When I talk with companies about employee engagement and culture-building, I like to ask a pretty simple question at the start: Why do you want to focus on engagement?
The answer invariably has something to do with getting a business benefit, usually one around talent acquisition and retention. That makes sense. In an economy at full employment, creating great employee experiences is considered mission-critical for attracting and keeping great talent. If you don’t make your culture appealing and your jobs fulfilling, talent leaves.
Then along came COVID-19. Unemployment soared and jobs got scarce. Every responsible company began looking to course-correct their strategy and operations as they began navigating an unpredictable economic landscape. With tens of millions of workers in a sudden scramble to find jobs, companies might conclude that talent retention is unlikely to be as much of a challenge as it was, at least for some time to come. So they’ve moved employee engagement to the back burner.
Two reasons show clearly why investing in the employee experience is more important now than ever.
1. Customer Engagement Just Got Real
No business ever wants to lose a customer. But losing customers is exactly what businesses experience during global pandemics and economic depressions. Every business leader I’ve talked with is understandably concerned about this obvious fact; no business is immune from broad economic disaster.
That’s why retaining and nurturing customer relationships during this crisis requires an unprecedented level of attention to the reality that we’re all being tossed about in the same boat. Like you, your customers are staring into a fog of war — rushing to meet new needs and adjusting their lives as nimbly as possible. More simply put: They need vendors, suppliers, and partners that will be human with them, creative with them, flexible with them, and empathic toward them.
In other words, they need a level of engagement in their relationship with you that is deeper than ever.
And who are the emissaries for that customer-nourishing work? Your employees. No one else.
Your company will only perform to the extent that your employees have the vitality, motivation, and engagement to enthusiastically lean forward, listen, and deliver more creatively than they have before. Amid the current extreme difficulties, only engaged employees stand a chance of meeting customer needs. And unengaged employees? They will not only be a drag on your culture tomorrow, they’re already a mortal threat to your customer relationships today.
To position your company and equip your employees to meet the challenge of great customer experiences, it’s critical to first understand what most often undermines employee engagement efforts as soon as they leave the gate: Most companies invest in them for the wrong reasons.
2. True Engagement Isn’t Transactional
Long before this crisis hit, companies struggled to understand this simple formula for effective employee engagement:
Genuinely care about your people. Engagement will naturally emerge.
When I ask leaders the “whys” behind their employee experience efforts, I listen carefully to learn if they’re investing because caring is very simply the right thing to do. Or better still, because caring is an instinct within who they are.
Unfortunately, it’s rare to see a fundamental commitment to care at the core of employee engagement efforts. It’s a big reason most efforts fail, and it’s an even bigger problem under our current circumstances because genuine caring for each other has never been more important.
OK, so what do I mean by “genuine care,” and what does it look like in real life?
Genuine care means authentically prioritizing the needs of others as an end in and of itself.
In other words, care is not a tactic or a means to a business outcome. And right here is where most organizations get tripped up. Caring about someone means you have their best interests in mind. Full stop. There is no “so you can get what you want out of them” at the back half of that sentence.
Genuine caring means not thinking transactionally about the relationship between the employee and the company. You are not implementing benefits, programs, free snacks, and “employee engagement” initiatives to retain talent, boost productivity, or bump up against some other bottom-line stat. You are doing it because you actually care about your people.
If you’re a leader and motivated primarily by transactional thinking (e.g., engagement programs = financial ROI), your employee engagement and customer experience efforts will be hamstrung from the outset. Your employees will know if you really care because human beings are amazingly good at communicating that sort of thing. And when we sense that someone’s caring has some other agenda, we don’t trust it. The bottom line here is that transactional “caring” suppresses the naturally emergent fulfillment, engagement, and commitment that true caring catalyzes.
Everyone loses when care is transactional. First and foremost, employees don’t get what they deserve and, today, urgently need. In our work using Self-Determination Theory, time and again, we see that when employees fail to have their basic needs for autonomy, mastery, and relatedness supported — the needs that are at the heart of genuine caring — their physical and mental well-being suffer.
Alongside employees, customers also suffer. Without their needs met, employees are less equipped and poorly motivated to provide the exceptional service those customers deserve. As we’ve seen, this kind of service is now more important than ever for retaining customers and sustaining your business as we move through this crisis and the economic challenges ahead.
To put it all very bluntly: Neither your customers nor your employees will soon forget how they were treated during their own time of need. Your employees must be supported and cared for to be ready for that challenge. None of us can care for others if we don’t feel cared for ourselves.
Like all crises, this one is bringing into focus what is important at a human level. Caring for employees and customers alike was always the right thing to do. That it’s also so incredibly critical for your business ought to make it a very easy decision to commit to genuine care!