When Emplify Inc. had a good quarter, managers at the software firm decided to share part of the spoils with their 50 employees.
Their gut feeling was that employees would appreciate having more food options in the office, but decided to ask employees what they thought.
Good thing they asked. Just 5 percent wanted snacks while 75 percent wanted a matching 401(K) contribution.
“They felt valued. Their voice was sought,” recalled Santiago Jaramillo, CEO of the Fishers, Ind. company.
Even for Jaramillo, whose firm makes apps employers use to measure and bolster employee engagement, it was a bit of a wakeup call. Like winning over consumers, there’s a method to winning over the hearts and minds of employees — beyond some gut feeling.
When book publisher Wiley approached Jaramillo and co-founder Todd Richardson to write “Agile Engagement,” which goes on sale next month, the executives were forced to look deeper at their own organization’s degree of employee engagement.
This topic isn’t just near and dear to a company that makes its money on engagement.
In a study released last year, financial services and consulting firm Deloitte found that 87 percent of organizations surveyed cited culture and engagement as among their top challenges.
In companies with a top-down management style and a plentiful labor supply, this employee engagement topic might be shown the proverbial door.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss it, said Darryl Warren, president and owner of Indianapolis-based D. Gene Alliance, an executive training program and licensee of Crestcom International.
“As the labor market continues to evolve into an employee market, job seekers have more latitude and control on selecting employers where the chances for greater engagement is possible,” Warren said.
Deloitte noted that employers may find that rotten workplace reputations are more out in the open than ever. Employees can and will post on the web their likes and dislikes about their employer, for all to see.
“Upwards of half of the workforce would not recommend their employers to their peers,” according to the Deloitte study.
What’s a company to do?
Jaramillo and Richardson don’t provide a one-size-fits-all plan for employee engagement, but rather propose a methodology for employers. It’s more of a blueprint “to ask the right questions.”
That starts with asking employees where they stand on issues related to things such as what to do with that extra pot of money from a strong quarter.
“What they don’t know is how to go on to create a strategy” for engagement, Jaramillo said.
“The reality is most leaders don’t know where to start.”
Jaramillo recommends that employers craft a strategy that is relevant to the workforce, not just one that looks at the current employee demographic but one that anticipates the future.
For example, employers would be remiss in not considering that millennials, within a decade, will comprise about 40 percent to 50 percent of the workforce. That will require firms to not only be sensitive to the distinct values of this generation but also of channels in which to communicate with them.
Companies also need to make sure they measure to see if their employee engagement strategies are actually working.
“If we’re going to put time and money into it, let’s hold ourselves to a qualitative assessment and stick to it,” Jaramillo said.
Deloitte recommends companies conduct an honest evaluation of the weak and strong points of company culture. It says that commitment has to start at the top levels of the company. The research also suggests that employers can strengthen the culture and engagement by making work more meaningful. That could come in the form of offering coaching and leadership skills-building. Leaders can be taught to how to be “authentic and transparent.”
But employers aren’t the only ones that need to be thinking about engagement, says executive trainer Warren.
“To thoroughly try to solve this business challenge of low engagement in the workplace, the employee should establish strategies to improve engagement,” he said.
Warren said highest engagement exists when the organization’s “why” or “purpose” closely matches the employee. So those seeking new opportunities should target organizations with similar values and purpose.
For example, individuals who value education should consider organizations directly or indirectly involved in education.
“Many organizations supply or support education,” Warren said. “Employees would do well to look at businesses with similar passions to lend their skills and talent.”
“We find when the ‘why’ matches, engagement soars.”
As for culture, Warren continued, “you would think this is a no-brainer” but some employees give it little thought until after they’re employed and then find differences, be they political, social “or just work style.”
Some organizations that pay well may maintain all focus on profitability with little concern for the environment. On the other hand, an employee with a high value on the environment “will not be well engaged.”
Finally, Warren said, one thing employees may not think of when trying to find a company whose culture matches their own is whether it offers career flexibility.
Traditional sectors such as construction or the military may not fully embrace a professional’s career adjustments.
“That disconnect can contribute to low engagement and those organizations should not be sought as an employer if that employee knows they may make changes,” he said.