9 Employee Engagement Best Practices from HR Experts

Want to increase employee engagement? Here are 9 best practices from HR experts.

As a human resources leader, your challenges are diverse but they all focus on one specific goal:

Getting the best results out of your people and ensuring your company is a great place to work.

One of the most effective ways to do this is by boosting employee engagement.

In 2018, Gallup announced that 34% of U.S. workers are engaged while the number of actively disengaged employees went down to a record 13%.

These numbers are an improvement from the past, but as an HR leader, you want your organization to do even better.

You want the majority of your employees to be excited to come to work, eager to go above and beyond on projects, and commit their talent to the organization over the long term.

Of course, improving employee engagement is easier said than done. It requires concrete action.

That’s why we’ve rounded up advice from industry experts on employee engagement best practices.

9 HR Best Practices to Improve Employee Engagement

Embrace flexible work arrangements

Meghan M. Biro, speaker, author and founder of Talent Culture, encourages employers to offer more flexible work arrangements.

“[Employees] feel like their needs are being met in a more dynamic way by their employer,” explains Biro. “Allowing them to work their own hours and in their own locations is a direct sign of care and respect, and the result is increased trust — you trust me so I trust you — and loyalty.”

There is a measurable, positive impact on employee engagement when companies offer flexible work arrangements.

In fact, 73% of employers say that when they offer flexible work arrangements, there’s a positive impact on motivation and engagement levels.

Plus, three quarters say that flexible work arrangements help them retain more staff.

Additionally, flexible work options, like remote work, help companies cut costs. Flexible work optimizes company space by 79% and results in cost savings of 74%. It also boosts productivity by 53%.

So how can employers offer flexible work arrangements?

First of all, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Not all jobs can offer the same flexibility. For instance, many operations roles or frontline service jobs need people physically present. So employers must get creative.

Secondly, a successful flexible work program needs to be actively promoted by managers.

If the existing culture looks down at employees who work remotely, it’ll be difficult for employees to feel comfortable using the option.

Manifestations of a flexible work program include:

  • Flextime: Employees work a specific number of hours, but they decide where they work these hours, whether that’s at home or elsewhere.
  • Compressed work weeks: Rather than working traditional 9 to 5 hours, from Monday to Friday, employees extra hours for fewer days in the week (e.g. Monday to Thursday), giving them extended time off work
  • Adjusted hours: Rather than requiring every employee to come in at 9 and leave at 5, some companies allow workers to decide their hours based on their other responsibilities, like picking up or dropping off their kids at school.

    So an employee may come in from 7am to 3pm instead of 9am to 5pm, so they can spend the evening with their children.

Create and curate delightful “micro-moments” for employees

William Tincup, President & Editor-at-Large at Recruiting Daily, encourages employers to create micro-moments within the workplace.

Tincup defines micro-moments as “short, intentional experiences” that are most effective when used to learn more about an employee’s life, motivations, and interests.

They are a helpful way to engage a younger demographic. Millennials and Gen Z employees expect their work experiences to be positive and meaningful, and will actively look for employers that provide this.

Furthermore, this generation of workers grew up with social media and the internet which provided an unprecedented level of customization in the products and services they consumed.

As a result, they expect a similar level of customization to their work experience. In other words, meaningful one-on-one relationships with their managers.

Tincup says there are two types of micro-moments: proactive and reactive.

  • Proactive: A manager initiates an interaction with an employee either with a quick conversation or by scheduling weekly touchpoints. These conversations can range from a discussion of the employee’s weekend to a deep dive about their goals and ambitions.
  • Reactive: A manager follows up with an employee after a positive or negative experience (e.g. a failed project, a promotion) to offer encouragement or advice.

The purpose of these interactions is to ensure employees feel like they’re a valued part of the company and supported by their manager.

Plus, it helps them connect what they’re doing to a larger goal or purpose.

Show your employees regular and sincere appreciation

Steve Browne, vice president of human resources at LaRosa’s, Inc. and author of HR on Purpose: Developing Deliberate People Passion says employee engagement stems from employee recognition.

Browne believes that saying thank you doesn’t need to be a rigid, bureaucratic exercise, saying, “I think it's simplifying things versus making things more programmatic.”

A survey of companies with strong recognition cultures found that 87% of workers had a strong relationship with their manager.

That percentage dropped to 51% when companies that didn’t have a strong recognition culture were surveyed.

For companies employing highly in-demand knowledge workers, recognition is important.

These coveted workers can easily find new jobs and higher salaries, but after a certain income threshold, money is no longer the key to happiness. They want to feel fulfilled and valued in their work.

One of the ways to make employees feel valued is by demonstrating your appreciation for them. And here’s the thing: employees notice these efforts.

28% of surveyed workers in a Gallup survey said that the most meaningful moment of appreciation came from a manager.

24% said it came from a CEO or other senior-level leader.

How can your organization show appreciation?

One option is to organize and implement an employee recognition program that allows workers to collect feedback and points.

Another is to present awards to employees for behaviors that align with the companies goals and values.

On a simpler, day-to-day level, senior-level employees and managers can take specific steps to show their appreciation by:

  • Promoting top-performing employees
  • Assigning more responsibility to workers who’ve proved their commitment
  • Taking a moment to publicly acknowledge the contribution of a team member

Communicate how your employees’ work ties into the big picture

Dan Staley, Global HR technology leader at PwC, says that one of the biggest challenges companies face when it comes to employee engagement is communicating goals to employees.

"So often corporate will put out a decree, but it doesn't trickle down to the lowest level," Staley explains.

When you’re an early employee or high-level executive, you have ample information - and probably some equity - to understand the why behind your work.

Challenges and even boredom are manageable, because you have context.

On the other hand, high-performing individual contributors may not have this context.

Consequently, it’s easier to become disengaged, frustrated, and eager to find more stimulating opportunities elsewhere.

This is why it’s important to communicate regularly with your employees and help them understand how their work ties into the bigger picture.

As Staley says, “"The key role where managers can engage with teams is through one-on-one calls, conference calls and team meetings to make those strategies come to life”.

Managers can accomplish this by scheduling regular touchpoints with their employees to see how they feel about their current workload and whether they understand the projects they’re working on.

Another employee engagement best practice is to schedule what’s known as “stay interviews”, a proactive alternative to the exit interview.

Typically, HR departments conduct exit interviews to understand why employees resigned.

Oftentimes, these are routine exercises, but sometimes they help managers glean useful insights into why they didn’t retain a star employee.

In some cases, these are issues managers would have happily addressed or eliminated to keep a top contributor.

So wouldn’t it be nice if they were aware of them earlier?

This desire to know more, earlier, led to stay interviews, where employers deliberately probe to find out how happy employees are.

By finding out how employees feel about their work, employers can find ways to motivate them and tie their work back to a larger purpose before they start exploring new positions.

Understand and leverage employees’ strengths

Jim Harter, Chief Scientist of Workplace Management and Well-Being at Gallup, says effective leaders get the most out of their team not by focusing on their weaknesses but by leveraging their strengths.

“The best managers understand that everyone is somewhat different,” says Harter. “Some [managers] may see that as messy or complicated, but some see it as something to look forward to.”

For some managers, this presents a dilemma. Sure, leveraging an employee’s strengths sounds nice, but shouldn’t managers also help employees improve, too?

Yes and no. A manager’s purpose is to bring different people together to achieve a specific goal.

While these employees will all have similar domain knowledge, they’ll have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to things like communication or leadership.

Managers must ask themselves where their energy is best spent and how they can divide up responsibilities to configure a team that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

Plus, giving employees an opportunity to use their strengths increases employee morale and improve employee engagement.

Studies show that when employees get to use their strengths for more than three hours each day, they’re more likely to report feeling well-rested, respected and happy.

Additionally, employees who use their skills every day are six times more likely to say they’re engaged at work.

Employers can put this advice into action by:

  • Paying attention to where employees excel and where they struggle
  • Having open and honest conversations about how employees feel in their role
  • Assigning employees to tasks suited to their strength while ensuring an equal division of work across a team

Compensate based on contribution, not salary bands

After spending 10 years as Senior Vice President, People Operations at Google Laszlo Bock knows a thing or two about engaging and retaining key employees.

In his book, Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead, he offers direct guidance around compensation.

“How many people would you trade for your very best performer? If the number is more than five, you’re probably underpaying your best person. And if it’s more than ten, you’re almost certainly underpaying.”

As we’ve discussed, money isn’t everything. Nevertheless, it’s still an important part of the equation.

In some companies, pay scales or salary bands stand in the way of a significant raise.

If employers want to retain their star employees, they’ll need to consider breaking their own rules.

When employees hit the pay ceiling in a given role, and promotions aren’t a possibility, they lose the incentive to smash targets and continually top their own performance.

Plus, they start thinking about new challenges and new opportunities to “level up”. Worryingly for employers, the fastest way for an employee to get a raise is to get another job.

Notably, this employee engagement best practice is for employers who can afford to pay more, but are hesitant to do so because of rules and pay ceilings. If losing this employee would have an outsized impact on your organization’s performance, as Bock notes, it’s worth making an exception.

Invest time and energy into designing a robust onboarding experience

It’s crucial to engage your employees from their first day on the job.

Chances are high that when you think about employee engagement, you’re focused on the employees who have been here for a while, not the employees who have just arrived.

But it is just as important to improve employee engagement for new hires.

40% of employees who leave a job do so within the first 6 months.

And 20% of overall employee turnover happens within the first 45 days.

This means that engaging employees during the onboarding stage is essential.

Rachel Book, Director of Diversity Recruiting Strategies at Fidelity Investments, stresses the importance of the onboarding process.

“A robust and welcoming first day — and entire onboarding experience — will ease the transition for any new employee,” Book explains.

She continues, “Don’t throw them into the pool and hope they figure out your firm’s cultural quirks. Connect them with employee resource groups and encourage them to participate right away.”

How can you design a proper onboarding experience?

Begin by thinking of onboarding as an investment rather than a formality or expense.

The first day orientation should not be the beginning and end of your onboarding experience.

In fact, some HR experts believe onboarding can be up to a year-long process.

So how can you design an effective onboarding process?

  • Make it clear what the new employee’s goals are for the first few weeks. Without clear expectations, new hires can feel unhelpful and unproductive.
  • Define the new team role to avoid conflict or confusion with existing members of the team.
  • Make introductions to other members of the team and make an effort to create a friendly, welcoming environment.
  • Make introductions to people outside the new hire’s immediate team, so the new hire starts to feel a sense of belonging within the larger organization
  • Schedule regular touchpoints with new hires and ensure these touchpoints include meetings with their direct manager, meetings with HR, and meetings with other members

Articulate a clear employer value proposition that resonates with employees

Companies spend a lot of time researching the market’s needs, developing products that are aligned with them, and then carefully crafting the right messaging to communicate this effectively.

But they don’t really do this when it comes to one of their most important audiences: their workforce.

Jeff Waldman, Head of People & Culture at BiblioCommons, says this needs to change, especially when it comes to recruiting and engaging Millennial and Gen Z employees.

“They are results-driven and work when they have to in order to achieve results, not because they have to work a minimum of 8 hours every day,” Waldman explains.

“The key for organizations is to align their employee value proposition to the personal values of talent they are targeting.”

An employer brand is what a company represents to its employees, rather than its customers. It outlines the company’s unique value proposition for employees.

In other words, it answers the question: Why should you (continue to) share your talents with us?

When employees can answer this question, they’re more likely to be engaged and stick around.

They’re also more likely to recommend your company to people in their network, reducing your overall recruiting costs. Plus, referral candidates tend to be higher quality.

So how can you build your employer brand?

  • Talk to your employees. Ask your employees what they love about working at your company, why they chose to come work for you, and whether the company has lived up to their expectations.
  • Gauge the gap. Once you’ve gathered feedback from your employees, measure the gap between what your employees want and what you have to offer. See where there’s alignment and where you’re willing to create alignment.
  • Define the company’s values and vision. What does your company stand for? What sorts of people do you want working for your company? What kind of impact does your company want to have on the world in 10, 20, 30 years?
  • Articulate your employer brand in a clear mission statement. Communicate what your company does and how it does it in a few memorable lines. Make this mission statement the cornerstone of your employer brand campaign.
  • Share your employer brand. Share your employer brand and mission statement internally with employees and externally with new hires.

    One way to gauge whether your employer brand resonates with current employees, is to measure how many current employees begin following you on social media.

80% of disengaged employees don’t follow their employers on social media while 44% of engaged employees do.

Map out the employee journey and understand employee pain points

Worldwide, companies spend trillions of dollars understanding their customers and their buying decisions.

Imagine what the results would be if they spent a comparable amount of money understanding their employees to increase employee engagement?

This is the question posed by Diana Dosik, a Partner at BCG, who helps companies get the best from their employees.

“Ask a chief marketer, ‘What makes your customer’s shopping experience easy or difficult?” and she’ll have a twenty-minute answer,” says Dosik. “But ask the chief of almost any other department in the same company, ‘What makes your employee’s life at work easy or difficult?’ and you’ll be met with a blank stare.”

According to Dosik, it isn’t that these leaders don’t care. It’s that they don’t have the same sophisticated tools, techniques, and theories that marketers do to find answers.

That said, companies have more frequent touchpoints with their employees than they do with their customers, so they have a greater opportunity to build “employee journey maps” similar to the “customer journey maps” marketers build.

The point of this journey map, or roadmap, is to create alignment between interests.

For instance, customers act in their best interests when deciding whether or not to make a purchase.

When a company makes what’s in their interest (selling their products) align with a consumer’s interest (making a smart purchase decision), they have a sale.

The more customer touchpoints reinforce a mutual interest, the higher the chance of a sale.

Dosik points to the example of how Apple which eliminated many of the pain points of buying electronics (e.g. long lines, fear of confusing new products) by creating automatic checkouts and non-threatening demo tables.

Companies like Google have applied this wisdom.

Many new moms found that 12 weeks of paid leave (which Google once offered) wasn’t enough time to spend with their newborn.

It was no longer in their best interest to work at Google, so they would quit.

When Google noticed this, they extended paid maternity leave by an additional 6 weeks.

Retention among new moms increased by 50%.

This created an alignment between Google’s interests (retaining talent and avoiding expensive recruitment costs) and employees’ interests (adjusting to life as a new mom and bonding with their newborn).

Companies can create employee roadmaps by:

  • Engaging in honest conversations with their employees about what they like and don’t like in their jobs
  • Distribution employee engagement surveys questions and using the results to understand the sources of dissatisfaction
  • Using frequent staff pulse surveys to stay updated on new pain points employees experience
  • Creating programs (e.g. extended maternity leave, flexible working hours) that reduce or eliminate these challenges

Invest in the tools you need to implement best practices and improve employee engagement

As you steadily increase your employee engagement efforts, set yourself up for success by acquiring the tools you need.

For instance, one-on-one conversations are the best way to build relationships, but an enterprise needs an enterprise-level approach.

To understand employee goals, ambitions, and pain points at scale, you need sophisticated survey and analytics tools.

With the right technology and data, you can amplify your efforts and focus on the initiatives that will have the most impact on your company.

Interested in learning how technology can get employee engagement to the next level? Learn more about our employee engagement software.