How engaged are your employees?
If your answer is ‘Gee, I’m not sure’, it may be time to create or update your employee engagement strategy.
We hear about customer engagement a lot, but employee engagement has an arguably bigger impact on many key business objectives and outcomes. Highly engaged employees lead to:
- Better profitability and productivity for businesses
- Higher sales
- More customer satisfaction, loyalty, and engagement
Something that can yield all those benefits, among others, is definitely worth investing in.
What is Employee Engagement?
Employee engagement refers to how invested people are in both their everyday work and the success of the business as a whole. Beyond employee satisfaction, engaged employees have a positive emotional connection with the company and feel a sense of purpose in their jobs.
According to Gallup’s 2020 study on employee engagement and performance, teams with higher employee engagement saw both a reduction in negative outcomes—like turnover and absenteeism—and a big lift in organizational success. Results showed businesses with high employee engagement experienced 23% higher profitability, 10% better customer loyalty and engagement, and 18% more sales productivity.
All that is to say: focusing on building greater engagement among employees is well worth the investment, for every business.
What is an Employee Engagement Strategy?
So employee engagement is important, but it’s not always easy or simple. Research from Zenefits showed 63.3% of companies surveyed find it harder to retain employees than to hire them.
That’s where an employee engagement strategy comes into play. It’s a plan detailing how your company will keep your employees engaged—a way for companies to be deliberate about getting people engaged and to document those efforts explicitly.
Your employee engagement strategy should outline:
- How you’ll measure engagement—whether via an employee engagement survey or lagging indicators like turnover, absenteeism, and productivity
- Goals for improving those metrics
- Your budget for engagement-related initiatives
- Clear tactics for how you’ll improve engagement, which can include any of the tactics we get into next
We surveyed HR executives and leaders and asked whether or not they have a documented plan written down to help drive employee engagement.
Just under half of the respondents (45%) said yes. Surprisingly, even more of the people we talked with said they have a plan, but it isn’t written down or formalized. Only 6% told us they don’t have any kind of plan or policy to drive engagement.
17 Employee Engagement Strategies and Tactics Worth Implementing in 2021
To find out the best employee engagement strategies you can test out, we talked with 36 executives and Human Resources (HR) leaders from across a variety of industries.They shared their top tactics and the employee engagement strategies that have proven effective for them time and again. Here’s what they had to say:
1. Start with Trust
Trust is a huge part of your employees feeling engaged and valued in the workplace. Without trust, they often feel micromanaged and less important.
According to Suzie Finch, founder of The Career Improvement Club, “Employee engagement is always built on trust.”
“And when you gain that trust,” Suzie added, “magical things start to happen—employees develop a true sense of ownership over their jobs, and productivity rises. Trust also removes that hierarchical divide, it puts everyone on a level playing field, steering and sailing the same ship together as one. Ideas flourish, employees feel engaged and working environments feel uplifted.”
2. Give Your People Autonomy
Increases in employee autonomy have a direct impact on job satisfaction. When employees are given autonomy in their job, they feel more responsible for their work and more satisfied with their contributions.
“If you love something, set it free,” advised Shiv Gupta, CEO at Incrementors SEO.
“Give employees autonomy and empower them to do what they feel is truly meaningful and impactful work. It’s all about enabling them to shape their own story as opposed to fitting into one we’ve created.”
3. Evaluate Your Communication and Alignment
Eric Harris, CEO at MindHandle, noted how the big shifts of 2020 will leave an indelible mark on communication and employee engagement: “Between blended remote and in-person work, new rules for how to meet, safety concerns, and more, there’s a whole new set of criteria for internal communications.”
“An organization that knows what it stands for—and communicates this core belief system regularly—will have a considerable advantage as the world continues to change,” Harris concluded.
“Providing clear communication of company and team-wide goals has been particularly helpful in helping our employees be engaged, focused, and ‘in it for the long run’,” Ben Lamarche, General Manager at Lock Search Group, told us.
“When employees are in the dark about what’s going on with the company, and formal collaboration and internal communication tools aren’t made available, it’s easy to lose the motivation to do your best work.”
Paige Arnof-Fenn, Founder & CEO at Mavens & Moguls, agreed: “Communication is key to all of our community and employee engagement,” Paige said. “To stay connected and keep the team on track, I try to set the tone upfront with one rule: When in doubt, over-communicate. Especially now that everyone is working remotely, it is key to set up regular emails, video, and conference calls.”
“If the lines of communication are open and everyone makes an effort to listen and be heard,” Paige added, “then collaboration will happen naturally and the information will flow.”
As for how they facilitate internal communication, more than half of the pros we talked with say they use Slack, the most popular tool by far. There is no shortage of options, so make sure you find one that works for your team and your company’s needs.
Tyler Forte, CEO at Felix Homes, also shared this tip: “To further improve the flow of communication, I adopted ConnectTeam. It is a tool that allows my employees to connect through individual chat and group chats. It’s helped with maintaining day-to-day communication and collaboration within my company. It’s easy to use and encourages efficient and interactive participation between all levels of employees.”
4. Get to Know Your People and Truly Care About Them
This tip may seem obvious, but it can be hard to maintain at scale and easy to let fall by the wayside. But this is the core of a successful employee engagement strategy—if you don’t understand your people, all your other efforts will likely fall flat.
“Spend some time getting to know your people,” Bryce Welker, CEO at CPA Exam Guy, advised. “Familiarize yourself with their role, how they feel about the company, and get to know who they are as people when they are not at work—to build the kind of meaningful relationships that create engaged workers.”
“The most important thing employees need in today’s landscape is true, unbridled support from their bosses. Schedule regular check-ins, actually ask how they are doing—both professionally and personally. Get to know them as much as possible so they’re comfortable confiding in you,” Mason McSpadden, Vice President at WELD Recruiting, added.
“Pay attention to them. Employees generally want to be heard, to recognize they are valued, and to have a link with management. They love it when management knows about them and their interests outside of the workplace,” Kerry Lopez, HR Manager of Incrementors, explained. “This takes time, so take it one conversation at a time, empower them, trust them, and give them responsibility—this will prove one of the best employee engagement strategies.”
5. Implement a Peer-to-Peer Recognition Program to Celebrate Daily Wins
Employee recognition is one of the best ways to make sure that high-performing employees continue to feel important. But recognition from management can easily miss the day-to-day activities. This is where peer-to-peer recognition comes in.
“Peer-to-peer recognition programs are an incredible means of fostering employee loyalty and satisfaction, as well as engagement,” Janelle Owens, HR Director at Test Prep Insight, said. “Our company has adopted such a program because we believe that it contributes to overall employee engagement by empowering employees to recognize and be recognized.”
Chris Vaughn, CEO of Saucey, agreed, saying, “When it comes to keeping my remote employees engaged, I always make sure to celebrate their successes every day. Even when it comes to the smallest and most minuscule wins at work, I’ve made it a point to cheer them on. Send your employees a thoughtful message, talk about everyone’s hard work at meetings, and tell them what an incredible job they’re doing.”
That all sounds great, but you may be wondering what it looks like in your day-to-day. Here’s an actionable example from Head of HR at Hal Waldman and Associates, Alison Pearson:
“My staff actually came up with a great peer recognition program which has turned out to be a great tool for promoting engagement within our legal teams. Our HR staff has developed a points system where the points are distributed amongst the staff themselves. For example, if one of our accountants notices that the invoices they are receiving from a paralegal have been well-drafted and detailed, they can issue them ‘Shout Out’ points by emailing their assigned HR contact and writing a brief explanation of why this employee should get a shout out.”
“The paralegal can then use their accumulated points to purchase something from our office store—things such as travel mugs or a leather portfolio. This then establishes an office friendship between two peers that might not have interacted much in the past,” Alison explained.
6. Offer Learning Opportunities and Continuing Education
According to the most recent Gallup State of the American Workplace report, 87% of Millennials say “professional or career growth and development opportunities” provided by a job are important to them.
“Continuing education is an essential aspect of company culture,” Paul French, Managing Director at Intrinsic Search, noted. “One way we motivate and engage our employees is through education reimbursement for company-approved training and courses.”
Paul went on to say, “When employees are supported to acquire new relevant skills or advance existing ones, they feel valued and cared for. Our workers are exponentially more invested in the company because there are clear paths for career growth and development.”
Here’s an example from Miranda Yan, Co-Founder at VinPit:
“Most employees are motivated to work when an organization truly invests in their career. Hence, we came up with the strategy to help employees develop their skills and have something to work toward that keeps them motivated.”
“First,” Miranda explained, “we offer a $1,000 education stipend to all employees who have completed six months with the organization. Monthly peer-to-peer learning opportunities are offered, where one of our colleagues teaches a new skill. Additionally, we host a female-focused professional development lunch, and every month, managers attend sessions that teach lessons on core and strategic management skills.”
“We’re also rolling a new program for entry-level employees to help them achieve their career goals and provide best practices for being skilled employees,” Miranda added.
“This learning and development initiative helps employees understand how we value them as individuals and choose to invest in them, rather than replacing them with other candidates for the skills we desire. This keeps employees more motivated to learn and to strive to perform better.”
7. Create a Transparent Work Environment
“Your employees can’t fully invest themselves into something if they don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes and for what they are working on,” Chris Muktar, Founder of WikiJob, told us. “That’s why it is important to be transparent to your employees because this will help them to engage themselves to the organization.”
Chris brought up a key point: how do you engage with something you can’t see or understand? When leadership feels like a black box, that’s a recipe for employee disengagement.
“Leadership can think about decisions and policies as a starting ground for greater transparency—they can be candid about internal problems within the organization,” Elizabeth Minei, Ph.D., Director & Consultant at EMinei Consulting, said.
“Above all, leadership must resist the idea of hoarding information as a tool or as a reward for higher-performing employees.”
8. Be Flexible, Nimble, and Open with Employee Feedback
Letting your employees have a voice and being receptive to what they have to say is key. When your employees know you are listening, they are more likely to contribute and take ownership within the company.
“Build a platform or system that empowers employees to share their ideas and ask queries of the right people,” recommended Caroline Lee, Co-Founder at CocoSign.
“You should be flexible and responsive to the concerns of your employees. Keeping the conversation open lets employees know they’re heard and keeps your organization aligned over the coming months,” Will Eadie, Chief Revenue Officer at WorkJam, told us.
“We support a constructive exchange of information, and emphasize at every turn that constructive feedback is a solid foundation for growth,” added Ewelina Melon, Head of People at Tidio Chatbots. “We also include our employees in the decision-making process by conducting a brainstorming session to see their point of view on our business and plans.”
“If we don’t know what our employees are thinking, things can quickly turn south,” Matt Barnett, CEO at Bonjoro, highlighted. Matt shared this example from Bonjoro’s own employee engagement strategy:
“Because of this, we have implemented regular employee engagement surveys and feedback sessions. The goal of these is to show our employees that the management listens to them and that we care about them and their opinion.”
According to Matt, that doesn’t have to be a cumbersome or overwhelming effort. “By using various questionnaires and surveys we are able to easily gauge the opinions of employees and truly understand their feelings and opinions. These feedback sessions and surveys are conducted periodically, as it helps us find the real issues and help solve them.”
“Also, we have seen that the more our employees are asked for their opinion, the more they will feel valued and trusted,” Matt added, “which in turn empowers them and helps them be more engaging at work.”
9. Create a Psychologically Safe Workplace for Your Team to Thrive
“Managers should ask themselves, ‘Have I created a psychologically safe workspace for my employees?’’ Jeff Harry, Top 100 HR Influencer at Rediscover Your Play, advised. “If not, how can I change this?”
“Work culture is determined by the worst behavior that is tolerated. Toxic people have cost Fortune 500 companies $223 billion in the last five years due to turnover,” Jeff added.
Brandon Monaghan, Co-Founder at Miracle Brand, tied this concept back to our last tip about employee feedback.
“In addition to direct communicating and listening, set up a feedback portal for employees,” Brandon recommended. “This is meant to give them the opportunity to report any comments or concerns without feeling any pressure. It is extremely important to keep an open line of communication between employees, managers, and leadership.”
10. Be Deliberate about Company Culture
“There is a direct correlation between company culture, employee engagement, and productivity,” Jim Beard, the COO of BoxGenie, stated. “Employee engagement stems from having an incredible company culture. Having a great company culture is about tending to the needs of our employees and keeping an open line of communication available for them at all times. It’s a collaborative effort towards making sure our business keeps moving along, even during difficult times.”
Eric Wu, Co-Founder & COO at Gainful, agreed, “The key elements of maintaining employee engagement while working remotely are creating a balanced company culture and having employees form personal relationships within the company.”
Eric’s point got us thinking about the role of remote work in the employee engagement conversation. Does the rise of remote and work from home arrangements change how companies approach engagement?
According to our data, the answer is a resounding YES. A whopping 90% of the pros we talked with say the move to more prevalent remote work has shifted how they look at and approach employee engagement.
11. Foster a Sense of Community and Team-Building
This is one tip that’s gotten a lot more complicated as more work shifts online. How do you build a digital employee experience that creates a sense of community and team without being in the same room? It takes more than a ping pong table.
The experts we spoke with had a few ideas:
Virtual Happy Hour
“Since it’s a bit difficult to do physical events at the moment, planning virtual events like happy hours, group lunches, etc. can go a long way. The team gets to hang out together without talking about work and can ‘let their hair down,’ which is so necessary in a remote environment,” Artie Baxter, CEO at Paperclips, pointed out.
As an example, Artie added, “There are companies that prepare drink kits or sushi making kits where they send team members everything they need to learn how to make drinks or a sushi night where the team live streams with a chef and learns how to make sushi.”
Simulate a Virtual ‘Water Cooler’
“One of the biggest challenges with working remotely is that there is no communal space for authentic connections. It’s hard to have ‘water cooler’ conversations the same way on Slack or scheduled video calls,” Eropa Stein, CEO at Hyre, noted. “What helps our team foster more engagement is creating Google Hangouts meeting rooms that are open during working hours for anyone to hop in and out of. That way, if you want to collaborate or see what other team members are up to, there is always a room they can join.”
12. Define and Operationalize Your Core Values
“The best company cultures I’ve been part of revolve around a set of values that are ingrained into the fiber of the employees,” Jakub Rudnik, VP of Content at Shortlister, said.
“This starts from the top down: A lower-level employee will only buy into values or slogans if they are used by leadership at every level in every meeting. It’s one thing to put your values in a fancy wall decal; it’s another to live them. You want them to drive everything the company does, and the values to be brought up so often that it almost becomes a running joke—but in a way that it is the source of truth for your decision making,” Jakub added.
Jakub is right—shared core values have proven a key aspect of job satisfaction, particularly among younger workers.
“Your company’s core values should remain at the center of its culture, and they should be communicated to all employees from the start. Your core values should describe what applies most to your employees and the beliefs you’ll aspire to follow as you grow,” Celynn Leow, CEO at The Halo Pets, recommended. “You’ll build a cohesive, supportive work community and inspire workers to form an emotional bond to the company if you actively promote your core principles to the whole team.”
Ronnie Teja, CEO at SoftwareKeep, suggested letting employees lead the way and determine how best to apply those core values to their own lives and work:
“To ensure that our employees are engaged and feel part of the company, as an executive, we set the overall company core objectives and values, then we allow the employees to set their own goals and targets that conform to the company objectives.”
13. Provide Regular Feedback
Nick Chernets, CEO at Data for SEO, brought up the elephant in the employee engagement room: feedback from managers to employees. According to Nick, it’s vital to balance positive and constructive feedback.
“A very common mistake managers make is giving feedback only when there is an issue at hand. This way, employees get the feeling that they’re not doing a good job—which can affect overall motivation,” Nick explained. “I have seen a lot of people whose performance dropped simply because they had poor feedback from the manager and didn’t have enough support to deal with dilemmas or challenges.”
14. Make Employee Well-Being a Priority
With ever-connected devices, newly crowned home ‘offices’, and much of social life on hold for the past year, overwork and burnout are at an all-time high for many employees. And that’s no recipe for engagement.
“Providing health and wellness opportunities not only benefits employees’ well-being but also you are helping your business. When employees’ health and happiness matter to you, employees feel valued as members of the company. And when they feel valued, they become less stressed, engage more, and enjoy what they are doing,” said Liam Johnson, CEO at The Hitch Store.
That made us wonder how many companies are actively prioritizing employee well-being—so we asked.
The vast majority—94%—of companies we spoke with say they have some kind of program or initiative aimed at boosting employee wellness.
“Instilling programs to achieve wellness goals will set high confidence and allow employee engagement to soar,” John Berry, CEO at Berry Law, noted. “Providing resources or activities to deal with high-stress situations through team-based activities like a softball league or offering gym memberships helps show empathy for your employees and care for their overall wellness.”
But programs and initiatives are just the start—the attitude around wellness that leadership gives off will impact employee participation in wellness programs.
“I always stress the importance of rest and work-life balance to all of my employees. Make sure they’re not overworking themselves by trying to keep up with different time zones, for example,” Jason Akatiff, Co-Founder at Boundery, told us.
Editors note: You can use a platform like Nectar to create wellness challenges and offer rewards when employees to complete them.
15. Provide Extra Employee Perks and Privileges
As competition for top talent has skyrocketed over the last decade, extra little perks and privileges have sprung up—some of them not so ‘extra’ anymore. Some of the more popular perks include:
- Gym memberships
- Commuter benefits
- Continuing education coverage
- Home office stipends
- Equity packages
Many of these are table stakes for talented, engaged employees today.
“Provide extra perks and privileges,” Arno Markus, CEO at iCareerSolutions, recommended. “A yoga session, a gym membership, a discount in shopping malls are some of the perks that employees usually enjoy.”
“Having these kinds of extras,” Arno explained, “can keep them sane, improving their mental health, thus keeping them engaged. Employees need something to help them de-stress, and these activities will help them rejuvenate their energy in preparation for another work week.”
16. Help Employees Achieve Financial Wellness
“Over 90% of Americans still struggle with COVID-related financial stress,” Kayling Gaver, COO and Co-Founder of Tapcheck, pointed out. “Giving your workers the resources to overcome financial challenges will allow them to perform their best at work by removing a significant portion of their stress.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to give everyone a huge raise. Many of the financial stressors employees regularly face are issues of simple cash flow—money out without money in.
One way to combat that is through ‘Earned Wage Access’ (or EWA).
According to Kayling, “Earned wage access is a great way to give your employees financial flexibility. It’s a low-risk employee engagement strategy that lets workers access the wages they’ve earned before payday.”
“This financial wellness benefit allows them to improve their household cash flow and cover unexpected costs, like medical bills,” Kayling added. “Surveys have shown that employees who have access to EWA demonstrate higher engagement and loyalty and are less stressed.”
“Offer EWA to enhance your employees’ financial wellness and enjoy a more engaged workforce,” Kayling concluded.
17. Build a Solid Onboarding Process
“In my experience, engagement almost always starts with a solid onboarding process,” Markus Albert, Managing Director at Eat First, said. “Leaders and owners get a rare chance on the first day to create a strong emotional investment in the role and company. Over half of new employees decide within the first two weeks of employment whether they will start looking for a new job.”
Not to mention, there are tons of other benefits to a solid onboarding strategy—like getting employees to a place where they can add value much faster.
Here’s an example from Sam Richards, Co-Founder at Trivia20:
“We’ve found a solid onboarding plan is crucial to an employee’s long-term engagement. During the onboarding process, make it a point to connect employees in a 360 fashion with other team members so they can see how they can support the entire team at various levels of the org chart,” Sam recommended.
“We also assign each employee an onboarding buddy they can reach out to with questions from how to access shared files to questions about the organizational culture.”
Sam went on, “Lastly, we make sure each employee knows how their contributions ladder up to the overall goals. This approach helps to clearly spell out expectations and helps ensure the employee is aligned with overall company objectives.”
How to Use This Information
Okay, that was a lot of information! The tips above are a wealth of knowledge that we crowdsourced from leaders across industries and locations.
You may have already implemented some of these employee engagement strategies, and it’s impossible to effectively use all of them. We recommend picking a few you can really focus on that you feel would have the biggest impact based on your unique circumstances.