Want to Improve Employee Engagement? Put Employees at the Center of Your Strategy

Last verified Nov 3, 2022

HR leaders don’t have it easy. It seems that every day there’s a new trend, buzzword, or hot take for them to weigh in on.

“Hey HR leader, is ’quiet quitting’ here to stay?”

“What are you doing to retain employees in the Great Resignation?”

“If my team isn't in the office, how do I know if they’re working at all?”

Meanwhile, they’re also fielding questions from their CEO, leadership team, and people managers about how to drive employee engagement—an issue that’s top of mind for businesses everywhere. It certainly is for us at Guru; it’s our #1 OKR and has been for years.

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There’s a lot on the plates of HR leaders these days, and there’s no shortage of opinions out there about how they should be doing their jobs. Some are insightful, others are distracting, and a few are, well, not worth the pixels used to display them (I’m looking at you, return-to-office crusaders).

The challenge is choosing which opinions to listen to, and which to ignore.

Now I’m not here to comment on who the best authorities on people operations are—I’ll leave that to the social media algorithms and op-ed column editors. But I do think there’s one group whose opinions we should all be paying more attention to. It’s a group whose perspectives are often drowned out in the noise of hot takes and controversial opinions; a group whose opinions are actually the most valuable of all: our employees.

Taking an employee-first approach

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Whether you’re rolling out a new internal communications initiative, adding a new tool for your HR tech stack, or changing a work-from-home policy, your employees’ perspectives should be front and center. They’re the ones who’ll be most impacted by the decisions you make and the ones who’ll ultimately determine whether your new initiative is a success or failure.

At Guru we think of our employees as internal customers. Just as any successful product is built off of a clear understanding of the problems its customers face, the same perspective should be applied to employee engagement initiatives.

I know I’m not alone here—I’ve seen countless Guru customers adopt an employee-first approach when purchasing and rolling out our product, and it has proven to be a key ingredient for success. But there are still companies today that seem to put more stock in the promises of a salesperson pitching a new solution than in the lived experiences of the employees whose problems that solution is supposed to solve.

According to Future Forum, “workforce policy planning is largely happening at the executive level, with 60% of executives surveyed saying they’re designing their companies’ policies with little to no direct input from employees.”

With this number of companies still adopting a top-down, rule-by-decree approach to high-stakes decisions, it’s no wonder employee engagement rates are falling.

Employee engagement: still searching for answers?

We’re living in the wake of the pandemic, in the midst of the Great Resignation, and on the brink of prolonged economic uncertainty, and companies are realizing that employee engagement is one of the most important metrics during times of such uncertainty. And this is not because of some perceived pressure companies feel to bend to the will of demanding employees. It’s out of a desire to enable employees to do their best work, which is not only good for employees but is also good for business—very good, in fact.

According to IBM and Workhuman companies that score in the top 25% on employee engagement see double the return on sales compared to organizations in the bottom quartile. There are many things that contribute to employee engagement—from benefits and work-from-home policies to leadership style and company culture—but as I wrote recently, there’s another ingredient that’s rapidly becoming a major influencer on employee engagement: access to company knowledge.

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There are two key reasons for this:

  1. For an employee to be engaged with their work, they first need to be able to do that work efficiently, confidently, and with a degree of flexibility. And for that, they need access to trusted information, anytime and anywhere. There are few things more demoralizing for an employee than starting their day motivated, only to have that feeling replaced by frustration because they can’t find a simple piece of information they need to do the work they set out to do.

  2. To feel engaged in their role, employees also need to know what's happening elsewhere in their company—whether that’s a performance review deadline, PTO policy change, or new strategic direction. There’s nothing more isolating for an employee than feeling like they were the last to know about an important company update, just because they missed the meeting or email where the update was shared.

The market is flooded with tools that have long claimed to solve challenges like these. But the world of work has changed, and these challenges have changed too. Many of the tools, however, have remained the same. As a result, employees are suffering (some silently, others loudly), engagement rates are declining, and people managers are asking their HR teams what the solution is.

The answer will look different for every company, but there’s one thing all companies should do when searching for a solution: take an employee-first approach.

So, what does taking an employee-first approach actually look like in practice? Let’s discuss by looking at a typical three-phase plan to improve employee engagement.

Phase 1: understanding the underlying issues

When employee engagement dips, that’s not the problem; it’s merely a symptom of the problem. So before searching for a solution, it’s important to take a step back and uncover the root causes of the issue you’re trying to solve.

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To do that, you have to set aside your assumptions, opinions, and biases and take a cold, hard look at what your employees’ daily experiences are really like. Are employees actually using your company’s intranet as much as you think they are? What is the engagement rate on important company-wide messages? How often are repetitive questions being asked in Slack or Teams?

Nitty-gritty questions like these are often left out of employee engagement surveys, but asking them can be hugely revealing in helping to identify the underlying causes of low employee engagement. Going one step further and analyzing user data like adoption rates, repeat questions in chat apps, and time spent in meetings can be even more illuminating.

By examining data in this way, you can get the unbiased information you need to put employees’ needs at the center of your plan to improve employee engagement before moving on to the next phase: finding a solution. Ideally, a flexible one.

Phase 2: finding a flexible solution

Ok, you’ve uncovered the root cause of your employee engagement issue and have defined the problem to be solved. The next question is: what’s the solution to this problem?

Some companies may involve employees in ‘Phase 1’ and end their employee-first approach there. But it’s just as important to involve employees in the process of choosing a solution.

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A tactical way to do this is by running a well-designed trial with a number of teams. This will allow you to gain feedback from employees based on their real experiences with the tool. It’s good practice to keep portions of your teams out of the trial; this will give you a clear point of comparison between your current tools and the tool you’re evaluating.

On top of this, it’s important to prioritize solutions that give users the ability to customize and personalize their experience. Employees today want flexibility in where they work, when they work, and increasingly, in how they work. A tool that gives users the freedom to shape their usage to suit their preferences and their team's needs stands a much better chance of getting widespread buy-in than one that’s rigid and difficult to use. Not only that, it will go a long way to ensuring your solution is widely adopted in the long run.

Phase 3: nurturing the initiative 

Now for the third phase. You've gotten to the root of the problem to be solved and you've chosen a solution that you and your employees are excited about. That's great! And it might feel like the job is done. But in many ways, it's just getting started. There's no 'set-it-and-forget-it' when it comes to employee engagement, especially when the world of work is changing at such a fast pace.

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For example, what if your company decides to adopt a work-from-anywhere policy and hires staff in a new part of the world? You’ll need to adjust your internal communications strategy to be more inclusive of people in different timezones. And you’ll need to evolve the way you use your internal tools accordingly.

The only way to ensure your initiative truly solves your employee engagement challenge is by taking a long-term view of success. You need to continually reinforce your initiative’s benefits, provide your employees with clear direction on how to unlock those benefits, and regularly ask for feedback on progress. One way to do this is by creating easy-to-find documentation on best practices, proactively sharing important changes with employees, and monitoring adoption rates over time.

This is an approach we’ve taken at Guru, and it’s one that can be a strong predictor of success in any initiative designed to drive stronger employee engagement—a goal we’re further helping HR and internal communications leaders achieve with the new features we just announced.

How Guru is helping HR leaders drive employee engagement

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Today, we further improved our announcements feature, which allows users to send company-wide internal communications. Senders now get deeper analytics when they send an announcement, which can help them understand how employees are interacting with their updates and provide them with data to help them continually improve engagement rates.

Also, users can now subscribe to specific pieces of content of their choosing—be that an intricate process they regularly follow, steps on how to submit an expense report, or a curated list of recommended restaurants in their city. They can also receive recommended content, driven by machine learning, that is displayed in their dashboard. This will give them a more personalized experience and allow them to stay fully informed of helpful content that’s relevant to their work.

On top of that, we made it possible for HR leaders (or any administrator) to customize Guru and make it an even more welcoming home base for the employees. Administrators can list featured content, and add custom messages to employees’ dashboards, and tailor the Guru application to better reflect their brand.

These updates are the latest step towards our vision to give every team in the world trusted information so that they can do their best work. Because when an employee can do their best work, they’re much more likely to be engaged in that work. And that’s not only in their interest, it’s in the interest of the business.