Employee Engagement Ideas: Your Guide For 2016

22 minute read

Coming up with new and effective employee engagement ideas is a difficult but critical part of any employee engagement initiative. No matter what business you’re in, there are tried and true ways to increase employee engagement. It’s all about taking one step at a time: start implementing some changes, adjust as necessary, keep up the effort, and add more over time. Engaged employees are happier and more effective; simply put, the more engaged they are, the better your business will perform.

Below are 20 employee engagement ideas that we’ve put to work in our company and have experienced at other organizations we’ve worked at. They’re simple, inexpensive, and shouldn’t require major approvals to get going (think bottoms up more than top down). Most importantly, they’ll get your people engaged and strengthen your company’s culture and performance.

1. Make trust a top priority

When people don’t have trust in eachother, nothing works. Trust is something that has a direct relationship with engagement. If you don’t have trust with someone, you’re not going to engage with them. It’s also something that takes time to build. How do you build trust? Treat people with respect, give them ownership, help them succeed, and put the following employee engagement ideas in action. Do this and trust will happen.

In case you need more convincing on the topic of trust, here’s a good piece by Charles Green over at Forbes.com on why trust is the new core of leadership.

2. Have an off-site retreat

2.pngIt’s important to get people together outside of the office from time to time. We’re a smaller organization, so we can afford to get everyone together in one place once a quarter. For large companies or divisions it may be once a year, which is ok. Having everyone in the same place is a special opportunity to plan and get input and ideas from folks that may rarely be in the same room together.  

When it comes it play (and there should definitely be some play), it’s best to plan events that are inclusive and where a certain level of professionalism can be maintained. When our team comes into town, we’ll usually do breakfast at one of our favorite local spots every morning, one group dinner, and a group outing (last time it was 18 holes of golf).

Here’s a great resource the Harvard Business Review put out a few years ago on how to effectively plan and execute an off-site retreat.

3. Provide healthy food

If your company provides food, be it snacks or full catering, it’s critical that the food be healthy. We are what we eat: a team that is unhealthy is not going to be engaged. Good quality food does wonders. Nordstrom’s corporate office in Seattle is one of many examples. They operate a small, subsidized cafe that offers multiple healthy options including a salad and sandwich bar, and three hot options prepared items each day. It’s fun to see everyone in the dining room and you feel great and ready to tackle the rest of the day when lunch is over.

Hubspot put out a fun infographic on how different foods impact productivity.

4. Eat a meal together

4.pngWe all eat, and more often than not we eat lunch by ourselves or in small groups with familiar folks. If your company provides you with lunch, awesome: try and make sure that (depending on your size) a good number of people eat together. Doing so provides the opportunity for connections to be built between people who might not otherwise interact.

Don’t fret if your company doesn’t provide regular meals. Set a day a week or once a month for a potlatch, or use a little bit of budget to have some food brought in. A meal is one of the cheapest and best ways to cross-pollinate with others, put names to faces, and just generally strengthen your internal community. Let’s face it, very few people will turn down food. 🙂

5. Give maternity/paternity leave

People have lives outside of work. Providing generous maternity/paternity leave is a major commitment to your employees. It communicates that you understand the birth of a new child is way more important than work and a special time for a family to be together. From the business side, it’s a great way to build loyalty, which is one of the main reasons why companies like Netflix, Google, Reddit, and others have generous policies in place. 

Here’s some more background the New York Times did on this maternity/paternity leave trend and the particular policies of the the companies listed above.

6. Make sure people use their vacation time

6.pngNo matter what your policy is, make sure employees actually use their vacation time. I spent some time at an organization that offered “unlimited” vacation. However and from what I could tell, most people never took a vacation (incl. myself!). In fact, I’d wager that on the whole people at my company took less than those at a company where the vacation policy was more restrictive.

People need a break, and most of us need to be reminded of that. One of my favorite Seattle companies, MOZ encourages people to use their vacation time by paying for it; if you’ve been an employee at MOZ for more than a year you get $3000/yr to spend on a vacation. That’s pretty sweet.

You don’t need to pay people to take vacations, but you should remind them that they should use their allotted time; it’s a matter of wellbeing.

Here’s a study from Deloitte that shows among other things that one third of employees do not feel comfortable taking vacation time.

7. Clearly communicate company goals

Do your employees know what the goals of the company are? What are you all working towards? It’s pretty common for the majority of people to have no idea what’s going on. Worse, not clearly communicating company goals can lead people to come up with their own ideas, which can take things in the wrong direction.

Clearly communicating your company’s goals not only helps get everyone on the same page, but it builds trust. When you share a goal with someone you’re telling them that they have a part to play in achieving that goal. When you know what the goals are you work harder, with greater focus and effectiveness.

Here are some good ideas from Inc Magazine on how to communicate and get your employees excited about your company goals.

8. Make everyone the CEO of something

8.pngIntel, Google, Zynga, and others have been big proponents of “making everyone the CEO of something”. Clearly the CEO owns something (the financial performance of the business), but what about everyone else? Take some time to think about your team and the various things they do or could be owners of. Ownership develops pride and great things happen when everyone in an organization has pride in their work.

9. Allow for flexible work schedules

Life happens. Supporting flexible schedules is another way of acknowledging that people have lives and responsibilities outside of work and that it’s not a zero sum game. Spouses get sick, kids need to be picked up, etc., etc. Don’t be a butts-in-seats kind of company. Allow for some flexibility with schedules and you’ll be able to attract and retain better talent.

Need some backup? Check out this Ernst & Young study, which found (surprise, surprise) that workers around the world want more flexibility.

10. Celebrate achievements

10.pngYour company succeeds because of your people. Do you celebrate their achievements? If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s there to hear it…  

Engagement is about working effectively, being happy, providing solutions, and helping the people around you. If you’re not highlighting the good examples, hard-earned gains will go unnoticed. Support your people. Call them out when they do great stuff.

Here’s a great resource from Johns Hopkins: 101 Ways to Celebrate Your People.  What else do you need? 🙂

11. Put your people first

Your people should come before everything else. Before customers, before investors, or any other constituency you’re responsible to. Like trust, putting your people first takes time, however it’s a foundational value of any organization that has high-levels of employee engagement. You spend a lot of time and money recruiting, hiring, training, and retaining your employees. Without them you don’t have a business.

However, putting people first is a double-edged sword. You need to protect and support the good ones, but you also need to remove the bad ones. Allowing poor performers to remain in your organization is the antithesis of putting your people first. Poor performers bring down everyone else. People become less engaged. Your company is your professional family. Protect your family.

Here’s a piece from Greg Satell over on Forbes with some additional perspective on why it’s important to put your people first.

12. Provide the best tools

12.pngMake sure each employee has the tools they need to succeed. Do they have the right hardware, software, etc.? This is a pretty simple employee engagement idea, but it’s also an inexpensive and effective one. Often times people will put up with bottlenecks because they’re not sure if they can get approval for something. Make sure that your people know that if they feel they need something that they should bring it up. Often times a small expense can make a big difference in productivity.

Here’s a great piece on a glass manufacturing plant in Brazil and their approach to providing their teams with the tools they needed, and the productivity and happiness that resulted. You may not be operating a glass factory, but there are things we can all take away from this case study.

13. Prioritize personal goals

What are the personal, professional goals of your employees? Where do they want to go over the next few years of their career? You need to understand this in order to help them get there. Further, talking with your people about their goals communicates that you’re there to help them realize their goals. Someone helped you to get where you are; it’s important that you do the same with the people under you.

I think the title of this Harvard Business Review piece says it all: If You’re Not Helping People Develop, You’re Not Management Material.

14. Do a survey

14.pngOnce a year we do a comprehensive employee engagement survey. The main purpose is to get a pulse on our org and allow everyone to provide feedback and ideas on an individual, private basis. I wrote the last one myself and structured the questions to touch on the following: does everyone understand why we’re here, are we talking the same language, what are we doing well, what are we doing poorly, and what should we be doing differently. It took each team member ~30min to fill out and provided our leadership team with valuable information on the health of our org, and ideas for improving employee engagement and company performance.

15. Be open to new ways of doing things (aka change)

“A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a quip and worried to death by a frown on the right man’s brow.” –Ovid

Because that’s the way we’ve always done it! Heard that one before. Nothing shuts down the desire to engage like an organization that resists change. Unless you’re paying your people to pull a lever all day long, you should trust in their ideas. Hell, even the lever-puller probably has some ideas about how to do things better. The important thing is that when someone comes with an idea about how to improve something, hear them out. It’s way easier to edit than it is to create. Give people the room and support to try things. Even when they don’t pan out you’ll also benefit from a stronger culture, where people are empowered to make decisions.

16. Make lots of connections

“To build a network rich in social capital, cultivate powerful brokers who aren’t in positions of formal authority–the places where everyone else looks.”

16.pngPeople make things happen. In the world of startup and innovation it’s been proven that community – your proximity to other people doing things that are complementary to what you’re doing – has a direct effect on your and your organization’s success. Make a priority of connecting your people with other folks inside and outside your organization. Doing so has value to you, your organization, and to the people you’re connecting.  

Here’s a helpful piece from the Harvard Business Review (where I got the above quote) on how to build networks.

17. Make ethics a priority

To say ethics are important would be an understatement. Ethics are sustainability, strength, and reputation. Often times in businesses it seems like leadership prioritizes financial performance over everything else. Anything necessary to hit the number! Fine, but your people need to know that the way they conduct themselves is critical. Supporting ethics in business provides a level playing field and supports sustainability, both of which relate to employee engagement. The companies that succeed consistently over a long period take ethics seriously.

18. Value respect and decency

18.pngThis is related to the above two employee engagement ideas. Getting people to engage requires that they feel supported and safe. If you show someone respect and treat them with decency they’re going to develop trust and respect for you, all of which are at the foundation of employee engagement.  

Here’s a piece that was put out by the Washington Post talking about the importance of respecting people in your workplace.

19. Karma matters

Now as a man is like this or like that,

according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be;

a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad;

he becomes pure by pure deeds, bad by bad deeds;

And here they say that a person consists of desires,

and as is his desire, so is his will;

and as is his will, so is his deed;

and whatever deed he does, that he will reap.

–Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 7th Century BCE

You don’t need to be a buddhist to believe in karma. Karma is for real. Good and bad deeds will be repaid in the future. If you’re curious, here’s a good resource on karma and it’s etymology.

20. Bring in outside help

20.pngBringing in someone from outside the organization to tell their story can be a great thing to do from time to time. Just like anything else, who you bring in to talk with you people is a reflection of your organization’s aspirations and values. Often times it’s not a successful business person who can have the biggest impact: real inspiration and perseverance often has nothing to do with business.  

We hope you find these employee engagement ideas useful. We’ve put them to work in our company and have seen them work in many others. Keeping people engaged is a constant challenge, but there are few things more important.
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