Investing in employee engagement returns big dividends

Commonwealth Medicine is now ForHealth Consulting at UMass Chan Medical School. More information available here. This content has not been updated with the new name.

Employee engagement is a cornerstone for any successful organization. While the methodologies and activities for workforce engagement have naturally shifted over the years, the principles and impact have remained consistent. In its simplest form, engagement practices include investing in the workforce, facilitating communication channels, and promoting a culture of recognition and appreciation.

Developing a healthy, consistent employee experience is vitally important because engaged team members are more devoted to the organization’s future vision, delivering benefits that can be profound. To begin with, engaged employees produce high-quality work and happy customers. Other benefits include greater employee retention, reduced absenteeism, and improved employee health.

Employee engagement is not developed from a single event or employee recognition initiative. Rather, engagement tactics need to be woven into the organization’s culture, beginning with onboarding new employees, providing ongoing feedback, and offering professional development opportunities.

Setting behavior expectations

Setting meaningful, measurable goals and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are critical factors for ensuring alignment and engagement throughout an organization. They provide clear direction for leaders and employees and indicate what’s important and how success is defined.

KPIs help answer the question, “Are we winning or losing?” Most organizations ask this question infrequently and have only a broad sense of the answer. However, the most resilient and agile organizations can answer that question for every service, every business unit, at any point in time.

How you achieve your goals is just as important as actually achieving them. Suppose the only way to hit KPI targets is through more spending, more work, and burnt-out employees. In that case, ultimately, achieving KPI targets may hurt the sustainability of the organization’s culture. So, it is essential to differentiate KPIs from Key Behavioral Indicators (KBIs).

KBIs are the desired behaviors that an organization believes will help achieve its goals and ensure long term commitment and engagement. For example, if measuring employee engagement is a KPI, then related KBIs might include ensuring that leaders regularly spend time learning about employees’ work or providing opportunities for employees to share their problems and ideas for improvement and measuring its impact. KBIs help keep organizations balanced.

Catchball” for tossing ideas around

In the realm of Lean* process improvement, “catchball” refers to how ideas and information move between individuals and teams. The concept is simple—similar to the childhood game of playing catch—but surprisingly effective at facilitating decision making and policy development. Whoever has an idea or wants to initiate a project, that individual states the purpose, objectives, and concerns for the project, then tosses it to other stakeholders for their insights, feedback, suggestions, and, ultimately, their action and support.

For organizations interested in setting attainable but still challenging goals, the catchball approach is ideal. Yes, it is more time consuming than a top-down process, where objectives are set by leadership and disseminated to departments. But the catchball process leads to engagement, builds buy-in, and helps establish a clear connection between front-line daily work and the organization. And because it includes employees at every level of the organization, it can be rolled out in a wide variety of processes.

One effective way to introduce catchball is through facilitated meetings, where conversations occur around the organization’s mission/vision/values, and associated goals and metrics are identified. Holding these meetings at each level of the organization will ensure goal alignment. And when an organization successfully identifies its mission, vision, and values and has associated goals and metrics, it has established what is commonly referred to as “True North.”

Problem-solving at every level of the organization

Who is better positioned to solve problems than the employees who experience the problems firsthand? An essential part of building a Lean culture includes engaging and enabling all employees to be part of problem-solving. To this end, organizations need to connect employees with practical, effective, and robust idea-sharing systems. Some organizations call these systems “huddle boards” or “idea boards.” No matter what name they have, the purpose remains the same: to engage all employees in generating ideas to help align, enable, and improve team performance towards True North goals.

An idea sharing system must include easy-to-use tools and transparent processes that enable good ideas to move forward and not get “stuck.” It is crucial for all levels of the organization to support and be involved in these systems. For example, a front-line team may have a weekly huddle where they discuss progress towards goals, develop new ideas, and identify problems. However, their efforts will be unsustainable without engagement from senior leaders, who must commit to using the idea-sharing system themselves, and periodically attend huddles where they assist with removing barriers and escalating ideas.

The many benefits of employee engagement

An organization’s ability to serve its clients and deliver on its mission and goals depends on creating a culture where employees are engaged, empowered, and valued for their insights and contributions. Beyond achieving business goals, these organizations also grow stronger because of improved employee loyalty and retention, lower absenteeism, and greater job satisfaction.

*Lean is an organizational transformation and process improvement methodology built on the principles of continuous improvement and respect for people.