Carol Schultz, Contributor
A 2023 Gallup report found that 69% of Americans aren’t engaged at work, a startling figure.
What’s worse: Disengaged employees can cost a company with below-average salaries more than $3 million per year. If we look at tech companies, this number will be astronomically higher.
High turnover rates, recruiting replacements, onboarding replacements, and training replacements—the costs can skyrocket when your workers are mentally checked out. And any company can feel the financial pain of low engagement and high turnover.
No matter how much money your business is making, its success will dwindle over time if your employees aren’t satisfied and engaged. Happy employees, happy company, they say.
Finding proven strategies that will make your workers, at all levels and in all departments, feel valued and heard can be challenging. The key to finding strategies that will work is focusing on the employee experience.
After working with founders of small, medium, and large companies in various industries for over 30 years, I’ve created the following five tips to help leaders improve the employee experience to ensure they’re keeping workers happy and engaged.
To improve employee experience, leaders can ask employees about their needs, foster a culture of feedback, start with realistic expectations, align their leadership teams, and communicate effectively. These strategies support employees and empower them to work well together.
It all starts with a simple question.
Ask Employees What They Need—Yes, It’s That Simple
Communication will always be the foundation for building rapport with someone—in this case, with your employees. Your people want to feel seen and appreciated by you.
If you aren’t doing this already, set aside time every quarter to have one-on-ones with your workers. And I’m not just referring to the four executives you talk to every single day.
I mean the lower-level employees who’ve only had the pleasure of shaking your hand, the new talent who’ve just finished onboarding, and the senior people who’ve been with you from the beginning. All of them deserve your attention.
Sit down with them and ask questions like:
How is it going?
How can we improve?
What are your goals with our company?
These questions can kick-start long, thoughtful conversations that employees will remember years later. The answers may also point to blind spots within your organization and help you identify where improvements can be made, such as by providing more training opportunities, offering flexible work arrangements, or improving communication channels.
Employee conversations will also allow you to learn more about the person sitting in front of you and their aspirations. One employee may dream of becoming a manager, while another would avoid it like the plague; either way, it’s helpful to know.
Career advancement opportunities are perceived as “very important” by 89% of millennials, so modern-day companies should make asking about these goals a top priority.
Additionally, leaders must actively listen to employees’ responses, show genuine interest in their perspectives, follow up on feedback and suggestions, and consider taking action. This shows your employees that you’re committed to their satisfaction.
Of course, it’s daunting to meet with everyone one by one, especially if you have over 100 employees. But the alternative is staying in the dark about company issues that may undermine morale and hinder success.
Foster a Culture of Feedback—and Be Proactive
To move forward, we must learn from our mistakes. But what if you’re unaware of the blunders being made within your organization? The issues will continue to fester without your knowledge, and your people will be left feeling unheard.
To avoid this, you must foster a company culture where anyone at any level feels comfortable voicing concerns to a co-worker or a higher-up. When an employee speaks up, the receiver can’t throw them under the bus for coming forward. If there is any fear of repercussions, you haven’t created a culture of feedback.
How can you shift to this kind of culture? Cultures start with examples. You must not only be vulnerable with your staff when you make a mistake but also listen to their feedback without judgment. As you begin to do this, others will follow suit.
A little over half of American workers say their company’s leadership is either “not proactive” or “takes no action” regarding culture. Encouraging open communication and providing opportunities for employees to share their opinions and ideas will contribute to a more collaborative and engaged workforce.
When issues arise, listen to all sides and stay solution-focused. This will up your employees’ morale; they’ll feel they have a voice and the power to affect change.
Case in point: In my recent discovery meetings with a new client’s employees, a particular C-level executive repeatedly came up in conversation. Employees reported that this executive spoke negatively about direct reports to other staff members.
In turn, these staff members were forced to change how they worked to avoid confrontations with this person. The staff was incredibly unhappy about it, to say the least.
If a culture of feedback had been present, the executive in question would have received guidance from the CEO long before I was brought in to conduct my discovery. The staff members would have felt comfortable talking to someone about the person’s actions. And leadership would have had the tools to implement a solution.
Make Expectations Clear During the Hiring Process—Honesty Is the Best Policy
When you’re recruiting talent, do you read the actual position descriptions? Or do you hand this task off to someone else?
The number one mistake I see companies make with position descriptions is exaggerating a job’s benefits and downplaying the negatives in an effort to attract candidates. This approach is counterproductive, as it easily leads to disappointment and disillusionment for both the company and the employee.
Instead, companies should provide accurate and detailed position descriptions that paint a clear picture of what the job entails, including its positive and negative aspects. You don’t have to list every negative aspect of a job, but making a candidate aware of the downsides will pay off.
Don’t believe it? Imagine reading about a job that boasts a four-day workweek and 10-hour days, but when you show up to work, four days become five grueling, 14-hour days. Would you trust this new company? Or would you be looking for a new job?
Employees would rather know what they’re getting themselves into. This is often called “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.” And the reality is that there is no panacea, so it’s better to have all the facts.
If working long hours is required, you’ll be surprised by how many people will be open to that if told upfront. If you fail to be honest, you’re back to risking that worker leaving to find a better fit somewhere else, or, worse, “quiet quitting” instead of leaving.
Align Your Leadership—and Mind the Gaps
Is your executive team mindful and committed to your company’s vision? To answer this, ask them individually: “What’s the vision for the company?”
If their responses match, great. If they don’t, the work is cut out for you to get them all speaking the same language because if they can’t tell you the correct vision, they definitely aren’t telling their direct reports or clients. This can lead to misalignment on many levels and wasted work in various areas.
This is just one way to detect gaps in an organization’s alignment. Alignment shapes every employee’s experience, especially those in lower- or entry-level positions.
A clear and well-communicated vision will serve as a guiding light for these employees as they make decisions that are in line with your company’s goals. It will also motivate your workforce to do those tedious tasks that otherwise seem meaningless.
Alignment starts at the top and should always be top of mind. Call a meeting with your team leaders. Ask each of them how their department works to fulfill the organization’s vision.
Reciting a shared vision isn’t enough; your team must be committed to it. This means they should actively work toward achieving the vision and inspire others to do the same.
Years ago, I was working with a tech startup and noticed many gaps in alignment during my discovery process. A recent hire on the lowest tier exposed a glaring issue in an interview with me. Her role was to do email outreach to potential clients. How to word the email was left up to her and her manager.
As someone who had previously spoken to the CEO about the company’s vision, I cocked my head after reading one of the outreach emails. It pitched the product as a “new system to better organize HR tasks.”
The problem? The product was, in fact, much more than that. The company’s vision was “to utilize technology to improve organization within companies.” The wording, therefore, left the wrong impression on potential clients.
This is just one example of how misalignment affected a low-level employee and, ultimately, the prospect.
Equally significant is to re-communicate the company’s vision if it shifts, as many do when a company experiences rapid growth. Keep communication open with your team during these times.
Speaking of Communication—Make Sure You’re Communicating Effectively
Implementing the strategies I’ve outlined above requires a lot of conversations. So, it’s important to note the best method of communication to relay different messages to your team. This applies to everything from day-to-day communication to new product releases to sensitive company-wide updates.
What communication medium is best? An in-person meeting is always most effective because contextual clues, like body language and tone of voice, help the receiver understand the message.
If meeting face-to-face isn’t possible, a video chat or phone call is the next best thing, as viewers and listeners can take in the tone of voice in addition to the words spoken.
The most ineffective communication method—yet one many companies rely on—is email or text-based messaging.
Consider this best-case scenario: An email is perfectly written and edited. The receiver opens it. If they give their full attention to the email message, they understand the contents and can respond.
However, most of the time, workers are multitasking when reading emails. And in many cases, the email’s writing isn’t perfectly edited and may include typos.
These factors, plus a lack of tone, make email one of the worst ways to communicate. And it’s been proven: a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that people misinterpret emails as much as 50 percent of the time. Therefore, with any sort of message, handle it in person or over the phone.
Small Steps Over Time Create Vast Growth—and an Exceptional Employee Experience
Choose one of the strategies listed above to begin transforming your employees’ experiences. There’s no need to tackle them all at once. Be patient with yourself and your team. You’ll be shocked at how working toward one change will begin to improve other factors as well.
If it seems overwhelming, think about “the why.”
When employees aren’t satisfied, they become less committed to their work, less productive, and less willing to go above and beyond to meet the company’s goals. This directly translates to a decrease in the quality of work, an increase in absenteeism and turnover rates, and an overall waste of time and money.
On the other hand, companies that prioritize employee experience can reap numerous benefits, including increased productivity, reduced turnover, improved customer satisfaction, and a better brand image.
It’s important to understand that this process begins even before you hire someone. Misaligned expectations can lead to dissatisfaction and, ultimately, high turnover rates. Instead, remain truthful in your position descriptions and recruiting process.
Once your new employees are settled in, check in quarterly to see how their work is going and if any needs are unmet. Build a foundation of open feedback with your staff. This starts with you and your C-suite and grows over time.
Communicate your vision so employees can connect with it. When your team is committed to achieving this shared vision, they’re more likely to provide consistent, high-quality service.
With time and continual effort, you’ll see genuine smiles from employees at work, an increased bottom line, and a stellar reputation that will be a talent magnet.
CAROL SCHULTZ, founder and CEO of Vertical Elevation, is a talent equity and leadership advisory expert with 30 years in the business. She’s helped hundreds of companies transform their organizations and create sustainable, talent-centric cultures that run at maximum efficiency. Her new book is Powered By People: How Talent-Centric Organizations Master Recruitment, Retention, and Revenue (and How to Build One).