Late last year, I had an eye-opening experience while visiting a high-tech industry client.
Their office space is very cool. At first glance, it’s exactly what we expect from organizations with edgy, innovative brand personalities. But on second thought, something seemed to be missing.
The design is full-on open concept — rows of modular worktables, very low partitions, no private offices. As I looked across this vast bullpen, I couldn’t help wondering how people find a useful corner for a private one-on-one conversation, a quick team huddle, or an escape from distractions when it’s time to concentrate and actually get things done. This just doesn’t feel like a fully functioning workplace, where people can be productive throughout the day.
What’s Wrong With This Engagement Picture?
Of course, there’s a large, sunny cafeteria and a designated gaming area, complete with foosball table. That clearly helps seal the deal with new recruits, right? Well, perhaps I’m a bit jaded, but something about this hip, techie environment seems more like the year 2000 to me, when business managers decided that in-house cafes and communal work areas were the recipe for a happy, high-performance workforce.
Even now, part of me remains unconvinced. Why?
As a talent strategist, I work with many organizations whose primary staffing requirements focus on “thinking” jobs in the software development realm. Top performers in these positions typically want and need time, space, peace and quiet to perform well.
Sure, they collaborate with team members. And they love games and free coffee, soda and popcorn — who doesn’t? But these perks aren’t some sort of “secret sauce” that produces employee engagement. Employers may hope that games, food and wide open spaces guarantee happy, productive employees, but that’s not how it works.
Engagement is forged with different tools — trust, loyalty, open communication, clearly-articulated goals and expectations, shared values and well-understood reward systems. It really isn’t about how the office is designed, or how many toys you offer as distractions. It’s about treating employees as humans who are worthy of respect.
When companies like the one I visited tell me that their workplace culture and trendy furniture build employee engagement, I try to help them see that they’re focusing on the wrong part of the equation. They’re focusing on what, not why. The “what” can reveal a lot about a company, but it’s the “why” that tells you it’s a good company to work with.
5 Employee Questions Every Company Should Answer
What factors contribute to the “why” of employee engagement? Here are the top 5 questions I ask business and HR leaders to answer. They’re intentionally written from an employee’s point-of-view. If you answer honestly, your organization’s engagement strengths and weaknesses should become more clear:
1) “Why am I here?” How can you expect an employee to “get it” if you don’t communicate a shared sense of mission, vision and goals? Tell people why you want them to work at your company, and why you think they’ll succeed. Then you can focus on how they can achieve those goals.
2) “Why should I trust your leadership?” Open communication builds trust, which is essential to engagement. Respect is essential to mutual trust, which also contributes to engagement. Clear, open communication matters. But follow-up matters, too. Do you lead by example? Are your words consistent with your actions? The stronger the alignment, the stronger the trust.
3) “Why should I be loyal to your company?” Engaged employees know why they’re loyal – they are treated with respect. Companies that focus first on procedural activities, such as time tracking, will never see strong workforce productivity or engagement. Demonstrate your commitment and trust in employees, and they’ll respond in kind.
4) “Why don’t you communicate your company values?” Fail to show employees why core values matter, and you might as well forget about engagement. Even worse, if you talk about values and then behave in a vastly different way, you’ll telegraph just how little management actually embraces those values. Explain why a value system is important to you, and the what — the actual list of values — will follow.
5) “Why aren’t you clear about the rewards of working here?” Even in this enlightened era, surprisingly few companies are open about their approach to compensation. Yet, employees want to know what to expect in return for their contributions. You have nothing to lose by being clear and open about your reward system — including everything from pay and benefits, to vacation and bonuses, to development opportunities and career paths. Explain the why and what of your reward structure, and people will sign-on. But of course, the proof is in the pudding. It’s essential to be clear, consistent and unambiguous in creating and sharing rewards, or engagement will go out the window.
Winning Hearts And Minds: Put “Why” Before “What”
Innovative workspaces certainly have a place in the engagement mix. But that’s not the whole package. If your employees can’t answer the five questions above, all the cool workplace culture in the universe will not make a difference. First focus on the “whys” of working for your company, and you’ll win hearts and minds — regardless of what desk, chair or computer equipment you offer.
What are your thoughts about the “whys” of employee engagement? Let me know. I’m listening…
(Editor’s Note: This is adapted from a post at Forbes.com, with permission.)