailed numbers about how different parts of the business are performing. Ideally that would include revenue data (or your revenue equivalent for non-profits) as well both leading and lagging KPIs for each of your key departments.
You might be thinking that many of your employees won't really be that interested in your revenue, or in the latest website traffic stats from the marketing team. But by thinking this, you're actually making a (potentially quite patronizing) assumption on behalf of your employees, which they won't thank you for.
Instead, respect their intelligence by presenting a balanced overview of the organization's key numbers each month for around 45 minutes. You'll be surprised by how engaged people are with the process, and you'll even be surprised by who engages with it. I've lost count of the times that one of our developers has approached me after a team meeting to ask further questions about an initiative in marketing or the customer success team.
Even if people don't all engage with the content all of the time - the very fact that you're committed to including them will go a long way to demonstrating your investment in them as people - and you'll almost certainly see a demonstrable increase in employee engagement in return.
Publicly admit failures
By publicly I mean within your organization. All too often, organizations feel a need to present only their most highly-polished side - even to their own employees. Rarely admitting to R&D projects which yielded no return or marketing campaigns that totally tanked.
The problem with not being transparent about failure is that everyone knows that it exists. No organization is perfect - and the people who work there already know that. So when you try to hide or minimize failure from your people - all you're really saying is:
I don't trust you enough to be able to properly contextualize this failure - so I'm going to keep it from you instead.
Of course you also need to celebrate success, but most organizations tend to be better at this than they are at dealing with and sharing their failures. Turn those failures into powerful opportunities to show respect and engender engagement from your employees.
4. Cultivate friendships
If you think about some of the great success stories in business (or beyond), you'll often see that friendship played a huge part in that success. Many of most successful startups were founded by friends. And even those that weren't often found that their early employees were either already friends before they joined, or quickly became friends soon after.
I remember I once asked a prominent tech investor whether they would invest in a company that was founded by a husband and wife (or boyfriend and girlfriend). I fully expected him to talk about the risks of mixing business with personal life. But instead he instantly responded that he actually preferred investing in businesses which were run either by a husband and wife or a group of friends.
The reasoning behind this was that running a business, especially an early stage one, is hard. And when people feel loyalty to one another that goes beyond their employment contract, they're so much more likely to work hard for one another and find ways to fight through the harder times for the sake not only of themselves, but also for each other. That made such perfect sense to me, and actually alleviated some of the fears I had about hiring my friends at my own company.
It should come as no surprise that helping to cultivate friendships is an incredible driver of emotional engagement for your employees. The bonds that people make in friendships in the workplace very quickly translate to productivity increases through the notion of 'working for each other'. Further, an organization where friendships are formed is likely to be perceived by employees as a 'good' organization to work for - even if the two things are technically different and not necessarily related - thus driving a surprising degree of organizational engagement too.
So how do you actually go about improving employee engagement by cultivating friendships? Well, you know those corporate events that everyone loves to hate? It turns out that when done correctly they can actually play a huge role in driving employee engagement.
Let's look at a couple of examples of corporate / social events (I'm putting them together for the purpose of this example) - one is good for driving employee engagement and one isn't.
An example of a bad corporate / social event for driving employee engagement would be:
A team dinner at a restaurant. Wait hang on, that sounds like a nice thing doesn't it? The problem with team dinners is the formality of them. When you sit down for dinner, at best you're going to talk to the 3/4 people sitting next to or opposite you. It's likely you'll either sit next to people you're already friends with, or you'll end up sitting next to a random person who you might become friends with, but you might also just have nothing in common with. An even worse situation could be that there's one confident personality at the table who dominates the conversation leaving everyone else to just listen passively and wait for dessert to arrive (we've all been there!).
There are other problems with team dinners too. They often take place outside of work hours, which means that some people (e.g. those with children) might not be able to come, or might make an effort to come regardless but feel an element of resentment at the inconvenience.
Let's flip this around now into an example of how you could run a good corporate / social event.
Instead of arranging a team dinner, why not arrange a late Friday lunch in the office? Maybe hire a BBQ guy or gal to come into the office and cook you and your team up a storm (yep it's a thing).
The benefit of this approach is that it allows friendships to foster organically. People can roam around in a space they already feel comfortable (the office) talking to whoever they like and meeting people outside of their usual circle. If they don't feel like engaging too much today (maybe they're tired or stressed about something) - that's fine! They can go back to their desks and work instead. You can't force people to become friends - but you can create an environment where people feel comfortable and where friendships have a high propensity to develop themselves.
What do you think about these 4 tangible strategies to drive employee engagement? Are we missing a key driver of employee engagement? Let us know what you think about the post in the comments below.