From Measurement to Improvement: An Agile Approach to Employee Engagement

Forget the annual employee survey. The new path to engagement is real-time.
Lego people heads

That the world we live and work in is changing at an extraordinary pace is something few would dispute. For business executives, in particular, there is immense pressure to not only survive in this dynamic landscape – but thrive.

Continuous innovation – the ongoing enhancement of a company’s offering – is one strategy many companies are leaning on to edge out competition and drive growth. No surprise then that agile principles, once exclusively used by software teams to accelerate product development, are being increasingly adopted outside of the software industry to speed up product and service innovation.

Recently, an increasing number of enterprising companies have been testing out these agile principles in a less expected – but highly impactful – way: employee engagement.

No longer considered a “soft issue,” there is hard evidence pointing to the connection between happy employees, customer satisfaction and even profits.

Forbes, "Employee Engagement: The Wonder Drug for Customer Satisfaction"

Forbes, “Employee Engagement: The Wonder Drug for Customer Satisfaction”

In fact, one study found that companies with a highly engaged workforce beat average revenue growth in their sector by 1 percent, while companies with low engagement were behind in their sector’s revenue growth by an average of 2 percent.

Agile in Action

It’s hard to argue that employee engagement can be a very real source of competitive advantage. But can agile principles that work so effectively in product innovation really be applied to the workforce?

For companies that have tried it, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Just look at John Deere. As HBR recently chronicled, the agricultural equipment manufacturer has built employee satisfaction measurement into the product development process itself. At the end of every two-week development cycle, employees that work on product development teams are asked a series of questions, including one that asks them about the value they feel they contributed. This “happiness metric” is used to identify and proactively fix motivational issues at the individual, team or even unit level real-time.

The result: “teams have achieved between a four- and eight- fold increase in the amount of product development work they deliver every two weeks…in turn, that means this can significantly reduce the time it takes to bring new products and new features to market.”

In the case of John Deere, the company is proactively cultivating that connection between employee engagement and customer satisfaction at the point of product innovation. Which makes sense. After all, it’s the innovative product or service that stands between the engaged employee and the satisfied customer.

An Employee Survey Is Not An Engagement Program

A broader view from a recent Gallop report found that “the most effective approach to engagement isn’t “start and stop” — instead, it’s an ongoing process that works alongside regular business activities.”

In other words, the annual employee survey – that long-time business staple – is no longer enough. Achieving real results requires an agile approach.

The reason agile seem to be so effective is that, compared to the traditional annual survey which focuses on measuring certain perceptions at a moment-in-time (and then, too often, is forgotten until the following year), agile programs create opportunity for real-time actionable improvement.

“Metrics on their own don’t drive change or increase performance.”

– Gallup, The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis

Where to Start

While a company like John Deere has integrated real-time employee satisfaction measurement directly into its product development process, this may not be a viable solution for every business.

Tools such as CultureAmp, BlackbookHR, and BetterCompany give employees ways to provide direct – and frequent – feedback to managers and peers.

To be truly effective though, managers and senior leaders must to be ready and willing to act on the information received. And they must be aligned in how to to act.

This can be easier said than done. In our experience, companies with a clear vision for why they exist and the ultimate impact they want to have on all stakeholders – in short, a brand – are the ones most able to act on feedback and engage employees in a meaningful and purposeful way.

Should employees be focused on collaboration or customer service?

Do you want them to be authoritative or approachable?

What are the behaviors you are trying to encourage?

A strong brand platform can act as a roadmap, helping employees at all levels of an organization understand where the company is going and the role they are expected to play in getting there.

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