5 Ways to Nail Culture and Employee Engagement

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Building a strong culture gives rise to high employee engagement and performance.
Employee Engagement

Corporate culture and employee engagement can be key competitive advantages-or an organization's Achilles' heel. Excellent customer engagement depends on the level of employee engagement, which is determined by the health of a company's culture.

Few business leaders, however, are confident that they are successfully balancing corporate culture and engagement initiatives at their firms. From a survey of more than 3,300 business and human resource leaders, 87 percent of the respondents cited "culture" and "engagement" as one of their top challenges, and 50 percent labeled the problem "very important" according to Deloitte's 2015 Global Human Capital Trends report. And only 7 percent rated themselves "excellent" at measuring, driving, and improving engagement and retention.

Here, we identified five essential components for fine-tuning the relationship between employee engagement and culture.

Ask the Right Questions
Surveys are an extremely helpful way to track engagement rates and culture, but that's only true if employers are asking meaningful questions. While there's more than one correct way to phrase the questions, ultimately, "the surveys should focus on measuring employees' level of trust in their managers and leadership, their level of job satisfaction, their likeliness to stay with the company and their satisfaction with things like benefits, training opportunities, recognition, and advancement opportunities," says Mary Lorenz, corporate communications manager at CareerBuilder.

It's also important to look at their performance. "Do they finish assignments on time? Do they show attention to detail? The effort they put into their work-or lack thereof-is another key signifier of their level of engagement," Lorenz adds.

Measure Frequently
In addition to asking the right questions, it's important to take frequent measurements. Historically, most organizations only check their culture and engagement pulse on an annual or yearly basis and rely on surveys that take months to deploy. Such an approach is out of step with today's fast-paced and hyper-connected workforce, maintains Jim Barnett, CEO at Glint, which provides employee engagement software.

"Companies can't treat engagement or culture as something that's addressed once a year with a survey; it has to be an ongoing process," Barnett notes. Managers should be approachable and available to speak with employees informally. On a macro level, companies also need a strategy and tools to measure its engagement and culture and identify areas where it is strong, weak, or inconsistent.

New products are emerging that provide leaders and supervisors with real-time sentiment and employee feedback to rapidly assess when engagement is high or low and when problems are arising. Glint, whose client roster includes companies like Blue Apron, Pandora, and FICO, offers quarterly or monthly surveys that are designed to quickly measure an employee's engagement rate and other work-related sentiments. The results are displayed on a dashboard in real time and managers receive alerts and recommendations to help them ensure that the company's approach to employee engagement is aligned with its culture.

February 2016: The Importance of Engaged Employees

Hold Leaders Accountable
Even the most sophisticated engagement strategies will fail without the support of a company's senior leaders. Leadership is a significant driver of a company's culture, which in turn affects employee engagement and performance. Employees look to the CEO and senior executives for guidance, so it's also important for leaders to actively support those initiatives, observes Joseph Michelli, an author and organizational consultant. In his latest book, Driven to Delight, Michelli notes that "leadership development can't be solely reactive (for example, fixing problems identified in annual employment engagement surveys)."

Successful leaders are attuned to their employees'-as well as their customers'-expectations and needs. Leaders who reinforce the importance of a coaching and feedback culture, and are authentic and transparent, also helps build a high-performing business, Michelli adds.

Trust Employees with Autonomy
While formal procedures and performance measurements are a necessary part of business, employees also need enough space to determine the best way to complete a task within a reasonable amount of time. Although technology is making it easier for employers to measure and monitor their employees' performance, these tools won't necessarily increase employee motivation or productivity, warns Sydney Finkelstein, faculty director at Tuck Leadership Center in the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. "There's no question that there are tools for helping workers be more efficient," Finkelstein says. "But if it feels like Big Brother is always watching you, employers could wind up with lower performance rates while increasing attrition."

Experimenting with different levels of employee autonomy could potentially help companies uncover better ways of operating, adds David Hassell, founder and CEO of 15Five, an employee feedback system provider. "Zappos, for example, is making a bold move with holocracy [an organizational approach that consists of self-organizing teams instead of a traditional management hierarchy]," Hassell says. "It's too soon to say whether the company will be successful but it speaks to Zappos' culture of innovative thinking that they're willing to take a risk whether or not it pays off."

Stay Nimble

Corporate cultures are constantly shifting as employees come and go and outside forces like the economy and competitors change. As acompany grows or acquires another company, the culture will also shift. For example, the culture changes at IBM have been well documented as the business evolved. Over the past few decades IBM has shifted from being a hardware pioneer to a consulting organization to a technology and design-driven company.

The challenge is to ensure that the changes are reflective of the company's values and purpose. "What leaders often fail to realize is that the company's culture will naturally drift regardless of what you've written on the wall," Hassell notes. "Where leaders get into trouble is when they write down the values once and never revisit them."

Regularly checking in, whether it's once a year or more often is key. "You want to make sure that you're keeping the right values and culture alive and be willing to make a change when it's necessary," Hassell adds. "At the same time, there's no right way or wrong way to maintain a culture as long as it's one that employees want to be part of and can thrive in."

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EXPERT OPINION