Beyond Nerf guns: how to create real employee engagement


When people learn I’m the CEO of an IT consulting and training company that has been rated a “best place to work” and a “top employer” more than one dozen times,  they sometimes assume we stock the company fridge with free beer and encourage everyone to wear grungy clothes while playing with Nerf guns in the halls.

Not so much!

While our office probably looks fairly conventional to the casual observer, however, we do manage our culture and our business with the intention of building engagement.

Creating what I like to call a “winning workplace” is all about cultivating an environment where exceptional people want to do their best work and where leading organizations want to fill your client roster. In a word: engagement.

While the benefits should be obvious, human resource experts supply the indisputable facts. Companies in the top quartile of employee engagement experience:

  • 22 percent greater profitability;
  • 21 percent greater productivity;
  • 48 percent fewer safety incidents;
  • 37 percent lower absenteeism.

Most impressively, when companies can pair engaged employees with engaged customers, outcome-oriented business performance increases by a whopping 240 percent over companies with neither group engaged.

Getting started

Creating an environment that supports employee satisfaction is key to engagement. Quantum Workplaces, a national consulting firm that measures employee satisfaction for several leading workplace surveys, reports there are three main signs employees are engaged at work: advocacy of your organization, discretionary effort to improve your organization and long-term intent to stay.

Highly engaged employees also strongly agree with the following statements:

  • “The leaders of my organization are committed to making it a great place to work.”
  • “I trust the leaders of my organization to set the right strategy.”
  • “I believe my organization will be successful in the future.” So how do you get employees feeling engaged?

Not surprisingly, challenging work and supportive managers—supervisors who support, position and empower staff—accelerate engagement. It also helps to create jobs that require the use of a broad range of skills and that encourage autonomous problem-solving and decision-making.

Engaged employees want end-to-end responsibility over whole processes and they require clear and consistent mechanisms for feedback. Even if your workplace doesn’t support giving employees responsibility for whole processes, you should be able to provide consistent feedback with an emphasis on the employees’ strengths.

Quantum Workplace experts report that more than 60 percent of employees with supervisors who focus on their individual strengths are engaged in their work, double the 30 percent engagement rate of U.S. workers nationwide.

I’ve learned from personal experience it doesn’t pay to be in the human change business. By the time an employee has reached young adulthood, they’re “mostly baked” in terms of their core strengths and weaknesses. (Don’t confuse this point with someone’s ability to learn new skills, however.)

Marcus Buckinghman, author of “Now, Discover Your Strengths,” makes the point with this story about Tiger Woods, who ranked 61st on the PGA tour for chipping from the sand. His short game was “middle of the pack.” What did Woods practice during this time? World-class driving and putting.

In other words, focus on and help grow employee strengths even as you help manage their weaknesses.

Moving up

Engaged employees tend to be highly satisfied with their day-to-day job and their direct supervisor. If you want to create a truly winning workplace, however, consider strengthening the three other spheres that build engagement at work:

Career and personal development: At Intertech, we discuss training and development goals as part of each employee’s annual performance review.

Each manager is responsible for making sure their direct reports get the support they need throughout the year to achieve their goals, such as time off for training classes and opportunities to work with new technologies. Employees know we care and support their need to grow professionally.

Removing work obstacles/providing extrinsic rewards: Our work teams use short (15 minutes or less) daily huddles to review work in progress, with a particular focus on “stuck” items.

By identifying work obstacles early, managers (and fellow teammates) are able to help employees find solutions before little problems become big ones.

We also encourage teamwork and employee recognition for going the extra mile.

Our employee awards program involves employees nominating each other for doing a good job, with both the nominator and nominee receiving recognition in our weekly newsletter and with fun gifts at our quarterly employee dinner gatherings.

Of course, recognition is crucial but we also provide cash bonuses for employees based on their utilization (actual hours spent working directly with our clients).

The process for earning a bonus is clearly described upfront and involves clear and measureable performance metrics, versus the more common vague “you did a good job” bonus that leaves employees wondering what, exactly, qualified them for the extra cash (and other employees angry about not receiving what appears to be an arbitrary reward received by others).

Confidence in senior management and the firm in general: Nothing beats good decision-making by senior management, but open communication comes in a close second.

I’m convinced our consistently positive rankings in employee surveys is closely linked to our open book management philosophy. Unvarnished details about earnings, sales and other mission-critical metrics is provided in full each month during employee meetings.

We also actively solicit employee input through an annual “town hall” meeting in which employees participate in brainstorming sessions describing their ideas about things we should start, or stop, doing as a company.

This feedback is shared anonymously with senior management to ensure all employees feel free to speak their minds candidly.
Many employee ideas have been implemented and we have explained the reasons why some were not (due to feasibility).

At the end of the day, all of our employees understand what we’re doing, why and how we’re doing it and know that their input is welcomed and encouraged.

A winning business is built on a foundation of employee engagement.

Supporting employees’ career goals, providing both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, and giving them good reasons to have confidence in senior management and the firm: these are the building blocks that will ensure your business can thrive in good times and bad.

Tom Salonek



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