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Industry Leaders Discuss How to Keep Employees Engaged

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Industry leaders discuss best practices for managers on how to keep employees feeling invested and valued.

Chris Michalak

CEO, Alight Solutions

How would you personally define engagement, especially in regards to employment?

Engagement is about having the ambition and passion to work hard each day. Part of that equation is about what you bring to the table, but companies also need to take responsibility for creating an engaging work environment. They can do so by offering exciting and challenging opportunities for their people, providing the support to accomplish the work and honoring the challenges people face when it comes to balancing work and life. For me, engagement is about the excitement I feel walking the halls of our offices and talking to colleagues about the work they’re doing and what drives them.

How can an organization successfully integrate engagement into the organization’s culture?

The only way to truly care for the engagement of your people is to intentionally weave it into the company’s DNA. It has to inform everything from how you talk to your team to how work gets done. Recently, I’ve been in the enviable position of helping to define a new culture for a new company. We’ve taken the best elements of our 25-year heritage and combined that with who we want to be on our best days. It’s been an amazing opportunity to identify the cultural characteristics that will engage our people and enable our company to thrive.

As a company continues to grow, how can you maintain engagement?

Growing companies must hold tight to the small-company ethos that started them on the path to growth. This includes eliminating unnecessary layers that put distance between the visions of the executive team and their people. Whether companies are large or small, the key to maintaining and building engagement is strong, consistent and transparent communication. People need to understand the vision for the future, the role they play in it and what obstacles stand in the way. Then it’s the responsibility of leaders to bring their teams along on that journey — through the ups and downs — and ultimately, to deliver on that vision. Ensuring that people are a part of the process gives everyone a sense of shared responsibility for achieving those goals. 

What should the relationship between company culture and hiring choices be?

Culture is the collective personality of the company and the people within it. You have to hire people who share the values and behaviors that you are trying to create as well as nurture. That also means that if a person has incredible capabilities on paper but doesn’t exhibit the core values of the company, managers have to be willing to make the tough call and continue the search. As a new company, we have the opportunity to hire people with shared values and we can ensure that our hiring process supports our overall vision and culture.

From your own experience, what was an out-of-the-box tactic that a past manager used to engage you on a deeper level?

It was a simple approach that made the biggest impact on my engagement. The best leaders I have worked for have provided me with two things consistently: opportunity and coaching. They never held me back, and, in fact, pushed me into new challenges that stretched me and helped me develop my personal leadership style. At the same time, they provided coaching and advice so I could successfully tackle the next stage of my career. The drivers of personal engagement vary from individual to individual, but that combination of opportunity and coaching has made all the difference for me.

Kris Duggan

CEO and Co-Founder of BetterWorks

How would you personally define engagement, especially in regards to employment?

Employee engagement describes how committed employees are to their organization and the work they’re contributing. Engaged employees tend to be more passionate and contribute at a higher level than disengaged employees. In my experience, employee engagement increases when employees understand why their work matters by utilizing regular recognition and feedback.

How can an organization successfully integrate engagement into the organization’s culture?

Managers play a critical role in keeping employees engaged. When they give employees feedback and coach them towards reaching their career goals, managers keep a pulse on if and when an employee is feeling less engaged with their work. If employees aren’t enthusiastic about what they’re working on, or if they’re confused about how their work makes a difference, a manager can help them make adjustments. If open communication becomes the norm, then it’s possible to keep employees fully engaged by making adjustments before they lose focus. And don’t forget that it starts from the top down; if employees see engaged executives and managers, then that will have a profound ripple effect.

As a company continues to grow, how can you maintain engagement?

In order to maintain engagement, you must set up a process that fosters transparency and regular communication between managers and employees — encourage praise and recognition between colleagues. If employees receive regular feedback and recognition from their managers and peers, they’re more likely to stay engaged. To take it one step further, empower your organization to give ad hoc feedback in the context of an employee’s goals. When employees are confident their work matters, they’ll stay motivated.

What should the relationship between company culture and hiring choices be?

It’s more strategic to be patient and avoid hiring unsuitable employees than hire someone who doesn’t fit your company culture. At BetterWorks, we prioritize finding the best company culture fit possible by asking the recruiter to do a “homework” assignment to research potential candidates. In most cases, candidates receive direction or even collaborate with our team on a presentation before they are hired. This enables our hiring committee to determine how they work with people and whether they embrace our core values and mission.

From your own experience, what was an out-of-the-box tactic that a past manager used to engage you on a deeper level?

When I was working at WebEx, David Berman (now the President of Zoom Video) encouraged me to write my own goals. He would never assign me goals but instead trained me in the practice of personally setting ambitious goals and focusing on the work that mattered most for both the company and my career growth. I was more inspired to stay engaged and reach my goals because I felt personally invested in them.

What is one way to disengage and alienate employees?

You should never keep secrets from employees. As a CEO, I’ve come to realize that the more I share about our success and future plans with my employees, the more engaged and invested they are. 

Paul Gordon

Senior Vice President Sales, Rymax Marketing Services Inc.

How would you personally define engagement, especially in regards to employment?

Engagement is connecting on all levels with the employee. Employees want more than a paycheck as they balance work with social and personal gratification. Almost thirty percent of employees say that it is becoming tougher to separate the two; That is why recognition programs play such an important role in employment.  Those programs integrate the core goals of a company and create a social team aspect. With employees more transient today, employers need an engagement strategy that is inclusive and motivating.

How can an organization successfully integrate engagement into the organization’s culture?

The first step is to listen to the employees. Don’t make the critical mistake of assuming what will engage them.

Next, create a team environment. Clearly articulate the roles of the individuals and their departments and encourage collaboration. This allows employees to get to know each other and build comradery. For example, at Rymax we have many client events around the world and we have all departments staff the events to create employee bonds and a greater understanding of the company goals.

Now recognize the employees from both the management’s point of view and from a peer-to-peer perspective.

Further, make the recognition highly visible within the organization and give them a choice of product rewards. Products have a long residual effect as the employee looks at that watch, TV, drone or other item over time.

As a company continues to grow, how can you maintain engagement?

Know who your “cheerleaders” are and use them within the organization. Every company has the twenty percent that are totally committed and the twenty percent that will never be committed. Engagement is meant to inspire the sixty percent that can become strong contributors. Having the “cheerleaders” at various levels lead new and current employees into the culture of the company is a strong way to maintain engagement. Come up with new team building ideas or a new flexibility in the dress code or new summer hours; Keep the work day fresh and the employees driven by the same mission statement.

What should the relationship between company culture and hiring choices be?

Interviews are always tough because the candidate is trying to please you with the “right” answer about their career and goals. If you ask them questions regarding problem-solving within an organization or ideas to create team building, however, you can get insight into the individual and their potential fit within the organization. There is a difference between a privately held company and a large corporation. There is a difference between a consumer product manufacturer and a service. But, in the end, the need for good employees that grow within the organization is universal. Ask questions that relate to your engagement strategy and if the candidate shows a passion for that conversation, you probably have a good employee there.

From your own experience, what was an out-of-the-box tactic that a past manager used to engage you on a deeper level?

My father taught me to treat every employee with the same respect regardless of their position or tenure in the organization. People who often don’t get recognized are often the most important for the day-to-day functions. They might not have a title or high visibility within the organization, but their importance cannot be overlooked. Get to know the employees and their tasks and, if you are in a senior position, treat them like you would treat your customers. There are plenty of examples of people starting on an assembly line and working their way up into senior management.

What is one way to disengage and alienate employees?

The most surefire way to lose engagement is inconsistency in your message and shifts in the employee engagement programs. All businesses have robust and lean times so don’t take that out on the employees. Mentor them. Inspire them. Reward them. Sir Richard Branson said, “Train people well enough so they can leave. Treat them well enough so they don’t want to.” Brilliant quote and the best way so as not to disengage employees.

Dan Rubin

Partner, Central Market Career Business Leader, North America Talent Management Practice Leader, Mercer

How would you personally define engagement, especially in regards to employment?

Engagement is the amount of energy we bring to our jobs and our organizations. We all have a choice at work — whether to lean in to our work and fully invest ourselves, or just go through the motions on autopilot. When we are engaged at work, we contribute our best thoughts, ideas and efforts on a daily basis.

How can an organization successfully integrate engagement into the organization’s culture?

Based on 40 years of research, we’ve found that employees are engaged when three core psychological needs are met. Firstly, we are social beings, so our relationships at work matter; If employees don’t feel a deep sense of belonging at work, they rarely feel inspired to go above and beyond. Second, fairness is critical; If employees don’t feel they are getting a fair deal — in terms of pay, benefits and work-life balance — or if they don’t feel they are being treated with respect, they don’t usually stay long. Third and finally, people want to achieve something important at work; They want to do meaningful work that allows them to grow and expand their personal capabilities and have a positive impact on the world. Organizations can create a culture of engagement by ensuring these three core needs are met on a daily basis.

As a company continues to grow, how can you maintain engagement?

Regular feedback is critical. Otherwise, especially in today’s fast-paced world, it’s too easy for leaders, managers and employees to lose touch with each other about things that matter. And when it comes to feedback, we recommend multiple channels. Surveys can help, but conversations are critical. By asking employees how work is going — by exploring if the employees’ core needs are being met — leaders and managers can get a sense of how staff are doing. In this process, it’s important to note that employees don’t always have to feel positive to be productive. Everyone has ups and downs at work and that’s natural, but if employees are having a bad experience that extends over a long period of time, both engagement and performance will likely start to suffer.

What should the relationship between company culture and hiring choices be?

We’ve found that employees are significantly more engaged at work when they are doing something that is deeply meaningful to them. This means that fit is critically important. During the hiring process, organizations should be seeking to hire employees who are inspired by the company’s mission and see a natural link between their personal career aspirations and what the organization is trying to achieve.

From your own experience, what was an out-of-the-box tactic/strategy that a past manager used to engage you on a deeper level?

Just the other day, during an action planning meeting, a senior leader brought up a great idea. In an effort to build camaraderie and showcase the great work his employees are doing, he hosts a regular milestones meeting. During this meeting, he highlights meaningful personal accomplishments that his direct reports have achieved over the course of the quarter. Now, this may not sound like a big idea, but from a leadership perspective, it really is. He says these are his favorite meetings to host because they motivate the entire team — including him. Researchers have found that monitoring progress toward meaningful goals and celebrating milestones is a powerful way to build and sustain motivation.

How has your organization taken a unique approach to employee engagement?

Here at Mercer, we believe employee engagement is more than an annual score. Engaged employees are not limited to the workplace. It’s true that engaged employees typically make better employees, but they also make better spouses, better parents and better neighbors.

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