Fueling a Culture of Engagement

Six talent practices stand above the rest when it comes to maximizing engagement throughout employees’ tenure.

Think back to your best first day at a new job. What made it memorable?

Were your new colleagues prepared to welcome you to the team? Did you know what to expect, and were those expectations met? Were you provided with the information, internal contacts and resources essential to enabling you to hit the ground running?

If the answers to these questions are yes, it’s a safe bet that you were engaged from the start. Those who have beeninvolved in employee engagement efforts are well aware that there is no magic formula. A highly engaged workforcerequires constant fuel to ensure continuing progress.

According to a 2014 study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity, or i4cp, sustainable employee engagement can be achieved in part by enforcing a few notable talent management practices (Editor’s note: The author works at the research firm).

The study, “Six Talent Practices that Boost Engagement and Market Performance,” is based on data from 340 talent management practitioners, and results focused on organizations with more than 1,000 employees.

The study defined employee engagement as the extent to which employees are willing to invest discretionary effort — both emotional and intellectual — to accomplish the work, mission and vision of an organization, even if it means exceeding duty’s call.

More than half of the survey respondents from high-performance organizations — firms with a “market performance index” that signifies growth in market share, revenue growth, profitability and customer satisfaction over the past five years — consider engagement a catalyst for better productivity, customer service, retention and other key business measures. According to the study, this perspective has a significant correlation with higher engagement.

Moreover, researchers analyzed 26 talent practices in the areas of staffing, learning and development, and rewards. They identified six talent practices that achieved dual goals of enabling higher levels of engagement and higher levels of market performance.

1. Onboarding

There is no way to fix a bungled first impression, especially with top-performing talent who have plenty of other options. Beginning engagement efforts in the recruitment phase that continue as new hires start with the company, with emphasis on making real connections, is critical to assimilating new employees into the culture from the outset.

Failure to do so sends an immediate — and oftentimes regrettable — message that the new hire’s decision to accept an offer perhaps wasn’t the best. Other best practices include assigning mentors to new hires; conducting follow-up conversations with new hires at 30-, 60- and 90-day intervals; and including family members and significant others in the onboarding process.

Microsoft Corp. is one company known to recognize how critical the onboarding process is to employee engagement. Onboarding and engagement efforts begin within the first 24 hours after the acceptance of a job offer at the technology firm. With a 128,000-employee global workforce, the company makes new employees feel welcome through multiple onboarding experiences designed to address widely varying needs, including a weekly orientation offering for new employees, an online welcome experience and several specialized programs for specific talent segments such as engineers or new college graduates.

With groups such as engineers, the online environment aims to facilitate working closely together over the course of multi-week orientations, which are offered based on region and season. For example, in India Microsoft offers an onboarding program for engineers who may be located across a vast region and are put together into virtual teams with a mentor to work on projects. At the end of the two- or three-week orientation, the new hires have both a cohesive cohort and new skills.


Enhancing Engagement
Source: i4cp's How Employee Engagement Permeates the Organization Survey

2. Stay interviews

The use of stay interviews is a retention strategy that also helps enhance engagement. It also has a significant correlation with market performance, according to the i4cp study. Stay interviews are sometimes described as alternatives to exit interviews, but because some attrition is positive, stay interviews can be viewed as a complement to both performance reviews and exit interviews.

Stay interviews are loosely structured informal conversations that provide managers the opportunity to ask engaged employees to share the reasons why they stay. The one-on-one interactions allow employees to share their perspectives about what’s working and what needs improvement, and it enables managers to gather insights into what is most meaningful to high-performers. Some organizations broaden the use of stay interviews to mid-level and lower performers to gain a more holistic view of why employees stay.

These conversations are not only important for information-gathering, but also they provide early warnings, affording managersopportunities to identify potential snags and open up dialogues to resolve minor issues before they become deal-breakers leading to turnover. Stay interviews also reinforce to employees that their insights are of value and that their leaders care about the culture.

3. Individual development plans

Engaged employees want to learn more, apply their learning and ensure the success of the company as well as themselves. The i4cp study found that investing time and energy in the development of employees is an approach that pays off in higher engagement and better market performance.

Managers should work with employees to create individual development plans that reflect employees’ personal and professional goals. Collaborative creation of personalized development plans keep employee-manager communication on track and ensures that performance discussions focus on helping to identify each top-performer’s learning and career interests, map their goals, and clarify how they and their managers can work together to accomplish those goals.

Opportunities incorporated into these plans can be rotational job assignments; access to virtuallearning resources; being coached or mentored by a senior executive or leader; and inclusion in a development program or training. These conversations should include input from the employee about their ideas regarding potential future strategic assignments.

4. High-visibility assignments

Work that matters and work that’s visible begets engagement. About 72 percent of high-potential organizations in the i4cp study offer assignments on high-visibility and strategic projects as a rewards-based approach to engage employees, and it has a positive correlation to market performance.

It is clear that when employees believe that their organization demonstrates appreciation for their contributions and confidence in their capabilities, that vote of confidence pays off in engagement levels and market performance. Not only is recognizing engaged employees by offering them opportunities to participate in strategic projects critically important to sustaining their levels of engagement, but it also encourages and motivates others.

Managers should encourage top performers to raise their profiles through activities such as researching and recommending new initiatives, participating in cross-department projects or attending an industry conference and sharing important information they provide back at the office.

5. A physical environment that supports creative thinking and wellness

Surroundings can engage employees both professionally and personally. The importance of the workplace environment in sustaining a culture of engagement, and high performance should not be minimized. Physical environment is a vital element in creating a workplace that supports creative thinking and well-being — one in which creativity and productivity thrives.

Organizations can facilitate employee engagement through offering settings that provide areas for both quiet contemplation and gathering spots that encourage collaboration and sharing of ideas.

More than half of the participants in the i4cp study from high-performance organizations said that their companies offer a physical environment, including space for creative thinking as well as an exercise facility and other collaborative workspaces, as a rewards approach to engage employees.

This practice demonstrates to employees that the company values its workforce by providing amenities that allow them to balance their professional and personal lives. Having a specific room or conclave set aside for quiet contemplation or group-brainstorming activities acknowledges that employees work and create in different ways and sometimes they need a change of environment to refresh.

Workout rooms, walking paths and outdoor areas also provide space for employees to relieve stress and stay healthy. It’s important to provide employees with options for what they need to be both creative and productive. These relatively low-cost investments can boost engagement and, in turn, market performance.

6. Time for creative thinking and innovation

Encourage employees to block off time to explore and develop ideas that aren’t part of their daily deliverables. Create an initiative that allocates time each week or month for creativity and innovative thinking. A culture with officially allocated time for creativity and exploration is one where engaged employees will thrive, according to the i4cp study.

Nevertheless, time set aside for creative thinking and innovationis an approach used by only 26 percent of higher-performance organizations in the i4cp study and 4 percent of lower-performance organizations to engage employees. Diversified technology firm 3M Co. began encouraging employees to use 15 percent of their work time on their own projects as far back as 1948, according to the study, which led to the invention of Post-it notes. And of course, most are familiar with Google Inc.’s famed 20 percent time as another example of programs designed to engage employees in creative thinking.

Addressing issues that have been identified through employee surveying can be an overwhelming challenge, but consistent, well-executed talent management practices that ensure high levels of employee engagement early can also head trouble off before it begins. The findings of i4cp’s research demonstrate that effective employee engagement efforts begin very early in the employment lifecycle and follow employees throughout their tenure in an organization.

Leaders and managers should be mindful of why continuous employee engagement efforts are so critical. Feedback from participants in the i4cp study describes engaged employees as those who believe that their senior leaders truly care about them. These employees in turn act as ambassadors who attract talent with the skill sets needed and who fit the culture of the company.

This article originally appeared in Chief Learning Officer's sister publication, Talent Management.