Engaged Employees: An Enigma?

On the weekend, I had a chance to attend a friends and family event at CN’s railway yard. It was a wonderful day and I could tell by the enthusiasm of the employee volunteers and the participants that CN has built a terrific corporate culture. There was a true sense of pride that employees had in showcasing their place of work. Each employee on the tour, no matter what their role, seemed to understand how they played a part in the larger vision. They knew how they individually contributed to CN’s work of moving necessary goods around a huge country. The work had meaning and employees were engaged. It was wonderful to see.

Ditto for when I voted in the advanced poll for the Ontario provincial election. All of the paid poll clerks were ridiculously friendly and efficient. I sense that they get a lot of abuse (one would-be voter was claiming he had eight primary residences) but they were relentlessly cheerful. They all addressed me by name and waved to me when I left. They believed that the work they were doing mattered. They were not simply crossing names off a voters’ list: they were supporting the democratic process. Therefore they were engaged.

Why is it that some companies are filled with employees who are so fully engaged when others are staffed by people who bring what I can only hope is their worst selves to work?

I was at a seminar earlier this week, put on by the Strategic Capability Network, that focused on this issue. The session, titled The Enigma of Employee Engagement, kicked off with a presentation by Neil Crawford of Aon Hewitt, who presented some of the findings of the Best Employers in Canada survey around the topic of employee engagement. Aon has broken down the broad category of engagement into three subcategories: the willingness of employees to 1) say good things about the company, 2) stay with the company, and 3) put in their best effort to achieve business results. In Canada, the average company has an engagement score of 60-65%, which means that 35-40% of the workforce are not saying good things, are planning to leave, or are not working as effectively as they could. A low engagement score represents lost productivity and that has a direct impact on the bottom line.

Aon, which applies a rigorous methodology to its surveys, has been able to measure 21 key drivers that influence how engaged a company’s workforce is. The top drivers that create a sense of engagement in employees are: how a company manages people’s performance, career opportunities, recognition, availability of resources, employer reputation, and faith in senior leadership. These have considerably more impact than base pay or bonus or benefits. Once an organization has engaged employees, it can keep them engaged by focusing on creating opportunities for intrinsic motivation (providing a sense of accomplishment √† la Pink’s Drive), demonstrating corporate social responsibility (Gowlings’s Norm Keith has just published a new book on this topic from a legal perspective), maintaining a good reputation, providing interesting work, caring about employee health and well-being, and putting solid human resources practices into place. The key to creating and maintaining employee engagement is to provide an opportunity for people to do interesting work and to make people feel valued for the job they do.

Two keys factors that can take away from an employee’s sense of engagement are a lack of resources and ineffective work processes. People have an innate desire to feel productive at work and when they feel that their efforts are thwarted due to resource constraints or managerial ineffectiveness, they start to feel less invested. Also, most people want to be able to talk about their place of work with a sense of pride, and companies that are known for unethical behaviour or shoddy business practices have low engagement scores. Nobody gets excited about working for the company making cooking oil out of sewage.

One of the highlights of the morning was hearing directly from some of the companies with high levels of employee engagement, including WestJet and HOOPP (Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan.) Jed Teigen, Director of People Relations with WestJet, talked about the importance of creating a culture of engagement. As he put it, “culture does not just happen.” According to both WestJet’s Teigen and Victoria Hubbell, who is HOOPP’s Senior Vice-President, Strategy and Stakeholder Relations, one of the most powerful methods of building that culture is by sharing stories that reinforce the company’s vision. Good stories engage the heart and the mind, motivating both the elephant and the rider. WestJet’s central message is “We succeed because I care” and they regularly share stories of employees who go above and beyond the call of duty to care for a customer or fellow “WestJetter.” To illustrate, Teigen showed this video of a WestJet flight attendant bringing his best self to the routine safety demonstration. This summer, I experienced WestJet’s caring firsthand when Air Canada cancelled our flight from Kelowna to Toronto, leaving us stranded with no communication to us about alternative arrangements. Not only did WestJet get us home, but they also managed to find a set of pliers to fix the bike box that was damaged when in the care of the other airline prior to the flight being cancelled. The gap between the engagement levels of Air Canada and WestJet was crystal clear during that trip. HOOPP’s central message is “We take care of those [healthcare workers] who take good care of us” and the organization regularly tells the story of pensioners who have retired with dignity thanks to the good stewardship of the fund. Since a key motivator is feeling that one’s work is linked to a meaningful purpose, these stories can help employees believe that what they do on a daily basis on the job matters.

People come to work for more than a pay check. They come to work to be able to make a contribution. They want to believe that the work they do is important, is valued by the organization, and is contributing something positive to the world. On family day, people want to be able to show their children that they spend their days doing something that matters.

There’s nothing particularly enigmatic about that.

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