Case Study:

6 companies that get employee engagement and what they do right

Written by Mandy Flint & Elisabet Vinberg Hearn Friday 11 December 2015
Companies such as Google and Virgin are prime examples of extraordinary employee engagement reaping real benefits – find out how

There is no such thing as perfection, which is true for employee engagement like everything else. The reason is that we live in a changing world where new challenges continuously require new thinking and actions. People are not all alike, so employee engagement also requires you to see your employees, really see them and get what makes them tick – and then to help them make themselves tick. Because employee engagement is not just down to the leader or company – each person is responsible for his/her own level of engagement.

Most companies that do it well have something in common – they understand that it’s a driver of success and that it therefore needs to be a key business strategy, which is everyone’s responsibility (not just HR’s or the leaders’ responsibility). This strategy works best when it translates into behaviours and culture.

They also know that they have to look after their employees so they can look after the customers. Or as Walmart’s founder Sam Walton said: “the way management treats associates is exactly how the associates will treat the customers”.

There are many good examples of companies that have achieved great results when it comes to an engaged culture and it’s worth reflecting on what they do and why it works. Here are some we find particularly interesting, and here’s why.

Google - Transparency

Google have been very intentional about creating the culture they want. One aspect of that culture is their focus on transparency. The idea is to break down barriers, encourage creativity and collaboration. And employees, as a result, are feeling empowered by that transparency. Culture comes down to behavioural habits and Google, by creating a culture of transparency and freedom, creates habits of creativity. Formalising that people spend 20% of their time doing something outside their normal work function, facilitates a creative culture. Ultimately culture is about “how things get done” and should not be left to chance, it’s too powerful a force not to take control over – and Google has done this well.

In our experience, we see organisations that focus on transparency engaging employees more than those that don’t. Employees want to be a part of something where there are no hidden agendas and they are experiencing an honest perspective whether that is good news or not. Informed employees feel valued and engagement typically follows.

American Express – Focus On Behaviours

In a world where results are everything and goals are often largely about what results people achieve, regardless of how they achieved them, American Express was different even 25 years ago. The company has for a long time had equal weighting between the fact that people achieve their goals and how they do it. It simply should not be possible to achieve top results, ratings, pay and potential bonus without considering the impact of your behaviours.

Behaviours are how we conduct ourselves, act and react, towards others. We’ve found that successful companies understand how behaviours impact employees on an emotional level, where much of engagement with an employer happens. They therefore value how people do their job. You can’t have someone being a high performer but behaving really badly at the same time - it sends the wrong message. The high performers in companies where engagement is high, understand their impact and behave in a collaborative and respectful way.

John Lewis - Empowering

John Lewis expresses a strong focus on people. One way of doing this is to call their employees partners. A word is not just a word; it is also the connection people make with that word, the emotions that it awakens. By calling them partners, the company is clearly expressing that there is a shared responsibility for the customers and the outcomes of the company. So they focus on involving their partners in decisions and solutions, empowering them to create the best customer experience.

We see this a lot; that employees who are invited to be involved (not just served a “fait accompli”) also feel empowered and they take personal responsibility – they know they can make a difference and it engages them to do more.

Hyatt – Employee Development

The hotel group’s high employee retention and long tenure speaks volumes in an industry known for its high employee turnover. The focus on employee development and promoting from within plays a large part in this. Another interesting practice, connected to development, is how they empower their employees (whom they call associates), to listen carefully to each other and guests, to be able to solve problems and create new solutions, rather than following scripts of what to do, making the guest feel special and heard.

Many organisations we’ve met share this commitment to employee development and are therefore able to trigger that inner motivation that comes from knowing that you’re growing and developing. Besides, continuous development is crucial in order to successfully deal with the constant change all organisations face.

Southwest Airlines - Purpose

This airline sees their purpose as connecting people with what’s important to them. They don’t just see themselves as transporters of people, but as enablers who help people get to people or places they care about. This may be seen as a small differentiation, but it can make a big difference in how important an employee perceives his/her job. A strong, clear purpose connects emotionally with employees, it engages.

In our experience, purpose is becoming more and more important to employees. To see that you are doing something more profound than just selling a product or service, makes you feel important. It’s no longer enough to “just do a job”, we’re seeing that people want to make a difference, to contribute to something bigger than themselves.

Virgin - Listening

This multi-industry organisation has a habit of listening to its employees, to show that they are valued, to listen to their opinions and take care of their ideas, to have healthy debates and continuously innovate. It’s a win-win; the organisation keeps learning and employees feel important and engage with the organisation.

Listening is at the heart of engagement. In our experience, everyone wants to be seen and heard – it’s a minimum requirement of leadership, yet often overlooked for the immense value it can bring. On top of it simply being the right thing to do. We see that employees who feel listened to, want to reciprocate, they want to do their best, because they feel valued and important.

Employee engagement is the fuel of an organisation. And even if an organisation is good at it, we can all get better at it – and maximise that fuel.

Mandy Flint and Elisabet Vinberg Hearn

Mandy Flint and Elisabet Vinberg Hearn

Mandy Flint and Elisabet Vinberg Hearn’s new book Leading Teams – 10 Challenges: 10 Solutions published by the FT is out now. Employee engagement is one of the challenges the book explores in depth. You can buy it on Amazon, as well as in WHSmith travel outlets and other high street bookstores