A recent study published in The Irish Times found that businesses focusing on long-term employee engagement were enjoying more than four times the average profit, and more than twice the average revenue compared with companies less committed to employee engagement.
Employees who are engaged work harder, stay with the company longer and provide better customer service. With increasing international evidence to suggest that employee engagement is linked not only to individual employee performance but actually to overall business success, the question on everyone’s lips is “How can I improve employee engagement?”
The Irish Times study mentioned above identifies three key areas that these particularly successful businesses are targeting: cultural, technological and physical. But what does this actually mean in practical terms, and how can you tap into it?
1. Think long-term
It can be tempting to offer short-term perks to boost employee engagement – your engagement scores spike, and you see results fast. But, with short-term engagement, you can only expect short-term results. Once the novelty of a particular perk wears off, inevitably engagement will drop again, and if you continue to use this short-term approach, your employees will recognise the surface level perks for what they are – a cover-up for the fact that you haven’t addressed fundamental issues with employee engagement.
Rather than offering a quick fix, think about ways in which you could engage your employees in the long term. If you’re stuck for ideas, the best people to ask are your employees themselves! By listening to what they actually want, and implementing reasonable requests, you are actively involving your employees in the day-to-day experience of being part of the company, which is likely to improve not only their engagement but also their performance.
2. Involve your employees in your company’s mission
Alistair Tosh, Director of Executive Education at the Irish Management Institute, argues that you need to make sure your employees understand what your company stands for, and how their role personally, as well as the company as a whole, can have a positive impact on the lives of your consumers.
It might sound obvious, but if your employees don’t really know what they’re working towards, they definitely aren’t going to care about whether or not the company is successful. If, however, you can convince them that they are part of something meaningful, you will engage and motivate them to give their best to a worthy cause, and to take pride in their work.
3. Give them autonomy
Tosh also points out that for your employees to be truly engaged, you have to give them let them make their own decisions. For example, in a time where you find the company is under pressure, make sure you don’t put pressure on your employees to give up more of their time, as if, in this context, they work additional hours because they feel they don’t have a choice, they will resent you, and their work will suffer as a result.
Instead, and this relates to points 1 and 2 if you make sure they are engaged, long-term, in the success of the company, you may be surprised by the number of people willing to do overtime to help you meet that deadline, without being asked.
4. Promote strong values and ethics, cultivate company reputation
For your employees to be engaged they have to believe in the company – not just from a business standpoint, but also from a moral one. Make sure your company holds and promotes values that are positive, and that your employees can be proud to stand for.
5. Quality leadership
Brenda Dooley, writing for The Independent, reminds us of the old adage, “People don’t leave organisations; they leave managers.” The research into what drives employee engagement suggests that some of the key things that successfully engage employees are effective communication, good working relationships, and opportunities for personal development and growth.
These things don’t have to cost a business money, and so, Dooley argues, the quality of these areas must lie in the quality of an organisation’s leadership.
If you are struggling with employee engagement, it may be that it isn’t the employees, but the management of your company that is the issue. Dooley suggests that trust is the key factor in building successful manager-employee relationships, and so when recruiting or promoting people to your management team, integrity is one of the most important qualities you should be looking for, as it will have an impact on your employee engagement rates.
Employee engagement is ultimately a management responsibility, and this responsibility needs to be shared by all managers, across departments, to achieve a fully engaged workforce.
6. Set clear expectations
Set goals at the individual, team and organisational levels, and make sure all of your employees understand what these are and how their success will be measured, including clearly outlining expected timeframes and deadlines for projects and parts of projects.
By clearly outlining what you expect from your employees, you include them in your plans and give them a fair shot at impressing you, which will motivate them to take on the company’s goals as their own.
7. Build and support motivation
Ensure that setting and managing expectations is an ongoing process throughout every project, so that if any changes to the original plan need to be made, employees are made aware of these, and the reasons for the changes. This also means making sure that progress made towards company goals is made visible so that employees don’t have to wait until the end of the project to see their work making a difference.
Involving your employees in the goal-setting, adjusting and managing process should help to avoid a disconnect between management and employees, so that employees don’t feel left out of the big picture, or feel that goals are changing on the whims of management rather than for good reason, which can, understandably, be demoralising and detrimental to productivity.
8. Recognise employee contributions
Another way to build and support motivation is to ensure that you give feedback, both positive and negative, on a regular, individual, face-to-face basis, so that employees know that their contributions are recognised and appreciated, as well as areas where their work could improve.
These individual meetings should allow for two-way communication, encouraging and considering employees’ thoughts and ideas about both their personal progress and the company’s.
Take the time to listen, and engage with what they have to say, and if you decide to take any of their ideas forward, make sure to give them the credit. In short, the best way to make your employees feel that their contribution is valued (and thus improve engagement and performance) is to actually value it – and let them know about it.
9. Create an environment that fosters and encourages teamwork
In the workplace, make sure that everyone’s role within a team is clearly defined and appreciated, as if employees know both what is expected of them, and where this fits in to what their team members are doing, they will be much better equipped, and likely more motivated, to ensure that they do their part to the best of their ability. However, teamwork isn’t just about job roles.
Employees who get along well will work better together, so it is worth your while to organise regular social events for your employees to get to know each other, as team members who have personal relationships with their colleagues will be more engaged with the company on a personal level, and much more driven to make sure they don’t let their teammates down.
10. Provide opportunities for growth
One of the best ways to engage employees is to make sure they keep learning and keep improving. Arrange for your employees to go on courses, attend external meetings, and continue to improve and add to their skill sets. The benefits of this are twofold.
Firstly, your employees will take personal satisfaction and pride in their work and progress, as well as a sense that you care about, and are invested in, their personal and professional development.
Secondly, if you give your employees demonstrable evidence that you are invested in them, they, in turn, will invest their time and efforts into your company. By providing them with opportunities to grow and learn, you gain employees who are not only engaged and motivated but who also continue to improve and thus become greater assets to your company.
11. Actively involve employees in problem-solving
If you make problem-solving an activity exclusive to management, employees will feel very little sense of responsibility when it comes to handling issues that arise. If, on the other hand, you encourage employees to come up with solutions, rather than hand over problems to their manager, you will demonstrate your faith in their abilities, giving them motivation to live up to your expectations, and to engage with and take responsibility for solving problems, saving you time and improving your employee engagement.
12. Offer benefits and incentives
If your employees don’t see a personal benefit as well as a business benefit to going above and beyond for the company, they may struggle to be motivated. Offering perks to reward particularly outstanding work can be just the engaging boost your employees need to stay focused.
Remember that one size does not fit all, and so different employees will be motivated by different incentives and benefits. When your employees’ achievements deserve a reward, consider letting them choose from a selection.
For example, an employee who doesn’t drink isn’t going to be thrilled by a bottle of champagne, but might be really pleased, and motivated to keep working hard, if you offer them tickets to the theatre or a sporting event.
Also, remember that a reward doesn’t need to involve spending money or a physical gift. If an employee has been consistently working hard, going above and beyond, or even putting in additional hours to help meet a deadline, give them an afternoon (or, if you can spare them, a full day) off.
The key to rewards that motivate your employees is that they are personalised – if you take the time to get to know your employees, you will learn what motivates each of them, and what incentives you can offer to keep them engaged.
A word of caution with this, however – if you do take the approach of personalised rewards, make sure you don’t appear to show favouritism by offering some employees better incentives than others. If you offer a selection of physical rewards, ensure they all have the same monetary value.
Similarly, be aware that if you offer additional payment, or time off in lieu of overtime worked, ensure that the same rules apply to all your employees, so that they all celebrate their own, and one another’s successes and achievements, and know what they need to do to be rewarded.
13. Look after your employees’ well-being
Employee engagement isn’t as simple as having your employees working hard. Engagement is only sustainable if employees are mentally and physically healthy, as well as engaged. Research conducted by Towers Watson suggests that companies with the lowest employee turnover are those whose employees are both engaged and have high levels of well-being.
Those who are highly engaged, but with low levels of well-being, are more likely to leave the organisation they are working for. This seems to be because while high engagement means high productivity, employees who are highly productive, but who have poor well-being, are likely to experience frequent periods of stress and burn-out, which is detrimental both to their health and their productivity levels.
Alongside your employee engagement efforts, you may want to consider implementing a wellness plan aimed at helping employees to achieve a healthy work-life balance, allowing them time and headspace not only for their careers, but also for their family and social relationships, their financial stability, and their physical and mental health. In the long-term, combining your engagement efforts with investing in your employees’ well-being will result in happier and more productive employees.