In a previous article I told the story of a company that poured a lot of resources into programs and perks that would raise their employee satisfaction scores. After an initial boost in overall satisfaction, they found that employees quickly came to think of the perks as entitlements, and their satisfaction scores grew stagnant. After I interviewed some of the employees, we conducted an engagement survey instead and found that only about 15% of employees were “actively engaged”. A great benefits package is far from useless, but it is clear that even the best perks are not drivers of success; this is where employee engagement comes in. So what did we do about it? Like I mentioned in the last article, the solutions to engaging employees has a lot in common with lean operations principles.
Obviously no two situations are exactly alike, but here are three of the ideas we implemented, and that anyone can implement as a good starting point:
- Emphasize the purpose – There is an anecdotal story that Dave Ramsey uses in his FPU presentations in which he mentions a study on work motivation. He says the study brought together a group of college students who were paid to dig a trench before lunch, and then to fill it in after lunch. At the end of each day, the students were promised greatly increased pay the next day if they came back to dig and fill in the trench again. Ramsey says that by the third day all but a couple students did not come back despite promises of exponentially greater pay. The point is that pay only goes so far towards motivation and job performance; at some point, the purpose of the work becomes more important than the compensation. Employees need to know how the work they do impacts the company and supports the mission, and they need to know that the company’s mission and vision are worth supporting.
- Involve employees in change – “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals” (Sirius Black, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). When planning for change in the workplace, do you tend to tell employees what changes you are implementing, or do you ask them what changes need to be made? The former produces anxiety, disengagement and resistance to change, the latter results in collaboration, buy-in to the idea and greater engagement in its success.
- Increase autonomy – At this company, a few of the managers told me bluntly that they don’t trust their employees. Not surprisingly, those manager’s employees tended to be the most disengaged and complained that their manager was adversarial and created unnecessary stress in the work environment. They felt like everything they did was under a microscope, and the vast majority of employees in those departments were actively seeking other employment. “Employees who are engaged but not empowered are at risk of frustration, burnout, disengagement, suboptimal productivity, and turnover” (AON, 2015 Trends in Global Employee Engagement Report). Conversely, employees who feel trusted will regularly go above and beyond for their managers. Is there flexibility in scheduling, job location, or even in the exact method of how the work gets done? Even the smallest freedoms can empower employees to greater productivity.
Companies that practice lean operations principles tend to have a head-start on these and other employee engagement initiatives. Lean companies emphasize communication at all levels and rely heavily on front-line employees for input and ideas. Managers with lean training are better equipped to connect each job to its impact and purpose on the company’s mission, they rely on employees to identify and solve problems, and they give and receive trust to their employees because they know the employees are the situational experts in the jobs they do. For more information on lean operations, I recommend Lean Support Solutions; their work is innovative and custom-tailored to meet the needs of each company.
Getting back to the company I was working with, we implemented some targeted engagement initiatives, including the three mentioned above. As the engagement initiatives took hold, it was interesting and very informative to see the impact on individual employees, and on the company as a whole. In my next article, I will highlight some of the more noteworthy changes we observed.