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Creating Environments for Better Employee Engagement

February 5, 2014
at 10:42 am PST

I recently wrote about the importance of laughter at work. Laughter isn’t the only indicator of employee engagement, but it’s a good one. There have been times in my career where it seemed that my team’s leaders considered laughter as a sign that people weren’t serious enough about their work. (My current team is seriously amused – serious about our work and consistently amused in general.)

These organizations operated according to invisible “all work and no play” mantras. And those were gray places indeed. Places with little collaboration, innovation, and motivation. Places where people showed up, clicked through ominous task lists of multitasking, and went home. Places with little energy. Places with low employee engagement.

Improving employee engagement is gaining emphasis as organizations realize that they can set up all the processes and objectives they want, but people and organizational culture make the difference. It’s more than putting people with the right skills in the right roles. It’s creating environments in which people want to take part. And support has to exist from executive-level definitions of the overall culture to the expectations of and from individual managers.

Engage means to “occupy, attract, or involve.” People want to be interested in their work, they want to use their strengths, and they want to feel valued for their contributions. The more connected they feel to their jobs, their teams, and their organizations, the more energy they put into what they do.

How prevalent is low employee engagement? Very.

In its recent State of the Global Workplace, Gallup reports that only 13% of workers feel engaged by their jobs. Ouch. On the other end, 63% are disengaged and 24% are actively disengaged. Numbers vary by research study and country, but overall most employees don’t feel passionate about their work, connected to their employers, or that they’re making a difference. Again, ouch.

What happens in those environments?

  • High engagement levels translate to higher productivity, profitability, and customer ratings.
  • Low engagement levels result in more turnover, absenteeism, and safety issues.
  • The annual cost of active disengagement in the United States is as much as US$550 billion, in Germany US$186 billion, and in the United Kingdom US$112 billion, per Gallup estimates.

So, what’s the answer? How do you improve employee engagement? The first step, as it is in many situations, is to acknowledge that there’s a problem and you’re ready to resolve it. Out loud. So your employees can hear you. Once you’ve taken that first step, follow through and keep taking more.

Depending on your organization’s current culture and employee engagement levels, these may incremental changes or giant leaps that require climbing gear. Consider what it will take and chart a course. A starting point: In its annual “best places to work” research, Forbes identifies common factors among companies with successful employee engagement, including REI, Google, SAP, DHL Express, Cummins, and Southwest Airlines. Companies like these:

  • Understand what employees are thinking: Use surveys, online forums, and other feedback mechanisms to give employees a voice – and act on what you learn.
  • Create an intentional culture: Integrate and articulate values throughout the organization.
  • Demonstrate appreciation: Recognize employees in big and small ways to create consistent reinforcement and provide examples.
  • Commit to open, honest communication: Make sure employees know what you expect and encourage communication among and between teams, and with leadership.
  • Support career path development: Show employees you value their futures by providing mentoring and training opportunities.
  • Engage in social interactions outside work: Participate in supporting the communities in which you operate — as a community of coworkers.
  • Communicate the culture: Emphasize the “brand” of your culture both within the organization and externally to customers and partners.

Candy-colored 1990s iMacs aside, technology alone doesn’t add color to gray workplaces. That’s up to leaders creating, supporting – and participating in – environments where people want to engage. But technology can play a significant part in fostering the opportunities to improve employee engagement. The Forbes list emphasizes transparent communication throughout the company examples.

For many organizations, geography itself creates a significant communications challenge. It’s increasingly common that managers are responsible for employees in different locations, whether across town or in other countries. Incorporating video into meetings facilitates face-to-face meetings over distance, which can improve communications, relationships, productivity – and engagement.

The bottom line is pretty straightforward: If you emphasize processes and objectives over people, you’re likely to end up with one of those gray places. And if you need an example of an environment with low employee engagement, you’ll be it.

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