With poor employee engagement tied to turnover and low productivity, companies are searching for ways to help workers feel they belong in an organization. From offering team activities to creating workspaces that mimic a home environment, organizations are working to ensure that employees feel they're a valued part of the company and are key to its success.
Purpose can be so gigantic, you never get there. Really smart leaders bring purpose down to daily discipline.
Steve Van Valin
Founder and CEO, Culturology
This strategy is no recent invention, however. When John F. Kennedy was visiting the NASA space center in the 1960s, he saw a janitor working and asked what he was doing, as Steve Van Valin, founder and CEO of Culturology, retells the familiar story. Broom in hand, the janitor proudly replied, "I'm helping put a man on the moon."
The janitor knew that every pile of dust he swept and every bag of trash he tossed brought a rocket closer to launch. The janitor saw the connection that his job had to the facility’s purpose, Van Valin said. He was engaged because he understood how he was contributing to the organization's larger goals.
Understanding the company mission
The lesson from the janitor's story still applies today; employees want to understand how their work advances their employer's goals. And while mission and value statements are often readily available on company websites, it’s not something that's often discussed in daily work conversations, Van Valin said.
"One of the great missing components is that leaders just don’t take the time or assume people don’t care, or [think] that the big picture is above [employees]," he said. Leaders often fail to make the connection between job and company purpose, he added.
To make that connection, leaders need to think of communication almost like an advertising campaign, Van Valin said, where everything they say and do shows how the work furthers the company's purpose.
Communicating the employee’s role
Once employees understand the big picture, they need to know what part they play in it. That means linking company strategy to company culture, so the work that needs to be done clearly connects to how that work gets done, Marc Hildenberger, strategic relationship manager at Exude, told HR Dive. "It's not so mystical and ethereal," he said. "How do employees engage, how do they fit in, are they heard, listened, to, and empowered?"
One of the most common mistakes leaders make is assuming employees understand the impact of their work, Steve Hunt, SVP of human capital management research at SAP SuccessFactors told HR Dive. "All the research shows that people are more likely to do what you want if they know what you want them to do," he said. Having clear goals so employees understand their individual role, purpose and contribution is key.
And the explanation of a role doesn’t have to be as big picture as the NASA janitor’s, Van Valin said. "The secret is not leaping to the moon but seeing the steps that you’re taking to get there," he said. "Make it digestible and more relevant and realistic for people at all levels."
When trying to boost engagement, there are myriad specific actions leaders can take, the experts said.
- Motivate employees by showing them respect, Van Valin said. Ensuring employees at all levels understand the bigger picture of their contributions helps increase engagement.
- Engage people in daily conversations, asking them about their priorities for the day, and helping them tie those daily priorities to the big picture. "Purpose can be so gigantic, you never get there. Really smart leaders bring purpose down to daily discipline," Van Valin said.
- Ask employees about their concerns and what makes them happy, Hildenberger said. “What’s the low-hanging fruit? What can be changed quickly and easily?” he asked, noting that the answer will differ for each organization.
- Be transparent about the "why" of the work the team is doing, Van Valin said. If a team is working on a demanding project, it’s helpful if the leader explains why the project matters to the company as a whole.
- Use technology to share information, such as team goals, to provide role clarity and ownership, Hunt suggested.
- Care about the employees, Hunt said. “Take an interest in what people are doing and support them in being successful.” If an employee is going to give the majority of waking hours to work, the least an employer can do is be clear on goals and purpose, and provide the resources and support for success, he added.
When leaders make the connection that engaged employees perform better, helping themselves and the organization, it becomes an obvious investment, Van Valin said. "The leader who has the insight and knows how important it is should apply the rigor and discipline to do it every day as a practice."
When leaders make the investment in these activities to increase engagement, how do they know if it's working?
The statistics used may depend on the industry, Hildenberger said, but employer promoter scores may increase, absenteeism may decrease, new hire failure rate decreases, safety improves, customer satisfaction scores go up and the company sees an increased revenue and profit margin.
The pipeline of ideas also will increase, said Van Valin. "It’s one of the magic things for top performers because they get excited about wanting to have an impact. I would use that as a measurement tool: are you seeing ideas coming out organically?"
HR can ensure an alignment between the company’s missions, values and strategy, making sure all processes reflect the company direction, said Hildenberger.
This includes ensuring that managers possess good leadership skills, he added. HR can educate leaders on the importance of purpose and the communication of that purpose to employees, Van Valin said.
In an always-on, fast-paced environment, employees are increasingly stressed, Hunt noted. "It's hard to be creative and engaged if you're stressed out and exhausted," he said. HR can create a work environment that appreciates the toll of negative stress and provides resources for employees to manage it.
And, while HR can play a pivotal role in improving employee engagement, the real responsibility lies with company leaders, Hunt said. "If engagement is down, you’re not really connecting people’s work to a sense of job and purpose, and that’s a job of a leader and a manager."
"That’s not just bad for engagement, but bad for business," he added. Building engagement isn’t something that can be handed off to other departments to implement; "It’s a leadership issue, not an HR one."