Employee Engagement Strategies That Work

There’s something that’s slowly but surely sucking the life and motivation out of your workforce. And, no, it’s not constant emails or the fact that your break room coffee is a little weak.

So, what is this mysterious epidemic that’s destroying your team’s productivity and morale? Answer: a lack of engagement.

An unengaged workforce comes with a significant cost — literally. Gallup estimates that companies with a highly engaged workforce have 21% higher profitability than those that don’t. Plus, highly engaged companies see a 41% reduction in absenteeism. 

But, with all of that said, many company leaders still don’t place as much emphasis on engaging employees as they should. 

“Unfortunately, only 33% of employees in the U.S. are engaged,” explains Nick Sanchez, the former Chief People Officer at Namely, “Which means that if you’re not proactively working on employee engagement, your company could be at risk.”

Why employee engagement matters

So, what’s the big deal with employee engagement anyway? Turns out, it can have a huge impact on both your culture and your bottom line.

“Engaged employees go above and beyond the requirements of their jobs, meaning you get more productivity and output than you paid for,” shares Ben Brooks, Founder and CEO of tech startup, PILOT, “Disengaged employees not only are losers in terms of ROI, they also drag down the larger system, both in terms of team morale as well as customer satisfaction.”

The numbers are there to back this up. According to findings published by the Harvard Business Review, 71% of respondents rank employee engagement as very important to achieving overall organizational success. 

But, beyond boosting productivity, morale, fulfillment, and retention, placing an emphasis on employee engagement also has positive results for managers and leaders, particularly those who have their hands full with team and company growth.

“As leaders scale, they need to be able to trust their teams, and a big factor in building that trust is believing that you have employees that are engaged,” shares Menaka Shroff, Marketing Director at Google, “Without that, you’re operating in a model where you don’t trust them, and you have to have a lot of reviews and processes to closely manage their work.” 

Roadblocks to employee engagement

A passionate, fulfilled, and actively engaged workforce isn’t something that just happens by closing your eyes and clicking your heels together. It takes commitment and strategy from leaders within the organization.

“The reason morale is not better at many organizations is because senior executives’ attention is focused elsewhere,” warns Rodd Wagner, Vice President of Employee Engagement Strategy for BI Worldwide, “Most firms do not make managing — i.e. regular involvement with employees, not just supervising the particular business function — the high priority it ought to be.” 

Improving your employee engagement needs to be a point of emphasis, even before you witness morale or productivity declining. “Often, people wait until it’s too late,” Shroff adds, “You can’t wait until you feel like the morale is down and then send a survey to ask people about it. That’s the worst thing you can do. You need to get ahead of the sentiment.”

Employee engagement: Five strategies to know

What steps can you take to begin improving engagement within your organization? Here are a few key strategies to start with. 

1. Be transparent

“When employees start to feel like a cog in the wheel rather than vital members of a team, motivation can plateau,” shares Sanchez.

As a leader, you need to create a transparent work environment where you involve your employees in planning and decision-making processes. “Transparency is a big one,” adds Shroff, “If employees don’t know why certain decisions are made or why the company is creating these five top goals, that is the sort of thing that can create a lot of internal dialogue in an employee.”

Instead of sitting behind the curtain and wielding power, leaders and managers need to be present and engage with their workers to prove to them that not only does their work matter, but their thoughts, opinions, and suggestions do too.

TIP: Follow in the footsteps of companies like Zappos and initiate a regularly scheduled all-hands or 360 meeting. This is an opportunity for people from across the organization to get together, share ideas, and look at the big picture. 

2. Foster a collaborative culture

“Collaborative” and “team-focused” are additional adjectives you want your employees to use when describing the culture of your office.

“Employees are more likely to be engaged in their work when they feel a sense of loyalty to their team,” Sanchez shares, “Facilitating team building activities can increase an employee’s stake in the success of the team as a whole. Building these activities into the employee experience (and budgets) should be a priority for the senior team.”

Not only do these outings and events (whether they’re in-person or virtual) give employees a chance to connect, but just the simple act of emphasizing teamwork can have a positive effect. “Even if an employee feels slightly disconnected, peer relationships can inspire productivity and boost morale,” Sanchez adds. 

TIP: Don’t feel like you have time to plan social gatherings for your team? Take a page from the book of companies like Pinterest and form a culture club or committee. This employee-led group will be responsible for coordinating the outings for employees. It takes that task off your plate and also gives those group members a chance to bond. 

3. Set goals

Setting goals with employees is not only an effective way to take a temperature check on their level of engagement, but these objectives can also be extremely motivating for employees. In fact, studies show that (even with the absence of financial incentives) goal setting can improve employee performance by 12-15%. 

“Set quarterly measurable and actionable goals,” Shroff explains, “And, then make sure that you’re discussing progress on those goals every week.”

Because so many individual and organizational goals span a longer timeframe — think 18 months, as opposed to one week — these frequent conversations about progress are important. “For a workforce that needs constant gratification, it can be very dissatisfying if you don’t enjoy the big moments or accomplishments in between those goals. It’s critical to stay on top of that,” adds Shroff. 

“At Namely, we ask employees to set cascading goals on a quarterly basis that are both metric-driven and quantifiable,” shares Sanchez, “If goals are not being met, it may be an indication that productivity and engagement should be addressed.” 

However, this doesn’t mean that managers should dole out goals and assignments without any regard for the employee. “Don’t forget that engagement can be highly personal and employees should have a part to play in their own retention,” Brooks says, “Managers can do this by encouraging employees to recognize their own unique needs and empowering them to solve and meet them by themselves.” 

TIP: Need help setting goals? We recommend using Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)

4. Check in frequently

Employee engagement isn’t something that you can sort out and then promptly forget. You don’t get to slap a catchy phrase about your culture on your office wall and assume that will do the job. If leaders expect engagement, they need to be engaged themselves, in the form of checking in one-on-one with employees on a frequent basis.

“Ongoing feedback is so important,” Shroff explains, “We have one-on-one check-ins every week that I do with my team cross-functionally.” During these conversations, Shroff says she always make sure to ask one simple question:

Do you feel engaged?

“Based on that, it’s easy for a company to know that certain departments are burnt out or someone doesn’t have something that they need. You’ll see patterns. Frequent feedback check-ins and having ongoing two-way conversations with employees are critical,” she adds.

While managers should be sure to get these sorts of questions answered, Sanchez advises that these conversations should be largely employee-driven. “It’s a regular opportunity for employees to share their concerns, stresses, and goals with their management. The regular part is significant. By meeting weekly, managers can track employee engagement over time and follow up on previous issues.”

When it comes to these personalized conversations, engagement experts hear the same complaint time and time again: “I don’t have time to sit down with everybody that I manage!”

“My response: You have too many people reporting to you,” says Wagner, “If you don’t have enough time to give each one personal attention, you can’t effectively be their manager.” 

5. Seek feedback

Those personalized conversations are sure to be enlightening. But, company leaders should take things a step further by having formal ways to collect additional feedback from employees, whether it’s anonymous or not.

Many companies utilize surveys to keep their finger on the pulse of how employees are feeling. But before you bombard your team with lengthy and overwhelming questions, keep these tips from Brooks in mind to successfully survey your employees:

  • Do it frequently: “Feedback is a dish best served fresh!” Brooks says, “Don’t wait a year to hear what your employees think and feel.”
  • Keep it short and simple: If you ask more questions, you have a ton more work to do after the survey, just in the analysis of data alone. Plus, it lowers participation rates.
  • Do something with what you learn: This might seem obvious, but it’s where the majority of companies fail in Brooks’ experience. “If you ask, you must act,” he warns.

Even if you utilize online or anonymous methods for gathering feedback, you might learn that many employees are still unwilling to be completely honest for fear of it negatively impacting their own careers.

But Shroff has a tactic to skirt around that issue and empower employees to feel more comfortable providing their insights. 

“One of the tactics that has worked for me that I learned from Kim Scott is to actually not give feedback on the person, but to give feedback on the task,” she says, “Let’s talk about this specific project or meeting or deliverable or communication. Getting away from, ‘You are this way,’ to ‘This could’ve been better,’ takes the pressure off the employee and ultimately gets to the root of what you want to solve anyway.” 

Measuring employee engagement

There’s no denying that employee engagement can feel intangible — it seems tough to assign a metric to. However, rest assured, it is something that you can actively measure and monitor.

While the Net Promoter Score is typically used to measure customers, Brooks asserts that it can be just as effective for your team. “It’s a well-established and researched methodology that applies equally well to employees as it does customers,” he says, “Plus, since it is used across industries on the customer-facing side, you have less education and confusion, since you’re using an existing measure.” 

Image via Net Promoter Network

As mentioned previously, monitoring employee progress on goals, listening carefully in feedback conversations, and sending surveys are also great ways to measure engagement. “One of the best tools is to use regular pulse surveys that help you track improvements in engagement over time,” says Sanchez, “Though a survey may not be as comprehensive as a conversation, it does give you good data points to benchmark engagement.” 

Metrics are important. But, don’t view them as the be-all and end-all.

“I caution my clients against focusing too heavily on the metrics,” explains Wagner, “Too often, the score becomes the end in and of itself, rather than what it ought to be—crucial feedback for improving the work environment so that performance and retention improve. Better operating results are the single most important indicator that improvements to the work environment are taking hold.” 

How to create an employee engagement plan

Ready to act on these strategies (and more)? An employee engagement plan can help you turn ideas into action and ensure you’re making progress toward improving engagement within your organization.

Here are a few steps to help you use successful employee engagement strategies and pull them into a formal plan.

  • Identify the vision and desired outcomes of your employee engagement plan. It can be tempting to want to boost employee engagement in as many areas as possible but to execute your vision successfully and see results, you’ll need to hone in on a few focus areas. Perhaps you want to increase your employee retention rates in your first phase and then shift to increasing productivity across your organization next. Whatever the case may be, identify your vision and choose specific goals to work toward.
  • Get a feel for how engaged your employees are so you have a solid baseline. Once you’ve identified the focus areas you’re going to start with, you’ll need to develop a solid understanding of the current employee engagement landscape. Survey your employees, set up focus groups to obtain feedback, or conduct team meetings to gather the information you’re looking for. It’s important to understand employee engagement within your organization before you get started so you can identify your best next steps.
  • Create detailed plans with specific actions. Your employee engagement plan should be well-defined in each of the focus areas you plan to address. Develop short and long-term goals to help you achieve immediate and more strategic results.
  • Review your employee engagement plan, monitor your progress, and adjust as needed. As you start to implement your ideas, be sure to monitor your progress and review the goals of your employee engagement plan. If your vision changes or some of your strategies are unsuccessful, revise your plans accordingly. As part of your review process, make it a point to communicate progress back to employees.

Tips for remote employee engagement activities

Staying engaged in a digital world can seem daunting and impossible at times, but remote employee engagement programs can be widely successful with the right strategies in place.

Many of the same rules apply when it comes to employee engagement in the office versus in a remote environment. But there are a few remote-specific tips to keep in mind for remote employee engagement activities.

1. Foster and encourage non-work-related social interactions

At the office, you might swing by a coworker’s desk and ask if they want to grab lunch or coffee with you. Or you may see a coworker passing in the hallway and stop to catch up in between meetings.

These types of social interactions are more difficult to engage in virtually. Keep your remote employees engaged by ensuring there’s time on the calendar for non-work-related meetings and catch-ups, such as virtual happy hours, game nights, team lunches, and more. Even saving a couple of minutes for chit-chat at the beginning or end of your team meetings can make a big difference. 

2. Make employee recognition a priority

It can be more challenging to see your employees’ contributions when you’re dispersed and remote, which means it’s essential to prioritize employee recognition.

Research suggests employee recognition is a top driver for employee engagement. Formal and structured employee recognition programs can hold you accountable. But don’t overcomplicate things. Even a simple “great work!” shoutout can help your teammates feel like they are part of a strong team, even if they don’t see each other in person.

3. Be flexible and trust your team

Maintaining productivity while working remotely can be tricky. While team meetings and one-on-ones need to have set hours, consider allowing some flexibility around your team’s remaining working hours. 

Trust that your team will get their jobs done, but allow them to build a healthy work-life flow to boost their overall engagement and productivity. 

Employee engagement strategy examples

Let’s take a quick look at some employee engagement strategies and how you might track your actions to help you move the needle.

Employee Engagement Goal Action Item Brief Description Owner Current Rating from Employees Desired Rating from Employees
Improve employee recognition efforts Formalize employee recognition efforts with a new software system
  • Understand employee view of current recognition efforts
  • Determine requirements and needs for a formalized software system
  • Research employee recognition software options
  • Implement the selected recognition & rewards software
  • Rollout to all staff
  • Survey employees six months post-implementation
VP of HR Employees gave us a “C” in a recent survey We’re aiming to improve to an “A-” rating or better
Boost employee retention through growth opportunities Implement a learning and development program
  • Understand employee view of current growth opportunities and how we can retain them
  • Create a learning and development program
  • Roll out to all staff
  • Survey employees 1-year post-implementation
  • Re-measure turnover rates
Training Program Manager Employees gave us a “D” in a recent survey and indicated they see little opportunity for growth We’re aiming to improve to a “B” rating or better

Employee engagement tactics to avoid

Employee engagement programs can be unique to every organization because each organization’s employees may desire different engagement methods. Trial and error will help you figure out what works best, but there are a few tactics that you should nip in the bud if you spot them.

1. Showing favoritism, especially when it comes to recognition

Sometimes managers play favorites, even unintentionally. If you have a high performer on your team, recognition will likely swing in their favor. And while it’s crucial to recognize those top-notch team members, be mindful not only to acknowledge the overachievers. 

Favoritism not only impacts the employee being favored, but it can leave a bad taste in the mouths of employees who never get recognized. 

2. Investing in incentives that are meaningless to employees

Incentives can and should be used as part of your employee engagement plan, but don’t assume you know what types of incentives your employees want. Employees may be motivated by financial incentives, extra paid time off, gifts, or team events, to name a few examples.

Understand what motivates your employees, and make sure the incentive plans are clear and well-communicated to all team members.

3. Creating unrealistic goals for your employees to work toward

Be mindful not to develop and set unrealistic goals for your employees to work toward to receive their incentives. With unreachable objectives at the forefront of your employee engagement plan, your employees may end up feeling burnt out and become disengaged as a result. 

How to create an employee engagement strategy with Wrike

Employee engagement is necessary for a productive, fulfilled, and loyal workforce.

Wrike is the best tool to help you organize and execute your employee engagement strategies. 

With Wrike, you can:

  • Centralize communication and breakdown silos (after all, employee engagement requires all hands on deck!)
  • Monitor your progress with real-time reporting and data
  • Use templates, like our Communication Plan Template, to help roll out your new employee engagement efforts 

Are you ready to get started? Start your free trial today and you’re well on your way to creating (and implementing) your employee engagement plan.

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