Is Employee Engagement Passé?

The buzzword most recently associated with employee satisfaction was “engagement.” As recently as two years ago we were writing about the impending talent drain, as boomers would be leaving the workplace in masses for retirement. We stressed the importance of creating a workplace where employees would feel motivated, enthused, and, most importantly, “engaged.” Focusing on “engagement” would lead to high levels of employee satisfaction and give the organization a competitive edge when it came to attracting and retaining top talent.

That was two years ago. Today the whole business landscape has changed. As of July 2009, California’s unemployment rate is 11.5%. Massive layoffs have had a profound impact on not only the way we do business, but on the employees who are left shell-shocked after layoffs, wondering if and when the ax may fall on them.

We’re not hearing the word “engaged” much these days as it relates to employees. In fact, some leaders have been so bold as to say, “I really don’t care what employees think and how they feel. They have a job and should be grateful to have survived the last round of cuts.”

So, does employee engagement still matter? We know it does, now more than ever.

Watson Wyatt’s “Driving Business Results Through Continuous Engagement 2008/2009 WorkUSA Survey Report” reports that when employees are highly engaged, their companies drive 26% higher productivity, have lower turnover, and are more likely to attract top talent. More impressively, companies of highly engaged employees earned 13% greater total returns for shareholders during the past five years. Clearly, engaged employees positively impact the bottom line.

Many of us today are working with fewer employees and are tasking those remaining employees with doing more than ever before. The outcomes of an engaged workforce—productivity, high levels of morale, and customer satisfaction—are absolutely critical to your organization’s survival in this economic downturn. We acknowledge that it’s not easy to keep spirits up during these challenging times. Daily we are bombarded with negative press regarding lack of consumer confidence, falling home prices, home loss due to foreclosure, unemployment, and more. Times are tough, and now more than ever, employees need strong leaders. So strive for excellence, not perfection.

What follows are six tips to engage your workforce.  Putting them into practice will help you not only survive but thrive in these trying times. By leading a motivated, engaged workforce, you will have positioned yourself for success.

1. Stay Positive

Your team is looking to you for hope, support, and confidence. For your success, and the morale of your team, it is important that you keep a positive vision and remain upbeat by using strategies like these:

  • Choose your words carefully. Use positive language.
  • Learn something new. Teach someone else.
  • Set new professional goals for the week, month, and year.
  • Hang out with positive people.
  • Show support for senior leadership’s strategic goals and direction.
  • Fix a problem.
  • Forbid whining and gossip.
  • Do something you love each day.
  • Be grateful for what you have.

2. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

During these troubled times, communicate more, not less. Employees are hungry for information, even when the news is not good. It is important to hold regular meetings and keep employees updated. Withholding information, for fear that things will change, or feeling that employees do not need to know all the details, erodes trust with employees. They always know when something is up. Help them understand the challenging circumstances the business is facing and why certain decisions are being made.

Share the company plans for persevering and your confidence in successfully navigating these difficult times. Keep employees in the loop and provide frequent updates. Employees who are on the front line have good ideas about streamlining processes, cutting costs, or raising customer satisfaction. Ask for insights, and act upon them. If you don’t keep employees updated, they will keep themselves updated, with gossip, which is always richer than reality.

Regular meetings with employees are important. So are one-on-one conversations. Ask employees how they are doing. Find out what they need from you to be successful. Ask for any ideas that they may have to help the company survive during the economic downturn. Asking questions and listening to your employees’ responses shows your concern and helps build trust and confidence in leadership.

3. Set New Goals

Today it’s business as “unusual.” Your work may have slowed down and project priorities may have shifted. There is a tendency to just hunker down and wait out the recession, hoping for mere survival. Unfortunately, hanging out, waiting for something to happen, is demoralizing. Now’s the time to set clearly defined goals, identify measurements of success, and then hold people accountable for accomplishing the goals.

To energize your team, get your employees involved in setting new goals. Give people a reason to come to work. Having clearly defined goals and measures of success helps people believe in the importance of their team and the work they do individually to contribute to the team/company’s success. Get enthused and be a role model of commitment to successfully achieving the goals.

4. Hold People Accountable

It’s hard for employees on the team to be fully engaged when they feel they are carrying a “slacker.” Coach the employee who isn’t pulling his/her fair share. If the coaching isn’t effective, work with HR to help move that employee on/out so they can strategically undermine the success of one of your competitors. Working short-handed is much better than being held hostage by an under-performing employee. Effectively dealing with performance issues raises team morale and clearly shows that you are serious about your expectations.

5. Recognize Success and Find Reasons to Celebrate

Look for opportunities to celebrate team success, even small successes. Ask your team for their ideas about how to celebrate. Look for opportunities to uniquely recognize high performers. Get beyond the typical “great job” and find out what motivates that particular employee. To keep people engaged, get to know your employees’ career aspirations and help them achieve their goals. Remember, the high performers you recognize are the ones taking care of your customers, ensuring customer loyalty and profitability.

6. Ensure That Everyone Learns and Grows

So many things have changed in the business world. In this new environment, there is an opportunity to unlearn some old, less-effective behaviors and learn new ones. When people are learning and contributing, they feel positive and motivated, knowing that they are making a contribution. Expect learning and recognize employees who demonstrate growth.

—Peter Stark is president of the Peter Barron Stark Companies. Jane Flaherty is a senior consultant with the firm, which works with organizations to create a culture where employees love to come to work and customers love to do business. They offer a complete range of services, including employee opinion surveys, customer service surveys, leadership training, negotiation skills training, and management consulting. Their latest book, Engaged! How Leaders Build Organizations Where Employees Love to Come to Work, was published in March 2009. They can be reached at 877-727-6468 or [email protected].

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