Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways, achieved success by prioritizing his staff. “Clients do not come first,” he said. “If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”

It’s common sense, isn’t it? An engaged workforce will go the extra mile and stay with you for the long haul—two things that should show on the balance sheet. However, statistics suggest that most companies don’t follow Branson’s sage advice.

How Many Workers Are Tuned Out or Ticked Off?

According to Aaron Allen and Associates, a restaurant consulting company based in Orlando, Florida, employee engagement worldwide is dismal. Their research found that only 30 percent of employees feel actively engaged in the success of their employer. An engaged employee is someone who goes above and beyond for your customers. A disengaged employee does the job with little excitement for the products and services you offer.

Actively disengaged employees are more hostile. Think of them as terrorists intent on harming your organization. They provide poor customer service and often poison other employees with their negative influence. Actively disengaged employees cost companies $550 billion each year.

Why the Disregard For Disengagement?

Jim Harter, Ph.D., is the chief scientist of workplace management and well being at Gallup, a world-renowned research company in Omaha, Nebraska. When Gallup began measuring employee engagement in the ‘90s, pundits were skeptical. They doubted there were real financial consequences for businesses if engagement faltered. The cynics were quickly silenced as the findings made it abundantly clear that disengagement costs businesses big time. Negative behaviour, which includes as absenteeism, employee retention rates, service levels and productivity, “ultimately adds up to about a 22 percent difference in profitability when you compare top quartile business units to the bottom quartile,” Harter said.

With strong evidence to support the hypothesis that strong employee engagement helps you attract good people, keep good people, and make more money, why are so few employers concerned with their workers’ happiness?

Many companies simply don’t know they have a problem. They don’t accurately assess their workers. Engagement is not only based on employees’ behaviour, but also their perceptions.

For instance, if someone is working extra hours, the company might interpret that action as a sign of engagement. But, if the employee is working overtime because he’s swamped or afraid of losing his job, that “superstar” may actually be a martyr who is suffering in silence, said Sean Graber, CEO of Virtuali, a leadership consulting company, in a 2015 article for Harvard Business Review.

Other times, company leaders simply choose to stick their heads in the sand. “Sometimes companies focus on the PR benefits of high engagement results and therefore end up asking the question in a way that secures a score designed to please shareholders, not to get to the root of engagement,” said Ellie Maggio, CEO of EMEND Management Consulting, Inc. in Toronto.

Surveys aren’t necessarily the best measurement, nor are they a realistic option for small businesses, Maggio said. “There are ways to measure engagement that are much more cost effective and accurate. At a macro level, things like turnover, absenteeism, tardiness and an increase in short-term and long-term disability claims indicate engagement is slipping,” she said. On a micro level, she suggests looking for changes in communication, such as less feedback, more excuses, finger pointing, refusing work, and issues debated with no real resolution.

How to Nurture Employees

Employees are sometimes born disengaged—but they can also be made that way. Your job as a business owner is to avoid hiring the first kind and avoid creating the second kind. It’s heartbreaking to see people once excited to be part of a team begin to lose their spark.

To ensure you attract employees naturally inclined to be engaging, Maggio recommends businesses do some navel-gazing first to get clear about their own values. “I work with businesses to help them understand their goals, mission and vision so they can then be linked back to things like job descriptions, competencies and employment postings,” she said.

Design interview questions to suss out the candidates with proclivity for engagement. Look for people who are passionate about their current or past work, Maggio said. Does their work have purpose and meaning to them? Are they optimistic about the future? Ask candidates to share stories where they let down their guard, so you can see what really drives them. Maggio also recommends initially bringing in candidates for contracted jobs so you can observe their engagement levels before making them permanent.

If you have a team of naturally engaged personalities, the onus is to create (and maintain) an environment that supports them. “Communication that flows both ways between management and employees is key to engagement,” Maggio said. The gold standard, she said, is a diverse and inclusive work culture in which employees feel a sense of control. Many small businesses don’t have HR departments, so things like job descriptions and performance reviews slip through the cracks. But these are important tools that help employees succeed. Employees cannot be engaged unless they clearly understand your expectations and the impact their contributions have on the business. This knowledge leads to career planning and advancement. “Fair and equitable pay and benefits certainly contribute to engagement,” Maggio said. “But they are not at the top of the list.”

Engagement Advice for Retailers

The retail segment is different than other types of businesses, Maggio said. “The margins are not as great, so retail employers can’t always compete with the engagement initiatives of large companies,” she said. Allowing flexible schedules and showing empathy for things like childcare and eldercare, she said, adding that, “the retail workforce is often comprised of people with dependents.”

Maggio also named training, performance incentives, wellness programs, and recognition as ways to boost engagement. These initiatives don’t have to cost a lot. Consider organizing a walking group or negotiating an employee discount at a local gym or yoga studio. Social activities count for a lot too. Ordering in pizza during a busy week or serving a cake to celebrate a solid month are some low cost gestures that have a big impact.
Commit to heart these words by Max DePree, former CEO of Herman Miller: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”

Michelle Brisebois
Michelle Brisebois specializes in retail strategies with experience in luxury goods, restaurants, financial services, and ecommerce. She currently manages Trius Winery and Direct to Consumer for Andrew Peller Limited in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario.
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