Employee Engagement
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Leading organizations take a more holistic view to set the stage for better engagement

By Melissa Campeau

You’ve probably come across articles in the past year with titles like, “Let’s Stop Talking About Engagement” and “Why Your Engagement Strategy Doesn’t Work.” On the other hand, you’ve likely seen surveys that suggest worker engagement levels in Canada fall somewhere between middling and dismal.

What gives? Why the push to stop talking about engagement when we know it’s a necessary element of a healthy organization, and we also know there’s ample room for improvement?

Beyond the headlines, what’s really happening is a shift in the way organizations think about the subject. More and more, leading companies are stepping back to consider the entire employee experience – a holistic view that goes well beyond daily duties, office walls and business hours. And they’re getting more personal, too, tapping into what makes each person tick, not in an effort to hammer more productivity from employees, but to ensure a healthier working space with ample room to grow.

In many ways, it’s an idea that’s tipping conventional engagement thinking on its head.

“In the past, engagement would be driven by the management perspective and was seen as synonymous with high performance,” said Jose Tolovi Neto, managing partner at Great Place to Work Canada. “Newer approaches are changing all that, placing the employee at the centre and seeing the workplace through the employee’s eyes. To put it in marketing terms, we are moving from a ‘push’ to a ‘pull’ strategy. We create the environment that allows the employee to experience a great workplace, then the high performance comes as a consequence of that.”

With technology and increasing flexibility around how and where employees get their work done, the boundaries between the professional and the personal are more and more blurred. It makes sense, then, that organizations are giving greater thought to how they can positively impact the whole of their employees’ lives.

“We used to think about engagement in terms of finding ways to fire up people’s intrinsic motivation around specific tasks,” said Steven Fitzgerald, president of Habanero Consulting Group. “Now, we think about engaging the whole person and helping them live great lives, not just great work lives. As an organization, we want to help people experience that high intrinsic motivation, high passion, high fulfillment in all aspects of their lives, through the lens of their professional lives.”

Research and strategy

The new rules of engagement involve stepping back to take in the broader landscape, but also getting more personal, discovering more (and more genuine) insights from each employee.

“For us, it’s about fully understanding the employee’s experience through their journey,” said Fitzgerald. That involves collecting data but also asking questions in a way that elicits honest answers.

“I think a lot of organizations simply guess as to how things are going, or they use surveys,” said Fitzgerald. “Surveys are useful but can be kind of a weak proxy.” Habanero incudes workshops and interviews in their research to better understand employees’ lived experiences, identify gaps that might lead to disengagement and design next steps to address the challenges. “So our strategy around employee engagement is more of a strategy around trying to create the best employee experience we can.”

What makes people love their jobs?

Aligned with strengths and interests

With a talent shortfall in many fields, the onus is on employers to create a workplace where people want to stay.

That begins, of course, with smart hiring: putting the right people in the right role. For example, Great Wolf Lodge in Niagara Falls, Ont. is a themed resort that appeals to families, so they hire accordingly. Phone screens for job candidates include the atypical interview question, “What’s your favourite kids’ movie?”

“If they don’t have one, they shouldn’t be working at Great Wolf Lodge,” said Anne Marie Malleau, director of human resources. “Our employees’ focus needs to be 100 per cent on our guests, so they have to be able to talk to kids and say ‘Have a Great Wolf day’ and really believe in our motto of creating family traditions one family at a time.”

Other organizations have a bit more fluidity to evolve and adapt.

Now, we think about engaging the whole person and helping them live great lives, not just great work lives. – Steven Fitzgerald

“At Habanero, we’re a strengths-based organization; we’re not beholden to defining people’s jobs by strict role descriptions,” said Fitzgerald. “We want people to continually define what they do based on their passions and interests, and also looking at where our needs are.” As those things change over time, so do employees’ responsibilities.

Finding meaning in work

Whether they’re working entry-level jobs or managing senior teams, employees want to feel a sense of purpose in what they do.

At GoodLife Fitness, for example, seeing members make progress with their fitness goals is rewarding for employees and fosters a feeling of accomplishment. The company attracts and hires employees who are committed to fitness, so they’re naturally invested in helping members reach health-related goals.

“If they see someone coming into the club who is slouched over and has no energy and then after two weeks that same person has a sparkle in their eye and a spring in their step, that engages our team,” said Alana Free, vice president, People and Culture at GoodLife Fitness. That applies to everyone in the company, she points out, not just employees who directly coach the members.

At Habanero, employees understand the company’s goals as well as the value of their own work within the bigger picture.

“It’s really clear to our employees the dent we’re trying to make in the world,” said Fitzgerald. “Being clear about our purpose and spending a lot of time talking about it is really helpful for people’s appreciation of their jobs.”

Creating a sense of meaning beyond the organization contributes to job satisfaction, as well. At Great Wolf Lodge, for example, the team chooses a cause to support over the course of the year.

“It might be a local cancer centre or a charity like Bikes for Tykes. It’s always a family focus since we’re a family driven organization,” said Malleau. “Our employees love that. It helps them feel more connected to each other, to the company and also to their own community.”

Some businesses are seeing the benefit of helping employees identify their individual passions and drivers.

“We’re starting to work a lot more on personal purpose, about bringing your whole self to work rather than just coming as an employee from 9 to 5,” said Fitzgerald. “What we’re trying to do is help people gain more insight into what really motivates them, what they’re really great at and how they should be engineering their career to optimize those things. When people spend time doing things they care about and are great at, they’re living their purpose and that’s incredibly fulfilling and engaging.”

Empowerment and ownership

Having a stake in a business can translate to a more meaningful employee experience, too. At Great Wolf Lodge, employees are invited to contribute ideas for uniform redesign every few years.

“That kind of engagement is important because it gives them a sense of ownership of the business and a sense of belonging,” said Malleau.

The company also extends an invitation to all employees to join management on a weekly walk around the property. Each worker is asked to see the lodge through the eyes of a visitor and point out any opportunities for improvement.

“The tours help employees make really tangible contributions that are above and beyond their official job descriptions, it helps us maintain the quality of the lodge and it also identifies for us who’s interested in growth, so we can be sure to help those people get where they want to be,” said Malleau.


For those who do contribute that little bit extra, recognition of effort can go a long way. In fact, a 2017 survey by AON found rewards and recognition ranked as the single strongest opportunity for improved engagement.

“We as human beings always value and need recognition, from an early age when we craved it from our parents, teachers and friends,” said Tolovi Neto. “Our whole lives are really modeled around that notion of constant feedback.” In the workplace, it’s no different.

“Tie recognition to specific accomplishments or business objectives to drive future behaviour,” said Tolovi Neto. And while no one minds monetary rewards, something personal that really connects with an employee’s interests or values can make a bigger impact.

Even little things can go a long way.

“We can recognize important milestones and accomplishments but we can also recognize everyday work,” he said. “No matter what their position, people need to know that what they do is received as positive and their work has value.”

At GoodLife, for example, managers have a small discretionary budget they can use to reward staff members.

“They might buy somebody a coffee and say thank you for a great job,” said Free. “Or save up for a longer period of time and take someone out to play laser tag or go axe throwing.”

Recognition can come from any number of sources, and might be a formal program or something more organic, depending on what suits the industry, the culture and the work being acknowledged.

At Great Wolf Lodge, there’s a formal recognition program that invites guests, managers and coworkers to give props (or “paws”) to peers who do something great. Employees can collect, then trade, those paws in for gift certificates and prizes of their choice.

At Habanero, it’s less formal, but might be more frequent.

“Recognition is deeply embedded in our culture and it’s all about how we relate to one another,” said Fitzgerald. Employees regularly give kudos to co-workers over social media, or from time to time in more formal ways at special celebrations.

“The idea of being programmatic about recognition doesn’t make sense for us,” said Fitzgerald. “It would be like being programmatic about showing affection to your partner. Recognition is something that’s given and felt at an emotional level, not an artifact level.”

Recognition works to impact the employee experience on several levels. First, it’s deeply rewarding for an employee to have good work noticed in an authentic way. That good work also inspires others. And finally, it’s rewarding for the person doing the recognizing, as well.

“In our organization, there’s almost more currency in finding people doing great things and pointing it out, than being found doing great things,” said Fitzgerald.

Long service awards

According to Bersin & Associates, 87 per cent of recognition programs focus on length of tenure. But recent U.S. statistics found employees stay with an employer for a median of just 4.6 years. So how important can length-of-service awards be when it comes to the employee experience?

“There’s still value there, but we’re seeing some change in how those awards are implemented,” said Tolovi Neto. Instead of simply receiving a pin or a watch for sticking it out for a decade, companies are striving to connect awards to an employee’s character and values.

“Long service awards, now, will often involve giving the employee the chance to have a personal experience,” said Tolovi Neto. “Environics, for example, gives a trip anywhere in the world, within a certain budget when the person completes 10 years. That’s the type of thing we are seeing.”

“If you can put it in the context of what matters, then that’s what counts,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s not that we tricked Susie into staying for 10 years, it’s that she’s developed an amazing career, and look at how much value she’s developed for herself and her family and her clients and the people around her. That’s the spirit that I think a lot of organizations are moving toward with these things.”

That focus on quality of work rather than number of years can apply to any organization, even when its understood that workers won’t stay long.

“We’re a springboard,” said Malleau. “We want people to work here but if this isn’t their lifelong career, then we want them to come to work, do the best they can, go off to school and go off to their careers. Along the way, let’s train them to be the best they can be.” That benefits the company in both the short and long term. “We are always looking at new ways to get our staff to a place where we offer five-star service, where we are that place where guests want to come to and return to.”

A place for perks?

Just a handful of years ago, you couldn’t start a tech company – or any company, really – without investing in Ping-Pong tables, a well-stocked fridge full of munchies and a laundry list of other extras.

In recent years, though, the perks frenzy has died down, says Fitzgerald.

“I have to say we had more of those 10 years ago because we are a tech company and most of our peers had that kind of thing and we couldn’t even get people applying if we didn’t serve lunches and so on. Most people looking for jobs now have learned that doesn’t matter.”

Habanero’s offices do have games and snacks and other goodies, but they’re not anyone’s main focus.

“That’s more about respect and keeping people comfortable and allowing them to focus on the right things,” said Fitzgerald. “I have almost an emotional reaction to the idea of perks. It would break my heart if I thought someone came to Habanero or stayed here because of the perks. We’re trying to help people build amazing careers. They need to be here for that.”

Engagement of the future

Any one of the elements that go into creating the employee experience – from perks to recognition to purpose – could be thought of as a big project to tackle. Thinking more nimbly, though, might be the way of the future.

“The companies I see that are really successful are the ones that are getting better and better at taking a leaner and more agile approach and experimenting,” said Fitzgerald. “They’re saying, instead of implementing a big recognition platform and implementing a big change strategy around them, let’s try things and see the results and iterate.”

That iteration requires an ongoing dialogue with employees, and a real focus on seeing the workplace from their perspective.

“Every organization is people driven,” said Malleau. “So it makes sense to spend some time with people and ask questions like, ‘What can we do better?’ Give people room to grow, work on relationships and treat people well. That’s really the best and I think the only way to genuinely build better engagement.” 

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