It seems straightforward enough: keep your staff happy and they’ll remain loyal, productive and inspired to take your start-up to the next level. While the theory holds up, people are more complex than that.

Gone are the days when a Christmas party and occasional pizzas would keep employees sweet. In many sectors, talented employees can choose who they work for. Keeping them engaged should be among your top priorities if you’re getting a company off the ground. How can employee engagement initiatives help? And how can you set them up?  

Why engagement is important

The people who do the work in a company give it its soul, its drive and its intellect. That’s true of a team of five as well as a multinational corporation. But while multinationals can afford a degree of employee churn, for a small company, replacing skilled employees is costly and fraught with risk. 

It’s much better to retain good staff. They’ll grow with your business, mould its philosophy and hopefully end up leading teams, passing on the company’s ethos to newcomers. 

That’s why successful companies spend a good proportion of their resources on employee engagement. In fact, a whole industry has sprung up devoted to helping companies improve engagement via training, analysis and organising activities. But you don’t need a consultancy to tell you engagement should be thought of as an everyday business expense, like your office space or your printer inks.

As a small company owner, you’ve probably already seen the problem. Big companies have cash to spare and HR departments that can make sure employees are engaged. You’re still in one office and wondering if you’ll have time to eat today, let alone time to keep your workers satisfied. But there are inexpensive and time-conscious ways of sparking engagement.

Engagement initiatives that cost nothing

If you do just one thing to help inspire your colleagues, it should be letting them know their work is appreciated. Once team members feel like they’re working with you, not for you, you’ll probably see your attention rewarded with loyalty and the sharing of ideas. The following ideas should form part of any employee engagement model.

Make sure you know who’s doing the work

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to lead to disgruntlement, it’s people taking credit for the work of others. It’s usually the person higher up the hierarchy who takes the credit for great ideas and jobs well done, so keep in touch with the daily work of all your staff and make sure they know you know.

Praise often, criticize constructively

A little praise goes a long way, and it raises the self-esteem of staff members. Taking your talented employees for granted will make them feel like they’re not appreciated – and start looking elsewhere for recognition. 

Criticism is a necessary part of managing people, but it has to be done correctly. Explain why you think the work was not successful, and how it would be better done in future. Maybe even acknowledge that it could have been your instruction that was at fault.

Make staff feel like decision-makers

While it’s your company and your decisions, people like to think their ideas and expertise count for something in the workplace. Listen to employees’ ideas and implement the ones that feel good. You’ll find that the employee – and others – will come forward with new ideas more often.

Encourage transparency and inhibit blame culture

Friction, mistrust and fear are highly negative in a close-knit team. Have a company policy whereby mistakes and failure are the responsibility of the team as a whole, not individuals. It will encourage openness, acceptance of errors and self-improvement without recourse to discipline.

Super-efficient initiatives

While the engagement initiatives above are free with immeasurable cultural benefits, it’s also good to put your hand in your pocket every now and again. But you don’t have to lavish your team with perks to keep them happy. Remember – financial or material benefits might be nice, but they are not always employees’ chief motivators. Some people rank career progress, a happy environment, flexibility and a simple love of what they do more highly.

Small rewards can be a big deal

It’s amazing what a difference an inexpensive reward can make when an individual or team has done well. A bottle of wine; vouchers; cinema tickets; an extra paid day off – they cost next to nothing, but as a demonstration that you’ve noticed their work, they’re priceless. If you get to know your team members personally, you can give them gifts they truly appreciate. Have a look at one of our other articles for some slightly more unusual reward ideas.

Introduce true flexibility

Some companies define flexible working as being able to start at 10 and finish at 6 instead of working 9 to 5. It’s a start, but it doesn’t address many employees’ desires and pressures when it comes to work/life balance. Why exclude talented people who don’t fit into office life easily? Allowing your team to work from home, in their local cafe, or wherever they feel comfortable, can attract great talent.

Consider the amount of stress the daily commute causes, or the awkward grind of the office for someone who is uncomfortable in social situations. Setting generous flexibility boundaries can increase the quality of job applicants, boosting their mental health and creativity. 

Work on the office decor and layout

Some places just feel creative, welcoming and productive. There’s science behind it, but a lot of it is down to instinct. Cutting down on clutter, having plenty of natural light and fresh air, and giving people space all help. To maximise the feel-good factor, bring in plants, shelves full of magazines and books, a well-stocked fruit bowl and a good coffee machine with free coffee. As we’ve written about before, it all adds up.

How some successful companies engage

If you’re still unconvinced that winning business and engagement go hand in hand, consider these examples of companies that have interesting employee engagement ideas and enjoy loyalty and world-class success.

  • Google lets its staff dedicate 20% of their time to side projects. The result is motivated staff with rounded skill sets.
  • John Lewis stopped calling its full-time staff “staff” and started calling them “partners”, and introduced a partner ownership scheme. 
  • Netflix has a policy of “only employing adults” and therefore letting them choose their own hours and holidays. 
  • Airbnb gives its staff $2000 a year to spend on travel.
  • Hootsuite has a nap room where staff can get their head down for an hour, just in case they’ve been too much of a night owl.
  • Just Eat and Autotrader both have schemes where staff can buy or sell days off to each other.

Any measure that helps make your employees feel empowered, trusted and valued will have benefits for your company’s long-term success. Sometimes, drivers of employee engagement are perks; other times they’re subtle policy choices that make the workplace better. In short, however, if you engage with employees, they’ll engage with you.

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