Call it the Great Cafeteria Butter Rebellion.
A company was restructuring, and the execs held a town hall meeting to lay out strategic decisions and discuss shifting business lines.
“Any questions?” a bigwig asked the employees.
The first: “Why is the cafeteria now charging for butter?”
The question demonstrates why employee engagement is essential, says Linda Dulye, president of Dulye & Co., a workplace communication consultancy that has released a new survey highlighting trends in employee engagement.
“What did those charges [for butter] do?” Dulye says. “They really, really ticked people off at a time when budgets were getting squeezed—doing more with less. [Employees thought,] ‘Now I gotta go to the cafeteria and I gotta pay for butter?'”
Stories like that could explain why communicators say employee engagement is their top challenge for 2013, Dulye’s new survey reports. But the survey exposed a gap between how communication professionals view the needs in their organizations and their leaders’ priorities.
A breakdown by job title suggested the origins of that schism. When asked for their top priorities for the next year, 54 percent of specialists and 43 percent of managers listed employee engagement, making it the top goal overall. For directors, engagement drew 42 percent, behind business development.
Among survey respondents at the vice presidential level, engagement didn’t even make the list of their top goals. Business development was first, with 56 percent.
“It’s not on their radar screen as determined by communication professionals in their organizations,” Dulye says.
What to do? Here are a few takeaways from Dulye:
Educate your executives
If the bigwigs blow off engagement, maybe it’s time for a conversation with the bosses. Perhaps communications professionals need to redefine their 2013 challenges, Dulye says, because the need for executive and manager engagement will supersede employee engagement.
“There needs to be some executive education to understand the ‘why?'” she says.
The top dogs need to understand that high engagement makes employees excited about coming to work, bringing innovations into the daylight, and fostering company success.
“It’s not just a communication issue,” Dulye says. “It’s a critical business issue.”
Own (and encourage) engagement throughout the organization
Executives often shrug and say, “Let the HR people and the communication people manage engagement,” Dulye says.
It should be a goal owned by everyone in the organization. Communications can’t own engagement alone, just as those responsible for safety can’t be the only people who think about that topic, Dulye says.
“Engagement has got to be one of these communally owned practices and initiatives in an organization,” Dulye says.
Now, there’s no need to head to the Outback on a quest, but leaders, and perhaps communicators, should get out and walk around on the work floor. Show the troops that well-flossed smile.
“The No. 1 factor that will start to build engagement in the workplace is human interaction: between managers and frontline employees, between managers and their direct reports, between peers in different departments,” Dulye says.
Internal social media tools are great at fostering engagement, she says, but they are secondary to face-to-face interaction.
“I hear about absentee leaders, invisible leaders, no presence in the workplace,” she says. “Not only don’t [employees] see a leader … but they don’t get any verbal reinforcement from them.”
Dulye, who worked for General Electric when Jack Welch was CEO, says Welch used to say that 90 percent of what he did was to communicate with his workforce.
Learn (and urge the bigwigs) to ask questions
While doing your walkabouts, discard the speeches, pep talks, and formal presentations. Senior leaders, ditch the entourage. Stop to chat with employees, and show a little interest in the poor guy who’s seething about having to paying for his pats of butter.
“Learn how to ask questions that enable you to learn from those around you,” Dulye says.
What to ask? These simple questions that might teach you surprising things about your organization:
- How are things going?
- What do you think is going well?
- What do you think isn’t going well?
- What could we be doing better?
Engage during hard times
In recent years, many organizations have had to deliver some tough news, but there have often been “communication voids,” leading to poor engagement. Skittish organizations tend to hunker down.
“We’ve seen in our research that the more difficult the message, the less frequency of communication that occurs in an organization,” Dulye says. “Which means there tend to be a lot of unknowns, and that is a big factor that will fuel a disengaged employee.”
In the end, it helps to bear in mind why engagement is essential.
“You have to start with understanding the business value of this,” Dulye says. “It has to make sense from an intellectual standpoint that there is value to my customers, value to my business, value to my organization, to have people who are engaged and excited to be a part of this organization.”