How to measure employee engagement

Measuring Employee Engagement

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This morning, I was walking to therapy (2.4 miles, because I like to get those steps in) and I listened to Hubspot’s Growth Show podcast with Jon Wolske of Zappos. If you’re unfamiliar with Zappos from an organizational culture perspective, it’s one of the big names always thrown into those discussions about ‘having a good culture’ — although holacracy, which is a management style most closely associated with them, has some pros and cons for sure. (If you’re unfamiliar with holacracy, it’s essentially the removal of managers so that the actual work take precedence.)

Jon Wolske is an ‘evangelist’ for them, which basically means he goes around talking to people about their culture. Sweet gig in some respects. He talked about a lot of interesting things on Growth Show — one of his best quotes about employee engagement was something along the lines of ‘Your financial metrics can be great, but if a dragon is leading you, eventually the village will burn’ — but eventually they got into an area about tracking employee engagement.

(Cue ominous music.)

This is where the rubber truly meets the road on this issue. There’s a prevailing attitude in business, and it’s been there for many years, that only stuff you can track/measure is valuable. That + capitalist greed = why ‘financial metrics’ are breathlessly analyzed, whereas an idea like ‘talent strategy’ is given total lip service.

For a variety of reasons, things in a business do need to be measured. So, when it comes to employee engagement, how do you measure it?

First Step: Caring

This is where a lot of people probably already fall off the ship. At any given organization, there are a bunch of people who ‘get it’ as to why this stuff — i.e. employee engagement — is important, and then there are a handful of people who don’t. Most places I’ve worked, I’d say the ratio is 1 (gets it) for every 10 who don’t. The “don’t” category is mostly people running around talking about:

  • Financial metrics
  • Targets
  • Their next business trip
  • Their next meeting
  • How busy/slammed they are

Who has time for employee engagement when there are deliverables to hit, right? I mean, Don Draper said it best!

If you’re a person that doesn’t get it, and you happen to end up reading this, here’s the bouncing ball to follow:

  • Employee engagement is about purposeful, connected, content/happy employees.
  • Purposeful, connected employees take care of the customers and make them feel good.
  • Customers who feel good take care of the bottom line.
  • Ergo, employee engagement is important to the bottom line.

There’s really no simpler way to say it than that.

Second Step: What is it, and how do we track it?

There is where the rest of the crew falls off the boat. Most companies, when confronted with a problem, want to find “a vendor” or “a consultant” to help them handle it, as opposed to just discussing whatever the problem is internally and seeing if anyone has potential solutions. I just explained the B2B marketplace in 1 sentence. Where’s my medal?

This is crucially important: you cannot solve ’employee engagement’ (a people issue) with software (a technological construct). You solve people issues by talking to people.

You ever seen anyone have a failing marriage be like “Honey, what we need here is Windows 10!” No. That’s not life.

So here’s the next rub: if you’re going to consider this somewhat important, you need a way to track it. As I said above, no one pays any attention to anything in business unless it’s tracked and someone can report back to an executive team on metrics, probably on a PowerPoint with some awesome-looking graphs. In short, you need a way to track this employee engagement concept. But I just said software isn’t necessarily the best play.

So what now?

Third Step: How about talking to people and letting people talk back?

Survey Monkey nailed it with this post: basically, just ask your employees what they think.

Here’s what most companies do:

  • Complex software / some type of new responsibility for employees to monitor
  • They stick to once-a-year reviews and periodically report some ‘net promoter score’ that a consultant helped them with
  • When people try to get feedback or give feedback outside of the standard, appropriate cycles, they balk about how much ‘real work’ must be done

Here’s what you should do:

  • Designate one person — be it HR or elsewhere (I’d avoid HR, as most senior business leaders don’t view them as proactive) — as a legitimate employee engagement tracking employee
  • Every week, send a quick survey to every single employee.
  • The survey is simple.
  • It asks: Three things you liked this week about your job.
  • It asks: Three things you didn’t like this week about your job.
  • This will not be anonymous, because confidentiality destroys accountability.

Let’s say you have 60 employees and 40 of them each week fill this out. That means every week, you have 120 positive things from your employees and 120 negative things. In a month, you have 480/each.

Now do this:

  • Go through those 480 good/bad and assign them out to broader categories, then department, then individual managers.

Now we’re cooking. Here’s what we’ve got:

  • Broad categories of things that are good and bad.
  • How departments feel about what’s good and bad.
  • What employees are saying about their managers writ large.

This is legitimate, hey-this-is-how-people-feel information.

You know what a net promoter score is? A person takes a survey once a year, has probably answered 120 other questions, and clicks “6” or “7” because well, it’s not that bad, right? A few kiss-asses click 9 or 10, the execs click 10, and the average is about 8.6. Some executive says “We’re crushing it! Ignore ’em for a year!”

A net promoter score is a snapshot in time, influenced by the context of the moment. This idea above is a living, breathing document of how people feel week-to-week.

There are some people doing similar things: Waggl, for example, or TINYPulse. But it’s still kind of rare.

Fourth Step: Yes, obviously there are drawbacks

I can think of dozens, including:

  • Headcount is stretched thin, so who can you get to go through this data?
  • People won’t respond to something like this weekly.
  • People will be terrified their manager will find out specific comments and reprimand them.
  • No time for this fluffy shit, we’re chasing revenue targets and whales!

Here’s the thing: go listen to a Tony Robbins speech or something.

He has a framework he’ll discuss where decisions and priority-setting aren’t just about the benefits of action, they’re about the costs of inaction.

You might be an old-school management and financial metrics guy and think to yourself, “Bah, this is all bullshit. We pay them, they work hard, and the company makes money! No need for any employee engagement!”

If you’re that guy, you see little benefit to the action.

Here’s the cost of inaction, though:

  • Your employees leave.
  • It costs money to recruit, hire, and train new ones.
  • Business models change and you can’t adapt.
  • Your ex-employees are out there in the world telling people “This isn’t the greatest place to work for X, Y, Z reason…”
  • You helped train someone who takes that expertise to a company in your industry.
  • Etc, etc.

The costs of inaction around employee engagement are huge. So you gotta find a way to (a) make decision-makers care and (b) measure it, so they’ll keep caring.

Net promoter score and other such metrics are quick, relatively easy, and can be done once a year and forgotten about. Management loves that. Time to get back to those bottom-line spreadsheets, baby!

But quick, easy, and forgotten about brings something else to mind … let me think …

Ah, a one-night stand.

You trying to build a base of employees — remember, these are the people who do the work that make you the money — off the same principles as a one-off at the Pittsburgh Sheraton?

That doesn’t seem wise.

Fifth Step: Evolve on Employee Engagement

Read things. Learn what’s out there. CIO.com has written about measuring employee engagement, as has Harvard Business Review. So has Workforce.com.

If you’re the type of person that runs around screaming about how business needs are constantly evolving and changing, then you also need to embrace the idea that you need to evolve and change — so read things, listen to speeches, listen to podcasts, look at Twitter, download white papers, and figure out how others are thinking about this issue. And perhaps more importantly? Think about why they are starting to care.

Strategic advantages based on financial metrics or product features erode every day. You think strategic advantages based on good, purposeful, driven employees will fade as fast? No.

And hey — while you’re at, consider the idea above. That’s living, breathing data that can be done with something as simple as a Google Form. And you might learn that X-Manager is terrible (let’s retrain him/her) or Y-Manager is awesome (let’s advance them?) or Z-Department all has the same concerns (time to address it, 3 weeks in as opposed to 52 weeks in).

Any other thoughts on measuring and caring about employee engagement? Feel free to leave ’em.

Ted Bauer

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