Engage Employees at Work
The focus of this blog is on employee engagement programs and initiatives at the organizational or business unit level. This begins with an examination of the macro level of employee engagement:
what employee engagement is, the factors the drive (or hinder) engaged workforces, the evolution of the concept of engagement, the state of engagement and engagement practices today, and thoughts on building a culture of engagement.
There are no formal engagement surveys. Instead, leaders have regular sessions with their teams to ask what can be done to help them work more productively and be more satisfied with their work and the company.
The workspaces look deceptively whimsical. At first glance, for instance, the customer service area looks like colorful chaos. But the ceilings and dividers are functional, diluting background noise so each customer feels as if he or she is talking to a person, not a call center.
The basement copy room, in which the main job is the logistics of shifting paper—a high-volume product for a mortgage company— is light and airy. The ceiling fixtures are playful representations of paper, and natural light is funneled from the street.
Team members know that they are key parts of the “mortgage machine” that drives company profits, not just workers in the mundane world of paper supplies.
Elements of fun and functionality are integrated, promoting collaboration and teamwork and ensuring that safety and physical comfort are met so that team members can focus on clients.
Venues for relaxation and leisure help team members regain focus. The company also offers team members free snacks, benefits such as pet insurance, and at the Detroit headquarters, on-site amenities from child care to Zumba classes.
The philosophy is that while the company’s purpose is not popcorn and slushy frozen treat machines in the break room, those things help the company achieve its purpose because giving team members both concierge service and a sense of fun quickly transfers to customer service. Team members know what customer service is because they receive it themselves.
The Shifting Nature of Work
When you look into any kind of organization, you can see that the nature of work has changed. In some organizations, it has changed dramatically, particularly for knowledge workers in office spaces.
This change in work involves the work itself, the meaning of work, and how it is accomplished, including the place, time, and environment in which it is accomplished.
Many of these changes focus on engagement, having an employee who is more connected to the organization, and that feeling of belonging and ownership translates into more effort, more productivity, and more success for both the individual and the organization.
Many of the issues in this figure are described in this blog, and some are captured in later blogs, such as the changes in technology. They all represent important opportunities for change and improvement, and they reflect excellent topics to be addressed in the human capital strategy.
Employee Engagement Is the Critical Difference
We’ve seen the headlines from newspapers in the developed economies of the United States and Europe about anemic economic growth, massive layoffs, scarce job openings, and worker disillusionment due to the demise of the “employment contract.”
For those still working, they often find a working environment characterized by company instability, frequent management turnover, reductions in health benefits, reduction or elimination of pension contributions, and high levels of stress that result from either the fear of losing a job or having to shoulder the burden of additional work left by departed co-workers.
For those who do find a new job after long- term unemployment, they are often overqualified, underutilized, or hired at lower compensation levels because it is a buyer’s market.
In rapidly growing, emerging markets, the abundance of low-skilled workers often means a booming economy built on the backs of laborers in modern-day sweatshops and factories, sometimes with disastrous workplace tragedies.
Over the past few years in the hotter job markets (and tighter talent pools) in parts of Asia, many employees jump from one job to another in order to move quickly up their personal title and salary ladder with little commitment to a company, its customers, or its mission.
Against that backdrop, it’s hard to believe that any company, anywhere, has the kind of employee population that can make it successful, given the challenging economies, increasing pressures from new competitors, rising pace of technological change, increasing government regulation, and heightened geopolitical risk.
Yet there are companies who outperform their industry peers even when so many of the products, services, structures, and challenges are surprisingly similar. These companies excel at a variety of business metrics from shareholder value, to operating margin, to workplace safety.
They are more likely to be innovative. They have a stronger employee value proposition to retain key employees and a compelling brand to attract new talent.
What makes this critical difference? Many would argue, as would we, that the difference is an engaged workforce, which consistently delivers superior performance, creates innovative products and solutions, and serves as brand ambassadors to both drive customer loyalty as well as attract great candidates.
But how can companies stem the tide of worker malaise and distrust? What can companies do to drive high levels of employee engagement? How can organizations build a culture of engagement that fosters the kind of employee performance that can make the difference between survival and success?
And even more important, how do they measure the impact so that they know whether they are successful?
The Drivers of Engagement
There is a great deal of alignment in numerous studies about the drivers (factors that have significant influence) of engagement, which usually reflect aspects of the business culture, relationships with supervisors, and workload. Among the more well-known assessments of engagement drivers are the following:
Towers Watson’s 2012 Global Workforce Study lists these five priority areas of focus and the behaviors and actions that matter to employees:
Leadership (is effective at growing the business; shows sincere interest in employees’ well-being; behaves consistently with the organization’s core values; earns employees’ trust and confidence)
Stress, balance, and workload (manageable stress levels at work; a healthy balance between work and personal life; enough employees in the group to do the job right; flexible work arrangements)
Goals and objectives (employees understand the organization’s business goals, steps they need to take to reach those goals, and how their job contributes to achieving goals)
Supervisors (assign tasks suitable to employees’ skills; act in ways consistent with their words; coach employees to improve performance; treat employees with respect)
Organization’s image (highly regarded by the general public; displays honesty and integrity in business activities)
The Merit Principles Survey, which is administered to more than thirty-six thou-sand workers by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, asks questions to elicit information about these drivers:
Pride in one’s work or workplace
Satisfaction with leadership
Opportunity to perform well at work
Satisfaction with recognition received
Prospect for future personal and professional growth
A positive work environment with some focus on teamwork
Research from The Conference Board revealed these eight drivers of engagement to be key:
Trust and integrity
Nature of the job
The line of sight between individual performance and company performance
Career growth opportunities
Pride about the company
A personal relationship with one’s manager
Drivers of engagement have been relatively consistent over time; however, there are now more frequent mentions of both recognition and the desire to do meaningful work (aligning with the mission of the organization).
Stages of Engagement
Engagement science has been evolving for some time, and it has already had a major impact on organizations in terms of what they do and their success. But there is a lot more potential for the future. It is through a human capital strategy that additional efforts will be made in this important area.
It is helpful to review the status of engagement through the stages of its development—first, with research pinpointing how it arrived and morphed into a powerful topic in almost every human resources function.
Next, the status of engagement as a process and practice is underscored. Finally, its impact, the value of engagement in terms of what is being reported now, is covered.
From its humble origins as research about “employee motivation” in the mid-1950s, predominantly among companies in the United States, to “job satisfaction,” to “employee commitment,” and finally to the current concept of “employee engagement,” these attempts have sought to link worker attitudes to productivity with the belief (even in the absence of definitive proof) that engaged workers are more productive and valuable than those who are not.
Combining all this research and making sense of it in terms of its implications for employees and their work, Myers published a book in 1970 to name and explain the concept he developed: Every Employee a Manager. In his work, Myers showed how each employee can and should manage their work to a certain extent, with some obvious limitations.
For the most part, jobs can be managed by individuals so they feel ownership and responsibility for their work, the ultimate form of engagement. Myers was able to make it understandable and put it into practice as he worked with many executives, bringing this concept to job design and supervisory practices as well as human resources programs.
Job satisfaction surveys elicit information about the way employees feel about their work environment, compensation, company benefits, and management, among other aspects of their workplace.
Examinations of the concept of job satisfaction began to appear in the academic literature in the mid-1960s, notably The Measure of Satisfaction in Work and Retirement: A Strategy for the Study of Attitudes.
Rates of job satisfaction in the United States have suffered for a variety of reasons, including the erosion of employee loyalty in the 1980s when pension plans changed and off-shoring, layoffs, and plant closures shattered what had become an employee expectation of stable, long-term employment.
As part of one of the longest-running examinations of job satisfaction in the United States, The Conference Board’s latest annual study reveals that less than half (47.3 percent) of U.S. workers say that they are satisfied with their jobs, compared to the 61.1 percent in 1987, the first year of analysis.
This reflects a steady decline in job satisfaction over the decades, which only recently returned to pre–Great Recession levels after hitting its lowest point in 2010 at 42.6 percent. However, while these concepts are related, job satisfaction is not the same as engagement.
Academic research specifically regarding employee engagement began to appear in the early 1990s. Even then, research posited that engaged and disengaged workers offer varying degrees of “effort” and are, at various times, more or less committed to the work and the workplace, as explained in “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work.”
This more esoteric academic work continued to explore the ways in which employees feel (or fail to feel) connected to the workplace.
The 2002 Journal of Applied Psychology article “Business-Unit-Level Relationship between Employee Satisfaction, Employee Engagement, and Business Outcomes:
A Meta-Analysis” was among the very first attempts to quantify engagement in terms of business results, and business leaders finally took notice, causing a dramatic shift in the level of attention paid to, and investments in, employee engagement.
Despite all the energy, effort, and resources (financial and otherwise) devoted to the issue of employee engagement for decades, the overall level of engagement in the workforce remains low and largely unchanged even in the face of the ongoing global recession.
A research report called The State of the Global Workplace reveals that only 13 percent of workers are engaged, 63 percent are not engaged, and 24 percent are actively disengaged.
There are, of course, regional differences, ranging from workers in East Asia (largely China) being among the least engaged, at 6 percent, to workers in New Zealand and Australia, where 24 percent of workers are engaged and only 16 percent are actively disengaged.
The highest levels of active disengagement in the world can be found in the Middle East and North Africa.14 In the United States, among its nearly one hundred million full-time employees, 30 percent are engaged, 50 percent are not engaged, and 20 percent are actively disengaged.
Engagement rates, of course, differ by region, country, and state; by occupation; by gender; by seniority level; by remote versus on-site location; by educational level; and by age.
Design Workspaces to Enable Engagement
The workspaces of organizations have changed dramatically from private offices and cubicles to rotating desk assignments, couches, standing desks, treadmill desks, and even to no desks.
One constant thing in the process is that offices have become more open. In fact, this openness has been evolving for many years.
According to the International Facility Management Association, today more than 70 percent of employees work in an open-space environment, and the size of the workplace has shrunk from 225 square feet per employee in 2010 to 190 square feet in 2013. Workplaces are smaller and more open, and this leads to some concerns.
The first concern is the actual size of the office. Since it’s shrinking, does it provide enough space? This is a concern for individuals who often need space for all their accessories, devices, files, and work. This has led to some alternative configurations that provide this kind of space apart from the actual workspace.
Another concern is privacy. Privacy issues have changed over the years as the work-place design has evolved. There has been a shifting need for privacy according to Steelcase, one of the largest makers of office systems.
According to their research, in the 1980s there was a call for more privacy and less interaction, but by the 1990s there was a need for less privacy and more interaction. Now there has been another swing in the pendulum, and there is a call for more privacy and more interaction but through interactive devices.
This leads to a concern for transparency in that now everyone has access to everything that everyone else is doing. In an open office, employees can see computer screens, hear conversations, read documents, and access all kinds of messages from different devices, making it perhaps too transparent for some. Because of this, there is a need to be less transparent.
Another concern is interruptions. Open offices invite people to interrupt frequently, as sometimes there is simply no way to shut the door in an open office. Managing interruptions can become a very difficult process.
A similar concern is a distraction within open offices. Hearing noises and seeing what is going on with other employees is a huge distraction to many people.
There are several major trends that have been occurring in workspace design. The first trend is to recognize the power of the open space environment, despite the concerns that arise from it. Assigned cubicles and private offices are certainly good for individual performance, but they are not helpful for group productivity where there is a need for collaboration that leads to innovation.
An innovative organization is in the upper right-hand corner of the diagram, where offices are open and flexible and movement is possible between different offices, rooms, and activity areas. Collaboration is an important part of the engagement, and it is also an important value for organizations trying to encourage high performance and innovation at the same time.
Another important trend is that the space assigned to individuals depends on the time that they spend in the office. When people are using offices only a small part of the time, they will have a much smaller office. This is a departure from the traditional way in which office space has been allocated according to the title and rank of the employee.
Executives who travel a lot may in some cases have a small office because they are not there very often. On the other hand, workers involved in major projects may need extra space.
Big, private offices are disappearing. They are too expensive and not necessarily functional, and problems are created when a person is unwilling to be a part of the social experiment of an open-space environment.
Common areas are developed, like conference rooms or meeting spaces at different places in an open environment, to give people ample opportunities to have discussions. Even little nooks can be set aside for people to meet quickly, reflect, communicate with a small team, or otherwise pull people together.
Workspaces are also being designed to get people to interact. For example, Samsung recently unveiled plans for a new U.S.headquarters designed in stark contrast to its traditional buildings.
Vast outdoor public spaces are sandwiched between floors, a configuration that executives hope will lure engineers and salespeople into mingling. Likewise, Facebook will soon put several thousand of its employees into a single mile-long room.
These companies know that a chance meeting with someone else in an office environment is a very important activity for collaboration.
A final trend is that workplaces are becoming more agile. They are not just for sitting anymore but also standing, walking, and moving.
Research has shown that sitting at the computer all day is a very unhealthy practice, and many organizations are now trying to give employees the opportunity to get up often, move around, and in some cases even use a treadmill desk.
Design Alternative Work Systems to Maintain Engagement
In the last decade, much progress has been made with alternative work systems, particularly in allowing employees to do their work at home.
In this arrangement, actual employees (not contractors) perform work for their organization at home every day of the week. This enables huge savings in real estate for the office, but there are many other benefits as well.
Several arrangements are available. The one that has perhaps the most impact is working completely at home. Under this arrangement, employees essentially do all their work in the home environment and make very infrequent trips to the office, if any at all.
To accomplish this, the home office has to be configured as an efficient, safe, and healthy workplace. This requires effort on the part of the organization to ensure, from a technology perspective, that the employee functions the same way he or she would in the office.
The second type of arrangement is office sharing, where one or more employees share an office. They predominantly work at home, additionally spending short periods of time in the office. In an ideal situation, two people share one office, but the schedule is arranged so that the two employees are not there at the same time.
A third option is hoteling, where several employees work at home but come into the office occasionally to do work as well. A suite of offices is available for them to use, and they have to make a reservation to use an office. This office space functions, essentially, as a hotel where employees check in and out of workspaces.
The fourth type of work arrangement is flex-time, where employees work sometimes at home, sometimes in the office, and set their own working hours as long as they work the prescribed number of hours.
This often takes the form of a compressed work week, where employees may work three days with longer hours and then have an extra two days off. It could also mean working slightly longer hours each day to have a half-day off or coming to work early in the morning and leaving early in the afternoon.
Another option is job sharing, where two people are charged with doing one specific job. Each person works about half of the hours, and they coordinate their schedules so that they are not both there at the same time. Essentially, they are teaming up to get the job done but still working individually (each on a part-time basis).
Finally, there is part-time work, where individuals work reduced hours, receive limited benefits, and free up office space for others when they are not there. This allows employees the flexibility of having more time off while still remaining employed with the organization.
Whatever the arrangement, it has to be fully prescribed and have specific conditions and rules. The following box details the work-at-home program for a life and health insurance company called Family Mutual Insurance (FMI).
Benefits of Working at Home
There are many benefits derived from this type of program. First and foremost, this often leads to high levels of job satisfaction, as employees have the convenience of working at home and the personal savings of time and money from the elimination of their commute.
This is particularly important for employees who have to drive long distances to go to work. These employees often come to work stress, and their lengthy commutes may take many hours out of their day.
Job satisfaction often leads to retention. Some employees want to work in organizations where they have an opportunity to work at home, so this is a good way to attract employees and keep them. Most studies point to this flexibility leading to increased tenure.
Absenteeism is usually reduced with these arrangements. Sometimes employees need time to take care of personal errands and unexpected situations.
With flexible arrangements, they can work those situations into their schedule. Of course, part of the rules is for them to ensure that they are completing all their work and working the numbers of hours required.
Having a work-at-home situation may give them the flexibility they need to take care of emergencies or critical appointments so they do not have to take time off. Additionally, there is less sick time, because employees are not exposed to contagious illnesses that may come through an office or spread through public contact.
In offices where there is a high risk of accidents, these arrangements will eliminate those accidents. This is not a payoff for all organizations, but it is significant if there are hazards in the office where employees work.
Most studies show that employees are actually more productive when working at home. There are several explanations for this. The first is that they are less stressed and are more energized to do the work.
Second, they often give a little more, because they are saving so much time from not commuting that they do not mind a little extra effort to make sure their performance is where it needs to be.
Third, employees are sometimes concerned that their immediate manager may think they are not working a full eight hours a day, so they give more just to ensure that it does not become an issue.
Fourth, there are often distractions at work that are avoided at home, such as frequent interruptions by coworkers, longer lunch periods, and unnecessary breaks.
These productivity payoffs are observed in both businesses and governments. For example, one case study for the Internal Revenue Service showed improvements in productivity for examiners. Essentially, they could handle more cases working at home than they did in the office.
Eliminating the commute alone means there is much less stress with this arrangement. Due to stressful commutes, employees are often frazzled when they get to work, frazzled when they get home or both.
Working at home eliminates that kind of high-stress activity and often leads to better work–life balance. Many people credit their work-at-home program for making their work-life balance acceptable.
However, the principle payoff for the organization is the savings in office space—but only if the office space is given up. Sometimes an organization will let an employee work at home but still keep an office for them.
This is very inefficient, as the principal benefit is not realized. When office space is given up, there is often a tremendous saving for an organization, even taking into account the costs of the modifications necessary to make the home office acceptable.
This arrangement also brings much applause from politicians and government agencies who are trying to ease traffic congestion in cities. Some major cities around the world have such congested streets that it takes employees three to four hours to make it work and back each day. Thus some governments provide incentives for employers to let employees work at home.
In the Netherlands, a proposed law gives the employee the right to work at home. The employer must prove that it will not work.
Additionally, because automobiles are taken off the streets, there are fewer accidents and traffic incidents. Although it is not a dramatic reduction, it is certainly enough to add more monetary benefits to the ROI of working at home.
Finally, the most important benefit is the effect on the planet. Although this is not an immediate benefit for a company in terms of monetary savings, it is an intangible asset, and it is certainly a very tangible benefit for the environment, because, for each automobile that is removed from the traffic flow, the actual tonnage of carbon emissions that are prevented from going into the atmosphere can be calculated.
This is why so many environmental groups uphold working at home as a way of the future. Some environmental groups suggest that this is the single greatest action employers can take to help the environment. These benefits are huge, and when compared to the cost of the program, a very high ROI is delivered.
The FMI example represents a project that was measured all the way through to the financial ROI. In this case, 350 claims processors and claims examiners transitioned to working at home.
Although their offices at home had to be equipped with the latest technology, including security software, so that they could effectively do at home what they were doing at the office, there was still a huge ROI.
The payoffs included a reduction in office expenses by giving up the office space, reduced turnover, and increased productivity as more claims were processed at home than at the office.
When this improvement was spread over one year and compared to the cost of the program, the savings generated a 299 percent ROI, with significant intangible benefits as well.
Making It Work
Obviously, the use of home-office arrangements, although still growing, represents only a fraction of the total workforce. It is not always appropriate, and there are some rules that must be followed to make it work:
1. It should be voluntary. Forcing individuals to work at home usually will not be successful. Individuals must also be eligible. They must understand the terms and conditions, must want to pursue it, and must follow the rules.
The office must be designed properly for efficiency, effectiveness, and well-being.
There cannot be any distractions, including parental care for children or other types of concerns. For example, there can be no television in the room where the work is being done.
There must be certain transparency procedures (like logging in and logging out each day), guidelines regarding how to make up time when hours are missed, communication requirements, and so forth. Work rules must fit the specific organization and what is comfortable for the executives and management team.
Along with work rules comes the training that is needed to ensure compliance. Not all employees know how to work remotely, although they may be convinced that they do. There must be some assurance that they understand the ground rules and that they are willing to make them work in their situation.
Parallel with the training of the employees, the managers have to have training as well. They need to know how to work with employees remotely and how to adjust to not having a person always available there at the office.
There must be effective two-way communication so that there is regular reporting from the employee and regular follow-up with the manager. Good, clear communications are very critical.
Engagement must be maintained otherwise it could actually dip with a work-at- home arrangement. If employees are not around their support team, receiving constant feedback from their manager and coworkers, they might not feel as actively engaged.
Career aspects should be considered in the process. Remote employees cannot be left out of career development and career enhancement planning. They are often concerned that their career may suffer because they are not considered an integral part of the group.
Finally, all legal and compliance requirements must be followed. There must be no discrimination for this offering that would violate any of the regulations for equal employment opportunities and any other contractual or legal requirements.
The reason that working at home has not become a widespread and common practice is that there are many barriers to these types of work arrangements. Perhaps the number-one barrier is resistance from the management group.
Most managers follow the typical command-and-control model, and they want to see their employees regularly so that they can control their work.
A lack of trust between managers and employees will also keep these arrangements from being effective. Managers have to trust employees to act in good faith and make it work.
Having remote employees makes some managers feel that they are less valuable to the organization. After all, if managers don’t have to be with the employees, see the employees, or meet with the employees, it might be assumed that the managers are not needed.
This concern will have to be addressed so that managers fully understand the purpose of the arrangement and how they can manage employees remotely.
Another barrier is that it doesn’t work for every job, of course. Most jobs require a presence—in a factory, hotel, retail store, and restaurant. When a job requires employees to be at a particular place at a particular time, they will not be able to work at home.
This arrangement also doesn’t work for every employee. Almost everyone may want to take advantage of this arrangement, as it is a nice-sounding opportunity, but there are certain personalities that cannot function alone in an office setting. To work at home, a person has to be disciplined and work well without social interaction on a routine basis.
Furthermore, this working arrangement can be abused, and this keeps many organizations from making this move. Managers may worry that employees will say that they are working when they are actually not.
Unless employee output can be easily measured and monitored, a working-at-home arrangement may not work.
Although its potential has been proven in even creative jobs like those of graphic designers and editors, it is certainly more effective when managers can count standardized items such as processed claims or completed transactions.
Another barrier is that employees may worry about being out of sight and out of mind—that they may be forgotten and that their career advancement prospects will suffer because of it.
There is also a fear that engagement may be reduced without the social interaction that comes from being in the same space as coworkers.
Finally, the biggest barrier is that it represents a significant change. Some executives like to measure the magnitude of their organization by the number of employees that they can actually see, the big buildings they occupy, and the large meetings that they can conduct. A remote workforce, no matter how vast, is not quite so visible.
Along with the barriers come the enablers, and there are many of them, as this section has already detailed. As evidenced by studies, there are many benefits of working at home for employees and for the organization.
It is a good financial investment for an organization to pursue. Perhaps the most important benefit is the reduction in traffic congestion and environmental pollution.
This is why this kind of arrangement is pushed by government agencies, environmental groups, and technology companies who indicate that they can now duplicate the work at the office in the home office. The technology is there, the reasons are there, and this should be an important consideration going forward.
Involve Top Executives in the Engagement Process
The role of top executives is very critical in any process, but particularly with engagement. With so much evidence that engagement adds value and so much potential for it to add more, most executives are willing to step up and commit resources, time, and effort to make sure that engagement works. This involves several areas:
Commitment. The first executive action is committing resources, staff, and other processes to make sure that engagement is properly developed, implemented, and supported in the organization.
Communication. Employees carefully weigh messages from the senior executive team, and what the team says about the engagement process sets the tone for others.
It also shows the position of executives. Top executives should be involved in major announcements, the rollout of programs, and even progress assessments. When major actions are taken as a result of engagement input, top executives should be involved as well.
Involvement. Top executives must be involved in these programs. They should kick off programs and moderate town-hall meetings about engagement. They should participate in learning programs on preparing leaders and managers to build engagement in the organization.
Recognition. Top executives have to recognize those who are doing the best job. The best way to recognize exemplars of engagement is to promote them, reward them, and publicly recognize them. Engagement data should be placed alongside key operating results for this to be effective.
Support. Support is more than just providing resources and recognizing those who achieve results; it also means supporting the programs, encouraging people to be involved, and encouraging others to take action. This shows that leaders genuinely support these programs and their success.
Long-Term Thinking. Engagement cannot be seen as a fad that comes through the organization only to be abandoned for the next fad.
Too often this occurs in organizations—executives work on “engagement” this year, and “lean thinking” the next year, and “open-book management” the next. The key is to stay with it and make it work.
Reference. Refer to engagement often, as a driver of gross productivity, a driver of sales, and a driver of profits. Making reference to engage regularly in meetings, reports, press releases, and annual shareholder meetings brings the importance of the process into focus.
Collectively, these efforts from top executives, which are often coordinated by the chief human resources officer, will make a difference in the success of the engagement effort.
Empower Managers and Leaders to Build Engagement
First-level managers are key to the organization. They are in a position to make or break the engagement, and they have to be prepared for it.
The first step is to conduct learning programs where the issue of engagement is discussed—how they can encourage it, support it, and build it in their work teams.
This provides not only awareness of engagement but skill-building around the components of engagement to make the process successful in the organization.
Most important, first-level managers must understand why engagement makes a difference. They must become role models of engagement and take an active part in ensuring that employees are empowered, are involved in key decisions, and assume ownership and accountability for what they do.
Managers must demonstrate what has to be done to make the engagement process work, and they must genuinely support it. They must reinforce the concept of engagement, reinforce what it means to them, and reinforce their roles in the process.
Much of this involves learning—learning what engagement is about and what makes it work but also learning what it can do for the organization.
Position engagement as a process similar to sales training for a sales team, or production training for the production group, or IT training for the IT staff. This is an important process that managers must learn, apply, and use to drive results.
This also means that they have to redefine success. Success is not just knowing something but making it work and have an impact. Making it work involves the behaviors that are exhibited as people collaborate to complete projects, but the impact must show up in improved measures of productivity, innovation, quality, and efficiency.
First-level managers are critical, as they must use all the tools generated around engagement. The HR team offers the many processes and tools to be implemented, but the frontline leaders can make the difference in the success of the process by using the tools appropriately, following up to make sure they work, and reporting issues and concerns back to the HR team.
Measure the Progress and Impact of Engagement
Measurement for this process involves several issues. The first one is measuring the progress with engagement through an annual survey. This assesses the actual perceptions of employees about the progress they are making. The annual survey must include several major elements to make it successful.
It must be carefully planned, sometimes even with input from those who are being assessed.
The data must be collected anonymously or confidentially. This is a time to collect candid feedback on the progress being made.
The data must be reported back to the respondents quickly so that they can see what the group has said locally and globally.
There must be follow up, some immediately, some later—all in reference to the engagement program. This survey- feedback-action loop will ensure that the process is taken seriously.
Another measurement issue is linking the engagement scores to a variety of outcome measures such as productivity, sales, retention, quality, safety, and so on. It is an important way for the organization, executives, and the HR team to see the value of this important process.
Success should also be measured in terms of individual projects, such as leadership communications, coaching, team building, management development, and leadership development. These are all programs that often involve parts of the engagement process.
It is helpful to connect particular programs not only to engagement but to individual measures that may improve in this process. An example of this is a program involving managers at a retail fashion store where they were involved in a variety of leadership initiatives that also played into the engagement process.
Finally, measuring ROI is the mandate for many top executives. If the CHRO can show executives the return on investing in engagement, it reinforces their commitment to make this process work, and it often improves not only their relationship with those involved in engagement but also their respect for the entire talent management and human resources function.
Pushing at least some of the programs to the ROI level is very helpful, and ultimately it is possible to show the ROI of the entire engagement process. This is something that is covered amply in other resources.
Implications for Human Capital Strategy
This blog has highlighted the importance of engagement, which causes employees to become more involved in and committed to their work. Several elements affect employee engagement. The human capital strategy should consider these issues:
The definition of engagement
The role of engagement in the organization
The organization’s structure and process to drive engagement
Responsibility for the implementation of engagement
The engagement implementation model
The measurement strategy for engagement
Workplace design to enable engagement
Alternative work systems to maintain engagement
Incentives Push People Toward Zero-Sum Behavior
Sometimes your organization inadvertently encourages behavior they don’t want. For example, some incentives encourage managers to think about their project or customer first while you really want everyone to think about the overall picture.
These incentives are based on an individual’s ability to push through his or her initiatives using a common pool of developers, testers, and business analysts, regardless of whether that individual’s project is a higher rank than any others.
This confusion happens when an organization misapplies Management by Objective (MBO) and senior managers respond by optimizing from the bottom of the organization instead of from the top.
We Can Suggest, Not Commit
We were having trouble with our projects—every single one was late, everyone had too many defects, and the customers always wanted something different once they received the product. We had too many concurrent projects. So, we decided to organize the portfolio.
It took us the better part of a day, but we finally came up with a ranked list of five projects. We assigned people to those projects and put the other projects on our unstaffed work list. That worked for all of three days.
Then our director, Dave, came up to Susan and asked why she wasn’t working on Project. She replied at the time, “Because it’s not on our list of projects to do now; it’s on our list to start after these five projects.”
People Are Arguing Based on Position, Not Principle
Sometimes, when everyone brings a strawman portfolio, someone is attached to a particular project or attached to a particular ranking. If that occurs, it can feel similar to the zero-sum game. In this case, read Getting to Yes [FUP91]. The authors’ negotiation scheme is to do the following:
1. Separate the people from the problem.
2. Focus on interests, not positions.
3. Generate a variety of possibilities.
4. Use an objective standard to judge the results.
This is why everyone needs a principle they can articulate before arriving at the portfolio meeting. If you and I can state our principles, we can separate the people from the problem.
If you and I have different principles and we discuss that at the beginning of the meeting, we have a good chance of resolving that problem before we start fighting about the portfolio.
You Are Geographically Separated
If you are geographically separated by more than four hours so it’s difficult to collaborate in a meeting, separate your geographically distributed problems from each other.
You need to agree on which projects you tackle first, and you need to meet in a way that works for all of you. Let’s assume you have teams who can complete pieces of functionality in their own sites and your problem is to know which features or projects have to be completed first.
If you’ve built enough trust as a management team or a group of peers, have one in-person meeting initially to define your first portfolio. Now, you’ve likely built enough trust with your peers to have remote meetings for the rest of the year.
However, consider using email for pre-work, such as each of you articulating your principle behind your choices for the portfolio, showing each other your strawman portfolios, and discussing any constraints.
For the portfolio meeting, use as many online collaboration tools as possible so you can all see the data. For example, you won’t be able to see physical cards or stickies on the wall when some people are remote. However, there are electronic card sites and applications. You can use those.
I do not recommend you start with a tool just because you are geographically distributed. Tools can prevent you from visualizing what your organization needs to see in your project portfolio. Once you’ve ranked and reviewed several times, you will know what value a tool can provide for both ranking and visualizing your project portfolio.
Managing the project portfolio especially when you are geographically distributed is knotty and delicate work. Expect your portfolio evaluation meetings to take much longer than if you could have the meeting with all of you in one place.
Unfortunately, when you have teams that cannot complete pieces of functionality at their sites and instead the team members need to rely on each other, make sure the most senior level of management decides on the portfolio.
Lower-level managers and project managers have enough aggravation trying to get an entire piece of functionality done to worry about the portfolio.
If you are part of that most senior level of management, I urge you to reorganize your team bits into site-based teams that can complete pieces of functionality.
Until you do, you need to make the decisions about which projects are which rank, and you will need help knowing who to assign to which projects.
A kanban approach, where you limit the work in progress, may help you, as in Stabilize the Number of Work Items in Progress.
This might seem like a lot of work to you. It is. You might even think you can delegate this to other managers below you in the hierarchy. Don’t delegate these decisions—these decisions are the core of the value the organization provides. You created a situation in which the project teams have limited bandwidth, so you need to solve this problem.
You may find you have other barriers to collaboration. Recognize that the barrier is a symptom of an organizational problem, and think about how you need to solve it.
I See These Risks
Sometimes your manager will come to you with a demand for a doomed project or a pet project. You can’t make a case for this project. Try saying, “Here are the risks I can see.” Explain the risks you see. This is good if you can explain risks in terms of customers.
Whatever you do, don’t just blindly accept more work into your portfolio.
Explain which work you will not be doing to accomplish this work.
Give Us One Timebox and We Can Estimate the Rest
Sometimes, a manager wants to push a project into a smaller overall duration than the project team’s estimate or your experience suggests is reasonable. Instead of saying no, ask for just one timebox worth of time, where the team can measure velocity.
First, say, “If we do one timebox worth, we can estimate how long it will really take.” If the team’s velocity meets the project duration, you return to evaluating all the projects. But if not, this project goes on the unstaffed list.
Please Explain Your Principle Behind Your Ranking
If you’ve been working with your peers, and a senior manager (especially a CIO, VP, or equivalent) insists that you need to staff a particular project, ask that manager for his or her principle behind the selection of that project over others.
When you ask for an explanation, be careful. The person hearing this can hear sarcasm or feel defensive without you meaning to sound that way. You do not want a non-career-enhancing conversation.
Showing your curiosity, say, “Please explain your ranking of this project.” If the senior manager has a principle that makes sense, rerank the portfolio, and make sure everyone can live with the resulting ranking. If the senior manager appears to have a pet project, see whether the ideas in Killing a Senior Manager’s Pet Project will help.
Never say “maybe” to an additional portfolio request. It doesn’t matter what level you are in the organization. Saying “maybe” leads to disaster. When you say “maybe,” your managers hear “yes.” Your peers and staff hear “no.” You can’t win.
Fund Projects Incrementally
Since you commit to a project only for a short period of time, consider funding the projects only for a short period of time as well. Make sure each project has the people it needs to make progress.
That’s the whole point of assigning teams to projects and stopping when you run out of people (see Rank with Business Value Points). Don’t starve projects of money either. Fund them money as they need it.
When my children were old enough for a clothing allowance, I asked them if they wanted all the money at once (with my heart pounding) or if I should give them money quarterly or half-yearly. They each decided on half-yearly. That way, they had enough money to buy fall clothes but not run out of money for the summer.
Periodic decision making about the portfolio allows you to fund projects incrementally. That’s because
As you show value to someone, preferably your customer, you are much more likely to get more funding. This works with fixed-price contracts, internal customers, and external customers.
If a project isn’t showing value early and often, you may not get feedback early enough to change the portfolio before you start a death march for something your customers don’t want.
You can start highly risky projects because you’re not committing a ton of money and time to that much risk. You’re just committing two, three, or four weeks. Because the projects show you visible progress, you have enough information to make the commit/kill/transform decision. You never have to throw good money after bad.
Inefficiency Is the Enemy of Success
Pricing strategy is a key component of disruption. Agencies motivated to change will shift away from the inefficient legacy system of billable hours and move to more results-driven, value-based models.
This presents the opportunity for agencies and independent consultants to disrupt the industry with lower prices and potentially higher profit margins.
The traditional billable-hour system is tied exclusively to outputs, not outcomes, and assumes that all agency activities—account management, client communications, writing, planning, consulting, and creative—are of equal value. It is a broken model.
The number of professionals are paid does not have a direct correlation to the quality or value of the services they provide.
There are countless factors that can affect a professionals efficiency, but distractions, time tracking, and motivation are three of the biggest culprits.
The guiding principle in hybrid marketing agency pricing is that it must be value-based, meaning prices are determined based on perceived and actual value rather than the number of billable hours something takes to complete.
Talent Cannot Be Replicated
Model agencies are constructed by one employee at a time. They do not allow market demand or outside expectations to dictate their growth, and they do not sacrifice the quality of their hires to satisfy short-term needs.
They take a controlled, almost methodical, approach to expansion. They develop talent from within and construct teams based on shared values, innate abilities, and complementary character traits.
Constructing an agency filled with top talent establishes a distinct and formidable competitive advantage.
Although intelligence and experience are key, their character, internal drive, personality, and innate abilities are the intangibles that truly differentiate great candidates from good ones.
Hybrid agencies are built on a culture of we, succeeding and failing as one. Professionals are passionately loyal to the agency and to each other. Client acquisition and retention must be driven by the collective strength, reputation, and capabilities of the firm.
Professionals who are unmotivated or who fail to live up to their potential can negatively impact the team's performance, but more important, they drag down the morale and momentum of peers and leadership.
Professionals are given unparalleled opportunities for career advancement and encouraged to build strong personal brands. The top firms, which will lead to industry transformation and deliver the most value, are built from within. In order to excel and continually differentiate, agencies must have a solid strategy to recruit, advance, and retain emerging talent.
Hybrid professionals are trained to deliver services across search, mobile, social, content, analytics, web, PR, and e-mail marketing. They provide integrated solutions that historically required multiple agencies and consultants.
The Best Plan Is to Prepare for Perpetual Change
Change velocity principles dictate that trying to plan for anything beyond three years is an exercise in futility. Have a vision for the long-term, but make infrastructure decisions based on current and short-term realities.
Doing Is the Key to Differentiation
The marketing world is full of thinkers, talkers, and self-proclaimed gurus, but after a while, they all start to sound the same. What we need are more doers —agencies and professionals that drive change by practicing what they preach.
A hybrid agency is defined by the collective strength of its employees’ personal brands. Your job as an agency leader is to clearly establish the agency brand, and then give your team the freedom and support to build and evolve theirs.
Treat your agency website with the same care and attention that you do your clients’ websites. Continually analyze track, and monitor its success through inbound links, traffic, referrers, and website visits by keywords, among other metrics.