Whether you’re a farmer, have a fruit tree or two, or simply enjoy fresh produce, you likely know that cultivating crops requires more than just sticking seeds in the dirt. (Yes, this is going to be a metaphor about employee growth and development.)
First, you have to prepare the ground and make sure it’s a fertile environment. Loosen the soil so that the seeds have room to sprout. After the seeds have been planted, you still have to nurture them, ensuring they get the right amounts of water and sunlight and pulling weeds that may choke off growth.
If you’re an employer, cultivating your workforce requires very similar actions. You have to ensure the work environment is one that focuses on employee growth and development. That the culture is one where employees can be themselves and be heard. One where employees are encouraged to develop and are given the resources to do so, and where toxic influences are excised.
Cultivating your workforce in this way has significant impacts on performance outcomes like employee engagement. Businesses are beginning to recognize two significant facts about engagement. The first: according to Gallup, a whopping 68.5% of employees are not engaged at work. That means they aren’t invested in the company mission. They feel no compulsion to be innovative, collaborative or committed.
The second fact: engaged employees are key to your company’s success. Companies with more engaged employees have 22% more profitability and 21% more productivity than those without. But even as companies recognize the value of an engaged workforce, many remain stuck on how to create and continually nurture one.
For insights on how to take those next steps, I recently produced a webinar with Cassie Whitlock, Director of HR at BambooHR, Joe Mechlinski, Founder and CEO of Shift, and moderated by Tawni Reed, HR generalist, BambooHR. Check out the webinar recording below and read on for advice on cultivating a more engaged and productive workforce.
According to Joe, companies waste time with different tactics to solve the symptoms of disengaged employees, but not the underlying issues. But once companies recognize the critical connection between engaged employees and performance, it becomes a no brainer to look for programs that will support and raise that performance.
When companies build an employee engagement program from the outside in, without understanding what employees or managers want or ensuring the program is flexible, it will not gain traction, Cassie added. Employees have different motives, priorities, and preferences, and an engagement program should reflect that. BambooHR, which provides HR software solutions, has a fairly young employee base, Cassie said, but employee offerings need to be useful to those who are in different stages of their career.
Employee engagement programs that are limited to some areas of a company will not succeed, Cassie added. Instead, employee engagement must be sustainable and interwoven in all offerings within the company, from hiring, employee onboarding, benefits, and compensation, to rewards and recognition.
All engagement programs are not created equal. Those that are not rooted in leading social science research, or those that are run by leaders who don’t understand the dynamics, culture, and psychology that drive authentic engagement will fail. To succeed, the programs (and the leaders) must understand intrinsic motivation, and that employees want to have a sense of autonomy, mastery, and meaning in their work.
Your biggest insurance policy for getting new employees engaged is to already have a highly engaged workforce, Joe said. If you don’t have that already, that is the first area of focus.
Developing employees takes work on both sides. Managers need to create a healthy environment, the right processes, and a strong company culture so employees are empowered to develop, Cassie said. And managers may need to develop additional skills to help them do that, she added.
Shift, a consultancy that concentrates on increasing employee engagement, hardwires engagement into their own organization by setting Fridays aside for one-on-one meetings. That schedule ensures employees and managers have ongoing conversations about professional development and performance on stated goals, so they can start the following week fresh and focused.
Still, managers can’t make employees want to develop—that desire must come from the employee. Managers do need to understand that while all people have the capacity to grow, they don’t all have the ability to grow in the same way. Helping an employee align their unique skills to their roles so they can operate in their zone of genius is a skill in itself.
Science shows time and again that goal setting works and leads to high performance. Some companies use OKRs and others use V2MOMs or another methodology. Which specific one you use will match your particular culture and performance management strategy. Whatever your choice, management by objectives is critical for ensuring that employees are focused on the most high leverage tasks.
Keep in mind, that goal setting isn’t something an employer does for a person, but with them, Joe added. During this time, look at whether or not you’re spending time on things that are important, he said.
At BambooHR, the company establishes an annual theme and asks what does that theme look like through the company lens. This year, the theme is “exceptional.” In choosing to be exceptional, the company is teaching concepts like the psychology of feedback and how to receive it. This lays the foundation that the company values employee feedback and starts conversations about it, Cassie said.
According to Cassie, the data makes the case that higher employee engagement benefits you. One study indicated that organizations that have engaged employees outperform other companies by 200%. But don’t just use external data, look at your internal data too. Be able to describe the outcome you’re driving, i.e. trying to fix a problem or being proactive in differentiating yourself from competitors. Outline your resources and how you’ll measure your progress, she added.
Helping executives envision the tangible benefits that engaged employees will yield often helps, Joe added. By asking leaders what would be an ideal work day of the future and what constraints prevent that day from materializing, executives often say their team’s performance is a limiting factor. With that realization, executives are more willing to look at how to develop the team’s abilities.
Executives understand a customer’s lifetime value. It’s a logical segue for them to realize that employees have a lifetime value too, once you account for the knowledge an employee brings to the company, and the revenue and other contributions they offer while they are there. When you also consider that an employee’s latent potential exceeds the current capacity, companies could enjoy 20% – 50% more output than they currently see.
We use many metrics to determine if an engagement strategy is working. The Employee Net Promoter Score, pulse surveys, participation in engagement program activities, turnover, participation in employee alumni networks, goal attainment, etc. And while these measurements can be helpful, they are still lagging indicators. Engagement itself is much more amorphous and difficult to measure.
If you’re in pain and go see a doctor, she may ask you to rate your pain subjectively on a scale from 1 to 10. Even though the rating is based on how you feel rather than objective data, that doesn’t make your assessment less real. The same is true with engagement—it can also be felt. When you walk into the office, what is your experience? Is it energized? Is there momentum? Chances are, you’ll need to use a combination of quantitative and qualitative data to measure movement towards your goal.
As you decide on an engagement strategy, keep in mind that this is a long game; one that requires thought, time, attention and consistent effort. And remember that, like any good farmer knows, when it comes to cultivating your workforce, you will reap what you sow.
David Hassell is the cofounder and CEO of 15Five, lightweight performance management software that includes continuous feedback, objective (OKR) tracking, peer recognition, 1-on-1s, and reviews. David is a speaker and prolific writer and was named “The Most Connected Man You Don’t Know in Silicon Valley” by Forbes Magazine.