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Do Your Employees Really Love You?

Engagement in the workplace has plummeted and a lot of people don't like their jobs. Use these tips to figure out how your company's employees truly feel.

It’s no secret that many people aren’t thrilled with their jobs.

Fast Company covered Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace report extensively this spring. This report found that 70% of workers are either "not engaged" or "actively disengaged." Perhaps more telling: Despite years of employee engagement programs and an industry of consultants working on this issue, this number hasn’t changed much since Gallup started asking these questions in 2000. A more recent Right Management survey found that 84% of employees either strongly or somewhat agree with the statement, "Sometimes I feel trapped in my current job and want to find a new position elsewhere."

Perhaps you’re thinking that such disengagement couldn’t happen in your organization. But here’s a different question you should consider answering first: How do you know if your employees really love you?

Surveys are for suckers?

Many big companies do annual surveys, but Scott Ahlstrand, senior vice president for talent management at RIght Management, reports that he recently completed a global study of employee engagement programs and found that seven of 10 organizations said their program was "not achieving all the goals it was designed for." Organizations are "partying like it’s 1999." That’s the year the book First, Break All the Rules came out, which inspired a lot of corporate America’s obsession with engagement. Managers feel good because a survey exists, but too often organizations lack the discipline to do much about the results. "You don’t fatten the cow by weighing it every day," Ahlstrand says.

Fortunately, if you’re a manager in a larger organization, you don’t have to wait for the results of the big survey to figure out how your employees are feeling and what you should be doing about it—and if you’re running a smaller organization, such surveys may not be part of life anyway. Instead, this is "an opportunity for ‘emotional intelligence’—using your senses and intuition to observe employee behavior," says Cary Hatch, CEO of MDB Communications, an advertising agency in Washington D.C. She advises looking at your team members’ off-the-clock behavior. If people are invested beyond what’s in their job description, "they are likely to ‘bring something more’ to the firm than what’s required. Those things can be as homespun as showing up with homemade cookies at the weekly staff meeting or as significant as ‘I was thinking about the XYZ client problem, over the weekend . . . and here’s an idea I don’t think we’ve considered before.’ "

"Authentic engagement is palpable."

Engagement can also take the form of employees using their personal capital, "like offering up an introduction to their friends or family that can provide a valuable connection for your company," says Hatch. That is "a great gesture to an employer that says, Hey, I believe in you and what we’re doing, and I’m willing to put my brand at stake with people I care about in order to advance our mutual cause."

From years running her business, Hatch says she’s realized that "Bringing part of themselves (cookies, a six-pack, or homemade pie from their mom) or thinking and problem-solving on their own time likely indicates not just a desire to get ahead, but a genuine interest and investment in your company’s mission. Yes, it could be ‘sucking up’—but hey, we all know what that looks like. Authentic engagement is palpable. You know it when you see it."

A way to guarantee you’ll see it? Create a culture where communication happens in low-key ways all the time. ADG Creative, a communications agency in Columbia, Maryland, tries to encourage this by having a pub—with beers on tap—in the middle of the office. There’s coffee-making capability too, and the staff has breakfast together at 8:30 a.m. on Mondays and closes out the week with a happy hour that ends by 4 p.m. on Fridays.

"Nothing says I love you like a Guinness," explains Jeff Antkowiak, ADG’s chief creative officer. More seriously, "People act fundamentally different at a conference table than they do in a pub environment," and part of figuring out how people feel is having frequent low-pressure communication like you would with friends at a bar. Antkowiak likens it to the situation at his kids’ school, where he’s been on the board of directors for years. He helped to hire all the teachers. "We grew to be friends. We got together socially—and so at parent-teacher conferences, we never talked about my kids." That’s because "we talked all year long. We didn’t wait for parent-teacher conferences to check in on how the kids are doing."

Reviewing annual reviews

That’s not to say the professional equivalent of parent-teacher conferences—annual reviews—can’t be part of assessing employee engagement. After a bad experience with a packaged review process, ADG developed its own system called You in Review. Employees fill out answers in little booklets to questions such as "What do you need to be awesomer?"—a quick way to figure out unmet employee desires—and "What’s the coolest thing you did for an ADG client this year?" That’s a quick way to figure out what sorts of projects most excite any given team member.

People were "surprisingly honest," says Antkowiak. The key is "building an environment where people aren’t afraid to talk."

[Image: Flickr user Jean Pichot]