Key learnings from the Employee Engagement Awards

Last week, Culture Amp participated in the third annual Employee Engagement Awards in Chicago, Illinois. The event was packed with great speakers who shared their stories about employee engagement. Along with industry thought leaders, previous award winners presented case studies on their company’s success building employee engagement programs. 

Three talks stood out for us, and we’ve provided an overview of what we took away from each below.

1. The future of employee engagement panel

Moderated by Rob Catalano, Founder WorkTango, the future of employee engagement panel featured the following leaders in the field:

  • Jill Christensen, Author & Engagement Expert
  • Steve Smith, Partner, The Starr Conspiracy Intelligence Unit
  • Didier Elzinga, CEO & Co-Founder of Culture Amp
  • Nicole Dessain, Co-Founder & President, Disrupt HR Chicago
  • Christine Comaford, Smart Tribes Institute

Catalano kicked off the discussion by asking the panel who they believe should own the function of employee engagement in organizations moving forward. Christensen and Dessain were in agreement that employee engagement should be a focus of the CEO. Dessain explained, “It has to be multiple stakeholders including the employees, including the managers, including the C-Suite. I do believe the CEO will become more important.”

Executive support for employee engagement is important, but there are other blockers to getting started. Catalano asked what the panelist believe to be the biggest blocker people face when they’re trying to start building an engaged workforce. Elzinga said, “There is an appropriate fear that this is really hard, and it is. This is the hardest thing you can do in business, build a powerful, strong culture.” And if it’s hard, asked Catalano, how should people get started?

“It starts with developing a level of trust with the employees, getting employees to buy in to the fact that they can raise their hands, say what's on their mind, and communicate clearly and effectively in real time with their employer,” said Smith. Christensen added that it’s important to get people at all levels of the company involved from the beginning. “It's about getting your senior leaders together with HR and internal communications, because how you message [engagement] is so important. And, ensuring that your managers are aligned, because your managers are your front line to your employees,” she said.

Next, the conversation turned to employee surveys and if there was one driver of engagement that is critically important for all companies to focus on. Elzinga said, “The one key thing is action. You can pick any of the things on the list, and do something, and you would improve your culture. We spend way too much time deciding whether we should do the first, or the second, or the third, and often we use that as an excuse to do nothing.” He added that based on what Culture Amp has learned from our customers, learning and development comes up often as a strong driver of employee engagement.

With the rise of employee surveys and other technology comes the ability to connect with a global workforce. Catalano asked what advice the panelists could offer on engaging employees across cultures. “The challenge is you can't just have a single message to everybody. You have to know how to interpret the numbers from survey data,” said Elzinga. Comaford added that in our increasingly global world, communicating in person or via video is important. When people can see your body posture and gestures, they’re able to get more context about what you’re saying than they would through purely written communication.

The future of employee engagement is global, needs executive support, and will continue to utilize surveys in order to make informed decisions.

2. The impact of employee engagement on the customer experience

 A great customer experience leads to loyal customers and strong financial results, but this can’t happen without a team of engaged employees. Aimee Lucas, VP, Temkin Group, based her talk around this idea. She said, “Engaged employees are the start of a great customer experience.”

Temkin looked at three sections of the customer experience:

  1. Success – degree to which customers can accomplish their goals
  2. Effort – the difficulty or ease in accomplishing their goals
  3. Emotion – how did the interaction make the customer feel?

Emotion, said Lucas, is the strongest driver of customer loyalty - it drives a person’s memory of the company and the story they tell themselves and others. In order for employees to create great emotional experiences for their customers, they must be engaged at work. And that, said Lucas, takes the involvement of HR leaders.

Based on Temkin Group’s research, HR involvement in the customer experience is rising. They’ve found that when HR is considerably or significantly involved in supporting the customer experience, the company is 50% more likely to be a customer experience leader. Lucas said HR and Customer Experience teams should share capabilities and goals, working together on things like employee communications and recruiting to create the best experience for employees and customers.

 3. Chili’s restaurants employee engagement journey

With a captivating presentation filled with honesty, Chris Ebbeler, Director of Social & Community Engagement at Chili’s, gave a unique perspective on employee engagement in the restaurant industry.

As a brand approaching its 50th anniversary, Chili’s has weathered many ups and downs. After the great recession in the US, Chili’s knew they needed to strengthen their vision and mission and start focusing on employee engagement. Their revived purpose is, “We connect, serve and give to create the best life.”

Chili’s has recognized that the idea of work-life balance is different than what it used to be. With the rise of technology, work and home are now connected. In order to create a great place to work, they had to honor the fact that people now bring their whole selves to the office. Ebbeler says, people now want to work somewhere that represents their lifestyle. To the crowd’s applause, Ebbeler shared the story of how Chili’s dissolved their “no visible tattoo” policy. He added, “People want to bring their whole self to the workplace – so let ‘em.”

 Employee engagement has gone up for Chili’s since 2010; now 75% of people at Chilis are engaged at work. Ebbeler shared a quote from Simon Sinek on why this is important, “Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.”

Ebbeler offered these tips on building an engaged workforce:

  • You have to talk to your people
    • Chili’s president Kelli Valade does facebook live videos with employees
  • Create an experience from the start
    • Chili’s rebranded their onboarding materials to reflect their new work purpose
  • Bring the voice of your people into the voice of your brand
    • Make it authentic, because people will know if it’s not
  • Take notice of Glassdoor reviews
    • Ebbeler shared both positive comments and criticisms that were posted on the employer review site

Chili’s was faced with a problem many companies experience during fast growth. They wanted to feel small again, and build a sense of connection within the team and with local communities. They accomplished this by reaffirming their purpose, supporting people bringing their full self to work, and listening to what people in their company and the community needed.

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