Creating a Competitive Edge Through Employee Engagement By: Robin Rotenberg
Employee engagement was once thought of as the "soft stuff" of companies. Its importance to the bottom line and reputation of a company was not clearly understood or appreciated. Now we know that employee engagement is anything but "soft." Engaged employees drive and fuel our success. Surveys show us again and again that companies with high engagement rates have less absenteeism and turnover, fewer safety incidents, and higher productivity and profitability.  

These results should give us pause. Engaged employees are a critical contributor to our businesses every day. The big question is: How do we create a culture of involved, productive, satisfied, and engaged employees? We need to reach the hearts and minds of our workforce to drive success. We need to understand the hopes and dreams of our employees and make sure that we develop appropriate, relevant programs to both attract and retain them. It is essential to create an environment that keeps employees happy, with opportunities for growth, so that they become ambassadors for our brands. Our employees are our best ambassadors, and we need to ensure that they have positive things to say.

Many factors will help create an engaged workforce. For starters, authentic leaders and managers are essential. Genuine leadership, which sets a clear and measurable strategy, will help employees come along on the journey. They need to know the big picture, what the company stands for, where it is going, and what they can do to contribute. They need all the tools necessary to do their jobs, and clear, measurable goals. All generations of employees need a development path and opportunities to keep them interested and ascending to their highest potential. In addition, fair compensation and great reward-and-recognition programs are a must. All of this tells us that from the moment employees or potential employees walk through the door, we have the chance to win over their hearts and minds, turn them into our best ambassadors, and win their loyalty. Each day that passes without engaging our employees is a missed opportunity.

Here are 10 ideas to help create an engaged workforce. They will work for any size of organization, and can are adaptable to any resource level:

1. Communicate, communicate, communicate! Talk to employees through any means possible, especially from top management. Employees will follow a leader who talks to them, whom they admire, and who explains the journey to them. The more senior the leader, the better. While some employees will still need to hear news from their direct manager, the importance of a CEO or other senior leader talking to the employees cannot be overestimated. Employees will talk for days about the messages from the CEO or most senior leaders. Put them in front of the employees often, with key messages and takeaways. Use town halls for larger groups, videos for remote employees (You can even do them on an iPhone.), newsletters, podcasts, and blogs. Use social media channels, too. With a regular drumbeat of messages, employees will come to expect the messages from top management and will look forward to receiving them.

2. Make everyone a storyteller. Telling stories is the best way to enrapture listeners and create memorable messages. Stories help build a brand both inside and outside a company, as they are easy to remember and to repeat. Equip your leaders with stories to tell and provide channels for telling them. Make sure to gather the stories and experiences of your employees, too. If they can tell their stories of corporate success, this will generate pride and the desire to keep on brand-building and storytelling.

3. Celebrate! Whether you have 10 employees or thousands, find a way to celebrate with them. Host events as a thank-you or recognition for a job well done. Celebrations can be as simple as a breakfast or lunch, or a full-on event at a fancy venue. Whatever your budget, culture, and resources allow, make sure to thank your employees (and their families!) in tangible ways. Creating special occasions and talking to employees outside of the office will develop relationships and engender loyalty.

4. Offer educational programs. All employees want to develop their skills and abilities further. Have development discussions with your employees and ask them about their interests. Direct them to educational programs that will help provide them with promotional opportunities. You can offer very cost-effective webinars, seminars, or outside educational reimbursement. Again, customize the programs to your own culture and organization. The important thing is to discuss the hopes and dreams of employees to engage their hearts and minds. Helping them build their resumés or prepare for their next opportunities will build excitement and loyalty in your teams.

5. Provide a flexible work environment and encourage work-life balance. Trust that your employees will be working even if you cannot see them. All generations want more flexibility in their work, and, with today's technology, this is easy to do. It takes trust and clearly defined expectations, but providing flexibility will go a long way toward generating an engaged workforce. Similarly, work-life balance is essential today, especially for earlier in career workers who want more control over their time. Allowing time for exercise, having a wellness program, or even creating a softball league will show workers that you care about them and that they can have balance in their lives as well as a meaningful career with you.

6. Give and get feedback.  No one likes to be surprised during a year-end performance review. Regular feedback is critical to prevent this from happening. Make sure your managers take the time to talk to employees and give them honest, open feedback, both good and bad. It is also essential to provide feedback to managers and leaders. Conduct 360 reviews, i.e., gather information from the direct reports of your leaders and managers, so they know how they are seen and what they need to work on. This will engender confidence and trust among employees that their voices are heard and that leaders who do not fit within your work culture will be dealt with swiftly. As they say, you join a company but leave a boss. Bosses need to be accountable for their behavior, too.

7. Compensate fairly. While employees might be happy with good challenging work and development opportunities, you won't keep them for long if you underpay them. Find out the salary benchmarks for the jobs you have and pay employees accordingly. It's as simple (and as complicated!) as that.

8. Reward and recognize great work. Find ways to reward and recognize team members (or teams) who have done a great job on something. Acknowledge them publicly in a town hall, video or blog, and in front of other leaders and workers. Recognition can be anything from a comment, a card, a small gift, a certificate, or a trophy. The idea is to ensure that employees who do good work are seen and appreciated. You can have peer-nominated recognition as well, or a point system where a gift can be purchased with the points, if that is desired. 

9. Provide mentors. Mentors, especially outside of a direct reporting line, can be extremely valuable to employee development. They provide a sympathetic ear in rough times, and encouragement or good advice about how the company works. Providing mentors showcases the company's commitment to its employees as well. Mentoring can be either formal or informal, depending on the company and its culture. 

The important thing is to encourage it and to allow time for mentoring during working hours. Engaged employees need a safe space in which to discuss their issues and concerns. Mentoring provides just that. 

10. Have a corporate social responsibility program. More and more employees, especially early-in-career employees, want to join a company with a positive social purpose. They want to give back to society and the planet and want to participate in such programs. Ways to give back can be both big and small. Everything from a team volunteering at a local food pantry or building bikes with the local fire department to choosing a family to sponsor during the holidays will create a sense of contribution to your local communities. If resources allow, corporate donations to a worthy cause related to the products or services of the company will also create engaged employees. This strong need to contribute and be part of the community and the planet is becoming more and more important as time goes on. It provides an essential and enjoyable way for employees to connect with your company. 

The 10 ideas above will give you a competitive edge in the marketplace when looking to attract and retain talent. Before implementing any program, it is best to survey leaders and employees to get a fresh view of the best ideas to implement. Ask your employees what they would like to see and speak to the leaders of any employee resource groups you might have. Any combination of ideas, or switching them up over time, will continue driving the message that you care about employees and our communities, as well as your results. The two do go hand-in-hand. Engaged employees will improve your results, give you a competitive edge, and keep your people wanting to give more. 

Employee engagement always counts, but it is even more important during these uncertain times. Following these 10 guidelines will help us all keep employees informed and engaged while dealing with the Coronavirus.
Robin c. Rotenberg

With more than 25 years of business and legal experience, Robin Rotenberg is a powerhouse advocate. She’s helped restructure businesses, build successful teams, and engage in employee outreach during her distinguished career.

Robin has served as General Counsel and later as President of a $1 billion...

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