Head and Heart: “Real” Employee Engagement Reduces Turnover, Increases Productivity

July 31, 2018

Most annual performance reviews and employee surveys include a section about employee engagement, a nebulous catch-all category that attempts to measure how “sticky” employees feel toward their job and the company.

The questions are often along these lines: Do you have a best friend at work? Would you recommend your company to your friends? Do you feel empowered and supported by your boss? Have you considered looking for another job in the past year?

When employee engagement scores are low, it can be a leading indicator that talented workers are starting to check out and disengage, which increases the risk of turnover and hurts productivity.

Average annual turnover rates are 19 percent and hiring new talent costs an average of $4,129 per hire, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s Human Capital Benchmarking Report. In manufacturing, turnover rates can be 25 percent or more.

So many executives run these surveys, and then take a reactive approach to boosting morale by putting Band-Aids on the problem. It’s not a coincidence that happy hours, ice cream socials and team-building outings tend to be scheduled right before or after these employee surveys.

Hot fudge and cold beer don’t address the underlying problem, which is often lack of transparency, access, authenticity, appreciation and a sense of belonging.

Engaging your most valuable asset, your employees, shouldn’t be a once-in-a-while thing. It should be a constant everyday thing that is just as important as revenue targets and profit margins, says Amy Zehfuss, Founder & Principal of Springboard Strategy.

“Engagement and culture starts at the micro level, in your small tribe or team or department, day in and day out,” said Zehfuss, who is also an adjunct professor of structured problem solving at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School and was formerly an executive at Turner Entertainment and Spanx.

“It also has to come from the top. Executive transparency such as regular town halls or bull sessions where anyone can come and ask any question and expect to get a reasonable answer about what’s going on in the business,” Zehfuss said.

Smaller town hall meetings for each group or department can also be effective because managers have a chance to get an intimate look and hear detailed, genuine feedback about what frontline workers really think.

Head & Heart

Employee engagement should involve both the head and the heart of an organization. Those two principles are why we chose Aprio as our new name when we rebranded. Aprio is derived from the root words for head and heart, which is what clients and employees say is unique and special about our firm.

From the CEO on down to the line operator at a production facility and the janitorial staff that keeps the office clean, employee engagement should be a focal point that gets weekly, if not daily, attention.

Managers should integrate engagement in everything they do.

If someone is struggling, what resources or coaching can be provided to help that person do their best work? If one of your best performers has an uncharacteristic streak of coming in late, missing deadlines and doing lackluster work, have a chat and find out what’s going on.

Teams that work in a nimble, fast-paced environment or have workers spread across several locations or multiple departments should have a 15-minute huddle once a day, or at least a couple times a week, to update each other on what they’ve accomplished, what they’re working on next and any roadblocks they need to overcome to deliver work on time and on budget.

Leaders should also make it a priority to have regular one-on-one conversations with each of their employees to talk through how projects are going, and any issues they might be struggling with or new challenges they’re interested in taking on. Employees should know that they can also seek out their boss at any time to talk about any concerns they might have.

Millennials and other younger employees tend to crave and appreciate frequent feedback on how they are doing, and how their efforts are making a difference and adding value. If employees don’t get this attention from their boss, they’ll seek it elsewhere.

By age 35, a quarter of employees have typically had five or more jobs, according to a 2014 survey by CareerBuilder.

A culture of coaching can help reduce turnover, according to Kavita Sahai of business coaching firm HaveBigPlans.com and member of the Forbes Coaching Council.

“Employee retention requires making employees feel invested in and not just utilized for their productivity,” Sahai wrote in Forbes. “One of the best ways to keep great employees feeling cared for and engaged is through coaching programs.”

Encourage every employee to identify someone else in the organization that they admire, and seek that person out as a mentor. These organic relationships can be even more powerful and successful than formalized mentoring programs that companies often create and track with human resources oversight, which can make the relationship seem forced and stiff.

Managers should also give their employees a chance to present or showcase their work to the larger organization, which becomes a powerful teachable moment for developing presentation and speaking skills.

For example, if a sales team is rolling out a new product or marketing campaign, they could do a “dry run” at a town hall meeting to see how the messaging resonates with the audience, Zehfuss said.

“That goes so far in making people feel proud of their work,” she said.

Volunteer & Enrichment

Another great way to keep employees engaged is to organize volunteer projects that get teams of employees across several different departments working together in a new way.

Salesforce, Intuit, Ultimate Software and many other companies give employees time off to volunteer or do community projects, according to Forbes.

The best volunteer programs are aligned or symbiotic with the company’s business goals or area of expertise. A manufacturing company could arrange to have employees pick up trash along streams, plant trees or help with a recycling program, for example. A financial services firm could support Junior Achievement, an organization that teaches young people about business and economic success.

Personal enrichment is another area that can boost employee engagement and keep workers happy and energized. Some companies offer small stipends that employees can use to pay for yoga classes, exercise gear, recreational sports leagues, art classes, language classes, music lessons or other personal enrichment activities.

Companies can also organize “makers day” events where employees can showcase other talents or hobbies they have outside of work, such as photography, jewelry making, painting or filmmaking, Zehfuss said.

“Celebrate and encourage the creative culture people have outside of their jobs, which enhances the great work they do on the job,” she said.

In Summary

Employee engagement should go much deeper than an annual survey or performance review followed by an ice cream social or happy hour.

It should be ingrained in a company’s culture, with frequent conversations between leaders and employees that include feedback, coaching, mentoring and working together to solve problems and break down barriers.

Leaders can also give employees time off for volunteer activities and personal enrichment experiences that will keep them energized and focused at work.

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