4 Innovative Ways to Boost Employee Engagement

Employers share creative approaches to combatting employee disengagement and increasing job satisfaction.
Employee Engagement

AGallup surveyfound that employee engagement remained stagnant in 2015. Nearly 70 percent of American workers are not engaged in the workplace, meaning they are emotionally disconnected and unsatisfied with their jobs.

Disengaged employees cost the U.S. between $450 billion and $550 billion each year in lost productivity, according to Gallup. There's also steep competition for talented employees, making it critical for organizations to get their engagement strategies right. Here are four ways to shake up employee doldrums and build an enthusiastic workforce.

Offering Gamification for a Mobile Audience
Illy Caff?a> regularly holds meetings to educate its marketing and sales teams about the Italian coffee roasting company's latest products, but sometimes it's difficult for employees to retain all of the new information. Even dedicated employees need assistance to perform well, notes Mark Romano, SVP of education, quality, and sustainability at Illy Caff?

"We share a lot of granular information during our educational sessions and we noticed that people were struggling to retain it," Romano says. "We needed a better way to help people remember the information in a way that was fun for them."

Two years ago Illy Caff?elected Qstream, a provider of gamification and sales performance tools, to help the company improve its information sessions. Qstream developed a mobile-friendly program for Illy that allows employees to quiz themselves on product information and other company facts. The results are calculated in real time and populate a leaderboard that is constantly updated.

For example, the company uses a specific pressurized method to pack its coffee beans which locks in the flavor and aroma of the beans. To help its sales and marketing team remember the nuances of the method, employees answer questions on their phones about the advantages and disadvantages of the various types of packing methods in a multiple choice format.

The repetition and convenience of the quiz-employees can answer a few questions each day wherever they are-made it easier to keep the information fresh in their minds. "There was only a small percentage of people who could remember most of the information they received, but after people completed the quiz, we saw a 98 percent improvement rate in information retention," Romano says. "This is a major competitive advantage for Illy Caff?ow that we can better communicate the quality of our coffee."

The quiz also includes a report of individual users' strengths and weaknesses in the subject matter so that managers can more effectively train their teams in the areas where they need help. The competitive aspect of the program also motivates employees to do well, Romano adds. Employees can see who the top performers are on the leaderboard and the company offers prizes such as gift cards, Fitbits, and the chance to be entered in a raffle for an espresso machine to further incentivize participants.

Illy is planning to design quizzes for other parts of the organization as well, such as for new hires and baristas. "Quizzes can be quite engaging and when you add a competitive component, we find that it keeps people connected and so we're looking forward to expanding this approach," Romano explains. "Competition creates a great connection."

Putting CEOs on the Hot Seat
More attention is being paid to a CEO's actions as a reflection of the company's brand and his or her impact on employees in today's hyper-connected world. "Huge companies like those in Silicon Valley get a lot of press these days on whether they're a good place to work and CEOs are reacting," observes Sydney Finkelstein, faculty director at Tuck Leadership Center in the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and author of Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent.

A New York Times article, for instance, that portrayed Amazon as a ruthless workplace elicited a response from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. In a memo to employees first reported by the news site GeekWire, Bezos wrote that anyone who worked at a company like the one portrayed in the Times' article would be "crazy to stay."

The Amazon CEO urged employees to read the article as well as aLinkedInpost from Amazon engineering leader Nick Ciubotariu. In his post, Ciubotariu refutes the Times' piece, which he called "soblatantly incorrect."

Other CEOs have also garnered press coverage in relation to the treatment of their employees. In 2014, Virgin CEO Richard Branson announced that he would give Virgin Groupemployeesunlimited vacation time. The following year he addeda year's paid leavefor new parents working in his London or Geneva headquarters. And Gravity Payments CEO Dan Price ignited a media firestormby introducing a $70,000 minimum wage.

Not every company can afford grand gestures on the scale of a $70,000 minimum wage but employees do respond to leaders who show they are invested in their employees' well-being. "When people care about you, you generally become more engaged," Finkelstein says. The value of being an empathetic boss translates into teaching, where teachers are also team leaders.

"The number one reason why a professor does poorly in the classroom isn't because of teaching skills--it's whether you care about your students' development," Finkelstein maintains. "And when you don't care you won't be viewed positively and your students won't do well."

Creating Employee Ambassadors
In addition to CEOs serving as the face of a company, companies are increasingly turning to employees to act as brand ambassadors. Marketing and recruiting "are on a collision course," observes Leela Srinivasan, former LinkedIn employee and current CMO of Lever, which offers recruitment and hiring tools.

Using Lever's LinkedIn profile as an example, a company has a limited reach but it can be magnified with the help of its employees. "We're a young company and so our LinkedIn footprint by itself isn't that large yet, but our employee footprint is 40 times the size of our company page," Srinivasan notes. "And so I'm working closely with our head of recruiting on an exercise to help employees tell our story in public channels."

Empowering employees to share what they enjoy about working at their company adds authenticity to the company's brand and can boost recruitment. "Authenticity is key," Srinivasan notes. "The conundrum is determining what employees will say [about the company] without it coming across as scripted."

Instead of enforcing a strict set of rules, Srinivasan recommends providing employees with guidelines on the types of content that is okay to share/not share and what the brand's social goals are. Businesses should also keep employees updated on the company's news. For instance, share content about the business's growth, industry-related news, and accomplishments of individual employees within the company.

Motivating by Relevancy
Not everyone is motivated by the same goals and values. One employee might work harder to earn an Amex gift card while someone else may prefer a free parking spot. Understanding what motivates someone is important, notes Matthew Storm, innovations and solutions director at NICE Systems, a customer experience solutions provider.

"Offering generic prizes only goes so far, which is why recognizing what motivates someone to act is very important," Storm says. "It's not just about compensation. Taking into consideration factors like education level, location, seniority, position, etc. can yield insights into how you can help an employee be more engaged or motivated through adaptive rewards."

Understanding what your employees' needs are is critical, agrees Srinivasan. On the flip side, nothing kills employee motivation faster than asking for feedback and failing to act on it. "Asking your employees for their input shows that you value their opinions, but don't just sit on the data," Srinivasan says. "If your employees don't see any improvements to the issues they raised, you could do even more harm to employee morale."

Further, employee engagement is an ongoing goal. In order to remain successful, a company's engagement techniques and offerings must continue to evolve with its employees' needs and expectations.