Employee Engagement: Why the Small Things Can Really Make a Difference

Editor’s Note: This week, TLNT is continuing our annual tradition by counting down the 30 most popular and well-read posts of this past year. This is No. 29. Look for our regular content to return on Monday January 2, 2012.

“There is still hope”

That quote came in an email from a friend last week. He was referring to his company giving all employees Friday off. This was due to the heat wave, which on that day, was projected to be over 100 degrees.

My daughter’s company also gave employees that day off. So as is my wont, I started reaching out to my network and, lo and behold, I found that there were quite a few companies in New York City that were either letting their employees go home half-day or decided to let them stay home with no work at all.

These type initiatives always bring a smile to my face, because they are a kind of human interest stories from the organization.

The intricacies of change management

Every piece of research shows that engaged employees are more productive. That means that they are more profitable and more likely to withstand temptations to leave. The best-performing companies know that an employee engagement improvement strategy linked to the achievement of corporate goals will help them win in the marketplace.

As managers in organizations, we have all witnessed bold corporate initiatives aimed at generating substantial employee engagement.

This model could be sweeping changes in either processes, culture, or in a lot of cases, systems. Everything kicks off with great fanfare. The entire senior team is on board and engaged. However, six months or a year later you look back and wonder what went wrong.

The initiative fails to produce the desired changes. It does not change the nature of the organization. The employees may have dismissed it as just another management “flavor of the month.” The major stakeholders could possibly lose credibility. Next time there is a future initiative, it will be met with widespread skepticism and a roll of the eyes.

So simple and yet so effective

What I have found is that small initiatives in each of these situations engage the employee base 100 percent. Whether it was part of a larger initiative or just a one-time event, these type initiatives are almost always successful. They are successful because they are simple.

It seems that sometimes while designing employee engagement initiatives, we look at or try to emulate either best practices or another idea that we have read about. I am amazed by some of the requests from people in Linkedin groups basically asking an outside audience for help in building an employee engagement model within “their” company.

There is another company in NYC that throws a pizza party every Friday. While this initially was met with skepticism, it eventually caught on. It was about pizza, and that was it. Eventually the company had to move the event to a larger conference room because the initiative had been validated by that most time honored and trusted tradition — word of mouth. No speeches, no handouts and no force feeding; just food and hanging out on a Friday.  It was very family oriented and embraced by all

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At another company that I worked, during summers we created a program called “Early Fridays,” which meant that every Friday, employees would leave by 2 pm from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Initially it was thought that productivity would suffer, but it actually increased because everyone worked their tail off so that they could get out on Fridays by 2.

And there was a positive side effect of the program: Groups or departments would sometime have a get together on Fridays after 2 at one of the local pubs to have a beer or wine before heading out for their weekends.

Yes, the small things DO matter

These examples will never be considered fads within the employee base. They are real and they affect everyone and they were accepted throughout. Even senior leaders were caught up in getting out early.

Employee engagement is the elephant in the room of organization today. How do you create it? How do you measure it? How do you build a sustainable model? These are all questions that will have to be addressed.

In my youth, I was a pretty good baseball player. The coach moved me to clean-up hitter (the fourth in the batting order), and their job is to basically “clean up” the runners on base and get them home.

My coach told me to stop trying to hit home runs all the time and just try to hit a single sometimes. That can be just as effective a strategy to win the game, and I have always viewed that as very sound advice.

As the great philosopher, Ed Norton (of The Honeymooners) would always say, “it’s the small things; you gotta think of the small things.”

Yes, they do make a difference.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.


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