Businesses are a bit like mini communities. Just as communities expand from villages to towns and metropolises, businesses grow from startups to scale-ups and then full-grown organizations. And just as engaged citizens help their towns to flourish, It’s engaged employees that help boost growing organizations towards corporate success. Not surprisingly, organizations that score highly in terms employee engagement see their revenues rise 2.5 times as fast as businesses that score badly.
Particularly for fast-growing organizations, employee engagement is a very relevant topic. Because when there are ten of you around a table all working towards a common goal, it’s easy to stay on task. But how do you cope when, after a while, you suddenly find yourself with five times as many people?
What is employee engagement?
Employee engagement is the degree to which an employee is motivated and passionate about their work. Engaged employees want to contribute toward the success of the company. This means engagement is about more than just satisfaction. A satisfied employee is happy at work, but an engaged employee is also emotionally involved and prepared to invest (usually figuratively) in the company, its reputation, and its interests.
According to the academic literature, engaged employees have the following characteristics:
- They feel committed to the organization;
- They identify with the organization;
- They feel satisfied with their work;
- They feel energized at work.
Why is employee engagement so important?
Employee engagement is directly related to productivity. A motivated employee with a genuine connection to their work or company is more than two times as productive as an employee who is just “satisfied”. In addition, engaged employees are less likely to experience burnout, are absent less often and stay with their organizations for longer. Engaged employees are also better at landing and retaining clients.
As Ashish Devalekar explained in Forbes: “One of the most important things that companies need to understand is that their employees are their greatest assets. Investing in their experience, career progression and wellbeing will payoff tenfold. […] Employees are your most important brand ambassadors.”
Why is this a challenge?
Employee engagement at startups is usually a given. You’re working with a small club of motivated people in one space towards one common goal. Everybody knows each other personally and together this club of people determines the company culture and working environment. But as a startup grows into a scaleup of – let’s say – fifty employees, it becomes harder to maintain personal contact and shared goals become more diffuse. Creating a pleasant corporate culture is then an active endeavor instead of being a natural occurrence.
At this point, we often see that companies experience exponential growth, which makes it even harder to keep employees engaged.
What’s more, COVID has permanently changed our corporate culture. A survey by Upwork found that 61.9% of companies are planning more remote work now and in the years to come. Keeping employees engaged is harder in a hybrid work environment than when everybody is physically present at work.
How do you keep employees engaged?
Harvard Business Review dove into the academic literature to answer this very question: How can companies improve employees engagement? They concluded that three roads lead to Rome:
- Helping employees to find a connection between what they do and what matters to them
- Making work less stressful and more enjoyable
- Giving employees more free time and more financial incentives
For each of these paths, they suggest a checklist that HR professionals can use to help their companies score top marks in terms of employee engagement. Let’s take a look:
1. Connect what employees do with what matters to them
As previously stated, engaged employees identify with their companies. That can only be the case if they care about the company’s mission, understand how their role contributes to it, and when they feel represented in the company.
Bring the company’s mission statement in line with employee values
A good company mission statement goes beyond achieving high turnover and growth figures or becoming a market leader. Research shows that employees like working for organizations that have a positive impact on society. They’re even prepared to sacrifice their salaries to work for organizations like this. When your corporate mission statement makes it clear that contributing to society is a priority, your employees are able to see how their work is part of their personal mission. This helps them to identify with the company.
Here are some corporate mission statements that we find inspiring:
– “To ensure that human connections remain the core of commercial business. That’s why we created a space where creativity can blossom.” Etsy.
– “To accelerate the world’s transition to renewable energy.” Tesla.
– “To improve health and wellbeing through meaningful innovation.” Philips
Less inspiring mission statements are the ones where the only goals are to ‘become the number 1 seller’ or ‘achieve high levels of economic value’.
Show how employee’s contribute to the company mission
A meaningful mission statement isn’t enough. In order to cultivate engagement, it needs to be clear to employees how their daily tasks actually contribute to this mission – across all levels of the organization.
‘Cognitive crafting’ helps here. This involves employees redefining the way they interpret their tasks. Take a look at the following two cases and decide who is more engaged at work. The hospital cleaner who interprets his job as “cleaning rooms”, or the one that sees his job as “supporting patients through their recovery by creating spaces that are as clean and healthy as possible”.
As a HR professional, you play a major role in how employees view their work. Rethink job titles and make it explicit – in job descriptions and advertisements – how the role contributes to the bigger picture.
Encourage “employee resource groups” to form
ERGs are voluntary groups where individuals with shared interests, goals or backgrounds can get together. ERGs might focus on diversity and inclusion, special requirements, such as for employees with disabilities, or on hobbies, such as bouldering or cycling.
Resource groups help you to clarify the needs of different groups of employees. They can help you form or adjust corporate strategy and they strengthen the social bonds between employees. This does a world of good in terms of engagement.
According to KPMG, almost half of all their employees belong to at least one ERG, whether it’s the KPMG Network of Women, African American Network, Abilities in Motion Network or pride@kpmg.
2. Make work less stressful and more enjoyable
Motivated employees are engaged employees. And job satisfaction and engagement go hand in hand. You can improve job satisfaction by doing things like being flexible about tasks, offering plenty of space for personal relationships to develop between colleagues, giving employees autonomy, and encouraging self-confidence.
Offer the flexibility to try out new tasks
What might be a meaningful task for one person, could be a total slog for another. You can help your employees to discover what intrinsically motivates them by letting them experiment. For example, consider setting up a “junior pool” that each team can pull from. A pool like this makes it possible for each junior to help out on other teams for a particular proportion of their working week.
Alternatively, you could allow employees to rotate around different departments. For example, Heineken offers a rotational program of 1.5 to 2 years that allows graduates to perform various assignments for six months at a time, for example in the fields of Supply Chain, Product Development, Finance, or Digital & Technology. Employees discover where they feel most at home and can continue to work there when the rotational program comes to an end.
Organize plenty of social events
How often do you hear people say that great colleagues contribute the most towards job satisfaction? It’s true for many people. So, make sure that there is plenty of time for employees to develop personal relationships with each other.
Obviously, you’ll have heard of after work drinks, but have you ever thought about supporting a charity together? Or doing a sponsored bike ride? How about an afternoon spent fishing plastic out of the canals on Plastic Whale boats? It’s more fun that you’d think! And great for building team spirit.
Give employees more autonomy
Autonomy is the degree to which employees have the freedom to make decisions for themselves about the content and organization of their work. It has a major impact on employee engagement and employee mental health.
Netflix brings autonomy to a whole new level with its no rules policy. Employees have the freedom to act and make choices according to what they consider to be in the best interests of Netflix, without management supervision. This allows them to claim expenses without seeking approval first. Employees are also challenged to take risks (“place bets”). And if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. This creates freedom and a sense of responsibility.
Employees tend to distance themselves (and disengage) from tasks that they feel insecure about. Mentorship programs, where a more experienced employee takes a more junior employee under their wing, are a proven way to make junior employees feel more self-assured.
Recognition is also very important. If an individual or team achieves something special, make a big deal out of it. Don’t leave anybody out, no matter how small their contribution was or seemed.
3. Provide plenty of free time
Finally, employees perform well at work when they have plenty of free time outside of work.
Provide employees with plenty of free time and financial incentives
Practical matters like time and money also play a role. Employees who feel underpaid or have too much work on their plate, are more likely to throw in the towel. Therefore, consider rewarding employees with time, for example extra hours off or paid leave, or money, such as bonuses.
In addition, handing out shares to employees is an effective way to cultivate engagement. This way, they won’t just feel that they’re invested in the success of the company, they actually will be – in a very financial way.
For example, British department store operates an employee ownership model, meaning every employee gets a share of the group’s annual profits. Since each employee has a stake in the company, they also get a say in how the company is run. This model has proven so successful in terms of improving productivity that the UK Government now offers generous tax incentives to other companies that enter into Employee Ownership Trusts.
Discourage email traffic outside of office hours
In order to be engaged during working hours, employees need to have plenty of time when they aren’t thinking about work outside of working hours. A constant trickle of emails often makes this difficult. Fortunately, there are a range of tools available that can pause your emails, for example after office hours. For example, Outlook has a built-in tool that allows employees to schedule their own email breaks.
You can also choose to schedule email breaks for the organization as a whole. Volkswagen, for instance, stops all its email traffic thirty minutes before the end of the working day and starts it up again thirty minutes into the next working day.
It’s also becoming increasingly common to see people adding statements like this to their email signatures: “I send my emails at times that work best for me and I by no means expect an immediate reply from you. Read and respond whenever is convenient.”
Check the effectiveness of your programs
In order to determine if your employee engagement programs are effective, it’s important to gather feedback from your employees. A useful way to quickly (and anonymously) collect periodic feedback is using the tool Hive. What’s more this tool also allows employees to hand out praise and pat their colleagues on the back.
Just as cities aren’t built over night, you won’t build your organization in a day either. But with a group of engaged employees, it all gets that bit easier. As an HR professional, you’ll already be able to get started on a lot of the above points. In addition, OpenUp is there for you and your employees should you need support. For example, this could be in finding inherent motivation, improving self-confidence, or discovering personal values and a mission.