Employee engagement looms large as a challenge facing all organizations, big or small. For the past two years, “keeping employees engaged” was rated as the most significant workplace challenge by nearly 800 global business leaders in a major industry study.

Now, as the job market and economy rebound, concerns are growing not only about engaging employees to give their best, but retaining those employees that you spent time engaging. So, with all of this in mind, I lead a webinar this week on “How to Engage Employees to Give Their Best,” – and it really struck a nerve.

A record registration validated the relevance of the topic and the urgency to address it. I received more than 60 questions and comments in advance of the webinar. I’d like to share some with you:

Q. Everyone is challenged with doing more with less these days. How do we keep engagement levels up during difficult times?

A. By far, employee actions teams are the most successful practice we’ve used for building engagement. My firm, Dulye & Co., has launched hundreds of them in organizations to deliver bottom-up solutions for pressing business problems.

We’ve had action teams work customer service challenges in call centers, cross-department team communication in a manufacturing center and trust in the workplace issues at a division headquarters.

The teams are supported by a senior level sponsor. Selection comes through a bottom-up nomination process – not political appointments. Top management uses these no-nonsense nominations to seed the team. Membership reflects the diversity of the organization in tenure, division, gender, level, responsibility, representation and work areas.

Team members have defined roles and responsibilities. They have a three-to-five month program schedule for identifying root causes of red-flag issues, developing a corrective action plan and partnering with senior leadership to execute that plan.

It’s all about empowering front-line associates to find ways to do more with less—and drive success. They need to become partners in the business, not subordinates in the organizational pyramid. That’s a huge change for everyone—leaders, managers and front-line employees. But it’s one that moves the needle from “me” to “we.”

Q. Any tips on convincing C-suite folks that engagement needs to be cultivated and not expected?

A. You need to mobilize the top. Engage senior leaders through direct connections with front-line associates. That requires interest and time. Yes, I understand that leaders are incredibly busy these days. Actually, everyone’s busy. But for engagement to stick, sustained focus and time investment are essential.

Engagement feeds from direct connections –authentic face-to-face and virtual exchanges that trigger a relationship. This doesn’t come from the transactional distribution of an executive email about the latest quarterly results. It spawns from face-to-face and verbal interchanges that convey respect, trust and genuine interest.

Also, activation of this very busy group won’t happen unless you demonstrate the return on that investment of time. You’ve got to position their direct engagement as a business driver.

Here’s some compelling data courtesy of a recent Harvard study that tracked the daily work activities of nearly 100 CEOs from a gamut of industries. The study found a direct correlation between executive’s face-time and productivity. For every 1% increase in an executive’s time with at least one employee of his or her company, productivity advanced 2.14%. That’s over 100% return on the leader’s time investment.  

Q. How do you measure engagement?

A. You’ve got to evaluate progress through formal and informal assessments with front-line associates. Conduct regular performance checks to identify what’s going well in the workplace, and what’s not going well. My firm develops engagement metrics that measure:

1. Investment: Time and level of effort for leaders and managers to connect with the workforce.

2.Immersion: The frequency and quality of direct connections by leaders and managers.

3. Interactivity: The frequency and quality of communication and collaboration exchanges.

4.Interest: The awareness, interest and knowledge in the workforce about their workplace.

5.Improvement: The act and actions that contribute to getting better—individually and collectively.

We use quick polls and pulse checks to get real-time feedback. The most successful measurement practices showcase results quickly. The faster and more transparent you are in getting and sharing data, the greater success you’ll have in engaging people to give you their feedback.

In the end, engaging employees to give their best starts with top bosses sharing the game plan, followed by managers ensuring great two-way communication. After that, empower associates to partner in solving business challenges, then demonstrate sincere appreciation and stay on track through continuous measurement and improvement.

Managers, we want to know how engaged you are with employees. Click here to rate yourselves in our online poll.

Linda Dulye is internationally recognized for helping many companies go spectator free. A former communications leader for GE and Allied Signal, Linda established Dulye & Co.  in 1998 with a practical, process-driven approach for improving communications and collaboration through an engaged workforce— a formidable competitive advantage, that she calls a Spectator-Free Workplace™.