Employee Engagement In The Digital Age


Christopher P. Skroupa

April 20, 2016

Employee engagement is an essential factor for companies to consider when striving to increase productivity, execute business strategies, improve company performance and develop roles within the company.

In order to increase company value and performance, business managers must develop a strategic plan that encompasses both stakeholder engagement and the integration of 21st century technology. As clear roles and responsibilities are established for employees, company goals can be achieved in a smooth and efficient manner. This includes an encouraging work environment and the use of technology, allowing employees to succeed and maintain goals effectively.

The Top 10 Cities For Employee Engagement

However, according to Sandy M. Nessing, Managing Director, Corporate Sustainability at American Electric Power (AEP), growing a company while engaging employees is much easier said than done. In her role at AEP, Nessing works closely with Hillebrand as a champion of the company’s culture, focusing on employee engagement along with strategic alignment; she thinks that varying perspectives are vital to the growth of an organization.

“Companies need different inputs and different viewpoints to make informed business decisions whether that’s coming from an analyst, a non-governmental organization (NGO), an environmental group, regulator, legislator, or their employees,” Nessing stated. “One of the things that happens when you engage employees is that people get excited and passionate and become invested in success.”

Nessing’s culture work focuses on strategic alignment, employee engagement, leadership, performance recognition, and accountability to achieve business objectives and enhance stakeholder engagement.

“From an employee engagement perspective, we consider it to be a business imperative. Without employee engagement, you cannot execute on your business strategy or achieve your business goals if everyone is swimming in opposite directions,” she added. “Employee engagement from that perspective is critical from a business aspect.”

One way that AEP engages its employees is through a learning map: a 90-minute session that helps employees to understand where his or her position sits in the larger scheme of the organization and how they contribute to the broader strategy. The ultimate goal of the exercise is for employees to see the direction and vision of their department as well as the company, and understand how they contribute to achieving business goals. Learning maps are common across corporations to help engage employees, serving as a great interactive tool for small group settings.

“The objective isn’t to get employees from zero to 50, because it’s a continuum of learning. You want to move them to the right side of scale so they begin to understand more and see the connectivity between  the culture focus areas, values, vision, strategic goals, and challenges and opportunities,” Nessing explains.

Nessing said that more than 13,000 of AEP’s 17,000 employees have completed the learning map session in the past year, and as a result, they are more aligned with the direction AEP is heading in. The company measures success through an employee culture survey and the 2015 survey showed the trend moving in a positive direction.

“From an employee engagement and strategic alignment perspective, we are much more aligned. We have seen it directly tie to safety performance. We can also see employee engagement directly impacting reliability of service because people are more focused on their jobs and serving our customers,” Nessing said.

How have employee expectations at AEP exceeded previously accepted levels of engagement in the digital age?

“Communication is essential to employee engagement. We are all plugged in and on our phones; we are always looking for ways to connect with employees electronically.  In the workplace, it is the face-to-face that matters the most. The communication between a leader, a manager, or a supervisor and their employees is the most effective.”

Nessing explains that it can be difficult for people who are unaccustomed to engagement.

“If you are speaking to a line crew in the field about something they are not familiar with, you have to find a way to communicate in language that they can relate to.”

Nessing said culture is as important to external stakeholders as it is internally.During a recent meeting with stakeholders, AEP’s CEO related the discussion on environmental regulations to the culture work inside the company. He talked about the transformation under way within AEP and the electric utility industry and how employee engagement was instrumental in meeting the challenge. It was at that point that an investor in the meeting said “that a company that understands the challenges, engages employees, and finds a solution to address those challenges is a hallmark of a well-managed company.”  It became clear that there is a strong connection between internal culture and external perceptions.

“You can’t separate these things–they are all intertwined. Employee engagement can also be a catalyst for innovation,” Nessing continued. “We have engineers who developed a new line design for transmission that’s now patented and being marketed all over the world. By engaging as a team, they created a new business opportunity for AEP. Employee engagement is at the heart of it, and that is why it is so important to business success.”

Communication and talent expectations have rapidly changed. Now, companies have to reinvest themselves to align to an entirely new set of expectations to fit the ever-changing dynamics of modern technology.

David Westfall, senior director of Decision [Support and Innovation] at Aon Hewitt, emphasized how invaluable the human side of the equation is, and how it can be underestimated.

“Business models become more complex and we think technology is always the answer. At the end of the day, it is about the human being. The most precious resource is the attention span of a human being,” he said. “If you are not engaging the human being–it really doesn’t matter. The technology, innovation, growth, has to attract the attention of human beings or group of human beings that you are trying to engage with.”

According to Westfall, there are some core considerations for businesses looking to advance innovation.

“Many tend to focus on the technology aspect without keeping the human being in mind. We are in a digital transformation of business, and this changes the face of business in many ways; but at the core, the human must still be the central figure.”

So what are important factors if you want to win the war on talent? What is most effective at recruiting employees who will stay and add the most value?

“There is only one defensible investment that companies can make that other companies cannot duplicate,” he explained. “We can mimic technology, relocate similar demographics, build similar factories, but I cannot hire the exact same people you have- or create the environment in which they are engaged and performing.”

When managing talent, what sort of contradictions does technology pose?

“It is not necessarily a contradiction, but rather a focus issue.  Technology has centralized the system, when in fact it should be used to decentralize–it should be used to engage on a direct and personal level with the individuals closest to the information flow.

What business model trends arise when companies try to reshape themselves in the digital age?

“In the past we talked about information flow, as well as the agility required to capture the value from that.  Additionally, both mindset and skillset play a role in interpreting this information to best optimize a business. Putting this into practice requires an extremely nimble business model that revamps information flow, no matter how disruptive, and secondly maximizing opportunity around that information.”

Drew Papadeas, Director of Business Development at Dom&Tom, explained his take on the process his company uses for professional development and utilizing communication tools to invest in, since these tools matter for employee engagement in the digital age.

“We are transparent–even down to the most junior developer–about everything that’s happening in the company. This transparent culture encourages openness and autonomy, which makes for a strong, cohesive workplace. To get to that point, it’s essential to make the proper investments in the company’s infrastructure and organizational chart. We also spend time developing optimal processes to run complex projects.”

“If you don’t do that, you won’t move quickly enough and your competition will swallow you up–at least in our space,” he said.

“With one of our investments, we brought in a consultant that worked with us for a week, put our processes in place and then implemented those processes,” Papadeas said. “We are constantly evolving. As a fast-growing company it’s vital to ensure sure employees are engaged at all levels. In the world of digital, it’s more important than anywhere else, to constantly be evolving, testing, learning, and growing.”

Employee engagement helps drive business results, according to Julia Urbanchuk, Senior Director, Global Talent & Organization Development at eBay.“When you create a work environment that fosters creativity, drive, and values the whole person, you support team members to bring their hearts and minds to do their best at work everyday.”

Urbanchuk explained that eBay provides frequent feedback to leaders about culture, engagement and organizational effectiveness.  They assess employee satisfaction by measuring an array of factors. The company is clear about the top drivers for engagement: purpose, culture, values, growth and career, which are critical to get right to engage employees in the digital age.

“Also critical to engagement is the relationship of the employee with their manager. We look at leadership effectiveness, including a net promoter aspect and culture leadership. Leaders play a key role in demonstrating the culture strengths our company needs and creating an engaging environment. We strive to ensure our actions are consistent with our cultural values,” Urbanchuk said.

Urbanchuk is currently developing a culture award program, using crowd sourcing technology. The program intends to celebrate those who are significantly advancing eBay’s culture. “Culture and engagement go hand-in-hand,”  Urbanchuk says.

Like eBay, Dom&Tom use several communication tools to integrate professional development to make communication flow efficiently.

“One of the investments was to bring in a consultant that worked with us for a week, put our processes in place and then implement those processes,” Papadeas said. “We are constantly evolving, as a fast growing company you need to make sure the employees are engaged at all levels.”

According to Susanne Stormer–who leads Novo Nordisk’s efforts to be a sustainable business–the delicate relationship between employee engagement and business results can be reinforced through social media. Stormer is charged with management of corporate sustainability-driven programs, the integrated Annual Report, stakeholder engagements, and communication on the value of the company’s Triple Bottom Line (TBL) business principle.

“Social media channels have altered the notion that the corporate voice has the authoritative story to share–instead it is about engaging in conversations,” Stormer explained. “It gives a richer perspective when you include two-way dialogue.”

In this capacity, she sets the strategic direction for the company as a sustainability leader, pioneering the demonstration of long-term business value in the incorporation of economic, social, and environmental perspectives into its market proposition.

“The key is that social media can be a great way to humanize an organization to give it voice. Everyone that works and associates with the company can engage on things that matter to them via social media platforms. It is a good way to connect your personal values through your work.”

On the other hand, millennials’ version of privacy has changed from that of preceding generations.

The boundary between work and private life is very thin in the digital age, and leveraging passion in a company setting is now debatable.

Stormer said that in the digital age, most companies implement social media restrictions, using policies to prevent employees from engaging at work.

“You have to be diligent and be sure you do not compromise company values by speaking with your personal voice,” Stormer added. “The company values that we have are a way to help guide people to be respectful and honest in their communications with the company’s stakeholders.”

Novo Nordisk has social media guidelines that all employees have to follow, as well as an assisting digital media team. However, the company does not set restricted guidelines on how employees should behave online. Novo Nordisk does not prevent employees from accessing social media at work.
In fact, Stormer views social media as a powerful tool.

“We have more than 40,00 people working at Novo Nordisk, so we have 40,000 potential ambassadors and voices. It’s a fantastic way to multiply the company’s reach in an authentic way,” Stormer advised. “When our CEO was named one of ‘The Best-Performing CEOs in the World’ by Harvard Business Review last year, it was one of the most shared stories by our employees on social media. The fact that employees are proud and share news with networks is worth more than traditional employee branding. It is genuine and it’s something they do on their own accord.”

Stormer also believes that digital connectivity has opened up new ways to connect with stakeholders for Novo Nordisk due to the vast exchange of information. However, having access through the channels of digital media creates an expectation that a two-way dialogue will be ensured. But, the digital world cannot replace important human interaction in the workplace.

“When we go to workshops to better understand the business channels, or go to a program like what [Skytop Strategies] hosts, we get the opportunity to meet people and get new perspectives. Connections online can be a great way to begin a conversation that would not have happened otherwise. Later, the conversation can be carried on face-to-face or in other ways.”

Social media connects Novo Nordisk with people in the room and across the globe, a feeling of inclusivity that Stormer described as “rich.”

According to Westfall, technology can negatively impact a company’s culture, as it has the potential to dehumanize engagement and therefore become easy to misinterpret.

“You see that in anecdotal ways, people are texting in a room instead of talking to each other in the same room,” Westfall stated. “The classic misinterpretation of email has only been exacerbated, but now I can tweet it to you in 144 characters.”

How is the digital age defined in relation to the human being?

“Capturing attention is the first objective. An emotional connection is essential to move human beings in a direction of action,” Westfall stated. “Technology is advancing at an incredible pace, but it is useless if it does not serve as a catalyst of engaging the human being.”

According to Westfall, there has been a technological inflection point with employee engagement within the past three years. “Stories and myths have been traditional forms of communication, remembering much of human history,” Westfall said. “We need to embrace this as we consider technology innovation, and shape both the technology and the business opportunity around this.”

On the other hand, integrating the human element aspect with technology demonstrates an improved system of communication to help people understand and relate on a personal level.

“Businesses that either leverage technology or directly address this fundamental need will be well positioned in our ever accelerating technological world; they will have put the human being, in a non-centralized fashion, first. The necessity is to bring the human element into the overall story,” Westfall reiterated. “After all the focus is around the human being, so why shouldn’t we communicate more naturally and empathetically with them?”

This article was written by Christopher P. Skroupa from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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