Southwest Airlines: A case study in employee engagement

When the airline asked employees to design their next uniforms, engagement rose. Here’s what your organization can learn from the initiative.

Roy Nabors has been a ramp agent for Southwest Airlines for seven years. His primary job includes marshaling planes and loading and unloading freight and baggage. When he applied for the position, he never imagined his job function would one day include color patterns and uniform design.

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Approximately two years ago, Southwest Airlines unveiled a new logo (a heart colored by blue, red and orange stripes). Now, the airline is ready to unveil a bold, bright new uniform design. However, instead of hiring an outside company for the job, it tapped employees like Nabors.

When executives realized it was time refurbish the outdated uniforms, they put out an open call to employees from all departments. Anyone interested in contributing thoughts and suggestions for the airline’s new uniform was welcome to apply. Thousands expressed interest, and the company eventually chose 43 employees.

Over the course of 19 months, the 43 employees met every two weeks in Chicago and Dallas to collaborate on the new uniform’s design. The result? A bolder, more fashion-forward and functional uniform. The new uniforms are also machine washable-a rarity when it comes to airline attire. Those who participated in the undertaking, such as Joan Mast, a Southwest flight attendant of 36 years, called it an “unforgettable experience.”

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Incorporating employees into the creative decision-making process allows for a more authentic brand. According to Sonya Lacore, vice president of cabin services for Southwest, the new uniforms truly reflect the personality of the company’s employees. The airline might not have achieved the same result if an outside firm designed the uniforms.

Also, the process of bringing together employees from various departments, cities and job functions allowed employees to interact and work with people who they otherwise might have never met, arguably contributing to a more cohesive culture.

Lastly, allowing employees to apply innovative thinking outside of their day-to-day functions benefits both employees and employers. As Andy Savitz, author of “Talent, Transformation and The Triple Bottom Line” notes, “engaged employees tend to be more motivated, more loyal and more inspired.”

Related: The Secret to Employee Engagement

The new uniforms are expected to publicly launch soon.

Jaia Thomas is a Los Angeles-based sports and entertainment attorney. She also assists business owners with intellectual property matters, such as copyright and trademark registrations. A version of this article originally appeared on Copyright © 2016 Entrepreneur Media, Inc. All rights reserved.

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