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What Is Engagement? Going Beyond the Buzzword

It's a testament to the power of buzzwords: As recently as a decade ago, if you heard the word "engagement," your mind probably would have conjured up images of a guy getting down on one knee in a fancy restaurant, diamond rings and wedding plans. But now, you likely think first of things like increasing mindshare among your target customer demographic or ways in which you're elevating employee performance. On the flipside, buzzwords also tend to suffer from overuse and lack of context. Think about how we once talked about how important it was to get "hits" or "eyeballs" for a website. Or even today, when companies are encouraged to leverage "the cloud" or "big data" to improve their operations. It's worth noting that these terms often have real, coherent definitions, but the meaning and impact get diluted when they're used over and over again to peddle everything from soup to nuts. Consequently, after burning white-hot, popular opinion on a buzzword can turn ice-cold quickly. In those cases, it becomes thought of as a jargon-y phrase that's being used to make speakers seem smarter than they actually are or cover up deficiencies in a product or service—and accordingly, can be dismissed as so much bovine manure when they come up in conversation. Engagement is undeniably a buzzword in business-speak today, but what's the real substance behind the term? And does it have enough value as a concept to build employee incentives strategies around? Industry experts agree: When engagement comes up in the context of workforce management generally—and rewards and recognition programs in particular—it should be in reference to how employees associate their skills, experience and job tasks with the defined objectives of their organization. "Employee engagement is a big-picture, overarching approach that seeks to connect employees to the organization and focuses them on company goals," said Susan Adams, director of engagement at Dittman Incentive Marketing, located in New Brunswick, N.J. "Engagement revolves around the emotional and intellectual commitment individuals have to their work," said Mike Ryan, senior vice president at Madison Performance Group, based in New York City. "That means the job itself, but also their relationship to their co-workers, managers and company leadership." "Employee engagement is the emotional commitment an employee has to the organization and its goals," said Rick Blabolil, president of Marketing Innovators International, based in the Chicago area. "This means engaged employees actually have an emotional connection to their work and their company. It's not just about a paycheck or the next promotion. There is a true connection to the organization and the organization's goals. "When employees care this much, they are engaged, and they use discretionary effort," he added. "This means the engaged worker works overtime when needed, without being asked. It means the engaged salesperson doesn't hesitate in picking up discarded paper on the store floor. This means the call-center agent will take the call just before a shift change. Engaged employees lead to better business outcomes." Or, as former Campbell's Soup CEO Doug Conant put it, "To win in the marketplace, you must first win in the workplace." You could spend days poring over the industry research that shows how organizations with engaged employees score higher on everything from customer satisfaction to stock-price increases. For example, Adams cited a 2013 report from Aon Hewitt that found, "each incremental percentage of employees who became engaged would predict an additional 0.6 percent growth in sales." Additionally, according to research from Towers Perrin, companies with engaged workers have 6 percent higher net-profit margins, Blabolil said. He also shared data from Kenexa indicating that businesses with substantial levels of engaged employees will deliver returns to shareholders that are five times higher than average over the course of five years. On the other side of the net, there are high costs associated with disengagement. Blabolil pointed to recent research from Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends, which examined engagement levels in approximately 2,500 organizations across 90 countries. Important findings included:

  • 86 percent of business and HR leaders believe they don't have an adequate leadership pipeline (and 38 percent see this as an urgent problem).

  • 79 percent believe they have a significant retention and engagement problem (and 26 percent see it as a crucial, pressing issue).

  • 75 percent are struggling to attract and recruit the people they need (and 24 percent believe it's urgent).

  • 77 percent do not feel they have the right HR skills to address these problems (and 25 percent consider it to be an immediate need).

  • Only 17 percent feel they have a compelling and engaging employment brand.

Additionally, an astounding 6 percent believe their current process for managing performance is actually worth the time and effort, according to the research. Moreover, 58 percent labeled their process as "weak," with North American companies faring 20 percent worse in this area than those throughout the rest of the world. "This supported Gallup research that shows that only 13 percent of employees around the world are actively engaged at work, and more than twice that number are so disengaged they are likely to spread negativity to others," Blabolil said. It's true that incentives can't solve every problem in this area. Other factors—such as quality of organizational leadership, training and development, and employees' belief that their work is meaningful and important—are big drivers of workforce engagement. Still, recognition and rewards should be pillars of any strategy to engage employees, Adams said. "The engagement gained through these programs drives the results needed for an organization to succeed," she explained. "[They] are a great way to focus employees on specific company goals. Once fair and easy-to-understand rules are established and shared with program participants, communications can reinforce the benefits of achieving the goal." Incentives can boost other drivers of engagement, as well. For instance, many of these programs now include elements of employee development. And some are even built around teaching and promoting a specific new behavior or action—and communicating with individual employees about their progress—rather than hitting particular sales targets in an openly competitive setting. "One of the most important things organizations need to do on any level is to put the desired behaviors in a context people can relate to and understand," Ryan said. "[With incentives,] you can take a direct-marketing approach to communicating that performance to employees." Additionally, these programs can be used to help change the mindset of staff at all levels, particularly among the lower rungs of the organization, in order to build engagement. "Who's really going to put in a discretionary effort? The owner," Ryan explained. "[Rewards and recognition] can give employees the mindset of an owner, which means taking responsibility for what you do and making sure the business is successful." Also, incentives can be used to emphasize engagement as priority for leaders throughout the organization, Blabolil said. "If compensation professionals wish to encourage employee engagement, they should develop performance metrics that measure the extent to which supervisors or managers encourage engagement among their subordinates; reward supervisors and managers for developing employee engagement among their subordinates and peers; and specifically define employee engagement and include it as a goal in the strategic plan," he said. There are a few different elements that are crucial for building engagement within this space. One of the most important is the variety and quality of awards you're offering, Adams said. "Rewards that tap into the participants' own aspirations and interests can help to align the desires of the individual with the needs of the organization," she explained. "Just as engaging participants with the organization is critical to success, so is engaging participants with the program itself." Additionally, the method, frequency and subject matter of the communication around an incentives initiative can generate enthusiasm. "Appealing, informative and timely communications can ignite interest in a program," Adams said. "There is a powerful boost to motivation when participants can envision the reward—a trip or highly desirable merchandise reward, for example—and know what they need to do to attain it. Following up with updates on progress or success stories can keep the reward front of mind." Recognition is also "extremely important," she said. "Being valued for a job well done is one of the most critical drivers of employee performance," Adams said. "Incentive programs offer many opportunities, from leaderboards to presentations of awards, to acknowledge the winners and further strengthen their connection to the organization and its goals." However, she was quick to add that recognition shouldn't be an exercise in sorting winners from losers. "If the ever-successful top 20 percent of employees were still the winners here, an opportunity has been missed to reach the middle 60 percent," she said. In addition, it doesn't have to be the sole province of the boss, Ryan said. "No longer is recognition just coming from senior managers, executives or frontline managers," he said. "It's now coming from co-workers or even customers." Certain technology-driven platforms also can be useful for boosting engagement via incentives programs, Adams said. "The tools available to us have certainly changed, but the principles remain the same," she said. "Gamification, pulse surveys and online platforms … can be efficient and helpful to drive interest in a program. Social recognition is a great way to share accomplishments with the team." Still, "engagement is more fundamental than a great new tool," she added. "Actual employee engagement is created by strengthening the relationship of people to the work that they do and focusing their best effort on organizational goals." Whatever methods you use, it's important to remember that engagement is much more than a buzzword that can be waved off as a vague and ultimately empty idea that has little application to "serious" business. It's critical to the performance and future success of your organization. "This is not 'one of the things' to worry about," Blabolil said. "This is 'the thing' to worry about. We must think more holistically about our own team or organization, and what can be done to improve work, provide more coaching, improve flexibility, become more inclusive and drive meaning into the workplace. Now is the time to think about your company's work environment and consider what you can do to create passion, engagement and commitment. "Employees today want more than just to be employees—they want something different, they want meaningful work and they want an experience, not a job or career," he added. "The most popular travel today is experiential, defined as 'travel that resonates on a deeper emotional level—more personalized, more attuned to local culture and more inspiring toward a path of self-discovery.' The experiential work environment can be described in the same way, and that will help drive engagement."

Brian Summerfield is manager of business development and outreach for NAR Commercial and Global Services for Realtor Magazine in Chicago. This story originally appeared in Premium Incentive Products magazine.

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