Recently we floated the idea that employee engagement should be placed above customer engagement. We say, if you take care of employees first, great customer experiences will follow. And there’s a surprising amount of data to back it up.
But employee engagement doesn’t typically happen in a vacuum. And it isn’t easily earned.
It’s built, nurtured, refined, and fought-for on a daily basis. Like a garden, it requires careful tending and occasionally yanking out a weed or two.
And it isn’t something that you can earn with an engagement program, or a mission statement, or anything else that might serve as a shortcut.
It’s all about the culture, embodied by leadership and echoed by employees.
Much like how customer loyalty is far more challenging than customer acquisition, building a culture that’s designed for employee engagement is a bigger challenge than one built around pressure and churn.
So what are the traits of an organization designed to enable employees to thrive and deliver their best work?
- Career Paths
In most companies, salaries increase the further away the position is from the front lines.
We aren't saying you need to pay your store associates and baggers as well as you do your CEO.
We're saying you need a career path for everyone in the organization. Most employees will push themselves in their role if they know someone is watching and a reward or promotion is in store.
If you want to keep the best people in your organization, a path forward is maybe more important than compensation.
- Clear Goals and Milestones
Nothing gets people to band together like winning. Most employee-centric organizations set big goals for everyone to work toward, then sub-goals for each department, and under those, goals for each employee. Individuals see their role in the team, the team see its role in the grand scheme, and the organization equips everyone to meet those goals.
- A Culture that Values and Rewards Personal Investment
The assembly line style of working is dead. Employees work with their brains now, and the more personally invested they become in corporate success and growth, the better they'll perform. But they won't do so forever if it isn't recognized and rewarded.
Again, "rewards" doesn’t necessarily mean cash or gifts. It could simply be recognition. To quote a new piece of data we recently added to our 2016 employee engagement stats page:
75% of employees receiving at least monthly recognition (even if informal) are satisfied with their job (BambooHR)
- Fair Compensation and Great Employee Benefits
It's safe to say that employees would stop showing up if companies decided to stop paying them. Employee engagement means people will return value to the company that exceeds their pay, but fair, competitive compensation and corporate perks are essential baselines of employee happiness.
- A Recognition that Life Exists Outside the Office
We're already asking full-time employees to devote at least half of their waking hours to the company. Great companies allow them to set some of their own boundaries, but encourage employees to be free in their free time. Studies have shown that employees are less productive as they exceed 40 hours, and using allotted vacation and PTO has a multitude of returns.
Another way this trait works is by bringing elements of regular life into the office. Whether it's in the form of company parties, family picnics, or simple camaraderie-building activities, employees benefit by maintaining some semblance of balance.
- Great Managers
This is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of employee engagement. Nothing can wreck engagement faster than an incompetent manager; nothing can engender it as deeply as a manager that inspires their team. Companies that have high engagement make sure managers are capable leaders, not just people who are great at sales, or product development, or marketing.
The Inmates Run the Asylum?
There is a tendency to see "employee-centric" as "undisciplined."
But if you read through the above list of characteristics, none of these lend themselves to an “inmates running the asylum” mentality. It's a partnership with mutual reciprocity.
Of course, just as “the customer is always right” isn’t really accurate, “the employee is always right” isn’t a 100% truism either. Every organization needs structure and values, and employees who won’t fit endanger that culture.
The assembly line era is over, but there are some elements that need to be maintained - structure, expectations, boundaries, for example. The need for management isn't going away.
The goal is to get employees to become personally invested within that structure. The more of these engaged employees you have, the more your organization will excel.
But it isn't easy. It requires a balance of freedom and discipline, rewards and hunger, structure and creativity. And it can shift rapidly - one bad manager can wreck entire teams. One bad executive decision can send morale into a spiral.
Build your organization around the above traits and you'll have a system in place that will somewhat protected from sudden shifts.
Cement your values and hire people that fit the culture, and you'll be in position to enjoy the rewards of employee engagement for years to come.