Engage me

Every day, millions of people go to work dreading the day ahead, fearing the trial that looms over the next eight hours of their day. You can practically spot the dark clouds hanging over people’s heads on the bus into work every morning. But every now and again you might spot someone with a spring in their step and a smile on their face as they head into their job. Instead of looking on with wonder, business leaders across the world are striving – and spending – to ensure their workforce comes in smiling, and leaves smiling every day.

Companies, executives, and shareholders are now looking towards people-based investment to grow their companies. The value of individuals’ well-being within an organisation has never been higher, and companies are now expected to actively employ engagement tactics to ensure their workforce is happy, safe and thriving.

1990 saw the first official definition of employee engagement where William Kahn, a researcher known as the “founding father of employee engagement” described it as “the harnessing of organisation members’ selves to their work roles; in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances.” If that leaves a big question mark in your head, don’t worry you’re not alone. The definition of what employee engagement is a topic of quite some debate.

According to David Zinger, an employee engagement expert, in the early 2000s the concept started to gain traction – which rapidly increased in the following decade. He uses an interesting example to demonstrate his point; a Google search for employee engagement in the early 2000s gathered 50,000 results, and today it gets close to 47 million. This doesn’t just outline the explosion of interest in the employee engagement – it also represents how difficult the subject is to define.

Understanding the development of employee engagement is the first step in putting together workplace strategy and policy. As an EA, knowing what employee engagement means to an organisation is crucial to assisting executives, and all levels of the workplace.

Determine your definition

Since Kahn’s definition, HR firms have heavily marketed the idea as the ‘next big thing’ for employers to focus their growth investment in. The academic (particularly psychology) experts have now stepped into the field. There are hundreds of different metrics organisations use to measure the outcome of their employee engagement strategies. The academic world has criticised some of the more blasé definitions and measurement tools in the corporate world, with many pointing out that employee engagement is consistently confused with workplace satisfaction.

Employee engagement is so much more than just getting an employee to feel good. An engaged employee is a valuable asset to a company, and an engaged workforce more so. But with 47 million Google search results for employee engagement, knowing what an engaged worker looks like is a no easy task. But there are some general understandings that will help you build your definition.

An engaged employee is someone that is willing to go above and beyond their job requirements to achieve maximum productivity, someone who’s keen to not only see the job done right, but see it done better. They innovate, support their co-workers, and keep their workplaces safe.

A highly engaged staff member is connected to the big picture. They aren’t just invested in the outcome of their role, they are invested in outcome of the company. The organisations mission is on their agenda just as much as it is the CEO’s. This goes particularly for the younger employees. With millennials now making up a larger share of the workforce, a company’s mission is front and centre.

Engagement strategies are based on what’s offered to employees. Connecting staff to the company on an emotional level is a strong start.

Doing it right

A lot of money and time is spent on engagement strategies. Some strategies are more effective than others when it comes to getting your workforce on board. A fridge full of beers or ping-pong tables are great for morale, but are short-term fixes. Long-term strategies start at the top.

Leadership is where the buck stops for employee engagement, the head of a company sets the tone. When it comes to workplace culture the trickle-down effect is tremendous. The top level of management has to be engaged in order to make the most of their staff. They must embody the mission statement of the company, as employees are loyal not to the abstract concept of the company, but to the people that represent it. It might seem a little ridiculous that an executive isn’t connected to a company’s overall goals, but often the stresses of such a demanding job make the boss appear disconnected, cynical or even rude. Knowing the circumstances behind the executive’s behaviour – and trying to change them for the better is a position that’s uniquely available to EAs.

If the management of an organisation is engaged properly, employee engagement becomes a matter of testing strategies that work with the staff. Finding a place for each individual to “fit” within the organisation’s machine is a logical next step. Employees that are put in positions that do not match their skill-set or personalities are easily the most disaffected, and that situation can often result in critical failures. It falls to the management to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their team to ensure they stay engaged. With the growth of employee profiling services, it’s never been easier to figure out where staff will be the happiest, and work the best.

Here too, EAs are in a unique position to aid their executives engage their employees. Executive General Manager of Enerven, Richard Amato told us in our Q&A earlier this edition (pg.22) his EA is his “eyes and ears around the office, she sees things, hears things, and observes things that I wont be.” EAs ‘walk the job’ more often than executives do, allowing them to observe what engagement strategies are, or are not working.

It’s all well and good to set the wheels in motion, but keeping people engaged is another challenge altogether. An engaged employee is only valuable if they remain in that particular frame of mind. Reward and compensation are a go-to for this, and we’re not talking about half hearted bonuses. People respond to incentives better than a pat on the back. Outlining a career progression for a person to follow within the company will keep raising their personal standard of work, and help them see a future in the organisation. Building a long-term outlook will connect an employees personal success, with the success of the whole organisation. Also, a basic roadmap for people to follow will always clear away job-security worries that impact people’s productivity and motivation.

Boosting the bottom line

The profitability of pumping resources into engagement strategies and HR departments is difficult to measure, but as the popularity of employee engagement strategies grows, so too does our understanding of the financial benefits.

Staff turnover is arguably quite easy to measure, depending on who your company is having to replace. Their skill level, plus the amount of money and time that your company has invested in them, can result in staff turnover expense being up to 150 percent of their salary. Consider the savings that a large company with a high turnover rate could make if it simply managed to retain more employees. If there has ever been a case for the bottom-line benefits of employee engagement, keeping high value staff on the roster is it. Not to mention avoiding the headaches of hiring and training new staff.

There are plenty of other, “softer” benefits to keeping your staff engaged as well. A wide-ranging survey found that engaged employees are 20-25 percent more productive. On a company wide scale, organisations that have successfully engaged a majority of their workforce outperform their peers by 147 percent. Those numbers are nothing to turn your nose up at.

Employee engagement is proven to increase profitability, pushing it higher and higher on executives’ to-do lists. Helping build a clear definition of an engaged employee, or scoping-out what strategies are working are now a core part of an EAs role. The close relationship and trust between an executive and an EA make the role an essential cog in the employee engagement machine. S