People come up with some wacky ideas when searching for an employee engagement strategy. “I’ve got the answer,” she declared, “let’s bring in cake every Friday to celebrate the birthdays that happened that week!”
Look... I know cake is fabulous, but it doesn’t actually have magical properties. If you’re actively disengaged at work because you think your ideas don’t count, or your boss is a micro-manager, or there’s no way to get your voice heard, cake will not transform you into a devoted employee. (And neither will other perks and gimmicks.)
Your employee engagement strategy needs to be tailored to overcome your engagement issues. To help you, I’ve written this article on all things employee engagement; it explores what an employee engagement strategy is (and is not), who’s involved, and five key points to consider to improve engagement.
Let’s get started.
Should we call it an ‘employee engagement strategy’?
Arguably, no. I’m not a fan of this phrase because it sounds like a mathematical equation that leaders can apply to make employees engaged. Here’s a great quote from Annette Franz on the issue:
“Employee engagement cannot be a strategy because engagement comes from within the employee. It's the emotional connection or commitment that an employee has to the organization that then causes the employee to want to put forth the additional effort to ensure the organization and the brand succeed.”
Really, ‘employee engagement strategy’ means ‘increasing the likelihood that employees will establish a positive emotional connection with your organization’. You can’t make them do it, but you can create an environment in which it’s more likely to grow.
To keep things simple, I’ll continue to refer to it as an ‘employee engagement strategy’ in this article, though the focus is on providing people with that environment.
Be realistic about your employee engagement strategy
Even if you have the best employee engagement strategy, it’s unlikely to be 100% successful. And that’s ok. Everyone is unique and has slightly different needs; there will always be outliers that you simply cannot reach.
However, there are commonalities between most people—things that make them feel happy, sad, content, excited, etc. At a high level, try to build an environment that allows most people to develop positive feelings toward their workplace.
Of course, your environment isn’t just about creating a place where most people can feel happy. It also needs to be true to your organizational values and your desired workplace culture.
Furthermore, it has to be the right environment for productivity, career development, open communication, and of course, meeting organizational goals. If you balance these carefully and dial them in correctly, employee engagement will follow.
Who implements your employee engagement strategy?
This is a tricky one. A handful of companies have dedicated chief culture officers, which helps to resolve the issue of implementation and ownership. (After all, employee engagement and culture are intrinsically connected.)
However, most don’t. Currently, the efforts to improve employee engagement are terribly siloed in many companies. There are generally at least four different parties involved—C-Suite, Communications, HR, and IT—each working in isolation and often passing the buck to the next team. In this scenario, your employee engagement strategy is never going to get off the ground.
If these team members work together and declaratively state who’s doing what and why, you’ll make a lot more progress. The specifics of how you approach this will depend on your organization, however here are some ideas of how each party can help to improve your employee engagement:
- C-Suite: People look to your leadership team to set the example. They should definitely “walk the talk”, especially during periods of change. For example, if you get a new communications tool, they should use it and be online advocates. If you start hot-desking to encourage mingling, they should be openly moving around.
- Ambassadors: Unless your organization is small, it’s unlikely that leaders will be able to own employee engagement completely. Gather a team of ambassadors, made up of a cross-section of people from your organization (including HR and Comms), to lend support for initiatives, bring creative ideas, and perform administrative tasks that leaders don’t have time to complete.
- IT: Use your IT people wisely. They shouldn’t be expected to play a major role in owning the employee engagement strategy, however they can help you navigate any employee engagement software that you’re considering. Be clear with your goals and work as a team to ensure the product you end up with best suits your requirements.
Middle managers are your secret weapon
Gallup’s chairman, Jim Clifton, wrote a fantastic article that clearly explains why managers play such a significant role in the workplace, and more specifically, in employee engagement.
“Employees—especially the stars—join a company and then quit their manager. It may not be the manager's fault so much as these managers have not been prepared to coach the new workforce.”
Managers, more than anyone else, have the biggest impact on the experiences of their team. This means they’re in a powerful position to directly improve engagement rates. To leverage this, the leadership team should make sure they’re training and empowering the middle managers so they can do their very best.
5 fundamentals for improving employee engagement
If you want people to form that positive emotional connection with your workplace—to enjoy being at work and contributing to the overall effort—you need to meet their basic needs. This is your ‘strategy’.
Rather than focusing on ‘engagement’ and trying to fix that with things like employee appreciation days and cake (ahem), focus on and prioritize these fundamental needs. The rest will follow.
1. I matter
People need to really believe that what they (and their employer) are working towards matters. They have to believe in it. If they don’t, they’re less invested in the outcomes and less likely to stay in the long-term.
Top tip: Leaders should be clear and communicative about the mission of the company and why it’s important in the grand scheme of things. They should update people on progress often—a single annual speech at the Christmas party doesn’t cut it. Instead, use your communication platform (or even email) for a monthly leadership article.
2. I belong
People should identify with the values of the place they work, and these values should honestly reflect the workplace culture. In this way, people are more likely to find like-minded individuals and form friendships or a sense of “tribe” with their colleagues.
Top tip: Fully invite people into your company by clarifying your values and encouraging them to contribute and strengthen your culture. Your people are the strands that make up the fabric of your company; they should understand what the values are but feel comfortable being themselves within the environment.
3. I’m enabled
This one is pretty straight-forward despite being a broad topic. People need access to the appropriate tools, information, and processes. Furthermore, they need clarity on how to find help, get work done, and make decisions. And they need to feel enabled; be provided with that fine balance of support and hands-off management so they can get their work done.
Top tip: Aim to be as transparent and informative as possible so people know where to go with their questions and requests. Not only should you give people the tools they need, you should give them the support and clarity. Direct managers have a big influence on their team members, so make sure they’re listening to their team members and filling any holes that seem to appear.
4. I contribute
People need to know that their contributions provide value. They should be clearly shown where they fit within the overall purpose of the company and how their work positively impacts progress.
Top tip: The key to this is recognition; regular and genuine recognition. (Again, once a year in an annual review isn’t good enough.) Your recognition doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Simply saying “thank you” can be an incredibly powerful way of showing someone you appreciate their work.
5. I’m respected
People need to feel they’re respected so they can freely express themselves and feel heard. If they do, trust will grow and collaboration will bloom. If they don’t, they’ll end up feeling demotivated, insulted or frustrated. Ultimately, they become disengaged.
Top tip: You have the power to make someone feel respected even if you disagree with them. It’s fine to question, or seek clarification on, a person’s idea or work. However, they should never feel like you’re questioning their motive or qualifications. If you can’t build up this level of respect, then change something; your attitude, your team, or your job.
Don’t forget the most important factor here; your employees. If you want to know where to make improvements, ask them at the start of the process. After you’ve implemented your employee engagement strategy and it’s had time to take effect, ask them again. They will help you track your improvements and understand what’s working and what’s not.
To do this, send out a considerate survey, gather responses, disseminate the data, and then do something about it. (Too many times, companies gather all of this intel and they fail to take action. This doesn’t send a good message to your people.)
When you do decide to act on your findings, be wary of how you proceed. Locking your senior leadership team in a room and having them cook up ideas to improve engagement may not give the answers you need. Remember, the employees are the ones who aren’t engaged. Tap into them. They may be able to tell you why.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, employee engagement strategy is less about focusing directly on ‘engagement’ and more about giving employees the environment they need for engagement to flourish. I hope this has given you a better understanding of how to do that.