6 Best Practices to Increase Work Force Engagement

What causes employees to feel engaged or disengaged, and what to do about it.

October 11, 2017 at 12:00 AM Coordinated Universal Time

The statistics on employee engagement are alarming. More than 85% of employees worldwide, and more than 65% of employees in the United States, report feeling disengaged from work. Most leaders and executives agree this is a problem. What's not so clear is what causes employees to feel engaged or disengaged, and what to do about it?

Recently, I talked to six business executives to learn their best practices around increasing engagement.

Put Yourself in the Customer's Shoes

Let's face it: Many organizations, and even entire industries, have been guilty of putting the customer last when it comes to service and cost. Michael Hough, EVP of health care case management provider Advance Medical, says this needs to change. "We think it's critically important to put ourselves in the patient's shoes and figure out what they need. When companies lose sight of why they're in business, the customer is inevitably the loser. It's also very demotivating to employees and destructive to an engaged culture."

 According to Hough, purpose is the key to serving customers and engaging employees. "We believe in being purpose driven, and for us, helping patients is our purpose," says Hough. "People come to us in crisis. They are suffering. We have to remember that we are all here for one reason: to remove that pain they are experiencing. When employees are able to help a patient save money or better understand their options, it feels like we are removing some of the pain in the system. It's why we all got into this field."

Feel Good, Work Happy

Savvy executives are realizing that employee emotional states are closely tied to engagement. Stefanie Frenking, Global Feel Good Manager and Head of Global Recruiting at Spreadshirt, says, "We shaped our culture around what we call Feel Good Management. It's based on three ideas: empowerment, excitement and simplicity. How do we talk to people and empower them to do their best work? How do we get people excited and keep them that way over the years? How can we simplify their lives and support them in their roles?"

Employee feelings about work often stem from challenges outside it, so helping employees manage those challenges is key to managing those feelings. Says Frenking, "We ask employees what they need to be happier and work better. We help where we can, by simplifying the things that might be standing in their way - such as paperwork or scheduling and child care arrangements. The goal is to increase positive feelings around work by removing distractions and friction, and the workforce responds positively."

Instill Growth Mindset

One of the biggest buzz phrases in the self-improvement and education realm today is "growth mindset," or the idea that success is less about innate talent and more about hard work. Put another way, growth mindset is about developing talent, not just leveraging it.

Business leaders are beginning to understand the power this mindset has, not just on employees but also on the culture they're a part of. Says Nikki Schlecker, Head of People at WayUp, "I believe successful employees are 'learn-it-alls' not 'know-it-alls' and that engagement in the workplace comes down to providing opportunity for growth. The best organizations recognize that people are self-motivated to learn and provide them opportunities to do that."

Says Schlecker, "To me, a strong culture is one where people are striving together towards something larger than themselves. That's what affects the way people feel about coming to work, and how they feel after they leave."

Create a Culture of Ownership

CEO Nicolas Dessaigne of San Francisco-based search platform Algolia, believes "ownership" is core to his company's identity and success. "Ownership drives the team to challenge each other, take responsibility and push the limits of what we think is possible in order to deliver the best possible product for our company and community," says Dessaigne.

How can a company foster ownership in its people? According to Dessaigne, ownership requires courage; courage requires grit, trust, care and the ability to be candid. Says Dessaigne, "grit is about stepping fearlessly out of your comfort zone and seeing failure as an essential step toward success. Trust means everyone understands who we are and where we are going. Care means we go above and beyond to make our customers and people happy. And being candid means everyone has a voice and supports each other's growth by providing honest feedback. All of these create the courage needed to take ownership."

Align Purpose, Culture and Brand

Jackie Yeaney, CMO of Ellucian, says "A lot of people think brand is just how you are communicating externally, but what makes that message resonate is internal beliefs about why your company exists and actions that reinforce that purpose. Brand is connected to purpose. It's connected to the values that support that purpose and the thousand interactions your employees have with customers and one another every day. The collection of small gestures and interactions add up to the bigger perceptions and expectations for your company, which is why consistency and alignment to brand matter."

According to Yeaney, culture, purpose and brand are inextricably linked. "It is a waste of time to come up with a new brand strategy without considering the culture and the people you work with," says Yeaney. "People today, especially millennials, demand to work at a company with purpose that aligns with their own. That's what customers want as well."

Don't Underestimate Happiness

Many organizations seek to measure engagement, but according to Shaun Ritchie, founder and CEO of meeting room analytics solution provider Teem, that measure is too employer-focused. "We did a lot of surveys and found that the majority of people were unhappy and disengaged in the workplace. So we wondered, what's more important: happiness or engagement? We decided it was happiness."

Why does Ritchie think happiness is the better measure? "Happiness goes much beyond work. It includes employees' family time, personal lives, and other relationships. Companies need to look at where we can have impact on the margins," says Ritchie. "When companies provide tools, technology and the processes to help employees be successful in the workplace, it drives feelings of accomplishment. That increases happiness inside and outside of the workplace."

There's increasing consensus around the idea that engagement and productivity are related to employee feelings about workplace culture. Fostering positive connections to the workplace through greater focus on happiness, purpose and belonging, along with more support for employee aspirations inside and outside work, are some key ways to address engagement at its root. What is your organization doing to increase the positive feelings that lead to engagement?

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OCT 11, 2017

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.