How to Engage Employees in Deskless Industries

There is no silver bullet when it comes to keeping your employees engaged. It’s a long game, and it starts with personal investment from the top down.

Rick Bohan
September 23, 2022

Leaders are struggling with two challenges these days: how to find and hire good employees, and how to engage the employees they have. Neither challenge is easy, but I’d venture to say that the second one is particularly difficult to address. Why do you suppose that is? When employees are hired, they’re pretty excited about having a new job, aren’t they? No candidate ever said during their interview, “It’ll be pretty hard to engage me in the work. I’m pretty apathetic most of the time.” So what makes it so hard to engage them later on?

There’s no question that keeping employee engagement high is a challenge. Studies show that about 2 of 3 employees don’t feel engaged at work. Fewer than 1 in 5 feel actively engaged. This lack of engagement has costs to the organization and to their employees. One study estimates that low engagement costs organizations $450B to $550B in lost productivity each year.

Improve the Employee Experience

One problem lies in how managers look at employee engagement. Too many of them define it as “getting more enthusiasm and productivity from my workers without having them ask much in return”. There are a myriad of industry reports available that make reference to employee engagement in terms of what it does for managers and the company: more productivity...more efficiency....better revenues....higher profits. There are far less expressions of how engagement could benefit the employees themselves.

When managers approach employee engagement with an “I’m only doing this because it’s good for business” attitude, workers see through it. They see those efforts as less than authentic steps to “improve morale” without really changing the organization’s culture.

Several decades ago, I worked for a coal company in eastern Kentucky. At one mine, the parking lot was a fair distance from the mine portal. When it stormed, the miners had a long slog through the rain and mud to get to work. The company built a covered boardwalk from the parking lot to the mine entrance that would keep the miners dry. In response, the miners went on strike! They viewed the new walkway as simply an effort to distract them from the many safety and other workplace problems they had been bringing to management’s attention for years.

When managers approach engagement as a business problem to be solved with the hopes of higher productivity, they’re almost certain to fail. If, on the other hand, they are genuinely interested in the well-being of their employees and undertake activities that manifest that interest, they’ll see employee engagement improve. The secret, then, is to approach engagement with the goal of improving the employees’ experience at work, not simply your own desire for greater productivity.

Invest Your Own Time

The fact is that raising and sustaining employee engagement is hard work. It takes managers’ effort extended over a long period of time. There are no “efficient” ways of getting more employee engagement.

One of the best managers I’ve known was the Director of Ohio Department of Transportation District 12, which included Cleveland. District 12 was the most complex district (lots of interstates) and had the largest budget. District 12 also had the best labor-management relationships and the best performance on all the metrics established for all the districts.

Each year, the Director had face-to-face meetings with all of the 400+ employees who worked in the district. From the leaders in the offices adjacent to his, to the men and women on night shift at distant garages, he met with all of them some time during the year. He discussed the District’s vision, goals, and key metrics to make sure everyone understood them. He answered their questions about the direction of the district. He asked for their ideas and feedback.

That’s how a real leader goes about raising employee engagement. He or she puts it at the center of their schedule and agenda. You can get started by simply blocking out time on your calendar to go hold conversations with a few of the people who report to you. Walk out onto the plant floor and ask a few of your operators what frustrates them as they work to provide a good product for your customers. Sit down in the offices of your staff and ask them for ideas to make information flow better.

Here’s the rub, though: you can’t do this just once. You’ll need to do it over and again. And, at first, it might seem like a lot of time spent for not much change. Eventually, though, you’ll see a renewed spirit within your organization as people begin exchanging ideas and collaborating better than they ever had.

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