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By now, we understand that employee engagement is one of the keys to corporate success. It allows us to reduce our employee acquisition and replacement costs. It provides additional discretionary effort from our best employees. It helps create a culture where companies are able to focus employee efforts on key strategic goals.

Everybody loves the idea of having better employee engagement within their own organizations. But are companies truly willing to make the investments necessary to actually improve?

The employee engagement problem is readily apparent. Gallup shows that the vast majority of employees are disinterested drudges simply working for a paycheck or for another hour of overtime rather than truly inspired employees who are creative, helpful, and true advocates for the company.

Plenty of Tools

To solve this problem, we often turn to technology solutions that supposedly improve employee engagement. Intranets. Social networks. Community management. Gamification. Innovation software. Human Resources policy management. Compensation management solutions. Process management. Document management.

All of these technologies are supposed to help us with this core problem of employee engagement. Many of these technologies get purchased with this problem in mind, only to find that they don’t end up making a whole lot of difference.

Why not? Typical challenges include a lack of technology adoption, the inability to fully deploy the technology, or a lack of executive support. Although all of these challenges are valid, they skirt around the true problems that prevent technologies from improving employee engagement.

To understand why, first consider the true keys to employee engagement. To get employees truly engaged in their jobs, they need to feel like:

  • They are in an environment where their own personal goals are supported
  • They both agree with and are a part of the company’s goals and objectives
  • They are allowed to find and implement solutions for their problems
  • They have timely and appropriate access to the resources and managers they need
  • They work in a company where the rules are held fairly and equally across all employees

These statements are common sense. Employees want to work at a competent company with integrity that also allows them to do their best in pursuit of a common goal. Behind all of the management books, actualization gurus and highly paid consultants, you will find these few tenants.

Integration is the Key

So, here’s the problem. Simply throwing an “Intranet” at the problem isn’t going to solve anything. Or a “social network.” Or an “employee feedback” application. What you really need to do is create an integration of HR, procurement and social technologies that will allow employees to do the following five things:

Provide an environment where employees can pursue their goals in conjunction with your corporate goals. Sometimes this is as simple as providing a discussion board where new moms can give each other tips, runners can get together, musicians can form bands and volunteers can find good charity causes to work on together.

Work does not have to be completely separated from play or leisure. There’s a healthy balance. It’s important not to cross the line and invade employee lives too deeply, but there’s no reason that employees shouldn’t be able to gather together based on common interests.

And these don’t have to simply be personal interests. Your employees may also be looking for like-minded marketing strategists across the company, Hadoop proof of concepts, predictive and statistical analysis experts, customer care tips, or sales campaign discussions. Allow your employees to speak with each other and find each other as “birds-of-a-feather.” This is a classic example of a social network or community implementation, but companies cannot simply put out a social network and expect all of these categories to come up by themselves. Seed the ground by creating an initial list of metadata tags, categories, and discussions so that employees don’t have to unnecessarily recreate the wheel.

Align personal and corporate goals and incentives . Where should an employee look to figure out if and how her daily or weekly efforts are aligned to corporate goals? This is where leadership comes in. Every employee’s efforts should be aligned in some way to a key initiative. And once that initiative is seen, the employee should have visibility to the individual, departmental and corporate contributions to that initiative.

For instance, a customer service rep should be actively told that her efforts are directly related to customer retention and subscription income. Based on that, she should be able to see her own operational metrics, her contribution to the team, then the key business metrics of retention and income.

Without that knowledge, a representative cannot be expected to put her efforts in context of the company as a whole. Companies unwilling to provide that level of detail (or similarly appropriate detail) are more likely to have an engagement issue, since employees will be unable to see how their efforts directly relate to the fate of the company.

This is an analytics issue where employees should have appropriate dashboards. If executives need dashboards to contextualize the business, every employee needs similar dashboards to contextualize their role in the business.

Empower employees to solve problems. Typically, this means one of three things: an employee needs to know the rules, an employee needs to purchase the solution or an employee needs to start a project that leads to a solution.

Are your employees knowledgeable on how to do this throughout every department and at every level, including entry-level personnel? If not, employees will be unable to solve their own problems and will be less engaged by definition.

To get around this, all employees should have some level of knowledge of policy development, procurement, and project management. Because most of this knowledge is typically outside of the core responsibilities of most employees, this information needs to be available on an intranet or knowledge base. However, this is not sufficient to create employee engagement.

Every employee should have training in these areas and the power to initiate a potential new policy change, asset or service procurement process, or project. Management should be expected to help employees with these processes if they are valid suggestions.

From a technical perspective, the key here is to provide appropriate employee access to project management and procurement software as required in addition to a well-designed knowledge base. Visibility to corporate policies, as a standalone capability, are not sufficient to solve employee problems or to build employee engagement.

Give employees access to existing assets and management on an as-needed basis. A frequent complaint at the employee level is that a proposal or purchase needs to be “brought up to management.” But why? Companies set arbitrary decision levels that require managerial, director, or even executive approval for issues that ultimately end up being operational in nature. And the vast majority of managers have dealt with a request at some point where their honest opinion was “I have no idea, but I trust the employee making this recommendation.”

In these cases, the most important thing to do is to accelerate decision making processes and either eliminate or simplify the efforts needed to make routine and mundane approvals. One way to do this from a procurement perspective is to have a “slush fund” available for minor purchases.

Until the department passes that level of spend, a manager can make the assumption that this spend is warranted and then review spend on an individual basis on a regular basis. The overall spend could be tracked as one of the key departmental metrics mentioned above in the analytic dashboard recommendation. Empower employees to make basic decisions to keep them engaged.

This is not to say that employees should not have managerial oversight. Managers still should have real time visibility to the purchases, decisions, projects, and actions made by their employees. But in your department or organization, how much of your oversight is based on treating your employees as less than an adult?

In this case, the technology solutions needed to support this broader oversight are budget management visibility, approval messaging tools integrated both with email and the relevant application, and potentially a document or policy review tool to review oversight policies in large organizations where oversight may be deeply embedded into a variety of policies. Cleaning up legacy policy and oversight messes can be difficult, but they are also necessary to support true employee engagement.

Provide a  fair and equal corporate environment. Where is the oversight to ensure that the rules are being enforced equally across all employees? To provide this level of clarity, employees need some way of knowing how rules and policies are enforced across the company. This part can be tricky, as human resources violations, personnel decisions and employee performance issues sometimes cannot be shared with the entire corporate audience.

However, to the extent that it is possible, employees should have access to HR compliance and performance records (perhaps redacted to protect identities) that show how potential issues are handled. If your organization stack ranks employees for correctional action, employees should be able to see that the bottom 10 percent got a fair chance to fix their issues whether they were entry-level or executive-level employees.

This level of visibility can be challenging to provide and it may not be possible in highly regulated environments. However, employees who know that they work in a consistent and fair environment are more likely to think of their work environments highly. The solution here is simply to provide employees with access to HR compliance and training data as appropriate. This may simply show that every employee has been held similarly responsible to learn the same policies. Or it may also show that, in difficult times, employees were laid off in a fair and equitable fashion.

It Takes Effort

The five suggestions made in this piece are not always easy to enforce and your organization may not be able to put all of them into place. This observation demonstrates that the technical solutions needed to improve employee engagement are not just a matter of choosing the right technology or the right vendor.

In addition to the social intranet, content management, HR, and analytics needed to empower employees, companies must also go through a radical shift to decide that employees should be empowered. But by making these investments and taking these cultural and policy-based steps forward, companies can start to create an environment where the benefits of high employee engagement truly come into play: greater innovation, improved employee loyalty, employee recruitment of high potential individuals and improved culture.

Title image by Kjetil Kolbjornsrud/Shutterstock.