Bringing Employee Engagement into the 21st Century

Despite the recognition that employee engagement correlates to business success, several programs are in need of a complete revamp in order to be effective and relevant.
Employee Engagement

Engaged employees lead to business results. In fact, the 10th annual edition of Workplace America found that 83 percent of employers in the United States consider employee engagement as a strategic priority, with 64 percent budget and allocate funds specifically for this reason.

Yet, numerous studies have pointed to a major problem of disengaged employees, especially in the United States, with a recent one, by DeskAlerts, reporting that a staggering 72 percent of workers in America aren't engaged with their work and their employers.

The contrasting figures indicate a problem; while employers seem to be making an effort to increase engagement, this isn't working as well as desired. One of the main obstacles to effective employee engagement lies in the way organizations look at their engagement strategies. Lamont Exeter, executive director of learning innovation at TeleTech, notes that one major issue lies with building engagement programs from the executive level down. Instead, Exeter stresses, organizations need to look at what their employees want to increase engagement and use this insight when building their programs. "Work with frontline management to determine what engages them," Exeter notes.

Further, employee engagement actions need to be constant rather than a one-time initiative. "A lot of organizations think of employee engagement in terms of a collection of programs rather than an ongoing process," notes Jim Knight, CEO of Hospitality on Point. "Employee engagement needs to be top of mind across the organization, and then translated into action."

Knight spent years working at Hard Rock Caf?a> and ran the organization's engagement program. He believes that rather than focus on overly structured programs, organizations can introduce fun, impromptu actions that help employees fall and remain in love with their brands. "Allow people to use their smartphones and engage on social media, reward them, make work fun," he recommends. For example, during his time at Hard Rock Caf?one manager decided to introduce an impromptu game by asking all employees to keep their sunglasses on. The person who kept them on the longest without touching them won a gift card. "It was a goof and a hoot and did wonders for engagement," he says.

Bring engagement programs into the 21st century

One main problem, experts believe, is that many engagement programs are outdated. "The rewards and recognition side of employee engagement is stuck in the 1860s," stresses Gabe Zichermann, founder and CEO of Gamification Co and chair of next month's G Summit.

Zichermann believes that one of the major problems with engagement programs is that they don't reflect what employees really want and value. "HR is often not thinking about what's relevant in today's day and age," he notes. Some companies are focusing their rewards programs on material items. But especially when it comes to the highest value workers, rewards are often something they can easily acquire themselves, for example a new phone. Today's employees, Zichermann believes, want status more than anything else. "Research keeps pointing out that money isn't enough and you're probably already adequately compensating the people who are important for an organization."

Similarly, while compensation is an extremely important element for employees, it shouldn't be the sole focus of engagement programs. Unfortunately, several employers still believe that a competitive salary should suffice for employees to do their jobs well and remain engaged. In an improving economy, providing a salary without en encompassing engagement strategy is no longer enough because employees are looking for more than their pay check.

All work and no play

Stefan Osthaus, founder of mybalance, notes that many companies have a major blind spot when recognizing the importance of work-life balance for employees, and do not give this aspect the priority it deserves. "Especially employees in high-performing environments find a lack of work-life balance as a major problem," he notes. Unless employers show that they care about their employees outside of the work environment, they will risk losing them.

This is especially true for younger employees, who place increased weight on more work-life balance. A PWC study found that many Millennials don't want to prioritize their work over their lives, even if this means increased future compensation. In fact, 15 percent of males and 21 percent of females taking part in the global, 44,000-person study, said they would be willing to give up some of their pay and slow the pace of promotion if it means working fewer hours.

With Millennials making an increasing portion of the workforce, employers need to change their engagement programs to the needs of these workers. "Don't focus solely on work, but build a relationship with employees," Knight stresses. This might involve asking them about their families and their lives outside their jobs and taking the time to understand who they really are when they leave the office.

Further, they should also focus on making sure this new breed of workers has the necessary tools to do their job, whether it's continuous learning programs or the right equipment. "Organizations need to enable people to do their jobs," Mal Poulin, product director at Ancile Solutions, explains. Experts note that most employees want to excel at their jobs and are willing to learn how to become better and more effective. However, learning processes are often outdated and cumbersome for employees to commit to and carve out the time to dedicate.

While organizations have tried to introduce gamification elements to training programs, they are often using the same outdated materials they did in the past. "People often assume that turning something into a game will magically work," Zichermann stresses. "If you have a dumb and boring training program and turn it into a game, it will just become a dumb, boring game." Therefore, business leaders need to take a look at their training materials and determine whether they're effective before gamifying them. "Sometimes it requires changing the whole curriculum," he says. Poulin recommends looking at existing content from a new lens and then determining how it needs to be reformatted to be effective in today's environment. He notes that it's also essential to look at the possibility of providing content on smart devices.

Matt Storm, director of innovation and solutions at NICE Systems, notes that a common mistake is to use gamification only to drive specific metrics, for example average handle time. He notes that focusing only on metrics will lose out on the role of gamification to help in overall employee development. "Full-scale gamification challenges individuals to advance their knowledge and skills rather than be solely driven on metrics," he notes.

A lot of emphasis is put on leveraging data to personalize the customer experience, and the same should apply to employees. Exeter notes that while setting standards is important, leaders need to tailor their engagement initiatives as much as possible to individual employees. He uses the example of marking an employee's birthday-while one employee might want a team-wide celebration, another might appreciate a private call or an email. The same approach goes when recognizing individual employees for their work. At the root of this approach is knowing employees and what they want, but organizations also need to give managers options to take the necessary actions rather than restrict them from recognizing employees in a particular way.

Storm stresses that business leaders should never assume that all employees have the same career progression goals and should instead invest time in finding out what they are really aspiring to. "Often, managers make the mistake of assuming that every staff member wants to become a supervisor," he notes. Instead, data should be used to determine the strengths of each employee and guide them down the path of their choice and where they can be most successful. Storm notes that companies can use gamification techniques to push relevant training to individual employees, allowing them to expand their knowledge and skills in the most effective areas.

Infrequent outreaches contribute to the problem

There is no doubt that employee engagement programs take time and effort to set up and run, which means it's not surprising that many managers are finding it difficult to introduce frequency. "A big problem with employee engagement programs is that too often they are a once a year intervention process and don't give continuous or timely feedback on the real state of employee engagement," notes Andrew Jeavons, CEO at Survey Analytics. Not only do annual surveys or other engagement tactics fail to notice change as it happens, too often, when they identify a problem it's already too late and engagement has taken a hit. "Organizations need to see warning signs and intervene," Jeavons explains.

Yet, too many outreaches could lead to survey fatigue, Exeter warns. Instead, he recommends that organizations build online communities for their employees to discuss their work and share ideas. Using data mining techniques, business leaders can learn the pain points of employees and use that insight to bring changes to the organization and improve engagement without resorting to too frequent surveys.

Further, business leaders shouldn't be investing in programs simply to increase their engagement scores, stresses Jim Haudan, CEO and chairman of Root Inc. "Address the underlying factors and bring the necessary changes," he recommends. Also, while it's important to leverage technology, leaders should also engage in one-on-one, face-to-face interactions with employees that help to better acquaint them and identify their pain points. "Find a way to make this an ongoing conversation."

As Knight notes, companies can no longer "manage people through threats and punishment." Instead, organizations need to invest in sound employee engagement programs and not be afraid to make changes to ones that aren't working in order to make the most of their workforce and reap business results.