THE BLOG
06/10/2014 02:53 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2014

It's Not Just About the Bagels: Building Employee Engagement (Pt. 1)

The employee that comes in early each morning, is he engaged?

What about the employee who stays late each day to make sure her desk is clean and the last email answered. Is she engaged?

My answer to the above two questions...."perhaps" or "hard to tell."

Employees are engaged when they feel fully involved and enthusiastic about their jobs and their organizations. They are emotionally connected to the success of their organization and are committed to contribute towards this success. In their 2013 Employee Engagement Research Report, BlessingWhite, a leading consulting firm dedicated to creating high-performance organizations, note that engaged employees use their talents and discretionary efforts to make a difference in their employer's success. They noted engaged employees are not just committed, but they have a line-of-sight on their own future and on the organization's mission and goals. They are enthused and in gear, using their talents and discretionary effort to make a difference in their employer's quest for sustainable business success.

I witnessed this firsthand while helping one of my former organizations through an acquisition. Unfortunately, we were the acquiree and the company purchasing us was looking to jettison most of the staff and just keep our brand.

For several months prior to the announcement, I worked with my president to develop a comprehensive approach to retaining employees through what was scheduled to be a transition of nine months from the time of the public announcement. During this time there would be a four phase separation of staff. The announcement was made in April 2007, the first wave of layoffs were scheduled for September, followed by another wave in October and the next in November. A small contingency of key workers including the president would remain until January 2008.

What was critical during the transition period was keeping everyone engaged and motivated. A number of questions occupied my thoughts:

1. How was this even possible with everyone knowing that their time was limited?

2. What impact would the wave of departures have on those remaining? On their ability to perform?

I can still recall the day we made the announcement at our all hands meeting. Our president spoke first announcing the news and spoke of the acquisition then came my part. After almost seven months working on the retention and severance plans in private, not even my staff knowing what was going on until I brought them into the loop just a week before the announcement; the heavy burden took its toll.

I addressed what the change meant for the employees individually and what the company and HR would do to support them. It was emotional for me as the reality of the words took over.

My staff and I were prepared to handle a negative response but instead were so overwhelmed with the positive response from our staff. As my team and I met with each individual to review what the acquisition meant to them and review their individual packages, they were actually asking how we were coping and many had been moved by my genuine reaction during the all hands meeting. I still recall many of the staff coming up to me and telling me "I would never have known this was happening by looking at you." They were actually worried about me. It also validated the fact that HR is a barometer and how we act has a big impact on what other employees perceive is happening in the organization.

Our employees were committed and while we knew there was an end, we were all engaged. We were all in the situation together and they felt that the company was doing everything possible to ensure that individually they were each being taken care of. The measure of engagement was palpable. Over the course of the next nine months, we lost only 2.6% of our workforce (4 out of 150 employees) who found other jobs rather than wait for the severance package. Throughout the transition it was business as usual, and the staff made every effort to ensure their areas were covered and all critical tasks completed.

In the end we made a deep impression on the acquiring company. The pride we took in our work and engagement at every level was inspiring. This was perhaps one of my proudest moments; that through this adversity, we all pulled together and I was happy to have had a big hand in this.

Recently, I reached out to my former colleagues and peers asking them two simple questions:

1. What was it about the environment that kept you onboard and engaged during the acquisition?

2. What were the main engagement drivers for you during this time?

There was a common thread in many of the responses. The staff was appreciative of the company's transparency and constant communication. They felt we were doing everything possible to ensure the employees were taken care while being professional and honest. Most of all they were engaged because of the people; their peers...we were family.

As one of my former coworkers put it, perfectly I thought, "Let's end the song on a high note."

The constant question I have asked myself since was how to replicate that same level of engagement. Luckily through this experience, I learned you don't need a huge budget to build engagement. In fact many of the drivers mentioned such as transparency and communication, cost nothing. In my next blog in this series, I will share further insight along with some easy and low-cost initiatives companies and HR can implement during times of change. I'll also reveal why I'm calling this It's not Just About the Bagels... stay tuned.