Effective employee engagement depends on leaning into your workforce's strengths, focusing on team leaders, frequent conversations with employees and putting people first.

In the early stages of growing a business, employee engagement qualifies as more of a recruitment challenge. When an organization is first starting out, bringing the right people on to do the work they love is the most critical aspect of building an engaged workforce. But as the organization scales to reach 100, 1,000 or even 10,000 employees, additional steps must be taken to ensure employee engagement.

While some organizations have embraced the employee pulse survey, at ADP we go a bit further. We feel it takes more than a simple survey to create engagement, and we strive to maintain a highly engaged workforce of more than 58,000 associates. Here's what we've learned along the way and how it can help organizations of any size.

Embracing a "Yes, And!" Approach to Employee Engagement

In the past, performance was largely focused on identifying areas where people could improve, as well as what happened in the past. The conversation tended to revolve around a structure of "Yes, but ..." to highlight opportunities for growth, but this tactic may overlook the full value of an employee's strengths — strengths which can provide pathways to greater engagement and performance.

As we have evolved our understanding of engagement over the years, we at ADP have developed a different, "strengths first" approach to performance. In fact, our focus on employee strengths, which underpins all of our employee engagement efforts, is one of the qualities of ADP of which I'm most proud.

It's as simple as this: We aim to identify and develop our employees' strengths and leverage those strengths across teams, departments and products by saying "Yes, and!" to areas where our employees excel. This gives our leaders the ability to build teams that best utilize people's greatest skills, which helps to incentivize associates to remain engaged.

While every organization is unique and must develop its own approach, here are three additional guiding principles which are essential to maintaining employee engagement at scale, even in the midst of economic and cultural changes.

1. Focus on the Team Leader

In the employee engagement space, surveying employees about their experiences at work has become a best practice, but many organizations take a top-down approach to surveys that is not as effective as it could be. Paying attention to the employee is a critical first step, but effective engagement efforts must also include ample consideration for the team leader. Team leaders are responsible for creating the right conditions for the success of their teams.

When we survey our team using The Marcus Buckingham Group's Standout tool, we pay close attention to how teams feel about their leaders, a factor which is always correlated with team engagement levels — as they say, employees don't leave companies, they leave managers. At ADP, we act with the belief that effective leadership and employee trust in management are necessary components of employee engagement and business success.

2. Check In Regularly at the Macro and Micro Levels

When we first started tracking employee engagement, we quickly realized that a macro-level assessment alone wouldn't be enough to meet the needs of our organization. It became clear that the questions we were asking were too broad for a once-a-year survey, which prompted the need for more frequent conversations around engagement. In response, we developed a simplified approach that embraces more frequent conversations with associates, made possible by a platform that localizes and analyzes survey results and provides context for the data.

Now, instead of spending an inordinate amount of time dissecting one large annual study with no true accountability mechanism, we can get clear quarterly and ad hoc pulses from associates and react in real time. This has enabled us to track why people stay with our business and lean into those elements, rather than simply tracking why people leave.

3. Put People Before Profits

In my experience, organizations that don't pay attention to engagement typically cannot sustain high levels of performance. Successful organizations understand at a fundamental level that if you take care of your associates, they will take care of your clients, and your clients will reward you with continued business.

I've seen this play out directly in the stock market between two similar organizations: One made employee engagement a priority and is thriving today, while the other put all its focus into profits and didn't properly account for the thoughts and feelings of its associates. The former enjoyed considerable business prosperity, while the latter saw higher turnover rates, which cost the organization in the long term and did not create a sustainable model for value or growth.

It is not the case that your organization must choose people over profits — indeed, these elements are naturally and essentially connected. It is the case, however, that the people must come first. Business first, people always!

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