Engaging employees in the digital age

So many companies today, whether they're financial, healthcare, media, or consumer products, are going through dramatic and rapid transformations.

So many companies today, whether they're financial, healthcare, media, or consumer products, are going through dramatic and rapid transformations.

While adapting traditional business models to new risks and opportunities is essential to success, real leadership depends on the ability of a company to stop reacting and start innovating – a shift that must be driven by a community of highly engaged employees who are deeply motivated to building a dynamic and forward-thinking company. In today's world, leadership cannot follow a top-down approach; it cannot even be based on listening. Rather, it must be rooted in a true dialogue and social exchange, one in which employees want to participate.

In many companies, success in opening a meaningful dialogue and truly engaging with employees is patchy at best. According to McKinsey & Company, even at healthy companies, one in four employees is unclear about management's strategic direction. This disconnect, which represents a broader engagement issue, has real business consequences: Gallup has estimated that lack of engagement among employees accounts for more than $300 billion annually in lost productivity in the US alone. Other studies have repeatedly confirmed these findings, showing that engaged workers have higher productivity, less turnover, and generate greater shareholder returns.

Internal engagement is critical for business success, particularly when the landscape is shifting. Driving real cultural transformation requires aligning and activating employees around a clear and bold strategic vision that they feel a part of. CEO letters, town hall meetings, and company picnics are still important for building community, but even more vital is encouraging entrepreneurship – a culture of risk-taking and entrepreneurial culture borrowed from startups. This requires a mindset change in most large, global companies, as well as new digital tools that facilitate productive and creative collaboration across businesses, functions, and geographies.

Successful employee engagement programs must combine the best strategic approaches from traditional internal communications with the kind of social innovation driving today's fastest growing startups. When thinking about unleashing your employee potential, consider the following:

Articulate your vision.
Communicate your purpose (why you do what you do), aspiration (where you want to go), and strategy (a path to get there). Facts are important, but emotional resonance is critical to motivating employees to deliver best-in-class results and to retaining them.

Make it a shared vision.
Challenge employees to help shape and define the vision – and give them a role in bringing it to life. Encourage people to feel that they are individually part of the company's mission.

Create a speak-out culture.
Invite employees to voice opinions and be sure to have feedback loops for management to listen and respond, and dialogue about choices and priorities.

Make employee success company success.
Create opportunities where your best people can meaningfully contribute, and celebrate those contributions. A thank-you culture can make a difference every day.

Drive transformational change through cultural immersion.
Help your employees experience different ways of thinking. Consider bringing in “change agents” or allowing employees to work in different environments through job swaps with other functions or even companies.

Leverage digital tools for dialogue and idea-sharing.
For your people, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ are the norm; they are part of daily life. Leverage this familiarity, and don't let your in-house technology lag behind.

Don't let water cooler talk shape the conversation.
Provide a steady stream of content and open dialogue with employees who can be your ambassadors internally. Remember, employees take their cues from peers and direct supervisors, not top management.

Show employees that you care about more than just their work.
Foster team spirit through programs that celebrate creativity, community service, health and well-being, and family. People will excel in a company they feel proud of, where their family, friends, and community leaders appreciate the company's contributions.

Kathy Bloomgarden is CEO of Ruder Finn.

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