Employee engagement: 10 best practices for improving your culture

When employees disengage from work — often called quiet quitting — it starts a ripple effect that can damage everything from their career trajectory to your team, company, and the global economy. Gallup estimates that this phenomenon cost the economy $7.8 trillion in 2022.

What is employee engagement? Employee engagement is the feeling of connection, commitment, and dedication that an employee has toward their work, teammates, workplace, and organization at large. It also commonly refers to the set of initiatives companies undertake to foster that connection among their employees.

Unfortunately, only about 23% of the world’s employees are engaged at work. Those lucky few find meaning in their work, feel connected to their team and organization, and feel proud of what they do. Leaders have an enormous impact on how people feel about their work. According to the Gallup State of the Global Workforce 2023 Report, 41% of respondents attributed their lack of engagement to leadership and the workplace culture. You can stop the quiet quitting by improving your work culture, so your people speak up before they nope out.

I asked leaders who dug deep into their employee engagement effort to share their best practices. These are their tips.

Show recognition

According to a recent Gallup/Workhuman survey, employee recognition that is fulfilling, authentic, equitable, personalized, and embedded into the company culture is so critical to employee engagement that it can be tracked to the bottom line. The trick, of course, is doing this well. Randomly handing out gift cards is fun, but it will do little to boost engagement. According to that survey, to get recognition right, start with the question: How do your employees like to be recognized?

“We educate our managers on getting to know their employees,” says Deb LaMere, CHRO at Datasite. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.”

Some people might want a quiet thank you; others prefer a public event. Some might want more opportunity, while others bristle at work being rewarded with more work. Some want promotions while others want to stay where they are, working on the technology they love, and still others want room to spend more time with family.

When you get rewards right, however, you will reap near instant benefits, according to Gallup. Productivity will improve while safety incidents and absenteeism decline.

Spend time with your people

“When leaders spend more time with their people, results improve significantly,” says Bradley Thomas, COO at YakTrak. Instead of focusing on administrative tasks, spend time coaching, goal setting, and leading, he says.

 “I do AMAs [ask me anything conversations] every six weeks,” says Pedro Canahuati, CTO at 1Password. “I also do team reviews, where we talk about accomplishments, what’s getting in their way, how they feel about the work. And I’ll do skip-level one-on-ones with team members or a ‘coffee with Pedro,’ where I sit down with five people for an ask-me-anything conversation.”

Getting to know your people doesn’t have to be complicated. You don’t even need strong social skills. “Just start conversations by asking people about themselves,” he says. “Ask about their experiences, where they grew up, or their heritage.” Whatever the reason for your meeting, take the time to connect as humans. This will help you understand everything from what recognition is appropriate to where they want their career to go.

Create psychological safety

People perform their best when they feel psychologically safe. This feeling is so important to humans that social scientists consider it a basic human need. When there is a lack of it, people won’t speak up, take risks, or surface their concerns. They won’t share their ideas or do their best work. According McKinsey, 89% of employees believe psychological safety is a workplace essential.

Building psychological safety in your workplace starts with getting to know your people. But it also requires letting them know they have been heard and that, if they complain or raise concerns, they won’t be penalized.

If, for example, someone you rely on shares that they are going through something difficult, it’s important to react appropriately. “Support them,” says Canahuati. “Help them get through it.” This lets them know the team has their back and cares about them as humans, not merely as cogs in a wheel.

You build psychological safety, too, by making it clear that it’s safe to admit mistakes. “Blameless postmortems are a good way to do this,” says Canahuati. “We do incident reviews when there’s a failure or a mistake. We open by announcing we don’t want to blame anybody.”

Taking that a step further, Canahuati openly admits his own mistakes. “It’s important for leaders to show the behavior they want,” he says. “I often share when I failed, how I failed, and what I’ve done to recover. I’m open about the hardships I’ve overcome and how I’ve learned from them.”

Join in the quest for meaning

One of the biggest motivators for humans is meaning. When people are doing something that matters to them — and it is taking them in a direction they want to go — they are in the sweet spot of engagement. Not everyone finds meaning in the same way but you can build engagement by helping people look for it.

“Engagement happens when employees feel in sync with the organization, department, teammates, and work,” says Graeme Thompson, SVP and CIO of Informatica. “Does it contribute to something meaningful for them?”

Sometimes people will find meaning in the work itself. But when that isn’t happening, they can find it in the mission of the company, their own career goals, or in making customers happy.

“To keep team members engaged, they must feel a connection and value with their work,” agrees Geri Johnson, COO at Next PR. “As leaders, it is our job to ensure the roles we’re creating have meaning for both the company and the team member. Find out what people love and match those passions to their projects. Not only will this alignment between meaning and work drive productivity in your workforce, but team members will feel seen and that their skillsets are vital.”

Create heroes who live your values

“It’s simple to drive engagement with values and culture,” says Omer Glass, co-founder and CEO at Growthspace. “It’s hard to do. But it is simple.”

First define your values clearly. “Then make it clear what each value stands for, what behaviors are connected to it — and what is not,” he says. “This all needs to be very specific.”

Next, model those behaviors and build them into the fabric of the work. “You have to act upon them again, and again, and again,” he says. “So people know you’re not just talking but also doing.”

The best way to accomplish this is to make it part of a leader’s job. “This is the CEOs job,” he says.

Once your CEO — or whoever is tasked with championing your values — has agreed to carry this torch, they should work it into everything. “Embed it in the language,” says Glass. Use it in day-to-day communications. Work it into the theme and closing message of meetings. Talk about it on social media. Work it into conversations. You have to be an evangelist for these values.

And make it part of the way you recognize people. “Every time someone lives up to the value, praise them,” he says. “Create heroes who live your values.”

Measure engagement

“Measuring engagement is vitally important,” says Datasite’s LaMere. “That starts with an employee engagement survey.”

No matter how well you connect with your people, you still might come away with a wrong impression. Doing surveys gives you a realistic metric for how employees feel. “An employee engagement survey will give you the numbers and insights you need to drive effective decision-making,” according to Culture Amp. “By comparing your latest survey results with data from previous surveys, you can track changes in engagement over time.” A survey can also help you translate abstract concepts into actionable insights.

But engagement surveys need top-down support. Leaders need to glean knowledge from the survey and act on what they’ve learned. And don’t just read the AI summary or data readout, says Laura Merling, chief transformation and operations officer at Arvest Bank. “You have to actually read what people have written.”

This can feel like a big ask but it’s well worth it, she says. Merling’s team reads the feedback from every employee. “Then we aggregate it,” she says. “Each leader is responsible for reading their team’s feedback, aggregating it, and saying, ‘What do we need to address?’”

Frequently take the people’s pulse

Engagement surveys can take months from beginning to end and are usually annual. So it’s a good idea to check in more often than that, according to LaMere.

“Do a pulse check,” she says. “Getting a quick Net Promoter Score [NPS] is great for this.” This is a simple, one-question check: Would you recommend this company to family and friends?  

“If an employee is willing to recommend the company, that’s a big thing,” she says. “If they’re not willing, we’ve got a problem.”

This check lets you stay connected to the mood of the people, so you don’t get big surprises from the annual survey. It also lets you know when you need to do more to build engagement day-to-day.

“The survey is important,” agrees Merling. “Not just at the very beginning, but ongoing to see where the process is, or where the gaps are in what you’re doing.”

Have fun together

As the world moved to hybrid or remote work environments, it became easy to lose the human connection that once happened in a shared setting. The Gallup poll found, though, that location is not the problem. Engagement can happen in a remote or hybrid environment if leaders are intentional about it.

If there is no real reason to go to the same place for work, do it to have fun. “Fun is a core value for us,” says LaMere. “We work hard and we play hard.”

The company organizes everything from pickleball tournaments to puppy cuddling parties. “When you get to know your employees — not just through work and projects, where you’re laughing or cuddling with puppies, it changes the world, in terms of how you interact with one another,” she says. “You get to know everybody on a real level.”

This can be done virtually, too. Canahuati’s teams at 1Password get together to do virtual hackathons that bring a sense of play into the workplace. “We give people the room once a quarter or so to work on something completely unrelated to work,” he says. “And we try to take a playful approach. We’ll give people swag, send them stickers, create hype videos. It gets people excited and helps everyone get to know each other and have fun.”

Facilitate growth

In the Gallup State of the Global Workplace survey, 41% of respondents said they wanted clearer goals and stronger guidance. Leaders must keep the growth path of their people in mind and help them get where they want to go.

“I focus on people’s individual development and growth,” says Canahuati. “I can be a connection point between someone — who may have talked about wanting to work on machine learning or AI — but isn’t getting that opportunity. I’ll talk to the leader of the group doing that and say, ‘Here is a person you should reach out to.’”

Like recognition, this can go wrong if you aren’t paying attention to what people want, though. “I’ve had experiences where I pointed somebody in a direction, only to find out later that it wasn’t interesting to them,” he says.

LaMere says this is why it’s important to coach people to become advocates for their own growth. “It’s important to equip the manager to have conversations about growth,” she says. “But managers are not mind readers. So, it’s also key to coach employees on how to have a conversation with their manager about their career.”

Help people navigate change

“When the world changes, and people don’t understand it, they react poorly,” says Canahuati. “Change is hard for everybody.”

Change is necessary, though. You update tools and security protocols, react to markets, respond to global crisis, and more. “When people can’t connect to why the change is necessary, engagement goes down,” he says.

So, he is careful to help people understand the reasons behind change. “I help them connect — from an emotional perspective — to what they’re doing, how they operate on a day-to-day basis, and how their projects will help the company succeed.”

Change is Merling’s job. “We are doing a transformation,” she says of her work at Arvest Bank. “We want to bring everybody along for the ride.” People might assume, though, that if they don’t have the skills that the transformation needs, they will lose their job. This is scary. So part of her transformation includes offering assistance and time at work for people to upskill and reskill.

In the year after this message went out, employee engagement jumped 21 points and there were some amazing outcomes. “One gentleman on our bank operations team — not a technology role — had an interest in learning to code.” The company gave him a green light, time, tools, and support. “He is becoming a cloud architect,” she says.

To showcase these positive changes, the company does a monthly “Transformation Talk.” It is a virtual event where people talk about their transformations. “About 500 people a month show up to this webinar,” she says. “It’s amazing.”

Listening to what people want and helping them get there has not only transformed the bank and careers, but it has also transformed employee engagement.

More on employee engagement:

Employee engagement strategies that work

3 ways to gauge employee engagement and satisfaction

Qualtrics seeks to broaden picture of employee engagement

IT Leadership, IT Skills, Staff Management