When it comes to employee engagement, the biggest ROI is to think of your staff just like you would a customer: seek to understand their interests, their rituals, and their ways of communicating as well as how they want to be treated.

shutterstock_46049779.jpgA few years ago, I was called into my supervisor’s office because of her “concern” about my “commitment to the company.” When I asked what triggered this concern, she said I did not have any “pictures of my family or plants” in my cubical.

Instead of telling her that she was looking at me with an old-school corporate lens different than her own (my last two years at Intuit, I worked out of a locker and didn’t even have an office), I uploaded some pictures of people from Google Images and put them on my iPad, which I displayed by my desk. That seemed to do the trick.

The Bottom Line 

Your employees are key stakeholders in your company’s success. Several studies show that an engaged and happy worker can reduce a company’s overall health insurance costs and take less vacation time (not sure that’s a good thing). There’s an even more important impact though, as a recent Tempkin Employee Engagement Study showed, high employee engagement impacts the bottom line:

  • Companies with strong financial results report employees to be engaged 75% of the time -- compared to organizations with weak financial results, which report an employee engagement rate of 47 percent.
  • Engaged employees are more than twice as likely to go the “extra mile” at work. These folks stay late, collaborate with colleagues and recommend organizational improvements.
  • 96% of engaged employees responded that they “always or almost always” try their hardest on the job (while 79% of non-engaged workers responded similarly).
  • 75% of employees at companies who report better-than-average customer experience levels are highly or moderately engaged, while only 34% of employees in companies with lesser customer experience levels are highly or moderately engaged.

Who Is In Your Tribe?

Last year, I was hired by a major software company to help them use social media in their recruitment of college graduates. Like a good consultant, I convinced the company to expand its focus and concentrate on understanding their potential employees as a unique tribe (audience) and to reconsider how the company treated them. I pointed out that even if we did great job recruiting candidates, the biggest challenge is engaging them in their work (a Gallup poll reports that 70% of first year employees do not feel invested/engaged at work).

Based on my recommendation, the company realized that to achieve a higher level of employee engagement, it needed to think of its staff as a human beings or "tribes" of humans, who have specific and diverse needs, desires and wants. The company understood that employee engagement starts during the recruiting process, continues through training, on board, and even after the employee leaves the company. Yes, there is even a possible "reincarnation" phase when an employee returns for a second tour of duty. Schwab calls these “Boomerangers.”

Besides looking at the employee through a realistic life cycle lens, there are several factors that improve employee engagement, a few of which I learned during my tenure at Intuit:

  • Create a Learning Environment. Today, when older employees have to reinvent themselves and learn new skills and younger employees have a desire to absorb information and learn new technology, it’s important to give employees the room to do this. Intuit had a great approach called “Learn-Teach-Learn.” It was a modified version of Noel Tichy’s virtuous teaching cycle. While Tichy and others focus on management playing this role, Intuit was able to bring this philosophy to the front line workers, meeting one of the key needs of its employees.
  • Believe in Voice of the Employee. After working with more than 10 Fortune 1000 companies in the last two years, it’s clear that very few of them allow their employees to have a voice at the table. Although corporate business decision-making is not always a democratic process, it’s important to let every group be heard, otherwise, you could find yourself in the middle of an Arab Spring. (OK, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration)
  • Create a creative environment. Employees from any department at Intuit, for example, could sign up for ad-hoc problem-solving pow-wows called “Idea Jams” that lasted a couple of hours. This “unstructured time” ultimately proved productive, enabling workers to apply their brainpower to any challenge that interests them.
  • Reward does not always require money. While everyone loves to make an extra buck, sometimes symbols and rituals can go a long way. Intuit created custom imprinted poker chips that were small, easy to carry, and colorful, with each one highlighting one of its 10 company “core values.” When employees witnessed a co-worker living an intuit core value, they awarded them a poker chip. According to Brand Alliance, employee engagement scores increased 10% after their introduction.
  • Identify their personal goals. First time employees on my teams are always shocked when I ask them: “What are your career goals, and what skills sets do you want to learn for a future job at our company or somewhere else?” Google attempts this with their 20% time, but I try to get the employee to be more specific about what skill sets they want to acquire.

Allow Social Media Participation

Years ago, I presented a How-To-Blog workshop at Dell to a large group of employees. Afterwards, the VP of Marketing stood up and reminded everyone that they could blog “only if corporate reviewed their content first.” When I heard that I felt sorry for Dell’s staff, especially because I came from a corporate culture that encouraged employees to participate in social networks.

It is important to trust your employees (after all, why did you hire them in the first place?) and to know that whether you like it or not, they, like everyone else, are social media ambassadors for the company. For better or worse, many people spend a great part of their day expressing their views on social networks. So instead of constraining them, provide guidelines, guardrails, and guidance so they know the implications of posting online.

High employee engagement scores will reduce the potential employees’ misbehavior in social networks. After all, you don’t want your staff bad mouthing you on Facebook or Twitter.

Imagine how a happy and engaged employee might represent the company on social networks. At Intuit, we provided an opt-in training program for employees that focused on how to participate in the latest and greatest social network as well as information on the legal and privacy implications of their online activities.

I hope old-school managers, like the one who thought photographs equalled engagement, read this blog post and realize they need to wake up to the needs of today’s employee.

Image courtesy of Elzbieta Sekowska (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more of Scott's thoughts on the social enterprise, see his Chasing Social Reach: Want to Play Follow the Leader?