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To create engaged employees, open your eyes and ears. And remember, everyone has a role to play. Ignore your people’s needs and you can kiss your profits goodbye.

Mary Jane Copps

Late last year, professional services firm Towers Perrin released a workforce study containing some shocking numbers. Only 21% of surveyed employees around the world are engaged in their work. Even within this group, 5% are actively looking for another job. In the rest of the workforce, where employees range from partly engaged to disengaged, 25% are investigating the job market.

While Canada beat the global average with a 23% fully engaged workforce, the more important number is the 68% of Canadians who plan to change their jobs. “Just after the turn of the century, we started to see productivity drop in the workplace,” says Eddie LeMoine, a Halifax-based consultant and employee-engagement facilitator. “We began throwing more skills and knowledge at people to increase that productivity, but with little to no results.”

LeMoine says it’s up to employers to recognize that times have changed, and employee engagement must be at the top of every company’s human resources agenda. “In 1982 you didn’t worry about engagement,” he says. “When your productivity slacked, you thought you had an unmotivated team and there might be some firing and hiring to do. But today if you don’t provide your employees with opportunities that make them feel strong, make them engaged, someone else will. And you may not be able to replace them.”

Statistics Canada backs up his assertion. The national unemployment rate is at its lowest in 30 years. The same goes for New Brunswick. In Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador, unemployment rates are less than one percentage point above historic lows. “And it isn’t just about people moving to new jobs,” adds LeMoine. “I work in organizations where the average age is 49. That can be a disaster – you could be six years away from the majority of your people retiring.”

So what exactly is employee engagement? Kevin Aselstine, a managing principal in the Toronto office of Towers Perrin, describes it as people’s willingness to give discretionary effort to help employers achieve business objectives. “We’re not talking about happiness per se,” says Aselstine. “Rather, there are three very distinct traits or drivers of engagement.” He sums them up as head, heart, and hand: “Do I actually understand what this organization is trying to achieve? Is the organization a place where I’m proud to work? Am I willing to go the extra mile and put in a discretionary effort?”

The crux of employee engagement is about change, and it starts at the top. “You have to start with management first, because it is about beating down the culture of complacency,” says Milt Isaacs, the chair and CEO of the Ottawa-based Association of Canadian Financial Officers (ACFO). Isaacs championed engagement within his own organization and is now joyfully reaping the rewards. “I’m having so much fun, I feel guilty getting a paycheque,” he says. “I think if I won the lotto, I’d continue doing this. It’s amazing to see people go to the extremes of being engaged and being satisfied. You walk into the office, and there’s just so much energy here.”

It took about 18 months to turn things around at ACFO, but Isaacs believes the organization now has a fully engaged workforce. “One of the things we used to do was hire a lawyer to work on negotiations, and that would cost about $100,000 every time we were in collective bargaining,” he says. “But one of our labour officers, who is a lawyer, offered to take a course for $5,000 that, with his litigation background, allows him to handle negotiations. He really wanted to do it – he wanted to save us the $100,000.”

Once it became apparent that ACFO was comfortable with handing more responsibilities to people within the organization, employees started stepping forward to take on projects. This resulted in unforeseen benefits. “Our agenda for the association has advanced more rapidly than we anticipated,” says Isaacs. “We are six months ahead of schedule. And we have a new initiative that we thought would be a two-year project, and we’re ahead by about 18 months – just because we are doing it in-house and at 50% of the anticipated cost. This is what it means to have an engaged workforce.”

Isaacs believes that engagement is all about “turning your employees on,” demonstrating that you are committed to them. “That’s a big thing, a big change, for management to demonstrate its commitment,” he says. “That’s the piece we had to turn around.” In Isaacs’ case, the first step was to get the employees’ attention, which he says was done with “a loud crack in the organizational forest. It’s important to realize that compensation is not an engagement factor, but it can become a disengagement factor. If you think by paying people more they will actually be engaged, they won’t, but restructuring compensation was how we got everyone’s attention.”

The next step was holding a staff retreat, facilitated by LeMoine. “This was the real turning point,” says Isaacs. “We asked our employees what it was they expected from the organization. We told them we wanted to talk about what they thought the organization should be doing for them. That took them aback, but we wanted them to understand that the organization you work for does have an obligation to provide you with some expectations.”

Facilitation is also the first step recommended by Aselstine. “Knowing your employees is really where you start,” he says. “Bring in someone who can conduct a survey inside your organization to identify the drivers of engagement and how you are performing relative to those drivers.”

LeMoine holds a slightly different point of view of the engagement process. “Measuring is great, and doing the survey is not a bad starting place. But the reality is that, in Canada, most employees are not fully engaged,” he says. “So even if you have a wonderful organization and your number is 45%, engagement is still a problem. I don’t think measuring your own engagement numbers is necessary. I think you should assume that you need to engage more staff and get started. Once you do that, you can measure increased profitability, productivity, and retention.”

This is what’s happening at the Halifax office of CGI Group Inc. “We call our employees ‘members,’ ” says Cecil Smith, the senior vice-president of the Atlantic business unit. “They are part owners of the company because we have a stock purchase plan. And in 2008 one of our business priorities is called Invest in Members. We want to make sure we are investing in our members, and that means working on their strengths and setting goals that resonate with them.”

CGI did survey its members, and it sensed from the survey that there was a need for more engagement, more involvement, more enthusiasm, and more commitment. “So that, along with some turnover we were experiencing, drove us to realize we needed to make this a priority,” says Smith. Working with LeMoine, the company is already experiencing success on two fronts: the level of enthusiasm evident in the workplace and higher retention numbers. “It’s not a big-time commitment,” says Smith. “But you do want to be focused on it as a business priority. You want to start with the people who are already engaged and then build up those who are wavering in their enthusiasm.”

“Every company has actively disengaged employees,” says LeMoine. “The percentage is probably somewhere between 10% and 20%. These are the people who whine, who distract others from their work, who are always anxious to go home. And the absolute wrong way to start the engagement process is to focus on this group of people.”

When companies start putting policies in place that target actively disengaged employees – for example, time sheets and other monitoring
methods – everyone is offended. The disengaged have more to gripe about, and engaged employees begin to leave. “The ideal place to start, and the only place that really works, is with the senior managers,” says LeMoine. “Engagement has to be brought in from the top for the simple reason that people don’t leave companies, they leave bosses. You can’t give lip service to engagement – you have to demonstrate it.”

Isaacs puts the onus for engaging employees squarely on the senior level of management. They need to be engaged themselves, they have to be sincerely interested in their employees’ well-being, and they must be willing to meet expectations rather than offer up a knee-jerk “no.” “Their reaction should be, ‘Maybe we can. What options do we have available? What options can we create?’ ” he says. “An engaged manager is one who won’t say no, or people will leave and you’ll be stuck with an inexperienced workforce. You don’t say no, you say how.”

Mary Jane Copps is a Halifax-based communications consultant. She can be reached at