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8 Employee Engagement Ideas for Every Small Business & Entrepreneur

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As an entrepreneur, you love what you do. You started your business because you had a passion for a particular idea, and you were willing to work hard to make your business successful.

But what about the people working for you? How would your business be different if everyone on your team came to work with the same drive and passion as you?

When you consider this, you’re imagining the power of engagement. Engagement encompasses many factors: having effective workplace communication skills, connecting people with the deeper purpose of what they do, building trust, and much more.

As a small business owner, you might not have the mammoth budgets of a Fortune 500 company. However, there is a lot you can do on a small budget to build engagement in your team, whether it’s a team of one or 100.

What Is Employee Engagement?

The term “employee engagement” is a bit ambiguous, and it’s often used to describe a number of different factors and traits. You can think of engagement as a mixture of passion, commitment, job satisfaction, heart, and involvement.

Employees who are engaged truly care about their organization, the work they do, and the goals they’re trying to achieve. This commitment makes them go above and beyond what’s written in their job description.

When the conditions are right and employees feel engaged, you get their best: their full attention, energy, passion, good ideas, creativity, and loyalty. Just think about how your business might be transformed if your people showed up every day and gave you 100% of what they’re capable of.

According to an article published in The New York Times, employees are more engaged when four of their core needs are addressed:

  • Physical. These needs are met when employees have opportunities to renew and recharge at work.
  • Emotional. These needs are met when employees feel valued for their contributions.
  • Mental. These needs are met when employees have the time and opportunity to focus on their most important work, and the autonomy to decide when and where that work gets done.
  • Spiritual. These needs are met when employees connect to a higher purpose at work.

So, if you can support these four core needs, you’ll wind up with a more engaged team.

The Importance of Engaged Workers

According to Gallup, which has been measuring employee engagement since 2000, only 32% of U.S. workers feel engaged at work. That means that a staggering 68% of workers feel ambivalent, or actively disengaged, at their organization. Worldwide, only 13% of workers report feeling actively engaged at work.

The numbers point to an engagement crisis in the workplace. And, this lack of engagement has serious effects on profit, productivity, customer satisfaction, and overall long-term business success.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that improving employee engagement might have positive effects on profit. Another study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that engagement had a greater association with job performance than any other factor studied.

Engaged Workers Importance

How to Increase Employee Engagement

The good news is that improving engagement doesn’t have to involve costly “team building” days or employee parties, both of which aren’t that effective anyway. The best ways to boost engagement are simple and cost-effective.

1. Increase Your Transparency

Building trust with your team can have a huge impact on their engagement. And, one of the best ways to do this is to be more transparent.

Being transparent means being open and honest with your employees and customers. It means explaining why you make decisions, always telling the truth, admitting when you make a mistake, and sharing your own hardships and uncertainties. In short, it means conceding that you’re human, just like everyone else on your team.

Your team, and your customers, want to be able to relate to you. Transparency makes this possible. Transparency is much easier for entrepreneurs than larger corporations. However, it can be challenging to achieve in business because so many people, entrepreneurs and organizations alike, feel the need to make decisions in secret, or appear “larger than life” to those they lead.

It’s time to throw these ideas out the window. Transparency will help you build more authentic relationships with your team. It fosters open and honest debate, which can resolve problems faster, and, most importantly, it builds trust. Trust is the real currency when it comes to engagement.

2. Clarify Work Expectations

Do your employees know what you expect of them? Do they understand how important their jobs are? Do they know how to prioritize their most important tasks so that their real work gets done?

All too often, business owners assume that people know what their jobs entail. But this is a dangerous assumption to make. Your expectations go beyond a job description; they include your expectations for behavior, your approach to customer service, and your ethical standards.

Gallup reports that only about 50% of employees know what’s expected of them at work. So, chances are, your team could use some additional guidance to better understand what you’re expecting.

To clarify your expectations, set clear performance goals. Your team needs to know when they’re performing well, and when they need to work harder to improve. It’s important to hold your team accountable for these goals. In one Gallup study, 38% of employees whose managers hold them accountable for goals reported feeling engaged.

Next, give your team the autonomy to meet those performance goals in their own way. You want to monitor their progress, but only step in with guidance if you see someone really going off track. Provide regular feedback on their progress.

You might also need to help your employees prioritize tasks. Everyone gets caught up in the “busy work” of responding to emails or returning phone calls, and while these tasks are necessary, they can take attention and energy away from the tasks and goals that are ultimately going to grow your business.

Last, make sure everyone on your team understands the “why” behind their job. This means communicating how their work positively affects the business, as well as the community. Look for ways to keep connecting each of your employees to this larger purpose.

Clarify Work Expectations

3. Communicate What People Can Expect From You

Your team needs to understand that you’re there for them. Yes, you’re the boss, but you’re also their leader. And, part of being a good leader is supporting your team. Make sure everyone knows that they can come to you with questions or problems that need to be addressed. Do your best to be open and approachable so that your team feels comfortable coming to you for help.

One easy way to do this is to have an open-door policy in your office. When the door’s open, anyone can come to you and talk about their concerns.

Another approach is to hit the floor and regularly check in with employees. Talk to them about how their day is going, and if there’s anything you can do to make their jobs easier. What frustrations do they experience at work on a regular basis? This personal “checking in” approach is called Management By Wandering Around (MBWA). While it’s often used in mid- to large-sized companies, you can still apply it to your small business.

One of the biggest benefits to MBWA is that it keeps things personal. When your team sees you out walking around on a regular basis, they’ll get more comfortable with you. And, this means they’re more likely to share problems, or pitch good ideas that might help improve your business.

Using the MBWA approach will motivate you to get out from behind the desk and go talk to the people that keep things running.

4. Provide Enough Resources

Do your people have the resources they need, not only to do their job, but also to develop and grow both personally and professionally?

A study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that having access to job resources boosted employee engagement, especially in positions where demands and stress are high.

Stop and think about the resources that might help your team do their jobs more effectively. What additional skills or training could you provide? Next, think about their future development. What could you do to help them advance, even if one day that means leaving your business for the next step up?

One of the best examples of a company providing great resources to boost engagement is Amazon, who prepays 95% of tuition costs for certificates and associate degrees in high-demand occupations. Amazon’s first graduate from the Career Choice program is now a nurse, who serves her local community.

Of course, Amazon is a mammoth company and has plenty of profit to do this for their employees. But you can follow their lead. Talk to employees one-on-one, and find out what their personal and career goals are. How could you help them reach these goals? What books or training could you help them obtain? Do you know anyone in your network who might help?

On the surface, helping your people move up through your organization, and perhaps even on to something else, might sound counterintuitive to your business goals. However, you’re demonstrating to your team that you support their personal goals, and by giving them the resources they need to do their current job – and pursue their dreams – you show that you value them as people.

This type of support can yield tremendous benefits to your business because it allows you to attract great employees and retain them until they’re ready to move on. In the meantime, they’ll feel supported and valued, and they’ll give you everything they’ve got. Organizations like Amazon see this as a fair trade.

5. Give Your People a Voice

In many businesses, employees show up, do their work, and go home for the day. They don’t have any say in the decisions that happen within the organization. This lack of involvement can really disconnect people from the work they’re doing because they feel as if they don’t have a stake in that organization’s future. Without a stake, they don’t care.

You can boost your team’s engagement simply by giving them a voice. Ask them how they feel about some of the upcoming decisions you have to make, and debate with them over the best way forward. What are their ideas for improving customer service, or your latest product offering, or the front window display?

While you can’t let your team members in on every decision you have to make, you can at least listen to what they have to say on some issues. When someone does come up with a great idea, give them the autonomy to turn it into a reality.

Give People Voice

6. Make Sure Your Team Knows Your Values

When you created your business, you built it around certain core values, whether you wrote them down or not. You had a vision of how you wanted your business to look and feel, and you had set ideas about the standards you would put in place for the work you were going to do. Defining what those values are, and making sure your team knows what they are, can help boost engagement.

For example, does your business encourage and reward creativity? Integrity? Hard work? Honesty?

If you’ve never defined the core values you want in your business, now’s the time to sit down and think about the ones that matter most to you. Your values create your identity; they set you apart from your competition and act as a moral compass for your decisions. But, values only do this if they mean something. Simply creating a core values statement and passing it out to your team won’t do anything but waste paper.

You need to define your top three core values, and then make sure that every decision made in your business lives up to those values. This isn’t as simple as it sounds. Living by your values often means making some hard decisions that might cause pain to you and your business. For example, if your business is committed to honesty and integrity, it means not working with a supplier with unethical business practices, even if they have the lowest prices.

Running a business that aligns with your values takes guts, strength, and constant vigilance. But the rewards are profound. Your team will respect you for your integrity, and they’ll be more engaged because they believe in what they’re working for.

Part of this means examining your own behavior. Do you walk the walk when it comes to your values? If not, then they’re just words in an employee handbook; values are meaningless without commitment, and leadership by example, from the very top.

7. Build a Culture of Appreciation

When was the last time you thanked your employees for the work they do?

It’s easy for entrepreneurs to get so caught up in the demands of running a business that they forget to show appreciation to the people who are on the front lines. But these people make your business possible, and it’s essential that you show them how much you appreciate their hard work.

Expressing gratitude starts with a simple but powerful “thank you” to employees who stepped up and went above and beyond, or solved a pressing problem. This is most powerful when it’s in person and, ideally, in front of their peers.

There are plenty of other ways to express your appreciation:

  • Send a thank-you note.
  • Leave comments of appreciation on a message board in the break room.
  • Throw a party when your team meets an ambitious work goal.
  • Create a Wall of Fame for team members who meet performance goals.
  • Upgrade their workspace to make it more pleasant, comfortable, and inviting. This can be as simple as fresh paint, more plants, and striking artwork, or investing in better office chairs, uniforms, or laptops.

There are literally thousands of ways to show your appreciation to your team. But again, the simplest way is also the most powerful: simply saying a sincere “thank you” for a job well done.

8. Encourage Breaks

The New York Times reports that employees who take a break every 90 minutes report a 30% higher level of focus than those who don’t. They also report a 50% higher ability to think creatively.

A survey by Staples came to the same conclusion: 80% of respondents reported that breaks make them feel more productive. When breaks are part of business culture, employees feel like they have a better work-life balance. They experience less stress, more happiness, and higher productivity. And, this can directly lead to a higher level of engagement.

Any business can do more to encourage breaks. For example, if one of your employees just went through a tense situation with a customer, encourage them to take a walk outside for 15 minutes to recharge. If possible, give employees an hour off for lunch instead of 30 minutes. Reward someone who met their weekly performance goal by letting them go home early on Friday afternoon.

Another way to encourage breaks is to give your team an inviting space to relax. Turn the break room or an unused office into a place where people want to go. Add a sofa or massage chair, freshen up the paint, add aromatherapy diffusers, fill it with plants, buy a foosball table, put out healthy snacks and tea, add lamps…you’re only limited by your imagination.

Ways to Implement Employee Engagement Best Practices

Many entrepreneurs overlook the importance of engagement simply because they’re wearing 20 different hats and trying to get a million things done in a day. However, the time you set aside to build engagement will pay off tenfold. So, how do you do it?

1. Start Small

Some of the strategies outlined above don’t require any time commitment at all; you simply need to change your behavior or approach. For example, saying “thank you” more often takes a couple of extra minutes a day. Increasing your transparency is another behavioral change that won’t take much time.

Other strategies, such as clarifying work expectations or practicing Management By Wandering Around, are more of a time investment, so you’ll need to use some time management strategies to free up your schedule.

Time Management Strategies

2. Use an Activity Log

Keep an activity log of the tasks that you spend time on every day. Start the moment you arrive at work, and jot down what you’re doing and how much time it takes. Keep the log for one week, if possible, so you have a better picture of the ebb and flow of your work. Even two or three days will give you a better grasp of how you’re using your time.

When you’re done with your log, look carefully at where your time is going.

3. Account for “Reaction Time”

If you spend a lot of your day reacting to situations that genuinely need your attention, Forbes has an excellent suggestion for managing your day more effectively. Once you’ve monitored your time with an activity log, look at how much of your average day is spent in “reaction mode.” Is it 40%? 60%?

Instead of trying to schedule your entire day, only schedule what’s left after the time you typically spend on reactive-related tasks or situations. So, if you typically spend 50% of your time reacting to unexpected situations at work, this means that you should only schedule 50% of your day on other tasks.

Be aware of how much time you’re spending on these interruptions. While you can’t control every situation that demands your attention, you can control how much time and energy you spend on each one.

4. Delegate Low-Value Tasks

Take another look at your activity log. What low-value tasks could you delegate to someone else so you could instead focus on your engagement efforts?

Business owners often find it hard to give up control, even for the smallest tasks. Change your perspective: Look for tasks that would help one of your employees learn a new skill and grow from the experience.

5. Limit Meetings to 20 Minutes

Anyone who has ever sat through a meeting knows that they often drag on a lot longer than they need to.

Avoid this by setting a time limit of 20 or 30 minutes for meetings. Use an old-fashioned kitchen timer that ticks so that everyone knows the clock is winding down. You might be astonished at how productive your meetings get when there’s a ticking clock in the room.

Another strategy to try is to ban chairs from the meeting room. When everyone is forced to stand during meetings, brevity becomes common. Using simple strategies to shorten your meetings will free up time that you can spend on engagement efforts.

Limit Meetings 20 Minutes

6. Set Limits for Digital Work

Your team shouldn’t feel pressured to check work email at night or on weekends, no matter what they do. This “work creep” has damaging effects on stress levels, health, and satisfaction. As you might imagine, it’s also going to limit how engaged they feel when they’re at work. Encourage your team to leave work at work, and make sure they know that you don’t expect them to respond to emails when they’re off.

You also need to “walk the walk” here. As a business owner, this might be hard to do. However, if you send someone on your team an email at 10:30pm, he or she might feel pressured to respond, no matter what you say. So, try to communicate with your team only during regular business hours.

Final Word

Engagement is all about investing in your team so that they feel energized, passionate, and fulfilled at work. They’ll experience greater job satisfaction, more work-life balance, and a greater sense of loyalty to your organization.

Of course, your business benefits as well. You’ll find it easier to find and retain great people. Employees will give you their best work because they know you appreciate what they’re doing and because they understand how their work contributes to the greater good. This, in and of itself, can be incredibly fulfilling.

Have you ever worked for an organization where you really felt engaged? If you own a business, do you have any strategies you’d like to share for building engagement with your team?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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