Employee engagement has been a boardroom buzzword for quite some time. We’ve long known engagement matters. Still, the unspoken “but” has always been that metrics—especially those of the performance and financial ilk—matter more. Now, with the talent shortage at a 10-year high, the time is right for a major shift in this “metrics-first” attitude.
I have a unique perspective, having negotiated hundreds of labor agreements and seeing firsthand what attracts and retains employees. As leverage keeps shifting toward employees, I see companies scrambling to offer new benefits and put all sorts of expensive retention programs in place—but they’re missing the one thing they should be doing.
As I negotiate contracts, one thing I hear all the time is that employees don’t feel cared about. The key to winning the war for talent might be simpler than many employers realize. It’s not just about paying more. It’s about putting engagement at the center of everything.
Many of my clients get it. For example, the CEO of a huge corporation just flew in all of his HR VPs, from every division, and said, “I want a 180-degree change in how we engage employees, and you’re empowered to do it. Don’t be driven by the business or the operators—and if there’s a problem, come to me.”
With the explosion of technology over the past few decades, and the advent of AI, there’s been a tendency to reduce everything to just metrics. It’s easy to see how this happened, as technology is an incredibly valuable tool. But too much of a focus on tech gets in the way of making real connections. Employees are pushing back.
Their message to employers is this: “You’ve got these programs designed to manage us. You’re looking at the metrics and saying, ‘The data shows you’re not being productive.’ But you’re not asking us on the back end, ‘Why is that? Are you struggling? Is there something going on in your life we can help with?’ And if you’re not willing to do that, well, I don’t need to be here.”
So, in light of this growing sense of dissatisfaction, what can you do to better engage your employees? Here are a few tactics:
Stop putting metrics front and center
It’s not that metrics aren’t important. They are. It’s that engagement matters at least as much if not more than, say, tracking and rating employee productivity and performance. And you need to show through your words and actions that you value them, that you care about them, and that you want to help them become their best selves.
Think of this as not an “either/or” but as an “and” approach. You’re probably going to keep measuring. But the more intentional you can get about showing employees you care about them in meaningful ways, the better.
Get intentional about knowing your people
Of course managers need to know employees’ goals, strengths, and other work-related factors. Hopefully that’s a given. But they should also know their birthdays, who their kids are, and where they like to go on vacation. This requires regular human connections, and they aren’t going to “just happen.” You need to put systems in place to make them happen.
I’m seeing a resurgence of the old “management by walking around” method happening even on factory floors. When you schedule time to do this, and also make a point of having regular face-to-face meetings with employees that go beyond performance reviews, a lot of things will change.
Be as flexible as possible in regard to work/life integration
Studies show Millennials and Gen Zers have a strong preference for good work/life integration, and they’ve gotten used to working this way over the past couple of years. As an employer, you may realize fully remote doesn’t work for a particular position, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work out a hybrid arrangement or that you can’t let people adjust start and stop times.
Employers have to realize that there can’t be any more rigid rules. The hybrid workplace is here to stay. Of course, this has to be tempered by common sense, and it has to work for the employee and the company. Still, engaging employees means listening to their needs and making every effort to accommodate them.
Make employee well-being a top priority
Mental health issues areno longer in the closet. They can’t be, in a time when so many have moved past stress and into trauma territory.
Companies are realizing that psychological well-being impacts not just engagement, but also productivity, performance, and every aspect of culture.
Do everything you can to promote employee well-being. Keep an eye on this issue as you design benefits, career tracks, and work arrangements. And destigmatize mental health issues. It has to be okay to ask for help.
Don’t neglect psychological safety
If employees don’t feel safe, they won’t trust, and if they don’t trust, they won’t collaborate and innovate. Also, trust is directly connected to employee willingness to give honest feedback to leaders—about what they want and need, as well as about where the problems lie that could be driving them away.
How to create psychological safety? Allow people to deliver bad news without fear of your reaction. (This may require some soul-searching on your part.) Don’t tolerate any behavior, in yourself or others, that demeans, belittles, or blames. It may help to spell out expectations for how coworkers should interact and implement a zero-tolerance policy for bullying.
Think beyond DEI… Earnestly seek to create a sense of belonging
We know diversity and inclusion are important. But organizations that want to thrive go further. They work toward what DEI expert Tristan Higgins calls metaclusivity. In other words, they cultivate a true sense of belonging. Feeling that they belong is what gets people engaged and allows them to do their best work.
Leverage generational differences in a smart way
Research shows multigenerational companies do well in terms of performance and productivity. It makes sense: A blend of different ages means you get more diverse perspectives and a synergy that gives you a competitive edge. And you can also leverage the gifts of different age groups to boost engagement.
We know young people crave development. Well, you’ve got these seasoned employees who could share their expertise with younger ones. And reverse mentoring is a big trend now too: How better to engage younger employees than to get them involved in teaching older employees about technology or social media?
If your company is used to thinking in terms of number of units produced, profit margins, number of errors, and other metrics, some of these ideas may seem foreign. That’s because engagement is truly a different language.
Engagement is about emotional connections. If leaders inside your company have no idea how to make and nurture these connections, it may be time to take a hard look at the culture you’ve created. Like it or not, if you’re to win the war on talent, there have to be some changes.