The economy is picking up. Wages are -- many experts believe – ready to rise. Companies are slowly expanding their workforces to keep up with demand.

After years of too many people for too few jobs, the tide is beginning to turn.

Suddenly companies are realizing they must be proactive in keeping their employees content, happy and engaged in their work.

Enter employee engagement. It's not a buzzword, but rather a long-standing management concept that seems to undergo a revival every time there's an uptick in the economy.

To be fair, the majority of companies realize they must do right by their workers. However, in the past five years most have concentrated more on survival and then on capitalizing on any sign of life in the economy.

Employee engagement was not a top focus.

That's changing. Companies are now taking stock of their employees' attitudes and feelings about their jobs. As Gallup, which surveys this space, can tell you – it's not pretty out there these days.

The Question

What can I do to foster employee engagement?

The Answers

Bob Kelleher, President and Founder, The Employee Engagement Group

Bob KelleherIn addition to running The Employee Engagement Group, Kelleher is a writer, keynote speaker and consultant on employee engagement, leadership and workforce trends. He's the author of Louder Than Words: 10 Practical Employee Engagement Steps That Drive Results, Creativeship, A Novel For Evolving Leaders, Employee Engagement for Dummies and the soon to be released I-Engage, Your Personal Engagement Roadmap. Tweet to Bob Kelleher.

First of all, companies should be fully aware of what the stakes are at this moment. We are in a fascinating place in the labor market  -- on the tipping point of heading into a labor market that will favor workers. Employees are realizing that their prospects are vastly improved and they don’t have to stay with a company if they are not happy. It is a dramatic shift from five years ago when the employer held all the power.

So think of it this way: over the past five years employee engagement was something that companies should worked on, but probably didn't. Now we are moving into a phase where it is something they must do if they want to maintain market share and sales. If they don't they will lose a good portion of their talent base, at the worst possible time. For some reason human resources is surprised every business cycle when this happens.

Now, you ask 'how to implement an employee engagement initiative.' My answer to that is every organization is different, which means their employees needs are different. If I am called in to work with Google my recommendations for employee engagement will be different than if I am called in to work with a heath care company.

I am a big fan of diagnostics to help you zero in on the problem areas.

You want to analyze the workforce issues and survey workers about their experiences. Is a low level of employee engagement primarily due to an issue with the management, misalignment of skills and responsibilities, the employee evaluation process, the corporate culture in general?

A diagnostic engagement survey will give you some idea of where to start and where to spend your resources.

Ken Oehler, Partner and Global Engagement Practice Leader with Aon Hewitt

Ken OehlerAt Aon Hewitt, Oehler specializes in human capital strategies and interventions linked to business objectives. He was previously a principal with Towers Perrin, where he served on the Global Change Implementation Practice Leadership Team and was the firm’s Global Measurement Practice Leader. Oehler has more than 20 years of consulting experience as well as a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology from DePaul University. Reach Ken Oehler on LinkedIn.

For starters, please don't do the following things.

Don’t manage to a score. That misses the point of employee engagement completely.

And don’t look for bullet strategies, or rather, a single program or single concept that you expect to magically solve your employee issues. Trust me, it rarely does.

Companies that have successful employee engagement programs in place take more of a holistic-led approach. That entails not just one program but a number of initiatives all aligned to the same goal.

Also, you might as well accept this from the beginning: it will take work and a lot of effort. As one executive I interviewed in a follow up engagement told me "You have to go big. There is no such thing as a small employee engagement or initiative."

That brings up another point. For employee engagement initiatives to work, you need managers or leaders in place that embrace engagement. The company has to focus on building a critical mass of engaging leaders.

Companies that do this well take a duel approach of both assessing potential managers and then coaching them.

We have found that the profile of an "engaging leader" is someone who has had early experiences that build confidence; someone who has a strong belief in his or her own purpose and a strong belief in what their role as a leader means.

They also tend to have the same pattern of behaviors. They are good at energizing people, for example. They have a service mentality and can interact well with people. They tend to be well grounded, even self-depreciating.

We are seeing organizations spend a lot of time seeking out these traits in their selection of leaders – in the expectation that they will go on to foster employee engagement.

Susan Hunt Stevens, Founder and CEO, WeSpire

Susan Hunt StevensHunt Stevens has earned a reputation for her use of social and game mechanics to drive positive behavior change. Before founding the employee engagement platform WeSpire, Hunt Stevens spent nine years at The New York Times Company, most recently as senior vice president/GM of She is a graduate of Wesleyan University and The Tuck School of Business, and serves on the board of Xconomy, the New England Clean Energy Council, the emeritus board of the Center for Women & Enterprise and the Sustainable Brands Advisory Board. Tweet to Susan Hunt Stevens.

Companies have real incentives to better connect with their employees through engagement. Many workers are retiring or set to retire in droves. At the same time, a lot of companies are struggling to recruit millennials to their work place.

With these gaps at both ends of the employee base, companies have to be proactive in keeping the employees they do have in place and content.

My answer to the question of "what practical steps can a company take to encourage employee adoption" is to give your people a sense of how the company is contributing to make the world a better place. This, of course, assumes that a functional and healthy manager-to-employee relationship is in place.

Assuming that basic need is met, employees who feel a deep connection with what they are doing, will feel happy and engaged.

Now, not everyone can or wants to work at a nonprofit. But large companies like Unilever, for example, show that even a multinational can have a positive impact on business.

These companies are aligning their products, or at least some of them, around solving a major problem in the world, such as hunger or sustainability.

Companies that don't have this kind of product line – maybe they are a local service provider for example -- can also make a difference and inspire their workers by getting involved in charities or causes.

Now, this is not to lose sight of the overarching importance of a solid relationship with a manager. That must be in place.

Title image by Asa Aarons Smith/all rights reserved.