Employee Engagement – Addition by Subtraction

Employee engagement is a hot topic these days. New tools and technology platforms are being released to help companies monitor real-time engagement levels and make recommendations on how to improve. Companies are investing out the wazoo to make a meaningful impact with the hopes of driving recruitment, profits and productivity. And, yet, literature keeps being released indicating that Americans are not that engaged with their work.

I’ve struggled with how to keep engagement high in the tech industry. It’s really easy, in my opinion, in small organizations. Or in organizations that are innovating and doing really cool things. People organically feel they are making real contributions to something that matters to them. But as you get bigger, it gets harder. As you stop playing on the cutting edge, it gets harder. Why?

In the rush to keep up with the Google’s of the world, I think companies have spent more time adding perks and benefits than anything else – I’ve certainly been guilty of thinking this way. The kicker is that data shows these sorts of additions don’t increase engagement. These ‘nice to have’s’ certainly are capable of bloating the budget and sticking around for a while, though. When I reflect on my two or three most engaged moments in the workforce, here are the commonalities (hint: they aren’t perk-related!):

  • I was given a huge piece of work with little direction on how to do it, but plenty of cover and support from my manager. (Autonomy)
  • It was clear to me and those around me that this work was my clear priority. People understood the consequences of a missed deadline. (Permission to say no to other things)
  • Financially, my needs were taken care of. I wasn’t rolling in dough, but I was making ends meet and able to save. (Self-explanatory)
  • The projects were impactful to the business. (Purpose)

So these last few months I’ve been thinking about ways to create a workplace where people are highly engaged with a limited budget. Maybe the problem in the US isn’t that we haven’t added the right thing to the mix, we just haven’t really figured out how to effectively remove what holds people back from connecting to their work. Here are some ideas:

Meetings. I hate when my weeks are carved up dashing to ineffectively-run meetings  where it’s not even clear that I’m needed. There are certainly incredibly valuable and productive ones, but they seemed to be in the minority many weeks. When I was most engaged in my work, I had permission to decline all but the most essential meetings. And guess what? The business kept running. People sought me out when they needed my opinions. And I had larger chunks of time to dedicate to my project (which resulted in both a happier me and better work).

If we want a more engaged workforce, let’s explore a new level of discipline with meetings. Scope out the agenda, attendees and time needed. Let’s understand the politics at play that tend to inflate the number of attendees, and also work on our communication channels so we aren’t leveraging time together strictly for status updates, and are instead using it for important discussions and decisions best made collaboratively.

Micromanagement. To have a workforce committed to their work and invested in our goals, we need to give them skin in the game. They need to know they can make an impact. Provided you’ve hired the right team, your people will want any given project to be successful and want to take ownership of it. As managers, we tend to get in the way of that happening (usually unintentionally). For one, we may have a similar, but not identical, idea of how to execute – we just don’t have the time to do it ourselves and decide to ‘delegate’. It becomes very easy to give someone an idea to execute and become overly prescriptive in how it’s accomplished. Unfortunately, this removes some of the more engaging aspects of a given project.

Give your team clear goals and objectives and flush out strategy to take on the project. Once you are clear about the end result, and understand their approach, try to remove yourself a bit from the situation and let them do their thing. Check in regularly. A helpful trick for me is to make sure I’m asking more open-ended questions than making statements in check-ins on the project. Framed well, your questions can help coach. If the project is too big to allow failure and you need to be really involved in it, consider explaining that upfront: “Hey guys – I like to give you autonomy, but the Board is watching this one closely, so we’ll need to do it a little differently. Just bear with me on this one.”

Busy work. Every time I rolled out a new process or initiative, there was a certain amount of ongoing work to support it. Before I knew it, it felt like my team spent more time caught in the weeds with maintenance work than doing forward-thinking projects. That’s tough to remedy, and I’m not sure I have the answer other than it’s worth periodically looking at where your team is spending their time and assessing if there are things that can be eliminated.

Look at the purpose of your organization and team. If something doesn’t tie up to that or the basic function of running a business, it should be a candidate for review. This may mean a shift to automation, or empowering others to do the task without leveraging your team, or deciding to drop a task altogether. Make sure your team has time to do more than just busy work. And contextualize the less glamorous parts of the job by tying it up to company purpose or goals. People want to use their brains and not be on autopilot all the time. As managers and leaders, it’s our job to strike the right balance.

I think all of the above can truly impact the engagement of your team and give you a leg up on recruitment and retention. None require a real financial investment, but do require a much harder shift in thinking and management. Frankly, adding a beer fridge or foosball table is much easier to sell and execute. And the difference is noticed immediately. But none of that will keep your employees coming back for more and producing at a highly-engaged level.