5 Keys to Building Employee Engagement for Field Services

A guest post from veteran hospitality leader, Ed Walls, who deep dives into five key strategies for building engagement with deskless teams in the field.

Ed Walls
August 5, 2020

I have spent my entire career working with and leading teams of deskless workers in some of our country's largest (and smallest!) hotels, and one common thread is—and always has been—when the workforce is united under a common vision the entire company benefits from outstanding employee engagement, customer loyalty, and financial success. While the premise is simple, the devil is in the details.

Let’s begin with the story of the new monk at a monastery.  

He is sworn to silence except one day a year when he speaks to the monsignor for their annual review. After his first year of service, the monsignor asks how his first year has been, and the monk replies “The bed is hard.”

The second year review rolls around and again the monsignor asks how the year has been. The monk replies “The food is terrible.”

In the third year review again inquiring as to how things are going, the monk replies; “I quit.” Without missing a beat, the monsignor replies “Well that’s not surprising! You have done nothing but complain since you’ve been here!”

These types of exchanges are far more prevalent in today’s business environment than we would like to admit. We bring on a new employee, hope for the best, and aren’t really that surprised when they move on to another opportunity in a year or two. Needless to say, gathering feedback from employees once a year just isn’t going to cut it.

What are the Keys to Employee Engagement?

To build a truly engaged workforce takes continual dedication, adjustment, and communication. There are thousands of tips and tricks to increase employee engagement out there, but I found Professor Tracy Maylett’s MAGIC model to be the easiest to apply particularly for deskless workers. Why? I’ll let the professor explain:

“When we first look to join a company, we may be enticed by some salary promises, the company brand, or cool perks. Important? Of course. But these factors—we call them “satisfaction elements”—don’t make us stick around. They don’t mean we’re engaged in what we do. Engagement goes beyond satisfaction. Engagement occurs when we find meaning, autonomy, growth, impact, and connection—MAGIC—in what we do.”


Not everyone can be the scientist who cures cancer, but every job can have meaning. For some of your employees, meaning may simply be their paycheck which provides for their family. For others it may be satisfaction in building a beautiful home or delivering an exceptional experience to a customer. According to Harvard Business Review, when employees experience meaning, their employers enjoy higher rates of customer commitment and investor interest. When an employee feels like their work contributes to a greater cause, they understand better why they are doing what they are doing, which makes them more effective at what they are doing.

How can I provide more meaning for my deskless workforce?

Make a point to talk to your employees about the final deliverable for your company and why their work is so important. Are you baking bread to feed families across the country? Are you installing road signs that keep drivers safe? Are you logging and loading orders that keep small businesses running smoothly? Employee engagement starts with continually reminding your workforce why they are doing their job.


Lots of leaders talk about empowerment as aspirational. Very few have the guts to allow employees to own an issue and truly solve customer problems. We say we love empowerment but make the rules (written and unwritten) that give a totally different message. Why tell them that they are empowered then require 5 levels of approvals?  

At my hotels, we encourage our associates to own the issue and do whatever it takes to keep that guest’s loyalty—not just make them happy. Usually it is something very small, like truly listening, empathizing, fixing the problem, and sending a bottle of wine to the guest room. Most employees will not go crazy with giving away the house. Ritz Carlton many years ago reinforced the notion of empowerment by giving each employee up to $2,000 to solve a guest issue! I hear that no one ever got close to that level, however every Ritz employee knew that it was his or her job to own the issue and satisfy the guest.

This is not to suggest that there are no rules and rigor to your processes. There must be rules of engagement. Rather think of this as “freedom within the framework.”

How can I tell if my deskless employees are empowered?

If you aren’t running regular surveys with your workforce, then you clearly have your next big win in front of you. With distributed, deskless workforces it is absolutely imperative that you provide your frontline employees with a regular, predictable, and easy way to provide feedback, ask questions, and tell their side of the story.

In our most recent survey, we asked:

How empowered do you feel to solve a guest issue?  

While the vast majority of our employees said they felt fully empowered, those that didn’t offered up suggestions for how we could make their jobs easier, safer, simpler, or just better overall. Providing this kind of voice to your frontline workforce is critical to ensuring they have the tools and support they need to in turn provide outstanding customer service and customer loyalty. In a world of transparency, we need all hands on deck pulling together.


All of us need to see some type of growth in our careers. Whether it is personal, professional, or helping the company grow.

Particularly with rising generations, the ability to develop, grow, and progress in a job provides challenge and excitement that benefit not only the individual but also the company. 87% of millennials rate professional or career growth and development opportunities as important to them in their jobs. And growth doesn’t always mean a promotion. Growth can be found in mastering new skills, taking on new challenges, and achieving a new set of goals.

How do I provide growth opportunities for my deskless workforce?

When there are problems to solve, don’t hesitate to reach out to your frontline workers. Surveys are great here as well just to solicit ideas in a quick, no pressure format. If the problem is larger, say a rising need for new management, make sure you give your employees a first chance at the job opening. Hiring from within gives not only the promoted employee a new opportunity, but shows the entire company that their skills and experience are valued far beyond their current position.


Understanding how our roles fit into the overall vision of the organization is vital to the success of the company. This is very related to Meaning, but is not to be confused with it. Impact is actually seeing the positive outcomes of your efforts and work. For the frontline employee, this can often be a blackbox, so it is especially important to spend a great deal of time reinforcing and recognizing successes.

I like to call it “catching someone doing something great.” It can be as small as a nice gesture provided to a guest or going the extra mile to make a difference. We always focus with the end in mind. Did we make the guest experience better, did we make the associate environment and experience better, or help with achieving the financial goals? All of us need to know what the expectations are and leadership needs to recognize how associates have made a positive impact on our achievement of those objectives.  

How do I promote the impact my employees are having?

According to American psychologist and philosopher, William James, “the deepest principle of human nature is a craving to be appreciated.” The most genuine recognition of a job well done is verbally and personally, but there is also so much value in recognizing great work in front of a larger audience. Not only does the employee get their recognition, but the rest of the workforce can see and hear a distinct example of how they can create impact in their own work. Small tokens such as buttons or stickers that can be attached to name tags are also a very easy way to promote great impact and gamify the challenge.


Big, small, chain-related, or independent, every company needs their employees to feel emotionally connected to the organization and to each other. Highly-performing organizations have emotionally-connected employees. Often it happens naturally, but it also grows thanks to programmatic work that we do with our teams.

Keep in mind that the majority of our deskless employees work in tough day-to-day jobs such as cleaning, cooking, and maintenance. It is important that they know they are not just working on a task but are part of something bigger and have emotional connections to that bigger vision.

People need to feel proud of where they work. I have been fortunate to work in multi-million dollar resorts and often had to pinch myself when I drove up past the vineyards and landscaped grounds. I am not the only one who feels good about pulling up that drive and being part of our amazing team. Our associates feel the same and are proud to tell people where they work.  

How do I build a connection with my distributed workforce?

You don’t have to have a fancy workplace, but you can do so much to make your deskless workers feel welcome and appreciated. Build a habit of greeting employees by their names, sharing news of graduations, new babies, or marriages. Recognize great work through rewards and signage throughout the building. Never underestimate the power of get-togethers. These can be formal round table discussions or simple family picnics.

How Do I Create an Engaged Culture?

The key is to clearly identify your vision and objectives of the organization. Horst Schulze the co-founder of Ritz Carlton says, “Casting the vision and inviting other living breathing human beings to join you in pursuing that vision is the most important strategy a leader can undertake.”  

Adam Smith, the Scottish economist from the 18th century, best known for his book “The Wealth of Nations” wrote in an earlier book (1759) “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” that human beings cannot relate to orders and directions. They relate to motives and objectives.

While processes are needed to produce the objective and expected outcome to the customer and owners, the vision is what people get excited about and allows them to know they are all working for a common objective.

Clearly, employees being engaged, empowered and emotionally connected to their organization are key. Leaders need to be out front leading by example, teaching, modeling the way and demonstrating daily the culture that is needed to drive the vision. Beyond these essentials we need a great product, great people, and great leadership.

Great product in your business is unique to you. The physical or experiential product you create for your customers is the foundation of your business.

Great people can make or break the success of that product. Right person, right place, at the right time is easier to say than to actually make it happen, so let’s break it down.

  • Right person: I like to say don’t hire the next person just because they check all the boxes on the application. The hiring process needs to include sharing your vision and discerning the candidate’s willingness to embrace that vision. Simply put, will they help take you to the next level and support the organizational objectives?  Rushing to a decision to just get the job filled is not going to help achieve your long-term objectives. The most important job of the leader is bringing in the right people that will embrace the vision not simply fill a slot.
  • Right place: It is not just getting the right person on the bus but it is also being sure you find the right seat for them. In the hospitality business, the candidate with accounting experience may not be the best for the front desk or sales department, but they still need to share the same passion and interest in the vision of the organization.  
  • Right time: In this high-pressure environment for driving financial results we still need to balance and never lose the customer service culture. Make sure that the employees are in the right place at the right time. I love to use the phrase “we move when they move.” There is no better way to lose a customer than be understaffed at the wrong time. The premise here is to be efficient with our available labor but be sure that we are where our customers are when they need and expect us.

Great leadership: Great customer service cultures come from relentless leadership that sets and lives the vision and is uncompromising. Great leaders provide the vision, the ability to communicate to all levels of the organization, are honest and have a high level of integrity. They also are empathetic and model the way. They really get what it takes to be successful at all levels of the organization.  

Finally, this is not new stuff. It is really the basics that we often get out of balance. Success is fun for the boss, but if it is fun for the whole team then you have something special.

It is important to understand that engaged, empowered, and emotionally connected employees will drive organizational objectives to where ever you want them to be.

And hopefully at the end of the third year the monk will not quit!

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