Employee Engagement: It’s More Than Free Food

September 10, 2019 - 8 minute read

Recently, some companies have started to see the benefits and importance of employee engagement – from a knowledge management standpoint and in terms of cost-savings, increased productivity and profitability.

However, a few things are still glaringly clear:

  1. Employee engagement has been a buzzword for at least the past decade.
  2. Employee engagement has achieved – at best – negligible improvement in that time (most studies show engagement to be entrenched around 37-38 percent).
  3. Perhaps it’s time to start doing things other than “the way it’s always been done,” because; quite honestly, that has now resulted in more than 2/3 of the workforce actively looking for new jobs.

In effect, companies now know (or are at least starting to realize) that employee engagement is important; but still don’t have any idea on how to get their culture and employees where it should be.

The lack of employee engagement hits businesses hard - in the form of decreased productivity, absenteeism and voluntary turnover. The cost of employee turnover is well-documented; no company can afford to have a revolving door of employees. The amount of money spent replacing good workers – from advertising to interviewing to hiring to on-boarding to training … just to get new hires to the level of the person they’re replacing – is staggering.

Cultivating the culture inside the organization is just as important as it is outside. And, whereas previously, this might’ve only pertained to large organizations; it’s extremely clear even smaller companies – from 100 employees and above – are starting to realize the necessity.

The fact that engagement is so deeply tied to the everyday business of an organization, means it can’t simply be a “set it and forget it” situation. Truly, if this is going to be done correctly, it needs someone to manage it, and have it be their primary responsibility.

Where Does Communications Fit?

Technically speaking, employee engagement is the sum total of workplace culture and job satisfaction, including how the employees feel about their supervisor and the rest of their team. It’s a step between what employees want and what employers want. But, it’s not a tug-of-war. In its most successful form, it’s a true partnership.

Only when employee engagement has been achieved do organizations begin to see the fruits of those labors: discretionary effort (or, the proverbial “going to the extra mile”) they so desperately seek. Employees become company brand ambassadors.

Several different functions comprise employee engagement, with internal communications almost certainly topping the list.

Internal communications isn’t “internal PR,” but it is internally focused information that is high-level and involves getting buy-in to the company’s mission, vision and goals. In other words, the primary objective is engagement.

Today, studies urge executives to spend more time interacting with employees. The days of one-way communication -only flowing from top to bottom - are well and truly over.

The Channel Carries the Message

Ultimately, the goal of the internal communicator is to deliver information needed by the employees, in a timely fashion, via a preferred, accessible channel. That last part can be particularly tricky.

A key point to realize is that employees are no longer captive audiences. It doesn’t make sense to expect them to go from seeing visually engaging magazines in the consumer world; and then come to the office and read a stagnant, outdated employee newsletter. With millennials and GenXers making up the vast majority of the workforce, today; how likely is it that they will find the transition from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat to a corporate intranet – which was cutting edge in 1997 – appealing?

With that in mind, social intranets focused on five objectives:

  • Enhance employee engagement (easy to use and update)
  • Increase collaboration (across a common platform)
  • Reduce frustrations (easily accessible documents and information)
  • Improve communication and knowledge management
  • Streamline processes (for reviewing & releasing large documents)

And, these new offerings bring a considerable cost savings, in both the core product and development costs.

As the workforce has become more remote and mobile phone-dominant, however; it was only natural that applications designed for mobile devices would eventually start to appear. Modeled to look like the social platforms employees already love to use, the learning curve for the product is minimal. Uploading pictures and videos doesn’t require an engineering degree. The focus is on accessibility, which increases the willingness of employees to engage with the content.

But, Employee Engagement Isn't the Final Goal

For workers and employees, being engaged isn’t particularly compelling. The things that drive people to be engaged: a sense of purpose, feeling valued/appreciated; a belief in the organization’s mission and business goals; are more appealing.

Likewise, business owners and the C-suite are more interested in the benefits that arise from an engaged workforce: reduced turnover, increased productivity, better customer service, greater profitability.

If the ultimate sign of engagement is discretionary effort, then it’s not something that can be bought; it’s not transactional. It’s also not compensatory in nature. Well-paid employees can still be disengaged; and poorly paid employees can be engaged (although, admittedly, it is easier to engage employees when they’re at least paid fairly).

People stay with a company for five reasons: their manager, their co-workers, pay, benefits and connection to the organization’s purpose/senior leadership.

Ultimately, that translates into one thing: employees stay and are engaged where they feel valued.

Value: The Key to Everything

In simplest terms, all employee engagement starts with one question. Does the employee feel valued? And, that question is further broken down into two related sub-questions;

First: "Do I know and understand how my role makes a difference to the organization?" Because, if the employee doesn't know this, he or she can't possibly feel valued (they’re unaware of whether they’re actually adding value).

Second: "Do others (my peers and supervisors) recognize the difference I make in this organization?" After the employee understands how he or she can add value; it becomes important to determine if that belief is shared throughout the organization. This also provides insight into the scope of feedback that employee receives (which is vital to engagement).

Stop Trying to Make Your Employees Happy

Recently, companies have confused engagement with happiness and surveys measure employee “happiness” or “satisfaction.” However, happiness does not necessarily lead to engagement. It’s not a direct link.

This mindset has led employee engagement to not focus on what’s important: authentic, transparent communication, and to focus on programs like after-work happy hours and free bagels on Fridays. It’s important to always tie engagement efforts back to business cases – even if it’s something as simple as camaraderie building; otherwise, you don’t have an engagement program, you have a perk.

It comes from a change in leadership philosophy and communication, and the variety of ways you show that you value your employees. Because, in the end – that’s what ensures people stick around.

With disengagement in the 70% range, giving a free bagel to employees once a month isn’t going to change that trend.

Engagement – true engagement – is about so much more than that.

About the author

Chris Palermo is an award-winning internal communications and employee engagement professional. He has created programs to help companies improve employee experience, corporate culture and morale by more than 100% in his previous roles.  The introduction of new communication channels - including internal social media - as well as two-way/transparent communication helped those companies dramatically reduce voluntary turnover and increase their productivity and profitability. He received the "Achievement in Communications" award from the International Association of Business Communicators, specifically for his work in planning and executing a comprehensive internal communications strategy and related programs.

You can connect with Chris via LinkedIn.

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Chris Palermo

Written by Chris Palermo

Chris Palermo is an award-winning internal communications and employee engagement professional. He has created programs to help companies improve employee experience, corporate culture and morale by more than 100% in previous roles.