Most executives realize that organizations are only as good as the people who make them run. According to a Harvard Business Review survey, more than 70% of executives rank employee engagement as very important to achieving organizational success.
Yet, only 31.5% of U.S. workers were engaged in their jobs in 2014, according to research from Gallup. More concerning, the survey finds that millennials—who increasingly make up a large portion of the workforce—are the least engaged, at just 28.9%.
What are organizations doing wrong? Can they fix it?
High levels of employee engagement don’t happen on their own, but they’re definitely achievable.
Our organization, Elevations Credit Union, recently received the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the nation’s only presidential award for business performance excellence. In our pursuit of the award, we made several improvements that radically boosted employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention.
Since implementing the Baldrige award criteria in 2010, for example, we’ve seen employee engagement improve by more than 17%, from 69% of our employees to 82% today.
We halved our level of disengaged employees, from 8% to just 4%. And the Colorado Society for Human Resource Management recently named us as one of the top five large companies to work for in Colorado.
How did we do it? If your organization wants to build a more engaged workforce, we find the following three steps can help you do so:
1. Get everyone on the same page
Elevations had vision and mission statements, as well as core values in place, before starting the Baldrige process. But they were stale and rarely used. Few people even knew what they were.
One of the first things we did after starting Baldrige was to revisit those. We defined our values, our mission, and our vision. And we made sure everyone not only knew about them, but lived by them.
Today, we hire to our values. One-quarter of our performance evaluations are now based on our values. We’ve fired senior executives for not living to our values. They’re even printed on our badges.
By knowing who we are and where we’re going, we’re better able to hire the right people and manage them well. This makes a significant difference in their level of engagement.
2. Invest in your workforce
In 2011, we went through a system conversion, which was the equivalent of a heart transplant for our organization. While we did basic systems training for all employees, we kept hearing they felt like they didn’t have the skills or resources to do their best.
So we overhauled our training program. We took a windowless space in the back of one of our branches and created a mock branch where we could perform behind-the-scenes new-hire training.
The program cost us $400,000 in the first year for salaries, training manuals, and trainer salaries. But over time, we saw huge dividends.
Employees responded positively. In our surveys, we saw a 36% increase in the number of employees who agreed with the statement, “I am provided the training I need to be effective at my job.”
We also witnessed a whopping 62% increase in employees agreeing that our orientation programs prepared them to be effective.
And on the business side, our average lending productivity per Financial Services Guide increased 24% between 2012 and 2014.
It’s proof that, when you invest in employees and they’re fully engaged, they’re more inclined to work hard for your organization and advance its mission.
3. Measure your progress
Before Baldrige, we conducted employee engagement surveys but we didn’t do as much with them as we could have. We didn’t even compare the results to external benchmarks. When it came to hiring, the only metric we collected was “time to fill.”
We improved that process while working through Baldrige. We still perform an annual employee engagement survey, but we benchmark the results. We run them through an analytics program to gauge our performance year over year.
And the results don’t just live in the human resources department. We share them with all leaders and hold them accountable for making progress.
We host town hall meetings with groups of employees to discuss any issues raised and talk about possible changes. We celebrate improvements, and we dig into areas that need work.
When you take a formal, strategic approach to employee engagement—tracking and measuring it like you would a business campaign—you’re much more likely to make the right adjustments and see more progress, in a shorter time frame.
While Baldrige might not be for every organization, the process encouraged us to ask ourselves tough questions. Having a shared goal ensured that we were all marching in the same direction.
Regardless of whether your organization pursues the award, it can likely benefit from a more structured, company-wide approach to employee engagement.
ANNETTE MATTHIES is chief human resources officer for Elevations Credit Union in Boulder, Colo.