Over the past few decades, employee engagement has become a top priority for global organizations. Although “employee engagement” may appear ambiguous, it truly refers to doing things that make an employee feel happy, fulfilled, and safe at work. Employees are more likely to maximize productivity and performance if they are more engaged.

The need for an engaged workforce will be even more essential in this decade and beyond. With every company’s bottom line suffering because of the pandemic, better employee loyalty levels could be the parameter that determines whether or not a company’s profit margins are maintained.

Engaging your employees can seem like an expensive, complex, and foolhardy task. When it comes to small businesses, these roadblocks seem even more vast.

But, believe it or not, engaging your employees is not the mammoth task that it is made out to be. In this article, I’ll take you through some easy but effective strategies to help small business owners enhance their employee engagement levels.

How to Engage Employees as a Small Business Owner

When Sequoia Capital in Silicon Valley dubbed COVID-19 the “Black Swan of 2020,” it reminded founders and CEOs that “those who survive are not the strongest or the most intelligent, but the most adaptable to change.”

In the pandemic, small businesses were undoubtedly one of the worst hit sectors. Despite these challenges, many companies managed to survive and even flourish. In fact, many new small businesses also got the green light during the pandemic.

However, in the post-pandemic era, don’t make the mistake of assuming that you won’t face another such big crisis. The first step toward preparing for any crisis is to ensure that your team is solid — and you can do that by engaging your employees.

1. Be an active listener.

The majority of employee engagement strategies are geared toward being tactical or sophisticated. However, the simplest ones often have the most significant influence.

 For example, consider the art of listening.

Great active listeners can pick up on meanings and hints that “talkers” miss. However, despite its simplicity, it alleviated one main problem that bad leaders exhibit — commanding people to do their jobs.

Here’s the deal. Leaders are often more concerned with the results than with the process itself. This usually means that employees’ problems are not heard or addressed. When you start commanding people to do things, you lose their respect and set them on the path to disengagement.

Thus, a leader must cultivate a very critical habit. Begin actively communicating with your team.

Make it a cultural norm for managers and senior leaders to inquire, “What can I do to assist you in overcoming this problem?” Your job as a leader is to understand what is required, listen to new perspectives, and determine the best way forward.

One of the most significant advantages of being an active listener is the insights and viewpoints that people share with you. Simply put, certain employees are aware of the nitty-gritty details of the business that even the most senior executive may be unaware of.

Although some of those suggestions may not be feasible, they will make that person feel gratified that you took the time to sit and listen to their ideas. Employees are more likely to be confident in their jobs if you show them that their opinions matter.

2. Have conversations, not debates.

For employees, being respected influences how engaged they genuinely feel. Leaders must recognize the importance of cultivating a culture in which multiple points of view are discussed without anyone feeling obligated to “win” a debate by imposing their opinions. This is also a major prerequisite for building an inclusive workplace.

Debates only focus on “being right” rather than doing what is best for the team and the organization. A leader should ensure that everyone on the team participates in a civil and equal discussion to reach a consensus on the best course of action.

Conducting round-robin meetings is one of the most effective strategies to do so. Participants are given time to discuss their ideas and opinions in a round-robin meeting. It not only lowers the risk of getting distracted but also promotes inclusivity.

As you might know, one of the best tools for balancing internal communications with productivity is email marketing. Thus, you can maximize your engagement by using email banners and other tools.

3. Don’t ditch recognition.

The state of employee engagement is very different than it was two decades back. Millennials and Gen Z workers are motivated by more than just a paycheck. They want to make a difference.

According to an SHRM study, 79% of millennial and Gen Z respondents agreed that greater rewards and recognition would boost their loyalty to their job.

Today’s workforce expects to be recognized, valued, and rewarded for their efforts. Their job satisfaction levels are influenced by being rewarded for exceptional performance through bonuses, benefits, and employee appreciation.

Meanwhile, Harvard Business Review research on the Fresh Start effect suggests recognizing your employees can be especially effective at key temporal milestones. If you want to make your employees’ accomplishments more meaningful, reward and recognize them when they achieve their objectives.

Now, if you want your employee recognition process to be truly effective, you must ensure that it is done frequently, on time, and in a value-based way.

  • Frequent recognition implies that recognition should be consistent rather than a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence.
  • Timely recognition includes recognizing a good performance or effort as soon as it is accomplished.
  • Value-based recognition is used when you want to create an appreciation-based culture and define what behaviors are reward-worthy to your employees.

Employee recognition may appear complicated, expensive, and time-consuming, but it does not have to be. Appreciating your employees will be easier and more convenient if you use a digital reward and recognition platform.

Many of these platforms are reasonably priced and suitable for businesses of all sizes. So, even if you are a small business, there is almost certainly a low-cost recognition platform for you out there.

4. Prioritize employee well-being.

Employee working from home sitting and meditating in front of her computer.

It is well-known that happy, healthy employees are far more productive. This is further supported by a Gallup study that found engagement and well-being are mutually reinforcing, i.e., each affects the other’s future condition.

Since 2020, prioritizing one’s health has been on the rise, and for a good reason. According to Deloitte’s report, while 80% of organizations stated employee well-being would be critical for their success over the next 12-18 months, only 12% claimed they were prepared to cope with the issue.

It’s vital to recognize that a lack of physical wellness isn’t the only factor affecting your employees’ productivity. It’s also about their mental wellness. Many businesses still heavily emphasize physical health in their corporate wellness program, even though mental health is essential for an employee’s ability to perform and prevent stress and burnout.

It is not necessary to spend a lot of money to help employees be their healthiest selves. You can hold small wellness contests as a small business owner to encourage your employees to get up and move. To ensure that your employees participate, you can offer incentives such as an extra day off to those who walk the most steps.

5. Foster meaningful peer relationships.

Another common mistake most small businesses make is prioritizing top-down or manager-only recognition while disregarding the importance of peer-to-peer appreciation.

Most people place great value on what their peers think of them. When employees share a sense of camaraderie and connect with their coworkers, they look forward to going to work every day.

A positive and healthy culture is one in which coworkers congratulate each other on a job well done. According to research from SHRM and Globoforce, 57% of HR professionals in companies who used peer-to-peer recognition programs said that employee engagement was higher. Additionally, retention increased in 28% of corporations that started using peer recognition systems against 21% of businesses that didn’t.

Therefore, peer-to-peer recognition will continue to be one of the most successful and potent engagement tactics as long as you lead a people-first company. As a small business owner, here are some tips for fostering a culture of peer recognition at your workplace:

  • Publicly showcasing your employees’ accomplishments allows others to join in on appreciating, discussing, and celebrating that particular milestone, whether through a social media post or a “wall of fame” (either physical or digital).
  • Whether you’re celebrating a significant achievement or a work anniversary, encourage employees to take the initiative to plan and carry out a peer recognition moment.
  • Encourage staff members to collaborate, learn from, and interact with one another to develop new ideas. Cross-functional teams can effectively teach your staff how to collaborate better.
  • A great approach for peers to work together and negotiate the complexities of a new project or task is through mentoring or buddy programs.
  • Leaders must continuously remind their team of the importance of praising exceptional work. Keep it relevant and give it a top priority. Set a good example for your staff regarding what to acknowledge and how to express gratitude.

6. Improve relationships with managers.

According to an MIT SMR study, employees who said they completely trusted their team leader were 14 times more likely to be fully engaged. Meanwhile, according to a 2019 survey by the staffing company Robert Half, nearly half of the workers surveyed left their jobs because of a bad boss.

A famous saying can sum up the statistics presented above:

“People don’t leave jobs. They leave their managers.”

In numerous online discussions, employees have expressed the belief that they would rather work for a terrible company with an excellent manager than a fantastic company with a bad manager. As a result, businesses must evaluate and measure managers’ performance in the same manner they do their employees’.

Managers serve as a link between a company and its employees. Suppose the manager is not a team player. In that case, the employees will have a harder time achieving their full potential, even if the company invests millions in resources and employee engagement programs.

Thus, devoting time to finding a good manager can boost morale, motivate employees to do their best work, serve as ideal mentors, and produce exceptional results. A team led by an effective manager will be more productive, less distracted, and exhibit higher levels of teamwork. In a nutshell, they will become more engaged.

7. Establish a culture that prioritizes empathy.

If there is one thing you must do right now to increase engagement, it is to become more empathetic.

It is imperative to understand that a lack of empathy for your people, especially as leaders, invites future business loss. Employees’ mental health, productivity, and performance may suffer because of management’s lack of compassion. In such a scenario, engagement suffers a severe loss.

In this new era, leaders need to be able to relate to the plight of the workforce. Empathy enables you to respond to the needs of your team with openness rather than skepticism. Through the use of empathy, you can show your team that you are concerned about their happiness and well-being while keeping them from interpreting your compassion as a sign of weakness.

Employees become more committed to the company when treated like more than just a cog in the machine. In times of change and crisis, employees require a leader with whom they can connect on a human level. The key is to strike a balance between your compassionate and managerial sides. Here’s how:

  • No matter how tiny, genuine appreciation could significantly affect your staff’s mood. Even a small gesture of gratitude from the heart, especially during trying times, can give your team the boost they require.
  • Schedule at least 5 minutes of one-on-one time with each employee on your schedule. Encourage your staff to discuss their highs and lows from the prior week to make these sessions more personalized. Make sure these conversations cover the personal and professional aspects of your employees’ lives to gain a complete picture of their mental health.
  • As a leader, you must create an encouraging environment where people believe they don’t have to exert themselves to the point of exhaustion to accomplish their targets. To start, you can guide your team through a SMART goals goal-setting process to identify which objectives are realistic.

8. Focus on diversity.

Not prioritizing DE&I (diversity, equity, and inclusion) may have a far more significant impact on your company than you realize. According to a recent McKinsey study, 39% of all respondents have rejected or decided not to pursue a job because of a perceived lack of inclusion at the company.

This is something you do not want to happen in a talent war. Leaders foster a culture of inclusion by implementing better recruitment strategies that appeal to a diverse audience. Here are some steps you can take to start hiring more candidates from underrepresented groups (URGs):

  • Implement outreach initiatives for diversity. Focus on enhancing your sourcing and leveraging a wider variety of job sites to increase the diversity of your top-of-funnel candidates.
  • To encourage a broader range of applicants, you may also work on enhancing your referral programs and supporting employee resource groups (ERGs).
  • By agreeing to include at least two underrepresented minority candidates in the last stage of the interview process, you can easily make DE&I recruitment a priority.

9. Track performance, not time spent at the office.

Person drawing graph on laptop indicating growth up to 2022.

The post-pandemic hybrid world brought to light a new discriminatory practice that may affect your remote workers and your regular office workers. In one study, researchers concluded that remote and office workers were promoted at the same rate but found that remote workers’ salaries grew more slowly.

This creates a new question. Are productivity and performance equivalent to the output your present? Alternatively, is it simply a question of being “present” and “seen” doing work rather than actually being productive?

Such prejudice and unconscious biases encourage a culture where an employee’s actual performance is disregarded. Because they aren’t the first to come and the last to leave the office, it fosters a culture where the real top performers are overlooked and aren’t given the credit they deserve.

As a leader, you can focus on your employees’ performance and retain your best employees by doing the following:

  • Change the way you measure success. Instead of micromanaging your employees to complete a task, set up a structure where everyone is responsible for their own goals. The secret to efficient yet bias-free performance management is utilizing SMART goal setting, OKRs, KPIs, scrums, and sprint planning.
  • Track every promotion and pay raise for the next 12 to 18 months and look for a relationship between it and time spent in the office. It will help you determine whether time spent working increases or decreases an employee’s likelihood of career development.
  • Specify the expectations for both you and the staff. Transparency and trust are the foundation of a good working relationship. Make sure that you and your team have outlined their expectations in advance.
  • If there was no structure before, build one. Implementing clear standard operation procedures (SOPs), frequent meetings, check-ins, or clear goal-setting will help you maintain high productivity even in a flexible work environment.

Summing Up

Employee engagement is by no means an easy task to accomplish. However, the business ROIs an engaged workforce brings to the table are well worth the effort. You’ll be one step closer to having an engaged, productive, and happier workforce with the right employee engagement strategies.

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