Employee EngagementEmployee ExperienceTalent Retention

Seeking Engaged Employees

Five CHROs share their secrets to a productive and happy workforce.

By Debbie Bolla

The statistics around employee engagement have haunted HR leaders for years. According to Gallup, in 2023, only 31% of employees were engaged. The same research firm found this alarming number of dissatisfied workers is costing U.S. companies a staggering $1.9 trillion in lost productivity. It’s become so common new words are even popping up to describe it—like quiet quitting in recent years.

But statistics like reducing turnover by more than one-third and increasing employee promotions by 33% (see Celebrating Success below) also show how powerful employee engagement initiatives are. With all this in mind, HR leaders are working hard to put employee engagement efforts first. It takes a thoughtful strategy to build a productive and happy workforce that feels rewarded, cared for, and loyal to their employers.

“Employee engagement requires a constant, always-on effort and we give it just that,” explains Cindy Blendu, chief transformation officer and CHRO of Clearwater Analytics. “We focus on naming leaders across the organization to drive diversity and inclusion efforts, support volunteer efforts, and routinely engage local offices, each working with a hearty budget and creative team to make work more fun.”

Organizations are taking the time to ensure initiatives touch everyone. “Our approach to employee engagement is to incorporate it into everything we do as HR partners to the business,” says Dianne DeSevo, chief people officer for Dow Jones. “Whether through training, development opportunities, initiatives led by specific department leaders, company-wide communications, and global town halls, we ensure that people managers at all levels are encouraged to engage with their direct reports, and are well-equipped to do so.”

And for Melissa DiMuro, chief people, culture, and marketing officer of Limbach, it’s simply part of their company DNA. “At Limbach, our top core value is ‘WE CARE,” which means that we are committed to providing meaningful work, a great environment, development, and career opportunities,” she says.

Inside Look 

When designing an employee engagement strategy, it’s important to consider that employees are multifaceted in life and in work, and what inspires them varies over time. There’s often not a one-size-fits-all solution. With this in mind, DeSevo says that Dow Jones has a multi-pronged approach, taking collaboration, leadership development, recognition, and wellness all into consideration.

An area they’ve recently been focusing on is office design and its impact. “Our physical environment and how we approach our workplace plays an important role in employee engagement, too,” she says. “We are always looking at opportunities for physical space modifications and enhancements that not only improve business workflow, but also employee interactions by offering an improved balance of ‘me’ spaces versus ‘we’ spaces.”

For example, many offices have wellness rooms for employees to use as needed—to get in a good mindfulness session or to step away for a break during the workday. The company also provides complimentary snacks and refreshments.

There’s also been a greater emphasis on bring employees together and fostering collaboration through in-person events. DeSevo says the company invites employees to view the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade from its New York City office each year and hosts holiday gatherings, lunches, and wine tastings with WSJ wine. These are the perfect environments for employees to socialize and remain connected to the organization.

With industry research showing that learning and development opportunities encourage both engagement and retention, Dow Jones is committed to upskilling employees. DeSevo says the company works with Hone, a people development platform, to help foster future executives with a leadership essentials training program. “We believe programs like these will support growth among our people leaders and ensure that we’re building effective and thoughtful managers,” she says.

DiMuro couldn’t agree more. “We offer an award-winning training program, including a full suite of leadership development programs, tailored onboarding, and robust functional training,” she says. Limbach also highly values leaders who understand that engagement begins at the top. Taking this into consideration, the organization has an intense process around the selection, promotion, and development of people leaders. “Our employees are the most important component of our business’ success, so encouraging their participation and voice is essential,” she says.

For Anne Buchanan, communication is a main priority for Guitar Center. “We have several town halls and other speaking engagements over the course of the year. We hold multiple engagement sessions related to our benefits and mental health offerings. We also provide cascade messaging materials for senior executives to roll down through the organization,” explains the SVP and CHRO.

Buchanan also sites recognition as an important pillar to engagement. Guitar Center honors employees who take strides to go above and beyond with an annual service awards program. Those honored are dedicated employees who deliver an exceptional level of service to both the organization and its clients.

Not surprisingly, Ramona H. Agrela, CHRO and vice chancellor – HR for University of California, Irvine, and Blendu of Clearwater Analytics report that they have similar building blocks to their programs. Both HR leaders shared an extensive amount of details surrounding their approaches. Learn more in the sidebars Employee Engagement at Clearwater Analytics and “Empowered to Make a Difference” program at University of California, Irvine.

Measuring Success

In the infancy of employee engagement programs, HR leaders faced many challenges when it came to showing the effectiveness of their approaches. Enter employee surveys. These customized questionnaires help organizations get a pulse on their workforces. Technology has evolved over the years so they continue to be a mainstay in gauging and analyzing engagement through feedback and metrics.

Agrela says the university measures engagement using a variety of surveys at different time periods during the employee lifecycle, including the following four examples.

1. Onboarding surveys are taken by new hires after 90 days of employment to focus on why they decided to join UCI and their level of engagement in their formative first three months.

2. Experience surveys are sent to a random sampling of employees with at least six months of service to help understand why employees stay at UCI and to keep a pulse on engagement levels between the larger biennial survey.

3. Exit surveys are hosted when turnover occurs to focus on the employee’s overall experience at UCI, including their decision to leave the organization.

4. A co-worker engagement survey is conducted every other year to measure overall satisfaction and engagement across the enterprise.

For Blendu, Clearwater Analytics opts for a biannual employee satisfaction survey to get a better understanding of employee engagement. The company also regularly surveys office leaders to ensure they have what is needed to keep their teams productive and engaged. Metrics also play a role, like attrition data, D&I metrics, and net promoter score from client organizations. “Our view is if we have engaged employees, that will have a direct impact on happy clients,” she explains.

Dissatisfied workers are costing U.S. companies a staggering $1.9 trillion in lost productivity.

Buchanan agrees that engagement is best tracked through a mix of feedback and data. “We created a quarterly dashboard to manage and track adoption of our communication tools so we understand what’s working, what people are interested in, and what to leave behind,” she says. “Success is largely defined by adoption however we also track sentiment in our annual culture survey.”

In addition to the yearly survey, Guitar Center distributes pulse culture surveys as well as new hire and exit surveys. All of this collective information provides a pulse on workforce sentiment around the business and culture. It also allows HR leaders to identify problem areas and pivot accordingly.

Dow Jones also leverages workforce dashboards through Tableau, that analyze data across multiple points including turnover, hiring metrics, and employees’ years of service. Its annual engagement survey paints an overall picture of trends to show both success and opportunities for improvement.

DeSevo also says part of their approach is to think about the end goal and work from there. “A core component to evaluating success is goal setting and performance evaluation, and our team plays a big role in arming leaders with the tools and resources they need to best set goals specific to their business and to effectively evaluate their employees.”

Celebrating Success

Implementing employee engagement strategies and the means to measure them are providing fruitful results. From decreased turnover to favorable return-to-work initiatives, these organizations are reaping the rewards of their thought-out efforts.

“Our employee engagement strategy is a critical component of our success as a company,” says DiMuro. “Since 2021, we have reduced our total attrition by 34% and increased our salaried employee promotions by 33% as a result of our employee engagement efforts.”

Limbach is in a customer-centric business and looks to empower its employees to help drive the best service possible. In an ever-changing marketplace and economy, DiMuro stresses the importance of agility.

“Leading a company through a transformation is complex. By engaging directly with employees of various segments throughout the year, we are able to quickly adapt as needed,” she explains. “As we scale our business, ensuring we have a robust pipeline of committed, qualified team members and a culture that enables growth is key.”

Blendu says Clearwater has been keeping a close eye on their scores and metrics as employees transition back into the office Monday through Thursday. “The results from our employee satisfaction survey are hitting above the tech benchmark and very close to our all-time high,” she reports. “We had low attrition in 2023, with levels back to pre-Covid and the highest net promoter score from our clients ever reported.”

UCI’s multiple survey approach provides them with a vast perspective, allowing them to take action. “Survey results are used to determine our greatest areas of opportunity for improvement, as well as identifying areas where we are doing well to ensure that we maintain momentum and engagement in those areas,” Agrela explains.

2023 was a positive year for UCI with results showing that the foundational needs of staff are being met and workers have the opportunity to succeed every day—major components critical to creating meaningful engagement. “When employees feel their basic needs are being met, they are more empowered to do their best work,” she says.

Other high-scoring factors include:

  1. having someone at work care about them as a person;
  2. having fellow employees who are committed to quality work; and
  3. the mission and purpose of our organization making them feel that their work is important.

A takeaway from the feedback is to help enable UCI managers to lead for engagement. “An area of focus is to guide managers and supervisors to become more responsible for engagement since they have the greatest and most immediate impact on the engagement of individual staff members,” Agrela says.

By taking a closer look at the data and comments within employee engagement surveys, HR leaders can drive positive change. For example, DeSevo says the company has seen increased internal mobility within the organization, resulting in a year-over-year decrease in turnover. Dow Jones is also seeing larger candidate pipelines for open roles, attracting top talent through their culture and brand. “Together, these indicators signal to us that our efforts are working and having a direct impact on the business,” she says.

Buchanan says that empowering employees through feedback mechanisms can result in key changes voiced from their concerns. “Our people are vocal and we know when we get it right and when we get it wrong,” she says. One area of opportunity at Guitar Center was their benefits offerings. The company shifted from a PPO to an HDP benefits plan, which has garnered a sizeable increase in participation from 49% for PPO to 64% for HDP the last two plan years. “This migration results in a large cost savings for participants and the company,” says Buchanan.

And perhaps there’s nothing that proves the value of HR initiatives better than data-driven change.

Employee Engagement at Clearwater Analytics

By Cindy Blendu, chief transformation officer and CHRO

Employee engagement is a top priority for us, and we have implemented several strategies to foster a strong connection with our workforce. We support a variety of recognition programs to allow for timely recognition of employees. We offer specific budget for team lunches, happy hours, and events. But probably one of the most important aspects of keeping nearly 2,000 employees around the globe in lock-step is our communication efforts.

We hold monthly town halls, weekly team meetings, and regular training starting with an aggressive employee onboarding and continuing with MBA-like frameworks, power hours, and self-directed training, including Udemy and LinkedIn Learning. All of this culminates with regular sharing of information as it flows via our internal tools. We receive extremely positive results from our employees on their ability to learn, efficiently work, and stay motivated. It also helps that we have continually met our goals over the last five years, which propels further motivation.

Below are the tactical elements to our employee engagement program.

1. Office leader program. Each of our offices has a senior leader named to be the local office leader. Each office leader is given a budget, and their role is to drive employee engagement and alignment to company goals using a “glocal” approach. Under the office leader, there are also “squads” that employees can volunteer to participate in and they take the lead to organize events for the office. Our major offices have four squads: D&I, “CW Cares” (our social responsibility program), fun, and wellness/sports. We have a global calendar that is updated each quarter by the local office leader or the local team.

2. Recognition programs. We recognize employee birthdays and years of service through systematic emails and communication to their manager. We offer mostly technology-based anniversary awards for an employee’s five-year, 10-year, and 15-year anniversaries. We also have quarterly SPOT awards that managers can hand out to employees who go above and beyond. Finally, we have “Bravo!” awards that are non-monetary awards that can be done at any time via Workday.

3. Manager budget. Every manager has a monthly budget that they can spend on team lunches and events and we encourage them to!

4. Regular communications. We have monthly town halls and a company-wide Teams chat—”ONE Clearwater”—that provides at least weekly updates to the company. Examples of posts on our ONE Clearwater teams chat include local office events, “Feel Good Friday” posts, employee spotlights, and other office posts to share broadly on what is happening across the globe.

5. Talent enablement. For our size of company, we have a rigorous training program. Each employee has access to either Udemy or LinkedIn Learning depending on their role. During the month, we offer many role, department specific trainings that we call “Power Hours” to address a specific need. We also have Clearwater Academy, which provides one training session per month and continues with MBA-like frameworks such as SWOT analysis or VUCA framework to provide our employees access to this type of content. Each month we also have a theme like growth mindset and suggest courses that the employee can do self-directed either via Udemy or LinkedIn Learning.

“Empowered to Make a Difference” program at University of California, Irvine

By Ramona H. Agrela, CHRO and vice chancellor – HR

At the University of California, Irvine, our ”Empowered to Make a Difference” program is the umbrella for our enterprise-wide engagement efforts. With approximately 13,000 staff and an additional 16,000 faculty, physicians, and other academic personnel, engagement is a priority for leadership across our three business units: campus, Health, and College of Health Sciences.

Within this program, we have many initiatives to recognize, support, and engage employees, and to ensure they have positive experiences throughout their employment lifecycle. A few of the many programs we offer include the following.

  • Recognition campaigns via our “Bright People, Brilliant Solutions” platform give employees an opportunity to thank and appreciate one another throughout the year. In 2023, more than 1,500 messages of thanks and recognition were shared between peers. In addition to recognition, the “Bright People, Brilliant Solutions” platform is used for innovation campaigns, where co-workers are invited to submit ideas for solving identified problems across the enterprise.
  • Co-worker appreciation week is full of celebratory activities for our colleagues, including two high profile awards ceremonies: the prestigious “Health ARIISE Awards,” with one award each given for co-workers who best exemplify the Health values of accountability, respect, integrity, innovation, service, excellence, and a team award, and the “Staff Assembly Excellence in Leadership Awards,” honoring leaders nominated by their teams. The week also includes treat cart rounding at Health, which allows leaders to visit departments with a cart full of treats and spark casual conversations with co-workers at every level; a virtual scavenger hunt; and special wellness offerings such as sunrise yoga classes, mini chair massages, pet therapy, and much more.
  • A service anniversary program with congratulatory events and milestone gifts. In particular, an enterprise-wide service recognition event is held in June at our Bren Events Center, which seats approximately 7,000 people. Co-workers celebrating years of service (one, three, five, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, and 50) are invited to attend to be honored, while all co-workers are invited to attend in celebration and support their colleagues.
  • The enterprise-wide leadership team from campus, Health, and School of Health Sciences, including the chancellor, vice chancellors, chief executives, deans, and other platform party members, honor staff for their service. Honorees (15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, and 50 year) walk the stage in a ceremony reminiscent of a commencement. Individual names are announced, and commemorative photos are taken. Pre-event receptions include a one-year anniversary party, so that more recent staff can get a feel for what it’s like to work at UCI and UCI Health over their career. Service honorees of five years and more, in increments of five years, receive a lapel pin and a gift based on years of service. Finally, a special luncheon, affectionately named “The Quarter Century Club,” is held at the chancellor’s residence for all 25-year honorees.
  • Hospital week and nurses week feature week-long special activities designed to recognize our hard working, frontline medical professionals.
  • Town halls are held multiple times per year featuring the chancellor and key leaders. Employees expressed the desire to hear from top level leadership directly in our first enterprise-wide survey in 2017, and these town halls are a direct result of that feedback.
  • A robust engagement ambassador program has more than 250 employee volunteers who champion, support, and participate in engagement-related activities at their departmental level.
  • Ongoing engagement training for people leaders features a four-session “Engagement 101” series where managers and supervisors learn how to take positive steps towards improving engagement within their teams.
  • Our biennial co-worker engagement survey invites all 13,000 staff members to take a comprehensive survey covering foundational engagement questions as well as indices measuring supervisor accountability, supervisor effectiveness, change management, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) efforts, well-being, and patient safety for those in healthcare positions.
Tags: January February 2024

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