5 ways to improve employee engagement

Employee engagement

Employee engagement means something different to individuals depending on where they work, the size of an organisation, the industry in which they are involved, and their role within a company.

But the benefits of an engaged workforce seem universal: better performance, improved client or customer satisfaction, and increased revenue, to name a few.

"To me, employee engagement is people showing up every day energised, innovating, being creative, wanting to do better, and wanting others around them to do better every day," said Stacey Hekkert, CPA, CGMA, president and managing partner of CPA firm Anton Collins Mitchell LLP in Denver. "That's where people really are working at their best and their minds are the brightest is when they are engaged."

Achieving high employee engagement remains a challenge. For the first time since 2012, employee engagement around the world decreased in 2016, according to a recent study by Aon Hewitt. And a Deloitte report showed that while 80% of global executives ranked employee experience as very important or important, only 22% said their companies were excellent at building a strong employee experience.

"If employees are not engaged, everyone fails, morale is low, and staff turnover increases," said Steve Bicknell, FCMA, CGMA, financial director at SCA Group, a multi-sector facility services company based in Dorset, in the South West of England. "It's important that managers take the time to work with and engage with their teams."

Here are some key strategies from industry leaders to help companies improve and enhance employee engagement to create a more satisfying work environment for staff:

Listen to your employees. One of the most important tools employers can use to improve engagement is also very simple – just listen. "We listen to our people, and we act on what they tell us," Hekkert said. "[We] are firm believers [that] the best ideas don't always come from the top."

For Bison Engineering, an employee-owned environmental consulting and technical services firm in Helena, Montana, listening is an inherent part of its unique company structure. "We are a very open-book company," said Erik Anspach, CPA, CGMA, who serves as CFO and human resources director for the company of about 50 people.

An annual company retreat allows employees from four offices not only to build relationships outside of the office but also to understand strategic goals. "We're talking about long-term things. We're talking about different, larger issues in the company that we're needing lean-in and buy-in from different people," Anspach said. "And we're getting ideas and allowing them the opportunity to express their opinions and ideas about should we open another office? Should we do this? Should we not do this?"

Communicate the vision. Perks and benefits are always appreciated, but one main driver for employee engagement is a sense of purpose and an understanding of larger departmental or company goals. This can be communicated by regular emails, meetings led by senior management, or annual company-wide gatherings that involve co-ordination of multiple office locations. "If employees are engaged and understand the business objectives, they will perform better and support each other to achieve the team's targets," Bicknell said.

Anton Collins Mitchell, for instance, holds a company retreat twice a year for its four offices. Executives give a state of union on the business to communicate company vision and long-term goals. "Engagement and alignment also go hand in hand," Hekkert said. "If employees aren't aligned, they won't know what to engage in."

Train and develop staff. By building the skills of employees, employers can increase the performance of their staff and show employees they are worth investing in.

Kayce Nelson, CPA, CGMA, partner and COO at CCK Strategies, a CPA firm in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has been responsible for developing the company culture for the past 10 years. One of the reasons CCK Strategies has strong employee engagement is its formal mentoring programme, she said. "We believe in growing our own, so we invest a lot of time getting to know them and understand them so that we can help them reach their goals," Nelson said.

Charles Kunkel, CPA, CGMA, the CFO of Harris & Ford, a distribution company in Indianapolis, identified a need within his team to better understand a specific programme and had an expert come in and provide training over the course of a couple of months. "Developing the skillset and the knowledge of employees so they understand why they're being asked to do something, why it's important for our customers, why it's important for us," Kunkel said.

Recognise good work. Rewards and recognition are the greatest opportunity for engagement, according to the Aon report. But such rewards can vary depending on company size, structure, and budget.

For Kunkel, this means getting creative to engage his finance department. Kunkel once received a giant calculator as a gift and now once a month an employee is nominated by peers to receive the calculator, dubbed the Big Kahuna Award. "The joke was I like to see big, positive numbers, so if you have this big calculator, you'll see big, positive numbers," Kunkel said. "There are lots of jokes back and forth about this big calculator. It presents it in a fun way, and you're recognised by your peers, and it doesn't really cost any money to do that."

Hire the right people. For many companies, successful employee engagement begins in the recruitment process.

"We spend a lot of time finding the right people for our team," Nelson said. She said her firm has a deliberate hiring process that ensures candidates are a good fit. Hekkert looks for people who want to make themselves, their teams, and their clients better.

"When you find those types of people, you trust, respect, develop, support, see them doing things right, give them positive feedback," Hekkert said. "You do all of those things, and you create an environment and culture that is very safe and fun to work in."

Related CGMA Magazine content:

  • "5 Ways to Win Engagement": Software company SAS offers more than perks to its global workforce. The company offers flexibility and challenging work to keep staff engaged.
  • "A Coaching Approach to Line Management": Employees want more feedback and a more supportive, less directive approach from their bosses. Duncan Brodie, FCMA, CGMA, offers tips on using coaching techniques to fulfil these demands and help staff develop.

Briana Gorman is a US-based freelance writer.