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Engaging Your Workforce

Are your employees “in the zone”?

The phrase “runner’s high” refers to the feeling a runner gets when he or she is “in the zone” or has hit the “sweet spot.” This sensation has been described to feel as if time is standing still or could go on forever. Whether or not you are a runner, it is quite possible that you have experienced this feeling. Believe it or not, it is possible to have it at work. Engaged employees, including those in the material handling industry, know this because it is a common occurrence for them.

Engaging Your WorkforceUnfortunately, the statistics on employee engagement make it very clear that only a fraction of today’s workforce is “in the zone.” According to The Gallup Organization, only 29 percent of employees are actively engaged in their jobs, 54 percent are not engaged and 17 percent are actively disengaged. Organizations are suffering as a result. They are losing customers, profits and engaged employees who elect to move on to the competition. In addition, safety, efficiency, productivity and morale are all taking a hit due to under-performing employees, many of whom are seeking to move their co-workers into the actively disengaged category. Scary, huh?

Employee engagement as a management buzzword has been on the scene a number of years now, but commitment or motivation are often interchanged for engagement and may play better in your company. Engaged employees are key contributors to positive work environments. They tend to be hard working, loyal, ethical team players. Engaged employees come in all shapes and sizes. No one generation, ethnic group, geographic region or industry has a monopoly on them. That should be good news for employers who have the power to recruit and retain engaged employees at any level in any kind of organization.

So, how do you ensure that you hire people who have experience working in their “sweet spot”? Or, how do you help your current employees get and stay “in the zone” when they are on the job? Both questions have a variety of potential responses, any of which can work for your company. The nice part is there is no set formula for engaging employees, which gives you a great deal of flexibility in determining your approach. Another piece of good news is that if you are successful in your efforts, benefits accrue to your organization (as well as the employee) in both the short and long run.

Whether or not you categorize your efforts under the heading of “employee engagement,” chances are you are already putting forth effort to get your employees to have a vested interest in the company’s success and perform to a high standard. I recently interviewed Dick Davidson, president of Thombert Inc., to learn a number of tactics the management team uses to increase engagement.

Recruit the Right People
First, it all starts with recruitment. Chances are pretty high that if a candidate was not engaged at previous employers, that will continue in your employ. Davidson and his hiring supervisors try to listen carefully during the interview for any signs of negativity. From his perspective, “If you get a couple of people in the organization with negative outlooks, it is damaging and will pull other people down. Therefore, we try not to hire them.”

It takes guts in today’s tight recruitment market to have the discipline to weed out candidates who might have the requisite experience but have the wrong attitude. However, one learns from experience that it is much easier to never let the unengaged enter your company than to smoke them out and discharge them once they are on board.

Know Your Employees
It is important to get to know your employees. The old one-size-fits-all approach to management is completely outdated at this stage of the game. Really listen to your employees, ask them questions and give them honest feedback. Determine whether they understand their role in your organization and how important their contributions are to the company’s progress. If you are discouraged or concerned by what you hear, take action.

Thombert modified its historical approach to dealing with employees who are not “in sync” with where the organization is headed. “We have learned to have a lower level of tolerance for employees who want to go in a different direction,” Davidson says. “Now, we are more proactive in encouraging these people to move on to somewhere that aligns with their values.” When I probed for more information about how this impacts the rest of the staff, the president responded, “This is extremely uplifting for those remaining in the organization, because it is a positive boost to their productivity.”

If you are truly committed to engaging employees, maintaining subpar, unmotivated or difficult employees is counterproductive. As acclaimed business author Jim Collins reminds us, “Disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and take disciplined action are the cornerstone of a culture that creates greatness.” A great culture is one extremely important element in engaging employees. If your culture nurtures those who are engaged and weeds out over time those who are not, you are definitely on the right track.

Ask and Be Sure to Listen
Third, it is critical to involve your employees. Involvement can take many different forms. From an individual perspective, it can mean helping employees find work-life balance. It should also include open, frequent discussions about performance, career goals and developmental opportunities. Managers often feel like it is their job to know all the answers, but part of engaging employees is asking questions and then really listening to their responses.

Employees at Thombert are offered a variety of opportunities to get involved in cross-functional teams. These teams are not led by supervisors, but instead by rank-and-file employees who often are most able to get to the root causes of problems. Davidson outlined the benefits of this approach, saying, “People on the front line have the knowledge of the real problems and are excited to make recommendations that can truly make things better.” These teams have really aided the firm in its quest for continuous improvement by actively engaging employees who understand the situation and asking them to solve problems.

Share the News
Engaged employees need, want and deserve information. Many organizations claim to be “open door” or “open book,” but are really only sharing the bare minimum with employees. If you value your people and want them to have an ownership mentality, you need to give it to them straight on a regular basis.

At Thombert, this involves quarterly meetings with all employees at the manufacturing company. Members of the senior team meet in a town hall setting with all employees to talk about progress toward goals, recent successes and current challenges. Davidson explains, “At first these meetings were seen as propaganda, but now people realize they are legitimate and appreciate our honesty, because they really do want to know what is going on.” Engaged employees like to feel part of an organization that they are proud of. By hearing firsthand about what is happening, that special bond between employer and employee is strengthened.

For employers, the years ahead will be even more challenging. The talent pool is shrinking and the competition is tough. Attracting and retaining average employees is not sufficient for those companies who want to pull ahead of the pack. That is why taking specific actions to engage employees or get them “in their zone” is essential to the future of your material handling distributorship. Fortunately, there are many techniques at your disposal. If you take steps now, you will soon experience the fruits of your labor.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association

Mary Lynn Fayoumi Meet the Author
Mary Lynn Fayoumi, CAE, SPHR is president and CEO of The Management Association of Illinois, located in Downers Grove, Illinois, and on the Web at www.hrsource.org.

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